Bettie Sellers (1926-2013)

Bettie Sellers lived and wrote poetry in Young Harris, a small college town in the mountains of north Georgia, for most of her life. She is best known for her poems about life in southern Appalachia. Although Sellers was reared in the Piedmont region, near Griffin, her grandmother grew up in north Georgia's Nacoochee Valley. This heritage stimulated Sellers's interest in Appalachia. After earning a B.A. from LaGrange College in 1958 and an M.A. from the University of Georgia in 1966, she accepted a position as professor of English at Young Harris College. After thirty-two years of service to the college, Sellers retired in 1997.
Nature figures prominently in much of Bettie Sellers's verse. Many of her poems observe the passing of seasons and paint vivid pictures of regional plants and animals. They also portray the named world of north Georgia. Her poems frequently celebrate the complex beauty that she observed around her, but they also consider how the land influences people. "Moment at Dusk" probes that issue:
When September's quarter moon tips down
toward Sunset rock cool and distant at dusk,
the mountains darken blue in solid shapes
quieting the valley for the coming of the night.
Crickets scratch in the grass; a catbird whines.
The dome fills up with darkness, reveals
the Dippers, great and small. My eyes
trace the distance to the farthest star—
but the mountain holds my feet in place.
From a rocky perch, the speaker quietly watches evening advance and realizes that the mountains provide strength and stability to those who live in their shadow.
Concern for the preservation of north Georgia's natural places also pervades Sellers's poetry. She recognized that development and modern technology threaten to destroy wild places, and her poems often lament their passing. In "Wild Ginger," for example, she describes the tower on Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest peak, as an "inept" intruder. Similarly, "Complaint to Betelgeuse" laments the loss of once-clear night skies in which constellations stood out against the blackness of the heavens:
Now satellites invade the ridge—
the star I thought was Venus rising
keeps on rising out of sight
to bring the morning's news—and wars
are instantaneously played on beams
that tear Orion's belt, divide Andromeda
A sense of irreparable destruction pervades the poem, and the violent, martial imagery underscores the threat that pristine places face for their survival.
Sellers writes not only of the land but also of the people and families who live on it. Her poetry shows that communal and familial relationships provide part of the continuity of Appalachian life. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, and the dynamics of relationships are all subjects of her poems. "Writing is a terrible, awesome responsibility," Sellers said; thus, she did not shy away from the pain that is sometimes part of life. "Sarah's Quilts," for example, relates the story of a mother gathering stones to mark the grave of one son who has been killed by the other:
She stands, barefoot, in the creek, homespun dress,
rich brown with walnut dye, tucked up almost
to knees that feel the rush, the chilling press
of Corn Creek's water even in the heat

of August. Now her sons are far away:
one running over hills his footsteps beat
on forest trails she never saw. Laurel
thickets tear his clothes, snatch hands

that picked up stones to end the quarrel
once too often, left his brother dead,
buried beneath the oak that tops the rise
just steps behind the cabin. She sees his head

rest on patchwork squares she sewed; a quilt
she made to warm his bed serves as a shroud
to line his grave. His brother's fear, his guilt
have made him run without a warp to warm

him in the cold of mountain nights, no bright-
patched "Star of Bethlehem" to ward off harm
lurking behind great pines. She prays for brothers
as she picks up stones, piles them along the bank.

One stone, now clean of blood, joins others
she will use to lay around a space,
an outline like the rope-strung attic bed
where he can sleep, her quilt across his face.
An intricately rhymed narrative poem based on the story of Cain and Abel, "Sarah's Quilts" reflects the inspiration that Sellers regularly drew from biblical stories and names. Her verses often portray a region steeped in Christian belief.
Sellers published four volumes of poetry, including Spring Onions and Cornbread (1978), Morning of the Red-Tailed Hawk (1981), Liza's Monday and Other Poems (1986), and Wild Ginger (1989). She also published three chapbooks and The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece (1992), a study of another north Georgia poet who lived and taught in Young Harris before his death in 1958.
Sellers was named Author of the Year in 1979 by the Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists. She received the Governor's Award in the Humanities in 1987 and in 1992 was named Poet of the Year by the American Pen Women. In 1997 Governor Zell Miller named Sellers as the poet laureate of Georgia, a position she held for three years, and in 2003 she received the Stanley W. Lindberg Award (named for longtime Georgia Review editor Stanley Lindberg), which recognizes outstanding contributions to Georgia's literary culture. The Georgia Writers Association gave Sellers a lifetime achievement award in 2004.
Sellers died on May 17, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven, in Hayesville, North Carolina.
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Further Reading
Bettie Sellers, "Westward from Bald Mountain," Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, ed. Joyce Dyer (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 233-42.
Cite This Article
Warren, Robin O. "Bettie Sellers (1926-2013)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 04 September 2013. Web. 02 August 2014.
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