Archive for September, 2008

Note: This background goes with my poem, The Fall of Miss Sopa, Eater of Clay, in the preceding post.  Thanks to everyone who requested it.


I met Miss Sopa when I was a kid. When she walked into the room, it felt like God had just thudded up to me in a pair of muddy men’s workboots. She took my face in her warm hands and said, “Girl, there’s some stories going on in them big eyes.” I only saw her a few times after that, because my family moved. But I have loved this woman for many years. She appears in my work in different forms, sometimes in different races or genders.

Of course, Sopa’s not her real name. I barely knew her, and I only knew she was Katrina’s grandma. Even in a relatively modern era, kids in our neck of the woods didn’t run up to adults and address them. The Sopa stories I know are from Katrina and from sneaking around the edges of that adult world and listening. I can’t swear to the accuracy, but the stories fascinate me.

Miss Sopa ate clay. According to Katrina, Miss Sopa made all of the girls in her family go to the shore every week for worship and clay eating. Growing up in the American South, I have heard many stories of people, both African American and Caucasian, who eat clay. I’m certainly not an expert on geophagy, but as far as I know, the origins in the U.S. come from slavery. Many people worldwide still eat clay from hunger. Some people just like it or say it has nutritional value, though I have read articles that warn against it due to toxins in the soil. Some get “hooked” on the taste and crave it. The ones who are hungry haunt my sleep.

Miss Sopa’s family came from slavery in Georgia. In brutal conditions, some slaves ate clay in order to survive. There are accounts of bastards who would actually put masks or wire cages on the faces of the slaves to keep them from eating clay. They were afraid they’d lose their “possessions” to sickness from eating dirt. In reality, the people were eating clay out of hunger and malnutrition!

Miss Sopa’s family was eventually freed and moved to Carolina to be closer to other family members. Needless to say, even after they were free, they still had an extremely rough life. Miss Sopa didn’t live through legal slavery, but she lived through the effects of it, which I am told were just as bad. She lived through the Depression as an African American. She lived through Jim Crow. Even after laws were changed on the books, she lived through attitudes. And on top of all that, she was a woman. She worked the fields with babies strapped to her back. Her lot was not an easy one.

By the time I met her, Miss Sopa wasn’t hungry and her child bearing years were long over. But her clay eating had turned into a ritual combined with Christianity and elements of worship from her African homeland. Miss Sopa shaped this into her own form of Christian worship by the shore.

White clay is often the choice of clay eaters in the South. But the clay I recall was either red in the piedmont or bluish gray on the coast, hence the blue in the poem. Miss Sopa’s “fall” in the poem is her fall from grace, but in a good way. It was a fall from the role white society gave her to play as as a black woman. Once I heard her say that when she got old, she stopped caring what white people thought of her or did to her. She said that freed her to do as she damn well pleased.

I used to give Miss Sopa birth and death dates, but now I just keep her at around 100. Now I’m old enough to realize that Miss Sopa will never die. I’ve hesitated to post the poem, because I want it to be perfect, and it’s not. I’ve been working on it for a long time, and it’s still not finished. I could do a thousand more revisions, and it will never be half as good as she is. My poems aren’t worthy enough to tie Miss Sopa’s shoes.

In this quick bloggy world of ours, if you have actually paused long enough to read all of this, I thank you. And I hope you love Miss Sopa as much as I do.

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The Fall of Miss Sopa, Eater of Clay

by Julie Buffaloe-Yoder

Sopa Abraham Botswana Johnson
b. 1907
  Before three men and ten babies

parted her legs with a prayer,

Miss Sopa danced at the shore

with the women of time,

the women who ate clay

and kneeled naked

in autumn water at dawn.


She danced to the beat

of the beacon, bright

in her bones, then gone.

She danced a celebration

of Someday.

She danced in the breath

of the water,

water the breath

for all men.


Makers of clay, eaters of clay,

morphine for the women—

blue gray and smooth,

cool through her teeth.

Her stomach filled with clay.

She sang for breath

in spite of the clay

in her throat.


Men came and babies came.

Only the babies stayed

to bite the ends

of her night numb breasts.

Only a scar remained

on her sweet dark cheek,

shaped like an open mouth,

full of fat, white teeth.


She lived in a shack

held together by shadows

and filled the holes

in her walls with clay–


Clay that cracked

and crumbled on the floor.

Clay swept outside

by a pinestraw broom.

Clay gummed babies

(eight was all she had left).


One got caught

in a chicken wire fence.

One lost an eye on Good Friday.

One lost her foot in a Goodwill shoe

when an axe dropped

from a large, hard hand.


Summers, she worked in quiet dirt,

through shimmers of heat, each year

a baby strapped to her back, rocked

to sleep by the bending; her songs

captured in straw baskets rustled

tobacco leaves like hungry birds.


She taught her daughters

how to walk tall

in thick-skinned mud

where she learned to crawl.


One by one her babies left.

One by one they came back

like cats, proud of the clay

they held in their mouths

but not enough teats

to go around.


Stretchmarks of red spread

across the setting sky

that last fall when Miss Sopa

led the women, hand in hand,

clothed in skin, three miles

to the Promised Shore

beyond sun dotted woods.


