Author and poet Judson Mitcham, who teaches writing at Mercer University, was recently named poet laureate of Georgia. According to the Georgia Council for the Arts, the poet laureate is a statewide voice for the value of reading, writing and literacy. Mitcham, 63, a two-time winner of the Townsend Prize for Fiction, wrote The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek.
In an interview with Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr., Mitcham touched on the state of the written word:
When you tell people youre a poet, what do they say?
I generally dont offer that information. If they ask me what I write, Ill tell them that I write both poetry and fiction, and then they are generally more interested in talking about fiction than about poetry. If youre a poet, youre likely to have a different kind of interaction with someone who actually reads poetry. Youre much less likely to be treated as an oddity.
Do you think a lot of folks look at writing for a living as, oh, maybe a cush job?
Well, it is a cush job. Youre not loading trucks or picking peaches. Of course, writing can be hard work. People who have tried to write well understand that it is often excruciatingly difficult and sometimes seems impossible.
People are texting and e-mailing and maybe doing more writing than ever before. But is it worth reading? Languages are works in progress, but is technology altering that, gunking or junking things up?
People generally dont care about language when they are texting or e-mailing, so why should I let my blood pressure rise if what they write is ugly and lame?
Im more concerned with the efforts of people like my students at Mercer, people who are trying to write a poem or story of value, trying to produce a work of art, which, as Joseph Conrad said, must justify itself in every line. I try to focus on those who are paying attention to language. That gives me hope.
So, youll be Georgias poet laureate. Youll, what, be going around the state doing a lot of roses are red, violets are blue stuff?
Thats exactly what Ill be doing. Seriously, though, while it can be seen as largely a ceremonial position, with no salary attached, there are specific responsibilities that accompany being poet laureate. These involve raising public awareness for Georgias rich literary culture by participating in presentations, readings and other literary events in various venues throughout the state.
One specific goal I have is to make people aware of the many accomplished poets who live in Georgia. For example, just look at Kevin Cantwells recent anthology of poets with Macon connections, Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club. ... Its really extraordinary.
Have writing skills among college students slipped in recent years?
Yes, writing skills among college students seem to have slipped, but there are still many excellent writers. I encounter them in my classes.
What advice would you give folks who might be interested in writing better in their day-to-day communication?
Get a copy of Garners Modern American Usage and read all of it.
How important, and why, is reading for those who want to write well?
Samuel Johnson said, I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read. Reading is important because good writing doesnt come from life experience. It comes from life experience considered from the perspectives of the other writing that one has internalized. If you dont read, you dont know what youre trying to do. Youre like a musician who doesnt listen to music. Writers who dont read dont really want to write. They want to have written so they can go to the party.
Whats the state of storytelling these days?
Its in terrific shape. I could give you a long list of writers whose work will knock you out. Ill give you three. These are not new works, but they are all by living writers.
If you want to be moved, read Plainsong by Kent Haruf. If you want to witness a virtuoso storytelling performance, read American Pastoral by Philip Roth. And to encounter the language of genius, telling a story as terrifying as the Old Testament, read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Anything surprise you anymore about the written word?
Anytime I write something that pleases me, which is not often, Im surprised. Still, I try to work every day. Thats the only way I know to do it.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.