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Pondering life through poetry: Felicia Mitchell

by Aïda Rogers,

Coping with cancer and caring for a parent with dementia would be enough to do anybody in. Not Felicia Mitchell. The poet, professor, and Honors College alumna transformed her grim into great—using her semester-long sabbatical in 2011 for treatment and to work on poems for her first full-length published collection. “Waltzing with Horses,” recently released by Press 53 in Winston-Salem, has won acclaim for the Sumter-born Mitchell, who has taught English and writing at Emory & Henry College in Virginia since 1987.

“Reading Felicia Mitchell’s stunning collection, Waltzing with Horses, is like spending a few life-changing hours with one of those wise women we read about in fairy tales,” wrote author Terri Kirby Erickson in an early review. “She knows the names of each plant and flower, and teaches us that every living thing, from the tiniest sparrow to a herd of wild horses, is sacred.”

Watching one of her brothers get sick and die from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the mid-1970s was life-changing for Mitchell, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from USC in 1977 and 1980. Her poems reflect how she experienced the slow decline of her father, a longtime newspaper reporter and editor with Parkinson’s disease, and the care she took of her mother, whom cancer struck a second time while Mitchell dealt with her own cancer. The day after Mitchell learned of her diagnosis, she reported to the hospital for her mom’s lumpectomy.

“It makes sense that we would have cancer together; we were two peas in a pod,” Mitchell says, stressing that her own cancer was not traumatic: After all the sickness she’d witnessed in her family, she was almost “giddy” to learn she had it herself. “I had always thought I would not take any treatment, just hang in the towel. But as soon as I got my diagnosis, I was ready. I wanted to live. Getting cancer is a chance to affirm that you do want to live, a great opportunity for a poet who might sometimes wonder.”  

In “Waltzing with Horses,” Mitchell makes sense of life in many of its baffling forms. Several poems center on aging and her mother’s dementia. Others view her son’s extreme running, the world of nursing homes and treatment centers, and her family’s gradual fracture. Throughout are poems about the beauty of Southwest Virginia. Though she’s been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize twice and Best of the Net once, she’s most pleased about the reception for “Up from Tumbling Creek.” The six-line poem was chosen for the Virginia Poetry Society’s Metrorail Art Project in 2011. Well into her cancer treatment at the time, she joked that having her words integrated into sculpture was “better than a tombstone.”

Now in remission, Mitchell did more than write and revise during her treatment/sabbatical. She also designed a new course about ecology and the haiku tradition for Emory & Henry’s Great Works program, which she now teaches each spring and will introduce as a summer course this year. She’s won numerous teaching awards, and published scholarly articles, fiction, and creative nonfiction. A lover of music who studied piano as a child in Columbia, she wrote the lyrics for the inaugural anthem of E&H’s 20th president, Dr. Rosalind Reichard. Her weekly column, “Heart Beat,” ran for nine years in the “Washington County News.”

But poetry is Mitchell’s first love. She’s the author of two chapbooks, “The Cleft of the Rock” and “Earthenware Fertility Figure,” and the editor of “Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry.” Her poems have appeared in many journals, including “Hospital Drive” and “PMS poemmemoirstory.” Her first, “The Cave Pearl,” was composed when she was six.

“I write many poems, including some that will never be sent out to journals,” she said. “I use the poetic process as a filter for making sense of so many things, from Christmas to politics.”

Listen to Felicia Mitchell read two of her poems here:


Or read one of her favorites, about her son Guy Benjamin Mitchell Love:

What My Son Sees

Towards the end of a long run,

my son sees things, his journey his imagination.

One time, he says, he saw a parrot

somewhere near Bedford.

He has also seen dancing bears,

black bears dancing on the Appalachian Trail—

not echoes of Grateful Dead bears

tiptoeing through a forest

but real bears, albeit imaginary.

My son has seen real live bears

and wild orchids too.

He has seen the sun rise and the night fall

and a moon so big it was a boulder

he had to clamber over.

He has run so far and fast

his feet separated from his mind,

his mind watching his body

the way I used to watch him when he was small.

Last time he ran a hundred miles,

he said, he saw his father smoking a pipe.

His father was standing on the edge of Coosa Trail,

his arms crossed, looking the way

he always looks.

And then, as he kept running,

my son ran into the arms of a tree,

and the tree hugged him, not vice versa,

holding him with its arms.

Later, we said, both his father and I,

on separate occasions, not knowing what the other said,

“The tree was hugging you.”

That’s what he needs, our son,

deep in a forest, sleep deprived, running and running

until he thinks he can run no more:

parents who believe in him and a tree that cradles him

until all the wild horses gallop by, one by one,

their hooves a heart beating.


Felicia Mitchell

(“Waltzing with Horses,” Press 53)

For more about the poet, visit