Welcome Chanda Feldman and Erika Meitner to our PLUME feature. Thank you both for taking the time to offer this interview. When did you two first meet?
Erika came to Oberlin to read two winters ago, but we met on a panel at AWP a year before that, a Jewish Social Action Poetry Panel moderated by the poet, Robin Beth Schaer.
I want to begin by saying that I have great admiration for both of you as poets. You each delve into human relations both familial, societal and historical with care, depth, empathy and real rigor. And yet too I sensed in both of your work a deep humility.
I’m thinking of your poem, “Native,” Chanda, in which you say, that despite everything, “the ground takes us in/ and decay makes us kin.” That despite all that delving and parsing the details of whatever situation, there is an over abiding commonality.
And Erika, I think of your poem, “HolyMolyLand”—that even with all the trying and trying to understand, we can’t go as far as perhaps we would like: “There are things I will never know. There are stories that are past telling./ No matter how much testimony we gather. No matter how many details we proclaim.” And I just love that combination in both of your poems of deep searching but also an understanding of what our limits are in some way.
What brought you each to poetry? I don’t care who goes first. Flip a coin.
I can go first. I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I think it grew the way it does for a lot of students who start writing in high school or in college, just a need to have a space where I could say things. I also really enjoyed the way I sounded on the page in language. I always kept a journal or a diary. I was always a prolific reader. I just really needed a space where I was in control of what I said and how I said it. I was fortunate enough to go to a high school in Nashville, Tennessee called Hume-Fogg Academic, which is a language arts, practicing arts, humanities magnet school. So I was lucky enough to take creative writing in high school. And I had a fabulous creative writing teacher, from ninth through 12th grade, Bill Brown; and we’re still good friends.
He was very supportive and validated my writing and my desire to do it. I think pretty quickly it changed from something that I did for myself, just as a way to work through my own teenage emotions, to a place where I realized that there are other people who are willing to hear my work. It was gratifying that someone else was paying attention, that my poems could make sense to someone else. And also, I had the good fortune that my teacher, Mr. Brown, introduced me to the work of Rita Dove when I was thirteen and that changed my life. I thought, wow, she’s alive and writing poems about whatever she wants to and she’s Black. This was huge for me. I finally got to thank her in person last winter in Washington, D.C.. We were at the Hurston/Wright Awards ceremony. Approaching the Fields was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Prize in poetry and Rita Dove was being honored with their highest honor, the North Star Award.
Yes, Rita Dove is a very generous spirit from everything I’ve heard about her and I love her poems. When she was U.S. Poet Laureate, I heard that her office door was always open. I admired her choices for The New York Times Magazine as well.
Anyway, How about you? Erika?
Rita was actually my teacher too in grad school and we’re still friendly. I’m glad we share that. I didn’t know that connection. And it’s funny. I actually just talked to a high school class in Fairfax, Virginia, that my friend Sonja Curry-Johnson teaches, and I was talking about how they’re lucky to have a high school teacher who brings in living poets and teaches living poets, because I didn’t know that there were living actual living poets really until I got to college. A friend of mine in high school took me to one Allen Ginsburg reading at City College. I think it was in my junior or senior year. And that was the first time I knew that there were actually living poets.
That’s quite a lot of common ground in both of your paths towards poetry.
Yes and I was always involved with literature and the literary magazine and I was a big reader. I don’t think I really glommed onto poetry itself until college. My work-study job, when I went to Dartmouth, was working as a student assistant for four years in the English department. I would wait for people to bring me copying jobs or send me out on errands. I would wait in this lounge where they had this big wooden table that had all of these faculty publications and a good chunk of the publications were poetry or fiction. There were lit journals everywhere. I had never been exposed to literary journals in that kind of way. And so in between waiting for jobs to do, I would read.
At Dartmouth, the English department is a four-story, really old creaky building, but on the bottom floor was a poetry library called Sanborn and it was just poetry. It was the nicest library on campus. So I used to sit in the big armchairs there to do work surrounded by books that I would just pull off the shelves.
My teachers there were Cleopatra Mathis, Tom Sleigh and Cynthia Huntington. They brought in a ton of living poets that they would kidnap from the MacDowell Colony down the road. One of the first poets I heard read was Galway Kinnell. I couldn’t afford Galway’s book at the time, so he signed my spiral notebook I was using as a journal. This was the early nineties. Mark Doty, when he had just published My Alexandria, came in to read and that was heart-stopping. And Heather McHugh. We had incredible people coming through to read. And so that’s really where I started gravitating towards poetry specifically—not just literature.
Beautiful, beautiful from both of you.
