A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID BOTTOMS
Atlanta, Georgia, September 21st, 2012
Photo by Rachael Bottoms
David Bottoms’ first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump (William Morrow, 1980), 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 sixty anthologies and textbooks. He is the author of seven other books of poetry, two novels, and a book of essays and interviews. His most recent book of poems, We Almost Disappear (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), was released last fall. Among his other awards are both 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. He has served as the Richard Hugo Poet-in-Residence at the University of Montana, the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer at Mercer University, and the Chaffee Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University. He 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 (McFarland). He is the recipient of a 2011 Governor’s Award in the Humanities and served for twelve years as Poet Laureate of Georgia.
FOX: We’re doing an issue next year on Southern poets, so that’s where this conversation is going.
BOTTOMS: Oh, that’s cool. That’s good. Nobody pays much attention to Southern poets anymore. [laughs]
FOX: Tell me about Southern poets. What’s your take?
BOTTOMS: Oh, I don’t know; I’m so out of things. And I suppose there are about a million different takes on Southern poetry these days. But when I was a young man, 200 years ago, it was a big thing. Narrative was still the main focus. Of course, Robert Penn Warren was still around, and the big guns for me were Warren and Dickey and then Dave Smith. Dave’s still with us. He’s in Baltimore … Johns Hopkins, he’s at Hopkins now. The Southern Review was a big deal, and still is, I suppose, though they’ve gone through several changes of editors. Dave did a lot with The Southern Review when he was an editor there. Then you had someone like Charles Wright, also still with us, who’s much more lyrical and because of that is not often thought of as a Southern poet. But he is, of course. He’s from Tennessee. I doubt that anyone writing in English can match his pure talent for language.
BOTTOMS: Well, that was sort of my vision of Southern poetry. Of course, there were a lot of fine Southern poets and a lot of other visions, but that was mine. I really don’t know what’s going on in Southern poetry right now. So many young poets coming up, and I’m guessing you’ll have a bunch of them in this issue. For that sort of thing I have to rely on my grad students. They keep up with the poets and the magazines. I mentioned this interview one day in workshop, and one guy said, “Oh, right, I just got rejected there!” [Fox laughs loudly] So they know what’s going on, but I wouldn’t even be able to tell you really who the new young Southern writers are. Still, literature’s always been a vibrant force in the South, as you well know, and there are things, I suppose, that distinguish Southern writing from the rest of the country. Well it used to—we were saying “I’m a town boy and you’re a city guy.” But I was over in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago where they do the Birmingham Poetry Review, and somebody asked me about the relationship between Southern writing and the land, and I tried to explain that the South was always basically agricultural, a place where families tended to hit a patch of ground and stay there for a while. And after a few generations on the same piece of ground that landscape tends to mean more. Southerners didn’t move around so much, we couldn’t go places. And I guess that’s one of my big regrets, that the landscape where I grew up is gone now. I grew up in a little town in Cherokee County, Georgia, called Canton. My grandpa had this little country store that sat on the side of the highway for 51 or 52 years. He had about half a dozen acres. He had a barn that was slightly run down by the time I came along, all the windows pretty much busted out. He used to raise Tennessee Walking Horses and so he had a riding ring and all that stuff, and a couple of lots for hunting dogs and two or three chicken houses, and an empty field my dad turned into a regulation Little League baseball field. I’m sure it was once a really nice place, but by the time I got there it was kind of on a downhill slide. Then back when I was in my twenties my family sold out and developers plowed all that under and put up a K-Mart shopping center. I’ve always regretted that. Now on the spot where my house sat there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the K-Mart parking lot is covering the place where my grandfather’s house and store were. When my daughter was a kid we’d drive by and I’d say, “This is where we lived, right here,” and she’d say, “Kentucky Fried Chicken?” [Fox laughs] But you know, a lot of times at night when I try to go to sleep that old landscape plays over in my mind and it’s just sad, in a way, to have lost that, to have lost that connection and know that I’m one of the few people left who has any sense of that place, what it was and what it meant to folks. Maybe it didn’t mean so much then, but right now it means a lot. It means a whole lot.
FOX: Tell me about the sheriff and your sixteenth birthday.
