As Georgia poet laureate, Mercer professor serves as ambassador for poetry

Chelsea Rathburn. Photo by Bekah Howard

Georgia Poet Laureate Chelsea Rathburn still remembers the first poem that she wrote. She was about 6 years old when she penned it.

“The mice they are scurrying / from the rain that is hurrying,” Rathburn recently recalled, taking care to note the line break after “scurrying.”

Today, Rathburn, assistant professor of English and creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University, is the author of three award-winning poetry collections. Her most recent collection, “Still Life with Mother and Knife” won the 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Poetry.

In 2019, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Georgia. As an ambassador of poetry, Rathburn strives to demystify the art form and show how it can be accessible to all.

“I think that poetry is often misunderstood,” she said. “It’s this art form that is mistrusted and people look down upon.

“As laureate, I have this opportunity to represent the art form and to say, ‘Look, poetry is not dead people talking at you from the pages of these books. It’s a living art. It’s an accessible art.’”

Poet Laureate of Georgia is a high-profile position, and having a Mercer professor in that role benefits not only students in the creative writing program and English department but the University as a whole, said Dr. Deneen M. Senasi, Griffith Professor and co-chair of the Department of English and writing director for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“In this role, Professor Rathburn embodies and enacts the potential for meaningful change inherent in the act of writing in ways that bring poetry into the daily lives of Georgians across the state,” she said.

‘I just got hooked’

Growing up in South Florida, Rathburn’s parents didn’t have much money for toys, so her mother often took her to the nearby public library. They would come home with big stacks of books.

“Before I could read, I was read to constantly, and I just developed an interest in language but also an association of literature and reading as this escape, as this pleasurable space,” Rathburn said.

In eighth grade, a creative writing teacher, Veda Levin, invited her to join her school’s arts magnet program.

“It was just wonderful,” Rathburn said. “Basically, we got two hours a day to play with language, and (Levin) was just a terrific teacher. She was very open and flexible and encouraging, but it was just this freedom to experiment and play.”

Although the magnet program was shut down at the end of the year, the experience, which also included editing a literary magazine, was foundational for Rathburn. Levin recognized her talent and nurtured it, Rathburn said.

She continued writing poetry and enrolled at Florida State University with the idea that she would become a novelist, even though she never wrote fiction. The notion quickly fizzled after she took an introductory poetry writing class during her first semester.

“Basically, I ended up going all four years without ever taking a fiction class because I just got hooked,” Rathburn said. “My professor … he kept me in the introductory class for about two weeks and then said, ‘You really don’t belong in this class. You can earn the credit for it, but just come to my afternoon class,’ which was at the 300 level.”

She took poetry workshops throughout college, and after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English from FSU, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arkansas.

Rathburn moved to Atlanta and worked in the marketing communications field for several years, writing poetry on the side and directing poetry programming for the Decatur Book Festival.

She worked briefly at Emory University before spending six years on the faculty at Young Harris College, where she designed and launched the college’s creative writing major.

Rathburn joined Mercer in 2019, bringing with her “a wealth of experience as a thoughtful, deeply engaged teacher of creative writing and literature,” Dr. Senasi said.

“This experience deepens Professor Rathburn’s excellence as a teacher and mentor to young writers at Mercer, who benefit from her sustained engagement with the question of what students of creative writing need to know and be able to do to succeed in their chosen field,” she said.

Despite Rathburn’s early and enduring focus on poetry, she now writes and publishes creative nonfiction and the occasional short story.

She is married to Dr. James Davis May, director of the creative writing program at the University. They have a 10-year-old daughter, Adelyn May.

‘A vulnerable art’

An autobiographical poet, Rathburn’s life often influences her writing.

“I draw upon stories from my own life but try to make them mean something beyond my own life so that they have meaning for a reader,” she said.

Her book, “A Raft of Grief,” winner of the 2012 Autumn House Prize, explores the end of her first marriage and meeting her new husband. “Still Life with Mother and Knife” is about pregnancy and early motherhood. Her next book will examine the concept of home.

Georgia Poet Laureate Chelsea Rathburn stands next to a sign on the Georgia Poetry in the Parks trail at Glenlake Park. Photo courtesy Chelsea Rathburn

“I’ve been working on poems that all in some way touch on ideas of home,” Rathburn said. “Where is home? What does it mean to have a home? To be at home? What are the foundations that shape us? Thinking both literally and metaphorically.”

She said she talks openly to her creative writing students about how her poems came to be.

“This is a vulnerable art. If you write autobiographically at all, you are the subject,” she said. “The thing, though, with poetry is even if you’re starting with a real experience, something that happened, it isn’t like you’re just pouring history or pouring emotion out on the page. You’re shaping it.”

“You’re saying, ‘Well, is there a metaphor in this experience? What is the meaning of this experience?’”

Dr. Senasi praised Rathburn’s abilities as a poet.

“Professor Rathburn’s writing casts a glittering, wide-ranging net that encompasses topics as seemingly unrelated as mycology and the English sonnet, Euripides and “Miami Vice,” weaving the lyrical into the everyday through her finely honed capacity for attentive integration,” she said.

As Georgia’s poet laureate, Rathburn often is invited to attend special events and asked to write or read poems for various occasions. In 2020, The New York Times asked her and other state laureates to write a poem about gratitude.

She also has been published in The Atlantic and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day program.

“As a measure of a writer’s impact, the wide readership and long-established prestige of these publications make clear that her creative work is reaching audiences around the world,” Dr. Senasi said.

Rathburn’s role as poet laureate fits well with her desire to expose more people to poetry. To that end, she created Georgia Poetry in the Parks, which places poems along public trails. She hopes even proclaimed haters will give poetry a second chance.

“If you think that you hate poetry, it just means you haven’t found that first poem that speaks to you,” she said.


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