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David Bottoms verses Georgians

Georgia's poet laureate talks about family, aging, and an upcoming book

“You know, I’m getting up there. If I live till Friday, I’ll be 60,” said David Bottoms over the phone last week. There isn’t any particular reason Georgia’s poet laureate should be worried about living through the week, but his Southern drawl has a way of slipping mortality into the conversation. His poems achieve a similar trick, drawing the Southern landscape with shades of spiritual anxiety and ephemeral life.
    
“It’s the light they believe kills./We drink and load again, let them crawl/for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for,” he wrote in Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump's titular poem. His debut book told the stories of wayward youths living in the glow of jukeboxes and beer lights, scrap metal thieves roaming through graveyards, and country bands playing at the VFW. Bottoms’ verses subtly culled classical allusions from the circumstances. In 1979, Robert Penn Warren plucked that manuscript out of a stack of contest entries and honored Bottoms with the Walt Whitman Award, which guaranteed publication and a jumpstart to his career.
    
Bottoms is a relentlessly humble guy, more likely to return a compliment than talk about his own achievements. When discussing the attention Shooting Rats received, he deadpans, “That was back 200 years ago, I guess.”
    
Bottoms would rather focus on his upcoming book, an as yet untitled volume of poems Copper Canyon Press will publish within the next year. The new poems have shifted to an autobiographical focus of family, aging, and the difficulty of memory. “It’s a lot like Life Studies by Robert Lowell,” he says. “Well, except it's Southern and I’m not Robert Lowell. There’s a big section about my dad, who’s on his last legs right now.”
    
In “A Chat with My Father,” Bottoms writes, “he's beating his way through brush and briar, trailing/those barks and howls already fading/in the distance. All the while the woods have grown dark,/and suddenly he looks across the table,/and you see in his eyes that he's lost.”
        
After experimenting with longer verses in his most recent book, Waltzing through the Endtime, Bottoms’ style has returned to the condensed tone of his earliest works, teasing classical notes from tight, short riffs. “By the time he’d hit eighty, he was something out of Ovid,/his long beak thin and hooked,/the fingers of one hand curled and stiff./Still, he never flew. Only sat in his lawn chair by the highway,/waving a bum wing at passing cars,” he writes of his grandfather in “After the Stroke.”
        
There's a sense of invitation in Bottoms’ poems, what he likes to call the “message of commonality” in poetry. “We’re born, we aspire, we struggle, we search for meaning, we die,” he says. “Should everybody read poetry? Maybe not. But, you know, we’re all searching for meaning and I believe the poem lends itself to that search. It’s a conscious lifting exercise.”



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