Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reflections on the poet Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

"People wish to be poets
more than they wish to write poetry.
One should wish to celebrate
more than one wishes to be celebrated."
- Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

If you have read any of Lucille Clifton’s poems, you will appreciate the intentional economy of words that lends such power to her poems, and the landscape that is revealed through a poetic imagination that is informed by a multi-generational African American experience, family, spirituality, and a womanist perspective.

If you have not yet read any of Lucille Clifton’s collections, please do so in her honor. On February 13, 2010, this world lost Lucille Clifton, an award-winning poet, a children’s book writer, a mother of six children, a wife, a grandmother, a spiritual person, a compassionate teacher, and an African American woman who, to borrow the words of Springfield-based poet and reviewer Linda Thomas, understands how her poetry and her experiences are part of a larger ethnic and historical continuum in the United States.

When I was an admissions counselor at Colby College in the early 1990s, I remember how overjoyed I became when I learned that Lucille Clifton was coming to Colby to read her poems. People around me were puzzled at my obvious excitement; why was I babbling and bubbling over with such joy?

At the time, I was still struggling with finding my voice as a Puerto Rican woman poet of color. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Audre Lorde, Ai, Demetria Martinez, Pat Mora and Lucille Clifton were among the many women poets whose collections I borrowed from library shelves or bought and in whose poetic landscapes I immersed myself. Yes, I read poetry by men, but poetry by women, and especially, by women of color, was underrepresented in my academic studies.

Where did my joy come from? Up to that point, I could count on one hand the number of women poets whose readings I attended and whose poems resonated with me. Before her visit, I had enjoyed reading many of Lucille Clifton’s poems and was especially excited that she was sharing them at Colby, my alma mater, yes, a prestigious college, but not exactly on the reading circuit of any poets of color in the early 1990s.

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Lucille Clifton’s reading. While I would have to dig through years of journals, my repositories of memory, to rediscover which particular poems she shared with such grace that day, I do remember the awe I felt in the power of her succinct poems, so verdichtet (in German) or reduced to its essence.

After a frantic and vain search for my own copy of her collection of poems before the reading, I printed out on résumé paper the quote above and brought that for her to sign afterward. Among the interviews of women poets I had read over the years, I had documented this quote and had adopted it as one of my mantras.

I purposefully kept myself last so that I could take my time to thank her for her reading. When I handed her the sheet of paper, she recognized her own quote. Both surprised and pleased at seeing it transformed into a poem, she signed her name “with gratitude”.

In response to my questions about any advice she would give to an emerging poet who wanted to publish, this is what I remember Lucille Clifton sharing in a tone that was both exasperated and humorous. [Please excuse the quote, which is not verbatim.]

Poets, especially young ones, are in such a hurry to publish their first book and they shouldn’t be. I didn’t publish my first book until I was in my 30s! Sometimes, it takes years for a poem to take shape and when you try to force it out before its time, the poem fails. Take your time. What’s the hurry? It’s not like you’re going to make a lot of money writing poetry. [She chuckles.] And you don’t want to be remembered for poems that you’ll be embarrassed by later. […] Don’t focus on publishing; focus on reading and writing poems. […] Writing poems, though is not the only thing I do and writing poems isn’t the only thing you should do. Writing is what I do when I can when I’m not taking care of my family or teaching.

When I finally found my copy of her collection, The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press: 1993), I reread it from cover to cover, including the marginal notes and “socs” (streams of consciousness) I had written directly in the book in response to poems. [Please forgive me, librarians, bibliophiles, and lovers of books, who consider it sacrilege to write in any book.]. Here is one of the many poems that resonate for me, one which I will surely bring to my next poetry workshop on Saturday, February 27th, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm at the Indian Orchard library in Springfield. (If you are in the area and want to sign up for this or future poetry workshops, go to the poetry page on

The poem, “fury”, dedicated to mama (page 45), invokes the reader and the daughter in the poem to witness the pain of a woman who gives up her poems to flames. The minimalist form of this poem compounds the tension that rises with each unflinching line. It is if one were helplessly witnessing an act of self-immolation; the woman burns a core piece of herself. There are no adverbs to elucidate the action: “she gives them up”, which leads the reader to wonder who or what caused this agonizing action and why. The deceptively simple line, “her eyes are animals”, conveys poetic ambiguity. Does she burn the poems to survive? If so, then why? Or is she reduced to becoming an animal because she gave up the one piece that kept her human and sane?

I will be curious to learn other poets' and poetry lovers' responses to this poem.

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