Checking in with Georgia’s poet laureate, Chelsea Rathburn.
Chelsea Rathburn’s mother’s family has been in Georgia since the 1830s, and her history with the state where she has resided since 2001 often informs her work. Her poetry “explores relationships, both romantic and familial, and the way the past can hang over the present.” Married to a fellow poet—James Davis May—Rathburn’s most recent full-length poetry collection, Still Life with Mother and Knife, “explores girlhood and motherhood in interlocking sections, moving between the pleasures and dangers of childhood into the complexities of maternal love and ambivalence,” close to Rathburn’s heart as she struggled with postpartum depression. This Mercer University professor’s work includes “teaching modern poetry to a group of English majors, some of whom came in convinced that they didn’t like or didn’t know how to read poetry. So that’s been fun attempting to convert them.” Read on to find out more about her and her work.
What falls under the job description of poet laureate?
Essentially, we serve as ambassadors for the literary arts, especially poetry, which doesn’t always enjoy the best reputation. Too often, people encountered poetry in high school, reading poems by long-dead writers and being forced to shake the meaning out of them. So a poet laureate serves in part to show people that poetry is alive and approachable.
Here in Georgia, I judge a statewide poetry contest for high school students: the Poet Laureate’s Prize, founded by my predecessor, Judson Mitcham. In normal, nonpandemic times, I visit schools and arts organizations, which is something I really love, to the extent that my teaching schedule allows.
How does Georgia influence your work?
I’m an autobiographical writer, so most of my poems are set against the backdrop of either Florida or Georgia, depending on whether they take place in the past or the present. Recently, I’ve been working on poems exploring the influence that Georgia artists and musicians have had on me.
What’s your relationship with the Georgia Council for the Arts (gaarts.org)?
It’s a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development that supports arts organizations across Georgia through grants and special programs. The idea is that thriving arts communities mean a thriving Georgia. As Georgia poet laureate, I work with the Georgia Council for the Arts on the statewide Poet Laureate’s Prize for high school students and on special events such as
the Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities, where the poet laureate traditionally delivers a poem.
Photography by: photo by jeff roffman