Five Points, Tenth Anniversary Issue
David Bottoms's first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren as winner of the 1979 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. His poems have appeared widely in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper's, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and The Paris Review, as well as in numerous anthologies and textbooks. He is the author of five other books of poetry, In a U-Haul North of Damascus, Under the Vulture-Tree, Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems, Vagrant Grace, Oglethorpe's Dream, and most recently Waltzing through the Endtime, as well as two novels, Any Cold Jordan and Easter Weekend. Among his other awards are the Levinson and Frederick Bock Prizes from Poetry magazine, an Ingram Merrill Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives with his wife and daughter in Atlanta, where he holds the Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. He is Georgia Poet Laureate. Among his favorite pastimes is bluegrass music. He plays guitar and mandolin with several local groups. This interview developed from several talks held in his office at Georgia State over the course of the summer of 2005.
Walsh: Before we talk about poetry let's talk about Five Points for a moment. This issue marks the tenth anniversary of the magazine. In a culture where literary magazines crop up and die almost immediately that's a big deal. What's the secret here?
Bottoms: Friends, I think. Wonderful writers who were generous from the first. And also the people who've worked with the magazine. When Pam Durban and I started Pam was co-editor then we made a list of folks we really wanted to publish, and we just made a few phone calls and wrote some letters. The response we received was remarkable. Pam is a fine fiction writer and a good person, well respected, so she had a strong network of fiction people to draw from. And I knew a good number of folks too. Dave Smith and I had edited an anthology back in the mid-eighties, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, which had included just over a hundred of the best American poets born after 1940. For a great many of those folks that was their first anthology appearance, so when I asked some of them to contribute to Five Points, they responded in a very generous way.
Walsh: So the magazine was started by you and Pam Durban?
Bottoms: No, not really. Five Points was the idea of Bob Sattelmeyer, who was chair of the English Department at the time. Bob came to us and asked if we were interested in starting a magazine. Of course, we were, under the condition that we had sufficient resources. Years earlier I'd kicked around the idea of a magazine, but couldn't find any money anywhere. Anyway, Bob had the vision and the wherewithal to make it happen. He found a small hunk of money where I don't know and we got things rolling. And he faithfully kept us going. Without Bob, there would be no Five Points. Over the years, too, we've received strong support from the administration, and we've found good friends in the community, business folks such as Bud Blanton, who chairs our advisory board, and Mike Easterly, who's sort of a patron saint. Our greatest blessing, though, has been Megan Sexton. She's the real heart of the magazine. More than any other person, she's responsible for whatever success we've had. She's a fine writer herself and an enormously talented editor. She runs the magazine at every level and does a terrific job. Without her we'd likely just close up shop.
Walsh: You've never stated any specific editorial policy, and the magazine seems to have been always somewhat eclectic. But what do you look for in poem or a story?
Bottoms: Yes, we've tried to be open to different approaches, open to material that works on its own terms. That's the only healthy way to run a magazine, of course. Otherwise you simply become a mouthpiece for some literary fad or theory. Basically we look for excellence and control, for imaginative pieces that demonstrate concern for an audience. And, of course, we look for that vague but essential thing we call art, which each poem or story, if it works well, will define for itself in some unique way. I might say also that I don't care much for wit for its own sake.
Walsh: Poems and stories can't be humorous?
Bottoms: Well, there's a place for humor, of course. But humor itself is never the goal. Wit should always serve some deeper purpose. There's a little poem ["Metier"] by Jack Gilbert that I like. It goes like this: "The Greek fishermen do not / play on the beach and I don't / write funny poems." I like that a lot. The Greek fishermen are in the business of dredging up something from the depths. That's serious business. Poets and writers, I think, are in the same business. So I watch for those pieces that try to reach something deeper, try to ask the hard questions, look for some universal significance in the particulars they deal with. I think this is what all serious art is about that exploration, that seeking, which is not only an external search, but an inward search as well.
Walsh: You speak of this as though it were a kind of spiritual awakening.
