Monday, August 19, 2013

David Bottoms

David Bottoms' 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 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 is We Almost Disappear. 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. He is the recipient of a 2011 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, and for twelve years he served as Poet Laureate of Georgia.


When I was a boy there was a pond behind our house,

a muddy pond of stunted catfish
that eventually filled up with construction runoff --
a mosquito hole, fetid,
wallow and paradise for copperheads, rats, moccasins, frogs,                           
and no few turtles that could take off your finger
with one surgical snap,                                                                      

and at night, year round, the stench rose thick
and seeped in waves
through the cracks in my window
where I’d curl like a snail at the foot of my bed, drifting
on deep breaths, far back.

I’m always dreaming my way back to water:

to a washed-out logging road
plunging to a river                                                                                         
where high buzzards recon the kudzued pines,
to a cove on a lake of monster gar, a tumbling creek
of killer rocks, a sky-black swamp choked with cypress
where I wade out knee-deep with my rod and rattle-bug
and never, in my exhaustion, out run
the cottonmouth

that blesses my heel with its flower.                           

Why all of this middle-aged noise about getting back?

Though, for sure, in the mornings the leafy banks rustled
with birds –

blue jays and cardinals, a towhee or two,
robins, thrashers, and dozens of barn sparrows

mobbing the dam where our neighbor, Mr. Cantrell,
crumbled biscuits for his fish,

and in the summer the forest of sunflowers
nodding in the wind at the edge
of his garden,
and the rose bushes crawling the bank
from the brush dam to his tool shed
all the way up to the chicken house collapsed
in a thicket of briars.                                                          

But out here, in middle-age, or a mile or two beyond,
why all this hubbub about beginnings? 
And why only one brief dream
of that pond
when now there’s no other way back?

Or only a way back to kudzu and concrete,
to a Kentucky Fried Chicken where our house once stood,                      
a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut,
an oily gas station, and across the highway
a Kmart strip mall, a Waffle House
where my grandpa once grazed horses.

In my dream the sky was a loose tumble of charcoal,
the silky trees bare and trembling.
Tall grass bit my ankles.  I lifted my feet,
I had some place to go.  Then brush stalks shivered
as I stepped off the bank
and began to walk, carefully,
not on water, but on the parched bed
of an empty pond
cobbled entirely with turtles.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I think this poem was written in 2009, and it came out in a issue of Tri-Quarterly guest-edited by Ed Hirsch. It was during a time when my father was very ill, and I was thinking a lot about my childhood in Canton, Georgia.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Several revisions, I imagine, though I don’t really recall. I usually tinker for a good while on a poem, working on it here and there for several months. 

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I’m a strong believer in inspiration. That is I believe the idea comes from somewhere beyond the writer or so far inside the writer that it seems to come from an altogether different source. I don’t recall exactly what sparked this poem, but I had been thinking for some time about the lost landscape of my childhood – my grandfather’s country store, his barn and pasture, our house a hundred yards down the road, all of which has been paved over and replaced by a Kmart strip mall and various fast food joints. Very frequently when I try to get to sleep at night my mind wanders back across that landscape, and it seems very strange to me that those places exist now only in my memory and perhaps in the memories of a few other people. 

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

No conscious principles except an effort to make the poem very readable.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About a year, I think. I was trying to finish my book We Almost Disappear and this was the first poem of three in the final section. I sort of kept them all back as a unit, then Ed Hirsch asked for something for an issue of Tri-Quarterly he was guest editing, so I sent them all along.

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?

Years ago, when I was just starting to publish, I’d get them out almost immediately. I was in a real hurry, and that resulted in a lot of rejections, of course. These days I’m in no hurry. A poem might sit around for six months or so.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This is an odd poem for me because it’s one of the very few poems I’ve written in which I incorporate elements from actual dreams. I think two dreams came into play here. The image of the pond cobbled with turtle shells is from a dream I had maybe twenty years ago. It was a dream about our neighbor’s pond, which was much the way I describe it in the poem. Also about the time I left home to go to college, the pond started filling up with construction runoff and eventually dried up. The other dream was about fishing out in a swamp and being bitten on the heel by a snake. I had that dream several times some years ago.

Is this a narrative poem?

It certainly has narrative elements.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

This I don’t recall.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Not really. Just a careful, intelligent reader.

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?

No, I don’t think anyone saw this poem before I sent it to Ed Hirsch. 

What is American about this poem?

Most everything, I suppose. It has an American landscape, and it was written by an American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I’d call it finished. Though it has a somewhat softer ending than most of my poems.