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Lucille Clifton

The Last Interview: "The Poet and the Poem." Grace Cavalieri interviews

Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was rated one of the best books of the year by the New York Time. During a rich career, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.

GC: We are on location today, at the home of Lucille Clifton, America's beloved poet. I'm holding a new book, Voices, in my hand, ...Lucille's new edition from Boa, and we're going to explore this book a little.

LC: In this book, I'm interested in naming, and calling things by their names. What makes us arrogant in
believing that we have the accurate name. ...I got interested in this, in a small way, when I first started writing, and I remember listening to... the Olympics, in Mexico, so that was a lot of years ago. And the United States announcer was calling the place Mex-i-co, and the people, the natives of the country were saying Me-hi-co, and [the] United States guy thought that he was correct.... I've always thought that was very odd. After that I started thinking about things like a "cow." That's the example I give my students. How do I know a cow calls itself a cow? And also, what does it call me? I think that's fascinating, and I am kind enough to allow it to say "Lucille," and I guess... it's kind enough to let me say "cow" and it shows up. In this book, loss is also something that I'm interested in, having lost many humans of my generation....and yet there's something about that loss. It's your reaction to it that makes you a viable human.


who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be

beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals

that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin

sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls clicking

their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching

as I whispered into my own
cupped hands enough not me again

but who can distinguish
one human voice

amid such choruses
of desire

GC: I asked for that poem first because that is the voice and the tenor, and the phraseology that we know so well from the work we've followed for so many years. But what I want to say about this book is that it departs from that voice. This book goes many places Lucille has never gone before, and I want to analyze that a little bit. First of all, how do you describe this book?

LC: Most of my books, I think, are questions, wondering about things, and sorrow, about which I know a great deal, having lost my parents, my brother, my sister, two of my children, my husband, friends – I think I know something about loss and what it does, and I often say to people, when people say, "you'll get over it," well of course I won't. I won't ever get over it, but I will get past it, and it will teach me something about how one has to be– being alive is like traveling a path, and things happen on it, and you have to bear them, or deal with them.

GC: Or write poetry about them. .... This book does something that has not been done before in Lucille's work. She moves from the personal, political – which we will hear – from the cultural, into the mystical. And I believe it is among the strongest and bravest of her works. Let's start with an attack on racism and capitalism.

LC: Well, in line with my thinking about names, I was thinking about those names that we hold dear, and we take for granted. These are in their voices, and I do voices I think pretty well. Or well enough, at any rate. This is called Aunt Jemima. She is speaking.

aunt jemima

white folks say i remind them
of home i who have been homeless
all my life except for their
kitchen cabinets.

i who have made the best
of everything
pancakes batter for chicken
my life

the shelf on which i sit
between the flour and cornmeal
is thick with dreams
oh how i long for

my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family
my home

LC: This is called Uncle Ben, and he is talking.

uncle ben

mother guineas favorite son
knew rice and that was almost
all he knew
not where he was
not why
not who were the pale sons
of a pale moon
who had brought him here
rice rice rice
and so he worked the river
worked as if born to it
thinking only now and then
of himself of the sun
of afrika

LC: You know, a lot of people came to some states because they knew how to grow rice. And they were in Guinea, which is Africa – a name before Africa .. And if that's what you're born for, that's what you do. Here is Cream of Wheat.

cream of wheat

sometimes at night
we stroll the market aisles
ben and jemima and me they
walk in front remembering this and that
i lag behind
Trying to remove my chefs cap
Wondering about what ever pictured me
Then left me personless
i read in an old paper
i was called rastus
but no mother ever
gave that to he son toward dawn
we return to our shelves
our boxes ben and jemima and me
we pose and smile i simmer what
is my name

GC: This is the art that Lucille has cultivated her whole life – the persona poem.... And in that poem , look what she does with product placement. Look what she does with advertisement. In three poems, in less than fifty words, she takes on egregious, and painful subjects in American history. Do you think that people understand your poetry to the extent they should? Be honest, do you? I mean, it's more than just compact poetry.

LC: I don't know. I'm not sure I do. But I do know that I feel that it is dishonorable to not recognize, if you're going to give something human-ness, to not recognize it as human. For instance, when I think of my poem Mataoka, it is like that. Pocahontas was not her name. It was a kind of nickname. And I had students– once they had seen the movie Pocahontas – and then had gone to the Smithsonian to see the painting of her that was there – come back and tell me that that wasn't Pocahontas because they had seen the movie. Now, these are people who are adults. And imagine saying that wasn't her because they saw the movie. ... I reminded them that it was animated. There weren't any artists around there drawing the woman when she was alive. The one at the Smithsonian is a photograph. They said no, that wasn't her. They like to believe the romance. And what we call the U.S. citizen? My students are willing to believe that it's [people from] Canada and the United States that are O.K. but from Mexico? Those brown people, they are not Americans, speaking Spanish and all that. Anyway, back to Pocahontas --It was a pet name, called by her father, but people take that as fact. Also – the whole idea of the romance with John Smith? She was a young girl; John Smith was hundreds of years old – I mean, I can believe it of him, but I can't believe it of her. I don't think she was in love with him. Anyway, Mataoka, is the actual name of Pocahontas.

