(photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
June 27, 1936-February 13, 2010
Writings about Lucille Clifton
"Our beloved Lucille Clifton has passed. She was a great soul. May her spirit be with us always."
NPR's "With Good Reason" has won a prestigious national Gabriel Award for its program, "Furious Flower," headlining poet Lucille Clifton. This program was about "Tell Me Your Names: A Seminar on the Poetry of Lucille Clifton."
From Hilary Holladay:
Dear Staff and Fellows,
As some of you have heard by now, the poet Lucille Clifton died at Johns Hopkins Hospital on February 13. She was 73. Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, she was the author of a dozen poetry collections, a memoir, and more than 20 books for children. In her long career, she brought pleasure, solace, and supreme insight to readers around the world. I was honored to know her, teach her poetry, and publish a book about her writings.
The VFH's connection with Lucille Clifton is worth noting. When I first came to the Foundation as a Fellow in 1998, I was here to research and write early chapters of my book, Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton (LSU Press, 2004). Joanne Gabbin was chair of the VFH board at the time, and she invited me to contribute to the essay collection on African American poetry that she was editing for UVa Press. The essay was my first publication on Clifton. In 2004, the VFH helped underwrite Professor Gabbin's Furious Flower conference commending African American poets, including Lucille Clifton, at James Madison University. (The VFH had also helped fund the first Furious Flower poetry conference, in 1994.) Last summer, the VFH awarded a grant to JMU's Furious Flower Poetry Center in support of Tell Me Your Names: A Seminar on the Poetry of Lucille Clifton, a week of scholarly study of Clifton's poetry at JMU. Joanne directed the seminar and I served as lead teacher. It was our pleasure to work with a group of faculty members and high school teachers who have since gone on to teach Clifton's poetry at their home institutions across Virginia and in a number of other states, present conference papers on her poetry, and write essays about her for scholarly journals.
Several VFH staffers came to Harrisonburg to meet Lucille and visit the seminar. I think it is safe to say that the week of study and celebration brought Lucille real joy in the last year of her life. Lucille told me several times during her visit that she was exhausted--it was a fact, not a complaint. But for the several days she spent with us, she was fully engaged and generous with her time. Sitting in on seminar classes and guest lectures, she was a portrait of forbearance and vulnerability in her wheelchair as she offered comments on her own poems and graciously read her work when we asked her to. She also gave a public interview and public reading, and met with Sarah McConnell for an interview on "With Good Reason."
As I grieve the loss of this courageous, big-hearted poet, I take comfort and pride in knowing that so many of us at the Foundation have helped recognize Clifton and advance the study of her richly rewarding poems. A selection of her verse will appear in Tough Times Companion, which Roberta and her editorial team have nearly completed. Sarah's beautiful interview is at http://withgoodreasonradio.org/2010/01/furious-flower-2/. The interview with her from my book is reprinted on the Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=179624. Joanne Gabbin, who has done so much to promote African American poetry in general and Clifton in particular, is back on our board. Lucille Clifton's legacy lives on at the VFH.
p.s. Here are two of Clifton's poems. If you are looking for an introduction to her work, any of her volumes would do, but I think either Quilting or The Book of Light would be an especially good place to begin.
we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days,
break out through
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is
how strong life is.
woman who shines at the head
of my grandmother's bed,
brilliant woman, i like to think
you whispered into her ear
instructions. i like to think
you are the oddness in us,
you are the arrow
that pierced our plain skin
and made us fancy women;
my wild witch gran, my magic mama,
and even these gaudy girls.
i like to think you gave us
extraordinary power and to
protect us, you became the name
we were cautioned to forget.
it is enough,
you must have murmured,
to remember that i was
and that you are. woman, i am
lucille, which stands for light,
daughter of thelma, daughter
of georgia, daughter of
From Glynis Boyd:
I do not belong here.
That thought ran through my mind as if training for the Boston Marathon and it would come in first place. It was June 2002 and I sat in a classroom on the campus of Bennington College in Vermont with a group of up and coming writers, as evidenced by master's degrees and PhDs in any kind of writing you could think of.
I had an award from Lucille Brown Middle School as a hero in the making and a full-time job as a social worker that kept me in my journal but I didn't think that would get me on anybody's writing panel.
I had applied for a fellowship from the National Book Foundation and they felt I had "promise" as a writer. I chalked it up to a need for diversity.
My colleagues (as the facilitator had asked us to refer to one another) were literally tearing poetry apart. It was the 21st century version of Gladiators and guess who was in the center of the arena?
