An Interview with David Bottoms
from Birmingham Poetry Review, Spring 2012
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, and The Paris Review, as well as in five dozen anthologies and textbooks. He is the author of eight collections of poetry, two novels, and a book of essays and interviews. Among his awards are the Frederick Bock Prize and the Levinson Prize 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 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Bottoms lives with his wife and daughter in Atlanta, where he holds the Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. A book of essays on his work, David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews, edited by William Walsh, was published in 2010. He is poet laureate of Georgia.
FRASER: I wonder how you understand the relationship between secularism and belief in your writing. In many ways, your poetry adopts a stance of Keatsian negative capability, never voicing a firm position either way with regard to faith or disbelief. What would you say accounts for this compositional and philosophical principle?
BOTTOMS: I think the best way to approach this question is to step to the side for a moment and say that I am a believer in the power and the necessity of myth. I count myself a yearner after significance, as Robert Penn Warren called himself. I've experienced that personal yearning for meaning—call it the divine, if you like—and I take that yearning to be evidence of the possibility of the existence of its object. Why should I yearn for something that isn't there? I believe pretty much what Huston Smith suggests in his book Why Religion Matters. This yearning for something greater, he says, is built into the human makeup and suggests the existence of its object—the way, say, the wings of birds point to the reality of air or the way sunflowers bend toward the light because light exists.
Organized religion is another matter. The biggest problem I've had with churches—in my case, Baptist and Episcopal—is their insistence on approaching scripture in a literal way. Even now in the twenty-first century, when science and scholarship have proven beyond a doubt any number of historical inaccuracies in the Bible, churches persist in basing the validity of Christian doctrine on historical fact. This is mind-boggling to me. Never have I heard anyone in any church I've attended speak of the Christ story as metaphor and how that story might enlighten our lives. I believe this is likely out of a fear that most people are simply too literal to understand scripture in any other way. This puts me in mind of "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" that great story by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. Here, you'll remember, the priest who has lost his faith continues to minister for the sake of his flock, which he fears will be unable to bear the truth he has discovered about life and death. We're speaking, of course, about literal truth, historical truth. And we're living in a time when the dangers of fundamentalism are readily apparent. I'm not just talking about Islam. There's an old song called "Broadminded" that the Louvin Brothers recorded in Nashville back in the early 1950s. The first line goes "That word 'broadminded' is spelled s-i-n." This is still what's being preached in a great number of Christian churches, perhaps even the majority. But there is another kind of truth, a figurative truth, a very useful mythology that may provide a path to enriched significance in our lives.
Your reference to negative capability is about as good a way as any to describe that state of yearning and unknowing that I live in. This reminds me of the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of Wales, who, if he never lost his faith, at least understood God in a much different way than his parishioners. Nevertheless, like Unamuno's Saint Emmanuel, he never strayed in his ministry from church orthodoxy. For Thomas, though, one could never experience the presence of God—only the absence. In his little poem "In Church," he talks about "testing his faith / on emptiness." And in a poem called "Moorland," he describes a harrier searching for prey as "hovering over the incipient / scream, here a moment, then / not here, like my belief in God." However, he believed strongly in the human condition of yearning, I think, and the suggestive state of God's absence. You might say that for Thomas one could only see where God had been, or you might say that the absence of God pointed to His existence.
The Christ story is a wonderful way to talk about God, but there are many ways. What's important to see is that each of these points toward something ultimate. I think my stance is one of hopeful questioning, and it's not really a studied literary stance but more the condition I find myself living in—a sort of hopeful holding-out for the possibility of the ultimate thing these stories, or myths, point toward.