How did you discover each other’s work and what drew you to it? And maybe if you could each cite a poem or so that made you say, wow, I am really drawn to this voice.
Do you want me to start with that?
Okay. I think what I love about your work, Chanda, what I really gravitated towards was the way that you talk about kin and family and blood and inheritance. I’m thinking especially of certain poems like “Native” and “Blood” and “Elegy.” Particularly your poems about your grandmother’s death. I really gravitated towards and felt simpatico with your grandmother poems. I have so many poems about my grandmother stretched throughout all my books, like through Ideal Cities and through Copia, and not as much actually, in Holy Moly Carry Me. But if you took all my books and just took out the grandmother poems, I would have a whole book.
But I think that it is not just this idea of kinship and inheritance and loss and family history, but that you have this way that I really admire and can’t do, of getting into the heads and stories of members of your family and recreating what life must have been like for them in different historical eras. And I’m thinking as well of some poems about your parents in your book. And that is something I haven’t ever really been able to do.
And part of that is how I come to literature. Part of the reason I started reading a lot when I was a kid was because my family narratives from the Holocaust were so traumatic that no one talked about them. Literature was a place I went to get information: The Diary of Anne Frank, biographies of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This was how I found out what had happened in concentration camps, because my family wouldn’t tell me what had happened to them.
What I so love about this book is a way that it does delve into trauma, into the history of slavery and segregation on a personal level and recreates what the personal impact, the familial impact of what this kind of trauma is. I was reading over this week the poem, “Census.” I was looking at the news this week of Trump’s truncating the census. There are so many poems in here that, as I was rereading this week, feel so topical to me.
Do you want to read one of the poems Erika was drawn to? Just so we can have your voice in the air, Chanda?
Sure. Let me grab my book off the shelf.
Which one would you like me to read?
I love one of the poems that Erika mentioned called, “Native.” I just think it is so beautiful. And so many of the others, of course.
I’ll read that one. It is the first poem in the book.
Forget kudzu, that closed weave,
its green congesting trees, the way it twins
a telephone line’s length with vine, its only message
Forget the river’s muscled sweep
where nothing intrudes
and stays the same, water changing
what it washes through—retooled
stone, redrafted bank. Forget the difference
between foreign and native. Any thing
can take hold here and spread. Indiscriminate
landscape. Even the road flinches
alive—a snake whips dust and slinks to a ditch.
Air’s adaptive, lifts whatever needs flight:
spore or song. The day’s margins blur
dark and light. Forget the dead
stay down, they persist as haints. A murky story
sticks to any relationship:
beloved or despised. A confederation
binds enemy and alliance, just as
the ground takes us in
and decay makes us kin.
Gorgeous. What an ear. And I ask you, Chanda, the same question. What drew you to Erika’s work?
I also don’t know when I first came across Erika’s work. I mean, I remember hearing about Erika for a very long time. Erika, you were at Santa Cruz at some point. I was living in San Francisco at the time. And I think probably that’s when I started reading your work. One of the things, specifically about Copia and Holy Moly Carry Me, that I’m really drawn to… well in Copia, there’s a poem, “Yiddish Land” that I really just fell in love with for the way it addresses language, culture, and ritual. That poem does manage to get inside the heads of family and familial experience plus pull currents from the speaker’s history and present and bring all of those things into motion in the poem. I guess one of the things I really appreciate about Erika’s work is its maximalist tendencies and its ability to be very associative, and in that way, open up and be wide-ranging. The poems move dynamically and seemingly from topic to topic, but then there’s accretion towards a particular question. So I love Erika’s ability to pull in all kinds of references and research that spark new ideas and tangents that then circle back in. I love that craft ability and the mind at work in the world it shows me.
Can I interrupt to say one thing that I think is hilarious? So I was talking about content with your work, but what I love about the craft of your work is how compressed it is and laser-focused and how tight your language is. That’s something I feel like I’m always striving for and never quite get, because my stuff is so rangy and messy.
And so the exact same things that you’re admiring … I think we admire the oppositeness of our work in some way, because that’s what I really love about yours—its compression. I can sit down and look at it and know how it’s supposed to sound from your scoring on the page.
Thanks, Erika. I totally agree. I’m always thinking, oh, it’d be so nice to expand this out, but I couldn’t do it within one single poem; it is something I really admire about your work.
Is there a poem in Holy Moly Carry Me that particularly drew you that maybe Erika could read?
Yes. There are so many poems in Holy Moly Carry Me that I admire. I really love the prose poem, “HolyMolyLand.” That’s a bit long. So I don’t know if that’s something you want to read right now, but something else that I really appreciate about Erika’s work, across Holy Moly Carry Me, is the focus on the many ways in which family life and violence commingle. There’s a way in which they meet that’s so realistic. There’s not a condemnation in the work; it’s not didactic. It is a reckoning with the fact that violence plays out again and again as part of reality. I really love the poem “Continuation” because I think it brings together that idea of innocence and family and community and violence all in the same poem.
