With rare exception, in Judson Mitcham's writings people live and die in Georgia. They rise and work, sing, pray, and play ball in Georgia. They wrestle with the state's history of ramshackle post-agricultural and postindustrial ruin, and with its much-scarred legacy of race. They know the names of the native flowers as well as the weeds, and often they drive into the darkness of summer Georgia nights, windows down, breathing in both the sweetness of grapevine and the breezeborne scent of cottonfield pesticide -- "a faint ammonia cut with musty weed/ that can sting the eyes bright." ("A World beneath," from This April Day.)
A native of Walton County, Georgia, Judson Mitcham grew up in Monroe. As his poetry reveals, his father, Wilson, worked for the local mill and his mother, Myrtle, “worked for the New Deal Seed Loan Program, for the school, local paper, county agent and the church.” Both figure prominently in his poetry, which, though firmly grounded in Georgia, often transcends any local setting in its contemplation of eternal subjects -- family, age, love, death, and loss.
In 2012 Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal honored Mitcham’s writing by naming him Georgia’s tenth official poet laureate, enlisting his talents to celebrate and spread the word of Georgia’s literary culture. For his own part, Mitcham counts the writings of fellow Georgians James Dickey and David Bottoms, among others, as influential in his own work. And in his second poetry collection, This April Day (2003) Mitcham dedicated two poems to the memory of fellow Georgia writers Adrienne Bond and Raymond Andrews.
Mitcham has said in interviews that it was a desire to write songs for the guitar that led him to writing. While an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, “I thought I would write songs like Bob Dylan. But I wasn’t a very good musician,” Mitcham told a TV reporter in 2012.[i]
“I was much better at writing the lyrics than I was at writing the music, and I began to focus on the words alone. I did soon discover that you can’t write poems of any value without also reading poems,“ Mitcham told another interviewer.[ii]
Mitcham’s poetry can recall devotional readings, though somewhat skewed ones with mixes of irony and piety found in mundane, and yet all the more spiritually remarkable, Georgia settings. “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.”[iii] Thus, it follows that, sitting at a stoplight by the Ocmulgee River, when he spies a millworker as she leaves the nightshift, an invocation rises out of Mitcham as it would from the most talented Baptist minister:
what I need
is the voice of Otis Redding----
and the power that would let a man shout
sanctified, tender, and sad, let him cry,
angry, yet shocking in his praise.
“I want to sing,” he says, for “the cotton dust caught in the sunlight” and for “this woman/who spits off the bridge and goes on.”(“On the Otis Redding Bridge,” from Somewhere in Ecclesiastes)
In Mitcham’s two novels set fifty years apart his characters wander in Georgia, their stories bounded by the state line. Ellis Burt, the narrator of The Sweet Everlasting, ultimately roams from Milledgeville to Valdosta, and between Fort Valley, Cordele, Fitzgerald and Tifton, before circumstance and fate take him finally to settle in Monroe. In Sabbath Creek, the young narrator Lewis Pope tells how, in their destinationless flight from his alcoholic father, he and his mother avoided Interstate I-75 motels and sought out back roads, alighting briefly near Jesup, Savannah, and Tybee Island before ending up in the fictional Sabbath Creek, which he describes as near Fitzgerald in south central Georgia. And although Mitcham give his characters’ hometowns fictional names, he fills their descriptions of those same places with the same vivid imagery of rural Georgia that is resonant in his poetry. “One of the sweetest smells there’s ever been in this world is the smell of a dirt road after a rain,” Ellis Burt muses in The Sweet Everlasting. It is a statement with many companions in Mitcham’s poetry, as in “Where We Are” (from Somewhere in Ecclesiastes):
Always, there is rain,
its slow coming on in a heavy ticking, stillness,
how it sounds on the old barn’s dark tin roof
or dripping from trees afterwards, when steam
curves ghostly along the blacktop, and new skies
gather in puddles.
Mitcham has the distinction of being named Georgia Author of the Year by the Georgia Writers Association on separate occasions in two different genres, as a poet and as a novelist. He was also the first two-time winner (1998 and 2006) of the biennial Townsend Prize, which recognizes the best novel by a Georgia author.
Mitcham’s poetry has been widely published in such journals as The Chattahoochee Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, New England Review and The Southern Review. In 1986 he published a chapbook of poetry (Notes for a Prayer in June), and his poem “Explanations” (first published in Gettysburg Review) won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize XIV: The Best of the Small Presses (1989–1990). In 1991 his first poetry collection, Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, won the University of Missouri Press’s Devins Award and his first Georgia Author of the Year award. His novel The Sweet Everlasting won the Townsend Prize in 1996, as well as his second Georgia Author of the Year award, this time for fiction. His second poetry collection, This April Day, was published in 2003, and the next year his second novel, Sabbath Creek, was honored with a second Townsend Prize. His poetry collection A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New, which gathered poems from the first three volumes together with forty new poems, was released by the University of Georgia Press in 2007. That same year Perkolator Press published Heart of All Greatness, a limited letterpress edition featuring Mitcham’s poems about fathers and sons from This April Day.
A graduate of the University of Georgia, where he earned a Ph.D. in physiological psychology, Mitcham taught psychology for thirty years at Fort Valley State University. Since retiring from there in 2004, Mitcham has served as senior lecturer in creative writing at Mercer University. He has also taught at the University of Georgia, Emory University, and Georgia College. Mitcham has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Georgia Council for the Arts. He lives with his wife, Jean, in Macon, where in 2013 he was Mercer’s Ferrol A. Sams Jr. Distinguished Writer in Residence.
Notes For a Prayer in June. Brockport, NY: State Street Press Chapbooks, 1986.
Somewhere in Ecclesiastes: Poems. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
The Sweet Everlasting: A Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
This April Day: Poems. 1st ed. Tallahassee, Fla.: Anhinga Press, 2003.
Sabbath Creek: A Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Heart of All Greatness. IN: Fragments. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Perkolator Press, 2007.
A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.