Views of Life, Straightforward and Spare
‘The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010’
Review by Dwight Garner
In her introduction to the excellent 1973 anthology “The Poetry of Black America,” Gwendolyn Brooks suggested that there were essentially two varieties of young black poets then extant. One type was made up of those who worked from what she called “stormy resentments” and “may have begun their careers with columns of expletives” or exhortations to “kill the honky kill the honky kill the honky.”
There’s little debate about which side of this divide the poet Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010 at the age of 73, fell on. Her verse was spare, plainspoken and shorn of rhyme, so much so that when she placed the words “salt” and “fault” together in one poem in the late 1980s, she was moved to warn readers of this potential speed bump by titling it “Poem With Rhyme in It.”
Lucille Clifton: Interview
by Jacqueline Jones Lamon
Mosaic #17 January 2007
Lucille Clifton is a compassionate poet of vision and clarity. A woman who takes great care in the crafting of her poems, her contributions to the world of poetry over the past thirty years have included Mercy (2004);Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, winner of the National Book Award; The Terrible Stories (1995), nominated for the National Book Award; The Book of Light (1993); Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991); Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (1987), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize;Two-Headed Woman (1980), also a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize; An Ordinary Woman (1974); and Good News About the Earth (1972).
Not long after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, we had the opportunity to have a telephone conversation. We spoke about life and death, the world of poetry, and how a poet might respond to her life in the face of calamity.
JJL: What is poetry to you?
LC: Other than “the unanswerable question”… It’s the heart speaking, maybe that, maybe the human heart speaking.
JJL: What is the work that poetry does or can do?
LC: Poetry can heal. Because it comes from a heart, it can speak to another heart. That’s why poetry is so big say after 9/11 and after this perilous time of the universe. It will be strong because it feeds us. And if one is not fed, one starves. If you don’t get any food, you starve physically and if you don’t get any food for the inside, your soul starves.
JJL: And those needs run rather parallel…
LC: They do, absolutely. A human is not sections, is not parts. Stanley Kunitz says that poetry is the story of what it means to be human in this place, at this time.
JJL: How does this differ from other forms of writing?
LC: I don’t know if it differs. I don’t write much other. I write for children; I write prose for children, but children are close to the heart, so I’m not sure that it does differ. My children’s books are more intellectually based quite often. I have something I want to say and I try to say it in its best way. Now, with poetry, something wants to be said, not “I have something I want to say.” And I’m a good listener, so if something wants to be said—the poem—the poem knows that I will accept it. I stay available to poetry all the time. I didn’t have the courses; I’ve never studied creative writing, though I do teach it. I’ve never had a class. And everybody knows I didn’t graduate from college, which isn’t necessary to be a poet. It is only necessary to be interested in humans and to be in touch with yourself as a human.
JJL: How do you approach the teaching of poetry?
LC: I try to bypass all the jargon. And I think I want people to understand the feeling part as much as anything. The academy, in which I’ve taught for over thirty years, does not validate as much the feeling part of humans. I’ve always said that I don’t want anyone to say that nobody ever told them, that they never heard that. So I don’t care if people don’t believe it or not; I know that there are lines and words put together that are very healing, you know? Somebody asked me why is it that I want to heal the world. I want to heal Lucille Clifton! And fortunately, I am very human just like all the other ones, all the other humans.
JJL: When we tell those interested in writing poetry to study poetry, what are we actually asking them to do?
LC: We’re asking them to discover their place among the world of poems. But we do it badly when we ask them to “study poetry.” It’s good for me to know the history of the work I’m in, it’s good for me to know that … but I love it, also. I love poetry, and all kinds. I try to make a space for all kinds of things, not just the approved or validated ones. My students know that I love Bach. I don’t mind saying that I also love Aretha. I love the range of things that speak directly to me. It’s a mysterious doing, you know. It’s not just intellectual. If it were, all the really smart people would be poets.
JJL: And that clearly is not the case.
JL So how do you learn what you can from a poem?
LC: You allow it in yourself. You allow it to do its work in you.
JJL: How does poetry effect change?
LC: I’m not sure it does today. But when it does, poetry effects change in many ways and some of them are mysterious. It would be nice to say I know how, but I don’t. I don’t even know how I write. I have no idea. But I do know that it happens and it comes to me, and I am so grateful.
