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Lucille Clifton

THE POET AND THE POEM:
An Interview with Lucille Clifton
by Grace Cavalieri

The Poet and the Poem

This program headlined the series and was distributed to public radio via NPR satellite in 2003. Producer/host Grace Cavalieri interviews Lucille Clifton, winner of the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats, New and Selected poems 1988-2000 , BOA Editions Ltd. (2001.) Poems copyright 2000 by Lucille Clifton.

Lucille Clifton:
This opening poem is called "blessing the boats."
333333 444444333333 444444                    (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 from this to that

Grace Cavalieri
Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York. She attended Howard University, and State University of NewYork, Fredonia, Author of some eleven books of poetry.

Lucille
I think so.

Grace
And lots of children?s books. In 1979, the Poet Laureate of Maryland, and now holds a distinguished chair.

Lucille
Chair of the Liberal Arts.

Grace
...at St. Mary?s College, in southern Maryland. And you're putting that college on the map with a great poetry Reading series.

Lucille
A small college, fifteen hundred students. I?m very proud of the variety of poets we have had, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derrick Wolcott, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Toni Morrison, dozens more. The series is called "Voices."

Grace
Well, we have been looking at your work for a number of years, and Blessing the Boats won the NBA, and maybe you will talk about the title poem.

Lucille
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.

Grace
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.

Lucille
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.

Grace
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 read333333…444444

Lucille
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 her333333…444444which 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.

Grace
'With the 'fierce frown of an angel.'

Lucille
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!”

Grace
And so you did.

Lucille
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.

Grace
And she came in quite handy.

Lucille
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.

Grace
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.

Lucille
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.

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

Lucille
Silly, is one.

Grace
That?s an adjective...Now let me see. Love. Is that a noun? History. Family.

Lucille
Family, very much. Woman.

Grace
Uterus. -- in several poems Lucille 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 risquZ?; it isn?t risquZ?, 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.

Grace
I have never heard that

Lucille
But I have many interesting body parts, and I celebrate every single one.

Grace
Transformed to art.

Lucille
I hope so. I?m a big woman, you know, and I celebrate that too.

Grace
What are the books that are compressed within this one volume?

Lucille
Well, I have a lot of books that talk about light. Lucille means light. I am very well aware of the fact that Lucille means light, and that Lucifer also means light. I try to be very aware of the Lucille in Lucifer. I try to be aware of the Lucifer in Lucille. And, he is there sometimes.

Grace
Blessing the Boats won the National Book Award; but The Terrible Stories, was also nominated for the National Book Award. The Book of Light, which we just mentioned, Quilting: Poems 1987-1990; Next; which were new poems, Good Woman, which was poems and a memoir, and that was nominated for the Pulitzer, Two- Headed Woman, also nominated for the Pulitzer, and a winner of the University of Massachusetts Press? Juniper Prize. Then there was An Ordinary Woman Good News About the Earth; Good Times; oh also, Generations: A Memoir, and sixteen books for children.

Lucille
I think seventeen. Or something like that. I should count. When I go home I?ll count.

Grace
Please. Somebody?s got to know. Because the Internet is inexact. I get different information every time I push up your name. Another poem, please.

Lucille
I was at one time Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland, for several years. And I was asked, by Governor Harry Hughes at that time, if I would do a poem for the 350th anniversary of Maryland. And I thought that was very interesting, and it seemed to me that I ought to do that. But, the theme was Our Happy Colonial Days,” and I try very hard to be true to exactly who I am, and I am an African American woman who had... I sometimes joke and say 333333…444444maybe one happy colonial day... probably during Christmas333333…444444 I bet that was a nice day. But other than that, there weren?t a lot. And yet I wrote a poem for the state, which I don?t remember really, but I think it was not a bad poem. And I wrote one for me, and the one for me is called "why some people be mad at me sometimes."

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories and I keep on remembering
mine

And I think that is something that happens, you know.

