Thursday, February 18, 2010

A fond goodbye to Lucille Clifton

The amazing and irreplaceable poet Lucille Clifton died Saturday; see a thoughtful tribute from Elizabeth Alexander in the New Yorker.

To mark her passing, here is a passage from an interview Nicky Finney conducted with Clifton for the anthology THE RINGING EAR, published in 2007:

NF: I've been thinking a lot about the journey of your mother, Thelma Sayles. A poet in her own right, yes?

LC: Yes. Oh yes.

NF: It is my understanding that she wrote and read to you preciously and often.

LC: Yes, she recited poems to me. I've recited my mother's poems that she recited often to me. "Abu Ben Adam," "The House by the Side of the Road," Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom she loved. Paul Laurence Dunbar's and my birthday are the same date. Different years, of course. [laughs]. I would sit on my mother's lap until she died. I was twenty-one when she died. I never thought that was odd. Here is this big pregnant -- I was huge with my first child -- and she would rock me and recite Paul Laurence Dunbar and other poems.

NF: I don't know another Black woman poet who had a working poet for a mother. It sounds as though your mother's personal affection for language and for poetry prepared your ears for being a poet in this world. I see what she gave you as almost a second birth.

LC: Oh my. Oh, yes indeed. I hadn't thought about that. Yes, yes indeed. Absolutely. It was! It was. You know what is interesting too? My mother was a great numbers player, as were the other women in the neighborhood, and oddly enough, when I was a kid in elementary school, at lunch I would go home and go across the street tot the number runner's house and take calls on his phone for him. I bet there are a lot of women poets who went to college but never had this experience [laughs]. Her number was 254 and that was our address at one point. Well, when I went in for my kidney transplant, I knew I would be OK for two reasons: one, because my hospital number was 425, and the other was because my mother couldn't finish writing her poems. I have a poem called "Fury" about my mother burning her poems. And I knew she would not allow me to not be able to finish. I really do believe she guides me on not allowing me to not do my work. She was amazing -- I have a short story called "The Magic Mama"--a very short story. I think you're right. She did prepare me to hear the language, because to this day, I'm still a very aural person.

NF: Our anthology is entitled The Ringing Ear. The name is borrowed from Forrest Hamer's fine poem "Middle Ear." It's in here in the ear for us as poets isn't it? Poetry is so intimately a sound-based art.

LC: I really think people forget about sound in poetry. When I was at Columbia, I taught a course on hearing poems. My mother's poems were very traditional, iambic pentameter verse. I remember I would be writing a poem and my mother would say, "Ah, baby, that ain't no poem! Let me show you how to write a poem." . . . My father would recite the Bible. He knew the Bible very well, but my father couldn't write. Just hearing the language. I didn't purposely say, "I want to hear the tones!" Hearing and listening just became part of who I am.

NF: In the bones?

LC: Absolutely, in the bones.