JJL: When did words first start attracting you?
LC: Oh, when I was very young. I was writing poems when I was a girl. And not thinking about being published at all; it would never have occurred to me. Nobody that looked like me was being published. And I knew of Paul Lawrence Dunbar because my mother was a big reciter ofDunbar. I just love the way words sound, the music in the language. I have, ever since I was a little girl. And I didn’t think about publishing poems, but I did try to write them.
JJL: How do you think that the process of publishing changes poetry?
LC: Well, I think that sometimes people begin to write toward publishing rather than toward serving the poem. Now it’s certainly changed since I was a girl because people wrote who weren’t so into publishing, and there were no M.F.A. programs. That’s all changed. Now people want to have a career in poetry, you know? Somebody said, and I think this is true for me, I did not choose the path; the path chose me. I would never have thought that it was even possible.
JJL: How did you know that you were a poet?
LC: I still don’t. I know I write poems. I have a lot of unsure days and I know I can be tremendously corny…big time corny, you know? And clichéd. But once in a while, I hit.
JJL: Do you see a difference between writing poems and being a poet?
LC: People have a romantic idea of what it means to be a poet. People even have a romantic idea of who canbe a poet. Certainly a person like myself, they wouldn’t think. When my first book of poetry came out, my kids were 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. I keep that in mind. Because somebody, somewhere, in some place I’ve never heard of, is somebody who writes better than I do, you know? And whether she gets the chance or not, she still does. I don’t think art is class conscious or color conscious or any of that. However, people do often think that whatever I put down, if it sounds “deep,” then it must be a poem. And the idea of what sounds deep isn’t a particularly valid one sometimes.
What poetry does, and what people in the validating places do, are two different things. The poetry establishment doesn’t seem to validate certain kinds of poetry. And good poetry is everywhere. We often want somebody else to decide our validity, I think. And I talk as one who’s been validated. I try to walk the path I’ve seen in front of me, not the one I’m supposed to get on, not the one I was told I should be on.
People have to allow the poem to speak to them. It isn’t just about a definition of words. Words are the vehicle through which the poems come. Can’t you feel in yourself when something’s real and something’s not and feel the authenticity? Trust that you can do that. Now, if you don’t know very much you can’t know very much. So one ought to read, and try to be authentic. You can tell a phony in a minute. You can tell a poem that isn’t real or that isn’t going to be here in half an hour. We can feel it and feeling is as important as intellect. I tell students that poetry’s informed by intellect and intuition. It’s a balance of those two things.
JJL: In your work, you’ve been very candid about your life experiences. And as a woman who’s endured so much of the intensity of everything, all the pain and the joy, and everything in between, can you speak a bit about how the personal and the political meet and dance within your poetry?
LC: You know something? I was just at a meeting today and there were just two people of color there, myself, and the guy who’s the president of the group…and the others there were not. And one woman said something to me…and I said, “Why is it that when you say something about yourself, you’re talking about yourself as a human, but when I talk about my life, it’s political?” And just because you say it, doesn’t mean it’s so. That’s
the first thing about validity. A lot of women have borne a lot of things; a lot of people have borne a lot of things. There’s a certain kind of human that I want to be. There is not shame in my life. There is certainly misfortune, but I’m not the only one. I do know that. And sometimes, one of the things poetry can do is say to an audience: you are not alone. It can also speak for those who have not yet found their voice to speak. That’s part of the human condition. And if we’re going to talk about humans, why are we just going to talk about the pretty ones.
JJL: As African Americans, we can never escape our history or the ways in which we see the world. For us, the land is inextricably linked to the person and to the past. Is this the premise beneath your poem in Mercy, which begins, “Surely I am able to write poems…?”
LC: I was asked once to write about landscape and the beauty of the trees. But I cannot—I will not—close part of my vision. I know what my history has been and it is a human history. Every time I see a tree I know somebody used to hang on that. I’m not going to make others comfortable and not mention that. That’s just the way I am. Now, I understand others, but I don’t believe that as a poet I am here to make others feel good, feel happy. I’m supposed to chronicle what is so. And it would be nice to forget history, but we do it at our peril, as we have seen lately.
