Chelsea Rathburn – New Georgia Encyclopedia
Chelsea Rathburn is the author of three award-winning books of poetry and has been Georgia Poet Laureate since 2019. Her work is marked by a quiet intensity and explores the relationships between form and content, and between self and world.
Rathburn was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1975 and raised in Miami, but her maternal family has lived in Georgia for nearly two centuries. She earned a BA in English from Florida State University in 1997 and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas in 2001. After earning her MA, she moved to Decatur, where she taught workshops at Emory University and held the position of poetry chair for the Decatur Book Festival.
Rathburn’s first complete collection, The changing line, won the Richard Wilbur Prize in 2005. The book employs traditional forms, including sonnets, triplets, rhyming quatrains, and blank verse meditations, albeit in plain language. The inconsistent boundaries invoked by the collection’s title recur throughout, as Rathburn shows readers that the line between love and antipathy is often transitory and illusory. Building on these beginnings, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded a research trip to France and Poland. These travels, the dissolution of her first marriage and her second marriage to the poet James Davis May, inspired her next manuscript, A raft of sorrowwhich won the 2012 Autumn Press Poetry Award and was published in 2013.
While containing sonnets and other formal poems, A raft of sorrow finds Rathburn largely freed from the constraints of iambics and rhyme. The book has been praised for its innovative and nuanced voice, as well as its skillful exploration of themes such as alcoholism, marital dysfunction and, ultimately, the self-recovering power of new love. Particularly noteworthy are the poems that Rathburn calls “travel eclogues”, conversations between a young wife and her husband as they travel through Europe and become increasingly distant from each other. Deeply personal, these poems nevertheless address universal concerns, including the anguish of loss and the redemptive power of acceptance. Shortly after finishing A raft of sorrowRathburn began teaching at Young Harris College in the mountains of northern Georgia, where she designed and directed the undergraduate creative writing program.
Rathburn’s third collection, Still life with mother and knife (2019), was named one of “Books Every Georgian Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book and received the 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Prize in Poetry. It consists of four interlocking sections. The first section explores childhood and adolescence, exploring the speaker’s sexual awakening and the dangers that come with it. The second section takes the speaker through childbirth and the frightening world of postpartum mental illness. And the third features conversations with paintings by Eugène Delacroix and sketches of Medea, the witch of Greek myth who murders her sons. In the fourth section, which focuses on the healing found in parenting a young child, “Médée” trades her knife for a bar of soap, as she stands in the shower under the watchful eye of her daughter, who “studies me / the way I have stood before a work of art. Unwavering, sometimes bitter, and ultimately restorative, these poems of mothers and daughters show Rathburn at her most poignant.
One month after the publication of Still life with mother and knife, Governor Brian Kemp named Rathburn Poet Laureate of Georgia. In this capacity, she serves as an ambassador for the literary arts at events across the state. Since 2019, Rathburn has taught creative writing at Mercer University in Macon, where she lives with her daughter and husband.