Bottoms: It's not dissimilar, I think. A religious service may be the only place some folks have experienced that sort of emotional intensity. A few others may have found it in a particularly moving piece of music, or say a painting. But many people, I think, have never experienced it at all. You certainly won't find in popular culture many keys to unlock the inner life.
Walsh: Story is very important to you, and you're often called a narrative poet. But in your classes you constantly emphasize the importance of metaphor, the importance of the figurative in poetry. And often your own poems have a very hard figurative turn. How do you view the use of metaphor? And is it consciously there in the beginning of the poem or does it derive from the poem as you work on it?
Bottoms: Many of the earlier poems, the shorter poems, do have a big figurative leap. And in those cases the figurative device was usually the seed of the poem. About narrative and metaphor, well, they're certainly not at odds with each other. Metaphor, though, is the main ingredient in the recipe. It's the way the poem suggests connections to the larger world, the way the poem reaches beyond itself for the seen and unseen world. My poems tell stories, sure, but good poems want to tap something below the narrative surface. They want to mine the universal, and one way they do this is by discovering the metaphorical possibilities in our everyday lives which causes us to see things in a different way, of course, to see an expanded world, a world with new dimensions.
Walsh: Can you think of an example where the figurative device, as you say, was the seed of the poem?
Bottoms: Oh sure. Take that poem about the vulture tree. The notion of the vultures as "dwarfed transfiguring angels" was actually the seed of that poem, and the last line "with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings" was the first line that came to me. In those early poems, say the first four books or so, that was the way it usually happened for me. I could probably name a dozen or so poems where the last line contains the figurative device and was actually the first line to be written. But the figurative can certainly find unexpected ways of rising out of the writing process. This is what we hope for, right?
Walsh: What about the longer poems? Do they come in a similar way?
Bottoms: I don't know. Maybe. But it's hard to make generalizations. I'm thinking now of that poem "Easter Shoes Epistle," and the metaphor of faith being something like an old shoe. That's where that poem started. Still, many of the longer ones don't rely on a central controlling metaphor, so it's hard to make that generalization.
Walsh: "Homage to Buck Cline," which is the centerpiece of that book [Waltzing through the Endtime], may be one of those. Still, it has that strong religious metaphor at the end. I mean, you make him a saint, but the metaphor is something that you build toward. The poem is about you getting stopped for speeding when you were a teenager, and it develops that narrative, but it's also pulls in much more.
Bottoms: It tries to, anyway. It's one of the first of those longer narratives I've been writing, those sort of fractured narratives that jump around a good bit.
Walsh: What do you mean by "fractured"?
Bottoms: Well, stories that sort of break up at various places and take a thoughtful breath. Or related stories that are woven into each other, or patched together with little scraps of meditation. It's just a narrative technique a piece of a story, a flashback, a sidestep, another piece of the story.
Walsh: So basically this form gives you a chance to think about and comment somewhat on the stories you tell.
Bottoms: Sure, that's a large part of it.
Walsh: "Homage to Buck Cline" sounds very autobiographical. How much of it actually is?
Bottoms: Oh, most all of it. I don't think there's even one invented detail. Buck was the chief of police in Canton, Georgia, when I grew up there in the sixties. And he was literally 6'5" or so, and must have weighed around 280. He had a reputation for being about as sour and generally mean as a human being gets. Whether that was true or not, I don't know, but that was his reputation. And he'd made that reputation by keeping the young toughs in the county in line. Everybody in our high school feared Buck Cline like the devil himself, even the guys who considered themselves tough, which of course, I did not.
Walsh: Especially that night.