BOTTOMS: Oh, well, you’re talking about that poem “Homage to Buck Cline.” That’s pretty much a true story. I usually do that poem at readings. That poem falls in … what book is that … Waltzing Through the Endtime, those longer poems. Like a lot of poets I guess I got to a point in my life where I decided I just wasn’t getting enough ink on the page, so I sort of spread the poems out and let them start to think a little bit more. Anyway, when I was a kid—I guess I was about sixteen years old—going to Cherokee High School, I had a girlfriend—“hometown honeys,” we called them. And we’d been dating a couple years. I lived on the south side of town; she lived on the east side of town. But in order to get from her house to my house, you had to go through Canton and through the only two traffic lights in the county. Anyway, we had dates pretty much every Friday and Saturday night. And this was a time when everyone thought the way to a young man’s heart was through his stomach, I suppose, so her mother was trying to teach her to cook. Well, about once every couple of months, we’d have a big spaghetti dinner, and her mother would drive down to the county line—we lived in a dry county—and buy us a bottle of Mateus Rose. [laughs] That was very adult, you know. So one evening—I’ll never forget this—one evening about twelve midnight or one o’clock in the morning, I was driving home, and I made it through that first traffic light, which was in the middle of downtown Canton, and got to north Canton and the traffic light there. Well, I got caught by the red light, and while I was stopped there I looked over in the shadows of the North Canton store and I saw Buck Cline, the chief of police, sitting in the Canton patrol car. He usually sat there on weekends because our one burger joint in the county—the Burger Chief—sat about a hundred yards down the highway. And from the North Canton Store he could keep an eye on the place. You know, it was the spot all the young toughs would circle in their hot rods on Saturday night. Anyway Buck Cline would sit about a hundred or so yards away in the shadows of the store and keep an eye peeled for trouble. Well, something about Buck. He was literally 6’5”, and must have weighed close to 300, without an ounce of fat on him, and he considered himself a bad son of a bitch. He’d made his reputation the hard way, by beating people up, and all the high school folks just feared him like the devil. Now my old man was something of a—I don’t know if you’d call him a war hero, but he went down on the USS Atlanta at the Battle of Guadalcanal, and he was severely wounded. He was two years in the hospital, he had terrible head wounds—they had to put a metal plate in his head—side wounds and leg wounds. So he was well known around the county. And those guys in that generation sort of stuck together, I guess. Anyway, I never heard my dad talk about Buck Cline. I didn’t even know he knew him. But Buck Cline was also a veteran and—well, those guys just looked out for each other. Anyway, I got this weird notion sitting there at that traffic light—after a couple of glasses of Mateus Rose—that I could pull through the light, hang a left, and when I got in front of the Burger Chief, I could bark off some tires, you know, floor it, and beat Buck Cline to my house, which was only about two and a half miles away. [Fox and Daveen laugh loudly] So I don’t know what you call that except stupid. [Fox laughs] But that’s what I did, and I made it about a mile, to the top of the hill, maybe a mile and a half, and then I saw these flashing blue lights behind me. Buck Cline pulled me over just across the river bridge, maybe a half mile from my house. I remember getting out of the car and saying, “Is something wrong?” And he said, “Shut up, I’ll ask the questions.”
FOX: Ooh. [laughs]
BOTTOMS: And so he got my driver’s license and he looked at it and saw my name. Well, I’m just a junior; my old man was the real David Bottoms. So Buck looked at it a couple of times and looked back at me and he didn’t say anything. Then he said, “You reckon your daddy’d like to come get you out of jail?” And I said, “No sir.” And he said, “You been drinkin’? You didn’t see me back there?” And I said, “No, sir, I didn’t.” And I was just scared about half to death. Anyway, he studied that for a little while and then he—he actually asked me this; this is in the poem—after he studied the situation he looked at me, and then he said, “You think you can whup my ass?”
BOTTOMS: Here I am 5’8” and he’s like 6’5”, 300 pounds. I said, “No, no, sir.” And then he looked at me again and said, “You think you can whup your daddy’s ass?” He actually said that. And I said, “No, sir.” And he gave me the license back—I’d only had it for about a month—he gave it back to me and he said, “Then you better get your ass on home.”
BOTTOMS: And that’s the story, and that’s a true story. And I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, because evidently … it’s like my daughter says: we live in the present but there’s a world that happened before we came along and we don’t often understand that. As the poem says, these are things we used to “attribute to the stars.” And there was a connection between these men that I knew nothing about and probably a connection all veterans share at one time or another. And so, he let me go, not for my sake, I’m sure, but because of my old man.
FOX: Yes, yes.
BOTTOMS: So thank you, Buck. He’s long dead now, I’m sure. He was a tough guy. Yeah, I don’t ever want to live that night again.
FOX: You’re talking about the past—what kind of feelings, relationship do you have to the past?
BOTTOMS: That’s a very interesting question. I was talking about that over in Birmingham a couple weeks ago. The way you look at the world changes and it affects the way you write. Someone asked me if my poetry had changed or something, and people still have a hard time believing I wrote a book of poems called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. But, you know, when you’re young, you’re usually thinking only about the present moment. Hell, you don’t even have that much of a past. All those poems are kind of “young man, hunting and fishing and raising hell” sorts of poems. I remember when that book came out somebody called me the “laureate of the rednecks” [Fox laughs], some review. But as you get older, some things sort of come into focus and your perspective changes. I remember my old friend James Dickey telling me one time at a party—this must have been only a few months before he died—we were over at Emory, I think, and they were giving a party for him, and he had poured himself a large glass of chocolate milk—he’d given up whiskey entirely—and he just turned to me and looked over that glass of chocolate milk and said, “David, there’s nothing more important than family.” Right out of the blue.