JJL: Do you see that we as African American poets have a certain responsibility and, if so, what would that be?
LC: I suppose I would think it would be to tell the truth. And I’m not talking about the facts. I’m talking about the truth. Derek Walcott has a line: “How can I say I saw what occurred and said nothing?” That just makes other people happy. People have a hard time with me doing it, because I don’t seem to be a fire-shouter. What you’re asking me almost is why I am like I am. I haven’t a clue. But I see no reason to not say what is so. One of the things I was seeing today at this meeting was also people, liberal people, saying I’m just like them. And that makes them happy. But the truth is they’re just like me. And that’s far more difficult for them. Someone said in an audience, a white person, “Lucille would be very good, if she wouldn’t talk about race so much, if she would forget about race.” And my response was—and I’ll talk about race in a mixed group in a minute—“Not only am I not going to forget it, but I’m not going to let you forget it.” Do you wish me to forget my grandmother? I don’t think so. You have no right.
JJL: That isn’t asked of white writers.
LC: Now, thinking about stuff is something they’ve begun to do, but I have many friends in all the camps of writers…and I was talking to somebody aboutLouisiana, aboutNew Orleans, and said I had written a poem. I write quickly, if I’m going to write at all. And they hadn’t written one yet. This was a white writer, a dear friend, who said, “It hadn’t occurred to me to write about that.” And I said, “Humans are starving. What else would I write about?”
Author’s note: Lucille Clifton then shared a first draft of her poem, “New Orleans.” One of the images in the poem was her four-month old granddaughter. We then began to compare notes on children, motherhood and our writing experiences as young poet-mothers.
JJL: I relate very strongly to the stories you tell about your early writing, when your children were babies. I remember that time. I remember spending many late nights writing, writing while on line at the post office, writing in the car. Finding unconventional places to do my writing and reading.
LC: Somebody asked me about that. She had a child—a child, mind you, which did not impress me at all—and she wanted to know, when did I have time to read? I said, “You go to the bathroom? Put some books in there!” I learned to write in my head. So by the time I get to paper, I’m a long way into the process. Now it’s almost automatic for me to do that.
JJL: What is your process now?
LC: When I’m writing, I’m writing. And when I’m not, I’m not. When I’m not actually sitting down at a machine—and I do not write on a computer—writing is happening inside me. I get to a certain point and I know I need to see what this looks like. I have an old video-writer, which is probably an antique or something. It’s from Magnavox, one of the very early computers. I’ve never written longhand. I just don’t know how it looks if it’s longhand. I need to know how the poem looks printed. I used to throw away each draft, but now people have expressed interest in my papers, so suddenly I keep everything.
JJL: Do you find that it’s changing how you write? The fact that there’s an audience waiting for your drafts?
LC: No, not really. I don’t pay that a lot of attention. I’ve come this far without thinking about all of that. I write for whomever is out there to get it and it’s sometimes quite surprising.
JJL: Do you journal?
LC: No, I never have been able to. Writing a journal? “Somebody might read this, so I’m going to make myself sound so wonderful!” I think it’s the kids that keep me on solid ground. They know, she may be all that, but she’s Mama. My son had to write a report for some school thing. He had to write a report on a poet. And he said he didn’t know any poets. I said, “What are you talking about? There are poets around here all the time!” And then I said, “You could write about me.” And he said, “You? What am I going to write about? That ratty, old robe you have on all the time?” I said, “Someday, someone will want that ratty robe!”
JJL: “The Smithsonian Robe!”
LC: He was not impressed.
JJL: How do you create your manuscripts? Do you write for a particular manuscript or does that evolve organically for you?
LC: It really does evolve. Only toward the end, I might do that a little bit. You start getting into some area of interest or concern, and then a lot of poems come out about that. I have about a dozen poems about people who are on the African continent—I’m talking about Mary Magdalene and all those people—who are considered white. And since nobody else over there is, I had to figure out how they would speak in their real voice. So I have a group of poems called, “Colored Women.” They’re fictional and real: Aunt Jemima speaks in her voice, Pocahontas speaks. I started thinking of people, trying to get into their understanding and their lives. So I have a section in this book that’s going to come out some time or another, called “Colored Women.” And I wanted to write a book called Miss America. And that “Colored Women” may be a part of that Miss America. Or it may not happen at all.