Bottoms: True. The poem focuses on a night just after I'd turned sixteen and got my driver's license. Anyway, I had a steady girlfriend, who was fifteen or sixteen, and her mother was teaching her to cook. Back then the stomach was still thought to be the way to a man's heart. At least, in Canton. So my girlfriend liked to make these spaghetti suppers for us, and her mother encouraged her by supplying candles and a bottle of Mateus Rosé, which she had to drive down to the county line to buy. That was very adult, you know. And, of course, we thought it was very romantic. Anyway, one Saturday night around 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of Mateus, I was driving home and was stopped at the traffic light on the edge of town. Across the street, about fifty yards to my right, I saw Buck Cline parked in his patrol car in the shadows of the North Canton Store. Buck was keeping an eye on the would-be hoods circling our one burger joint. Well, I was feeling a little too full of myself, on the Mateus, I guess, and I got the strange notion that if I eased through the light and put about fifty yards between Buck Cline and my car, I could floor it, spin some rubber for the guys at the burger joint, and out-run Buck to my house, which was only about three miles away. "The imp of the perverse," Poe calls it, and pretty stupid. The poem centers on what happened when Buck pulled me over about a mile and half down the highway, took my license, and found out my name. I'm not the real David Bottoms, my dad is I'm only the junior version. Well, my dad was a veteran, a sailor who was severely wounded at the naval battle of Guadalcanal he served on the USS Atlanta. And like most men of that generation, Buck Cline was a veteran also. Canton was a small town, but I had no idea they knew each other. What I discovered was the secret bond that existed between those guys, those veterans. And also, I suppose, I discovered for the first time at least firsthand that there are relationships in the world that were formed way before our time that affect us in profound ways.
Walsh: Things we used to attribute to the stars, you say in the poem. By which, I take you to mean fate and all that.
Bottoms: That's right. Buck Cline's respect for my father saved me from a trip to the county jail. That certainly opened up my world view. Suddenly the world was not just me and my immediate relationship to it, but there was a world before me, a network of events and relationships that developed before me, relationships on which every aspect of my life depended. And not only that, this network of events and relationships would continue to go on after me, and certainly be influenced, at least to some very small degree, by my own life.
Walsh: You call him "Saint Buck" at the end of the poem. Quite a shift in opinion.
Bottoms:"Saint Buck / of the handy blackjack." He was, I suppose, at that particular moment, a pretty unlikely vehicle for grace. But Saint Buck still sounds about right. The moment had that sort of intensity for me, I guess. And, of course, it scared the crap out of me.
Walsh: As you say, though, the poem is not just about Buck Cline, but about your father, about memory, about the way the past intersects our lives. I wonder if you could've written a poem like this twenty or even ten years ago. Obviously, you've carried this memory around since you were sixteen, but only recently found the right vehicle for it.
Bottoms: I could've written a poem about Buck Cline, sure. But it wouldn't have been anything like that poem. Twenty years ago I would have brought a very different sensibility to the subject. The poem would've been a more focused, more straight-forward narrative. I thought a long time about this poem, about the Buck Cline incident I mean. Oh, a good number of years ago I knew it was something I wanted to write about, but I wasn't sure just how to approach it. You remember what Hemingway said in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" about saving certain things to write about until he knew enough to write them. I don't know if putting off the Buck Cline poem was that conscious a thing, but there may have been something of that. I needed to discover a more open form. Some of that I picked up from Warren, I think, some from Charles Wright, and some from other folks, of course.
Walsh: I'll bet you were thinking of Warren's "Audubon."
Bottoms: Sure. I love what Warren was able to do there. He puzzled over that poem for years, I think, trying to figure out a way to capture Audubon's story. Then one morning it just sort of came to him. I think he said he was making up his bed, and for some unknown reason, the notion of snapshots of Audubon's life occurred to him. Rather than a straightforward narrative, he'd do snaps that would capture critical events and characteristics, and also give rise to association, meditation, and such. It was a wonderful breakthrough for Warren, and it gave us a magnificent poem. A few early Dave Smith poems work that way also, and most all of Charles Wright's later poetry, though Charles depends far less on narrative. Anyway, the form or method, or whatever you want to call it, appeals a great deal to me now. It's a new kind of freedom. It allows the poem to develop much more on association.
Walsh: And often the association is metaphorical.
Walsh: One metaphor that runs through your work at every stage is water and the afterlife. I think you said somewhere that your first encounter with figurative language came from church.