BOTTOMS: And I thought that was pretty strange, given the fact that he’d spent most of his life trying to destroy his own family. I don’t know if you’ve read that beautiful book by Chris Dickey called Summer of Deliverance. There’ve been a number of books and articles about Jim. The big one is Henry Hart’s, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, which is vicious. But this book by Chris is a very beautiful book and it really gives a lot of insight into his father and the sort of reconciliation they had at the end of his father’s life. Anyhow, this last book I wrote (We Almost Disappear)—I don’t know if you have a copy of it; there’s one right there you can have if you like.
FOX: Thank you, I don’t.
BOTTOMS: It’s mostly about family. Much quieter—a lot of the poems at the end of the book are about my dad and his death. But as you know, eventually the past starts to mean more to you and family starts to mean more. The things that are really significant rise to the surface and things like shooting rats fall away. I guess it’s inevitable, the sort of change you go through, but certainly—I don’t know if the past is any different for a Southerner than it is for someone from the west or the northeast or whatever but certainly the past is always—what was that Faulkner said about the past in the South … I can’t remember; it’s a great quote. We’ll have to look it up. [Editor’s note: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”] But yeah, I think a lot about the past. I was telling my wife yesterday that I have to do this thing down at Florida State and they wanted a bunch of pictures or something to put together a …
BOTTOMS: Yeah, a video of some kind. So I was going through some old pictures and I said, “Wow, this is just a heartbreak.” And she said, “Yeah, because most of it’s behind us.” But it’s twofold, because when you see these pictures, you see what a really good life you’ve had and how blessed you’ve been, and you think what more could you hope for? But the sad thing is that it’s back there. Still I think it still enriches your life when you think about it.
FOX: Yes. I was thinking about something this morning; I was thinking, “Those were the days.” Last night we had a little celebration, our eighth grandchild, and my father was there. He is 98 years old—
BOTTOMS: Wow, wonderful!
FOX: There’s a photo of my mother when she was sixteen and her father was a professional photographer, and it was a photo of her at sixteen which would have been 1930—80 years ago.
BOTTOMS: Wow, that’s amazing. Your father’s 98—is he all right; is he in good health?
FOX: Yes! He drives, he …
BOTTOMS: He drives?
FOX: It’s amazing. But family stays. Most friends come and go. College buddies, high school …
BOTTOMS: You’re exactly right. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you’re exactly right. Family stays. And place stays, or the idea of place.
FOX: Yes, yes.
BOTTOMS: And your relationship to place. I’ve often wished I could go back to that old house again. We lived in this little post-World War II two bedroom, one bathroom house. It just sat on the side of the highway, and seemed like the greatest place in the world.
FOX: Tell us a little about James Dickey. Were you close to him?
BOTTOMS: For about sixteen years. We were pretty good friends. I met Jim after Warren had chosen Shooting Rats for the Whitman Award. This would’ve been like in ’79. I’d always wanted to meet Dickey. I went to Mercer University in Macon, and the first time I saw Jim Dickey was in 1971 when he gave the commencement address at Wesleyan College where my girlfriend went. He had just published Deliverance, and I read that and I thought, “That’s a great book.” Well, I wanted to meet him but I didn’t want to meet him under those circumstances so when Warren chose my book and it came out I sent a copy to him. He wrote me back a really nice letter and said that Warren had already sent him the book—probably not true [laughs]; I don’t think that’s true. But he thanked me for it and said that he really liked it, and invited me up to Columbia, South Carolina, to see him. He was very much into Southern country music, Appalachian music, bluegrass music, and I had played guitar in a couple of little bands, so that gave us something besides poetry to talk about. He loved the guitar, but wasn’t much of a musician. He had no sense of rhythm. Intellectually he knew the guitar, but he couldn’t play much. Anyway, I took a friend of mine who was sort of a semi-professional blues musician, and we went up there and spent the whole day with him, just shooting the bull, and went out in the backyard and shot arrows—Jim was an archery dude—and all this kind of stuff. He took us out to lunch, and when it came time to order, he ordered a couple drinks. Now this sounds like a real jerky thing for him to do, but it was actually a pretty kind gesture. He meant it in a generous way. He leaned over the table at us and said, “Now you boys don’t try to keep up with me.” And he ordered two vodka martinis—not one and then another but he just went ahead and ordered two. We swapped a bunch of letters then and got to know each other. He was very kind to me. I don’t know if you’ve heard all the stories about him … well, he was supposed to have been a real asshole to a number of people. If you read Henry Hart’s book you’ll see that. A real womanizer and a very abusive kind of character to other people, but he never showed me that side of himself. He liked me for some reason; I don’t know why. So he was always very kind to me and when he would come to Atlanta he would stay at our house—this was back in the mid-’80s. I remember the first time he came I said, “Oh shit, James Dickey—he’s going to stay at my house; what am I going to do.” His wife, Maxine, had died and he’d remarried; he’d married a student of his, Deborah Dodson, and she called me on the phone before his plane landed and she said, “Now, David, don’t take Jim to a liquor store.” And I thought, “Now how am I going to tell Jim Dickey that I’m not going to stop at a liquor store?” Sure enough, he got off the plane and we got in the truck. First thing he says is, “David, let’s stop at a liquor store.” And I just sort of hemmed and hawed and didn’t know what to do, and he turned and said to me, “Debba called you, didn’t she?”