FRASER: What are your thoughts about the relationship between your work's philosophical meditations on the one hand and its explicit humor on the other? In "Vigilance," for instance, the speaker struggles to "make the Jesus of Mark / jibe with the Gospel of John" (a daunting task, to say the least). But then we find wry, playful passages such as the following from "Melville in the Bass Boat": "Three hours I drifted the black cove, throwing deep runners, live shiners, / rattle-bug and jigs, / a Vienna sausage, a pickle, / a mustard-soaked sardine ... " Your poems, in short, frequently wear the theatrical masks of both comedy and tragedy. How do you understand this interplay?
BOTTOMS: I recently had a little poem, a very old poem, appear in an anthology called Seriously Funny, edited by David Kirby and his wife Barbara Hamby. They get right to the heart of this question in their introduction when they quote a comment by Lawrence Raab, who says that he enjoys poetry that is both serious and funny "when its essential seriousness emerges from its humor, rather than the humor being a kind of overlay or a set of asides." This is well said, I think, but it seems rare these days. I find that a lot of poets, younger ones especially, have jumped aboard a sort of comic poetry movement, but their poems are little more than witty comments on everyday occurrences, the sort of wry observation you might get in a stand-up comedy routine. Poetry, for me, is a more serious business. And humor is, at most, only one of many tools to communicate that seriousness.
Basically, our ultimate prospects on this planet are bleak. I often talk in my writing classes about Ernest Becker's landmark book The Denial of Death, in which he states that there is only one undeniable fact in our lives—each of us will die. Each of us will experience the bodily death, and there is nothing we can do to avoid it. In response to this, Becker says, every aspect of our psyche is geared to deny this, or to make us forget it, to put it aside. Otherwise, we'd just walk out in front of the first truck we saw on the interstate. He uses an onion as an apt metaphor for the psyche here. Cut an onion in half, he says, and this might represent your psyche. At the center you can see a small core, around it a great number of layers hiding that core. This core is our death fact, and the layers are the various layers of our psyche hiding that fact. Embedded in these layers are all of our ambitions, loves, attractions, interests, and so forth. Now for us, as poets, the point is this: out of the material embedded in these layers of our psyche comes the material for our poems. So we can say then that the death fact lies at the core of all poems. Even the funniest poem is only funny in relation to the death fact.
Humor, again, is simply a tool that illuminates some aspect of that fact and comments upon it, usually in a satirical or ironic way. There are a few American poets who use humor powerfully in just this fashion. I'm thinking of Tom Lux, Billy Collins, Dean Young, David Kirby, a few others. But in the hands of imitators and lesser talents, humor too often becomes the goal of the poem and not a means to illuminate something more significant. I'm not so good at it, and generally prefer a more serious and sincere tone. Occasionally, though, as you point out, the absurdity of the world breaks into a poem.
FRASER: Your most recent book, We Almost Disappear, came out in 2011. Before we discuss this collection, though, I'd like to talk a little about your 2004 volume Waltzing through the Endtime. You begin this work with an epigraph from Whitman, and throughout the book you appear to ride his tidal surges. Seven of the fifteen poems in the collection would be considered long by today's standards, with all of them running for at least four pages, and all spraying language across the page. Two questions: What do you think Whitman has to offer contemporary poets who are writing more than 150 years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass? And what do you suppose accounts for your devotion to the long poem in this particular book?
BOTTOMS: Let's start with the second question. I don't really know why I became interested in the long poem, or the long line. There may be some truth to the old joke that poets come in like Emily and go out like Walt. Maybe I just wanted to see more ink on the page. It's more likely that I was at a stage in my life when I simply needed more space to talk, to let the poems breathe a little, to give the poems room to think. That urge started a few years earlier in Vagrant Grace, with that long poem "Country Store and Moment of Grace:' Some of those long poems work nicely, I think, and I'm proud of them, but I don't think I'll ever write like that again.
The first question is really more interesting to me. And, of course, a lot of ink has been spilled over the great many ways Whitman changed poetry in English. I don't have anything to add to all of the various insights about rhythm and line length, or how Whitman's style evolved. For me, Whitman's importance lies more in his stance. I think his most important message for this particular moment in American poetry is his sincerity and his authority of witness. This extends to his willingness to turn the poem inward, to use the poem as self-examination. It argues against, I think, the current vogue of wit, irony, and cynicism.
