Judson Mitcham (b. 1948)
An award-winning poet and novelist, Judson Mitcham was named poet laureate of Georgia in 2012. His writings, which examine basic human themes within the specific landscape of Georgia, are both poignant and powerful.
Judson Cofield Mitcham was born in 1948 in Monroe, the seat of Walton County, where he grew up and where much of his work is centered. His parents, Myrtle and Wilson Mitcham, figure prominently in his poetry. Mitcham was not formally trained as a writer. Instead, he studied psychology at the University of Georgia, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He received his Ph.D. in 1974. From then he taught in the psychology department at Fort Valley State University until his retirement in 2004, with the rank of associate professor.
In 2002 Mitcham began teaching workshops in poetry and fiction at Mercer University in Macon. He has also served as adjunct professor of creative writing at the University of Georgia and at Emory University, where he has directed the Summer Writers' Institute. In 2013 Mitcham was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. He resides in Macon with his wife, Jean. They are the parents of two children and have three grandchildren.
Mitcham's poetry has been widely published, appearing in such journals as Chattahoochee Review, Harper's, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, and Southern Review. His first poetry collection, Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, earned him both the Devins Award and recognition as Georgia Author of the Year, an honor bestowed annually by the Georgia Writers Association.
Somewhere in Ecclesiastes (1991) offers a moving sequence of poems, written throughout the 1980s, about youth, family, mortality, and the southern cultural scene. Most of the poems are first-person narratives. In "Night Ride 1965" Mitcham narrates the memory of sneaking out of the house at night and riding with a friend through the darkness, talking and gazing at the dark landscape:
we cruise all night down narrow country roads
talking as though we could say it all, could tell
what it means to grow quiet at the first light,
while the stars all fail, what it means
finally to turn home.
Mitcham writes the poem as a man in middle age, looking back on his youth with longing and regret. "Notes for a Prayer in June" also uses memories to illuminate the poet's struggle to understand the meaning of life and mortality. Mitcham celebrates life's mystery and joy even as he refuses to ignore the tragedies that strike, "the unbelievable sadness of chance," the deaths of children and of friends. In the collection's title poem, he describes a young boy's death as "a piece of deep blue in the puzzle / his mother hasn't yet put together." He wonders whether "we are blessed / only by accident, only by chance," and asks whether proof of immortality would lessen the impact of life's sadness:
What if it were true, after all,
that the body is a garment, a light cotton shirt,
we will easily do without?
If we knew this beyond any question
would it alter the funerals of children?
In "Sunday" Mitcham interweaves memories of his father and his family in a poignant meditation on time and mortality. Such themes continued to develop in poetry he wrote during the 1990s, focusing on his mother and his awareness of mortality as it is driven home through the deaths of other family members. This intensely felt, elegiac sense of loss is the central feeling in many of Mitcham's poems. The later poems, many of them collected in the 2003 volume This April Day, are tinged with a deepening pessimism and despair over the disappearance of the people who played a crucial role in his early life and in the formation of his identity.
His poetry collection A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New, comprising forty new works as well as previously published poems, was released by the University of Georgia Press in 2007.
Mitcham's first novel, The Sweet Everlasting (1996), won him the Townsend Prize for Fiction and a second Georgia Author of the Year award. Sabbath Creek (2004), his second novel, also won the Townsend Prize, making Mitcham the first writer to receive the award twice. Both novels were published by the University of Georgia Press.
The Sweet Everlasting offers an eloquent elegy for a vanished past. Narrated by Ellis Burt, a seventy-four-year-old ex-convict, the novel recounts the life of a sharecropper's son in south Georgia and his marriage to a beautiful young woman. Separated from her for decades by tragic circumstances that lie at the novel's heart, Burt tells how he comes to be reunited with his wife, who is suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and is unable to remember him. The Sweet Everlasting is not so much a southern novel as a book about a man attempting in old age to come to terms with his life, his mistakes, and the people he has known. At the same time, it takes a hard look at class conflict and racial prejudice in the rural South of the early twentieth century. A reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes, "Mitcham has an affinity for people on the margins of life and an ability to look at their lives and see the threads common to us all. The simple words of Ellis Burt suffuse 'The Sweet Everlasting' with a tenderness and depth of feeling that will haunt you long after the reading."
In 2004 Mitcham published his second novel, Sabbath Creek, which follows Charlene Pope and her son, Lewis, on a road trip through south Georgia. The New York Times described the book as a "spare, lovely novel" that is "generous in humor [yet] anchored by sorrow and interspersed with portents of tragedy."
In both his novels and his poetry, Mitcham's elegiac voice looks backward with fondness and discernment on a personal and regional past slipping rapidly beyond reach.