Poet Shanna Conway Dixon talks to Judson Mitcham about his role as poet laureate and notions of Southern harmony in his work (poem included).
I first met Georgia’s state poet laureate, Judson Mitcham, during a reading he gave at Macon State College (now Middle Georgia State College) in the spring of 2012. I was surprised that he read – not poetry – but a lovely excerpt from his novel, “Sabbath Creek.” “Sabbath Creek” tells the story of a teenaged boy, Lewis Pope, traveling with his mother as she meanders through South Georgia after having left Lewis’ alcoholic father. Mitcham’s effective use of simple language moved me to purchase his novel along with his poetry collection, “This April Day.”
So, in addition to serving as poet laureate of Georgia, Judson Mitcham is an award-winning novelist. He’s the recipient of the Townsend Prize for his novels “The Sweet Everlasting” and “Sabbath Creek.” Mitcham’s poems have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review and Southern Review. His collections of poetry include “Somewhere in Ecclesiates,” “This April Day,” and “A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New.” Currently, Mitcham lives in Macon and teaches at Mercer University and Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.
I was fortunate to have the chance to interview Mitcham about his role as state poet laureate of Georgia during National Poetry Month. We also conversed about the influences on his early writings and notions of Southern harmony and race.
SD: Raising awareness for Georgia’s literary culture is among one of the important responsibilities of serving as poet laureate. In terms of Georgia’s literary culture, are there specific causes you have espoused during your service as Georgia’s State Poet Laureate?
JM: I’m working with the Georgia Council for the Arts to cultivate new audiences by building awareness of and appreciation for the art of poetry. We have several programs in the works for doing this, and we’ll be making some announcements about them in the near future. My intention is to find various means of showcasing the many good poets who live in Georgia.
SD: I’ve read that you began writing poetry in your thirties. How long were you reading poetry seriously before you began writing poetry? Also, what poets did you find influential to your style and craft in those earlier years?
JM: I actually tried writing poetry before I began reading it seriously, not something I’d recommend. This happened because I was first trying to write songs for the guitar. I was much better at writing the lyrics than I was at writing the music, and I began to focus on the words alone. I did soon discover that you can’t write poems of any value without also reading poems. My main influence in the beginning was the poetry of James Dickey. I admire his “Poems, 1957-1967.” I imitated his line and his use of narrative. David Bottoms was also an influence.
SD: Your poetry often incorporates a sense of tension that complements a tender affinity to Georgia’s culture. As a writer and poet from the South, is it difficult to bridge the past to the present, disappointment and acceptance? I ask because I find your work converges these seamlessly, many times with gentle language, even when exploring controversial themes.
JM: Well, I guess one always has to quote the Faulkner character who said, ‘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 an urgency to say something about certain aspects of the living past. It seems to me that there is a need to guard against a kind of cultural amnesia. We ought to know what happened in the era of Jim Crow and to be honest about it. There has always been revisionist history that not only denies the terrorist past, but replaces it with the mythology of Southern harmony between the races. Of course, there were harmonious relations sometimes — I certainly experienced them — but there were also deep subtexts to those arrangements called harmonious. There were many things left unspoken and unacknowledged and, to some extent, that’s still true today.
The following poem from “A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New” is used by permission from University of Georgia Press.
On the Otis Redding Bridge
by Judson Mitcham
This morning, when a woman walks home
from the graveyard shift at the cotton mill;
when she comes to the Otis Redding Bridge, coughing,
and turning her head, so the snowflake dust
on her shirt whirls off through a sheer gold sleeve
the early sun lays across the road,
what I need
is the voice of Otis Redding—
and the power that would let a man shout
sanctified, tender, and sad, let him cry,
angry, yet shocking in his praise.
I want to sing
the cotton dust caught in the sunlight;
and the woman who is not slowed down in the least
by the momentary beauty that began
as an old pain deep in her lungs; this woman
who spits off the bridge and goes on.
See Judson Mitcham at these upcoming Georgia events:
An Evening of Poetry: Georgia Poet Laureate Judson Mitcham
April 25, 6 p.m.
Harris County Library
An Evening with Southern Poets
April 30, 7:15 p.m.
Decatur Library Auditorium
Judson Mitcham photo courtesy of Gerald Lucas.
Shanna Conway Dixon is a senior New Media and Communications major at Middle Georgia State College and plans to return home to Biloxi, Mississippi, after graduating. She currently serves as content editor for her college’s literary magazine, The Fall Line Review, and showcases the life and works of modern women poets from the Deep South on her blog Swamp Skirts. Her own poem Lagniappe is our poem of the day today.