Poet’s verse earns praise

The translation of the ancient Latin phrase “nulla dies sine linea” is “no day without a line,” meaning any writer worth his or her salt should put pen to pad, or fingers to iPad, and compose at least a sentence or two every 24 hours. You know, to keep the mind limber, the creative and artistic inspirations flowing.

If that should be an article of any writer’s faith you would expect it to be that of a poet laureate, a designation conferred on only the most accomplished of poets. Someone such as David Bottoms.

“That’s silly to me and it’s a waste of time,” said Bottoms, Georgia’s poet laureate. “I don’t write unless I have a notion of what I want to say.”

Bottoms has just published his ninth book of poetry. It arrived as he reached another milestone in his career, the end of his tenure as the state’s poet laureate. This fall the Georgia Council for the Arts in conjunction with the Georgia Humanities Council announced that it was searching for Bottoms’ successor. From three finalists Gov. Nathan Deal will select the poet to replace Bottoms, who is stepping down. He has held the honorary, unpaid post since 2000.

The work in his new book, “We Almost Disappear,” says much about the past 62 years of Bottoms’ life, one that began in rural Canton with little affluence but a wealth of love. Of his early life spent in Sunday school, a country store and rolling pastures. Of his wandering years searching for his voice as a writer and his role as an adult.

By the end of “Disappear,” however, you see how Bottoms’ life has gelled and cooled. There is the devoted husband at peace with his wife, the proud suburban dad at his daughter’s martial arts tournament. Yet there is still struggle, the kind that comes when you face the end of a parent’s life and accept the decline of your own.

Bottoms will read from “We Almost Disappear” Monday at 7:15 p.m. at the Georgia Center for the Book in the Decatur Public Library.

He is the first to acknowledge that he has done pretty well in an art form in which very few people make a living, let alone receive notoriety. He is the John B. and Elena Diaz-Verson Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. And as Georgia’s top poet he has done commissions for special state events that have given his work and his medium a public platform.

Yet he knows that poetry is about as much a part of most people’s daily lives as five servings of fruits and vegetables. He sees malnutrition everywhere.

“A lot of poetry out there today is all wit, irony, snark, with no significance,” Bottoms said. “It’s not much more than a stand-up act. Poetry is supposed to be about getting at the deeper meaning of things. And the most important thing is to use language to seek meaning in life.”

Even so, he’s pretty clear-eyed about poetry’s lack of mass appeal. The years have taught him to be.

“People think nobody reads poetry these days, but the truth is nobody ever read poetry,” Bottoms said. “It’s never been that popular because it’s a specialized art form.”

What Bottoms has been able to do well, his contemporaries said, is to use the form to give grace to the experiences of common people.

One of his earliest books “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” set the tone for his style of work; looking at the everyday life of a Southern man, born not of privilege, and laying it out in an almost story form. The Southern man of his early verses shot rats with his friends at night at the county trash heap. When that same man got older, he broke into his father’s high school to salvage a piece of an old wooden desk in which his father had long ago carved his name.

“They are so beautiful and finely wrought,” Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey, who also teaches at Emory University, said of his verse. “His poems are deeply rooted in a sense of narrative so that they become lyrical and lift off the page, making the story become something larger.”

The great Southern writers, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren among them, influenced Bottoms at an early age. Growing up his family wasn’t what he’d call literary, but “my mother had a notion that an education is something you ought to have.” Around the age of 14 or so he began to read poetry, Yeats in particular. He had no idea what was going on in the verse.

“But I had a feeling something significant was happening so I kept turning the pages,” Bottoms said.

And he began to write, winning the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets when he was just 30.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of the Georgia Humanities Council and has known Bottoms for years. For Zainaldin, Bottoms’ poetry and career speak to the notion of democracy and its importance, especially in the role of poet laureate. That someone can rise from humble beginnings to be the ambassador for the written word in a state is a potent message, Zainaldin said.

“His voice is going to appeal to select people who know how hard the world can be and how scruffy it can be,” Zainaldin said. “He can understand and convey the flow of life — the harsh, the ugly, the beautiful — and present it in a way that leaves the reader not in despair but in a sense that you’ve encountered something sacred.”

With his latest collection on shelves, it would seem that Bottoms now has room to say more about this Southern life as he finds it. But he said he’s written just one poem this past year since the manuscript was completed. “A good one,” he said, but just one.

Compelling ideas, he observed, are hard to come by after he finishes a book. The last thing he wants to do is add to the noise out there. It’s the very thing he warns his students against: Writing when you really have nothing to say.


“My Father’s Left Hand”

Sometimes my old man’s hand flutters over his knee, flaps in crazy circles, and falls back to his leg.

Sometimes it leans for an hour on that bony ledge.

And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles in the air, chasing a word, then perches again on the bar of his walker or the arm of a chair.

Sometimes when evening closes down his window and rain blackens into ice on the sill, it trembles like a sparrow in a storm.

Then full dark falls, and it trembles less, and less, until it’s still.

David Bottoms, “We Almost Disappear”


Meet the author

David Bottoms will read from “We Almost Disappear,” (Copper Canyon Press, $16).

7:15 p.m. Monday. Georgia Center for the Book, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. Free. 404-370-8450, Ext. 2225.

www.georgiacenterfor thebook.org