JJL: I hope it does.
LC: I think it might. Sally Hemmings is in it. A lot of people. And I like the Aunt Jemima ones a lot because it begins something like, “White people say I remind them of home; I who have been homeless all my life…except for their kitchen shelves…” And it goes on.
JJL: Do you find that you want to do more writing in the gaps of history now?
LC: I do, I think. I now notice more gaps.
JJL: Because poets are really historians.
LC: A guy told me once, “I really like your poetry but I don’t relate to it because I’m into history.” I told him, “So am I.” He’s into the history of the outside. I’m into the history of the inside.
JJL: The work of women poets has historically been regarded as being somewhat different than that of our male counterparts. And when I started thinking about this topic, I was really thinking about Alain Locke and theHarlemRenaissance…from then on. Do you see women’s words as being different from our brethren?
LC: I’ll give you a facetious answer that I give when people ask me why I write about body parts so much. And the facetious answer is this: I have several very interesting body parts, and if I had only one, I wouldn’t write about it much either! It has been traditional that women’s bodies, women’s work, and women’s lives are not regarded as valid. That’s changing. And black women bring something to that too, that change. Because when they were talking about women’s lives, they were not talking about ours. But as Sojourner put it, “I’m a woman, too. Ain’t I a woman?”
JJL: You talk about women and magic, the interaction between mothers and daughters, the female spirit of ancestors, and even the female unborn. And you use images within the home to make sense of our greater world.
LC: I’m interested in spirit. People tell me I’m religious, and I don’t think so at all. Spirit has always been something that I live with, living in perhaps more than the physical world. And so I write about it. That’s probably the scariest thing I write about.
If you read the book, Mercy, the last part of Mercy was the scariest thing I’ve thought about publishing because I thought, “People are going to think I’m crazy.” And then I thought, “Well, those who know my work already think so!” And what possible difference could it make, you know, if they do or don’t.
JJL: It revealed another layer. You exposed another layer of living.
LC: These were messages I received. That wasn’t me making up a persona of a “message-ness.”
JJL: How did you begin writing books for children?
LC: I had six kids and there weren’t a lot of books for kids at that time; my baby’s almost 40. There weren’t a lot of books that had images that looked like them. And when I thought that I could do it—because it’s not as easy to do as people think—I wanted to do it. I never thought it was as important as poetry, which may be a mistake, but I wanted them to have books with people who looked like them. It’s very important for all children to have mirrors and windows and I did that. People ask if I had to write one or the other, which would I choose. And by and large, the people who ask that are people who would like me, because I’m a large woman, luxury-sized and all, to say writing for children because that’s very romantic and beautiful—but if I had to drop one, I’d drop writing for children because poetry is what I am. But writing for our children, for African American children, is very important. And I have granddaughters; of course I’m going to do that.
JJL: Has poetry changed over the years?
LC: I think so. We’re not sounding so victim-like anymore. I’m not sure though. The world of poetry, the establishment, has been very much a British poetry, an English poetry. And I think people are becoming more American. I think a braver poetry is beginning to happen in some places, but I have a feeling it may not last. I’m out of hope this week, but I’ll get over it. I’m generally a very hopeful person. I’m a little discouraged in terms of hope because lessons don’t seem to get learned very easily in the greater culture.
JJL: So what have we done historically when we’ve gotten to that point where we just don’t see hope anymore?
LC: I think it’s called, “Keep on, keeping on.” And being witnesses. I said to somebody, “I knew the world was going to come to an end, but I didn’t know I was going to watch it.” We’re witnesses. We signify something important here and if bearing witness is what one does, it is what one does.
JJL: No matter what the action may be.
LC: And no matter whether we understand it or not, but in the middle of despair is a little light.
JJL: We’ll keep going on.
LC: We might as well. We got through slavery. I always have to remember that I never worked as hard as my mother worked. And my mother never worked as hard as her mother. And my kids won’t work as hard as me. And that’s a good thing.
JJL: Do you love what you’re doing?
LC: I love life. It matters to me. It matters tremendously to me. I think I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and that’s a blessing.