Amid a global pandemic and political upheaval, Athens County native Kari Gunter-Seymour has taken on a new position as the Poet Laureate for the State of Ohio. Previously she served as the Athens Poet Laureate for two terms.
Gunter-Seymour was appointed to the position by Gov. Mike DeWine. Her two-year term began on June 10.
“It’s still sinking in,” Gunter-Seymour said. “The main reason I really wanted to do this was being the Athens Poet Laureate...that little title carries a punch.”
In her application for the position, Gunter-Seymour detailed the project that she will be working on during her tenure, working with people in recovery – most from addiction – through the art of poetry.
Due to the nature of the project and patient confidentiality that facilities must work under, Gunter-Seymour felt that the title of Poet Laureate could “open some doors.”
As a native Ohioan with an Appalachian heritage spanning back nine generations, Gunter-Seymour has seen what drug use does to people in this area, particularly opioids. The Center for Disease Controls lists Ohio as having the fourth-worst opioid-involved overdose death rate. Neighboring state West Virginia is first in the nation.
“My project is to reach out to facilities who are assisting those who are in recovery and working to stay sober,” Gunter-Seymour said. “The idea is to be therapeutic and help expand the thinking process...help examine issues that often get repressed. Experts are saying now that people in recovery need more attention. It’s about feeling worthy and loved and valuable.”
As the third Poet Laureate for the state, Gunter-Seymour hopes to continue certain aspects of what her predecessors, Dave Lucas and Amit Majmudar, put into place.
“I would love to build on the exceptional work that Majmudar and Lucas did. I have huge shoes to fill,” she said.
One way that she hopes to do this is to get poets from across the state involved with her project.
“A lot of the good work they did was going out and working with poets in Ohio,” Gunter-Seymour said, saying that this position will give her a chance to meet poets from around the state, similar to when she was the Athens Poet Laureate.
“I thought I knew every poet in Athens (prior to her position in Athens County), boy was I wrong,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting hundreds of poets from all over Ohio.”
Gunter-Seymour believes that the poetry community is growing in the state, pointing out that Ohio is home to many nationally and internationally known award-winning poets like Rita Dove and Maggie Smith.
In addition to poets, Gunter-Seymour pointed out that dozens of Ohio small presses print local poetry, both by award-winning and unknown poets.
Gunter-Seymour hopes that during her tenure as Poet Laureate she will help to give opportunities to yet unknown poets. She encourages that everyone tries their hand at writing, even if you don’t have experience.
“My neighbors will tell you my first poems were absolutely horrid,” Gunter-Seymour said. She first began writing poetry in 2009, citing that it was a “therapeutic” experience for her.
“I think everybody should write no matter what,” she said. During the current pandemic and racial injustice movement, Gunter-Seymour believes that poetry is more important than ever, stating that when people “speak their truth” it’s a beautiful and impactful thing, especially for people whose voices often go unheard.
Gunter-Seymour said that there is an “outpouring” of poetry on these topics right now, and they must be heard.
“There’s so much good and there’s some bad everywhere, and we have to express that,” Gunter-Seymour said. “I really encourage people to share their poetry. It brings us all together.”
In addition to her experience as the Athens Poet Laureate, Gunter-Seymour is the founder and executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project, which highlights literature and art from the region. A book edited by Gunter-Seymour, “Essentially Athens Ohio” celebrates the area through poetry and visual art with contributions from local artists.