Bottoms: Yes, I believe I said Sunday school at the First Baptist Church in Canton, Georgia. When I was a boy my mother was superintendent of the Primary Department, and so I spent a good deal of time there. Those old hymns, I suppose, were the first place I ran across language being used in a figurative way. "Shall we gather at the river," that's still one of my favorites. Or a song like "The Old Gospel Ship," which the Carter family did. "I'm gonna take a trip on that old gospel ship." And, of course, in scripture. Mostly, the psalms, I suppose. But there's so much water imagery in those hymns. It's the whole beautiful notion of crossing over, of getting to the other side. This imagery, of course, is ancient, and not uniquely Christian, but I suppose Sunday school largely accounts for my love of it. Also, as you know, lakes and rivers make such wonderful metaphors for the psyche the conscious mind and the unconscious, the surface and that hidden realm below the surface. I keep coming back to that, I guess.
Walsh: You talk a good deal about Carl Jung in your poetry workshops. About Jung's idea of the collective unconscious.
Bottoms: That's right. I don't understand half of what I read by Jung, but what I do catch continues to fascinate me. I love the notion of the unconscious as the repository of the archetype, and I like to try to apply that to the creative process. I find that it's a good way to talk to students about the act of poetry, to turn them inward, to get them thinking about their own creative process and the mysteries that process connects them to.
Walsh: This turns up in a poem from your Waltzing book. I'm thinking of "Melville in the Bass Boat." The persona is sort of fishing for ideas, right?
Bottoms: In a way, sure. I think the poem wants to say something about the creative process, about the unconscious and the way the idea hits. The persona is out on a deep lake, fishing, at night. He's trying to "conjure one small mystery caged in the bones of a fish." But nothing is happening. Oddly enough, as if he'd anticipated his luck, he's brought along some reading, of all things a copy of Moby Dick. He begins to read by lantern light and his mind drifts into Melville's story, the Pequod, Melville's descriptions of the sea. Then the persona's present moment and Melville's narrative start to merge a little, and suddenly the "dream-fish" strikes "far out, like a thought." The poem plays on a line from Melville "... Meditation and water are wedded for ever." I love that line. It catches perfectly the way nature bends us toward pondering the big mysteries.
Walsh: Fishing has always been important to you. And animals associated with water.
Bottoms: Yes, I used to fish a lot, especially when I lived in Florida. But I haven't been fishing in years. I stopped when my daughter was young she thought it was boring and I never got back to it. But I've always been very attracted to it, the sense of mystery, you know. The sense of dredging something up out of the depths. And as you say, to the turtles, snakes, rats, and other creatures that you find around lakes and rivers. Someone told once me that Warren and Dickey took all the noble animals the eagles, the owls, the horses, and such and I got stuck with the creatures of a somewhat lower order. It's true, I suppose. But they tell a story too, don't they. The reptiles, I mean. And the amphibians. They're wallowers in the muck and slime. Roethke loved them, and he was always one of my favorites. The wigglers and slimy ones. They gave him some fine poems. "Slug" comes immediately to mind, and "The Lizard." And, of course, all of that greenhouse slime the tendrils, the scum, the leaf-mold. All of these things speak of beginnings and transformations, and I'm very interested in that.
Walsh: And in your new book, I think, you're also interested in endings. Endings and perhaps transformations. And the animals are still there playing a role the snakes and rats anyway.
Bottoms: The end time, you mean.
Walsh: I think a very interesting development has taken place in your work. It started in Vagrant Grace, but has matured in Waltzing through the Endtime. There's a shift, a spiritual transcendence, away from the world of the earlier poems. The animals of the world are still there to some degree in the new book, yet the metaphor is more spiritual, and the focus is more apocalyptic. I mean, if a person didn't know the new book was written by you, he'd most likely not guess. That is, outside of a few titles such as "Shooting Rats in the Afterlife."
