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The ArtsATL Q&A: Judson Mitcham on the troubling South and being Georgia’s poet laureate

Judson Mitcham, Georgia's Poet Laureate
Georgia Poet Laureate Judson Mitcham

Judson Mitcham, Georgia’s poet laureate, is a native son. He  grew up in Monroe, a town between Atlanta and Athens, and his work is rooted in the Georgia landscape. But his intellectual influences range widely, from the Bible to William James to Søren Kierkegaard. He imbues everyday scenes — an old dog lying on a front stoop in “The Mystery,” cows wading in water in “A Knowledge of Water,” a father rocking his daughter to sleep in “Rocking Anna to Sleep” — with a sense of wonder, finding echoes of the sacred in the quotidian.

A particularly poignant recurring motif in Mitcham’s work is his strong feeling for his parents, especially his father, whose death he mourns. These poems explore, in straightforward language, the complicated intersection of memory, grief, mortality and love. For example, in “Dream,” Mitcham dreams that his father has come back to life. He and his brother rush to the grave, dig their father up, and serve him dinner on their old kitchen table. At the poem’s bittersweet finale the three of them share a laugh, and the poet awakens with his father’s “bony hands grabbing for the rolls.”

Mitcham has published three books of poetry: Somewhere in Ecclesiastes (1991), This April Day (2003) and a volume of selected poems titled A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New (2007). He has written two novels, The Sweet Everlasting (1996) and Sabbath Creek (2004), both of which won the Townsend Prize for Fiction from the Georgia Center for the Book.

A Ph.D in physiological psychology, Mitcham taught psychology for 30 years at Fort Valley State University. He has also taught creative writing at Emory University, the University of Georgia and Mercer University in Macon, where he now lives.

Mitcham, who will be reading on November 10 at the Georgia Literary Festival at Jekyll Island and on November 17 at the Johns Creek Poetry Festival, recently spoke with ArtsATL.

ArtsATL: You published your first full-length book of poetry when you were 43. Were you always writing poetry, or did you come to it later in adulthood?

Judson Mitcham: I’ve played guitar since I was a teenager, and I started out trying to write songs. I didn’t start writing poetry in a serious way until I was 30.

ArtsATL: A sense of place is obviously very important in your work, and you speak quite movingly and tenderly about the Georgia locales of your childhood. Do you feel completely sanguine about the state of Georgia now, or do you have any ambivalence about hailing from the South?

Mitcham: Flannery O’Connor says that the writer can choose to write about anything he likes, but he cannot choose what he can make live. My work is set in the South because that’s what comes alive for me when I try to write. O’Connor also says, and I take this as an article of faith, that “the serious writer always writes about the whole world, not matter how limited his particular scene.” The South is my home, and I love it, and I am so deeply troubled by our history, and our present, that there is an unease not far beneath the surface of everything I write. The reader will not always see it, but it’s there. My first novel, The Sweet Everlasting, tells a story that brings to life the kind of spiritual illness I’m thinking of, and I’m currently working on poems that address it more directly than my poems usually do.

ArtsATL: How do you feel that your position as a professor of psychology influenced your poetry, and what do you think is the relationship between poetry and psychology?

Mitcham: I’m not sure I can briefly address the relationship between poetry and psychology. What I can say is that I don’t believe a specialized knowledge of psychology gives one an advantage in the writing of poems. Poets are involved with what language can discover. We bring our experiences and observations and emotions and thoughts to language, which is primary. It’s by attending closely to language that we discover what can be said as poetry.

ArtsATL: Do you have a specific vision for the work of the Georgia poet laureate, or any specific projects you have in mind for which you would like to advocate in Georgia on behalf of poetry?

Mitcham: I’ll be working with the Georgia Council for the Arts to promote Georgia’s rich literary culture. We’ve not yet made final plans for what we’re going to do, but the focus will be on increasing awareness of the many accomplished poets in the state. I’m hoping we’ll be able to schedule poetry-related events in some of our smaller communities, especially those not served by a local college. I’d also like to do what I can to support Georgia’s very fine literary journals.

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