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Even off the dance floor, Louise Runyon seeks movement in her poetry

Louise Runyon threaded her career in dance with poetry before retiring to Sylva.
Courtesy Foxfire Museum
Louise Runyon threaded her career in dance with poetry before retiring to Sylva.

Louise Runyon spent much of her life making dances accented with poetry. While Runyon retired from choreography several years ago, movement is still part of her poetry. She said she hopes readers feel that movement as they read her new book of verse, “Where is Our Prague Spring?”

“At heart, I’m a performance poet. There’s this performance-embodied aspect of it that is integral to my writing,” she said. “The music of it, the rhythm of it, how it’s spoken—those are really inseparable.”

"Where is Our Prague Spring?” is a sensory tour of Runyon’s lived experiences in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Her great-aunt helped found the Penland School of Craft, and some of the book recalls Runyon’s childhood memories there. Runyon also threads in observations of the cultural and political differences she sees as unwelcome counterweights to the beauty of her surroundings.

“I’m interested in being conversational,” she said. “Sometimes I am obscure, but that’s not what I want to be. I want the engagement. That’s why the audience is really important to me.”

Here is a portion of a poem titled “Cherokee Scottish Festival.”

from the crowd at the table an elderly white gentleman

in a crisp red tartan kilt with all the trimmings

turns out of nowhere to say to my cousin and me:

in Sylva, they are trying to tear down

the Confederate monument, of all things

and he proceeds to say this bad thing about the Blacks

and that bad thing about the Blacks –

they should tear it down! 

I interrupt, throwing caution to the winds

who does he think we are, my cousin and me – tourists?

the racists here love to talk

about being in these mountains eight generations –

that’s as long as any white man could be

our own family has been here for eight generations

we marched to tear down the statue in Sylva, for lord’s sake –

we weren’t raised to be racist

“The fact that it’s poetry and not storytelling and not prose is very significant,” Runyon said “I like the words to sort of float on the page. There should be a reason each line has a break in it, that there’s some emotional and dramatic purpose for each line that stands as a line.”

The new collection is Runyon’s fifth book of poetry but her first since retiring as a dancemaker in Atlanta and moving to Sylva in 2019. Runyon said she expects to begin a new body of poetry after the new year.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.