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Julia Fields

(b. 1938)


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(b. 1938), poet, short fiction writer, teacher, and dramatist.

Growing up on an Alabama farm, Julia Fields imbibed a love of nature, words, and the cadences of biblical language from both parents and a commitment to craftsmanship from her preacher-carpenter father. By age twelve she had already memorized verses from the Bible and poems of Lewis Carroll, William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, and even Henry VanDyke. She recited their lines to herself as she knelt over her garden plot. She mused that poets, such as Wordsworth on Toussaint L'Ouverture, were writing about blacks “before we did.”

In seventh grade, her teacher recognized Fields's talent when she assigned the writing of an original poem. The summer she was sixteen, watching the changing colors of the sky while bringing in the cattle for milking, Fields was inspired to write “The Horizon”, her first poem to be published (in Scholastic magazine). Fields attended the Presbyterian Knoxville College in Tennessee on scholarship. Dr. Rosey Pool, a concentration camp survivor who had known Anne Frank, visited the school. After hearing some of Fields's poems, she included several in her collection Beyond the Blues (1962).

Fields earned her master's degree at Breadloaf and Middlebury College in 1961. She taught in Alabama, then went to the University of Edinburgh in 1963. She was happy in Burns's country because she knew his poems by heart. At Rosey Pool's flat in London she met Langston Hughes, who introduced her to South African writer Richard Rive, who remembered her as statuesque and as a striking beauty (Writing Black, 1981). Fields had taught Rive's story “The Bench” to children in Alabama to calm them during times when white racists were driving by shooting. South Africa's apartheid struck a resonant chord with Americans living in the segregated South.

Influences on Fields were tall, elegant Washington poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who reminded her of her great aunt Sally, and Robert Hayden, whose natural elegance also impressed her and whom she admired for giving readings and trying to get to the heart of poetry despite his poor eyesight and all the criticism against him at one time. She has regretted that mulatto poets such as Sterling A. Brown and Jean Toomer wrote so little about living pale, for that would have helped mulatto children.

Feeling split between teaching and writing poetry, Fields searched for insights. She spent two years in the Library of Congress reading John Ruskin, for example. She says that thousands of poems have come to her over the years. One night poems would not let her sleep and she got up twenty-five times to write them down.

Starting with a commonplace subject, Fields strikes out for something of beauty, such as her poem “Vigil” with its turns on Lorraine Hansberry and Macbeth. A relative commented to Fields on a lady who was a prostitute but got up every Sunday morning to take the neighborhood children to church. Fields considered that anecdote a modern-day Jesus and Mary Magdalene story. She believes that all great cultures have had this particular group of women: the “hopeless young and gifted whores.”

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Subjects: Literature.


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