BOTTOMS: I said, “Well, yes, she did.” And he said, “Then here’s what we’ll do; we’ll make a bargain”—he was an alcoholic; he had to have booze—“We’ll just drink beer. We’ll stop and get beer and we won’t drink anything else,” and that was the pact we made. Whenever he came to my house we went out and bought Colt 45 malt liquor. I guess it has a little higher alcoholic content or something. And he would get a six-pack of those tall Colts and take them to bed with him. And that’s all he ever drank at my house, so he was never really drunk; it was just maintenance. And we’d get up in the morning and he’d have a Colt 45 malt liquor. But I really didn’t see him much during those last couple of years. He was sick a lot. He was really sick and he was having terrible problems with his marriage. We talked on the phone, and I talked to him maybe two days before he died. He said he’d gone back into the hospital and he said he felt like he was going to die. But I didn’t think much of it because he’d said that to me several times over those last two years, but sure enough that time he left us.
FOX: It’s kind of ironic that someone who didn’t have a feel for music liked “Dueling Banjos” …
BOTTOMS: Yeah, he got in a lot of trouble over that song, you know. He was sued.
BOTTOMS: Yeah, he always claimed to have written that song. He did not write that song; that song was written by Arthur Smith and Don Reno—Arthur Smith from North Carolina and I forget where Reno was from—he was a very famous bluegrass banjo player. And Arthur Smith sued Dickey and won. I don’t know how much money it cost him, but a lot. A whole lot of money. I think Henry Hart talks about that in his book but Dickey was, as we say in the South, “bad to exaggerate things.” And I always wondered about that—this is a revelation Hart makes in the biography. If you look at his collected poems, the ’57 to ’67 book—or maybe it was Deliverance, I can’t remember—anyway, it says on the back that he flew a hundred combat missions over Japan. Well, he didn’t. He flew 38. But my whole question is this: why would a man who had actually flown 38 combat missions need to lie and say it was a hundred? I mean 38 times flying over Japan—
FOX: That’s a lot!
BOTTOMS: Having people shoot at you—
BOTTOMS: And also he always sort of pretended he was a pilot. He wasn’t a pilot. He was a radar observer. He flunked out of flight school. Not a lot of people know that. He flunked out of that but he was always sort of, “When I flew that, when I flew this.” But he was an interesting guy. He was, quite frankly, the most intelligent man I’ve ever talked with, and it made me nervous to be around him very long, because he was so smart. You’d be sitting like we’re talking here, and he’d be talking about Joe Frazier and in the next sentence he was talking about Heraclitus and the pre-Socratic philosophers, and he expected you to follow along and keep up with all his arguments, and if you didn’t, he did not suffer fools. [Fox laughs]
FOX: That can be scary.
BOTTOMS: Yeah, it was a little scary. I was always nervous around him. But he was very good to me. So that’s about all I know about James Dickey.
FOX: You were talking about how “it cost him a lot of money”—talk about poets and money. You’re not going to make any great living as a poet.
BOTTOMS: He was a wealthy guy, I think, but he also spent a lot of money, and I can remember one time at a reading he was giving—I don’t remember where it was, might have been Kennesaw College, some place I was with him; I think he’d asked me to read a poem with him or something. He had these poems that were in two voices. Anyway, we went into the men’s room, and we were standing at the urinals and he reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a check and says, “Do you make five grand for readings yet?” [laughs] He was proud of that, proud of making that kind of money.
FOX: Whoa, whoa.
BOTTOMS: And I said, “No, not yet.” But he was very conscious of his status in the literary world. A few days before he died we talked on the phone and he asked me what I thought of his poems. We never really talked about poems much. We always talked about music or boxing or football. He wanted to talk about poems that day, and he asked me what I thought of his poems, first time he’d ever done that. And I said to him on the phone, “Well, Jim, you’re still the champ”—he liked those sports metaphors and so he thought about that and he liked that: “Jim, you’re still the champ.” His big rival was Robert Lowell. He and Lowell were—well, rivals. So I reminded him—I may have said this somewhere else—I reminded him of a lunch we’d had about fifteen years earlier, mid-’80s I’m guessing, with the fiction writer Peter Taylor who was a good friend of Lowell’s. I think this was over in Athens, Georgia. Taylor and Lowell had been roommates in college and they’d stayed close. Anyway, Taylor was telling a story about how jealous Robert Lowell was of other poets, terrifically jealous. Then he turned to Dickey and said, “And he was jealous of no one as much as he was jealous of you.”
BOTTOMS: Dickey loved that. He just beamed. He lit up like a hundred-watt bulb; he just loved the notion that Robert Lowell was jealous of him. [Fox laughs] That was sort of his personality. He had to be the best. He grew up like that … I think Roethke was a big influence on him. I remember he said that he liked Roethke’s work, and he did meet him once. They both swapped a bunch of lies, I think. Dickey wrote about this in a good little essay called “Theodore Roethke: The Greatest American Poet.” He said somewhere in there that he wasn’t disappointed that Roethke lied so much, only disappointed that he hadn’t done a better job of it. [laughs] Roethke was always playing the tough guy, you know. Claimed to have known gangsters in Chicago. Claimed to have sparred with famous prize fighters, that sort of stuff. That was back in the day when macho was the thing for a male poet—you know, all that silly stuff. But Dickey lived that.
