When David Bottoms was twenty-nine, his first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, was chosen by Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren from more than 1,300 submissions as winner of the 1979 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. In 2000, at age fifty, Bottoms was appointed by Governor Roy Barnes as Georgia’s poet laureate, and he remained in that post until 2012. In 2009 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and in 2011 he received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities.
Early Life and Education
David Harold Bottoms Jr. was born on September 11, 1949, in Canton, the only child of David H. Bottoms, a funeral director, and Louise Ashe Bottoms, a registered nurse. He graduated from Cherokee High School in 1967 and entered Mercer University in Macon, where he received his B.A. in English in 1971. He worked for a year as a guitar salesman before marrying Margaret Lynn Bensel, an elementary school art teacher, and enrolling in the graduate English program at West Georgia College (later University of West Georgia).
He received his M.A. in 1973, and from 1974 to 1978 he taught high school English and worked part-time in the Georgia Poets-in-the-Schools Program. In 1979, when he received the Whitman Award, he resigned his teaching position and accepted a graduate fellowship at Florida State University, where he received his Ph.D. in American poetry and creative writing in 1982. That same year he took a teaching position at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta, where he became a professor of creative writing and a founding coeditor, along with Pam Durban, of the literary magazine Five Points.
In 1986 Bottoms accepted a visiting appointment as Richard Hugo Poet-in-Residence at the University of Montana; a year later he and his wife divorced. At the University of Montana he met Kelly Jean Beard, a law student. They were married in 1989 and moved to Billings, where she practiced law and he finished his second novel. The following year they moved to Atlanta, and in 1991 their daughter, Rachel, was born. Bottoms returned to GSU, where he served as the associate dean of fine arts and was named the John B. and Elena Diaz-Verson Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters.
Poems and Novels
Over the years Bottoms has received many awards for his work, including the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, an Ingram Merrill Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has been published widely in such publications as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry, and the Paris Review, as well as in some two dozen anthologies and textbooks. Although Bottoms published a chapbook of ten poems, Jamming with the Band at the VFW, in 1978, it was his first full-length book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, that brought him national attention in 1980. In these early poems, in a landscape of southern woods and honky-tonks, “good old boys” and outlaws reveal the purposelessness and boredom of their lives. These poems are graphic and violent, and Bottoms’s narratives of death and religion draw a link between the human and the animal as he searches for meaning below the surface of our everyday lives.
This book was followed closely by In a U-Haul North of Damascus (1983), a collection of thirty-one poems written largely in Florida. They show a kinship to the poetry of James Dickey and rely on more domestic settings. Lyrics that are sensitive and spiritual often contrast with violence. The connection between the animal and the human continues to fascinate Bottoms, and he begins to explore the relationship between danger and beauty, speaking in what James Dickey called his “compassionate countryman’s voice.” The thirty poems in Bottoms’s third collection, Under the Vulture-Tree (1987), continue to join the lyrical and the narrative. Though some critics saw these new poems as still paying homage to old mentors, Bottoms had outgrown his literary influences. He continued to explore his interests in violence and beauty and became a superb nature poet. The collection also includes substantial poems built around scenes from childhood and family life.
In the same year, Bottoms published his first novel, Any Cold Jordan (1987), set in Florida and reflecting many of the themes in his poetry. Billy Parker is a thirty-three-year-old guitar player whose childless wife feels like a failure. Their lives change when he meets Jack Giddens, a professional soldier, and adventures ensue. This is a narrative about people adrift, and Bottoms uses his poetic gift of language to craft a novel about values, sacrifice, and compromise.
Bottoms finished his second novel, Easter Weekend (1990), while living in Montana. Set in Macon, the book covers three days in the life of Connie Holtzclaw, a twenty-something ex-boxer and small-time loser. A plot to kidnap a wealthy college student to pay off Connie’s brother’s gambling debts goes awry when gangsters move in on the game. This is a violent novel of desperation, loss, and redemption. In the end, after a double murder and betrayal, Connie is found hiding in an open grave on Easter Sunday morning. Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems (1995) includes poems from the first three collections and introduces new poems that are darker in tone and more overtly religious; Bottoms’s earlier controversial style has grown more intense and evocative. Nine of the new poems are set in Montana, and Bottoms explores more deeply the complex world of rural and suburban values.
In Vagrant Grace (1999), for which he won an award from the Georgia Writers Association, Bottoms focuses intensely on the mystical aspects of beauty. Here, even death becomes lovely. Southern life and history are infused not only with moments of intense anxiety but of grace and transcendence: “memory becomes portentous / like some newfound gospel / promising, finally, the whole fantastic story.” In several longer poems, Bottoms also experiments with a new style, achieving what critic David Baker has called a masterful blend of narrative and meditation.
Other collections by Bottoms include Waltzing through the Endtime (2004), We Almost Disappear (2011), and Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch (2018). In 2010 Bottoms produced The Onion’s Dark Core, a short collection of essays and interviews about poetry.
Bottoms has confirmed the promise of Robert Penn Warren’s early praise. Out of the natural world of rats, snakes, buzzards, and snapping turtles, and out of the deepest concerns of the human heart, Bottoms has made a spiritually charged but highly accessible poetry. The critic Ernest Suarez writes, “Bottoms has generated a complex body of poetry that often confronts the darkest dimensions of human nature.”