She Could Tell You Stories
Winner of the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton has been a powerful presence in American poetry for more than 35 years. Hilary Holladay interviews Clifton about her poems, politics, and why facts don't matter to her (but the truth does).
THELMA AND LUCILLE | CHILDREN NEED WINDOWS AND MIRRORS | ON BEING "CLEARLY COMPLEX" | PRONOUNCING FROGS, READING WOLFE | DREAM VS. VISION
This interview took place April 11, 1998, on a brilliant Saturday afternoon at Lucille Clifton’s home in Columbia, Maryland. Serving as the William Blackburn Distinguished Visiting Professor at Duke University that spring semester, Clifton was home for the weekend with two of her daughters, Gillian and Alexia. After undergoing a kidney transplant the previous summer (with Alexia as her donor), Clifton had returned to her demanding schedule of writing, teaching, and giving public readings. She was in the midst of writing poems for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000.
Thelma and Lucille
Hilary Holladay: Names seem to hold an intrinsic value in your writing. Your name, Lucille, and the names of your family members often show up in your poetry as well as in your memoir, Generations. And in the poem “i’m accused of tending to the past,” in Quilting, you describe the past as “a monstrous unnamed baby” that the narrator has taken to her breast and named “History” with a capital H. So I was wondering, why are names and the process of naming so important to you?
Lucille Clifton: Well, it seems to me that—let me see if I’ve thought about any of this—I was alive during the sixties when African Americans changing their names caused a great stir. And naming is as close as we can outwardly come to identifying ourselves, my me-ness. Now, for me, because “Lucille” means light, I can get a lot of metaphor and baggage and all that sort of thing from that. And so . . . I suppose I think that being able to name is somehow being able to place, to identify.
When did you start working with your own name, Lucille, as a poetic device?
When I understood, when I thought about what it meant.
And when was that?
I was very young. I started writing when I was about ten. Perhaps [I was] a little older than that when [my name] began to take on metaphoric meaning for me.
And your parents, especially your father, put so much store in telling you the history of your family and your names.
Sayles was my maiden name. We were taught that that was just the most remarkable name. We were taught, if you go into other cities, look in the phone book and look for Sayles. I’m sixty-one years old, and I do that every place I go. I don’t do anything, but I do look and see if there are, in fact, Sayleses.
Have you ever called them?
No! [laughter] But we were told to call up and see if they were related to Old Man John F. [i.e., John F. Sale, the white slaveholder who owned a number of Clifton’s paternal ancestors]. Well, what do I care! But on the other hand, we were very name-proud people. My father was a very name-proud man, and so I guess that passed on to us. And then when I was born, I was going to be named Georgia. My father’s mother’s name was Georgia; my mother’s mother’s name was also Georgia. And my father said, so proud, that he named me Thelma after my mother, and my mother didn’t like her name, nor do I like the name Thelma. And so she said to name me something else, so “name” was always made significant. What’s interesting is—now my father had no idea, I’m sure he had no idea—that Lucille meant light. I’m sure of that. Interestingly, my sister—I have a half-sister—Elaine also means light. It’s a variation. I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago.
Now, you said you were around ten when you started writing poetry? Why? What happened to you at ten that caused you to sit down and start writing?
Well, I loved words always, and my mother used to write poetry, so I saw it as something to do. I think everyone has in his or her self the urge to express, and people do it with what they love, I suppose. Cooks do it with food; there are people who do it with hair, with clothing, fabric. I loved words, always, the sound of words, the feeling of words in my mouth, and so I did it that way.
Did you show your mother your poetry?
What would she say?
Generally, if it didn’t rhyme, she would say, “Baby, that’s not a poem.” [laughter] Because she wrote very traditional iambic pentameter verse.
Do you remember any poems you wrote as a little girl?
I have some poems from when I was sixteen or seventeen around somewhere. And what is interesting to me—of course, they’re in form—I started writing in form. Very strict form. And the concerns were the same kind of concerns that I have now, I think. Poems that were from the Bible, which was very surprising to me, looking at them at this point in my life. Having a bit of sensuousness, a bit of erotica in them, concerns about the things that I still write something about. And I thought that was interesting; I find that interesting.
