Between Starshine & Clay:An Interview with Lucille Clifton
Remica L. Bingham | February 2011
Lucille Clifton was born Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York in 1936. She married Fred Clifton in 1958 and had six children by the time her first collection of poems was published in 1969. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, Good Times (1969), Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969–1980 (1987), Next: New Poems (1987), Quilting: Poems 1987–1990 (1991), Book of Light (1993), The Terrible Stories (1995), Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988–2000 (2000), Mercy (2004), Voices (2008), and more than a dozen children's books, including the adventures of Everett Anderson, a character she created for her children.
Over the years, Clifton taught at several universities including Coppin State and St. Mary's College, both in Maryland. Among many other accolades and credits to her name, Clifton is the only poet ever to have two books—Next and Good Woman—selected as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year. In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
When I sat down to talk and share a meal with Lucille Clifton at the Dodge Poetry Festival in September 2006, she couldn't get a moment's peace. It seemed as if every person in the small room wanted to be near her; even after her table was full, people made their way over to try to commandeer seats. She was gracious and patient, though exhausted. As the seventh or eighth unknown approached her and reluctantly left, I asked her, "How do you deal with all of this?" While she acknowledged it was difficult to find any quiet space at Dodge (the largest poetry festival in North America usually hailing over 100,000 attendees; once a reading Clifton gave in a chapel at the festival was rumored to have nearly 20,000 people in attendance), she said, "It's not always like this, and they all mean well. That poetry can do this still amazes me."
"Can you keep a secret?" she asked during a follow-up conversation we had in April 2007, "I've won the Ruth Lilly Prize. They'll announce it next month in Time Magazine." She was genuinely happy and honored, giddy even, at the thought of the accolade. What pleased her the most, it seemed, was that the award was for her entire body of work and that a group of her peers saw fit to acknowledge the work she'd done over the past forty years. When I asked her how she was going to celebrate winning the prize, not to mention the $100,000 purse it carried, she said, "It's not about the money; it's about the honor... but maybe I'll buy a new dress for the ceremony. I think I can swing that."
In February 2010, when poet Honoree Fanonne Jeffers called to tell me about Lucille Clifton's passing, she was overcome with grief. We reminisced about our "Ms. Lucille"—about her candidness, style, and spirit—we shook our heads, laughed, then cried some more. But, as the elders will tell you, death comes in threes, or at least hard and fast enough to make us feel this way. So when the call came about Ai in March, then about Carolyn Rodgers in April during a storm, the sky seemed to be swallowing up the poets who helped carve out places for fearless, colored women in the American literary landscape.
On September 21, 2010, Joanne Gabbin directed a tribute to Lucille Clifton at the Furious Flower Poetry Center on the campus of James Madison University. More than seventy poets read poems for each of Ms. Lucille's seventy-three years, and all were aglow with her lessons that night. Two of the poet's daughters, Alexia and Gillian, attended also and shared in honoring her. In a group poemsong fashioned by co-director Nikki Giovanni, all of the participants stood on stage and recited what Ms. Lucille's work and life had taught us best: "come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed."
Remica L. Bingham: Do you remember your first encounter with or your introduction to poetry?
Lucille Clifton: Yes, my mother wrote poems. She liked to read and recite poetry. She read poetry to us, so that would be my first encounter with poetry. I heard poetry as a little girl, because we had a house full of books. My parents loved reading. They were both great readers. Daddy could not write, but he loved to read.
Bingham: So that might be why, while you were a guest poet at Cave Canem, you mentioned to the fellows that you'd become a voracious reader?
Clifton: Yes, I read all the time. I love to read British detective stories. I like to read things on metaphysics and history. I just like to read things that help me to know and try to understand the world... I love to read all kinds of books.
Bingham: Can you tell me three books that have changed your life? Three authors?
Clifton: I doubt it because I'd read somebody else and my answer would change. I knew James (Baldwin) and I really loved his style. He has such a flow in his writing, the flow and grace of his language. There was something about the way he talked-he had wonderful lines. And poets—I don't know if any have changed my life but they've certainly enriched it. There are so many...
Bingham: It's interesting that you'd mention Baldwin-though how could we not mention him—here because I've been thinking about something that Baldwin said, "Education is indoctrination if you're white-subjugation if you're black." You were among many of the elite African-American artists who attended Howard University in the 1950s.
Clifton: I wouldn't call it elite. I was on full scholarship at Howard. I was never expected to go to college. I never knew what it all meant. My father told me when I got the letter, because I took a Howard Scholarship test. They had eight scholarships in the country and in the diaspora, and they paid for everything, and I won one of them.
Bingham: And weren't you very young?
