Andrea Cheng on Writing Biography in Verse

Andrea Cheng image

Andrea Cheng is the author of several critically-acclaimed books for young readers. Her most Guest bloggerrecent novel, Etched in Clay, tells the story in verse of Dave the Potter, an enslaved man, poet, and master craftsperson whose jars (many of which are inscribed with his poetry and writings) are among the most sought-after pieces of Edgefield pottery. Etched in Clay recently won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award.

When I heard an NPR review of Leonard Todd’s book, Carolina Clay, I knew that Dave’s was a story I wanted to Etched in Claytell.  And from the start, I knew that I wanted to tell it in verse.   Readers often ask me why.  I didn’t make this decision consciously, but subconsciously, I think there were reasons.

The evidence of Dave’s life is fragmentary: pots and shards and bills of sale.    This means that each small piece of evidence stands for something more, something much larger than the object itself.  For example, the first bill of sale shows that Harvey Drake purchased a teenage boy for six hundred dollars.  He was “country born” with “good teeth” and “a straight back. “ (Etched in Clay, p. 7) There is so much sorrow in these few words.  A person is being evaluated and then sold like an animal.  After a quick transaction, he becomes the property of someone else.  The only way I know to allow a reader to feel this sorrow is through the intensity of a poem.

And of course, Dave was a poet, so it seems fitting to tell his life in verse.  Sometimes he had fun with words and puns and tongue twisters like mag-nan-i-mous and se-ver-it-y. Other times he expressed the sorrow of his life in cryptic couplets:

I wonder where is all my relation

friendship to all—and every nation.

Poetry is intense and versatile.  Each word and each phrase is loaded and can hold multiple meanings.  This is the way that Dave wrote, and it is the only way that I could attempt to represent his life.

The other question people often ask is why I chose to tell the story in multiple voices.

The first poems I wrote were from Dave’s point of view.  I started with:

Another Name

Illustration from Etched in Clay

Illustration from Etched in Clay

            Dave, 1815

Master says ”Dave—

That suits you.

That’s your name.”

He can call me

Whatever he pleases,

Tom or John or Will or Dave,

No matter.

 

I had another name once.

I can’t remember the sound of it;

But I know the voice,

smooth and soft,

that whispered it

close to my ear

in the still night.

And then

my mother was gone.

After writing several poems in Dave’s voice, I wanted to explore the other people in Dave’s life.  What did they say?  How did they feel?  How did they relate to Dave?  What about Harvey Drake, a young man sent by his uncle to purchase a slave?  Was he confident in making this purchase?  Did he have doubts?   What about Eliza, a house slave thought to be Dave’s first wife?  I cannot imagine the sorrow of their separation when she was sold and taken to Alabama.  I wanted to hear from Dave’s subsequent owners: Abner Landrum, John Landrum,  Reuben Drake, Lewis Miles, and BF Landrum.  Lewis Miles and Dave seemed to have become friends of sorts, even joking about the way to place a handle on a clay pot.  And then there was the despicable Benjamin Franklin Landrum who  says “It takes a strong whip/to  control these slaves.” (EIC p. 101.)  After a terrible beating, Dave finds one of the slaves “…hanging limp/and her pulse is gone.”

Illustration from Etched in Clay

Illustration from Etched in Clay

Multiple voices can allow the readers a glimpse into the minds of various characters.  Why do they do what they do?  How do they rationalize their actions to themselves and others?  How do they relate to other characters?  With multiple voices, the writer can create a world.

While doing the research for Etched in Clay, I read articles about Dave’s pottery and viewed photographs of his jugs.   I read about the history of South Carolina and the Landrum Family that owned Dave through much of his life.  I read hundreds of slave narratives.  And then I drove 11 hours from Ohio to South Carolina.

While traipsing across the Carolina fields where Dave once lived and worked, it started drizzling.  After a short storm, the sun came out, and I saw that the field was littered with shards of pottery, glistening in the morning light.  I picked up a few shards and wondered if perhaps they were Dave’s.  Then I walked downhill to the creek where Dave and others dug the clay.  The water was cold and running fast.  The banks were steep.  I held a handful of wet clay in my hand.  In the evening, at the Edgefield Inn, near Dave’s home, I wrote many of the poems in Etched in Clay.  Like the shards I had seen, I hope that they create a whole.

Further Reading:

An interview with Andrea Cheng about Etched in Clay in School Library Journal

A look at how Andrea Cheng made the woodcut illustrations for Etched in Clay

3 Comments

  1. christyhalebks
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Andrea, this book is exquisite and moving. I agree that there’s nothing like poetry to address the intensity of life. Your woodcuts are also fabulous. Congratulations on a stunning book!

  2. Posted April 13, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful verse! Need to read the whole book!

  3. Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I AM so pleased ETCHED IN CLAY is the recipient of the Lee Bennnett Hopkins/Penn State University 2014 Poetry Award.

    Both your words and art are heartfelt.

    Lee Bennett Hopkins


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Looking Past the Cover • Children's Book Publishing • Diversity and Race • Conversation « Andrea Cheng on Writing Biography in Verse […]

  2. […] In Clay’s Andrea Cheng. When researching Dave’s life and drawing inspiration for her verses, Andrea Cheng integrated the small pieces of evidence of Dave’s life, including poems on his pots and the bills of […]

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