Harbour Winn: What do you mean when you talk about yourself as a Dahomey woman?
Lucille Clifton: Well, I was fortunate that I come from a family of storytellers, a family of people who tend to be oral historians, who talk about these things. What I know is that my foremother, who was brought to this country in 1830 after the slave trade was outlawed in the English-speaking ports, she was brought to New Orleans and walked up to Virginia and she said that she came “from among the Dahomey people.” Now, she didn’t say, “I come from Dahomey,” for Dahomey then was where that country Benin is now. We think she might have been Euraba or something like that. That was the land of the first Amazon army. Many of them would cut off a breast so that they could better aim arrows, they used bows and arrows. With my mastectomy when I had cancer, I felt very close to my Dahomian place.
The things my father used to say to me were, “You can do what you want to; you’re from Dahomey women.” He seemed to think nothing was impossible for a woman from Dahomey and he used to say about my mother,“She is not a Dahomey woman, but she is the mother of one,” which I thought was kind of interesting, some kind of power chant or something.
HW: That’s a wonderful poem, the one talking about the breast removed and the Amazon woman with the spear; it’s a wonderful poem.
LC: Well, it was a way to talk or think about it that was not difficult, because I’ve had several physical challenges, health challenges. The mastectomy was one that was difficult. They’re all difficult, more or less; however, with that one I had to remember that there were women who had one breast. That was helpful for me to know that there were women who do this to increase their power in some way.
I’ve had breast cancer twice, I’ve had kidney failure and cancer, and a kidney transplant—my youngest daughter gave me her kidney—and renal cancer. I felt guilty. My youngest daughter was a personal trainer who was giving up her kidney and I felt . . . I don’t know . . . I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had renal cancer when I won the National Book Award. The surgery was scheduled and I said, “No.” I had this really nice dress and I thought, I’m gonna wear my pretty dress to the National Book Awards and I’m a short-listed person, and I did win that year. I don’t think anybody knew that I had [cancer], so it wasn’t a pity thing, I’m pretty sure. And still, still I rise.
Elaine Smokewood: I’d like to ask you, in what way is poetry a spiritual practice for you, the writing of poems? I love especially those “Mary” poems. I just feel that your language in those poems breaks through the curtain of mundane reality and some raw nerve of the sacred is exposed. I wonder if the writing of poetry has been a spiritual practice for you.
LC: It has, in that I hope that I write out of spirit. I don’t think I’m religious at all. I’m spiritual, I think. Somebody said about me once that I can find human in the spiritual and spiritual in the human. I think that’s true of all of us, that we are all mixtures of these things. I have some newer poems I’m working on that you might like. They are poems in the voice of Mary and the voice of Eve and the voice of Mary Magdalene, but in the voice as they were on an African continent. They were not white girls in Israel as we think of it, as we think of European girls. Mary’s name was not Mary. Surely it must have been Mariam. Eve was Chava, surely. These were Hebrew people, and why pretend that they weren’t?
I like to think of how it must have been for a girl in these stories. I don’t know whether my belief is that these are actual stories. Or are these stories metaphor? How would it feel to suddenly have [someone] tell you, you are about to bear a child? This is scary, actually. And the one poem about Anna, her mother, she must think, This is awful, what did she do? I just try to feel my way into another human. I think you can only do that if you feel them as human, that is, wonderful, spiritual creatures, as I think all humans, perhaps all living things are, spirit and matter. I try to take the whole possibility of language—that is to say, definition and history and baggage—and use it so that they and I and you are spirit and flesh.
HW: One thing I notice about the way that you enter into, become Mary or Anna or Clark Kent or buffalo soldiers or foxes, when you enter and become a voice, then your poems come in bunches.
LC: That’s true. That’s really true.
HW: It’s like a bunch of grapes; you have three or four poems about that voice.
LC: Sometimes this is difficult for people to understand, especially wonderfully liberal people like to think I’m just like them. I come from a premise: they’re just like me, and that’s different, you know? How different is Mary from Lucille? How different is the fox from Lucille? Not very. She wants to eat. She wants to love. She wants to have a warm place. And I know what that feels like for me, so I can have some small feeling of how that is for them. I try to meet life on its terms. I do not meet living things as strangers. People think, “Lucille loves all creatures and everything.” I’m petrified of a whole lot of stuff, including electrical storms. I’m from a family that when it was lightning, we used to go in the closet and close the door.