(actual name of Pocahontas)

in the dream was white men
walking up from the river

in the dream was our land
stolen away from horses
and our names

in the dream was my father
fighting to save us in the dream
the pipe was broken

and i was leaning my body
across the whimpering
white man

if our father loves revenge
more than he loves his children
spoke the dream

we need to know it now

GC: There is a way that you tell a story that I want to elucidate. ....What I finally understood from A.B. Spellman's book about the great jazz musicians – and it's nice to know technically why we love certain poetry ; it's nice to understand--I saw that you do what Ornette Coleman does, and Cecil Taylor. They know the melody, but they play the chord on top of the melody, and under the melody. And people might want you to write long dense poetry, with all the details, you know, like they yelled out to these musicians, "Play on the tune so we can dance to it." No. The thing is that, you are playing on the tune.

LC: That would never occur to me, Grace, that this was happening. Though I love jazz. I love jazz.

GC: I believe it is so much in you, I think that jazz is so much a part of you, knowing it the way you do, loving it the way you do, that you do to jazz, what Sterling Brown did to the blues. I think that you are doing this, and somebody needs to tell about it. Somebody needs to tell on you.

LC: All right, tell me too. That's interesting.

GC: It's the way you space the things; the way you're not afraid to do it differently. You're not afraid to change your point of view in the middle. You're not afraid to take off on a riff. Well, let us go somewhere else. Let us go to another one of your people poems, the one about the coal miner.

LC: My husband died, actually twenty five years ago. A long time, you know, twenty five years ago. Anyway, this is the last thing he said to me. And it was a difficult time. We nursed him; my kids and I nursed him at home, and we had a lot – he had a spiritual center in Baltimore, and ...he did a lot of things with yoga, and with healing, and that sort of thing, with eastern religions, eastern ways of knowing. He was also quite brilliant. He was one of the planners of the African American Studies department at Harvard, and worked in that department at Harvard – taught there.

GC: Let us name his name.

LC: Oh, Fred Clifton (laugh). I'm smiling. It's been twenty five years.
Well, he was so funny. The kids and I talk about him and laugh a lot, because he wrote a children's book for instance, just because I had written one. This poem is titled :

"you have been my tried and trusted friend"

said the coal miners son
to the chippers daughter
then turned his head and died
and she and their children rose
and walked behind the coffin
to the freeway
after a while
she started looking at
other womens husbands other
womens sons but she had been
tried and trusted once and
though once is never enough
she knew two may be too

GC: What a last line. The thing I wanted to point out here is the woman's sensibility, which imbues all of this work. it's like your ying is really with your yang. You've got a lot of ying, honey. Really, you're a lot of woman; there's a lot of woman in Lucille.

LC: Get T-shirts! I'll wear them!

GC: I love that. Let us go to one more poem that I want to make sure everyone hears, and that is To Maude.

LC: My dear friend, Maude Meehan was a poet in Santa Cruz, where I lived for a time. I taught at UC Santa Cruz for a time. And Maude was a poet there, well-known in that area. She was a dear friend, and a fine poet, and she used to live in Buffalo, though we didn't know each other then. During the Vietnam War, Maude used to drive – hide guys in her trunk, the trunk of her car, and ride them over the border into Canada,.... And she looked so much like everyone's grandmother – white haired, big kind of sweetheart lady. She was tough though. That was a tough broad.

GC: I knew her.

LC: Yes, you knew Maude. Ah, she's special. She used to always call me kid, though she was maybe five years older than I.

for maude

what i am forgetting doubles everyday
what i am remembering
is you is us aging
though you called me girl
i can feel us white haired
nappy and not
listening to marvin
both of us wondering
whats going on all of us
wondering oh darlin girl
what what what

GC: Do you see how she knows what not to say? She trusts the reader so much. Lucille goes right from heart to heart connection, and I want listeners to get this book to notice the space in that poem. I want to tell you, there's nothing like a good space. ...There will never be a book by Lucille without her family. It mentions her mother, father, aunts, uncles, nephews. But we go then into a part of Lucille that I have seen before, but not seen published before. This is a set of meditations, which...take eloquence of the highest skilled mind, beyond thought, and it is pretty hard to go beyond thought, and still use words. So these are meditations, and perhaps you could just set this up for us.