Will you read that one, Erika?
Perfect. Let me go get my book.
I really love what you’re saying this about Erika’s work; she so skillfully takes a quotidian thing and then all of a sudden, it becomes this large issue; her poems breathe between tiny details and big, big questions.
And the neighbor’s daughter shows my son
the way her father let her hold his gun,
with bullets in it. She was on Adderall,
and now Ritalin, and they’re only in
Kindergarten but my son doesn’t much
like her—the way she brags and lies
and tries to destroy the plants or bugs
around our house, which is the bus stop,
so we head out each morning in our
pajamas, clutching coffee mugs, to wait.
The engine of the bus is huffing,
unmistakable, and we can all hear it
before its yellow nose comes around
the bend. The kids climb the high steps
like they’re scaling a great peak.
I can see my son fling his body
into a seat; he waves from the window
while Sarah makes her way to her
mandated spot behind the driver,
who waves to us too, then pulls the lever
to shut the doors and heads down Heartwood
Crossing, though the sign says Xing
as the whole name won’t fit. This cross-
hatch, this target; X marks the spot
like those yellow and black novelty
signs: Moose Xing, Gator Xing,
Sasquatch Xing. My son loves to watch
the show Finding Bigfoot, where
a research team goes to Rhode Island,
Alaska, New York, to investigate
a recent spike in Squatch sightings.
Each episode is exactly the same,
save for the location: they go out
as a team one night to look for bigfoot,
call for him, and find signs. Next,
they have a town hall meeting
to discuss sightings with residents
who tell stories, which they recreate
using a giant guy named Bobo as a stand-in,
and they always come to the conclusion
that the resident did see a bigfoot—
that bigfoot could definitely live in
____________. We live in blank.
Sarah’s mother threw her father out
for keeping a loaded Uzi on the floor
of their garage. When Sarah aims,
with her fingers, at the empty birds’ nests
in the eaves of our porch, I wait for her
to say bang, but instead she repeats
it had bullets in it, and there’s the bus
wheezing around the bend again,
yellow as a road sign, a daffodil,
a stretch of CAUTION tape.
What a fantastic poem! I love how you let your son’s view of the girl stay intact. He dislikes her because she hurts bugs, not because of the gun. Your view of the gun does not overshadow his. You make room for his world to stay his world in this very violent and troubling time. I admire that.
There is another poem when your son finds his reflection in the window and you focus on that instead of imposing your thoughts about the outer Jewish Orthodox world and your memories of the Holocaust that infuse what you are viewing through the train window. There’s a lot of letting your son’s perception stay a child’s perceptions.
I wanted to ask you both for your respective books to talk a little bit about the title. So Chanda your book, Approaching the Fields and Erika your Holy Moly Carry Me. Can you each say a little about the significance of those titles?
Sure. Is it my turn? Approaching the Fields comes from one of the poems that occurs about halfway through the book. And that’s a poem about the speaker, who was me, going back to the place where my mother grew up and walking through the cotton fields with her and my siblings. For me there can be a lot of tension and sadness and anger, and it’s also very cerebral as well, conceptual, about systemic racism, our country’s history. That’s what I was thinking about, but I always get startled back into the personal when I’m revisiting these things or hearing these things from my mom or visiting her childhood places with her, because for her these places are where her life happened.
So they’re very personal memories for her associated with these places, happy and unhappy. And she’s not thinking about these places in history abstractly. Anyway, that’s what the poem is about. “Approaching the Fields” describes my trying to get closer to my family history from her point of view. This book, like a lot of first books, delves into personal narratives. You explore your own mythos, look at your family history, your identity, where you come from. I think this book was a way to kind of preserve that narrative for myself, to express pride, love, and fury about a very particular time and place. The book, as a whole, deals a lot with rural culture too, family culture, and the subtle and overt violences of segregation, but also the familial diurnal life, the materiality of that life. I was trying to approach it, get closer to it, hold on to it. I’m thinking of one of Erica’s poems actually. It’s the one that happens in Holy Moly Land where the speaker takes her son on the train in New York City. She is saying, this is where I come from and my child is from Appalachia and those worlds are times and cultures apart in ways. There’s some schism for me as well. I grew up in the suburbs, but my parents are from a very different place and I needed to bridge that gap somehow.
Yes. I think I looked at your title the way you describe it, as approaching the fields of the present in some way because you’re so much about your history informing who you are in the current world.