I enjoy intellect. I love to hear certain intellectual people talk, I was married to an intellectual person, but that’s not all that one is, that’s not the only validity—which is what people like to think sometimes, that you’re only valid if you have a Ph.D. There are valid people with Ph.D.’s and then there are people who are idiots with Ph.D.’s; I’ve met some of both. I don’t wanna be judged, I really don’t; and so I try not to judge, though I can be very self-righteous sometimes. I’m aware of it. I tickle me sometimes.
ES: In one of your interviews you said something like, “I’ve always felt the presence of the others.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
LC: Well, I have always been able to feel the presence of the other. I didn’t know that others couldn’t or didn’t open themselves to doing so. I don’t think anything I do is different from what anybody else does. But I can feel sometimes the living and the dead, I really can. It’s my own experience that allows me to say that with some certainty. I’ve seen spirits. I have had experiences. I had experiences with my mother. My mother died a month before my oldest child was born. My children have known my mother and I guess she was present if I needed her to be. That sounds silly, doesn’t it? This is just for myself. My own experience teaches me something about what to believe and what to understand.
ES: I think that’s in your poetry. So often I feel that your language is breaking through to another world, the other world.
LC: Wouldn’t it be interesting if it wasn’t the other world, it was this one, although we don’t look at that part of it? I understand that. I’m scared of things, too. My father used to say, “Always be scared of what’s living. The dead, you know, they’re fine, but be nervous about your neighbors.” To attribute it to something, I was born with twelve fingers, my mother was as well, and my oldest daughter was. There’s a kind of thing in that, I’ve thought. Or maybe I’m just so stupid that I’m open to—what [does] Truman Capote say? “Other voices, other rooms.” I don’t know, but spirit is a part of my life. I’m open to those voices as I am open to poetry. Poetry knows that I am receptive. Poetry knows that I will not say no when it knocks at the door, and so it comes. It seems very simple to me.
Khmisha Carrethers: You have six children. Have you ever thought about writing about your experiences starting out as a poet with such young children?
LC: I once wanted to write a book about how to have a lot of children when you’re poor. My husband was in grad school when our kids were little, and he was on the G.I. Bill. Somebody said we had so many kids because the G.I. Bill increases every month if you keep having another kid. I’ve learned not to think too much of myself because really the kids are what—I’m a mothering kind of person—mattered to me. I have poems to my youngest daughter who gave me the kidney, I have poems to my eldest son and my second daughter— both died within the last five years and I have some poems about that. But they were mostly just kids, the way kids are.
We talk about things that they’ve done and funny things all the time because I was very, very sure and very conscious of understanding that I didn’t have a group, a troupe. I had six “only” kids. The teacher said I was the meanest person in America, because they couldn’t eat on Fridays. That was because I wanted them to understand that everybody had to give up a little, that there were people in the world [that didn’t] have enough. Not even enough. So they wouldn’t get a lunch on Fridays. It was just what I thought I wanted them to understand.We were very close. People used to call us the Waltons. The kids were all born within six and a half years.
I’m just not concerned with abstractions. To illuminate the large, you deal with the specific. To write about love as this noble, huge thing hovering in the trees, you write about a leaf and that will lead us to love. “Trust the reader,” is one of the things I tell people all the time.
HW: When I hear your poems, one of the things that just amazes me is the way you use repetition or incremental repetition.You get refrains with variation and it’s like the poem keeps starting over again. One example would be the poem “One Year Later.” Is that intuitive? Is that your oral tradition?
LC: I think it’s quite intuitive in a lot of ways. I am a lyric poet, and I think I have a very good ear for the sound of the language, particularly the oral language. I listen to it. Music and poetry are very connected, of course, cousins or something. There is a music in that language and I hear it. I think—forgive me, Lord, but people know I feel this way—that the MFA program has done a little something to poetry, in that it has become a matter of the eye. I taught at Columbia for a while, and the idea of having a poem [be] something more than just what you look at was almost foreign sometimes. You had to understand that you do it with your whole self, with your senses. It needs to sound a certain way, it needs to look a certain way. It’s not just a matter of what’s printed, you know, but poetry existed before print and it is something for the ear, for the eye, for the odor, for the touch.
I really am very sensitive to the language and to the music of the language; it’s not just that I want to appeal to the intellect. I admire intellect very much. I love the mind, but I think, for me at any rate, poetry has to be a matter of the senses—all of them—to appeal to the senses of the reader. Now readers have become just readers. They look at the words, see how they look, and they think of the words as the whole thing; but words are more than their definition. For me, words are their history, their baggage, their music, all of that, and I try to use a word for all of its possibility, for the whole possibility of the language. It takes more than intellect for me to write a poem. I think that is the work that will last.