FRASER: When I learned the title of your new collection, We Almost Disappear, it called to mind J. Hillis Miller's 1963 monograph The Disappearance of God, which traces the daunting realization among five Victorian writers that God still exists but remains out of reach—"hidden somewhere," as Miller puts it, "behind the silence of infinite spaces." Your title seems to take an additional step, suggesting a postmodernist dilemma where the self no longer provides a central source of value and meaning in the world, but becomes merely another unstable text in the play of ultimately groundless significations. Your poetry never suggests a complete removal of the self or the human subject or the prospect of the individual finding community, yet poem after poem raises the specter of their tenuous position on the cusp of erasure—of "almost" vanishing. Can you explain this recurring trope, which seems to me more accentuated in your later writings?
BOTTOMS: Yes to Miller and the problems those old Victorians faced, but that notion of God being hidden somewhere "behind the silence of infinite spaces" also seems an apt description of the way R.S. Thomas viewed the world. And I'd say it still applies to a great many folks like me who call themselves seekers after meaning, seekers after consequence, yet find that meaning elusive. We feel that the world and our lives in it mean something grand and indefinable, and we search and search for some compelling evidence of that. The problem is simply that the world is coy and refuses to give up its secrets easily. No, it's very stingy with such evidence, and so the search becomes terribly frustrating. But we keep at it because the yearning for meaning constantly nags at us. If we are writers, of course, we use language as our instrument of investigation. "After all," Yeats wrote in a letter to Pound, "one's art is not the chief end of life but an accident in one's search for reality or rather perhaps one's method of search." As Heaney says, we use the poem to "dig." We focus it outward on the world, sure, but we also turn it inward and use it to dig up whatever hidden clues we can.
I like what you say about the self becoming "merely another unstable text in the play of ultimately groundless significations." This is truly a terrible dilemma for many of us. I'm thinking about this now in terms of failed mythologies. A great many of us wonder, like Thomas, where God has gone, or why God has withdrawn from the world. Having lost to science much of our useful mythology, we're continually scrambling around for a valid path to take us through the stages of our lives. We drift and become unstable. In the poems in this new book, I'm deeply concerned with the dilemma that faces the aging individual. I suppose this is natural. I'm sixty-two years old now. The problem, essentially, is reconciling a guiding and healing mythology to the insistent discoveries of science. The problem we face is the terror of meaninglessness and oblivion. How do we avoid that? How can the psyche develop in a healthy and positive way through each of life's stages?
A working mythology plays a crucial role here. I think Joseph Campbell assigns four major functions to a living mythology, that is, a mythology that aids us through the various stages of human development. One of those stages, the final one, should help us in that fearful phase of senility, that time in our development when we must disengage from the world. I don't feel as though I've quite entered that stage, but I do sense a distancing from the affairs of the world. Many things in which I once took some delight have lost their magic and their intrigue. And I feel that I'm disengaging also from various aspects of the inner world. Certain interests that once seemed essential now seem less important or even trivial. All of this, I suppose, is the simple realization that there is a finite amount of time left.
This, of course, intensifies the search for meaning and urges wise choices concerning the use of our time. For instance, does it really matter that I catch another fish? Or that I can play "Billy in the Low Ground" on the mandolin? Or that I publish another poem in Poetry? In this sense, we are all, as we grow into old age, in a state of gradual but continuous vanishing. Right now we are still here, but every new day requires us to let go of a little more and makes us a little more transparent. Simone Weil would call it the process of becoming nothing. There's a wonderful quote of hers I use as an epigraph in the new book. It goes, "Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing." As we disengage from the world in order to become nothing, as we become more and more transparent, we almost disappear. Or as Joseph Campbell would say, we become "transparent to the transcendent."
