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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Oct 19, 2022
Kari Gunter-Seymour’s voice has a soft, sweet twang that conjures a sensation of warmth as she speaks. But she hasn’t always been comfortable with that sign of her Appalachian upbringing.
“I try to tell people, ‘Don't let people shame you about where you're from,’” she says. “They try to. They shamed the twang right out of my voice. It has only been in the last five years or so that I said, ‘You know what? I don't care what you think about my twang. This is how I learned to talk. This is how my people talked. This is how my people still talk; the ones that are my age. And I I don't want to give that up. I'm sorry if you think I am less than because I have a bit of twang in my voice. That's bad on you.’”
As a ninth-generation Appalachian and Ohio’s Poet Laureate since June 2020, Gunter-Seymour has worked to strengthen and elevate the voices of the writers from her home region and others who’ve been marginalized by society, such as the incarcerated and artists in recovery.
This focus has also served her well in her role as Artist in Residence for the Wex’s Pages program, a literacy initiative that connects high schoolers in central Ohio with working artists to prompt the creation of writing and art in response. Gunter-Seymour just started her second year working with Pages founder and Learning & Public Practice Director Dionne Custer-Edwards.
After Custer-Edwards was asked to write a review of Gunter-Seymour’s 2021 book, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, she reached out to the poet to gauge interest in working with Pages students.
“‘Well, if there are students involved in it, yes, I am definitely interested in doing this,’” was Gunter-Seymour's reply. (Her background also includes extensive experience teaching at a college level). “I just had a sort of vague overview of [Pages] and had thought at that time what a marvelous thing it was. And Dionne is such a good writer.”
For her first year with Pages, most of the residency work was done remotely, as local COVID-19 numbers were at a peak and teenagers didn’t yet have access to vaccines. “So I realized that when we were going to be working with Zoom, I would have to connect with them quickly, so that they could trust me,” Gunter-Seymour says. “And the way you build trust is opening your own self up, right? So I did. I opened myself up completely.”
She made that connection by landing on perceptions of a mutual lack of value.
As she recalls, “I said, ‘This year you are young people, and people think that what you have to say is not valuable.’ And I said, ‘I'm an older woman, and people seem to think that what I have to say is no longer valuable, and we have that in common.’ Those connections really make a difference for a student to feel like, I can trust this person. She knows what I'm going through in a very different way.”
The first thing I do is tell them, this is who I am,” Gunter-Seymour notes. “And one of the first things I ask is, ‘What do you all think of when someone says, oh, there's an Appalachian? We're being open and honest here, right?’ Eventually someone will say or put in the chat ‘hillbilly,’ and I'll say, 'Yep, hillbilly. Hick. White trash.'”
“Being called Hillbilly can be the same as being told you're fat. It's almost bullying, and so I tried really hard to make those connections, even via Zoom. And granted, that made it very difficult. But in every single instance there would be two or three students who would speak up during the Zoom session or share in the chat.”
Once she had established some trust, Gunter-Seymour used writing prompts to encourage students to become deeply aware of their surroundings while working through some of the emotions that naturally arose from being stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic.
“We were all very frightened and tense, and there was so much anxiety, and they were having very little socialization, obviously,” Gunter-Seymour recalls. “I just felt like this is such an opportunity to help them think about putting all of this in a journal, you know?”
“I’m about making lists and doodling—if you can't write a full sentence, fine, make some lists. Doodle something. Because when you come back to that doodle, it's going to immediately trigger you and you'll remember what you were thinking and where you were headed,” says the poet. “I use the word ‘trigger’ a lot, and I know in our culture people try to avoid being triggered, but I tell my students. ‘No, you want to be triggered. You want to be triggered big time, so you can write about that. And so I set about trying to make that happen by giving them permission to write about all their anger, their fear, their woes, their sorrow, but also the highlights of the day. I encourage them to write from their senses…. ‘Set yourself down in that space. Now, what do you see? Tell me texture. Tell me color. What do you smell? No, tell me the shape of things. What do you hear? I know you hear something. Even if it's silence, then right about the silence.’"
At the end of her first year working with Pages, the poet notes, a rise in vaccinations and a drop in case rates made it possible to have an in-person reading of work from students at the Wex.
“I stood outside the auditorium waiting for the kids to come in, and it was joyous,” Gunter-Seymour recalls. “They were hugging me, and so many young people read, and we had one young man who sat down like he was on American idol and just sang his heart, and he was such a hit. We had beautiful poems, many of them about absent parents and about people who were important in their lives, and I knew that a lot of that had grown out of the work that Sarah, Dionne and I had done with the students, encouraging them to write from their deepest places.
“And the really interesting thing was, that culminating event for many of those students was the first time they were actually meeting each other from the other schools, but still they they felt they could share. During lunch, a lot of students swapped tables and sat with students from other schools. That’s what we're hoping for.”
Gunter-Seymour’s experience with virtual teaching in year one of her Pages tenure helped inform her approach to year two. “Having that year taught me how important it is for programs like this to be available,” she notes. “Our students, they're so vulnerable, and it's been very difficult for them. Some of them lost loved ones or they were terrified the whole time that they would, and these are young people—some of them haven't even really considered death yet and then here they are, confronted with it or with very serious illness. There were so many uncertainties, and I think they are still very much recovering from that, and I kept that in mind. But having that year, it made me certainly have a little bit more courage. Last year, it was kind of like kind of working in the dark, so to speak."
“One thing I have to say right now that I love about Dionne and Sarah is, they never once tried to corral me in any way or modify the suggestions I made for the students prompts,” she adds. “I really appreciated that they found me worthy of that trust on their part, to spend this time with their students and not have to explain every single thing that I was going to do, because it allows for spontaneity. And that's what happens when I get in the classroom, and that's what has happened over three live visits [to classrooms] so far.
For this year’s prompts, Gunter-Seymour has inspired students to consider what kind of animal they might be and what might be a proper name for it, what kind of spice might best fit their personality, and to consider the sensory experience of a moth fluttering through the Wex galleries, or one of the lights that shines on the artworks on display.
“It becomes very generative, because I just keep asking them questions, and they don't really have a whole lot of time to think about it,” Gunter-Seymour explains. “So they write from that place inside where there’s freedom. I think they're often astounded at what they wrote. They're very pleased with themselves over what they've come up with, as am I. It's just so fun. I feel like, what a great job it is to do this.”
Gunter-Seymour will continue her work with Pages through next spring, and she hopes that in the future, more schools and states can take part in a program like it.
“I can't even tell you how incredibly honored I am to be part of this program,” she says. “I would love to see you all franchise it and spread it across the country. I really do believe that it has the ability to transform young lives. In too many of our schools, the emphasis on the arts is either not there or it's more on fine art. And so those students who dance, who do theater, who write are not maybe finding those niches that they need to get them through, to let them be who they want to be.
“They want to write or they want to dance, or they want to be in theater, or they want to be fine artists… The bottom line is just reminding students that you are wonderful. You are fabulous. You are valuable. You are our future. We’re counting on you, and we know you can do it.”
Kari Gunter-Seymour photo courtesy of the artist