FOX: How do you like teaching?
BOTTOMS: Teaching has been … well, sometimes I like it a lot and other times I don’t like it very much. But it’s been pretty good. This place (Georgia State University) has been pretty good. We’ve had our problems over the years and you don’t make much money. Still, I call it pretty good. I’m trying to tell my daughter this. She’s over at Emory and she’s an English major but she’s double majoring in women’s studies. She’s fascinating, really. She has—I say this totally objectively—she has the best critical mind I’ve ever seen in a human being. She’s just bright as they come, but it’s not that she’s smart—she is smart—but she just has a gift, a feel for literature, and she could have a great career in academics if she chooses to go in that direction, but she told me one time, “I don’t want to make the same mistakes you made.” [laughs]
FOX: A professor being one of them?
BOTTOMS: Yeah, I’m sure it is; she wants to find her own way. But teaching has been good. We have a good graduate program here. I usually teach two courses in the fall and one in the spring. Right now I’m teaching a grad workshop and an undergrad workshop. This spring I’ll teach a grad course on Roethke and Dickey. Both of my classes right now are dynamite. So you could hardly ask for a better job for a poet. I’ve tried to tell my daughter this—the free time you have, and also the exchange of ideas. Teaching keeps me reading and thinking. I wish I wrote more, sure, but occasionally I’ll see someone with some real talent and that makes it all worthwhile. Basically I’ve been pretty lucky. I came here in 1982 after I got my doctorate from Florida State. I applied for three jobs, there weren’t many more in the whole country. Dave Smith got one—I think it was Virginia Commonwealth—and David Wojahn got one in Arkansas, and I got this one.
BOTTOMS: And I said to myself, “I don’t want to go to Atlanta because I don’t want to go back home,” but as it turned out this was the best job by far. So I’m grateful. And the people here and the administration have been super. So I’m just grateful for the years of being able to do this and make a decent living. I wish I were a millionaire, but I’m not, and that’s okay.
FOX: What are some of the more important things you feel you can leave your students with?
BOTTOMS: That’s a very good question and we talk about this a little bit at the graduate level because at the graduate level I try to teach these folks what I think they should be teaching other folks. And the first thing I say to people who come into my introductory class, which is a 3150, a poetry workshop, is something like this: “You know, it’s nice if you know what a dactyl is, or an anapest, or if you know what a sonnet is. That’s nice, but that’s not the most important thing. Not by a long shot. If you only learn one thing in this class, I want you to learn how to use language to get at what’s important to you in your life.” That’s what I’m about. Learn how to use language to get at what’s important to you in your life. [cell phone rings] Excuse me, this could be my daughter. It is. [Bottoms reads a text message] You know, I was giving a reading one time in New York—I forget where it was—and she called my cell right in the middle of the reading. [both laugh] And I answered the phone. I said, “Excuse me, people, this is my daughter, and I don’t know what’s going on here, so I’m going to answer the phone.” And I did. And I tell my classes this: “I don’t turn my cell phone off. I have a mother who’s 87 and she’s sick, and I have a daughter in school. And if your phone rings and it’s family, you answer it. You just go on out in the hall. You just feel free to answer it, because I’m answering mine.” But yeah, I think the most significant thing is to learn how to use language to get at what’s important to you in your life.
BOTTOMS: And I teach a whole course on—what do I call it … the poet’s search for a soul. I believe very much in poetry as a search for significance. Warren, I think, felt the same way. The poem, of course, is a way of exploring the outer world, but as it goes out it also turns inward and looks inward. It becomes a sort of self-exploration, a search for meaning in your life, a search for consequence. So we talk a lot about that stuff. I rarely talk about any mechanics, and I’ve been criticized for that, because we have people on our faculty who—well, that’s what they do. That’s all right, that’s their thing, but I don’t do that.
FOX: You want to get at the heart of it.
BOTTOMS: That’s what I’m after. And for that reason I don’t really make writing assignments. Well, occasionally I might if a kid can’t get a grasp on what it means to be concrete, or needs some direction. Very occasionally I’ll do that, but mostly I tell people, “I don’t tell you what to write about because I want you to explore something important to you, something essential, and I don’t know what that is; I can’t give you a clue there.” I want their poems to have a sense of necessity about them, and that’s what’s missing in most American poetry these days, a sense that the poem had to be written. But sure, that’s a very good question and I wish more teachers would focus on that, on teaching poetry as a search for meaning, but it’s become kind of an embarrassment in the university to talk about such stuff. Well, also in the culture, I suppose. Adam Zagajewski has that poem called “The Soul.” The first lines goes, “We know we’re not allowed to use your name.” You know that poem?
FOX: Mhm, yeah.
BOTTOMS: It’s a good little poem. Anyway, so that’s where I’m coming from—poetry as a search for significance, for consequence in our lives.