FRASER: If many of the poems in Vagrant Grace and Waltzing through the Endtime are purposefully rangy, elliptical, apparently centerless, then those in your new book seem just the opposite—tight, seamless, grounded in the single episode and the sudden revelation. Many of the poems, in fact, seem to follow a truncated version of the Romantic descriptive-meditative lyric. Where works such as "Tintern Abbey" and "Frost at Midnight" begin with outward description, move to extended meditation, then round back to a newly understood external world, your latest poems tend to depict a scene in sharp imagistic detail but then find swift closure through a sudden philosophical observation, a keen-eyed recognition. The effect is often one in which the reader, in place of the poet, is left to perform the meditation—contemplating the relationship between the fully described episode and the abrupt (frequently unanticipated and even jarring) reflection. What do you see as some of the meaning-bearing effects of this more contemporary poetic pattern? Why adopt—and repeat—such a design?
BOTTOMS: It's interesting that you bring up the Romantics and what you call my "truncated version of the Romantic descriptive-meditative lyric." The only piece of criticism I've ever published—and to call it criticism is generous—was a little note about a type of poem popularized by William Lyle Bowles near the turn of the nineteenth century. As you know, it became a fairly substantial influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge, who did it much better. Anyway, I believe I ran across all this somewhere in the work of M.H. Abrams, and I think he called it a "loco-descriptive poem." Well, way back in 1977, I published this little piece about an early James Seay poem that I described as "loco-descriptive." This was in a small magazine called Notes on Contemporary Literature, which came out of West Georgia College, where I did a master's degree. I've always liked the way the "loco-descriptive" poem works because it seems to me like the natural way the world affects us, or at least affects me. As you know, the poem develops like this: a title usually assigns the poem a particular place and date, say Bowles's "On Dover Cliffs, July 20, 1787" or Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802." Then the poet presents a speaker, usually identified with himself, who proceeds to describe a particular landscape. Somewhere along the way something specific in the scenery arouses in the speaker an emotional response or moral concept, and the poem turns on that. So the structure of the poem, which sets the poem in some specific time and place, serves to develop an abstract concept from a concrete situation.
As I said, I've always been attracted to this sort of development. It emphasizes the power of the epiphany, the moment of insight. I think this also must be related to my notions of the poet as seeker after meaning, after consequence. And on top of all that, it's simply the way that poems—or the ideas for poems—first came to me. I talk a lot in my classes about where poems come from, about how ideas present themselves. I like very much what Seamus Heaney says in an early and excellent essay called "Feeling into Words," where he talks about the act of finding a poem as a sort of "divining." And everyone knows Randall Jarrell's comparison of the poet to someone standing out in a thunderstorm. If he gets struck by lightning once, then he's a good poet. Twice, and he's a great poet. Or something like that. I've always wondered, though, if there isn't some way of increasing those lightning strikes—those great ideas—like, say, standing out on a stormy hill and holding up a golf club. I think it has a great deal to do with making oneself receptive to the world. The notion here is a very old one, and it's the notion that the poem or the idea for the poem comes from some other place, some place outside the writer. Warren said somewhere that the world is always trying to tell the poet something. I believe this is true. Think about this. No one ever gets out of the shower, dries off, and says to his or her significant other, "Hey, I just created a great idea." No, we say that an idea came to us, or we just had an idea. Yeats says somewhere in his autobiography, The Trembling of the Veil, that "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?"
Again, it's hardly more than making oneself receptive to the world and waiting for the lightning to strike. Very often, in my early days, a line or an insight would simply present itself, and that line would usually become the final line of a poem. For instance, "Under the Vulture-Tree" developed that way. The engendering idea for the poem was the notion that a vulture is a sort of weird and dwarfed angel, and that there is a kind of ironic resurrection in their scavenging. The last line of the poem—"with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings"—was actually the first line that came to me. Anyway, I've always liked that sort of punch, but why I've come back to that now is beyond me. It may be little more than returning to early roots, to a comfortable way of looking at the poem and the world.
