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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lucille Clifton's Legacy To Me

Years ago when I was teaching at a major university in Arizona, I had the good fortune to to bring Lucille Clifton to campus. I was her host during the poet's 2-day stay where Clifton was to give a poetry reading  and meet with students in an informal Q & A gathering.  My editor, who was the person who first introduced me to Lucille Clifton's poetry, served as her escort as well.

As her hosts, we picked her up at the airport, took her to lunch and dinner, made sure she arrived in time for her events and generally escorted her around town.

It was a thrilling experience.

In those days, it was possible to meet visitors at the airplane gate.  I remember seeing Clifton emerge from the long tube which connects the plane to the airport terminal. She looked, at once, like someone I had always known--a family friend or the neighbor next door and, simultaneously,  she looked like a great poet walking straight out of my favorite literature book and right into my life.

After picking up her bags, we took her to lunch where the conversation ranged over many topics. Clifton was kind kind and gracious.  When we asked her if she had imagined us--her devoted readers--she looked us both in the face, laughed a bit and said: "Well, I thought you'd be black."

After that she asked about us--where could she find our work? what were our writing plans for the future? our current obsessions in literature? our favorite poets? poems?

After her poetry reading and discussion sessions, we took her to dinner.

That night, as we lingered over dinner and shared an excellent bottle of wine, Clifton spoke to us about many things, one of which was her next collection of poems.

Then, somewhere between desert and the coffee, the whole evening began to turn into a scene from a movie.

Which is to say, it turned magical for me.

At some point --and it must have been late as I seem to remember the restaurant emptying--this amazing poet whose work I had long admired--asked us: Would you like to hear a few of my new poems?

I looked at my editor who was looking straight back at me. We both nodded quickly fearing we must have heard wrongly or maybe the poet will change her mind if we actually answered her.

Then Lucille bent over her worn out leather briefcase, pulled out a sheaf of typewritten papers and proceeded to read her new poems....the work which would form her next collection.

We sat there dumbfounded--what does one say to a long admired poet who is very deliberately reading her brand new work, out loud, over dinner, in what my memory wants to say had to be a candle lit room--how do we respond to this famous poet who is reading to us? Just to us.

But I want to end this story on a different note. Sometime during the few days I spent with her, Lucille Clifton taught me something that changed me in a deep way.

Maybe it was during her lecture to my class or maybe it was over dinner or on the way to the airport...I really can't remember when this event occurred.

But I do remember what she said...because I have gone back to these words many times in my life.

She said: "You know in the Western way of thinking, we are always confronted with either/or.  In the African tradition, we have and."

For me, this was one of those freeing moments.

So, I thought to myself, I can be a writer and a mother; I can live a woman's life and have a poet's sensibility; I can work at a real job, for real pay and create. I don't have choose.

 Not too long ago, a few months before Lucille Clifton died, I was at a national conference and found myself in an elevator with her. She was in a wheelchair but, save for a bit more gray hair, looking so much as I remembered her.

I didn't want to bother her so I said nothing.

What could I have said anyway that would have made sense to her after all these I am sure her words to me were words she said to many others, many times in many places.

But I have offered those same words to you, now and here in this space. It is the only way I can properly say:

Lucille, thank you, thank you.

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