The title poem is beautiful. I’m tempted to have you read it. Do you mind?
Isn’t that the one where are your mom has a near death experience and says, that there’s nothing beyond this life, that this all there is?
APPROACHING THE FIELDS
We’re so close that we can’t not stop—fields,
late fall, days after the killing frost, and the cotton
ready for harvesting. The bolls shocked open—
unspool ripe cotton on the wind until we walk
into a blizzard of it. My mother wishing
her mother and aunts and uncles could look up
from the rows ahead at her and her sister,
picking. They called my mother Coo for slim-
beaked fingers pinching cotton from the boll
without getting pricked on the plant briars. Now,
the process is machined, spindle pickers reaping
eight rows at once, the bales, like loaves
of plenty, wait for a trip to the gins at the field’s
ends. My mother’s been trying to tell me
about where she’s been. My mother, who crossed
the threshold of the afterlife, who died
her three minutes before her heartbeat was revived,
who came back with a sense that there was no
heaven’s gate on the other side, not even
something like night, like quiet, that if she was
absorbed into anything, she was lost to its workings.
Gorgeous. You have such a beautiful ear, Chanda. My goodness, there’s such music there. Thank you.
Erika, same question for you about your title, Holy Moly Carry Me.
So it’s interesting. A lot of my work is titled ekphrastically. The engine that’s driving the beginning of a project is often an artwork. There’s an artist whose work I love named Kim Beck. I was in residence with Kim years and years ago at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and her project Ideal Cities inspired my book, Ideal Cities and her artwork is on the front cover of it. And when I started writing this book, it was called Holy Moly Land after a multimedia kind of sculptural ongoing project that she had called Holymoley Land. But when I contacted her about potentially using the title of the artwork as the book title, she asked me not to use the title, because it was an ongoing project. She gave me permission to use a variation of it for poems in the book, but not as a title of the book. So I had to come up with a new title for this book that I had conceptualized under this one title for the five years I was writing it.
I had just lists and lists of titles. I asked everybody I knew; I didn’t know what to call it. At some point either me or someone else, I don’t even remember …came up with Holy Moly Carry Me, which had the Holy Moly from Holy Moly Land. To me, the title sounds a little bit like an Appalachian hymn. It has that singsonginess, and it speaks to the sort of vulnerability, I think of as part of the speaker in here. So a lot of what the speaker is grappling with is secondary infertility and racial violence and gun violence and gun culture, and these other ways that human fragility butts up against violence. And so, the carry me felt right. Not just sonically, but also in spirit. And so as I went through the possibilities, it was the one that stuck with me the most.
So I brought you together as women poets, as mothers and also as a Black woman poet and a white woman poet during a time when issues of voice and race are finally being addressed, at least in part.
A question I would like to ask is where do you draw the line between empathy and appropriation and how do you handle that in your work? I am interested in any way you would like to answer. And if you have a poem that you think is illustrative, wonderful. These are issues many of us are thinking about these days. I certainly don’t have a handle on them. I would be very grateful to hear your thoughts.
I’d say I’m probably in the trickier positions in some ways. I’m a white Jewish poet living in Southern Appalachia who is raising one white son and one Black son. So I think one of the bigger and logistical challenges I have in my writing, to be honest, occurs when I write about my kids and there are a lot of ethical issues in terms of writing about your children in general, right? So often in my poems, when my oldest son was little, I would refer to him as “the baby” and he’s “the baby” in a lot of poems, but now that he’s thirteen and he can read, he has his own opinions about whether or not he should show up in my work and how. So there’s the basic ethical level of when can you, and how can you write about your kids?
For me that gets even more logistically complicated because my youngest son is adopted and there are pieces of his story that belong to him alone that I would never write about. So there’s that piece of it. Then there’s yet another layer of logistical challenge. And this is sheerly linguistically and narratively tactical. And it’s something I’ve been trying to figure out in prose actually, because in poetry it would be even more complicated: when it’s important to the narrative, how do I deliniate between the races of my family members? And so that’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out: how do you “race” people in poems when it’s narratively important? It is an interesting question. And so that’s something I’ve been grappling with in prose actually, to try to work it out first.
And then the other layer on top of that is, as a white woman, where and how do I get to do this? I’m thinking about other controversies around art, motherhood and empathy. And the one that comes to mind really readily is, I think the artist’s name was Dana Schutz; for the Whitney Biennial she did a painting of Emmett Till’s open casket and her argument for being able to do that painting was that she’s a mother and her motherly empathy kind of extended into that. And both the painting and the argument inspired a lot of controversy around representation, appropriation and the limits of empathy. There’s a poem that actually didn’t make it into Holy Moly Carry Me and I had wanted to put it in and my editor said, no, there’s other stuff in here that does that work. It’s a poem actually, that grapples with my positionality as the white mother of a Black son.
