Saturday, January 15, 2011

What I'm Reading: Lucille Clifton in The Writer's Chronicle

45º ~ super sun that I bow down to for bring back the 'normal' range of temps, snow still in the shadow places, but melting fast

When I took the latest issue of The Writer's Chronicle out of the mailbox this past week, I teared up a bit to see Lucille Clifton's face gracing the cover.  Her passing leaves a hole in the poetry world and in my world.  I cannot claim to have known her well; our meeting was brief and lasted only a few precious days back in 1993 or 1994.  But anyone who knew her, knows her spirit is/was huge.  I felt welcomed by her presence and she offered such great advice about my work at that early, early age.  Her poem "won't you celebrate with me" has gotten me through some of the worst times.

From The Book of Light, Copper Canyon, 1993

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life?  i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

In her life, "Ms. Lucille" faced many hardships; this poem always reminded me of the grace with which she faced those difficult times and gave me a model.  Now I see her theme goes on and expands with her death.  While she has passed from this earthly life, she still beat all those things that "tried to kill [her];" she passed on her own terms, it seems to me.  Still showing me an admirable way for myself, still giving.

But, back to the magazine.  It contains an interview between Remica L. Bingham-Risher and Lucille Clifton, conducted in 2006 and 2007.  Dear Reader, I hope you will read the whole interview, but here are the bits that jumped out at me.

Clifton's parents were both avid readers, and while her father couldn't write, he, and her mother, surrounded her with words from her infancy.  Clifton says, in the interview, "I just like to read things that help me to know and try to understand the world."  Me, too, and that's the kind of poetry I love to read and that I want to write, a poetry that helps the reader 'to know and understand the world," to make sense of the often senseless world we live in.

I laughed when Clifton explained why she lost her full-ride to Howard University.  "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...," she says.  Hear, Hear!

One of the reasons I admire Clifton's work so much is that each poem is a straight shot of the TRUTH, no matter how hard that truth might be to say.  When asked about how her family reacts to these difficult poems, including one where the speaker confesses having tried to abort her daughter, Clifton is resolute.  She says, "I never tell anything but the truth.  My daughter knows that I tried to get rid of her."  Wow.  Clifton understands how secrets fester and scar, how brave to be so open with the world.

Finally, the end of the interview made me a bit more sad.  The topic of the Pulitzer Prize comes up and the fact that Clifton was a two-time nominee.  The interviewer, Bingham, asks, after naming a long list of awards Clifton had won, "Do you think you've managed to become 'extraordinary' yet?"  Clifton answers no because she has never won the Pulitzer.  Expanding on that, she admits that she would like to win the Pulitzer but doesn't need it.  She says, "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 much 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."

Oh, wow.  That certainly puts my doubts in their place and reminds me that those doubts are all a part of living the writing life and even winning nearly every major award there is to win won't put them to rest.  Bless Ms. Lucille for another lesson, another passing on of wisdom hard-earned.


Molly said...

Love Lucille Clifton. One of my faves is 'blessing the boats.' I also love the one you shared here. Thanks.

Sandy Longhorn said...

She is one of a kind, that's for sure.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

You can win the Nobel and be forgotten. The money's nice, though.

Sandy Longhorn said...

True, Glenn. I think what made me sad about the statement is the implication that she doesn't feel like she has the respect of her peers.

ms pie said...

i LOVE lucille clifton... her words have such an incredible spirit to them filled with strength... i first found out abt lucille in her poem these hips or was it my hips...

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Pie. I love the hip poem as well.

Remica said...

Thanks so much for reading the interview, posting about it and for spreading the word on the bright light that is Ms. Lucille. I hope you and I might cross paths in real time soon.

Remica Bingham-Risher

Sandy Longhorn said...

Remica, it was a great interview. Will you be at AWP? If so we might cross paths sooner rather than willing.