It is interesting. I’m thinking about the memoir, Generations, and you make an interesting comment there where you write that, when black people moved up North in the early part of the century, they tended to stay together and form families and extended families. But when white people moved North and settled, they were just people in a town. Why do you think black people have that tendency to form families?
It could’ve been self-defense. [laughter] I think that probably one had to as a group of people outnumbered, you might say, and going to a place that they didn’t know. Immigrants do that now. There are a lot of a certain kind of people in one place, and others coming from their home will come to the same place. One wishes to be with people that you think look something like you. And for people whose families were broken up, family means a great deal.
I was recently approached about writing an entry on you for a reference book on contemporary southern writers.
Isn’t that interesting? I’m in an anthology also of Catholic writers. [laughter] I said to the woman, “But I’m not Catholic.” And she said, “Doesn’t matter.” I don’t think of myself as southern, though people think of my home as Maryland . . . though my home is Buffalo, New York.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about. You write about racial identity, gender identity, and family identity, but I’m wondering about geographical identity. How does that fit into who you see yourself as being?
I don’t think that I particularly feel a geographical identity. Why would that be? . . . It may well be somewhat related to something I read about Robert Penn Warren sometime back. The article said that when he graduated from college, he bought an old car and he traveled across the country. And he wanted to see the landscape; he wanted to look at this country. And I was understanding then that that’s why, maybe, I know something about the people in this country, but I’m not a landscape person. I don’t see landscape. I don’t identify that much with landscape.
Why do you think that is?
Because it was not available to me. There’s no way a person of my age, who looks like me, could have got a car and gone across this country safely. It’s not possible. We’re talking about the fifties and sixties, it would’ve been. And so what I did know was the people—and the “I” there I’m using as a broad “I.” Having studied them for some time, having had to, and that may be related. I don’t know how many African American poets are like Mary Oliver, who knows the landscape so well. It has not been available to us to know.
But you’ve had to know the people.
Had to know the people.
And that’s partly what you were saying a moment ago about maybe it’s a little bit a matter of self-defense, just having a sense of the social environment that you’re in.
Of being in a place where you were safe and you knew it.
Children need windows and mirrors
Now you’ve written, of course, all those books for children, and you’re one of many African American writers who’ve done that. I’m thinking of Ann Petry. She wrote for children as well as adults, and you do, and Nikki Giovanni comes to mind as well.
Well, Eloise Greenfield, Sharon Belmont. There are many.
You could certainly do nothing but write poetry, if you wanted. But why the commitment to writing children’s literature?
Well, it wasn’t a particular commitment at first. I think that I probably have as many, if not more, children than most of the poets or the people writing, especially women. I don’t know a lot of women, who have six children, who are writers. Men are something different entirely, as always. [laughter]
When I first started writing, when Good Times was first accepted by Random House, someone knew I had children and wanted to know if I had ever tried writing for children. I had not. But I did tell my kids stories. And so I started thinking about what could I do in the field, and I came up with the first book of Everett Anderson, Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. I found that I was able to write for children. It seems very easy, but it’s not necessarily so. And so I thought, “Well, here’s two different things.” And, to me, they are absolutely two different things, two different careers entirely. They impact on each other, of course. But they are two different careers. People who know me as a children’s author tend to not know me as a poet.
What do they think when they get to know your poetry?
Well, I have had children’s librarians come up and say, “When did you start this?” Both of the first books came out in November of ’69, but [readers of the two different genres] tend to just not know. I then began to think about children’s literature, especially picture books, which is what I write, and understand that there has been traditionally in this country an absence of . . . well, I have a little talk that I give sometimes about windows and mirrors, that children—and humans, everybody—all need both windows and mirrors in their lives: mirrors through which you can see yourself and windows through which you can see the world. And minority children have not had mirrors.
That has placed them at a disadvantage. If you want to call white children majority children—[they] have had only mirrors. That has placed them at a disadvantage also. And so it became important to me to have, for my own children and others, [characters] like them and others not like them—books dealing with family and love and support and all of that.
Why do you say the white children would be disadvantaged because they had only mirrors?
Because they live on a planet that is more window than mirror. And they have tended to believe that the planet is a planet like them or people who wish to be like them. And it’s not necessarily so. It’s a mistake to believe oneself one’s only valid participator in life, that that is the standard, the standard for human is white. I tell children the standard for flowers is many-colored; the standard for all kinds of things is many-colored. That is also the standard for humans, though they have not been taught that.