It’s written on the occasion of the jury acquitting the cops that shot Philando Castile, and part of the poem goes through what happened in the car with Philando Castile and his girlfriend and the daughter, who was four at the time—the same age as my son when this happened. I wrote a poem that talks about my family sending me to Target to buy water guns and this other event, the shooting of Philando Castile, and that’s a poem that I’ve had different responses to from different audiences.
Do you feel comfortable reading it, Erika?
In Defense of the Empty Chaos Required for Adequate Preparation
(June 16, 2017)
When the (white) man at the pool says
my (black) son reminds him of his youngest and asks
how old is he, eight? I say, no, four and I am not
flattered but terrified of the implications because
in study after study the average age overestimation
for black boys exceeded four years, because black boys
are viewed as adults by white undergraduates white
police officers white suburban residents at the age of
ten they lose the protection afforded to them by
assumed childhood innocence ten ten ten my older
(white) son is ten and still struggles to tie his shoes
sometimes curses loves Minecraft and cheese and
catching newts was not sent home from Nature Camp
this week for writing Snoop Dog and Smoke Pot on
his newspaper craft project but the director spoke
with me at pickup and we laughed and he said I didn’t
do stuff like that until eighth grade and I was still mortified
that this (white) biologist thought I was maybe a terrible
(white) mother (white) pothead (white) something
so when I call home to see what else we need at Target
I am always calling home from the aisles of [insert
store here there is always something we need] and
Steve says get extra water guns—they’re all broken—
the kids like the ones with pump action best
and though they have bright orange safety tips
and though they look nothing like actual firearms
with their Nerf logo stamped on the side and their
white and blue and green neon plastic I hesitate
I stand in the aisle staring at the Super Soaker
package with the giant wave and the white boy
on the front aiming his hands his gun straight at me
I stand and stand in the aisle I can’t help it
(Microburst2 Blasts up to 33 feet / Also look for
Freezefire BottleBlitz / Do not aim at eyes or face /
TO AVOID INJURY: Use only clean tap water)
To avoid injury to avoid unconscious dehuman-
ization to make sure you see my son as a person
to make sure you see my son as a child he is four
he is not eight he is four he is big for his age yes
he is not likely to bring violence to your neighborhood
the study describes use of force as takedown or
wrist lock as kicking or punching as striking with
a blunt object as using a police dog or restraints
or hobbling as using tear gas or electric shock
or killing on the radio the cop who shot Philando
Castile is found not guilty his girlfriend’s child
who was in the back seat when he was shot
who was four years old then is named Dae’Anna
and you can hear her on the tape after Philando
is shot after her (black) mother is down on her knees
in handcuffs you can hear the (black) child saying
It’s ok mommy…it’s ok, I’m right here with you
she is tender with her mother preternaturally
calm she is four and only dehumanization not
police officers’ prejudice against blacks—conscious
or not—was linked to violent encounters with black
children in custody according to the study
Note: the title comes from a photograph by Colin Blakely
Wow. That’s a fantastic poem. Because one of your children is Black, do you think that gives you more license to the topic than someone like me? Both my children are white.
Does it? It’s an interesting question. I’ve gotten responses from people across the board when I read that poem—and it’s not limited necessarily by the race of the listener. Some people say, I was really moved by that poem. But I still have a vivid memory of an audience member at a reading who was very upset by it and said, You’re retraumatizing me with this instance of racial violence that you’re presenting in this poem and what gives you the right to do that? I didn’t have a good answer. And so I think one of the things I’m very conscious of in life, and this is a more complicated conversation in art, is that as long as my son is with me, my white privilege protects him.
How that extends into the realm of a poem is something I was trying to explore in that particular poem. If you look at the text of the poem, in some cases, race is indicated in parentheses and in some cases it isn’t. And this was written a few years back before The New York Times and also other places standardized capitalizing Black as well. But that’s something too that now becomes trickier because if I indicate the race of people in poems, Black is capitalized and white is not. And my OCD poet eye, for a particular kind of reading consistency, goes nuts in a way that my intellectual analytical brain does not. And so, there’s the heat to all the choices you make, whether it’s a simple capitalization, or something else.
I think there’s not an easy answer to that question for me. It’s something I grapple with every single time I sit down to write a poem: what are the implications of what it is that I’m saying, and not in the sense of who am I going to offend, but in the sense of how do I create an emotional and political truth that feels accurate to me in some way. And, that’s a really tricky thing, because that’s not always something poets are striving toward. I tend to be a more documentary poet. I’m striving towards that. You know, Robert Lowell’s pray for the grace of accuracy, but that’s not what everybody’s striving for.
