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Mercer Artist: New professor named Poet Laureate of Georgia

Third-year artist Zianah Marshall.
Third-year artist Zianah Marshall.

This August marks professor Chelsea Rathburn’s first semester at Mercer as the newest addition to the English department.

Rathburn is originally from Miami, Florida, and came to Mercer from Young Harris College in northern Georgia. At Young Harris, she worked the creative writing department alongside her husband. In addition to being a professor, Rathburn is also a published poet who now has three collections of poetry. 

Rathburn has always known she wanted to have a career in English and writing. She has been writing poems since she was a child, influenced by childhood favorites like Shel Silverstein and Edgar Allen Poe. She was also heavily influenced by literary magazines.

Her love for reading stems from her childhood. Rathburn said her mother used to take her to the library almost every day during the week. Each day, Rathburn would check out stacks of books that she would devour, only to go back the next day to grab another stack. 

“There was this world of literature, this world of books I could get into,” Rathburn said.

Originally, Rathburn thought that she was going to be a fiction writer. When she went to college, however, she decided to take an introductory poetry class that she heard about while standing in the English office at Florida State University. 

“I ran home to the dorm and signed up, and I got in,” she said.

Since completing her undergraduate degree, Rathburn has published three collections of poetry. Her first collection, “The Shifting Line,” was published when she was still in graduate school. 

“(My first poetry book was a) grab bag that I started in graduate school,” Rathburn said. 

[pullquote speaker="Chelsea Rathburn, professor of English and Georgia Poet Laureate" photo="" align="right" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]You hear a lot of no’s. It’s kind of like talking into the void … does my voice matter?[/pullquote]

Her second book, “A Raft of Grief,” was published in 2013. This collection features poems that were published in magazines like The Atlantic and brought Rathburn more notice. The collection follows Rathburn’s first marriage and explores themes such as grief and alcoholism. 

“The poems were a way to figure out how to write about things that you don’t want to outright say, or by naming names,” Rathburn said. “(It plays with the) stories we make out of our lives and the way that places can transport us, or not.” 

Her latest collection is titled “Still Life with Mother and Knife,” and was published in 2019. In this book, Rathburn writes poems about motherhood, the female body, maternal fear and trauma, and it also contains a series of poems based on a painting of Madea. This collection serves as a distancing ground for Rathburn to talk about topics such as postpartum and the way that it looks and functions differently for every person. 

Rathburn said publishing can become a bit of a drag when it comes to poetry. As with publishing fiction, there can be a lot of criticism, and oftentimes no criticism at all. 

“You hear a lot of no’s,” Rathburn said. “It’s kind of like talking into the void … does my voice matter?” 

Rathburn found that her voice does matter. In March of 2019, Rathburn was named Poet Laureate of the state of Georgia. While her job is mostly ceremonial, Rathburn does serve on the Georgia Council for the Arts and as a literary ambassador for the literary arts in the state of Georgia. 

Recently, Rathburn’s poetry has gained quite a bit of popularity. Her works have been featured in magazines like The Atlantic, Southern Review and Poetry Magazine, but Rathburn said she is more proud of the poems that impact others than the poems that land national magazines.

“(I’m) interested in poems finding the readers who need them … Sometimes I have poems that appear in small places, and it’s cool to have people message and say ‘I needed this poem,’” Rathburn said. 

Rathburn is currently working on her next project: a collection of poems centered around Florida and creating a project centered around Miami, her hometown.

Rathburn is hoping to begin this research for her new projects this year, and hopes to focus on her work over the summer. 

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