I think it’s very interesting that poetry is not included in the fine arts; poetry is not there. Literature is art! Poor poets, we just sit and we whine. But I think that words, our words, are the tools we use.Words are our tools to get this out.
ES: I think maybe the best definition of poetry is “poetry is the art of silence,” and you’re kind of using language to say something that language can’t say. I’m just thinking that in your poetry there’s so much space and so much not said and so much emptiness, and yet that’s also meaningful.
LC: I think I was trying to say that, that all language is translation. To say “I love you” doesn’t hit it. All language is trying to get as close as possible to what is, whatever that is. It’s tricky.
KC: Will you ever feel like you’ve written your best work?
LC: I hope not.
KC: I study philosophy and a professor is teaching us Aristotle, who talks a lot—and Hannah Arendt—both talk about the means to an end, and once you get to that end there’s yet another end you’ve got to meet. When you said that, it made me think of that lecture, so I’m wondering, will you ever write that great poem?
LC: No, I doubt it. Every poem is the one, you know? That’s why sometimes I think, going to conferences and things, I don’t want to be the one that they say,“She used to be able to write pretty well.” You know, I don’t hit every time. One thing I do is the best I can, and I’m faithful. But I hope I don’t ever think that, because how awful to be complacent. I think for a poet, when you start repeating yourself, that’s the worst possible thing: am I repeating myself? How many times have I said this? I might just be writing one poem or maybe three over and over and over. But it isn’t as thought out as all that, it isn’t as logical as all that. Poets have to get up and feed the kids and the kids couldn’t care if you’re named Shakespeare, really. Well, he had a wife, lucky stiff.
ES: You talked about having started to publish in your thirties. Do you think that you were lucky, in a way, that you were in your thirties as opposed to being younger?
LC: Probably. Though, I just didn’t even think about publishing. I wrote long before it ever occurred to me that could happen and it was something of a fluke. Maxine Kumin and I talk about how we’re two of the few female poets who write under our married names. By and large women poets write under their maiden name. I think it might have been lucky because I already had a set of priorities, an idea about what the world was like. I’d lived some, I’d learned a lot.
ES: Where do you think you got your courage? You’ve said in interviews that you’re someone who has never been afraid of the truth.
LC: Well, I was making that up! No, I will stand and face the truth. What else are you gonna do? I’m afraid of lots of things, but that’s what courage is. It’s not courageous to not be afraid and meet something head on, but to be afraid and meet it anyway, that’s courage. I don’t mind saying what is so, and I don’t care who’s listening, you know?
HW: One thing that fascinates me is when someone like you, a poet, writes both for children and adults, and I wonder if thinking of children as your audience, that childhood thinking, is a way you stay young. How do you move back and forth in writing a poem for us or [writing about] Everett Anderson? [Note: Everett Anderson is the protagonist for Clifton’s series of children’s picture books.]
LC: Well, fortunately kids draw kids. Around our house there were always like a million children. I wrote for children because there was a lack of books for children with kids that looked like my kids. I think every kid, and every adult for that matter, needs mirrors and windows. This is a concept by . . . oh dear, please don’t hate me when you read this, Simms is her last name. She talked about every human, and every child particularly, needs a window through which he can see the world and a mirror in which he can see himself. In those days when it was primarily black and white in our culture, white children had mirrors and that’s all they had. They were disadvantaged because they didn’t see anything but mirrors. Children of color had only windows so they didn’t see anything but others. It seemed to me that books were needed for them, for all children. I think it’s important for everybody to have a view of themselves as part of this world and a view of others in this world. Now I think about Native children a lot because they don’t exist in books unless they are on the reservation someplace. It’s important that there are people that I can look at and see myself reflected in some way. It is possible for them, so it is possible for me.
KC: There’s a period where you could tell if a poem was written by a certain color person because it came through those eyes. Do you ever feel like your poetry came from a Colored page or a Negro page or an African American page?
LC: Well, yes, that’s what I am. I write out of who I am, but that’s more varied than people think. It is a fallacy and selfdefeating to believe that my poem about anything would be the same as Elaine’s; it just wouldn’t be, they’re from different eyes.A white person’s view of something isn’t going to be the same as mine.