FOX: Talk about music. Do you still play?
BOTTOMS: I do. But I don’t play guitar anymore. I gave that up, because mostly what I play is bluegrass, and I gave up guitar because so many people were playing that and I wasn’t getting any better. So about a dozen years ago I started trying to learn how to play mandolin. And I got to a stage I call “not bad.” We play every Tuesday in a little town called Marietta, and I’ll come home and my wife will say, “How was it?” And I’ll say, “It was okay; all the big boys were there,” meaning the really good musicians. One guy who plays with us was fiddle champion of West Virginia.
BOTTOMS: But there are usually a handful of some really top notch semi-professional pickers. And I’ve sort of gotten to a place where I can play along with them and nobody’ll chase me off. But now I’m getting arthritis in my hand really bad. So I tape it up like an athlete. I get some of that Olympic tape, that stretch tape, and I wrap it all up, and it does help some, but I still can’t do what I want to. But I love it. They tease me about it, but I still love the music. I don’t know, music is a strange thing. But I also love serious music—not that that isn’t serious—but I mean I also love classical music, and I’m a big fan of vocal music.
FOX: I think really good music is like a really good poem, it kind of hits you on an emotional …
BOTTOMS: It hits you, it really does, at sort of a pre-verbal level. I really love the cello. My daughter studied cello for years. She’s given it up. She never practiced.
FOX: [laughs] Well, I didn’t practice piano either, so …
BOTTOMS: She didn’t practice piano, either. [all laugh] My wife has a piano degree.
BOTTOMS: Yeah, she always wanted to be a pianist, but she came from Montana and came from a very poor family that couldn’t afford to give lessons to all four kids—they could only afford to give the oldest girl piano lessons. So when Kelly went to college she could take piano lessons for free, so she did. Then she won a scholarship in France to study for a year. She didn’t start playing piano until she was eighteen years old. She’s very talented, though, and she has a great feel for the piano.
BOTTOMS: But at eighteen, I guess, it’s a little late to become a performer. So then she messed around for a while and went to law school. Dynamite lawyer, but she never really liked the law very much.
FOX: Yeah. Well, I went to law school—I think law school teaches you how to think, analyze and think. It’s very good for that.
BOTTOMS: All the smart people go to law school.
FOX: I really enjoyed your poem “Under the Vulture-Tree.” When Daveen and I were in Africa, we came across a giraffe that had been dead I’d say two days and three lions. And the vultures were in the trees, and it was at the point where the lions had eaten so much they were sleeping … the vultures come close and the lions wake up and chase them away and go back to sleep and then the vultures—it was like a dance.
BOTTOMS: Wow. Yeah. Sure, I still like that old poem. I don’t like a lot of those early poems, but I like that poem a good deal. I usually read that one at readings. That’s a Florida poem. After my first book came out I went back to grad school in Tallahassee. They were very good to me down there and paid my way through that place. Bill Sessions, who was a professor here, had actually told me, “You go down there and get a PhD; we’ll have a job waiting on you when you come back here.” I said, “Well, that’s cool.” I don’t know if you know that area, but there are a lot of little rivers down there, and it’s a very beautiful place. It’s about as close to jungle as you can get in Florida, unless you go to the Everglades. Back in the early forties, two of those old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies were filmed on a little river called the Wakulla, along with a movie called Creature From the Black Lagoon. And I used to fish that river all the time. Never caught anything though.
[Bottoms’ cell phone rings again]
FOX: If you want to talk to your daughter, go ahead.
BOTTOMS: No, she doesn’t talk on the telephone. She texts. Everything’s cool.
FOX: Oh, okay.
BOTTOMS: So I was out there—you may have read this story somewhere, I don’t know—in a little boat on the Wakulla. I had a little aluminum jon boat and I was out there one morning very early and the jungle just sort of opened up in the middle of a bend, and there was just this bare place and in the center of it this huge black tree. It looked like someone had taken a giant piece of black construction paper and snipped out the silhouette of an oak tree and just sort of pasted it there. Anyway, it gave me a weird feeling, and I cut the motor and drifted up under it, and the closer I got, the stranger I felt because I could see that this was some kind of odd fruit tree. It was all speckled with little pink fruit, and then I got right up under it and I saw that these things weren’t fruit at all, but heads. They were the heads of vultures. I’d come on a buzzard roost, the first one I’d ever seen. These birds, these vultures, were packed into that tree shoulder to shoulder so tight you could hardly see the light through the tree—seriously. Years later I remembered that. It must have been ten years later at least. I was reading something about vultures in another culture, how they’re revered in Asia or something, I don’t remember. And I recalled that tree on the Wakulla, and I said to myself, “Well, here you got these vultures and you got the river and the tree. If you can’t make a poem out of that, you better just quit.” [Fox and Daveen laugh] And it came to me that these birds were sort of like strange angels, then a line came: “With mercy enough to consume us all.” That was the sort of play, the pun, the device I needed, and after that, the poem was easy. So I wrote the poem out and sent it to Peter Davison at The Atlantic, and he wrote back that he thought it was a super poem but the first stanza stank. He wanted to cut the first stanza. So I said, “Cut it off!” [Fox laughs] And the first stanza went. I don’t even have a record of what that stanza was. But that’s the story of how that poem came to be. But thank you, I’m glad you like that poem. I still like it too.