Grace
I think that?s a very good example of a poem of yours, because, above all, you are famous for the form you have, and it is compared to Emily Dickinson. It is spare, it is lean, it resonates, it leaves a residue, and it's yours. If ever a person had a voice, there is no mistaking Lucille Clifton. And I have determined that it?s the way we pull energy through our body that makes the poem on the page; and that you pull energy exactly at the same rate of speed, every time, and it comes through you, and it lands exactly...there.

Lucille
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.

Grace
And you?ve never said No Thank You to one.

Lucille
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.

Grace
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.

Lucille
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.

Grace
You're a historian as well. So that when you bring that knowledge of history, and your investigations, and your research to that spare, clear...short poem, sometimes, it is a power punch. You won an Emmy award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Lucille
That was for a television program called "Free to Be You and Me" with Marlo Thomas. I was one of the authors.

Grace
I was doing children's programming for PBS, and I remember that. You did "Vegetable Soup" also.

Lucille
You remember Vegetable Soup?

Grace
I broadcast it on the daytime schedule.

Lucille
Oh right, I wrote part of Vegetable Soup, and it was a job. I mean thirteen straight weeks you have to do something, that1 was terrible.

Grace
Two fellowships from the NEA, the Shelley Memorial Award. Do you remember which poem that was?

Lucille
I don?t. I think that?s for your work.

Grace
But the most important prize was the YMHA Poetry Center Discovery Award.

Lucille
Yes. That?s how I was first published.

Grace
That was Robert Hayden's doing.

Lucille
The way it happened was that I had read in an old...well. Then it was called Negro Digest, later, it became Black World....and I read about Robert Hayden, and I loved his work. I was a housewife with six children under seven years old. .. How did I do that? 333333…444444 I have no idea333333…444444. And I read about him and I thought, well, now that?s a black guy,” I think, or, no I said, that?s a colored guy!" I think I?ll send him a poem and see what he thinks.” And so I did.

Grace
Was he at Michigan?

Lucille
Yes, but he sent the poem, a group of poems on to Carolyn Kiser, and I give honor to Carolyn Kiser, who has been a very generous worker in the field, and Carolyn took my poems to the Poetry Center, and I won the Discovery Award. I had never heard of the Discovery Award.

Grace
And that started it all.

Lucille
Yes. There was an editor in the audience from Random House, and she wanted to know if I had a manuscript. Beats me how I won, but I have always taken great care of the flow of the poems, the flow of the words, the flow of the music, all of that. And I did not ever take creative writing classes, I learned by reading and I think it was just part of who I am. I do believe that. Because I never... I didn?t understand, or I didn?t know the names of things at that time. I have learned quite a bit now. And they did offer me a contract for Good Times, and I was shocked, and I was embarrassed, which is really interesting. And that manuscript was one of the first books of poems on the New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year in 1969.

Grace
And since that time, did you communicate with Robert Hayden?

Lucille
I did get to know him. I?ve been very fortunate in the people I have known as friends. I remember during the first, uh, I think it was the Carter years, when there was a salute to American poetry, Robert Hayden and his wife and I were all standing in the line together, waiting to go in. And of the seven poets reading, two women were from Maryland, that was Josephine Jacobson and myself.

Grace
Well, since that time, you have been elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Not bad ride.

Lucille
Not bad.

Grace
And now a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Lucille
Why I?m there, I have no clue, except that it?s supposed to be made up of intellectuals and there is a group of art people, and I thought it was interesting, because Baryshnikov is also a Fellow. You know I?d go a lot of places to stand in the same room with Baryshnikov.

Grace
What do you think people like about your work?

Lucille
I like to think that people like humor in poetry. I think, sometimes, things are very funny. And also, I?m quite fond of sensuality in poetry, and why not. Well I was going to read something, but perhaps not. But perhaps so. Yes, okay.