LC: Well, I saw titles of a group of meditation aides: Ten Ox-herding Pictures. It's
an allegorical series composed as a training guide for Chinese Buddhist monks. They are attributed to Kuò?n Sh?yu?n, [a] 12th century Chinese Zen master. I did not know the pictures. I had never seen them. But the poems came, and I had only read the titles of the pictures. So these are ten little poems, and the first is a beginning; sort of an introduction, and the last is an end. My son, my eldest son who's no longer living, said to me when he read them, "Ma's writing about bulls and livestock now. What next?" And I said, "You know, she writes about what she writes about."

a meditation on ten oxherding pictures

here are the hands
they are still
if i ask them to rise
they will rise
if i ask them to turn
they will turn in an arc
of perfect understanding
they have allowed me only such
privilege as owed to flesh
or bone no more they know
they belong to the ox

LC: I should say I was born with twelve fingers. That's not metaphor. I was born that way. My mother had twelve fingers, and my eldest daughter. And so my hands have always, to me, felt special in an odd way, in that sometimes I can touch things, and get a feel for something other than what I have touched. And sometimes I can't and it doesn't matter to me, I'm not trying to do this. Also I should say that the ox stands for –...I was raised Southern Baptist, and I remember the day I woke up and looked at my father and said, "I don't think I'm going to church anymore." And it was so hurtful to him, but I just felt that that was – that there's so much else, you know, so much else, and that perhaps to connect with that which was divine… I just read something, in Poets and Writers I think it was, and it had some photograph ...they were talking about this boy who's considered a reincarnation of the Buddha, ... in India or Pakistan, one of those... and the caption was, "Is He Divine?" and my answer was, "Who isn't?" I mean of course he's divine. He likes to be in the woods with long hair. That's his business. That's his way of doing it. But maybe mine is sitting around watching The Price is Right. I mean that can be very divine. I'm at the age where you like The Price is Right, Grace. Anyway, going on;

1st picture
searching for the ox

they have waited my lifetime for this
something has entered the hands
they stir
the fingers come together
caressing each others tips
in a need beyond desire
until the silence has released
something like a name
they move away i follow
it is the summons from the ox

2nd picture
seeing the traces

as tracks
in the buffalo snow
leading to only
a mirror
and what do they make of that
the hands

or Baltimore
voices whispering
in a room where no one sits
except myself

and what do the hands make of that

3rd picture
seeing the ox

not the flesh
not the image
of the flesh
not the bone
nor the clicking
of the bone
not the brain
wearing its mask
not the mind
nor its disguises
not this me
not that me
now here where
no thing is defined
we are coming to the ox

4th picture
catching the ox

i whisper come
And something comes
i am cautioned by the hands

5th picture
herding the ox

the hands refuse to gather
they sit in their pockets as i
command ox and enhance my name
i am lucille who masters ox
ox is the one lucille masters
hands caution me again
what can be herded
is not ox

6th picture
coming home on the ox's back

i mount the ox
and we shamble
on toward the city together
our name is inflated
as we move lucille
we meet a man who wears
authority he defines ox
describes him
the man claims ox
i claim the man

7th picture
the ox forgotten leaving the man

i have been arriving
fifty years parents
children lovers
have walked with me
eating me like cake
and i am a good baker
somewhere i was going
fifty years
hands shiver in their pockets
dearly beloved
where is ox

8th picture
the ox and the man both gone
out of sight

man is not ox
i am not ox
no thing is ox
all things are ox

9th picture
the ox and the man both gone

what comes
when you whisper ox
is not
the ox
begins in silence
and ends
in the folding
of hands

LC: Tenth picture: ....This is the first of these poems that were written.

10th picture
returning to the origin
back to the source

we have come to the gates
of the city
the hands begin to move
i ask of them
only forgiveness
they tremble as they rise

LC: And then:

end of meditation
what is ox
ox is

GC: I saw a concert by Miles Davis before he died, and he had a solo piece that was only one single note on his horn, It was startling. He knew what he was doing. And that is what you are doing. This will be understood in the lexicon of poetry . You will be remembered for this.

The book is Voices.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She founded and produces "The Poet and the Poem" on public radio now celebrating its 34th year, now from The Library of Congress.

Visit to pick-up titles by Lucille Clifton

GRATEFUL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT to Poet Lore for first publishing this interview. All poems in this radio transcript are released with advance permission by Lucille Clifton. Poems: Sorrows, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Cream of Wheat, Mataoka, You Have Been My Tried and Trusted Friend, For Maude, A Meditation on Ten Ox-herding Pictures, are from Voices,©2008, by Lucille Clifton.BOA Editions, Ltd.,