David Bottoms, Georgia’s former poet laureate, dies at 73

David Bottoms was a poet grounded in the realities of the Georgia landscape and its people. He was Georgia's poet laureate from 2000 to 2012. Bottoms died March 10.

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

David Bottoms was a poet grounded in the realities of the Georgia landscape and its people. He was Georgia's poet laureate from 2000 to 2012. Bottoms died March 10.

David Bottoms’ poems trod the fields and slipped along the creeks of rural Georgia, dwelling in a world of cicadas singing in the high grass, jon boats and outboard motors, tent meetings, watchful `gators, and the soft lap of water.

An acclaimed poet and teacher, as well as a mean bluegrass mandolin player, he served as Georgia’s ninth poet laureate from 2000-2012.

“David was very much a Southern man. A sense of place was very important to him and a sense of the past, a past that has vanished,” said Laurie Watel, his longtime friend and editor. “He lived with one foot in the human world and one foot out there with the wildness of animals.”

“David was at turns funny, cranky and philosophical. That range is in his poetry, as is his amusement and bemusement and wonder with the world, and the owls, daughters, general stores, wives, houses and fathers it holds,” Josh Russell, the director of creative writing at Georgia State University, wrote to staff to share the news that David Bottoms died Friday, March 10, 2023.

Bottoms died of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurodegenerative disease that targets the brain stem, similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that he had been battling since 2018 and that is relentlessly progressive. He slowly lost his vision and physical abilities, but even at the end, “he was still there,” said his wife, Kelly Beard.

The family will have a private family service March 22 at their home in East Atlanta Village with an Episcopal priest, and some of Bottoms’ musician friends playing gospel and Leonard Cohen songs. Among those attending will be survivors Beard, daughter Alice Rachel Ashe, her partner Stephen Droz, and grandson Wren Clarence Bottoms Ashe.

The family is also planning a public celebration of life in the fall, at a date and place to be set later, with poet friends reading from his upcoming career retrospective book, “A Scrap in the Blessings Jar: New and Selected Poems.”

“The mystery of the world was in his mind all the time,” Beard said. “He was miscast as a Southern macho man, which was easy to do because he was a Robert Penn Warren/Jim Dickey protégé.”

It was Warren’s seal of approval that gave Bottoms his first big boost. In 1979, he won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for his first collection, “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.” Warren, the contest’s judge, called Bottoms “a strong poet, and much of his strength emerges from the fact that he is temperamentally a realist. In his vision the actual world is not transformed but illuminated.

“A lot of poetry out there today is all wit, irony, snark, with no significance,” Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011. “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.”

Although he was engaging as a teacher and enjoyed reading his poems at public appearances, offstage he was a quiet man.

“He did not say much,” his friend Watel said. “If you wanted to know him, it would have been hard to know him well. But if you read the work closely, the poetry speaks on his behalf and it tells you everything, how complicated his life was.”

Bottoms was born Sept. 11, 1949, in Canton, and grew up an only child. His father, who survived being shot down in an aircraft over Guadalcanal in World War II and who shows up in the poems frequently, worked in a funeral home and sold cars; his mother was a nurse who took him to bookstores regularly.

He started writing as a boy in Cherokee County, and was encouraged by teachers at Mercer University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in 1971. He earned his Ph.D. in American poetry and creative writing from Florida State University in 1982 and began teaching at Georgia State University, where he was eventually named the John B. and Elena Diaz-Verson Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters. He was also founding coeditor of Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Arts.

“He brought out the best in all his students,” said Bill Walsh, a student of Bottoms’ at GSU in the 1980s and now assistant professor of English at Reinhardt University in Waleska.

“He wanted you to write poetry of necessity, poems that were necessary for you to write. He would read a poem and say, ‘The poet had to write this.’ "

Bottoms wrote nine books of poetry, two novels, won Georgia Author of the Year five times, was named to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and was awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

“So many people who want to be writers want to be philosophers. I tell them the first thing you have to do is to be interesting,” Bottoms told the AJC in 1998. “The material on the page has to be compelling. So if anyone ever reads your poem and comes up to you and asks did you really do that, then you know you’ve been convincing on the page.”

He recounted a story that illustrated his point, about a public reading that included his poem, “Under the Boathouse,” where a man accidentally pierces his hand with a large hook. Afterward, someone asked him if they could see his scar.

“It’s always a real compliment when somebody does that,” he laughed. “It doesn’t really matter if it happened or not, you know. Sometimes a germ of it happened and the rest is a really good lie.”

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