Glynis, they said, you can't write in lower-case...Glynis, it confuses the reader when you only uppercase deities...Glynis, what was your degree in again...
And I, as uncertain and gawky as I was at eight hoping to be chosen for kickball, could not explain myself.
I was an inner-city girl raised mainly by my Grandma Cat who believed in doing good, church and total reverence of God. I could no more lowercase God's name than I could not feed a hungry child. Writing rules confused me.
I loved words and putting them together in a way I had no explanation for, only a need to do. My life up until that day hummed on books, poetry and anything I could read or write. This was the one place I felt accepted, just me and my pen, with no one telling me I was too short, too fat, too anything. In writing, I was perfect.
"Why can't I just write?" I blurted. "Why does it have to be in a formula any kind of way?" Eloquence escaped me as the rawness of my discontent took over and I was reminded of my unspoken fear:
I am not a writer.
Later that night we adjourned to the Barn for our weekly meet and greet, update on the week's activities and so forth. Tonight was special because we had the opportunity to choose books, donated by a publishing house.
I reached my hand into an endless barrel of reading and pulled out "Blessing the Boats" by Lucille Clifton.
i did not know who Lucille Clifton was nor why she wanted to bless boats. Maybe her daddy was a sailor, I mused as I looked at the book in my hand.
I opened it and realized one thing immediately:
Lucille Clifton wrote poetry in lowercase and uppercased the name of God.
In that moment I heard my Grandma Cat say "God may not come when you call but He is always right on time." The Lord, in His wisdom, did not think a firestorm in class earlier that day was the right thing to do, not to hurt anyone just get me out of there.
As always, He met me at the need I could not speak.
I vowed that night as I lay in bed if I ever had the chance to meet Miss Lucille I would thank her and try to tell her what she had done for me.
And I will not cry, I decided. I will be strong and amazing and she will be very pleased.
In June 2009 I met Lucille Clifton, seven years to the day I first held one of her books in my hand. She was in attendance at James Madison University for a week devoted to her life and work. Again, I was the odd one out. The seminar was slated for professors and teachers of writing, with a focus on African-American poetry. When I received the notice of this opportunity through my beloved Kalamu-listserv, I could not allow a little thing like not being a professor of poetry to stop me. So I wrote and explained why I needed this and because it was meant to be, I was accepted.
We had been waiting to see Miss Lucille with barely contained excitement, anxiety and all out yearning we could not describe. I was at lunch mid-week when the word came around..."She's here! She's here!"
Miss Lucille arrived in a wheelchair, her hair gray; I only saw a queen with a silver crown rightfully being taken to where she needed to be. I was enthralled with her, the memories of Vermont flooding me, the feelings overwhelming me. Dr. Joanne, ever mindul of those who need a little extra help, asked me if I'd like to meet her.
I went to her and introduced myself. I wanted to tell her about Vermont and those awful writers, about feeling inadequate as a writer and sometimes a person, how I didn't understand why you couldn't write however you wanted. I wanted to say a lot, to be intelligent and interesting.
Instead, I cried.
She gently held my hand and comforted me, a blubbering 41 year old who did not care that everyone in the luncheon area at James Madison University was watching our exchange, privy to my runny nose and swollen eyes, my worst look ever. I can't tell you what they felt or how they looked because I did not see them.
I only saw Miss Lucille, with a smile as kind as a hand to help and as warm as the sun after a very harsh winter.
She had pulled me back, once again.
As my tears subsided and I could actually conversate, Miss Lucille announced to the group "I teach my students to comfort anyone in distress. It is the very proper and human thing to do."
I told her I did not get a writing degree in college.
She said me neither.
I told her I felt God was in everyone and everything.
She said me too.
I told her I was not sure I was any kind of writer at all.
She smiled, her eyes with a crease of a twinkle as she delivered the verdict.
Of course you are, she said. Writing is your life.
I read this morning Miss Lucille has finally gotten to see God face to face and tell Him a thing or two about the Psalms. My tears this time are different.
Sometimes tears serve as a herald of sorts, confirming we have grown, that another place in living has been reached, for those who have moved on and those who continue to keep the watch.
How is it a heart can be as heavy as the burdens of Atlas yet as light as air waiting to become breath? I suppose that will be a line for a poem someday, a Lucille Clifton kind of poem where all I am in that moment is given easily, my vulnerability as transparent as a baby's cry. Miss Lucille saw no need to save anything for another piece; the writing will call you, she said. It is the nature of words to come together as need be.
My daddy told me never to say good-bye, only see you later.
"That way, Pooh," he said, "you know you're gonna see that person again."
See you later Miss Lucille.