So I began to think that writing for children was important. I have two children’s books coming out in the next year. But when people talk to me about children’s literature, [they sometimes ask] if I had to stop [writing for children or adults], which would I stop? What they tend to want me to say—because it’s very romantic—they want me to say that I must write for children. That is not so. I could stop writing children’s books tomorrow, I could. I could not stop writing poetry. Poetry is where my heart is. That’s something I must do. Children’s books—I choose to do that; I respect and value it, but I don’t have to do it. Poetry I have to do.
Critics often talk about your affirming spirit and the celebratory qualities in your verse, and I certainly see those, too. But there’s also a lot of anger and sorrow and uncertainty in your writing, and it seems like the hopeful essence really has to struggle against those other forces.
It does! [laughter] That’s because I’m human. I’m doing a “new and selected” now, and a couple of friends have seen some of the poems, and they say this is going to be a dark book.
Well, I don’t think it’s dark. I think it’s just . . . you know, I have a poem about dialysis, for instance. I was on dialysis. And it ends, something about “i am alive and furious,” and then it ends with a question, “blessed be even this?” [Some critics] would expect of me, “blessed be even this.” Well, I’m not sure about that. You know, dialysis is not fun. Kidney failure is not fun.
It seems that, maybe more than most poetry, people can see what they want to see in your verse.
I think so.
If they want affirmation, it’s there.
There is affirmation there. And that makes people comfortable. And I understand that. I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago: “I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Of course, I would be nuts if I didn’t see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful because that’s the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.
Last night I watched the tape of your reading in Los Angeles, the Lannan Series of 1988. It was very interesting to me. And I heard you read in Chapel Hill when I was a grad student, long before I had any idea that I would someday be writing a book about you. It seems you’re very accessible in your readings, and you’re kind of giving yourself over to the audience. But it also strikes me that each of your readings is a very artfully arranged process, that it’s even an artful exercise in consciousness-raising that you’re leading your audience through.
I like to connect with people. I like people. Now, I am, on the other hand—nobody ever believes that—I’m shy. I am shy.
I believe you.
Do you? Thank you so much, because nobody ever believes me, and I’m very shy. But on the other hand, I think that one can teach without preaching, you know what I mean? And I know that there are some things that it would be helpful if people understood, and I want to say the truth. I want to tell the truth, you know?
I don’t care about facts—I’ve said that lots of times. But I care tremendously about the truth; I care tremendously about justice. . . . When I first went to St. Mary’s College, I didn’t know southern Maryland. I know it was a great Confederate [stronghold]. It’s my second home. But on the other hand, I wanted to know, where would I live? I didn’t know where to look for places to live. And the president at that time said to me, “Well, you could live anywhere; you’re Lucille Clifton.” I said, “Where would my sister live?” She’s not Lucille Clifton. And it’s important to think about that, too. Because that’s just, and I do believe in justice. I’m a great believer in justice.
Well, how did you decide on settling in Columbia, a comparatively young and consciously planned community? It seems to me a very interesting choice for a poet so preoccupied with history.
Well, I knew the founder of Columbia; I know the people who are the administration people in Columbia. It’s a very mixed community, and it started out that way. People in Columbia were interested in everybody living together, and I think they were interested in possibility.
And that’s a real theme in your writing—possibility.
I have a poem that says something like, “the future is possible.” I do believe that. I believe that people, if we face up to our responsibility and the possibility of evil in us, we then will understand that we have to be vigilant about the good. But if we all think that it all happens to somebody else, somewhere else, over there, then we don’t have to take responsibility for what we do.
Is this interest in the possibility of evil what leads you, in part, to write about Lucifer so much?
I’ve said that I know there’s Lucifer in Lucille, because I know me—I can be so petty, it’s amazing! And there is therefore a possibility of Lucille in Lucifer. Lucifer was doing what he was supposed to do, too, you know? It’s too easy to see Lucifer as all bad. Suppose he were merely being human. That’s why the Bible people—it’s too easy to think of them all as mythological, saintly folk. It is much more interesting to me that these were humans—caught up in a divine plan, but human. That seems to me the miracle.
You really do humanize those biblical characters in your poems, consistently, by taking on their personas and by having “eve thinking,” “adam thinking” [titles of poems in Quilting]. And, as for Lucifer, it seems to me that you really kind of like him.
