NEA Literature Fellowships

Rachel Richardson

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2013 - Poetry)

Portrait of Leadbelly in Pinstriped Suit

In the distance, wild blue cane, the fugitive strain.

He bows          in them old cotton fields back home.

Angola: twelve-bar blues, fiber thick in his fist

and the law cuts him deals, leads him in and out of farms.

The boll is parenthesis, the weevil his voice.

And the city takes him back, in soot-stained arms,

furnace breath, to joints he shakes like the devil

has shimmied up inside his leather boot.

Blue cane in ten-foot topsoil, where no man dares plough.

Because one day he'll raise his head against the whip,

smile at the overseer, swear his name's

Mister Ledbetter, chains or no.               How sweet the sound.

(first appeared in COPPERHEAD. Used with of permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press)

Rachel Richardson was born in Berkeley, California, in 1979. She received a BA from Dartmouth College, an MFA from the University of Michigan, an MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her first collection of poems, Copperhead, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2011. She has taught creative writing in several men's prisons as well as universities around the country, and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband and two daughters.

Photo by David Roderick

Author's Statement

My first book of poems was set in northern Louisiana, and dealt with my long family history and legacy in that place, drawing largely on childhood experience, social issues, and family lore. I am currently at work on a manuscript that finds its metaphors in broader social history and the natural world. The range of my subjects--Captain Cook and early maritime navigation, cartography, Sylvia Plath, new motherhood, suburban longing, whale behavior, carpentry, earthquakes…--is so diffuse as to seem unwieldy, but I am interested in making a book that is less bound by theme or place than my first book was. My own maritime navigation is in discovering what will tether these subjects together.

As the mother of two children (one only weeks old), my world is circumscribed and simultaneously blown open. I am writing from a strange place of little sleep and less silence, in which the ordinary and the magical constantly collide. Receiving the NEA Fellowship while in the roiling middle of these poems (and this life) provides great encouragement to keep steering further out, even when I can only see a few feet in front of me. More practically, the funding will support my taking a semester away from teaching to secure the time to focus and go deeper into this project. I am very thankful for it.