Interview With the Georgia Poet Laureate

mitcham_interview3Judson Mitcham, Georgia’s 2012 Poet Laureate, visited the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville Campus in the spring of 2014 and granted Chestatee Review staff member, Brittany Barron, the following interview. Dr. Mitcham’s work has been published in several journals, including Chattahoochee Review, Harpers, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, and Southern Review. His first poetry collection, Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, won the Devins Award and won him recognition as Georgia Author of the Year. In 2013, Dr. Mitcham was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. His other works include Notes For a Prayer in June (1986); The Sweet Everlasting: A Novel (1996); This April Day: Poems (2003); Sabbath Creek: A Novel (2004); Heart of All Greatness IN: Fragments (2007); and A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New (2007).

BARRON: What prompted the move from teaching psychology to creative writing, or did the two coexist?

MITCHAM: I was teaching psychology, but at home I was playing the guitar for my own enjoyment, as I had done since I was a teenager, and I was trying to write songs. I moved toward poems after realizing that my lyrics were better than the music I could make. So I focused on the lyrics, and I eventually called them poems, though I wasn’t reading much poetry, and I really had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, I began reading, I went to some workshops, my work improved, and I started to publish. I was asked to teach occasional writing courses at Emory and Mercer while I was still teaching psychology at Fort Valley State. When I retired from Fort Valley in 2004, I started teaching half-time at Mercer, and I’ve been doing that ever since, occasionally teaching at Emory and in the MFA program at Georgia College.

BARRON: Is there a time in your life that you find yourself writing the most about?

MITCHAM: At first I was wrote a good bit about my early life, as is usually the case. Now I’m not so much writing about my life, especially in my novels, as I am using my life to create stories and poems that draw on, but differ markedly from, my own experience. Saul Bellow called fiction “the higher autobiography,” and I think that’s a helpful way to view it.

BARRON: In your experience in teaching creative writing, what strategies do you employ that really work for students? Writing every day, timed writing, etc.

MITCHAM: I have no idea what has worked, not really. You can’t tell from the work produced in classes, since almost none of that will survive. It’s not that it’s bad work–it’s apprentice work that the writer will recognize as such if he or she keeps writing. What I try to get across is that the writing workshop is about process, not product. The process is one of thinking seriously about the work, learning to read like a writer, and learning to edit oneself. Most people who try to write end up quitting. I hope that the students of mine who don’t quit will remember some of the conversations we had in class and will be able to profit from them. There are many good craft books on the writing of poetry and fiction, and I point my students toward those. I also emphasize craft interviews, such as the series in The Paris Review, all of which can now be accessed online.

BARRON: How do you balance the craft of writing with the business of writing? Does one tend to get in the way of the other?

MITCHAM: In my writing life, there’s no real business to manage. I do send out poems, and when they come back, I send them out again. Occasionally, my royalties for my novels reach the $25 threshold, which allows the press to send me a check. I did make a very modest amount of money when my novels were sold to the companies who bought the paperback rights. It’s true that there is the business end of giving talks and readings, but that doesn’t require much management. I’ve always been an amateur, and I remain an amateur, though if someone wants to offer me a lot of money, that’s okay by me. I don’t see it happening.

BARRON: As a writer who happens to be from the south, what are your thoughts on regionalism? Does this help writers, hurt writers, or do you even notice a difference?

MITCHAM: I’m always quoting Flannery O’Connor, who said “the serious writer of fiction is always writing about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” She also said that a writer can choose to write about anything he likes, but he can’t choose what he can make live. The South is what I know best. Sometimes I can make it come alive for a moment.

BARRON: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction, poetry?

MITCHAM: Anytime I read something excellent, it makes me think differently about fiction and poetry. I’m not talking about the forms, the genres, but about possibilities and content and craft. I just read a wonderful novel called Tumbledown, by Robert Boswell. I learned a great deal from the narratives, but also from the structure. It enlarged my idea of what fiction can do. He also has a wonderful book of essays on the writing of fiction, The Half-Known World. Kevin Young’s nonfiction book, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, threw me off balance in a serious and good way. It made me take another look at a lot of things. But the list goes on and on, and this is one of the joys of trying to write. The work of others enriches your life, and if you can make it happen, also enriches your own work.

BARRON: When compiling pieces for a collection of poetry, like your most recent work A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New, is there a larger cohesive theme that you like to maintain, or do you make choices based solely on what you think is the most ready to publish (or republish)?

MITCHAM: For me, the work takes shape on its own. I put it in many different groupings and orders until it seems right, and then maybe it has a theme, but it’s not one that’s consciously pursued.

BARRON: Religion as theme – There is an exploration of a lot of different facets, both positive and negative about religion, specifically the Christian faith featured in your work. What does religion mean to you? As a subject, muse, or message?