Well, it’s kind of cool. [laughter] Well, suppose he was obeying orders. Wouldn’t that be interesting. I mean, what does that mean then? Exploration of possibilities, that’s all.
If he were sitting here, what would you want to ask him?
“Do you regret? What are your regrets?”
What do you think he’d want to ask you?
“Why are you doing this?” [laughter] But as I said to somebody whose class I talked to, “If Milton can do it, so can I.” Why not?
Let’s go back to what you were saying about being shy and how nobody believes that. You majored in drama. That might be one reason people don’t believe it.
I hate people to think that, though, because I’m not acting. I rarely am acting. What I think I do is, I know how to appear not shy. If I’m being “Lucille Clifton,” whoever that is, I know how to do that. If I’m just walking down the street, being “big lady walking down the street,” it’s not my best thing.
Has “Lucille Clifton” become a persona in your mind, because you’ve written about her?
In a way, in a way. A little bit. Only in that there seem to be expectations of Lucille Clifton and thoughts about what she’s like, and I know what this person is really like. For instance, I have these fox poems [in The Terrible Stories]. Well, these are fairly accurate poems. I mean, it became metaphor for me.
Was the fox coming here?
No, it was in St. Mary’s County. I have an apartment there when I’m teaching in southern Maryland. I’m here only some weekends and summertime. And I know I’m supposed to think, “What a wonderful thing, a fox, my totem”—all that. I was petrified! I was afraid of the fox! [laughter] My students get so upset when I say that. Lucille Clifton isn’t supposed to [be afraid]; she’s supposed to [love] all living creatures. Sometimes even the creatures seem to think so. Because creatures come to me all the time. However, I’m afraid of them.
What happened to that fox?
I don’t know. I finally moved, since I could not bear this fox! My friend was moving, my dear friend who’s just had her first book published; she had been a student of mine. Her name is Anne Caston. She’s a wonderful poet, an amazing poet. Anyway, she was moving, too. So we decided to move to this new apartment complex in St. Mary’s County. And she moved so that her apartment backed up to mine. But at the last moment, I said, “Well, Anne, I’ve got a fireplace in mine, and you don’t have one.” She has children, so I thought the fireplace would be nicer for a family with kids. And so we changed apartments; we exchanged.
Well! The first night we were there, the fox comes to her apartment! A fox. Who knows if . . . I choose to believe it was the same fox. And Anne—this is why I love this woman—she came out of the door and said, “She moved around there!” And the fox got up and trotted around to my apartment and spent the night there and then left and was never seen again.
Well, another visitation.
Indeed, indeed. And I recognize the honor. You know, I feel humbled by the compliment. But I was glad I didn’t see it anymore. Except I do wonder, you know, what I was to understand.
On being "clearly complex"
Now, you say you’re shy, but are you also a “people person”? And if so, is that a contradiction?
Or are you a “person person”? Do you like individual connections?
I like to watch people. I understand people, I think. I think I understand “human.” I like to be with people sometimes. [But] there are days when I don’t want to see anybody. I tend to not mind being solitary at all. It’s necessary for me.
[Clifton’s daughter Gillian walked into the house.]
Gillian, she thinks I’m shy! My children don’t think I’m shy.
Gillian: No, you’re shy; you’re about the shyest person I know.
Yes, I am.
I think you’re very layered, just like your poetry is layered.
Thank you! Yes, my poetry is.
Gillian: Oh, that’s true. I would agree with that.
I think my poetry is layered. Thank you for saying so.
And what I was getting to was connected with that. There are critics who say that you’re “deceptively simple.” And I just think that’s a little wide of the mark. I don’t think you’re deceptive.
Well, I’ve been called that so much.
But you’re not deceptive in your poetry. It’s very clear. It’s multilayered.
Thank you. I prefer “clear” to “simple,” because simple has negative connotations, and I try to write clearly. And I do it on purpose. Often people seem to feel that I use the language I use because I don’t know any other words! Well, I do!
I think that the other part of that, the “deceptive” part, is also off base. To say that you’re “deceptively simple” implies that you’re trying to trick readers in some way, and to me, you’re not. You’re trying to connect.
I’m trying to be very clear and to make it so that people of all sorts can get some feel for what I’m trying to do.
