Poetry, Georgia Review, Hudson Review, and Harper's. He has published three collections of poems: Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, which won the Devins Award; This April Day; and A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New. His novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek, were both awarded the Townsend Prize for Fiction. Mitcham has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. He taught psychology at Fort Valley State University for many years, and he now teaches creative writing at Mercer University. Mitcham is the current poet laureate of the state of Georgia. He lives in Macon with his wife, Jean. They have two children and three grandchildren.
The woman in the airplane wanted
to talk about Christ. I did not.
I raised my magazine. She continued, saying Christ
promised heaven to the thief
who believed while nailed to the cross.
The clouds looked solid far beneath. She began
the story of her life, and I stopped her
as politely as I could, saying please, right now,
I’d simply like to read. And for a while,
she did keep quiet, then she asked
if I’d ever really given Christ a chance, so I tried
telling her a joke, chose the one
about the Pope and Richard Nixon in a rowboat.
She discovered nothing funny in the story.
Jesus fed the multitude, she said.
I looked around to find an empty seat.
There wasn’t one. She asked me if I knew
about the sower and the seed; about Zaccheus;
Legion and the swine; Mary Magdalene;
Lazarus; the rich young ruler. And I did,
I knew about them all. I told her yes,
sweet Jesus; got the stewardess
to bring another bourbon; tried to buy
the missionary one, but she declined.
And when the plane set down,
I’d escaped up the aisle, made the door,
and started walking fast toward the baggage claim,
when I saw them, all at once, on the concourse:
thousands I would never see again, who'd remain
nothing in my life, who would never have names;
and I realized I'd entertained—strangely,
and for no good reason I could see—
the hope of someone waiting there
who loved me.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem came together when I combined elements from two other attempts at poems, neither of which ever seemed right, so it began as a reworking of other material. It appears that I first put it into my computer in 2002.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I write poems in longhand, and they exist first as prose fragments. I don't concern myself with lines until I have some sense of what the language of the poem might be and where it might be going. I don't mean by this that I hack up the prose fragments into lines, but that I tend to think things through in prose and then think things through again, but this time trying to find the right music for a poem. When I start putting the poem into lines, I tend to rewrite over and over from the beginning, so it's hard to know exactly what constitutes a draft. By the time I come up with something that might be called a whole poem, I've usually gone through many versions. Then I'll type it up and revise it on the computer. In this case, from the first typed draft to the published version, there appear to be eleven revisions.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I've always liked Pasteur's "Chance favors the prepared mind." I'm not sure I know what inspiration is. The feeling of inspiration has proved notoriously unreliable for me, and has not given me my best results. It seems to me that if you work hard at writing, work hard at seeing what language can discover, you are in the habit of trying out connections to see if they might mean something on another level. Sometimes such a connection comes to you, and perhaps you feel inspired, but it's probably unlikely that you would have made that connection if you had not been in the habit of working and looking at things in a certain way.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I didn't employ any formal technique. I tend to write lines of three or four beats. James Dickey talked about his "thump-loving American ear," and I guess that’s what I have. This poem seemed to work best without stanzas. Most of the lines end on words of one syllable, and in this poem, as in most of my poems, the last word of the poem recalls an earlier sound somewhere in the last few lines.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I finished it while putting together the manuscript of my second book, This April Day, which had been taken by Anhinga Press, and I decided to include it in that book, which came out a year later.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
Well, I stuck this one right into a book, and it seems to have worked out all right, but my experience is that my poems are almost always significantly improved by my taking a fresh look at them after some time has passed. I go through long stretches of sending out nothing, even when I have poems that I think are finished. I'm under no pressure to publish, and the world is not clamoring for more poems from me.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I grew up in the Baptist church, reading the Bible and listening to sermons. My family would discuss scripture at length. We loved the old hymns, which are still a source of comfort and strength for me, as is the King James Bible. I’ve never encountered a proselytizing woman on an airplane, but it is true that many, many times in my life I have been presented with the Good News in an aggressive, accusatory way, a sort of hectoring piety. I did draw on the experience of sitting next to a woman on a plane and listening to her and her companion exchange smug assertions about the true nature of God. And I do remain, as I've been all my life, strangely dismayed by the understanding that the inner lives of other people are bound to be as vast and complicated as my own. William James has a wonderful essay on this phenomenon, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." The mystery of otherness is greatly multiplied in crowds, and where better to see a crowd than the Atlanta airport? Many times, I've exited a plane, walked out into the multitude, and felt an acute aloneness.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don't recall. Too many influences to name.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I think of other poets whose work I care about.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I've found it helpful to have one good reader look at poems that I think are finished, but not at early drafts, when the poem is still trying to become something. When I've shared early drafts, I've tended to become defensive, but if I think the poem is finished, if I think I have done my best, then I'm able to listen. I may not agree, but I'll listen to that trusted reader, and if changes are needed, I'll probably make them.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don't think it differs in any significant way.
What is American about this poem?
That might be for someone who is not American to say. I'm not sure I can step back and look at it in that light.