They covered their tongues

with a thunderstorm of mud.

In a crash of tambourines,

they washed away the blood

beside a leaf-wet, fallen pine.


A shrine for the sinners,

the makers of clay.

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The good folks at The Poetry Collaborative invited me to participate in a poetry prompt. The exercise uses American Sentences written by people in the collaborative. An American Sentence is a poetic form created by Allen Ginsberg. Basically, American Sentences are limited to seventeen syllables.

Our exercise was to take the American Sentences and arrange them in a cento. Again, I’m being basic, but a cento is a poem which is composed entirely of lines used from another author (or authors) and arranged in a specific pattern.

My poem is not a cento at all. I was inspired by the beautiful sentences I saw over at the collaborative, and I just stole words.

That’s the beauty of The Poetry Collaborative. There are no rigid rules. It is meant to be a catalyst for creativity. I would like to do a cento with these sentences eventually, but for now, I have a working draft of a new poem. Please check them out. And play along!   

If you go to their home page, you can see the American Sentences which were written for the prompt.  Go to this link to see the original idea: 


I’ve been having a lot of fun looking at what they have done at the collaborative. There is excellent work going on over there. Be sure to tell them just how awesome they are. 

Here’s my draft. It’s a love poem for my Mr. Gator. Come to think of it, a gator is a good metaphor for me. A female gator ferociously protects her young. Has a thick hide. Loves the swamp. Might attack if hungry. Otherwise, she’ll just stare at you and wonder why you’re in her woods. Has a big mouth. Yep. That’s me.


Alligators have them.
Silent, surfacing slow
searching for dens
in winter, forgetting
water, food, breath.

I have them, too.
Salt-blue, suspended,
closing the lenses,
waiting for winter
to take me down
low, shifting
black water trails,

between sweet
cypress knees,
creaking pine, sky
split open, red,
where you and I
will dig deep

then sink soft
into a muddy bed
of bubbled swamp,
past sleeping snakes,
through dark roots,
one half-moment
of slow beats,
so warm, gone.

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I tried to hold back in my last artist spotlight about my daughter, Amber. I don’t want to embarrass her with my gushing mother love stuff, because I truly respect her as an artist. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. Amber is an amazing talent. She also has a heart that’s larger than all outdoors. I could go on about Amber for five hundred pages and still have many stories left to tell. She is my soul.  She is my joy.

But before I break out the orchestra, please take a look at Amber’s beautiful art prints. She did them for a class when she was asked to create work with the theme of literature from her childhood. Have you ever seen Highlights magazine for children?  If so, you’ll probably remember the hidden pictures.  Inspired by the hidden picture format, Amber has created and “hidden” several characters from her favorite childhood books within these prints.  In one of them, she has also hidden a childhood picture of herself. 

Of course, the real prints are even more beautiful. I love the dark, dreamlike textures and colors. I wish I could show them to you in real life, as some of the smaller details aren’t visible in a limited blog space. But if you look closely, the hidden pictures will appear.

My poem below the prints is my attempt to do with words what Amber did with her pictures. I also tried to “hide” several references to my favorite books we read.

A tip of the hat to Amber A. Yoder. The A is for awesome.



Four Prints by Amber A. Yoder




by Julie Buffaloe-Yoder


Carolina August noon.

My feet stick on

the hardwood floor.

The humidity hangs

in unwashed sheets and

curls your hair in rings.



I tell you not to lick

the rusted window screens.

You hop from foot to foot

in little lavender sandals,

trying hard to wait for me

to scrape enough change

from the bottom of a drawer

so we can walk to the store

to buy sugar and eggs.



I knew it was too hot

to bake a cake

but you asked

so sweetly.



I load up a red wagon with you,

a picture book about a magic cake,

two dirty gray kittens, several rocks

of various shapes and colors,

a bear named Frére Jacques,

a dead lizard you found on the porch,

sugar, and I hope the eggs don’t bake

before we do.



I have never seen anyone so happy

to heat up an old, pot scarred stove

on a ninety-eight degree day.



We mix and lick and before I know it,

I’m having as much fun as you are,

and you start shedding your clothes

until you’re buck naked, shiny, bright,

wild, eggshells in your eyebrows,

some of your curls paper machéd

to the back of your head.



Drumbeats begin and a jungle

of curls grows across the kitchen,

up the walls, over the windows,

to the ceiling, and we get lost

in the shimmer shake shine

of that slick curling rhythm,

sugar glazed drops in our eyes.



Over thunder cakes we fly

in a little red canoe, a wide tide

of wind curls and turns us to

the bright lumps of giving trees,

upstream fairies fighting pirates.

We chew through owl moons

to taste honey pots of tiny mice

under gold bridges where

rainbow scales float

and we grow sweet

terrible teeth and roar.



Big green monsters go away.

Goat-footed trolls sleep deep.



I take our chocolate flop

out way too late

and God bless you,

you look up at me

like I’m a genius.



I know you will tip toe

to my bedroom tonight,

dropping hot little feathers

of breath around my neck.



When the rusty windows thunder,

you tell me it’s only the lightning

that gets you in the end.



But it’s only in the end I know

we’ll hold each other in the heat

like strands of curls cut free. 


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