One quick word, though, about your comment that the swift closure of the poems often leaves the reader to "perform the meditation." I think that's a pretty sharp insight, and it underlines for me the whole notion of what I want a poem to do. I like what Karl Shapiro said about the difference between poetry and philosophy. In an essay called "What is Not Poetry," he writes: "If poetry has an opposite, it is philosophy. Poetry is a materialization of experience; philosophy is the abstraction of it," which is to say the poet makes the experience material on the page so that the reader can abstract from it. And so the reader gets to actively participate.
FRASER: Many of the poems in the new collection offer complex portraits of grandparents, local heroes, a daughter, a former teacher, and so on. Your talent for portraiture makes me wonder if there are particular painters who especially capture your interest and inform your thinking about poetry and its production.
BOTTOMS: The short answer to that question is no. I have a few favorite painters, of course, but actually I know very little about painting. Way back in 1997, just a few months before he died, my old friend James Dickey said something to me that stuck. 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. By that time, he'd been sick for a while 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." That gets right at the heart of these new poems. I don't know why he said that to me just then. We'd not been talking about family, and the comment seemed extremely ironic given the fact that he'd done just about everything anyone could do to destroy his own family. Near the end, I think he finally understood that and so died a very lonely and sad man. I thought about that comment when I was asked to read one of his poems at his memorial service at the University of South Carolina, and I chose "Buckdancer's Choice," a poem about his mother, who had angina. Of course, it's much more than just a portrait of a sick woman. It's a poem about all "slaves of death," as he calls us.
I didn't set out to write a book of poems about my family. But I'm now sixty-two years old, and as a person ages, things that are important just naturally rise to the surface. At least I believe that to be the case. And so, over these last few years, concerns about family and aging have found their way into my poems. The portraits are there because these are the people who have molded my life. They are the people who were and continue to be important to me. In writing about them specifically, of course, I hope some universal portrait takes shape. One thing I tell all of my writing classes—graduate and undergraduate—is this: if you learn only one thing in this class, I hope that it's how to use language to get at what's important to you in your life. Otherwise, you're likely to be trivializing, and that's the worst thing a poet can do.
FRASER: In an essay that appears in the 2010 volume David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews, Dave Smith aligns you with James Dickey and the notion of "country surrealism"—an eye-opening defamiliarization that unfolds in rural landscapes and communities. Surrealistic moments do appear in the new book, but they seem muted. Has this aesthetic gesture run its course in your writing, or did you deliberately muffle the strangeness in this particular project?
BOTTOMS: I think that phrase "country surrealism" first appeared in Dickey's Sorties, a collection of journals and essays he published back in the early seventies. I'm not sure I know exactly what he meant by that. I always just took it to mean the odd things one was likely to see in the countryside of the deep South. In that essay, I think Dave calls it the "strangeness of his local experience." One might just as appropriately call it reality. If it is strange to some people, it is not so strange to others—to the people who live in these places, I mean. It is their reality. In this sense you could probably call the fiction of Flannery O'Connor surreal. Or the fiction of Barry Hannah, or Erskine Caldwell. I think what Dave might have been pointing to are those poems of mine some people have called "rogue male." Back when Shooting Rats came out, the North Carolina writer Guy Owen reviewed it and called me the "laureate of the rednecks." To a certain extent, I suppose, that image has stuck. People who read my poems expect to see rats and U-Hauls and carnivals and drunks in bass boats, that sort of thing. To some people, there may be images there that seem surreal, but to me surrealism has always been relative. When Warren read that Shooting Rats book, he called it realistic. It was his reality, just as it was mine. Of course, there is also the dream component of surrealism. Sure, there are a few poems in the new book that use the word "dream" in the title, but they don't really employ many dream techniques. No, there's very little of that working in my poems, or any stream of consciousness stuff. About the "aesthetic gesture" running its course. Well, yes. It all has to do with subject matter, I suppose. These new poems are much closer to heart, more personal, less cultural, so I suppose it's only natural that less of the grotesque would come into them.
