Writing the Riverine Section: Poet Chanda Feldman on Approaching the Fields

At some point, I knew I was close to finishing the manuscript for Approaching the Fields, the poems were coalescing around themes of family, place, and history. Specifically, I was writing about my parents’ lives growing up in sharecropping and subsistence farming families in rural West Tennessee on the Mississippi River during Jim Crow-era segregation and their lives and mine in the contemporary American South.  These poems, about memory and the past, were also a way for me to talk about the present.

But, the book needed another section to come to completion.  I dreamed this section would have a riverine quality.  I didn’t really know what that meant for the unwritten poems, but I felt the book thus far was so firmly anchored on the ground—through crop fields, flowers, trees, and homes—that I needed to write something fluid and bending, something that pooled and eddied, and coursed and hauled forward.

I began writing small narrative fragments.  At first, I wasn’t sure how they related to each other, but there was a pleasure in shaping them, and the fragments spoke more directly to lived experience than some other poems.  These fragments also filled in gaps, expanding into narratives alluded to elsewhere in the book.  I realized that these stories and scraps of memory were linked by orality and polyvocality.  I could picture myself in the home I grew up in around the kitchen table with my parents, talking about their lives.  There was the back and forth of our talk, the interjection of a memory from which more memories rippled forth, the small shifts and changes of detail or perspective from previous iterations of the same stories, and there was emotional inflection and the frankness of viewpoint.  These family conversations were the confluence I wanted to capture.  The final poems I wrote for the book are in Section III, a 14-poem sequence, “But We Lived,” where the daughter listens as the mother and father take turns doing the storytelling with each poem’s ending line flowing into the first line of the next poem.  After writing the “But We Lived” sequence, the book came to a close for me, with its gradations of tone and image, its turns and returns to the past and present.

All along the way of writing the poems in Approaching the Fields, I read poetry books.  Sometimes I was looking to teach myself about how a poem was made and sometimes I was looking for company and conversation, always I was looking for a way to see myself and the world anew.  Many of the poems in the books (and one recording) listed below gave me confidence to write about the people and places and events that were of concern to me and the courage to do so however I saw that I could.

Eavan Boland, Domestic Violence (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008): Eavan Boland was one of my writing teachers.  Her passionate, exacting teaching challenged me as a writer in the best ways.  The poems in this book taught me about the importance of domestic objects and materials as a way to explore identity.

Rita Dove, Selected Poems (Vintage, 1993): This book was given to me as a gift in high school and I carried it with me everywhere for years.  Everything about this book: Dove’s face in close-up on the cover; her “Introduction”; her poems about travel and myth;  the Thomas and Beulah poems based on Dove’s grandparents and their migration from the South and their marriage, felt for me like a great permission to write.

Claudia Emerson, Secure the Shadow (LSU Press, 2012): Emerson’s poems about the death of her brother and father and about the history of daguerreotypes made on the occasion of the death of a family member, are clear-sighted elegies that drew me in.  I admire Emerson’s abilities to hold steady in her attention.

Nikki Giovanni, Truth Is On Its Way (Right On Records, 1971): This recording of Nikki Giovanni reading poems accompanied by the gospel music of The New York Community Choir stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it as a teenager and contributed to my desire to write.  It is forthright and political as the sounds and images crescendo and settle around themes of race, economics, and peace, and joy.

C.S. Giscombe, Giscome Road (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998): This book’s journey turns inward and outward, following the history of Giscombe’s 19th-century Jamaican ancestor to northern Canada.  The imagistic pleasure here in language and maps showed me exploratory methods for approaching syntax and lineation and the past.

Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems (Liveright, 1985): These poems continue to teach me the power of an image through precise, surprising, and exquisite writing.

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007): Trethewey’s facility with form and her ability to intertwine historical moments with personal lives makes for profound meditations.

CD Wright, String Light (University of Georgia Press, 1991): C.D. Wright’s work rivets me with its colloquial and erudite diction and its sense of place.  Her poems feel generous and wide-ranging, playing up and down the scales of language.

Kevin Young, Most Way Home (Steerforth, 1998): This book taught me about calling upon oral stories in poems and crafting sequences that explore race and representation.

Chanda Feldman grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. She holds degrees from Cornell University and the University of Chicago. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and NEA poetry grant recipient and is currently a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Oberlin College.

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