Bottoms: The new book is much more of what I've always wanted my poems to be. I'm interested in what you said about this spiritual shift. I don't really think the poems have shifted so much toward the spiritual I think I've always worked toward that, at trying to be what Warren calls a "seeker." But there is a significant shift toward a Christian outlook. A very liberal one for sure, but still it's a spiritual quest that frames itself in Christian mythology. Anyway, this is all to say that Waltzing through the Endtime is a quirky sort of book. It's apocalyptic in many ways, and it deals with wacky speculations about the afterlife and the problems of living a spiritual life in a secular and scientific age. And, as we've said, the poems have also evolved stylistically. They've stretched their muscles a little. The stories are still there and they remain central, but the poems pause to think about them more, and to think not only about their consequences for our everyday lives but to think about their ultimate consequences.
Walsh: For instance, what does it mean that in 1977 a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, baked a tortilla scorched with the face of Christ? That's from "Vigilance," right? And there are several other very weird appearances in there. I'm wondering just where did that poem come from.
Bottoms: A number of things, I guess. My fascination for wacky appearances of the Deity, of course, but also a dream my mother-in-law had. Mostly, though, the seed of the whole thing was a talk I had with Barry Hannah, the Mississippi novelist. A few years ago I saw Barry at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. He'd just finished a bout of chemotherapy and was getting strong again, and he told me that when he was in intensive care in Oxford, Mississippi, Jesus had appeared to him. He looked up, he said, and Jesus was standing at the foot of his bed, a big man with a barrel chest. Barry was very sincere, and I was moved by that. He looked at Jesus and said, "I've neglected you." And Jesus said nothing, or smiled. I can't really remember. But it was a moving story, and it brought up a memory of my father-in-law, how one night in a deserted part of northwest Montana he'd seen Christ standing on the shoulder of the road. True story. He was a serious fundamentalist, and he ran a paper route way out in the boonies of Montana. He'd drive a couple of hundred miles on this route, very late at night, and he'd listen to gospel music on the tape deck in his truck. Suddenly one night, Jesus was standing on the side of the road. Anyway, I wove these stories together with several others, including a dream my mother-in-law had about floating down a river on an outhouse true which I parallel with a little line of scripture about the second coming: "If the good man of the house had known when the thief would come."
Walsh: Your mother-in-law dreamed about floating down a river on an outhouse?
Bottoms: You'd have to know her.
Walsh: Let's go back to this notion of the poet as "seeker." You talked about that recently in an essay. That phrase is from Warren?
Bottoms: Actually, he may have used the word "yearner." But the words are synonymous. He mentioned that in an interview he did with Peter Stitt, back in the seventies, I think. He said he was a yearner after meaning. He didn't have any particular theology to assign to the world, but he was a yearner for meaning. He sensed, I think, some sort of intrinsic meaning in the world, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, but it was enough of a hint to make him yearn for more. I like that very much, and I think that all serious writers are yearners. They're seekers after the big answers, what Warren called in his poem "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" the logic of "the original dream." We'll never know those big answers, of course, because we're only a part of the dream, not the dreamer, but the serious writer yearns nevertheless. And what the writer yearns for, what he or she seeks, is a sense of consequence in the world.
Walsh: The writer has an inherent need for meaning?
Bottoms: I don't know about that. But this is something, I think, that comes from the world itself. The world is constantly teasing us about this, constantly dropping little clues to the mystery. But the world is very coy, I think. It doesn't want to give us the whole story, not in one piece anyway. I remember Dickey telling me once that he occasionally experienced these little epiphanies, these moments of clarity in his life, when he felt that if he could just connect them all together, like you might connect the dots, he'd have a perfect blueprint of reality. The key here, I think, is the word "felt." We feel sometimes that we might actually break through the fog of the world into some ultimate clarity, yet we're pretty limited, aren't we? Nevertheless, we yearn for that breakthrough. You remember what Tolstoy said on his death bed? "Search, always go on searching."
Walsh: Your work has often been compared to Dickey's. What was your relationship with him like?
