- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

MACON, Ga. (AP) - Macon lost its elder statesman of poetry, Seaborn Jones, last month. The author of five books of poetry, who was also widely published in literary magazines, was 71.

Macon had such a statesman in part because he was not alone in creating poetry here. Jones was a friend and mentor to several Macon poets, and the city boasts at least five other living poets with books to their names, including Judson Mitcham, Georgia’s poet laureate.

Stretching back to the birth of Sidney Lanier, the list of poets who have created works in Macon or whose formative experiences include time spent in the city is much longer. The modern concentration of poets was so great, it inspired a poetry anthology in 2011, “Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club.” The anthology of “poets writing in Macon,” as it was subtitled, was edited by Kevin Cantwell, a poet and chairman of the Department of New Media, Arts and Culture at Middle Georgia State College. The anthology included works from 18 contemporary poets, including Jones and the five poets who still live and work here.

“One of the reasons I did (the anthology) was that I realized for a relatively minor city, Macon had a number of poets working in the same place,” Cantwell said. “The city itself is an intersection of really interesting poetry.”

The Macon poets who still live and work in the city include Mitcham, Cantwell, Gordon Johnston, Kelly Whiddon and Anya Krugovoy Silver.



While poetry is a solitary art, the poets in Macon do coalesce from time to time for readings and other literary events.

“We do have a lot of poets here in Macon. Maybe it is something in the water,” joked Johnston, a professor of English and director of Mercer University’s creative writing program.

“So many great poets have come through Macon,” said Silver, a professor of English at Mercer. “I don’t know why, but there is something about Macon that is just conducive to nurturing poetry.”

In his afterward to “Writing on Napkins,” David Bottoms, a former Georgia poet laureate who lived in Macon while earning his undergraduate degree at Mercer, said Macon had a lasting effect on him, even though he left after his graduation.

His first collection of poems was titled “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” and his work has often dealt with Macon.

The city’s sense of history gave credence to his desire to become a poet.

Among his influences were dives and other less savory corners of Macon, but also Rose Hill Cemetery, Bottoms wrote. Rose Hill, with its beauty, mystery and connection to both religion and mortality, provided Bottoms with many poems over the years.

Bottoms’ poetry inspired both Mitcham and Cantwell.

“I’m convinced certain aspects of the place itself were significant, and that other places I’ve lived would not have moved me in the same direction or propelled me with the same force,” wrote Bottoms, who was the poet laureate of Georgia at the time that “Napkins” was published.

When he was growing up, Cantwell was stirred by reading Bottom’s eponymous poem, “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” in a national magazine. Cantwell saw the publication, and his proximity to Bottoms inspired more inspiration. He later studied poetry under Bottoms at Georgia State University.

Similarly, Mitcham also drew encouragement for his poetry from Bottoms.

“I started looking around at poetry and I was taken with the quality of his language and his ability to use the things of everyday life in his poems,” Mitcham said.

Bottoms and Jones have offered inspiration, but so do all the working poets now by their presence and proximity, Whiddon noted.

“Just that we have this community around us is inspiring as a poet,” Whiddon said.

Mercer University employs three of the working poets and Middle Georgia State two, but they said the connection to Macon runs deeper than employment.

Whiddon is from south Georgia and visited Macon while her sister was attending law school at Mercer. After earning her doctorate from Florida State University, she eagerly applied to what was then Macon State College.

Silver, who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, came for an appointment in the English department at Mercer, but she has also been affected by the place, and it plays into her writing to this day.

“There is a much stronger sense of place in Macon than where I grew up,” Silver said. “Particularly in the downtown area, just the oldness of the place, the streets and the buildings, and that has been an influence on me.”

Mitcham retired as a professor at Fort Valley State University, but he lived and raised his children in Macon and now calls it home. He teaches part time at Mercer. Similarly, Johnston has built his life with his family in Macon. Cantwell was born in Detroit, but he graduated from Central High and came back almost accidently and settled in.

Jones collected experiences from time spent in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, as well as traveling, but he was from Macon and ultimately returned, bringing those experiences back to share with the community of poets here, Silver said.

The faculty connection included another poet, Mercer’s Adrienne Bond, who brought many poets together in the 1980s and ‘90s during her career as an English professor at Mercer. She died in 1996. Mercer University Press named an award in her honor, the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry, which it first awarded to Jones in 2011 and then to Whiddon in 2012.

Bond helped bring together Macon poets at the time, and even after her death, many of Macon’s poets have become connected, either as friends or as influences on each other’s work.

“Adrienne was an excellent poet and having her read my poetry was very helpful,” Mitcham said.

Mercer and what is now Middle Georgia State College have served as beacons for poets, bringing in great poets to speak and give readings over a number of years. The influence has not been a one-way street, though, Cantwell noted.

“I think visiting writers have always been surprised at the level of writing that was here in the city.”

The Macon poets don’t have the same focus, but they had similar ideas about what poetry can be. For most, they said poems offers a picture, a small slice of life and truth.

“I think poetry, as opposed to prose, I see as quick, stunning snapshots of life,” Whiddon said. “It is a snapshot as opposed to a photo album.”

Cantwell is drawn to poetry in part because it speaks to something ancient.

“Poetry connects to something very old in the human experience,” he said. “‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is a hugely important and significant poem. What does it mean when a poem that is 3,000 years old or older speaks to you today in the 21st century? Poetry connects to something very, very human that is deeply psychological and powerful.”

Mitcham said writer Flannery O’Connor’s view of fiction applied to his thoughts on poetry.

“She said the serious writer of fiction is always writing about the world, no matter how limited the scene, and I believe that applies to poetry,” he said.

Poetry is an art form that requires introspection on the part of the poet, to find those parts of themselves that speak to a reader, Johnston said. It also requires introspection on the part of the reader, Silver said.

“So much of poetry is implicit, so you have to work to get the meaning out of it,” she said. “It’s not just out there in front of you.”

Johnston said today’s interconnected, multitasked world represents a potential threat to poetry, which requires time to read and absorb the medium.

“Poetry puts a premium on silence. The white space that is on the page represents silence,” Johnston said. “As a culture we’re afraid of silence, afraid of quiet. We’re losing that but we need that, we need that silence, that mental rest to contemplate and consider what happens to us.”

Whiddon, who teaches English as well as courses such as writing for new media with Middle Georgia State’s Department of Media, Culture and the Arts, sees a clearer future for poetry as it adapts to the changing landscape of media. Citing spoken word and performance poetry as well as combinations with visual media, Whiddon said poetry will adapt.

“I’m not worried about poetry,” she said. “I think it’s going to evolve as everything does.”

___

Information from: The Macon Telegraph, https://www.macontelegraph.com

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