Georgia’s Poet Laureate, Judson Mitcham, paid a visit early this month to Georgia Southern University during the opening reception of the “Inspired Georgia” traveling photo exhibition, sponsored by the Georgia Council for the Arts. GSU is one of only six locations across the state selected to host the exhibition.
The exhibition features a powerful collection of contemporary work by Georgia photographers and poets that highlight the culture and dynamic landscapes of the Peach State. Work by Jessica Hines, photography professor at GSU, and Sean Hill, assistant professor of poetry, are included in the exhibition, and in the book bearing the same name.
“Featuring a diverse range of photographic styles and approaches to landscape and image, ‘Inspired Georgia’ is a must-see exhibition,” said gallery Director Jason Hoelscher. “Georgia haas a bit of everything, from sandy beaches to farm fields and rolling hills, a range matched by the photographs here. The passion and inspiration for our state come across quite strongly in these works, and I know gallery visitors will walk away greatly inspired.”
The opening reception for the exhibition, held Jan. 9, featured special readings by Mitcham, as well as Hill.
Mitcham, a poet and novelist, is a graduate of the University of Georgia. His poems explore family relationships, the passing of loved ones and the Georgia landscape. His collections of poetry include “Somewhere in Ecclesiastes,” winner of the Devins Award, “This April Day” and “A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New.”
Mitcham also penned the novels “The Sweet Everlasting” and “Sabbath Creek.” He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts, and has twice won the Townsend Prize for fiction.
Mitcham taught psychology at Fort Valley State University until his retirement, and has since taught creative writing workshops at the University of Georgia, and Emory and Mercer universities. He lives in Macon, and was named the state’s Poet Laureate in 2012 by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
When asked about being named Poet Laureate, Mitcham is humble.
“I have found it to be a great honor. The Poet Laureate acts as an ambassador for the literary arts in Georgia and a champion of the rich legacy of Georgia writers, past and present,” he said.
Mitcham says he first became interested in writing when he was a teenager. At that time, he tried to write songs for guitar, but soon found he was better suited to writing poetry.
“The problem was that I didn’t really read contemporary poetry,” he said. “I was 30 years old when I went to a writing workshop at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta, taught by Philip Levine and Richard Hugo, both famous poets and teachers of poetry.”
Mitcham says he showed Hugo 12 poems, and Hugo found only one good line.
“He told me to go home and study that line, and he asked me what poets I was reading. I was stumped,” he said.
Mitcham said he had considered himself an original, but found he was “actually a cliché.”
“In that moment, I also realized what it meant that I sat before a man whose work I had not read, and expected him to give his time to my apprentice work, although I had not shown enough respect to read the man’s poems,” he said.
The workshop also helped Mitcham ask himself why those men, who had spoken forcefully about the importance of revision, were working so much harder than he was.
“So I started to work much harder, and I began to study poetry seriously,” he said. After 12 years of study, practice and many rejections, Mitcham says his first book was published by the University of Missouri Press.
Mitcham is hesitant to describe his own work, but says he strives each time for a poem that is “alive with sound, engaging the senses by means of imagery, and entering the complex play of language with its many levels of the ways words can mean.”
Inspiration is a bit of a four-letter word for Mitcham — he says it really doesn’t work for him.
“The feeling of inspiration has proved notoriously unreliable for me, and has not given me my best writing results,” he said. “Reading a very good poem or piece of fiction almost always makes me want to write. I am a poet of obsession, as are the poets I care about most deeply. My obsessions seem to be family and the loss of family; faith and the loss of faith; the tragic history of race in this country; the way art, especially art made of language, gives shape to time; and the passing of time itself.”
Mitcham says when he’s writing something, he isn’t aware whether it’s good.
“When you’re writing it, you don’t. Most likely, you think it’s good. If you didn’t think so, you’d stop,” he says. “All the good writers I know produce draft after draft after draft and cultivate brutal honesty with themselves about their work.”
Mitcham points to his favorite poems, rather than poets: “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, “What Work Is” by Philip Levine, “Rain” by Edward Thomas, “The Last Class” by Ellen Bryant Voigt and “Prelude” by A.E. Stallings.
The art of storytelling will never die, Mitcham says, as long as there are humans with histories. He does, however, have a comment for those more caught up in social media and texting, than in reading literature.
“I’m not especially interested in enticing them to read more or write more. It’s there for them if they want it, and it can be a source of richness in their lives. People make their own discoveries. Not everyone loves opera, and there’s no reason it should be force-fed to anybody. I feel the same about poetry,” he said.
As his time as Poet Laureate comes to a close, Mitcham said he’s had many opportunities — “Inspired Georgia” is the latest. Mitcham, along with Michael David Murphy and Karen L. Paty, edited the book.
He’s also involved currently in the Poet Laureate’s Prize, which he established under the auspices of the Georgia Council for the Arts. The contest is for Georgia high school students who submit an original poem by the deadline of March 1. The winning poet and four finalists will meet the governor and the first lady, tour the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, and see their poems published in the online edition of Atlanta Magazine. Entry forms are available on the website of the Georgia Council for the Arts.
When asked what poetry is to him, Mitcham smiles and quotes Robert Frost.
“Robert Frost said that a poem is a brief clarification of life, a momentary stay against confusion. I like that,” he said.
The exhibition will be on view at the Georgia Southern Center for Art & Theatre’s Contemporary Gallery through Feb. 1. For more information, go online at www.georgia southern.edu.