How do you react to that poem, Chanda? I’m curious. I have a reaction, but I’d like to hear from you.
I do have a memory of having read this poem and the last thing Erika mentioned about this poem, putting in parentheses the race, is one of the things that I’m really drawn to. And it’s also one of the gestures that this poem makes that brings a productive self-consciousness to the writing. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, but the parentheses embed the surface of the poem with the difficulty of the territory. The speaker is aware of what’s at stake, at least in my mind, because of those parenthetical racializations. For me, listening to Erika read the poem, it is hard to hear the description of the police encounter with Philando Castile and his family. It still feels very raw. It hurts to hear that violence described. However, I don’t go as far as to say Erika should not have written that.
I appreciate the questions the poem wants to engage. I appreciate that Erika makes a specific connection in this poem between raising a specific Black child and the specific threats to her child in this specific country in these specific times. The speaker here is willing to open their lives to let us see their unique and individual anxiety about this reality. The awareness of specificity I think is important here because context and subject position and detail are key. There’s a general risk here because race is like touching a hot stove for so many people as a topic, but the risk seems worth it for this white speaker to contemplate what her family life looks like versus Philando Castile’s family, and what protections she affords and doesn’t.
Yeah. I mean, one thing I’ve sensed in Erika’s work is that the love of her children is over and abiding. I want to say, it is the seed that makes this poem possible in some ways. In the course of the poem, she’s with her son, someone asks his age and it sends her on this whole meditation out of the love for her son. So there’s a sentiment that drives all the questions that she’s asking that are real questions for anyone, but particularly they feel like they’re okay, at least in my mind, for her to be asking.
So this is an essay I am dying to write, but I haven’t had time. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot this week with the Supreme court confirmation hearings is transracial adoption. If you read Amy Coney Barrett’s statement that she opened with, there’s a description of all her kids— and the first thing struck me was the systemic racism implicit in how she describes her white children, versus her Black adopted children. If you look at the descriptions of her children, her white children are all described as smart and if you read the descriptions of her Black children, she describes her daughter as being strong as a man and that she essentially doesn’t stop talking. And she describes her Black son as “happy-go-lucky.” All of her other children are described by their intellectual abilities.
There’s a poem there.
Yeah and I’m not the only person who noticed it. My friend Camille Dungy also called it out on social media. I don’t even know how to articulate this other than to say that just the act of parenting a Black child doesn’t mean that someone is not racist— in the same way, we all live in a misogynist society, which means that there’s obviously women who have embodied that and put that back out.
Just because I’m parenting a Black child, doesn’t give me the right to do anything. And so I think that’s something that I’m very conscious of, especially watching some of this stuff happen more publicly in the last week. I think we’re in a really challenging moment right now that’s sort of interesting in that things that once were in a way under the surface…I have a poem in Holy Moly Carry Me called “Too strong“. There’s a moment in it where I list all of the things that threaten sons generally: “the lion, the bullets, the streets, racist/ cops, heroin, despair.” When I would read that poem out three years ago and say “racist cops,” it felt still like a politically challenging moment if I didn’t know the crowd. Ever since the George Floyd protests started, this is no longer, to me, a politically challenging assertion. It’s just a fact that’s more likely to be commonly acknowledged. It was always a statement of fact that there’s systemic racism built into our police departments across the country but the way I could feel it being received by the audience is different now. Before, I could feel the mixed reception.
I think one thing that pandemic has done is to give room for a case like George Floyd to take on the life that similar cases should have in the past. And I think a big change has occurred. I just hope we can hang onto it in terms of people’s awareness.
Chanda, how about you and how you think about empathy and appropriation in terms of your own work.
My responses are similar to Erika on a basic ethical level in terms of writing about stories that also belong to other people or are other people’s experiences. In Approaching the Fields I am often writing about my parents and their stories. There are definitely stories I did not write about because my parents would say I shouldn’t. I always honor that. There are ways in which I would make omissions or highlight certain aspects and let other things fall away so that I could preserve my parents’ and relatives personal lives. The book takes place in rural Tennessee, but you don’t necessarily know exactly where because I still have family in these places. There are high racial tensions in these places with experiences and memories shared across the color line.