Nowadays, I judge a lot of contests. I’ve judged the National Book Awards, I’ve judged the Pulitzers. Generally I can tell by content or language what color the person is who wrote it. Do you know a poet, A.L. Nielsen? He is white, yet you’d never know it from his work, so he gets in anthologies all the time. He’s a very dear, good, sweet guy. He’s not co-opting anything, he writes out of who he is. On the other hand, Jay Wright’s a black guy and he won a MacArthur recently; he writes in a somewhat classical kind of way. There is not a way white people are and a way black people are.
HW: I think there’s a trickster in you, though. Somewhere in an interview you talk about how Lucille means “light,”as does Lucifer. I hear a kind of desire to bring light or illuminate in a way, that angels would be better off if they were mortal, or the fall is fortunate. I think that you play with the Christian myth, and I say “the Christian myth” in a profound way. You’re playing with the conventional way of responding to that.You confound us.
LC: I hope so. I’m not somebody people can know easily. Sometimes I don’t like that. I do play with ideas and play with language because I get a kick out of them. Sometimes I play to see what’s going to happen.
HW: You’re Lucifer, too.
LC: We all are. That I had to write, knowing that on the one hand Lucifer was the most beautiful angel in heaven, the brightened morning star, one of God’s favorites. As Lucifer says in the poem, “Illuminate I could and so illuminate I did.” Then he played his part. I do like to play with accepted ideas, that sort of thing. That’s why these poems I’m writing is a section in a book; I think it’s going to be called Colored Women, and it’s about people that we’ve come to accept a certain thing about that’s not true at all. Like Mary and Mariam. One of the poems is called “Matoaka.” Matoaka was the given name of she who is called Pocahontas. I like things to be what they are. I have a poem about Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima talks about how “white folks say that I remind them of home, I who have no home except for kitchen shelves,” and about how she wants to have a home. Poems that might shake up the easy and accepted way of looking at things.I would like to challenge the status quo.
KC: You say that things in life called you. Do you feel like poetry called you? Did you hear a voice say one day,“This is what you’re supposed to do,” or [did] it just happen?
LC: No.I might have said my mother wrote poems.My mother wrote very traditional iambic pentameter verse and she recited poems.I grew up hearing Paul Lawrence Dunbar,who has the same birthday as I.[A] poem called “The House by the Side of the Road”:“I want to build a house by the side of the road where the races of men go by, men who are good and men who are bad,as good and as bad as I,”and he goes on to the beat of that.I grew up hearing that sort of thing.
KC: Do you think about the stove that your mother burned her poetry in?
LC: I do. I wish I had—there’s no remnant of those poems, no things that she kept. I wish she had. But that was a lesson for me because I knew I was not going to be stopped from writing; not from publishing, but from writing.
KC: So you could care less if you ever were published.
LC: No, I like being published. Don’t get me wrong!
KC: But it was just the writing itself.
LC: It was, yes, and still. It had never occurred to me that I would be published. And I like [it], trust me, I really do; but I wrote for years without even thinking about being published. Well, I’ve lived a life I never expected—in a number of worlds, in numerous worlds. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing in my life,what are you doing there?
KC: You ever think about being famous?
LC: My younger son had to write something for school one time about a famous poet and he said he didn’t know any. Now this boy has been in the house, okay, and he said, “I don’t know any poets, I don’t think I can write about this.” His sister said,“Well,you can write about Ma.”He said “Her? What should I write, she has this ratty robe that she wears every day?” And she said, “That would be good to write about,something.”
I think you’re whatever you are and what other people say may not be what is so about you.Who knows why the public says,“This one is something, this one is not”? Hopefully you don’t go out—though now some young poets do, trying to be poets and be famous. They want to be poets more than they want to write poems and that’s a mistake. They want to be poets and they don’t want to do the work, the hard work and hard understandings that come from writing poems.
I certainly don’t have the kind of beginning that any of the other poets I’ve come to know have, none of them. Stanley Kunitz said this to me,that my career was unique.Why,I have no idea. I really don’t know. But I’m always mindful that, as I was, somewhere in this country there’s a lady with a lot of kids and she’s sitting down at night and writing poems,and they’re better than mine.I don’t know her, but I know that’s what’s happening. So I try to be mindful, try to be mindful for that lady.And I try also to be a door,for people who look something like me,through which to enter, to know that there is a room in the house of poetry that looks like us.
Edited by Harbour Winn and Carla Walker, Transcribed by Diana Silver | Originally Published in Humanities Interview, Spring 2006