A talk with Lucille Clifton / "You end with a progression from having been somewhere to going somewhere; and it is all about evolving, motion, and it is, of course, about blessings ... I am the one who talks about it ... the only mercy is memory ... the only hell is regret"

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There’s a scene in the movie Lucky Number Slevin where Bruce Willis’ character, Goodkat, is explaining the Kansas City Shuffle, describing it as a moment “when everybody looks right, you go left.” The Kansas City Shuffle, you see, is about encountering the unexpected, and being awed by its impact.

By this definition, Lucille Clifton is queen of the Kansas City Shuffle. Her works deliver the unexpected by infusing meaning in both what appears and what is omitted. She doesn’t rely on punctuation or capitalization. She peregrinates along the shores of tenderness and understanding. She writes sparsely, but with a neurosurgeon’s precision. She employs words lightly, using them economically to transport hefty truths that are often rooted in her own autobiography. She gives voice to experiences -- of blackness, of woman-ness, of victim-ness -- traditionally ignored in the wider literary canon.

In this conversation with playwright and fellow poet, Grace Cavalieri, Clifton explores an array of issues as she spins from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ on the axis of life’s alphabet, tackling, along the way, abortion, abuse, beauty, blues, children, death, flow, language, mercy, music, poetry, religion, and salvation. Clifton also shares a sprinkling of her classic poems, such as “blessing the boats” and “donor.” The result is a dialogue with resonance for not only those of you who love language and use it to make sense of yourselves and your worlds, but also for those of you who love your very worlds, and who engage, willingly and unwillingly, in the perennial struggle to locate and protect the soft center of an easily charred humanity, your own and that of others.

Spend a blissful half hour, at least, eavesdropping on this conversation. You will discover, in every sentence, a new reason to exalt the complexity and tenacity of the human spirit, your own and that of others. “won’t you celebrate with me” Clifton asks. Won’t you?

The Poet and the Poem: An Interview with Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton (LC):
This opening poem is called “blessing the boats.”

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Grace Cavalieri (GC): Well, we have been looking at your work for a number of years, and Blessing the Boats won the National Book Award, and maybe you will talk about the title poem.

LC: Alright. It’s interesting that “blessing the boats” was a poem that I didn’t realize was so relevant to so many things. I’ve had people say they read it at weddings. I’ve had people say they read it at funerals. I understood the relevance and it seems to have caught on.

GC: Well the poem itself is about movement. You end with a progression from having been somewhere to going somewhere; and it is all about evolving, motion, and it is, of course, about blessings.

LC: Even the negative kind. I can understand the feeling that all the boats haven’t been wonderful, but one appreciates them as part of life anyway.

GC: And that’s what your work is about, that is what all your work is about. These are “new and selected poems,” and the present poem you’re going to read.

LC: This is a poem written to my youngest daughter when I had a kidney transplant. She donated her kidney to me, and what I think is interesting is this: I had six children in six and a half years, and she was the youngest, and she was the child I tried ... I did quite a number of things to not have her ... which she knows very well; I don’t keep things like secrets from my children. And I did things that I say are still illegal. But, she was bound and determined to be born.

GC: With the ‘fierce frown of an angel.’

LC: Yes. And she said to me that if she had been able to talk, she would have said, “Give me thirty years, and you’re gonna need me!”

GC: And so you did.

LC: So I did. This is called “donor”

to lex.

When they tell me that my body
might reject
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.

GC: And she came in quite handy.

LC: And it’s interesting, because people say, well do you love her more than you do the other children now? No! Not at all. It’s not like that.

GC: Not about quantifying. And your work is, well, Faulkner says there’s no such thing as “was,” so your work is always about all time to me. It’s about the past, it’s about history, it’s about family. It’s not about chronology. It’s always about right now. And that is the thing I think people and critics are saying about your work. Whatever you used to write is relevant now.

LC: I feel that nothing is lost, that history is still here, now. And the only way to deal with history really, is to recognize that it is still part of us, which in our country we tend to not have done, as much as we might have. So much of American history is not validated, because it is seen sometimes as negative. I know there are negative things, but I think that we have to bless all the boats, as I said earlier.

GC: Where shall we go now, Lucille? I was thinking: what might be the nouns that describe Lucille?

LC: Family, very much. Woman. Uterus, in several poems. Well, I’m the Queen of Body Parts! Yes, I feel that body parts are not celebrated enough. In our culture, we like to think that, oh I’ve said this before, and I hope it’s not too risqué; it isn’t risqué, it’s human. But men have said to me, you write about body parts all the time! And I have said that if I had only one interesting one, I probably wouldn’t write about it a lot either.

I do believe the poems come to me, and I accept them. I believe that I am always available to poetry. I know people who say they write during the summertime or something, I don’t see how you can do that. When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m not, I’m preparing to write, really, because I’m taking in. But I know how to answer a poem, and poems know that I am available, and so they come to me. I really do feel it’s that way.

