Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Little Salvation

A question for you: who is Georgia’s greatest living poet?

Regular readers of this blog will remember my August 28 post titled “Three Women Poets from Georgia.” One of the three, Natasha Trethewey, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her third collection Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

A graduate of the University of Georgia and now on the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta, Natasha Trethewey might therefore be considered Georgia’s greatest living poet.

Since 2000, when he was appointed by Governor Roy Barnes, David Bottoms has been the Georgia’s Poet Laureate. The Georgia State University professor garnered national attention when his first book of poetry, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren from a pool of more than 1,300 as the winner of the 1979 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.

Bottoms has published a further five collections of poems and two novels. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was awarded the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine. His poems have appeared in such publications as Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Poetry.

David Bottoms, therefore, might be considered Georgia’s greatest living poet.

And let’s not forget Bettie Sellers, poet of the North Georgia Mountains, who for many years taught at Young Harris College. She received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 1987, and in 1997 she was named Poet Laureate of Georgia by then Governor Zell Miller. In 2003 she received the Stanley W. Lindberg Award which recognizes outstanding contributions to the literary life of Georgia.

Sellers has published four collections of poems and a study of the life of Byron Herbert Reece, another North Georgia poet who taught at Young Harris until his suicide in 1958. Now in her early 80’s, Sellers has been a longtime influence on the poetic life of this state.

Bettie Sellers might then be considered Georgia’s greatest living poet.

But now I’d like you to consider another name, one you might be familiar with as a novelist rather than a poet.

Judson Mitcham is the only Georgia novelist to have won the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s top fiction award, twice; in 1998 for The Sweet Everlasting and again in 2006 for Sabbath Creek.
Recognized as a superb fiction writer, Mitcham is actually primarily a poet. His first collection, Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 1991 and won the Devins Award. In 2003, This April Day came out from Anhinga Press.

His poems have appeared in such publications as Harper’s, the Georgia Review, the Chattahoochee Review, the Gettysburg Review, Poetry and the Southern Review.

Mitcham, who for thirty years taught psychology at Fort Valley State University before retiring in 2004, now has a third collection to his name.

The University of Georgia Press has just published A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New.
The “old” poems are from his previous two collections, but the “new” poems refer to forty-two new pieces, each with one-word titles and arranged alphabetically from “Art” to “Zero,” in the book’s first section Oblique Lexicon.

There follow twenty-three pieces from Somewhere in Ecclesiastes in section two and thirty-two from This April Day in section three.

Writing in The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature, UGA English professor Hugh Ruppersburg encapsulates Mitcham’s writing in the following way:

Examining basic human themes within the specific landscape of Georgia, Judson Mitcham’s writing is both poignant and powerful…. In both his novels and his poetry, Mitcham’s elegiac voice looks backwards with fondness and discernment on a personal and regional past slipping rapidly beyond reach.
That sense of loss Ruppersburg identifies, a sense that what has passed meant something but what is to come has no meaning, is easily noted in poems in Oblique Lexicon such as “Never,” “Lyric,” and “Dead.”

The press materials accompanying the review copy of A Little Salvation, describe the collection with these words:

Wise, witty, and deceptively plainspoken, Mitcham’s poems show how the moments that truly save us—that make us human—are necessarily the most fleeting. It is up to us, he reminds us, to create meaning from those moments, and in doing so to create our own salvation.
The transitory nature of human experience is both the boon and the bane of the existence of the speakers in these poems, and every poem seems to recognize its own temporality, trying to find meaning rather than a definitive answer to the questions it raises. The tone of these poems combines a strong sense of humor with a pervasive feeling of loss, both celebrating and mourning that “a true note is still so hard to hit.” These voices revel in the human condition even as they are often saddened by it.
Mitcham, who now teaches creative writing at Mercer University in Macon, is one of those rare birds who has never had any formal literary training. His degrees are in psychology and he spent thirty odd years as a college professor teaching in his area. His writing has been nothing more than an avocation, all be it a fairly serious one.

Now, with the publication of A Little Salvation, I offer you Judson Mitcham as a potential candidate for the accolade of Georgia’s greatest living poet.

The competition is stiff. You decide.

[Comments and questions about all these blog entries are encouraged. Email me at I look forward to hearing from you.]