I want to go back for a moment to Erika mentioning the recent decision of The New York Times to capitalize Black. And the decision to capitalize or not capitalize the “B” is something that I think about from a different perspective. In my book, there’s a sequence called, “But We Lived.” When the father is the speaker in the poem’s sections, Black gets capitalized. But when the mother is speaking, the black is not capitalized. It’s a small thing, but an important detail. My capitalization and non-capitalization is a nod towards different personalities, personal associations, and politics on how one represents their race and sees themselves in the continuous current of shifting racial designations over time of Black-American people. I also have a poem that talks about using African American and Negro. What we call ourselves versus the ways in which we are labeled, these are important conversations. I wanted that to be part of the book.
Are you talking about your poem, “Black-eyed Susans”? That’s a fantastic poem. Do you want to read it? Not to interrupt you, but just because we are talking about how people are labeled.
In Tennessee, I spot them all over—
rimming ditches, clustered in understory.
Button faces obeying skyward,
floret-skirts breezed through, trembling.
Black-eyed Susans. What you pick to claim
who loves you and who loves you not.
First flowers trudging up June hills—
what my father calls nigger daisies.
Hard to forget how he’s learned them—
cursed like a weed, too common
to be handsome. Their flagrant
canary rays swish around a head, blue-
black, violet and brown. It’s a flower
that roots anywhere—in fields exposed
to blunt sun. Thriving despite
rocky soil, drought,
and threatens to overrun other
native plants. In a lifetime my father’s
had to choose the boxes for himself
from Colored, Negro, Afro- and
African-American, to Black. No one true
name for things. It was an Englishman
observing flora in the wilderness
that named the daisy—of the aster family,
Rudbeckia Hirta,—after a friend.
Nigger Daisy, Gloriosa, Indian Summer,
Yellow Girls, Black-eyed Susans,
among roadside rubble and dust,
grown up from disturbed lands.
That’s an incredible poem. This idea of not really being able to name something, no matter how hard you try. I feel like I’ve read that somewhere in one of your poems too, Erika.
On another note, do you each want to talk about the pandemic and how it has or hasn’t affected how you’re writing, what you’re writing. How your individual self feels relative to all the unknown factors around us?
It’s such a change and overwhelming that I’m just trying to think if I have something succinct and coherent to say.
Or who you are reading, who you think is really exciting now?
I will say I’m reading a lot, at night, before bed. It’s saving me. Recently, I’ve read, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe; Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres; The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand, and The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer.
I will say I had a tweet go viral yesterday. It said something like, shout out to caregivers who have no time to write and are only alone in the shower. That’s pretty much where I’m at.
I have a seven-year-old and a 13-year-old in school, for two to three hours a day, on opposite schedules. I mean, I spent more than an hour in the car yesterday, just picking up everyone and dropping them off and teaching my classes and meeting with my students and dealing with my job obligations. I’m not reading anything. I’m not embarrassed to say this. I will say this straight up. I’m reading books I have to blurb, which I’m three to four weeks behind on— and one of which I just bailed out on, because my mom had a stroke last week.
My normal ability to focus alongside my caregiving and job abilities is at zero. It takes me twice as long to do anything, including comment on my students’ work. And I’m teaching a grad seminar this year that’s large, I have thesis advisees and my grad students. So the pandemic is impacting everyone really differently and what’s happening right now, I think for a lot of professors, and I’m not going to speak for everyone, is our students are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They are extremely isolated and extremely lonely. They want more from me. And I have almost no free time. So I’m not reading for pleasure. I’m reading the stuff I’m teaching in my courses. I’m reading my students’ work. I’m reading stuff I’m blurbing and I’m reading for contests I’m judging or applications I’m evaluating. But I have not read a book that I’m not teaching this summer.
I’ve written almost nothing. Anything I’ve written was something on deadline that someone asked me to write, often pre-pandemic, that I’m still catching up on. I’m used to writing in the middle of stuff. I’ve written three books on my phone notepad, but the kind of writing I want to do now is new and nuanced enough— and wants to talk about things like race or is private enough— that it’s not something I can do in the middle of my kitchen while making sure no one’s destroying anything.
That’s a statement. What you’re saying, if I’m hearing you, is that what you want to write about has a certain intensity to it that won’t show itself in such a busy time, in such a crazy time.
And for me, at least that’s been true. I’ve been really impressed by people like Rick Barot who wrote a beautiful chapbook https://www.instagram.com/duringthepandemic/?hl=en where all the poems start with “During the pandemic.” It’s the one thing I’ve been able to read for pleasure because the poems are small and they’re very resonant with me right now. And it’s something I go back to you, but other than that…
I think I read a poem of his in an anthology that Alice Quinn edited called, Together in a Strange Time. I think the poem was from that chapbook.
And I was curious how many of the people in that anthology about the pandemic were caregivers? Because I’d wager it’s very few.
Yes. I hear you. How about you Chanda? I see I’ve touched a sore point, Erika. I’m sorry.