Bottoms: We were friends. We always got along well. He liked to assume the role of a father figure with young writers he liked. He'd say, "You're one of mine" and such stuff. But we were friends for about sixteen years, I guess. I've always heard stories about Dickey's outrageous behavior. You know the stories, Dickey got drunk and insulted so-and-so, or made a pass at a professor's wife. Or pulled off some equally obnoxious stunt. If you don't know them, you can find just about every one in Henry Hart's biography. But, truthfully, he never behaved badly in front of me. He stayed at our house several times back in the eighties. The first time he came, his wife, Debba, phoned me to ask that I not take him to a liquor store. On the way home from the airport Jim asked me if she'd called. What could I say? And how could I tell James Dickey I wasn't going to take him to a liquor store. He sort of sensed that I was in a bad spot though, so he suggested that we make a pact. I'd stop at a liquor store, but we'd only buy beer. That was the way we played it. When he came to my house he'd only drink beer, actually I think it was Country Club malt liquor. We had a good relationship, though I didn't see him much during the last few years. I'd talk to him on the phone occasionally, and I talked with him a few days before he died.
Walsh: Did you ever read one another's work in the early stages? Would he hand you an early version of a poem?
Bottoms: Oh no, he'd never do that. He wouldn't have been able to give up that sort of authority. Actually, we hardly ever talked about each other's poetry. We probably talked more about sports or music. I'd played guitar in several little bluegrass and country bands. He was very interested in that sort of thing.
Walsh: He was a guitar player, right?
Bottoms: He loved folk music. Southern folk music, I mean, traditional mountain music and bluegrass. He loved guitars and owned a bunch of them, but he wasn't really much of a guitar player. Ironically, he didn't have a very good sense of rhythm. He did know a good deal about the music though, especially the guitar players. He loved Doc Watson and Merle Travis and worked hard to get that finger-picking style.
Walsh: How do you think traditional music influenced his writing? And yours?
Bottoms: Oh, I don't know. I'd have to really think about that. Dickey's writing anyway. But I'm sure it was a very large influence. Two or three poems come to mind "Buckdancer's Choice," of course and then there's the great music in the movie version of Deliverance. I think Dickey uses it in a pretty conventional way, a voice that has to express itself even in the most depressing conditions. "Buckdancer's Choice" is probably the best example of that. It takes its title from an old guitar piece. I think it was recorded by Sam McGee.
Walsh: You read that poem at his memorial service at the University of South Carolina. Did you choose that one for any particular reason?
Bottoms: Well, it's a fine poem. Always one of my favorites, and for the life-affirming spirit it communicates. It's about Dickey's mother, you know. And how, even though she has "breathless angina," she still finds the strength to whistle that old tune. She still finds the strength to whistle up a little joy.
Walsh: And in your own poems, has music been a large influence?
Bottoms: Sure. Music is a large part of my life. But influences are hard to pinpoint. I mean people are always trying to draw parallels between music and poetry, and I think they're very indistinct. Any influence on my own work probably comes from the imagery of those old traditional songs, and the gospel songs most especially.
Walsh: We're back to the church music again.
Bottoms: To some degree, sure. But I'm also talking about those old mountain ballads too, and those murdered lover songs and hobo songs and work songs. But yes, gospel music has been very important.
Walsh: I'm very interested in poetic influences and how they sort of create a lineage of poetic history. You're often associated with Warren and Dickey, with the narrative line in Southern poetry, but who do you see as your most crucial influences?
Bottoms: That's hard to say. I came late to Warren and Dickey. When I started writing poetry as an undergrad at Mercer that would have been in the late sixties and early seventies I was very taken with Dylan Thomas. Everybody was then, it seemed. At least everybody in Macon, Georgia. He was about as contemporary as poetry got around Mercer. Anyway, all of my poems had very heavy sound devices. Unfortunately, though, they didn't make much sense. Then I met the Mississippi poet James Seay, who came to Mercer to do a reading. He'd just published his first book, Let Not Your Hart, from Wesleyan. Anyway, that was the first poetry reading I'd ever heard, and I was pretty impressed. I started reading his poems, which I liked very much, and we got to be friends. After a while, he put me onto Dickey's work. This may sound odd, but for years I didn't think Dickey was all that good. I see now that my judgment, or stupidity, or whatever, was a kind of safety mechanism, a defensive stance that allowed me to go on and write without that big shadow hovering over me. So, I never really felt intimidated by him. Also Dickey was much older than I was, a full generation.