MITCHAM: From the time I was a small child, I was memorizing parts of the King James Bible, singing old hymns, going to Sunday school and Training Union and Vacation Bible School and week-long revivals, and singing in the youth choir. The church was our primary world, a comforting and loving world. There came a time when I could no longer be a part of that world with any degree of honesty. I still can’t. The scriptures and hymns are within me, as are the soft voices of my mother and father, and there is always a yearning to return home, as well as an understanding that I am not a child now and that home is no longer there.

BARRON: Structure – Lines tend to be broken in what seem to be arbitrary ways. Given an early interview describing how you love rhythm, I wonder if you pay much attention to the visual or contextual connotations of line breaks or stanzas.

MITCHAM: If you take a closer look at the lines, you’ll see they are not arbitrary. I work on my poems until the lines take on, for me, a kind of necessity. In the end, I want to feel like the line can be broken only one way. It has to please my ear, my sense of rhythm, and my desire for a certain kind of visual structure. I work on these line breaks, sometimes for years, until they feel right. You’ll see that most of my lines carry either three or four strong stresses, almost never falling to two or reaching five. You’ll notice that many of my lines end on words of one syllable, and that there is a certain symmetry to the look of the poems on the page. Often, the longest lines are the same length, and many of the others match up, too. I’m not often a practitioner of radical enjambment, usually preferring a natural break consistent with the syntax. I work hard to end up with lines that take all these things into consideration and that serve the poem as a whole, and when I teach, one of the articles of faith that I share with my students is Pound’s insistence that a poem should not be made up of “prose hacked up into arbitrary line lengths.”

BARRON: “The Question” – There are a lot of racial themes in this narrative poem. What inspired this? Was it all fiction, fact, or a negotiation of the two? What made you want to write it?

MITCHAM: The issue of race is at the heart of America, still. I grew up in the old South of Jim Crow. As a young person, I carried the assumption that the default setting for humanity was white, but when I left graduate school, I went to work in a non-white environment and spent three decades there, where the default setting did not apply. The changes that came over me were not cognitive–I already knew what I thought about these matters; I had thought about them seriously and for a long time–the changes were instead visceral and somatic, and they surprised me. One morning after I had been teaching at Fort Valley State College for 13 years, I found myself sobbing in a Parents’ Day assembly, with history lodged in my throat. I had made no discovery. I had not become enlightened. I had simply lived in a different world long enough for it to work some understanding upon my body. Both my novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek, draw upon that understanding, such as it is, and I am working on a sequence of poems that does so as well, and another novel also.

There’s a difference between living in the past and taking note of how the past is living in the present–taking note of what made Faulkner’s character say, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The past of the South is very much alive, and as I get older, I feel a certain urgency to speak out about some aspects of the living past. My great grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. I’m not ashamed of that. My people were also part of the systematic oppression and dehumanization of blacks that took place for the next 100 years, an era for which there is a kind of cultural amnesia. There is revisionist history that not only denies the terrorist past, but replaces it with the mythology of Southern harmony between the races, not really examining the deep subtexts of those arrangements referred to as harmonious. Sometimes there was harmony, but there was always more. We hear a lot about Southern pride. Well, if we can have pride, we can have shame. I’m not talking about guilt, but shame. I have written about the unsolved lynching at Moore’s Ford. It took place two years before I was born and five miles from my grandfather’s farm, but I grew up without ever hearing a word about it. I don’t mean that it wasn’t discussed. I mean that I, and most of my generation, did not even know it had happened, although it involved what was then the largest FBI investigation ever undertaken. The killings were a factor in President Truman’s order desegregating the armed services. A false past like that is a wound. The discovery of it redefines who you are, and if you’re a writer, it enters your work.

BARRON: I’m assuming if you’re like any writer, you get inspiration from everywhere, but how do you start your process? What topics get you super excited? How do you know a dud from something special? Finally, what is poetry to you? How does it function in your world as a writer?

MITCHAM: I am a writer of obsession, as are the writers I care about most deeply. I write about family and the loss of family; faith and the loss of faith; growing up in the South, a topic inextricably tied to race and human failure; and about the passing of time. These are not themes that I thought of and then set out to develop. They are organic, rooted in my life, but I did not realize what they were until I had been writing for a good while. The fiction writer John Gardner said that all art proceeds from a wound. He was surely wrong, but there can be no doubt that in some cases, that’s what happens. Many of us are hurt into poetry. When I was 16 years old–I’d had my driver’s license for 2 weeks–I rolled a Corvair and killed my good friend Glenn Hawkins, an only child. The measuring of that loss against my own family’s good fortune is the fuel for much of my writing. Whatever poetry and fiction can save, it’s not enough. I know that.

And for me, the passing of time is the subtext of everything. Time is what we are made of. Both fiction and poetry are ways of handling time, of structuring and inflecting time. We live inside chronos, which is ordinary time, but as writers, and as people living day to day, we look for kairos, which is time charged with meaning. We look for a significant moment or season poised between beginning and end, between tick and tock. The writer attempts to create a work of language that brings together–in the moment of the work–perception of the present, memory of the past, and a sense of the future. A little salvation.