Clifton: I was sixteen at the time.
Bingham: Only sixteen, so you were clearly brilliant.
Clifton: Oh well, I thought I was. You know how you are when you're sixteen...
Bingham: I've read that you lost your scholarship at Howard, but I'm inclined to think there's a bit more to that story. Why did you leave Howard?
Clifton: I felt no reason to know chemicals. I loved writing, but I was wild and young, and I didn't see why I had to know about chemicals. I did very badly in Chemistry, so I lost my scholarship. It was very disappointing—my parents were very disappointed. My father said, "God has done this to show me that my idol has feet of clay."
Bingham: Did your father say that? Well, if that doesn't make a child cry I don't know what would.
Clifton: Yes, I cried for a while, and then I got another job.
Bingham: It seems biographers always mention the men who were influential in propelling you to the foreground in the world of poetry—Robert Hayden, Ishmael Reed who gave your poems to Langston Hughes who, in turn, published your work in his anthology Poetry of the Negro—but who were some of the women who were essential throughout your journey?
Clifton: Well, Ishmael and I were friends really. He was from Buffalo, so we were from around the same place. I was published because I saw an ad in a magazine. I saw Robert Hayden in, what used to be, Negro Digest. And I thought, Whoa, a black guy. This is cool, I'm going to send him some poems. Now, this, for me, was so brave. I'd never done anything like that. I had six kids at the time.
Bingham: So you already had all of your children before you sent Mr. Hayden your poems? How old were they?
Clifton: When I was first published, my kids were seven, five, four, three, two, and one. Robert Hayden took the poems to Carolyn Kizer. And she's an old and good friend. Carolyn was then the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. I won the Discovery Award, and the prize was a reading in New York City. For me, getting away from the house and the kids was a prize. And getting to dress up too, oh my. Fred and I had to drive up from Buffalo and drive right back. So we went up there, and in the audience was Natalie Robins, who was a poet and editor, from Random House. She wanted to know if she could see the manuscript from which I read. I was always very particular with my work. So, my manuscript was in the order I would have had it in and all of that.
Bingham: How did you even know how to do that? Was it instinct?
Clifton: Yes, I think so. Like what line follows another line, the same is true of what poem follows another poem. So Natalie asked for the manuscript, I gave it to her, and Random House bought the manuscript. It was so nontypical.
Bingham: There's a quote that I love, by Shirley Abbott, that I think you can relate to. She said, "We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains..." You write a lot of poems about your family, some of which they might not consider very flattering—"donor," "here rests," and "mercy" are just a few that come to mind. Over the years, how has your family taken to your work? Clearly, if your children were already born, they've been there for the whole span of your career...
Clifton: Yes, I've been writing their whole life.
Bingham: Do they ever get upset about the poems?
Clifton: I never tell anything but the truth. My daughter knows that I tried to get rid of her. Because she always says, if she could have talked, she would have said, "Give me thirty years. You're going to need me." And she was right. So, I always tell nothing but the truth. What can they say?
Bingham: You've documented a large part of your family history in memoir. What prompted you to move into the world of nonfiction and why did you think it was important to undertake this task?
Clifton: I'm one of the few African-Americans, at least in my age group, who knows where they came from. We don't know, and some of us don't care, but I do care. My father was born in 1902. His grandmother, Caroline, died in 1910. She told him a lot of stories, and he would listen. He was a story-teller, he remembered things. All my family, my oldest daughter especially, remembers stories. So I wrote the memoir, Generations, because I always wanted to know more about my own family. Just like everybody else does. When I know it, I'm lucky. And I wanted to be responsible for other people to know. Toni (Morrison) edited that book. She was very good about editing it. It's very different from her own writing. She was able to do with this book what she would not have been able to do with her own.
Bingham: Honoree (Jeffers) and I have an ongoing joke that it takes other writers, ourselves included, two pages to do what you can do in four lines with no punctuation and no title.
Clifton: People say that!
Bingham: It's true! You are a master of economy and minimalism, but you never sacrifice humanity, complexity, and emotion. How much do you contemplate craft when you go to the page? Do you have any idea what a poem will look like or how it will be adorned when you begin it?
Clifton: What I do know is I try to use every word, I try to use the right word, the most precise, the most responsible word. So, every word stands for the definition, the size, the history, the possibility, all of that. So I don't need a lot of words.
Bingham: We'll make our way back to poetry, but can we talk about Everett Anderson for a moment? You created Everett because you wanted the children you knew, your own children especially, to be able to see themselves in books. But Everett is no ordinary little boy; he's quite complex. He deals with issues of abuse, gender roles, and grief. How do you decide which issues Everett needs to address?
