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ARTIST PROFILE: Roger Mitchell’s writing career rooted in the Adirondacks

March 8, 2019
By STEVE LESTER - Correspondent ( , Lake Placid News

JAY - Roger Mitchell's journey to the North Country began as a 12-year-old when his father moved his family to Saranac Lake in 1946 to work at the Trudeau Institute after having been cured of tuberculosis there six years prior.

Since then, he has earned a doctoral degree, spent about 30 years teaching college English in the Midwest, and published 13 books, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

A 1953 graduate of Northwood School, Mitchell started publishing books after he retired from teaching, he said, adding, "Retirement is not really retirement."

Article Photos

Roger Mitchell, of Jay, works on a poem.
(Provided photo — Steve Lester)

His 13 books include one biography and 12 books of poems. His 2008 effort, "Lemon Peeled the Moment Before," received the Pulitzer nomination.

He published his lone nonfiction book, "Clear Pond, The Reconstruction of a Life," in 1991 in an effort to gain insight to what life was like in the Adirondacks long before he was born. At the beginning of the book, he describes his formative years in Saranac Lake between the ages of 12 and 20 as "the most confused and delicious time of my life." He therefore wanted to delve into large amounts of written material to help him "make sense" of it all.

"Foolish longings, I suppose, but I pored over articles, poems, guidebooks, diaries, travelogues, maps, memoirs, novels, broadsides, pamphlets, filled seven notebooks - all so I might write a book about things I had grown up in the shadow of but knew almost nothing about, indeed, in many cases, absolutely nothing about," he wrote.

Then he came across an ordinary man named Israel Johnson, mentioned in someone else's diary written in the 1830s. He lived such an obscure and ordinary life that even after years of "reading census reports and deed books, visiting libraries, talking with local historians, searching in the National Archives, walking up and down the places where he lived, (I) have found neither a living descendant nor his grave. It's this very ordinariness, even anonymity, that draws me to him. I ask myself, what could be more like ourselves than this?"

He did learn that Johnson had served in the military during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812. Johnson also applied for a patent on a type of sawmill but sold it before it had been approved.

As for those living descendants, Mitchell said, "I have a file at home of people who have called me to say they're related to him."

One reader in an Amazon customer review commented, "This is a book about Israel Johnson, my 3rd great grandfather. The author did a great job of researching this extraordinary individual and I was so thrilled to find it . ... The family chart does contain some discrepancy but the story is remarkable."

In the meantime, members of his family have asked him, "Why don't you write about us?"

Of his poetry writing, critic Reagan Upshaw commented in the Bloomberg Review on the poem "Braid" by writing, "It is a poem of free association harnessed in a strict form, proceeding in fits and starts, long lines juxtaposed with short ones, and brief apercus next to passages like this:

Opposed, too, to the intractability of things,

aforesaid tree,

which no language knows but which all pay homage to,

stumbling toward some approximation of

the breeze, which now moves the leafed-out

branches in a

slow, almost drugged,

dance, though a dance in place...

"If Henry James had had a love child with Emily Dickinson, you know the kid would have written like this," Upshaw wrote.

Upshaw then discusses several poems in "Lemon Peeled the Moment Before," a collection of poems written over a 40-year period.

Of the very first one, originally published in 1971 ("Natty Bumppo"), he commented, "Mitchell reveals his gift for striking simile: 'All around him, the prairie is on fire. The flames snap like a purse above his head.'"

Mitchell's poems are often set in places where he has taught, Upshaw goes on, such as Indiana, Colorado and Poland. Despite his gift for describing landscape, "the landscape usually seems subordinate to the mind observing it ... as in 'The Monologues of Verplanck Colvin,' a series of poems spoken in the voice of an Adirondacks surveyor a hundred years ago (in which) Mitchell even sees the land through the eyes of a man recalling a landscape of a yet earlier time..."

"Every place is beautiful in its own way," Mitchell said.

In terms of his experiences growing up in Saranac Lake, where he said he learned how to ski on Mount Pisgah, he wrote in the preface of "Clear Pond, The Reconstruction of a Life" that it was in the Adirondacks where "I tried, unsuccessfully, to be an adolescent, a boy scout, and a juvenile delinquent. It was there that I had my first date, drank my first beer, and failed my first drivers test. ... It was there, too, that I first fell in love, ruptured a kidney, and climbed a mountain in the dead of winter, not necessarily in that order."

He bought a summer home in Jay in 1995 and moved into it permanently in 2003.

"I live 180 degrees around Whiteface Mountain from where I grew up," he said.

Upshaw wrote that Mitchell's poetry often focuses on his mortality these days now that he is in his 80s, but added that there is a certain comfort in the way Mitchell lets go of the past as expressed in "Four Hundredth Mile" in which he writes, "I have tried to love what I thought was the world, but the world moved. I will love the move instead."



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