Monday, May 3, 2010

Monday Muse: Georgia's Poet Laureate

David Bottoms takes in the real world—as transcendent as it is, 
not as he desires it to be or forces it
 through art to be. He sees it, wherever he lives, 
and sings it to us for our lives.
~ Robert W. Hill*

Georgia's Poet Laureate is David Bottoms, who began his term May 31, 2000.

Established in 1925 by proclamation of the governor then in office, the position is codified in state law (Ga. State Code, Sec. 50-1-3). The law requires the Georgia Council for the Arts to submit to the governor within 30 days of taking office a list of three nominees from which the governor will make the appointment. It fixes the position's term as concurrent with the governor's term of office. It also stipulates that the position is honorary and without compensation.

Bottoms is the ninth poet to hold the position. He succeeds poets Bettie Mixon Sellers (1997 - 2000), John R. Lewis Jr. (December 24, 1974 - January 18, 1997), Pulitzer Prize-winner Conrad Aiken (March 30, 1973 - August 17, 1973), Agnes C. Bramblett (September 13, 1963 - March 30, 1973), Oliver F. Reeves (November 16, 1944 - January 23, 1963), Wightman F. Melton (January 25, 1943 - October 12, 1944), Ernest Neal (August 20, 1927 - January 23, 1943) and Frank L. Stanton (January 18, 1925 - January 7, 1927).

* * * * *

Without poetry, without art,
I think we'd generally be much poorer spiritually.
~ David Bottoms**

Inducted in 2009 into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, David Bottoms received the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for his first collection of poems, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump (Morrow, 1980). The judge that year was famed novelist Robert Penn Warren, who selected Bottoms from more than 1,300 submissions. Bottoms is considered one of the South's most important writers.

In addition to two novels, Bottoms has published five other collections of poetry: Waltzing Through the Endtime (Copper Canyon Press, 2004), Vagrant Grace (Copper Canyon Press, 1999), Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1995), Under the Vulture-Tree (Morrow, 1987), and In a U-Haul North of Damascus (Morrow, 1983),  Bottoms' 10-poem chapbook, Jamming with the Bank at the VFW, was published by Burnt Hickory Press in 1978. Selections from his now out-of-print books are included in Armored Hearts. His Working the Heavy Bag is to be published by Copper Canyon Press.

Throughout Bottoms' poetry are themes he's made his own: nature and the natural world, violence and its consequences, death, beauty, childhood and family life. Religious subjects and rural life and values are other, newer terrain he explores. Like many poets who share his roots in the South, Bottoms also takes on contemporary Southern life as well as Southern history. He's largely a narrative poet, albeit one with considerable lyric gifts.

The poem "Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump" is an often-reproduced piece (it's reprinted  in Armored Hearts and is found easily on the Web). Run-through with a number of the thematic threads common to much of Bottoms' work, the poem creates a potent scene of senseless violence following a night of heavy drinking. Apparently with nothing better to do, the narrator (poet?) and friends ("we") head "in carloads" for the local dump where, not content to shoot rats so they'll "jump only once", they "drink and load again" and again to make the rats "writhe" and "crawl for all they're worth into the darkness we're headed for."   

Expert at setting a scene of the ordinary and the everyday, an observer and an illuminator, Bottoms also traffics in piled-on details that create strong visual and aural imagery:

Rough sleep from the room across the hall.
Mouth open, my daughter breathes the little noise of wheels
on dry axles. . . .
~ "Bronchitis" in Vagrant Grace

. . . Like an alarm
the tree frogs went off in the woods.
I drank until they hushed
and I could hear through cricket chatter
the rockers on Billy Parker's chair
grinding ridges into his living room floor,
worry working on him like hard time. . . .
~ "In the Black Camaro" in Armored Hearts

. . . And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles
in the air, chasing a word. . . .
~ "My Father's Left Hand" from Alaska Quarterly Review (Vol. 25, No. 3/4, Winter 2008)

Widely praised and honored, Bottoms has received such awards as the Ingram Merrill Award, Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize, the 1999 Georgia Author of the Year Award from the Georgia Writers Association, the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In addition, he has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has published his poetry in many literary magazines and periodicals, including Harper's, The New Republic, Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, and in at least four dozen anthologies and textbooks. 

Co-editor of The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985), Bottoms is associate dean of fine arts at Georgia State University/Atlanta, where he holds the John B. and Elena Diaz-Verson Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters. He has taught at GSU since 1982, after receiving a doctorate in American poetry and creative writing from Florida State University. He was the Richard Hugo Poet-in-Residence at the University of Montana in 1986 and worked part-time in the Georgia Poets-in-the-Schools Program and taught high school English in the 1970s. With short-story writer and novelist Pam Durban, he founded and co-edits the literary magazine Five Points, which today is published online.

In 2001, Bottoms collaborated with photographer Diane Kirkland to publish Oglethorpe's Dream: A Picture of Georgia (University of Georgia Press).


All poetry excerpts © David Bottoms. All Rights Reserved.

* Well worth reading is "Warbling with TV in the Background: David Bottoms in the Suburbs" by Robert W. Hill, in Southern Quarterly (Spring-Summer 1999), pp. 80-84.

Another excellent piece of literacy criticism is Edward Byrne's "The Rolling Circle: David Bottoms' Armored Hearts and Vagrant Grace" in Valparaiso Poetry Review.

** Quoted in "David Bottoms: An Interview with William Walsh" reprinted in Poetry Daily (originally in Five Points, Georgia State University, 2006).

Dr. Bottoms' GSU biography is here; it includes information on his many readings and workshops, as well as interviews and profiles in literary journals and newspapers.

Bottoms' page at is here.

A number of Bottoms' poems, including"Homage to Buck Cline" from Waltzing Through the Endtime, are published on the site of the Poetry Foundation. His wonderful "My Father Adjusts His Hearing Aids" is published at AGNI online. The poems "Fallout" and "Under the Vulture-Tree" are published at Poetry Out Loud and elsewhere.

The poem "Holidays and Sundays" is found at Verse Daily. It beautifully evokes a domestic scene where "three or four uncles/my old man" sit and "stare at each other/and pull at their ears while the women cleared the dishes. . . ."

On Copper Canyon's site can be found "Chinese Dragons", "Kenny Roebuck's Knuckle-Curve", "Under the Vulture-Tree", "Black Hawk Rag", "The Catfish", Souvenir", and "Flowers in My Father's Parlor", and other selections.

David Bottoms: Essays on the Poetry and Fiction, edited by William Walsh, is due out this October.

Go here for a 2009 video interview that Bottoms did with the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. 

Numerous video clips of Bottoms reading his poetry are available via the The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Go here and browse the sidebar on the right to find readings of  "Under the Vulture Tree", "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt", and "The Desk".


Edward Byrne said...

Thanks for the nod to my essay on David Bottoms. I admire his work very much, and I hope more readers follow your links to discover his wonderful work.

—Ed Byrne

M.L. Gallagher said...

That quote is fabulous! and so are his words.

thanks for the lead and the look into someone's poetry I never knew.



S. Etole said...

I do enjoy the wonderful places you lead us ... thank you for sharing your wealth.

n. davis rosback said...

i decided to order the book vagrant grace for a read.

good post, mo.
thanks :-)

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