Creative writing director addresses mental health in new poetry collection

Dr. James Davis May sits in a chair with a window beside him.
Dr. James Davis May. Photo by Jeff Roffman

In his new book, Dr. James Davis May uses poetry to reach into the depths of mental illness and grief. Unusually Grand Ideas is a powerful account of Dr. May’s struggles with clinical depression and the various complications the condition can bring to marriage and fatherhood.

Dr. May, director of creative writing at Mercer, will launch his new poetry collection during an event at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 in the Presidents Dining Room in the University Center on the Macon campus.

Dr. May’s last poetry collection, Unquiet Things, was released in 2016 and highlighted a wonder for the natural world based on the uplifting events he experienced. He said he was fueled by various loves in his life: falling in love with his wife, the growing love for his daughter and his love for creative writing.

Unusually Grand Ideas, in contrast, approaches a darker tone and subject matter from his previous works. The title is a reference to a common side effect of antidepressants. 

The collection addresses various aspects of mental illness, including grief, the value of fear and the involved process of acknowledging crisis and recovery. A part of Dr. May’s grief came from the loss of fellow poet, mentor and editor Claudia Emerson, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize recipient who died of colon cancer. 

Dr. May and his wife, Chelsea Rathburn, assistant professor of English and creative writing, came to Mercer in 2019 to bolster the University’s creative writing program. Dr. Gordon Johnston, who has taught English at Mercer since 1996 and helped establish the creative writing major and minors, said Dr. May has not missed a step since arriving. He has known Dr. May’s work longer than he has known him, with both of them having poems published a few years ago in the Southern Poetry Anthology.

“He’s trained right into things,” Dr. Johnston said. “He started directing the program the first year he was here. That’s a real challenge, and he rose to that. He and Professor Rathburn set a lot of goals for creative writing, and most of those we’ve already accomplished. He’s only been here a few years, but I kind of wonder how we functioned without him.” 

Dr. Johnston admires Dr. May’s ability to balance positive and negative imagery, as well as what he brings to the table for Mercer.

A book cover with an illustration of a colorful hot air balloon.
The cover of Dr. James Davis May’s new book, Unusually Grand Ideas.

“I love his sense of humor,” Dr. Johnston said. “He’s really got a gift for poetry, him and Professor Rathburn. They are two of the best poets working, not just in Georgia but in the country right now. He’s already a decorated poet, but he’s an unassuming person. He’s humble in and out of the classroom.”

In 2021, Dr. May was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing, specifically for poems centered around his mental health. He was one of 35 writers out of 1,601 applicants to receive the prize.

Dr. May said the award was a surprise and has a humorous story behind it. With bronchitis and a high fever in January 2019, he wasn’t able to devote much time or consideration to the poems he selected to submit. In fact, he had practically forgotten he applied until he received a call from a Washington, D.C., area code informing him was selected as a winner.

“I originally had thought those were just private poems I wasn’t going to share,” Dr. May said. “To have those poems win, to be awarded that fellowship, was a big deal. It was a moment that made me realize I may have something special here.” 

The endowment is not Dr. May’s first poetry award. In February 2020, his poem “Red in Tooth and Claw” from his newest collection won the Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award. That same year, his poem “The Brain on the Table” was selected for commendation by the United Kingdom-based Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine. In 2016, his poem “Ed Smith” won the Poetry Society of America’s Cecil Hemley Memorial Award.

With every collection Dr. May releases, he hopes to find an audience that can relate to his work. For instance, readers of his most recent collection may have experienced similar traumatic events spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Poetry works on a small scale. Poets don’t really sell out stadiums,” Dr. May said. “It can take quite a long time to find an audience, but poetry books tend to have a longer shelf life than novels. Because poems don’t really have a mass market, they last a bit longer and can hit harder for the people that enjoy them.” 

Despite the sometimes dark subject matter, Dr. May said his creative writing is always a source of joy for him. 

“Something we overlook that writing is fun, even when it’s not the happiest of subjects,” Dr. May said. “Even if you’re writing about something really sad and dark, the act of writing is enjoyable. You can tell when a poet is having fun on the page or not. It’s really amazing.” 

To explain his creative process, Dr. May referenced the words of former poet laureate and Mecer alumnus David Bottoms.

“He has this whole thing about how poets have an antenna, and they have to turn the radio on and get the signal,” Dr. May said. “It’s really a matter of paying attention to what ideas are out there and then sitting down and making sure that you give yourself time to explore them.” 

At the end of the day, Dr. May’s most important critic and biggest supporter is his wife.

“Usually, I have a draft in about a week or so,” Dr. May said. “I take it next door to Professor Rathburn, and she tells me if it’s finished or not. She’s my first and best reader.”


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