Walsh: When did you first discover the real power of his work?
Bottoms: About the time I published my first book, I think. Or a few years before, the mid or late 70s, I suppose. Roethke was a huge influence on me then, especially the poems in The Far Field, and so was James Wright. I'm thinking of The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River. There were strong stories there, and wonderful language, and the poems were trying to reach for something other, something deeper. But this is hard, you know. I read a great deal back then, and there were tons of influences. Elizabeth Bishop was an early favorite. William Stafford was also important. And so were Phil Levine and Galway Kinnell. But Dickey was later. And Warren was later still.
Walsh: What was your relationship with Warren like?
Bottoms: Oh, I didn't really know him. After he chose Shooting Rats for the Whitman Award we swapped a letter or two, but I never got a chance to meet him. Well, I had two chances, but they both fell through. Once in the early eighties, when I was visiting Bennington, Dave Smith offered to drive me over to Warren's place in Connecticut, but Warren got sick. Then a few years later, when he was poet laureate, Warren invited me to read at the Library of Congress. He was to do the introduction, but he got sick again and couldn't make it. So I never got to meet him. I have to say though, that his work moves me more consistently than any other American poet. Years ago Dave Smith and I used to argue about who was the better poet Warren or Dickey. I always stuck up for Dickey. Over the past few years, though, I've come to see a spiritual or philosophical dimension in Warren's poetry that Dickey possessed to a lesser degree. Dickey had a marvelous energy, and a wonderful gift for drama and language, but Warren's work, at least to me, has more spiritual depth.
Walsh: Are you speaking again about Warren's "yearning" for answers?
Bottoms: Sure, that's what strikes me about his work. I'm especially drawn to "Audubon" and those later poems. There's such a powerful and beautiful sense of consequence there. That's not to say there aren't touches of that all through his work, but it really seems to bloom in that last great spurt of energy. In his constant questioning of the world you see a philosophy develop that unites the whole body of his work.
Walsh: Thinking about Southern poetry as a whole, at least since the mid 20th century, what sort of patterns do you see and where do you see yourself in the mix of things?
Bottoms: Well, our first group of really fine poets was probably that Vanderbilt group Ransom, Tate, Warren, Davidson, and later Randall Jarrell and Dickey. Out of that comes what we call Southern poetry, I suppose. Ernest Suarez has had a lot to say about this. He points out that contemporary Southern poetry has developed essentially into two lines the narrative and the lyrical. The narrative line comes down through Warren and Dickey. I fall into that group, I suppose. Dave Smith would be a few years ahead of me there, and Rodney Jones and Andrew Hudgins almost exact contemporaries. On the other team you have Charles Wright, Ellen Voigt, Yusef Komunyakaa, who are Southern by birth but really follow another, more lyrical, tradition. But all of this is a simplification, of course. Each of these folks is certainly a mix. Even Charles Wright will sometimes break into a brief story. Still, there's a grain of truth there. No other poet I can think of, for instance, has Charles' pure gift for language, and if you asked Charles who his biggest influences were, I doubt that he'd point to any Southern writers.
Walsh: You've taught poetry writing for a number of years.
Bottoms: Twenty-five or so, I suppose.
Walsh: What the single greatest mistake you see young poets make?
Bottoms: That's very tough. I don't know if I'd call this a mistake, maybe a flaw. But so many poems I see by young writers, actually so many I see period, just don't have a sense of necessity about them. They don't communicate a compelling need to have been written. Either they memorialize some very uneventful event or they try to express some vague feeling the poet has had. They just never develop into art that carries the weight of necessity, of significance. And here's a thing too, especially about young poets. A large number of them, at least the ones I see, tend to confuse poetry and philosophy.
Walsh: You mean they want to write philosophy?