Clifton: Well, sometimes that's more directly driven than a lot of other stuff I do. In the last one, Everett Anderson deals with abuse, and I wanted to write something about that. Because I had children and saw some of the things that they dealt with, I thought that maybe this would be something important to talk about.
Bingham: There's a quote by Mignon McLaughlin, "Flesh goes on pleasuring us, and humiliating us, right to the end." You've struggled with some serious health problems over the years—vrenal disease and several bouts with cancer. One of your most moving poems is "lumpectomy eve."
Clifton: Oh, thank you. I like that poem as well.
Bingham: It's the closest and most intimate portrayal of breast cancer that I've ever seen in verse. Why do you feel it's important to discuss these issues so openly in your work? Are these types of poems therapeutic in any way?
Clifton: Well, they probably are. One of the things that people tell me I do-and I think it is true-is that I say the "unsayable," to speak for those who are not yet able to speak for themselves, and also to say, "You are not alone." What I've discovered about breast cancer, after writing those poems, is I belong to a huge club. People don't even know how many people are affected by it. And their families are affected by it. It touches everybody around. And why wouldn't I talk about it? Someone told me that one of the things I do is afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Bingham: Along the same lines, many scholars have labeled you as a feminist poet, because you write intimate poems about the female body and its inner-workings, "poem in praise of menstruation," "poem to my uterus," and "wishes for sons" are just a few. Do you think this makes you a feminist or do you label yourself that way?
Clifton: I don't label myself at all. Other people label me. I was once asked by a male poet why I wrote about so many female body parts? My sassy answer was, "If I only had one interesting body part, I wouldn't write about it either." We've got a lot of interesting parts, you know?
Bingham: You've never shied away from sensuality in your work either.
Clifton: I'm going to write some more poems about it, about being sensual at this age, and what's the matter with men?
Bingham: Please do. We all need those poems. Even early on you wrote about sensuality. One of the early poems in your first book, Good Times, begins: "if i stand in my window / naked in my own house." Now, poems like "homage to my hips" have become some of your signature pieces. Is being so comfortable with your sensuality empowering?
Clifton: I love those poems; I loved when male poets did it. I do a lot of Bible poems, and I find sensuality in them all the time. I am a grown-up, sensual woman, even at this age and size. People would think you wouldn't be. I'm open to the whole of human experience.
Bingham: You've got everybody trying to figure out how to 'spin somebody like a top'... What was the role of the black feminist, or womanist based on Alice Walker's definition—Having or expressing a belief in or respect for women and their talents and abilities beyond the boundaries of race and class: "Womanist... tradition assumes, because of our experiences during slavery, that black women already are capable"-especially early on in your career, during and just beyond the Black Arts, Civil Rights, and the Women's Lib Movements? Did you address that role? What do you think the role of the womanist poet is today?
Clifton: Well, I think, to be a woman. That's a simple answer, but I think it's true. I'm acquainted with some of the women who were part of the Women's Lib Movement, like Rita (Mae Brown) and Minnie (Bruce Pratt) and all of them. I always thought they were interesting because some are friends. For all they did for the movement, I think they're amazing. But I thought, now, some woman talks about raising three children and all that, but often somebody else raises her children—a lady comes into town to help her. Nobody helped me raise my six children; they wouldn't even baby-sit. I had four in diapers at once. So, there's a little edge of, come on.
But I suppose, as far as a womanist poet is concerned, I really truly think that you have to be a woman, and everything that means to be one. I've said a lot of times, when my first book came out, my children were seven, five, four, three, two, and one. Back then, I just decided what mattered. Having the most spic-and-span house wasn't that high on the list—keeping house is not one of the things I do best.
Bingham: It doesn't matter; you do other things better. You document history in many, many poems. You've written about slavery, about plantation visits and slave ships, the Buffalo Soldiers, the MOVE bombing, about the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., September 11, and so many other events and people. Do you think poets have a responsibility to tell the stories of others? Do you consider yourself a political poet? A radical one?
Clifton: Gwendolyn Brooks said, "Whenever I come out of my house, it's a political statement." I don't think about that kind of thing when I write. So I write out of what I know and understand or what I wonder about.
Bingham: You engage in what Alicia Ostriker calls midrash (re-tellings of Old Testament accounts) as well as other scriptural re-tellings in almost every book. You seem fascinated with biblical characters, but not invested in any particular religion. Why do you return to these voices?
Clifton: Well, they're so interesting. Someone else told me, I find the myth in the human and the human in the myth. I wrote about them as if they were people, not something else. People with miraculous lives, or one just miraculous thing. What if Mary was a regular girl who got pregnant? What would become of her then?