FOX: I find at Rattle, sometimes we get a really good poem but it goes on too long—cut off the last two stanzas and it’s fine.
BOTTOMS: Sure. That’s what I tell my students. If an editor wants to do that, fine, go ahead, it’s no problem. Then if you print it again, print it your way. But Davison was right about that poem.
FOX: So how did you get to be Poet Laureate of Georgia?
BOTTOMS: I was standing in the kitchen one day [all laugh] and the phone rang—this was back in 2000—and this familiar voice that I couldn’t quite place said, “Hello, is this David Bottoms?” and I said, “Yes it is.” “This is Governor Roy Barnes.”
BOTTOMS: And I said, “Hello, Governor.” And the next thing he said was, “Would you like to be Poet Laureate of Georgia?” And I said, “Well, I haven’t thought much about it, but yeah, I guess so … does it cost anything?” [Fox laughs] And he was very nice. It was a good trip, lasted about twelve years. It was only supposed to last his term but the next governor just let it slide and then the next governor let it slide a little bit more. And I didn’t have to do any really heavy lifting. Well, I did have to write a book one time, or at least write the text to a book of photographs about Georgia, which I didn’t want to do, but I was told the governor was mad and that I should do it.
BOTTOMS: The Chamber of Commerce had put together a big book of Georgia photographs and had a professional photographer do it all. And they were nice enough, but they were just about what you’d expect from a Chamber of Commerce, and they’d written a text over there to go with it, and University of Georgia Press was going to publish it. Well, the press got the whole thing, the manuscript and the text, and they said they wouldn’t do the text. And so Jamil Zainaldin, who was president of the Humanities Council, suggested that I do it, and he approached me about it. I said I didn’t want to do it, and I turned down the request twice. Then I got a call from him one morning, the governor was irate, and would I please … ? So I said, “Okay.” You know, I didn’t want to make anybody mad; I was very grateful to them both. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” It took six months to finish because I had to travel all around Georgia and take pictures and stuff like that, but it was okay. I called the book Oglethorpe’s Dream. And then Governor Barnes gets defeated the next election and new governor tries to get rid of all the copies because it has Barnes’ photo on the jacket flap. But it was all okay, and it led to other good things. And I do think that it called a little attention, at least in this immediate area, to poetry, because I became involved with the Humanities Council, and Jamil Zainaldin, the president, has done a lot for literature in Georgia. It’s a very good organization, the Georgia Humanities Council.
FOX: Do you do many readings?
BOTTOMS: I’m doing more this year than I have in a while. There was a time, like 200 years ago, when I did a lot every year. Then, I guess, the time came when I’d gone to just about every place anybody was willing to have me. Just like Warren said one time, “You better go when they ask you, because they might not want you later.” This year I’ll do around ten, I guess. Mostly in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, though I do go to New York in the spring. But there’ve been years recently when I did only one or two.
FOX: Oh, really?
BOTTOMS: Oh sure, one or two. But more since this new book has come out; I don’t know why. Like I said, I’ve been about everywhere anybody wants to have me. I guess I’ve read in just about every part of the country except the west coast.
FOX: Oh, really? Well, we’ll talk to some people, see if we can … Do you find that some of the poems you’ve written that you really love, the public doesn’t like as much, and some things …
BOTTOMS: Oh, sure. Of course. And some of the poems that you really like and you think are really good poems just don’t read well. There are poems, especially in that book Waltzing Through the Endtime where the poems are longer, that are better if you just sit in a chair and read them and mull them over, I think. So I find when I’m doing a public reading, I’m trying to read something that is going to appeal to people, something short that has strong imagery in it, and something that people can follow. I can’t really … quite frankly, I can’t bear poetry readings. I hate to sit through a poetry reading.
BOTTOMS: I can’t follow it! Are you the same way?
BOTTOMS: I can’t bear it. So I just try not to go to them. And you hope people are better when you’re giving one [laughs], but I’m just not a good audience at a poetry reading. Music’s a different thing though. I can sit and listen to music all day. But my mind wanders off at a reading.
FOX: When you look over your career, your life, are you happy or disappointed?
Bottoms: That’s a really good question, but I have to take a quick bathroom break before I answer it.
FOX: All right we’ll just pause …
FOX: While you were gone I was looking at “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag.”
BOTTOMS: Oh, yeah, I like that poem too. I usually do that one at readings too. Yeah, I wish I had a picture to show you but I don’t. She took karate lessons. My wife, Kelly, has a friend who emigrated from Serbia and her husband is a martial artist. Wow, really, I mean this guy is like a 300th degree black belt.
