Life and Work
Anthony Butts was born in Detroit, Michigan. His father worked on the assembly line in an automobile factory, and his mother was a stay at home mom. As an elementary student, Butts was assigned to special education classes because of his scoliosis and extreme near-sightedness, but his exceptional score on a scholastic test allowed him to take gifted classes at Detroit Renaissance High School.
In college, Butts began as a pre-medicine student, but soon changed his major when he recognized his true passion, poetry. Of this change in his focus, Butts says, “I realized that poetry chose me when I felt more overcome by the need to write than I was by just about any other thing” (“Healing”). He graduated from Wayne State University in 1992 with a bachelor of arts degree in English and a minor in psychology. Three years later, he received a master of fine arts degree in poetry and fiction writing and a master of arts degree in critical theory from Western Michigan University. In 1999, Butts graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a doctorate in English, where he specialized in poetry writing, gender theory, and the history of American poetry.
In addition to learning about writing in the classroom, Butts credits poetry readings for teaching him how to write. He encourages young writers to attend readings, commenting, “I remember shelling out a few bucks for each poetry reading that had a cover charge … I learned a lot about composure from these artists, even when I didn’t want to write like them” (“Healing”). In addition to writing, Butts taught English and creative writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Currently, he is an associate professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also serves as associate poetry editor for Carnegie Mellon University Press, and in 2006 became the poetry editor for the journal Paper Street. His fourth collection of poetry, Male Hysteria, is due out from the Pitt Poetry Series in the fall of 2007.
Butts describes the issues he confronts in his poetry as “mistreatment in intimate relationships, social injustices on a day-to-day level, and the alienation that all of us often feel.” While these subjects may involve looking at the effects of racism, the poet refuses to be categorized as a Black writer: “I don’t want to be a circus act, or the best ‘black’ poet. I want people to maybe someday say that I’m the best poet, and that I happen to be black” (“Healing”). No matter what subject matter individual poems may treat, Butts explains that “the most important question that motivates my writing and teaching is ‘why.’ Speculating, and reaching conclusions, as to the whys of a poem or even of a political dispute can truly serve to bring people together faster— when those people are open to the possibilities inherent within that question” (English Department).
His first book of poems, Fifth Season, is divided into three main parts: “Detroit, City of Straits;” “Writing the Body;” and “Imaginary Gods.” While the first section deals with Butts’ childhood struggles, the second segment reflects on violent and dark images in urban settings. The last part of the book explores the present day through references to classical mythology. Poet and critic Ruth Ellen Kocher describes the book as an examination of “divinity … as a condition of being caught between a material world that forsakes the individual and a spiritual one that beautifies even breath” (685).
Butts further explores the theme of isolation in the modern world as well as finding beauty in the everyday details in his most recent book of poems, Little Low Heaven. With his depictions of humans as machines separated from their emotions and unable to build human relationships, the poet illustrates alienation in a postmodern industrial society. In “Poem to be Hummed,” the speaker portrays this emotional detachment as “the empty space enveloping us long ago.” While the speaker fears this alienation, he expresses some hope that man might regain emotional involvement. “[N]ature / specials painfully reminding us that we too can have sex / and are not really automatons just yet” might awaken the passions that have been suppressed by reason and industry (49).
Instead of reinforcing the mechanical nature of the people who live in these industrial landscapes, the trivial details of city life provide some hope and beauty. In “What’s Not Given,” the speaker sees beauty in a graffiti-covered train riding on tracks “that meet only / in the distance like dreams / realized.” Mundane objects, like the train and a coffee stain and the hot sidewalk, are actually “beauty masquerading as truth, / the interpretation more vivid / than reality.” The speaker believes that in order to achieve beauty and truth and a higher existence of living, one must interpret everyday life. He urges, “we must have faith in what’s not given– / extrapolations of the sensory world” (54).
In addition to exploring the possibilities of experiencing the extraordinary through the ordinary, Butts offers another way to cope with the isolation and loss of human contact in an industrial society. In “Ars Poetica,” the speaker looks toward literature for hope in a depressing world, and he comments, “Fiction soothes. / Poetry moves” (6). This belief in art to alleviate feelings of alienation appears again in “The Model,” where “Words / spill like graphite, the soft flesh masking the silence, / the hard wood cradling loss” (51).
Overall, Butts admits that he deals with challenging issues in his poetry. Still, his portrayal of suffering is paired with ways of healing, and he appreciates the value of struggle because, “We suffer when we try to meet our goals, and that’s good suffering. We endure and become stronger, smarter … I write in a way that I hope is always clear in order that people may look into the mirror of my verse and see themselves and their own sufferings or their own joys” (“Healing”).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- Fifth Season. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues, 1997.
- Evolution. La Crosse, WI: Sutton Hoo, 1998.
- Little Low Heaven. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues, 2003.
- Male Hysteria, forthcoming.
- 5 AM
- Black Warrior Review
- The Canary Review
- The Chattahoochee Review
- Cimarron Review
- Controlled Burn
- Crab Orchard Review
- Journal of Poetry Therapy
- Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review
- Literature and Belief
- The MacGuffin
- The Minnesota Review
- The Missouri Review
- New Letters
- Paper Street
- Pittsburgh City Paper
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Poetry Southeast
- Prairie Schooner
- The Wallace Stevens Journal
- Whiskey Island Magazine
- Xavier Review
- The Yalobusha Review
- Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001. Ed. Melba Joyce Boyd and M. L. Liebler. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
- American Poetry: The Next Generation. Ed. Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2000.
- Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Harper, 2000.
- New Poems from the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry. Ed. Michael Delp, Conrad Hilberry, and Josie Kearns. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2000.
- Passages 11 Anthology. Scarborough, ONT: Gage Educational, 2001.
- Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature & Art. Ed. Tony Medina, Samiya Bashir, and Quraysh Ali Lansana. Chicago: Third World, 2001.
- Nocturne.” Our souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets read their Work. CD. Los Angeles: Rhino, 2000.
- Benjamin Franklin Silver Medal Award, Publishers Marketing Association, for Fifth Season, 1998
- Editor’s Choice Small Press Book Award for Fifth Season, 1998
- Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, 2001
- William Carlos William Prize, Poetry Society of America, for Little Low Heaven, 2004
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Contemporary Authors. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 23 Apr. 2004 <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Kocher, Ruth Ellen. Rev. of Fifth Season. African American Review 35.4 (Winter 2001): 685.
- Otten, Liam. “Celebrated Young Poet Opens Series.” Record 1 Oct. 1998. Washington University in St. Louis. 5 May 2004 <http://record.wustl.edu/archive/1998/10-01-98/articles/poet.html>.
- Potts, Jonathan. “Carnegie Mellon Professor’s Poetry Garners Prestigious Writing Award.” College of Humanities and Social Sciences: Press Releases. Carnegie Mellon University. 5 May 2005 <http://www.hss.cmu.edu/pressreleases/butts.htm>.
- Smith, Lynn. “‘Strong, Distinctive Voices’ Take Circuitous Routes to Poetry, Carnegie Mellon.” Carnegie Mellon News Online Edition. 5 Dec. 2001. Carnegie Mellon University. 5 May 2004 <http://www.cmu.edu/cmnews/>.
- “Healing Words: An Interview with Poet Anthony Butts.” Absolute Write 3 Sept. 2003. 23 Apr. 2004 <http://www.absolutewrite.com/specialty_writing/anthony_butts.htm>.