What if you had the chance to interview an artist whose work has changed the way you interact creatively with, not only your surroundings, but yourself?
For me, David Bottoms is one those of influences.
David is the author of nine books of poetry and two novels. He serves as the Poet Laureate of my home state of Georgia. He teaches and holds the John B. and Elena Diaz-Verson Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. Plus, he serves as Editor of one of my favorite literary journals, Five Points. In 2009, David was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
A few weeks ago, David's first book of poetry since 2004 was released. Titled We Almost Disappear, it has quickly become my favorite collection from him (and I own all his poetry books).
For one of you who gleans something from this interview and helps spread the word about David's new collection, I have a free copy of his new book to give you.
If you will be in Atlanta on Monday, November 7th, he will be reading from his new collection at the Decatur Library Auditorium beginning at 7:15 pm. Details for this event are here. I plan to be there!
What follows is an exchange I enjoyed with David about poetry and the creative life. I hope it gives you new insights into your creative pursuits.
Jennings: In an interview with Alice Friman and Bruce Gentry, you said, “. . . the healthiest kind of ambition is simply to want to write the best poem you can write and leave it at that, regardless what happens to be the current taste.”
Your point was that an artist's primary concern should be to figure out how to deepen meaning in his or her life through their work. Expanding on this, what advice do you have for aspiring writers, poets, and other Creatives?
Bottoms: There are some good points to be made here. We talk a lot in my classes about using language as a search for significance in our lives. I tell all my students that the best thing they can learn in my class is how to use language to get at what’s important to them.
I’ve always seen poetry, all art actually, as a search for meaning, a way of deepening our experience. As far as advice goes, I can only suggest that someone experience as much of the world as possible and read constantly. And not just poetry, but fiction also. You can’t beat the Russians. And there you can’t beat Tolstoy. Then there’s Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Chekov, Bulgakov and a great many others.
Soak in as much of the world as you can and try to find your place in it. If you want to write, write out of a need to express and explore your own life and not out of a need to please others.
Jennings: Where does the artistic impulse originate?
Bottoms: This, of course, is one of the great mysteries. Robert Penn Warren liked to say that the world is always trying to tell the poet something. Yeats wrote in his autobiography The Trembling of the Veil: “When a man writes any work of genius, or invents some creative action, is it not because some knowledge or power has come into his mind from beyond his mind?”
This certainly suggests that we experience this creative moment more as an act of reception, and that the creative moment is, indeed, a partially passive experience that is somewhat dependent on chance. We go out in the world and hope we pick up the signals the world is sending, the inspiring situations, if you will.
It’s all a matter of being receptive. I talk about this some in a little essay called “Articulating the Spirit” which is in a collection called The Onion’s Dark Core, but that’s the core of it.
Jennings: You like to talk about the poet as a “receiver” – like a radio antennae. Would you expand on this?
Bottoms: Sure. When I was a boy I listened to a lot of gospel music. One popular song I often heard on the radio was Albert Brumley’s “Turn Your Radio On.” One part goes like this, “Get a little taste of the joys awaiting. Get a little heaven in your soul, get in touch with God, turn your radio on.” The implication here is that every soul, every spirit, is a radio receiver, a very apt metaphor for the poet, I think. Every soul is a radio receiver, but the poet has her radio turned on. The poet is “tuned-in.”
This heightened perception, this receptivity, is nothing new. It’s what Wordsworth in his famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads calls a “more than usual organic sensibility.” The world sends signals constantly, millions in the time it takes to cross Peachtree Street (in Atlanta) or to find a seat at a Braves’ game or the symphony, but most of us tune in only what is immediately and obviously necessary to conduct our daily lives.
This is the expedient way, since the greater part of everything else is background noise muddling the practical signals. And yet, as Warren suggests, the world is certainly trying to tell us more than whether the traffic light is green or red, or whether our box seat at the stadium is on the first- or third-base line. In that background noise there are messages about the connections in our lives, and the poet must not only have her radio turned on, she must be fine-tuned to those special suggestive signals, those subtle hints at the shadowy relationships that exist below the surface of things. These signals, these clues to hidden meaning, are simply the metaphorical possibilities in everyday life, the suggestion of figurative connections.
That’s the real business of poetry – making connections.
Jennings: You teach your students about the DHM, or deep hidden meaning, in poetry. Please explain this to readers.
Bottoms: I’m simply talking about the figurative meaning of the poem. Poetry should be in the business of showing and suggesting, not telling. This allows the reader to participate in the event of the poem. For me a good poem starts with the literal and moves toward the figurative.
Jennings: What are the distinguishing qualities of serious literature?
Bottoms: A tough question, and most any answer will be subjective. I’d say, though, that seriousness of purpose is one thing, for sure. By that I mean a piece of writing that seeks to examine the big mysteries as they are presented to us in everyday life.
I wrote somewhere – I don’t remember where – that all great writers have a religious sensibility. I believe that. They have an impulse to explore the big questions. And then, of course, there’s the need for an excellence of craft, an art in the way those questions are examined.
Jennings: What distinguishes Southern poetry from other categorizations?
Bottoms: I think Southern poetry may be quickly fading away. I hope not. Anyway, a lot has been written about this, and not really very much said.
It has to do, though, with concerns for the land and family, with the use of narrative, with concerns for tradition. And Southern poetry has broadened a lot over the last couple of decades and is constantly evolving. It’s grown, for instance, to encompass the Black and Latino experience, which I think is healthy.
Jennings: Is the voice in your poems a version of you, a persona you’ve created or a mixture of both?
Bottoms: Except for a few very early poems, the voice is pretty much my own, I think. The poems come largely from my own experience.
Jennings: What poets have you most enjoyed reading in recent years?
Bottoms: People are always surprised to hear me say this, but I don’t read much contemporary poetry. There’s just too much of it, and a great deal of it isn’t very good. But of my contemporaries I very much like Jane Hirshfield and Edward Hirsch, two extremely talented and thoughtful writers.
I’ve also been getting deeply into the work of R.S. Thomas, a Welsh clergyman who died in 2000. He was something of a cranky guy who didn’t care much for people, but a large number of his poems are profoundly moving. He writes a lot about the absence of God and his own personal search.
Jennings: Would you give readers an overview of the themes in your new collection, We Almost Disappear?
Bottoms: In 1997, a few months before he died, James Dickey told me something that I’ve remembered all these years. We were at a party at Emory, I believe, a party in his honor, and he had just poured himself a large glass of chocolate milk. He’d been sick for a while by that time and had finally given up alcohol. Anyway, he glared at me over this huge glass of chocolate milk and said, “David, there’s nothing more important than family.” I don’t know why he said that to me just then. We’d not been talking about family, and it seemed extremely ironic given the fact that he’d done just about everything anyone could do to destroy his own family. I think he finally understood that and died a very lonely and sad man.
Anyway, I didn’t set out to write a book of poems about my family. I didn’t set out to write an autobiographical book. But I’m 62 years old now and as a person ages things that are important just sort of naturally rise to the surface. At least I take that to be the case. And Dickey was right, nothing is more important than family.
And so over these last few years concerns about family and aging have found their way into my poems. So the answer to the question, I suppose, is family and growing older. And the way these things touch on the big questions. I’d also like to say that I like this book better than any I’ve written, and I’m happy about that.
Please join me in offering a sincere thanks to David Bottoms for letting us benefit from his experience and insights!
(photo credit: Rachel Bottoms)
Want a copy of We Almost Disppear?
[Update: Michael Perkins received my extra copy of David's new book.]
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