Bingham: In Mercy, you have a series of poems called "the message from The Ones." I've heard you mention in the past that these poems were "given" to you. Can you talk about that?
Clifton: Yes, that was the riskiest thing I've ever done. Just as I've said, the poems came to me. At one point over a period of time, I began to do automatic writing. Like when you put the pen to the pad and it goes to moving. The poems came out of that period.
Bingham: You seem to be a very spiritual person. How have matters of spirit influenced your writing?
Clifton: Yes, not religious, but spiritual. I was given gifts. I don't know why, but I think a lot of it has to with, well, I was born with twelve fingers. Other than that I can't tell you...
Bingham: You said in an interview with Bill Moyers, "I knew what I did not want to be. I didn't want to be ordinary... I knew there was something other in the world, and I wanted to see it and feel it. I always wanted not to be plain..." You've won the National Book Award, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, won an Emmy Award, a Lannan Literary Award, two NEA fellowships, the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Discovery Award, you were elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland, been a wife, a mother, grandmother, and a professor, and have written nearly thirty books. Do you think you've managed to become 'extraordinary' yet?
Clifton: Well, no, because no longer do I think of it that way... I've never won the Pulitzer.
Bingham: Is winning the Pulitzer Prize important to you?
Clifton: Well, I would like to win. It would be nice, but it would not be necessary. After some time, you want to feel validated for your work. I am very much validated by my readers; I just want to feel validated by my peers. Because you know how you have doubts. For a long time, I was the "Grandma Moses" of the bunch because I wasn't educated in that way. So I would like to feel that I have their respect.
Remica L. Bingham-Risher holds an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is a Cave Canem fellow. Her first book of poetry, Conversion, won the 2007 Naomi Long Madgett Prize with publication by Lotus Press, and was shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. A book of her selected poems, The Seams of Memory, will be translated into Arabic and published in 2011 in conjunction with the Kalima Project. She serves as the Writing Competency Coordinator at Norfolk State University. http://www.remicalbingham.com.
from Quilting, The Terrible Stories, Blessing the Boats, & Mercy
by Lucille Clifton
poem in praise of menstruation
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in
the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
poem to my uterus
you have been patient
as a sock
while i have slippered into you
my dead and living children
they want to cut you out
stocking i will not need
where i am going
where am i going
my bloody print
my estrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
where can you go
all night i dream of lips
that nursed and nursed
and the lonely nipple
lost in loss and the need
to feed that turns at last
on itself that will kill
its body for its hunger's sake
all night i hear the whispering
love calls you to this knife
for love for love
all night it is the one breast
comforting the other
when they tell me that my body
i think of thirty years ago
and the hangers i shoved inside
hard trying to not have you.
i think of the pills, the everything
i gathered against your
inconvenient bulge; and you
my stubborn baby child,
hunched there in the dark
refusing my refusal.
suppose my body does say no
to yours. again, again i feel you
buckled in despite me, lex,
fastened to life like the frown
on an angel's brow.
report from the angel of eden
i found them there
rubbing against the leaves
so that the nubs of their
wings were flush under their skin
and it seemed like dancing
as when we angels
praise among the clouds
but they were not praising You
the grass grow soft and rich
under their luminous bodies
and their halos begin to fade
it was like dancing
creation flowered around them
moaning with delight they were
trembling and i knew
a world was being born
i feared for their immortality
i feared for mine
under the strain of such desire
they could do evil
with it and i knew
when i rememberd what i was
i swiveled back unto Your grace
still winged i think but wondering
what now becomes what now
how grateful I was when he decided
not to replace his fingers with his thing
though he thought about it was going to
but mumbled "maybe I shouldn't do that"
and didn't do that and I was so
grateful then and now grateful
how sick i am how mad
my sister Josephine
born july in '29
and dead these 15 years
who carried a book
on every stroll.
when daddy was dying
she left the streets
and moved back home
to tend him.
her pimp came too
her Diamond Dick
and they would take turns
a bible aloud through the house.
when you poem this
and you will she would say
remember the Book of Job.
happy birthday and hope
to you Josephine
one of the easts
may heaven be filled
with literate men
may they bed you
All poems reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd. www.boaeditions.org
"poem in praise of menstruation" & "poem to my uterus" from Quilting. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton.
"lumpectomy eve" from The Terrible Stories. Copyright © 1996 by Lucille Clifton.
"donor" & "report from the angel of eden" from Blessing the Boats. Copyright © 2000 by Lucille Clifton.
"mercy" & "here rests" from Mercy. Copyright © 2004 by Lucille Clifton.