I would say that rather than “deceptively simple,” it’s “clearly complex.”
Oh, that’s nice! May I borrow that?
You certainly may. I’m reminded of what you said in the Lannan interview when the interviewer asks you, “What do you try to avoid as a poet?” and you said you try to avoid being clever. Can you elaborate on that? Why would that be a problem?
In school, I was a good English student. Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out. I think about Rilke’s “Ode to the Difficult.” And I try very hard not to do the easy, expected, smart thing.
Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. I really think that—to understand my poetry—I don’t think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said—you know what I mean? I never had classes in this, I never took courses in this business, so I had to learn, I had to feel my way into the language. And you can have a visceral response to these things coming together, if you have enough authenticity behind them, enough power.
When you read your poems publicly, do you feel the emotions that originally inspired them?
Sometimes. . . . I have a reading at Duke on Wednesday, and I’m thinking about what I’d like to hear, and there are some poems I haven’t heard in a while, so I think I’ll read them. But I don’t have a set pattern. I rarely—once in a while I do—have a set pattern of what I’m going to read, because I try to feel the audience. I try to feel, what does it seem that they need? What does it seem that they want? You know what I mean? And I try to feel that out. And so I read; as it’s going, I try to make it a flow that fills the need and desire I feel in the room. It uses a lot of energy, I want you to know, so I’m really exhausted at the end.
The sequence of poems you have called “in white america” seems to be about going on a reading tour. Where was that?
I think it was Wells College in upstate New York. Wells is a woman’s school. I’ve been there many times, and I’m going again in the fall. It might’ve been Ithaca College, one of those upstate New York colleges, in the hinterlands.
You talk in that series about what it’s like to give readings to white people.
I’ve read in every state. I’m reading in London in May, and I’ve read in Jerusalem.
How many readings do you think you’ve given?
Oh lord, when I was younger I used to read every week almost.
Oh, let’s see, I’ve been reading for twenty-something years. I’d say in that time I’ve read over five hundred times.
And how many times at mostly black venues?
Less than a dozen, if that. There have been a few black people in a lot of readings, mostly all white. Often I’m the only black person.
Well, in that series, “in white america,” it seems you’re wrestling with that, wrestling with the fact that, in a way, it’s compromising, but in a way you really want to do it.
Well, I do. I’ve had a couple of students interviewing me in the last two or three days, and they want to know who I think my audience is. That is not something that I know. And I have learned that I can’t put boundaries around it. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m constantly surprised. I’ve had two letters from soldiers in Albania. I think they were on opposite sides. The poems were printed in an Albanian newspaper, and I guess in Albanian, it must’ve been, because they struggled with the language in writing to me. And that’s amazing to me. I would never have supposed that people there would read them.
So you just got these stray letters. Were they fan letters?
Yes, they were, very much so. And in trying to do the English, I think it’s so interesting: It was like, “Most wondrous and wise poet.” [laughter] Whoa! Also, a woman in Italy is doing a dissertation on me. One would think, how would that happen? I don’t know who my audience is.
It doesn’t bother you that they’re all over the place?
No. I would like African American people to be proud of me and to like what I do. Women, I would like them to be proud of me and like what I do. But I write for the poem. That’s what I’m trying to do: serve the poem. And who is to receive it, will. Who can receive it, will. Who doesn’t—I have a moment of thinking, “How can they think I’m not nice?”—nice as I am! [laughter] But I understand that. People say, “Well, I never heard of you.” Well, half the world hasn’t heard of me, more than half.
In the 1988 Lannan Series reading, you start off with “homage to my hips” and then you do “wishes for sons.” And everybody’s laughing, everybody’s having a good time. By the end of the reading you’re doing the “shape-shifter poems,” which is a completely different mood, and you’ve brought the audience along to that point. Is that a typical movement for you?
It is. I try to vary it. Right now I have a Lorena Bobbitt poem [“lorena” in The Terrible Stories], and I try to do that [during a reading].
Where does that poem come in?
That’s after some poems that might be a little difficult, as a rule. Or, I might start with it. It depends. The danger of starting with it is that everybody thinks that everything you do is funny after that. That has happened on occasion, and that bothers me. And I will say, “Well, now what was funny about that?” I will say that, because it’s too easy for people to think that “well, she’s just full of joy and laughing.”