There are a lot of pandemic-induced work obligations, caregiving responsibilities, and self preservation needs that are new and intense, and those are difficult to keep up with on their own. I haven’t written as much as I’d like, but I do keep a personal journal to note the times and my feelings.
Luckily, Oberlin’s a very small place. My kids can go outside and see friends while the weather is nice; we have friends over to social distance around a backyard fire, and that’s been a relief. But this pandemic also coincides with a long refrain of anti-Black violence in the media. Since we’re all home now, I have more time to work through that with my children, which I think is something that is really needed, at the level at which they’re ready for it. Because I think they feel it acutely; my children are 9 and 7, and my son is the oldest. They don’t fully articulate this, but in what they do and don’t say, it is on their minds. My kids are biracial, my husband is white, and it brings up identity for them. It brings up physical concerns for themselves, me, their relatives, their friends. They care, and sometimes they want to wish the entire subject away, but it’s not conceptual. It’s wonderful to see signs of support in neighbors’ yards, but it’s very personal, it’s the bodies we walk around in.
Is this something, Chanda, this working through these issues with your kids and seeing the signs in people’s yards and you just living in this world… Is this something that you anticipate bringing into your poetry in some way in the future?
Yes to the living in this world and with kids. I’m working on a second book right now. And I have some poems that are coming out soon or are about to come out in various journals.
I lived in Israel for six and a half years before I started teaching at Oberlin in 2017. So, I’m writing about that time, about the place, my life there with my children and race is a part of that.
My brother lived there for a number of years in Jerusalem and then in Zichron.
We lived southeast of Tel Aviv in a smallish municipality. There are a lot of issues about race, skin color, identity, assimilation, religion, and nationalism and culture that came up for us when we lived there. I am gratified to experience living in a culture different from the one I grew up in. You see many of the narratives you know and learn and tell yourself through a completely different lens. This was sometimes liberating and sometimes an opportunity to challenge myself about my own ideas. I also experienced new perspectives regarding being Black in another country and in another culture. So, a lot of my new poems about having children and race start there for me, with their own sense of waking up to this idea of who they are and how they move and are received in the world. And, I’m reflecting on my own new sense of the manifestation of race in different places, but also some of the delight of being Black outside the US, experiencing a greater connection to a global Black diaspora.
When Erika visited Oberlin two years ago to give a reading… There was a small break between events and we sat down and I said, how do I write about Israel? Do I write about Israel? I had and still have what felt like huge and heavy questions, but I think one question for me was about appropriation or speaking about cultures and politics that were not mine from birth. I converted to Judaism. My husband grew up Jewish.
It’s a place where there are a lot of opinions and there’s a lot going on politically, socially, and culturally. So I was having a difficult time figuring out how do I even begin to situate myself in relationship to such an intense place and in my writing. What will I allow myself to say and how? Erica was really helpful and basically told me to go for it, tell your story. And I just said, okay, I’m going to listen to that. I’m going to stop worrying about Israel writ-large. And slowly, slowly, I’ve been figuring out how to write about my life there.
Is there any guideline that you were able to find for yourself that you can articulate?
I think one thing that I’ve done is about craft. I started writing prose poems or what looks and feels more like a prose poem so I could be a little less distilled in my language, let in a little more range of subjects within the same poem and allow for longer descriptions. Although, some of the poems are quite short! I’ve also started using a 2nd person speaker in many of the poems, which has helped give me some distance on a part of my life that was recent. It also helps me see myself as a character who makes decisions, observes, feels, that, as the writer, I can also question a little easier. Same with my children, they are often in a poem as “the children,” a kind of character. It’s very obvious sometimes what country or countries I’m talking about, but I also allowed myself to just be somewhere that’s not America as an immigrant. There are flora and fauna references that if you were familiar with the landscape and the environment, you would pick up on as obviously being of a particular place, but if you’re not, you may not pick up on that. It’s a kind of masking so I can gain perspective on my own particular experience. It must be limited in that way. There are definitely many lives there I cannot and should not speak for.
Thank you for describing your process in this way, Chanda.
It has been so interesting to hear you both share your views. Thank you for giving these questions so much thought and heart and take good care during these scary times which are looking a little brighter now that the Biden-Harris team is in.
Chanda Feldman is the author of Approaching the Fields (LSU Press). Recent poems appear in the Gettysburg Review, Poetry, and the Southern Review. She has received awards and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Cave Canem Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, and she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Cornell University and a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago. Chanda is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College.
Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010)—a 2009 National Poetry Series winner; Copia (BOA Editions, 2014); and Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018), winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Her poems have been published in Best American Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, and elsewhere. Meitner is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her sixth book, Useful Junk, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2022.