Sunday, November 11, 2018

#38 Backstory of the Poem "Women of the Fields" by Andrena Zawinski

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***This is the thirty-eighth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

#38 Backstory of the Poem 
“Women of the Fields” by Andrena Zawinski

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail.  My spouse and I were driving down to Monterey after visiting her mother in the Central Valley of California. En route, we passed through Watsonville and Salinas, where, like in the San Joaquin, you can’t miss seeing workers in droves pick fruits and vegetables from fields skirting the highways. After stopping at a roadside stands for fresh berries, we made our way through Santa Cruz, a contrast as a college town scene with beaches.  
 (Below:  Women of in the fields of Watsonville.  Credit :  United States Department of Agriculture)

It was then a radio show came on promoting a documentary that addressed issues facing women who worked in the fields. This piqued my interest since I had already written and published poetry on field workers: “The Pickers” (published in The Progressive and elsewhere), “Intoxicating Morning” (published in Ale House Review), “On the Road Hijacked by Memory” (that most recently appeared in Aeolian Harp Series: anthology of poetry folios Vol. 3 from Glass Lyre Press). (Above Right:  famous migrant women photo attributed to Dorothea Lane.  Public Domain)
Around that time, I had been giving some thought to agricultural exemptions that allowed children to work the fields along with quite a bit of thought to horrific work conditions for men, but I hadn’t yet turned my attention to women being part of that labor force. In the car, I started jotting down notes of images I had seen, random thoughts that flooded my head, things to later look into, when the radio show turned to sexual assault as something women had to contend with almost routinely.  (Above Right: Woman migrant worker in Salinas, California. Public Domain) 
Later I was haunted by this, spent days reading about these women. Then the combination of that rather haphazard research meshed with characters who began to loom large in my imagination and spilled as a catalog onto the page; almost like real essences, as I fine tuned them, draft upon draft, they became very close to the heart for me.

The poem at first was no more than a hodgepodge of notes, often my own handwriting indecipherable in its rushes, yet finally the poem took shape into its form. After finishing the piece, I dedicated it to Dolores Huerta (, cofounder (with Cesar Chavez) of United Farmworkers (, who after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Obama White House, said not enough was done in the Civil Rights Movement for women, declaring herself in her 80’s a born-again-feminist.

What month and year did you start writing this poem?  I started the poem sometime in the summer of 2014 and finished it a month or so later after many interruptions and drafts. An incessant revisionist, I never keep old drafts because they remind me of the mess writing can sometimes be in its false starts, throat clearing, its stumbling around before getting up on strong legs. (Right:  Andrena Zawinski in 2014.  Copyright permission grated by Andrena Zawinski for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?  I hope readers will recognize women who are not part of the  Me Too movement, women who cannot risk raising their voices, women who all too often are taken for granted, the invisible women who do the work others will not. (Left:  Andrena Zawinski giving a poetry reading in January of 2018.  Copyright permission granted by Andrena Zawinski for this CRC Blog Post Only)
This is especially important to me as a granddaughter of immigrants who were relegated to the dirtiest work in steel mills and coal mines, as a woman whose own father in an inheritance of those dirty jobs (and more often laid off than not) got lost in pills and alcohol, as a woman whose own mother worked night shifts on assembly lines, cleaned houses, took care of other people’s children. These women of the fields voices are ones I wish to have heard just as I raise those from my own working poor roots. (Above Right:  California vineyard attributed to and copyright permission granted by Andrena Zawinski for this CRC Blog Post Only)

Has this poem been published before?  And if yes where?:
An earlier version of this poem appeared in Thomas Merton Center’s The New People: Pittsburgh’s Peace and Justice Newspaper (2014) and then in the San Francisco Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthology Overthrowing Capitalism: Beyond Endless War, Racist Police, and Sexist Elites (2015). It also appears in Borderlands and Crossroads:Writing the Motherland anthology (2016) and most recently in my book, LANDINGS from Kelsay Books (2017).

Women of the Fields

—for Dolores Huerta

The women of the fields clip red bunches of grapes
in patches off neatly tilled farmland in the San Joaquin,
clip sweet globes they an no longer stand to taste.
Just twenty miles shy of Santa Cruz beach babies in thongs,
Pleasure Beach surfers on longboards, all the cool convertibles
speeding Cabrillo Highway, women line as pickers—
back bent over another summer’s harvest.

The campesinas labor without shade tents or water buffalos,
shrouded in oversized shirts and baggie work pants, disguised
as what they are not, faces masked in bandanas under cowboy hats
in fils de calzón:

         The young one named Ester taken in the onion patch
         with the field boss’ gardening shears at her throat.
         The older one called Felicia isolated in the almond orchard
         and pushed down into a doghouse. The pretty one, Linda,
         without work papers, asked to bear a son in trade
         for a room and job in the pumpkin patch, Isabel, ravaged
         napping under a tree at the end of a dream after a long
         day picking pomegranates, violación de un sueño
         Salomé on the apple ranch forced up against the fence
         as the boss bellowed ¡Dios mío! to her every no, no, no.

The promotoras flex muscle in words, steal off into night
face-to-face to talk health care, pesticides, heatstroke, rape,
meet tally accounts—forced to exchange panties for paychecks
in orchards, on ranches, in fields, in truck beds—to speak out
to risk joblessness or deportation to an old country, a foreign soil.

Women of the fields, like those before them, like those
who will trail after—las Chinas, Japonesas, Filipinas—
to slave for frozen food empires in pesticide drift,
residue crawling along skin, creeping into nostrils
and pregnancies it ends as they hide from La Migra
in vines soaked in toxins or crawl through sewer tunnels,
across railroad tracks, through fences to pick our sweet berries,
for this, this: la fruta del diablo.

Andrena Zawinski, born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, is a veteran teacher of writing from early childhood through college. She is an activist poet and mainstay in the San Francisco Bay Area Poetry community. (Right Andrena Zawinski at the San Francisco port in January of 2017.  Copyright permission granted by Andrena Zawinski for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

Her most recent poetry collection is Landings from Kelsay Books, and she has two previous books: Something About from Blue Light Press, a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award recipient and Traveling in Reflected Light from Pig Iron Press, a Kenneth Patchen Prize in Poetry. She also compiled and edited Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry from Scarlet Tanager Books. Her poems have received accolades for free verse, form, lyricism, spirituality, and social concern. She is Features Editor at and founded and runs the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon.


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

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