Bottoms: That's right. They want to write ideas and not poetry, and I'm of the old "show me, don't tell me" school. Students sometimes have trouble with that. Someone asked me once in a class, "Hey, but can't the poem be an idea?" I said no, absolutely not, and I stick by that. On the other hand, it can express an idea, and it usually will if it's any good. Karl Shapiro puts this well in an essay called "What is Not Poetry." He says, "If poetry has an opposite, it is philosophy. Poetry is a materialization of experience; philosophy is the abstraction of it." I love that, and it's a point I try to get across to all my students. Okay, think about this. Here's a story I like to tell. It's another simplification, sure, but it makes the point well enough for students. A poet and a philosopher are walking across Woodruff Park [in Atlanta], going over to Fairlie-Poplar for some Thai food. When they reach Peachtree Street they see a yellow flash go by, then hear a gigantic crash under the traffic light at Five Points. A yellow MG has tried to beat the light and smashed into the side of a furniture truck. It's a mess. Well, the poet and the philosopher rush over and try to help. A crowd gathers, somebody's on a cell phone calling an ambulance. The driver of the MG has been thrown into the street. The sports car's a tangle of crushed metal. Gasoline, blood, and glass are everywhere. So, the philosopher takes it all in and immediately abstracts. He thinks "Accident, Chaos, Fate." The poet, on the other hand, whips out her notebook and writes down everything that happened. The yellow flash on Peachtree Street, the smell of the smoking brakes, the spilled gasoline, the sound of the impact, the blood in the street. She goes back to her apartment and fleshes it all out on a legal pad as vividly as she can, then she types it up into a poem, and sends it to Five Points. You get your copy a few months later and turn to a poem called "Smash Up." You read the poem. You ponder it for a few seconds. You think "Accident, Chaos, Fate." The point is this. The poet and the philosopher are both traveling to the same city. The poet is simply taking the scenic route. The poet is trying to make the world material on the page, so that the reader can abstract, so that the reader can take what clues the world offers and decipher meaning from them. The poet wants the reader to participate, to experience the event in a vivid way.
Walsh: You're trying to say that the poet's responsibility is to the world?
Bottoms: I'm trying to say that the world is what we have to work with, and what we're trying to make some sense out of. Before we can fathom out whatever sense there might be behind the world, we have to be true to the world itself. The poet, I think, should make the world accessible to the reader, should not simply tell the reader about the world, but as far as possible through the written word, the poet should allow the reader to experience the world. And, therefore, arrive first hand at whatever insights the world has to offer.
Walsh: This yearning for meaning that we were talking about, this searching for a significance beyond the physical world I believe you said once in an essay that poetry is its most appropriate literary expression? Why is that?
Bottoms: Because it's the most intimate. I think it opens a door into the inner life, into the subconscious, more easily than other genres. And if there is some deeper significance, some spiritual Other, operating in the universe, it certainly doesn't operate in our lives in any rational way, but through the irrational. And here's where poetry helps. The act of poetry, both the reading and the writing of the poem, is a creative moment that gives us access to this part of ourselves, this inner life, and so makes us more available, I think, to the influence of this spiritual Other.
Walsh: I think that answer makes this last question almost superfluous, but I'll ask it anyway. I read not long ago, that if we had never invented poetry or if we never wrote another poem, it would make very little difference in the lives of most people. Do you agree or disagree?
Bottoms: Oh, I disagree very strongly. Without poetry, without art, I think we'd generally be much poorer spiritually. Even if a person doesn't read poetry, he or she benefits from a culture where other people do. Even if I don't go to museums and look at great paintings, I benefit in many ways because other people do. This is true because the human imagination is being exercised. Significant questions are being examined. The human imagination is turning them into art, and every piece of art we create is witness in some unique way to our humanity, our commonality. This is the way serious literature brings consequence into the world, and it exerts an influence that is powerfully contagious. It changes people's lives. We're affected not only individually, but collectively. Our very capacity for empathy and tenderness is being expanded.
About the Author
William Walsh's first book of poems, The Conscience of My Other Being, was published last year. He is also the author of Speak So I Shall Know Thee: Interviews with Southern Writers. Visit his web site....
Georgia State University
Editor: David Bottoms
Executive Editor: Megan Sexton
Poetry Consultant: Edward Hirsch
Fiction Consultant: Richard Bausch