BOTTOMS: He was a professional bodyguard for one of the big political guys over there. And he was also on some Olympic team, so when he got over here he started a karate studio. And so in order to help them out my wife said that we should let our daughter take karate lessons, which was cool, you know. She was around ten years old. And so I said, “Fine.” So I’m over there watching one day. She’s in a class with about twelve kids and she’s the only girl in the class. Well, all the boys hate this, they just hate it, because she’s really very good. She’s had five years of ballet and she’s very agile. Of course, she’s also a family friend and she’s a girl, so she’s probably getting a little extra attention. They would go through this routine where they had individual lessons. A kid would come up for about five minutes and hit this big punching bag while the instructor would bark out instructions, “Jab, kick, jab.” So she’s doing that and I’m watching all the boys in the back of the room who are watching her. About halfway through her routine they start to giggle and jeer, but she’s not paying any attention; she’s just going on with her own business. Then that line came to me, about … I don’t remember how it goes exactly, something about having learned the first lesson of self-defense … oh yeah, in the last stanza she’s glaring at the bag, not at the boys—“alone, in herself,/ in her own time, to her own rhythm, honing her blocks/ and feints, her solitary dance,/ having mastered already the first move of self-defense.” I like that.
FOX: Absolutely. To me that captures the essence of what she’s doing.
BOTTOMS: Yeah, she’s just inside herself there, paying absolutely no attention to what else is going on in the world.
FOX: I think your poems tend to do that; they tend to go to the essence.
BOTTOMS: Well, you’re very kind. I appreciate that. That’s what you hope for, but I could show you a drawer full of things that just didn’t get to the essence. [laughs] But you know, that’s one thing about … I was telling somebody just the other day, I think you can publish too much. Don’t you feel that way?
BOTTOMS: My wife’s reading Joyce Carol Oates and God bless her, who could read everything she’s written? She’s a great writer, but who could read everything?
FOX: Well, when I write, I’m always very critical and I’m always comparing it with published work. Well, you’ve published your best stuff, you’ve worked on it, you’ve edited it, you’ve mulled it over, and a writer shouldn’t worry about the first draft.
BOTTOMS: No, you’re absolutely right. I don’t know how long it took me to write that last book—it’s a very thin little book—but probably five years at least. And since it was published, close to a year ago, I’ve probably written three good poems. I was talking about this last year at John Hopkins with Dave Smith. Some kid asked me if I write every day, and I said, “Well, no. I just write when an idea comes.” And Dave got all upset. He said, “Oh, no, a writer has to write every day. You have to practice your licks, like a musician.” I said, “Well, being a poet is not really like being a musician. At least not for me.” I can’t write poems every day, or even very often. I have to wait for the idea, that “come hither” as Seamus Heaney puts it. Now writing fiction is different. I published two novels about 300 years ago, and writing fiction is completely different. You can spend a couple of weeks plotting out a novel, and you’ve got something to work on for years. Nine to five, every day.
FOX: Yes, yes.
BOTTOMS: Poems are not like that. Every poem is a different idea. And where do those ideas come from, and how do you get them? You have to make yourself available to the world and hope that they hit you. We don’t go around inventing ideas; we wait for them to strike us. And so I say to my classes, “I don’t beat myself up trying to write poems anymore. When they happen I’m grateful for them, but I don’t beat myself up trying to write every day.”
FOX: I heard recently that Stephen King, the novelist, writes every day, ten thousand words.
BOTTOMS: I don’t doubt it. Dickey used to keep three or four typewriters around in different places of his house, with different projects on each one, and when he would burn out on, say, typewriter “A,” he would get up, fix himself something to eat or drink, wander around, mess with the guitar or something for a little while, then go over to typewriter “B” and sit down. His key was “Never finish anything.” Always leave something for the next day. So he had worked out psychologically a little program for himself. But I don’t know, I’m sort of at a stage in my life where publishing is not as important to me as it once was. I’m not in any hurry to just turn something out. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.
FOX: Well, talk about that—I asked you, when you look back, what are you happy about, what … ?
BOTTOMS: Well, as I said, I just got through looking back, because I’m going down to FSU for this alumni thing. I’m supposed to be a distinguished alumnus in writing or something like that, and so they asked me to put together these pictures for some kind of video. Well, I didn’t think I had very many, because I don’t take a lot of photographs, but I had more than I thought. So I’m looking back over all of this stuff, and it hits me that I published my first poem in 1973. You know how long [ago] that is? I can’t even figure that up! In 1973 I published my first two poems at about the same time, one in a little journal called The Bastian Review and another in a little magazine called Wind, neither of them are around any longer. Over the years, though, I’ve been very fortunate, very fortunate. I’ve cranked out a few poems some people were willing to read. And I’ve been fortunate to find a place at Copper Canyon Press, an extremely fine and caring publisher.
FOX: Well, I think in life our job is to find our niche and occupy it.
BOTTOMS: Well said, yes. Find it and occupy it. And contribute in some way.
BOTTOMS: I figure if you can get to my age, maybe our age, and say you’ve contributed something, you’ve done all right. That’s about the most you can hope for. Nothing’s going to last, but if you’ve contributed during your time, that’s about all you can hope for.
FOX: Absolutely. Thank you.
—from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
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