And merriment, yes. And I’m not, particularly, any more than anybody else is, you know? I want to do the whole thing, so it can all be accepted in some way. I was reading some children’s books to kids one time, and the children asked me wonderful things, which is among the reasons I love them. And one little boy asked me—and these were all white kids—“Why are all the people in your books so poor?”
Well, these kids happened to be poor kids, and I knew it, you know, but they didn’t think they were. And what I said was, “Well, they’re poor, but they just don’t have any money. They’re not poor in spirit. Are you poor in spirit?” No, they’re not. And then one child asked me why were they all brown? And I said, “Well, look at me. Suppose I didn’t write about anybody brown.” And he looked at me for a while, and then he said, “That would be weird.” [laughter] And I said, “Wouldn’t it be weird?” It would be very weird. Kids understand these things.
Pronouncing frogs, reading Wolfe
You seem to view words as physical objects in a way, as very interesting physical objects. You take “everywhere” and split it into two parts, and you do the same thing with “everybody” and “somewhere.”
When I feel that’s what it wants, yes. I like when I hear somebody saying a word and pronouncing it in a way I have not heard. I like to repeat it. Galway Kinnell has a poem about frogs. He says, “frahg.” He’s a friend; I’ve heard him do it a thousand times. And I always think, “How does that feel in your mouth?” I know what “frog” sounds like, feels like, in my mouth. How does that “frahg” feel in his mouth?
It seems to me that, when I was saying that you view words as physical objects, you could say that of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. And I’m wondering if you have any particular interest in either one of those.
Actually, no. [laughter] That’s interesting, because I’m not a particular fan of either of them. When I was very young, the writers that I liked very much to read were Edna St. Vincent Millay for poetry and Thomas Wolfe for prose. Now, I write like neither of them, you know?
What did you like about them?
I loved Wolfe’s wonderful spate of words. “Oh lost, and by the wind green ghosts, come back as first I knew you in the timeless valley!” Oh, I thought that was great stuff!
He’s a southern white man.
Indeed! He probably wouldn’t have liked me at all! But when I was younger, that’s what I thought of. For a while, I would write standing up—I read he did.
You use a lot of questions in your poetry, especially at the ends of your poems. How conscious are you of that?
I was not particularly conscious of using a lot of them. But I do think that poetry is about questions.
Why do you say that?
Well, because I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.
Do you consider Yeats . . .
I like Yeats.
Do you like him or do you love him?
I probably just like him a whole lot. [laughter]
Who do you love?
I love—well, do we have to have writers?
Yes. Then we can move on to others.
Adrienne [Rich]! We lived in the same town for a while. She’s a fabulous person. We each had a child who had cancer at the same time at one point in our lives. We used to talk about that and commiserate quite a lot. I think we exchanged a poem at that time, something about “our children are bald,” because they were both having chemotherapy.
Which of your children?
My second daughter [Fredrica]. [Gillian] is my third daughter.
Gillian is the third. And Alexia is the other daughter who lives here?
She’s the one who donated a kidney to me.
Any other poets who come to mind as just a passion for you? Old or contemporary?
I don’t know about loving.
I admire Derek Walcott. I admire cummings. Though that’s not why I don’t capitalize, okay? I admire Whitman, I admire Yeats, I admire Gwen Brooks.
What about Plath and Sexton?
I begin to respect Plath more now. When I was younger, I wasn’t as into her. Sexton I do, and I knew her a little bit. She was a friend of Maxine Kumin, whom I’ve known for a very long time. As I get older, for some reason, I admire Plath more.
I wonder why that is.
I don’t have the faintest clue! She was so young, too. It seems to me odd that I do.
Well, you were contemporaries, and then she died so young, and you kept going, and so it’s interesting to compare your work.
Sharon [Olds] I like very much. I think Sonia Sanchez is an underrated poet. Oh, there are so many! Joy Harjo. There’s a poet in Arizona, Richard Shelton, a remarkable poet. He has a wonderful line: “We will be known as the ones who murdered the earth.”
You’re very interested in environmental issues in your poetry. It comes up in almost every book. How did that get started?
