Kari Gunter-Seymour, poet laureate of Ohio, is the author of A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions) and the founder/executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project™. In 2021, Gunter-Seymour was awarded the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellowship to publish I Thought I Heard a Cardinal Sing: Ohio’s Appalachian Voices, an anthology that aims to represent, educate, and speak honestly and proudly about Ohio’s Appalachian population, providing examples of the community's honor, endurance, courage, culture, love of family, and land. Once published, the anthology will be the first to focus strictly on Ohio-based Appalachian teens and adults and will be distributed for free to every library in Ohio, of which there are 732, with discounted pricing options available for schools and nonprofit organizations.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Ohio and what support do you hope future poets laureate in Ohio have?
Poetry is alive and thriving in Ohio. Pick any night of the week and you will find an abundance of poetry readings, open mics, workshops, and discussion-group gatherings to choose from all around the state. In fact, poets across the country are calling Ohio a “hub for poetry.” Many city and municipal-based governments throughout Ohio have developed and passed legislation to support and maintain poets laureate of their own, including teen poets laureate. We have the Ohio Poetry Association, with its strong, compassionate leadership and continuously growing membership. Ohio is home to Hanif Abdurraqib and Ruth Awad, just to name a couple of our internationally-renowned poet superstars.
From day one, I, personally, have been surrounded by unending positivity and support, starting at the top with our governor and his staff, assorted legislators, and business mentors. The Ohio Arts Council has been in my corner every step of the way—poetry centers, primary schools, colleges, statewide poetry forums, and my fellow poetry colleagues have welcomed me. I have met and worked with so many beautifully spirited, incredibly dedicated people, as passionate about their missions as I am about mine:to spread the gospel of poetry far and wide and create opportunities designed to lift up all voices—emerging to well-established, adolescent to creatively aging, and to advocate for those who cannot do so for themselves.
My hope for future laureates is a continuation of this bounty of positivity, momentum, and joy as we lift up the written word and one another.
Poets.org: You are a ninth-generation Appalachian and editor of numerous publications centering on Appalachian voices and art, including the Women of Appalachia Project™ anthologies, Women Speak, Volumes One to Seven, and Essentially Athens Ohio. Additionally, you are the founder and executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project, an arts organization that addresses discrimination against women from the Appalachian region. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together? How has the art helped to strengthen Appalachian generations?
If you are from Appalachia, you grow to realize, early on, that many people have an image of an Appalachian woman, and they look down on her.
Thirteen years ago, I created the Women of Appalachia Project (WOAP), a non-profit 501(c)(3) arts organization, to address discrimination directed at women from the Appalachian region by encouraging participation from women writers and fine artists of diverse backgrounds, ages, and experiences to come together, to embrace the stereotype, to show the whole woman; beyond the superficial factors that people use to judge her.
WOAP is in the self-esteem business. Fine art, poetry, story, song—we use them all to share our truths and build strong bonds with our communities and with each other. This confluence of ideas and inspirations have helped to empower other regional female artists so that they, too, might take up the torch and continue the narrative. We believe all women are capable, courageous, creative, and inspired.
Women Speak is an integral part of WOAP’s mission. This year’s volume is the seventh in the series. Hundreds of women have participated from throughout nearly every Appalachian state, as well as out-migraters from across the country with strong generational Appalachian roots. The WOAP Facebook page has 46,000+ followers from all over the world. The WOAP Facebook page has followers from all over the world. We present our work at live and virtual readings and performances at colleges, major libraries, and galleries throughout OH, WV, and KY. Women Speak is published by Sheila-Na-Gig Editions in Russell, Kentucky and shipped throughout the United States and far across the pond.
The success of WOAP as an organization is based on the work of every single woman who does, has, or will someday take part, whether as a participant, volunteer, partner, or supporter. We have a robust network, a sisterhood, a community in every sense of the word, working toward the same goal—to lift up Appalachia and showcase it in all its magnificent glory. We are activists who have no need for extreme acts, protest signs, or marches. Our work speaks for itself.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
Let me start by saying, I am service-oriented. I am happiest when I am busy interacting with and showcasing others. During my first term as Ohio’s poet laureate (eighteen months), I completed over one hundred and fifty activities and events. This is not meant to be braggartly, but to illustrate my commitment. I had the honor of working with people throughout Ohio and beyond—from teens to those who are aging; incarcerated teens and adults; those in recovery; beginning writers and those who are well-seasoned. When I do a reading or present a writing exercise, I always build in time to invite participants to share their own writing. No exaggeration, I have heard and read some of the finest poetry available on the planet, much of it written by poets who have not yet been published. One simply cannot immerse oneself among so many amazing hearts and intellects without being deeply moved. The impact on my writing has been to think more critically about my work. What are my words offering to the greater conversation? How can I be certain to always speak my truths, stand proud of who I am and what I have to offer? We humans were built to love. Kindness is free. I like to spread that stuff around every chance I get. I am so lucky. I get back as much, or more, as I give.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
Hands down, the most exciting part of this project is to have been given the opportunity—the honor—to publish the work of the very finest poets, living in or deeply connected to Ohio (Central) Appalachia in my anthology, I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing: Ohio’s Appalachian Voices. The mere fact that so many fine poets would trust me with their work humbles me beyond words. There is a lavish mix of voices—Affrilachian, Indigenous, non-binary, and LGBTQ; teens to those who are aging; poets in recovery; some who are differently-abled or have developmental differences; emerging and well-established; some living in the state, others from assorted locations throughout the country—all with a deep connection to Appalachian Ohio. The work is focused on our honor, endurance, courage, history, love of family, community, and the land. It provides evidence of how, even against the odds, our people continue to flourish and work hard to build awareness and overcome mainstream America’s negative response to those with a strong Appalachian heritage. For those interested, the anthology can be purchased on my website.