FRASER: Finally, I wonder about a paradox in your writing with respect to speech and masculinity. On the one hand, you describe men "holding their thoughts close to their chests" and maintaining a "calculated silence," and yet you became (of all things) a poet, a figure committed to calculated utterances. What relationships do you see between the silent men of your boyhood and the devotee of words that you have become?
BOTTOMS: You're thinking here of a poem called "Holidays and Sundays," which is about those rare gatherings when my extended family would all get together for a Sunday dinner or such. I recently ran across a passage in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy that speaks to your question. In a little chapter on silence, he writes: "Unrestrained and indiscriminate talk is morally evil and spiritually dangerous. [ ... ] All these idle words, the silly no less than the self-regarding and the uncharitable, are impediments in the way of the unitive knowledge of the divine Ground, a dance of dust and flies obscuring the inward and the outward Light." I love that phrase "dance of dust and flies obscuring the inward and the outward Light." Anyway, he's talking about ridding oneself of everything that gets in the way of a union with the divine Reality. Noise, of course, is one of those things. I don't imagine any of my relatives thought about silence in quite that way, but there was, I believe, an innate respect for silence, as though silence and a restrained and considered use of words were grounded in some sort of moral imperative. It may be helpful to mention that these were not educated men, at least not in an academic way. Their education was from the world, and in their youth it was a world at war. Each of them saw fierce military action in WWII, and witnessed, no doubt, any number of unspeakable things they must have felt beyond their understanding and powers of articulation. As the poem says, "mostly there was silence, as though they'd all agreed / the world was beyond comment." Also, their restraint in speech suggested a kind of thoughtfulness, a seriousness of character. It seemed to me then, and still does, a product of a certain worldview, and I tried to get at that in those lines you point to. After dinner while the women are talking in the kitchen, the men sit in the living room where:
Nobody fired off a joke, nobody lobbed a war story
over anybody's bow. Not the tiniest pinch
of philosophy, politics, theology.
Only that slow retreat into calculated silence,
which wasn't exactly boredom,
but more the silence you got at church or funerals,
which was the way you faced the sacred, or death,
or that inscrutable laughter from the kitchen.
As I get older, I think a great deal of those people. Almost every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I see the landscape of my childhood, and it's a landscape that has been completely bulldozed over now, and with it many of the ways of that generation of men and their particular take on the world. For them, I think, the world was pretty much a world of burdens. It was a Protestant world, a practical world. They were children of the Depression, and their path was hard physical work. There was very little room in their lives for the frivolous. There was very little luxury. Their reticence, I think, had something to do with the notion that one bore those burdens without complaint. I certainly saw a kind of stoicism and strength in that attitude.
How I came to be a "devotee of words," as you call it, is something of a mystery to me. For one thing, though, I had many more opportunities to get something of an education, an academic education, I mean. And I found in literature another way of dealing with the world, another way of dealing with questions of meaning and consequence. Somewhere along the way, I started to see language as a way to search for significance in our lives. That came from a number of different places, I suppose. I wrote a little essay about it years ago called "Thirst and the Writer's Sense of Consequence," which appears in my book of essays and interviews called The Onion's Dark Core. Basically, though, it all comes down to trusting language as a way of exploring both the outer world and the inner world, which is to say that it all boils down to the notion of poetry as an instrument of investigation.
About the Author
Gregory Fraser is the author of two poetry collections, Strange Pietà (Texas Tech, 2003) and Answering the Ruins (Northwestern, 2009). He is also the co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the workshop textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the composition textbook Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (Continuum, 2012). His poetry has appeared in journals including the Paris Review, the Southern Review, the Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares. The recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fraser serves as associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
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