It isn’t as if I sat down and thought about it. I’ve always been a person who, if I was interested in something, I wanted to know as much about it as I can. Because I’m a learning kind of person. I’ve always been a learner, I try to learn about things. The environment, which includes humans, seems to me in danger. I belong to a group which is very concerned with the biodiversity of the planet, and I was a bit put out that, in thinking about that, and the preservation of this biodiversity, they were not particularly concerned about humans! I found that appalling.
Do you read a lot of newspapers?
I do. How could you tell that?
It’s evident in your poetry, because there’s a real strain of topicality. There’s the universal level, but there’s also that topicality where you’re dealing with the Civil Rights movement for obvious reasons, the women’s movement . . .
I love history. On Sunday, we get the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. One of the [good] things about [living in] Durham is that my student helper, every Sunday morning, she puts the New York Times and the Washington Post in my doorway.
Did you grow up reading newspapers?
Yes. My parents were great newspaper readers, my father particularly. And my father, as I said, couldn’t write. My mother could write. Couldn’t spell! As her daughter can’t exactly, either. But they both had great interest in what was going on in the world. They were people who were curious about things, learners as well, I think.
Which magazines do you read?
Well, I try to read as many as I can. Let’s see, what do I read? I don’t subscribe to them, but I read the New Yorker, I try to read Lingua Franca; I read all kinds of things like that. I also read People, I read Jet, I read Essence, I read Ebony. Mode is for big women. [laughter] I like to tell my students, “I’m very eclectic—deal with it!” I am eclectic. I love Bach. . . . I also love the Four Tops. And now I’m into Kenny Burrell and jazz. I like opera very much. I don’t know if I love it or not; I like it very much.
What else do you love?
I like to laugh. I can tell you better what I can’t stand. I can’t stand injustice. I can’t stand seeing people being unfair to each other. I can’t stand cruelty, indifference. I don’t like that a lot. Oysters! [laughter]
You make an important distinction between being a woman and being a girl. But is there still a little girl lurking within you? Sort of rolling around and having some fun? Like your poem “there is a girl inside” [in Good Woman]?
I think so, because I like fun, I like adventure. My idea of a good time is going to Universal Studios and Disney World. My oldest daughter lives in L.A., and the kids say, if we go, you’ve got to promise not to go to Universal Studios, because they’re very bored with it. They’ve been there too many times already.
Can you take the grandchildren as a way to get back in?
Well, I go anyway. They don’t tell me what to do. Since my daughters aren’t here, I can say that.
Dream vs. vision
If you were going to have a dinner party for three people from history, famous people, whom would you want to have?
David of Israel. Oh, these are two people I love. Crazy Horse of Dakota Nation.
You can have one more person.
It has to be a woman. Hmmm. Mary, the mother of Christ.
Why didn’t you invite Lucifer? Are you done with him?
Yes! [laughter] No, I don’t think he’s done with me! But those are three that I would very much like to talk to.
And what would you want to ask them?
Well, they all are people with contradictions in their lives. They all were people who were faced with something larger than themselves and tried to meet it with grace, I think. And I would ask them how that felt, what were they feeling, maybe a little bit about what they were thinking, but what were they feeling?
With Mary, is that really what happened? With David, who did you really love? Because he didn’t know how to love women, I don’t think. He wanted them, he lusted after them, but I don’t think he loved them. Crazy Horse—his life was a series of strangenesses, even for him, [and] he was a mystical guy. I’m always interested in people who are a bit mystical, and those three I think all were. I’d like to know, “How was it for you? How was it for you?”
You’ve been interested in Crazy Horse for a long time. Did you read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and get interested in him then or were you interested in him before?
I think I was always a bit interested. I don’t remember what I read first. Mari Sandoz has a book called Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglalas. I think what really bound me to him was, with Crazy Horse, it was always the second thing that came to fruition for him. His birth mother died, and he was raised by his stepmother. . . . Black Shawl was the name of his wife. But he was in love with Black Buffalo Woman.
I’ve wondered if you connect Crazy Horse with your father.
Oh, it never occurred to me.
Because of being married to one woman and having relationships with other women.
Not at all! That never would occur to me. I think Crazy Horse was much nicer than my father. [laughter] Oh, he was much truer, and everything—oh my goodness!
Can you see why I would have made that connection?
I suppose so. But with Crazy Horse, he loved Black Buffalo Woman first.
Well, why didn’t he marry her?