I must also mention that I am equally as excited that my fellowship funds are allowing me to place a copy of the anthology in every library in Ohio, with assistance from the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio (FAO) and the Ohio Library Council. This means literally everyone who visits an Ohio library will have free access to the anthology. Additionally, FAO is providing supplementary funding to place a copy of the anthology in every Appalachian middle and high school library in Ohio. So many of our teens are hesitant to acknowledge their Appalachian heritage due to marginalization. It is my hope that this anthology will inspire and empower all generations to be proud of our heritage and culture.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
Timelines are always a challenge. The fellowship must be completed within one year, which sounds like a lot of time, but a year is a tight turn around for a publication, mostly because one is at the mercy of the print house when all is said and done. My journey to bring about this one-of-a-kind collection has been a whirlwind of meticulously planned steps, from spontaneous decision making to gut laughter and head-scratching.
I am a graphic designer as well as a poet. In less than seven months, I was able to build a brand, a website, and a marketing plan; design social media ads, recruitment materials, and a series of instructional and recruitment videos. The “Call for Poems” went out on social media and by personal email on August 1, 2021 and ended on October 30, 2021. Nearly seven hundred poems were submitted and those were winnowed down with assistance from my amazing jurors. Work from 134 poets was selected for publication. From there, I collated the order of the poems, which, if read from front to back, will take the reader on an astounding journey.
Next, I designed the interior layout of the anthology, and took on the role of art director as I worked with an Ohio Appalachian fine artist to create art that I could use for the front and back cover designs. From there, the completed manuscript spent nearly a month in the editing and proofing stage. My publisher, Hayley Mitchell Haugen at Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, dedicated a great deal of time and passion to this project, assuring me that the final formatted anthology was perfect and properly submitted for print publication.
Now we wait, and wait some more, for the print house to schedule the book, print, and deliver copies. This is the nail-biting stage. I have scheduled the book launch and reading for one month from the time of this writing. Fingers crossed. With the assistance of colleagues throughout Ohio, I scheduled eight other readings, scattered throughout the state, to be held during the remaining four months of the grant period. These readings will allow our beautiful Ohio Central Appalachian voices to fill the air—providing further opportunity for contributors to travel the state, meet each other, connect with Ohio communities, share their work, and celebrate our rich heritage.
Poets.org: What was the selection process behind the poems for the anthology like?
The selection process was wonderful and excruciating. For me, personally, each poem submitted felt like a gift. I wish I could have accepted them all. The jurors, Hayley Mitchell Haugen, David B. Prather, and I, read every single poem several times before making final selections. We agonized, wept, giggled, mourned, and celebrated each poem that was submitted, remarking over and over what an honor it was to have been given the privilege to read them. I am excited for the world to experience these amazing poets and their incredible words.
People often forget and many do not even know that nearly a quarter of the state of Ohio rests inside Appalachia proper and pockets of Appalachian families who migrated generations ago prominently exist throughout the state, still firmly attached to their Appalachian roots. Hayley, David, and I worked hard to select a diverse presentation of poems, each a testimony to the fact that one story cannot possibly describe a region or its people. Though journalists have tried, this anthology offers perspectives only “insiders” can provide.
The final pages of this publication do not include the standard contributors’ biographies. Instead, I asked poets to prepare a brief written account, detailing their connection to Appalachian Ohio. The result is a compilation of statements that are as intriguing to read as the poetry itself.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in bringing awareness to and amplifying Ohio’s Appalachian voices?
My favorite poet of all time, from as far back as I can remember, who has inspired me the most, and been featured on Poets.org, is James Wright. For those who do not know, Wright hails from Martins Ferry, an Ohio Appalachian city located in Belmont County. Pressed to hold up only one of his poems is torture, but … if I must, then I choose “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Once I got beyond my pure awe of the poem itself—its rich sense of place, the singular moment, here and gone, that gut-punch ending—the “innards” of the poem taught me so much about listening to words, building imagery and emotional connection, rhythm, how words can create music, and how line breaks can be so incredibly powerful. Oh, this poem.
If allowed a second it would be “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” for the sheer gorgeous, aching truth and economy of it.