Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

Throughout the month of April, National Poetry Month, ARTS ATL will be introducing you to a few of Georgia’s most talented poets and spoken word artists.

This week, we present Chelsea Rathburn.

Rathburn, who also directs a creative writing program at Young Harris College, was recently named Georgia’s 2019 Poet Laureate. Upon receiving the title, Rathburn said, “I’m honored to have a chance to advocate for poetry, literacy and Georgia’s rich literary culture. Georgia has such a deep literary history, and I hope to highlight the ways that poetry, language and stories can connect us and help us build stronger communities.”

Rathburn’s poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, New Republic and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She’s the author of three poetry collections; her latest, Still Life with Mother and Knife (2019), has been praised by the New York Times as “noteworthy” and “illuminating.”

Name: Chelsea Rathburn

Social media handle/website information:

ARTS ATL: How would you describe the type of poetry you write or perform?

Chelsea Rathburn: I’ve been described as a formalist, but that’s a term I dislike — it implies that I’m some sort of militant who writes nothing but sonnets and villanelles. I do love the music of rhyme and meter, though, and the interplay between a poem’s shape and its subject. I like the way that form can organize unruly content.

ARTS ATL: Where can we go to find your work or see you perform?

Rathburn: Well, having just been named Georgia’s Poet Laureate, I’ll be reading across the state and working with the Georgia Council for the Arts to develop new initiatives to support literacy, poetry and creative writing in Georgia. In the immediate future, I’ll be reading in the New South Reading Series at JavaVino on May 3, and I keep my calendar updated on my website.

My third poetry collection, Still Life with Mother and Knife, a New York Times “New & Noteworthy Poetry” pick, was released this spring and is available online and at independent booksellers.

ARTS ATL: Favorite spots in Atlanta to go for poetry readings, open mics or spoken word events?

Rathburn: Atlanta has such a great literary community, from all the university reading series to amazing organizations like Poetry Atlanta and the Georgia Center for the Book to small events at coffee shops. My personal favorites are the Decatur Book Festival, which I look forward to all year because it brings so many national poets to Atlanta in a single weekend, and Poetry at Tech. The late Tom Lux, who directed Poetry at Tech for many years, taught me what it means to be an ambassador for poetry, and I’m happy to see Ilya Kaminsky and Travis Denton carrying on his legacy at Georgia Tech.

ARTS ATL: What are some of the recurring themes you explore in your poetry/verses?

Rathburn: Still Life with Mother and Knife considers the female body as an object of art and an object of violence. In interlocking sections and a sequence in conversation with Eugene Delacroix’s paintings and sketches of Medea, the book explores childhood fears and maternal failings. I wrote the book I wanted to read as a new mother.

ARTS ATL: What is it about poetry that’s most appealing to you as a creative form?

Rathburn: Urgency and compression.

ARTS ATL: Who or what most inspires your work?

Rathburn: I think for most poets, that changes from book to book or project to project, but I’ve always written a great deal about family, relationships and childhood, and that’s only increased since I became a mother. The poet Louise Glück writes, “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” I have a daughter, and I’m reliving that intensity of experience and attentiveness that Glück references through the way my daughter encounters the world; at the same time, her birth and childhood got me thinking a lot about trauma and its reverberations across generations. While I have certain preoccupations, I approach the world expansively, making connections between art, history, pop culture and so on. So in that sense, everything inspires my work.

ARTS ATL: Whose poetry do you most enjoy?

Rathburn: Oh, there are so many, so I’m going to name just a few contemporary poets: David Bottoms, Louise Glück, Mark Doty, Laura Kasischke, David Kirby, Ada Limón, Javier Zamora, Nate Marshall, Tiana Clark, Juliana Gray, Barbara Hamby, Natasha Trethewey, Sharon Olds. And James Davis May, to whom I happen to be married, so when I say he’s my favorite poet, I mean it both ways.

ARTS ATL: Share with us your favorite line of poetry. 

Rathburn: I can’t pick just one line, but there’s a stanza in Wislawa Szymborska’s “Some Like Poetry” that I come back to often:

“. . . But what sort of thing is poetry? / Many a shaky answer / has been given to this question. / But I do not know and do not know and hold on to it, / as to a saving bannister.”

Now that I think about it, “I do not know and do not know and hold on to it” might be a truer/more accurate response than the shaky answers I’ve given to some of the questions above.

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