Because he went away somewhere on some expedition, and when he came back, her father had married her to someone else. And he ran away with her at one point, and that’s when she conceived the daughter that when he came back, he didn’t stay with her, because he had visions, and he knew this was not the right thing to do. So he came back with her and she had a daughter called They Are Afraid of Her, and I think that daughter died young. He had another daughter with Black Shawl, who also died young. So people who are saying they’re descendants—there are no direct descendants of Crazy Horse, but they’re people who were his cousins and all that.
In Two-Headed Woman, some of the poems suggest to me that you have had visions. True or false?
I have had experiences which could be called that. I have had spiritual kinds of experiences. I have.
What are they like?
Well, what are they like? I don’t know what you could say, if you could compare them to . . . I would say this, if people had had dreams and visions, they would know the difference. But if you’ve only had dreams, you wouldn’t. I can understand why somebody would say, “Well, it was just a dream.” But if you’ve had them both, then you know the difference.
You’ve written about both. You’ve written about dreams.
Mm-hmm. And I know the difference! And I sometimes can read palms, for instance. That is to say, it’s not reading palms like people read palms. Sometimes when I touch things, I can hear something, and it has to do with the thing I’m touching. And sometimes I can’t and sometimes I can.
Are there others in your family who’ve talked about a similar sensation?
No. Not really. My kids, especially my two youngest daughters, can feel things sometimes.
I see you as a visionary poet. And I put you in the same continuum as Blake.
I like Blake. I have a poem about Blake [in The Terrible Stories].
Blake and Whitman and Yeats and Clifton—what do you say to that continuum?
I like those people! [laughter] Yeats I think is wonderful. People never talk about his mysticism.
It’s all over the place, and it’s all over your poetry, too.
It probably is.
Are you a mystic?
I don’t know what a mystic is. My husband, if you’d asked him, would’ve said yes. He thought he was a mystic.
Did he think you were?
I don’t know, I doubt it.
What made him one?
Well, he was a yogi, and he was a very interesting, mystical kind of person. He had a whole different way of being than I do.
Was your mother a mystical sort of person?
I don’t think so, but she may have been. I don’t have to have known it for it to have been true. She was born with twelve fingers also. And I always just decide this is it, this is why we’re strange, because we have all these fingers. My oldest daughter was [born with twelve fingers], though I doubt if she would think of herself as mystical.
You said in the Lannan video that you wished you had been able to keep your extra fingers.
That would have been interesting.
Well, you had the chance with your daughter, to let her keep hers.
I know. Well, with her, with my first child, I had ether. I saw the rest of them born, she was the only one I didn’t see born. And they had hers off by the time I came to. Isn’t that awful?
And then the others didn’t have them.
I like to think that it’s the first daughter, or it’s a woman thing, excepting that my brother—my brother’s now dead—but he had a son, his oldest son was born with twelve fingers. But he and his wife divorced, and he hadn’t seen that son, and I’m pretty sure they were off, too—as an abnormality.
Were they whole fingers, or were they little flipper-like things?
This is the only reminder I have. [indicating scar on little finger]
Is there one on the other hand?
No, no. They [took] them off. When I was born, they tied thread very tightly around and stopped the blood circulation. And so after a certain point, they dried up and then fell off. So I assume there was no bone.
I’ve been thinking about Langston Hughes and his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” He writes, in response to a young poet who said he wanted to be a poet, not a Negro poet, “[T]his is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
It seems to me that you’ve acknowledged and climbed that mountain a long time ago, that your blackness is very much part of who you are in your poetry.
Exactly, exactly. And what the young man was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I’m seen as that quite often. There’s the poets and there’s the sub-genre and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so. And I am not an either/or person. I’m not either American or black. I am an American poet, and that’s what American poetry is: me, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, David Mura, you know what I mean?
That is American poetry. I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston [Hughes] was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way—Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all of that. But that’s what American poetry is. Now, whether or not critics think so—they’re wrong, that’s all. I don’t mind. I don’t have a problem with that. . . . I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, and my father was black. And so there I was. I was gonna be black! It didn’t just zap me. And that’s okay, that is all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this is what American poetry is.
Reprinted from Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton by Hilary Holladay, Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Hilary Holladay is a professor of English and the director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Her recent book publications include Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton (LSU Press, 2004) and a poetry collection, The Dreams of Mary Rowlandson (Loom Press, 2006)....