GC: And you’ve never said, “No Thank You” to one.

LC: Not yet. Even though it’s difficult sometimes. In a new collection, I have a poem that was hard for me to write. It’s a poem about abuse. And I know that abuse is a subject that is not talked about in our country, and yet it’s rampant, and I wanted to write this poem, though it was difficult, but I did.

GC: You have actually written many poems that are shockers. That hit you right in the chest, and we will hear some of them today. Because, after all, that is your canon of work.

LC: And it’s about being human. And being human doesn’t mean that it’s always wonderful, and you’ve done all the really swell things. It’s sort of about recognizing all of the elements of human-ness.

GC: Well ... you say what you mean.

LC: And that’s all I mean! I, for instance, I have a poem called “the lost baby poem,” and when it is taught, it is taught oftentimes in schools, as if it were about miscarriages... and it’s about abortions. And the only reason it is taught as about miscarriages, I think, is because teachers wish their students, and wish themselves to think I’m a nice person. And obviously if you’ve had an abortion, you can’t be a nice person. I disagree completely with that, you know. And I’ve had students come up to me and say, you know, “Isn’t that about an abortion?” And I say, “yes”, and they say, “my teacher says it’s about a miscarriage.” And I always say don’t, you know, they’d prefer to believe that, and it’s okay.

GC: This is true. Beneath every poem, there is another poem.

LC: Another poem is about my sister -- I had a sister who was a prostitute. And she was wonderful, and, look, I wasn’t the only sister who had a sister who was a prostitute, I am the one who talks about it.

GC: And writes poems about it.

LC: Yes. So that poem is called “here rests.”. My sister died, oh, years back, years back. She was quite something.

GC: What an elegy that poem must be. What was the pimp like?

LC: Oh, he was nice. They once visited when I was going to come to Howard University. I went to Howard in the fifties and they took me to lunch once. I was sixteen, and I had never been away from home. And they sat me down, and had a list of places in D.C. that if they heard I appeared there, they would be pretty angry, and they would get me about it. And so I never went to any of those places, because I was pretty sure they’d know.

GC: Watching out for you.

LC: Yes. Well, we were family, you know.

GC: Tell us about Mama. Your Mama stories are well known.

LC: Of course everybody’s mother was a saint, except mine really was. I should say that my mother dropped dead when she was forty four years old, a month before my oldest daughter was born. But when I went to Howard, I had never been away from home. I won a full scholarship. Oh, they were very proud, though they had no idea where Howard was. And when I went there, we were so poor, I had taken my grandmother’s chest, her trunk, and I was embarrassed by it. It was tied with ropes. So I had it put in the basement at Howard, and then I would unpack at night, so people wouldn’t see this trunk. And when we got off the train, several of us from the neighborhood, a gentleman, I think he was a sophomore - you were met at the train station by people, by upper class people - and he came to my friend, her name was Betty Dixon, (Betty if you’re listening, you might remember this), and he said to her “Oh, you’re so cute, you’ll really last here, you’ll have a good time.” And he looked at me and said, “And you must be her mother.” And I thought, I hate this place, and as soon as I eat, I’m going home. But I insisted on lunch first. And then when I got on campus, I saw wealthy African Americans. I had never seen them before. And I called home, and I said, “Mama! They got matching robes and slippers!” and she said, “Baby, it’s the good life.” And that’s what she wanted for me, the good life.

GC: The title poem of your book. “Mercy.” Mercy on all of us that do anything to anyone. I think women poets have done so much, talking about their beginnings, Maya Angelou too. And everyone who has the courage to push back the border one more inch, so we can say one more thing, so one more child can know eventually she’s not alone.

LC: That seems important. I think we have a tendency to believe that bad things happen to people who are in a pathologic situation, something like that. But I’ve read poems about abuse -- I remember some years back -- to a group of faculty wives at Princeton. And they were furious, they did not like me particularly because I seemed to not hate my father. And, you know, it’s a very complicated thing, very complicated. But hate doesn’t solve anything. And this does not mean that I think that everything’s okay. I do not. I do not.

GC: Or you would not have written that poem. Because that is the act of salvation.

LC: Because a bad thing happened. And a bad thing happens a lot, and we must go on realizing that the world is full of bad things, quite often.

GC: It sounds terrific -- “for Mercy.” How did that word come to you? The simplest words, like Richard Wilbur said, work best. Sometimes love is the best word you can say. And sometimes I-love-you, is the most important thing you could say. So, how did Mercy visit you?

LC: Well, first of all, it’s based on the -- I never know whether it’s epigram or epigraph, and I don’t care so much. But it was based on something -- this book is based on my daughter who died, and there was something -- a line I had in different poem in a different book, called ‘the only mercy is memory.’ And this book is something about memory. And so ‘mercy’ seemed right, and once I could say it to myself, it did seem to be the name of the book.

GC and LC: The only mercy is memory.

LC: The only hell is regret. (source/full text)

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