Grace
Be brave, Lucille. That is like you. And there?s no one listening but eight million people333333…444444don't we wish

Lucille
Oh well. They all know about this. All right, this is a poem called "the women you are accustomed to." First of all, my daughters and I sometimes talk about the ladies who wear a black dress a lot and have their hair look sort of sculptured, it looks as if you wouldn?t muss it or anything, and there are men that are used to that sort of woman. And then you come along with your wildness, and I always think that?s great. This is called "the women you are accustomed to."

wearing that same black dress,
their bronze hair set in perfect place,
their lips and asses tight;
these women gathered in my dream
to talk their usual talk,
their conversations spiked with the names
of avenues in France.

and when i asked them what the hell,
they shook their marble heads
and walked erect out of my sleep,
back into a town which knows
all there is to know
about the cold outside, while I relaxed
and thought of you,
your burning blood, your dancing tongue.

Lucille
They?re all always about a little more than the words, as a poem is one of those things that is more than a sum of all its parts.

Grace
Well ... you say what you mean.

Lucille
I try to.

Grace
And Eudora Welty said that?s good 'but beware if you don?t mean what you say' and I think that you qualify on both counts. You mean what you say.

Lucille
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.

Grace
They?re trying to protect you.. But, you?re a warrior nevertheless

Lucille
I write a lot about the Bible, because I think of the Lucifer connection, and I was raised a good Baptist. People say that I am a religious person, and I?ve had people argue with me about it, and I think I?m a spiritual person. I don?t think I?m particularly religious, though I am interested in belief systems, and always have been. But I have some poems about Lucifer. And people say, Oh, you?re writing about the devil.” No, I?m not. I?m writing about Lucifer who was, according to the Bible, the most beautiful star in the heavens, who was close to God, and who had a job to do and did it, it seems to me. My Lucifer and Milton?s Lucifer are not quite the same person. But I do believe that if what we say is so, about the All Powerful, then Lucifer must have also had a job to do, and did it. "lucifer speaks in his own voice."

sure as i am
of the seraphim
folding wing
so am i certain of a
graceful bed
and a soft caress
along my long belly
at end time it was
to be
i who was called son
if only of the morning
saw that some must
walk or all will crawl
so slithered into earth
and seized the serpent in
the animals i became
the lord of snake for
adam and for eve
I the only Lucifer
light-bringer
created out of fire
illuminate i could
and so illuminate i did

Grace
From The Book of Light.

Lucille
Yes. And "eve?s version." Eve always knew what was going on, you know. But like a lot of women, she didn?t want to let on, you know, she allowed Adam to believe that he knew what was going on. "eve?s version." (now see, Eve was sort of sassy)

smooth talker
slides into my dreams
and fills them with apple
apple snug as my breast
in the palm of my hand
apple sleek apple sweet
and bright in my mouth

it is your own lush self
you hunger for
he whispers lucifer honey-tongue.

Grace
That?s a bluesy song.

Lucille
Yes. Well why not. Now, "the story thus far." And all of this is based on verses of the Bible.

Grace
Which you know very well.

Lucille
I absolutely do. I mean in order to write about something, you have to find out about it.

so they went out
clay and morning star
following the bright back
of the woman

as she walked past
the cherubim
turning their fiery swords
past the winged gate

into the unborn world
chaos fell away
before her like a cloud
and everywhere seemed light

seemed glorious
seemed very eden

Eden means the Garden of Earthly Delights, Adam means clay, Lucifer was the morning star; sun of the morning, all of that

Grace
Why did Lucifer fall? Why was that his job?

Lucille
There are all kinds of ways...we?re all speculating about this. Milton was speculating, so am I. I think there are some who would say pride. He wanted to be as great as God. Some say that.

Grace
His favorite angel.

Lucille
Yes, but then again, perhaps he was entrusted with the task of testing. And so he did. He may not have wished to do it, but he did.

Grace
That?s your theory?

Lucille
That?s the theory today.

Grace
It?s a kind one. It does not damn.

Lucille
Yes, I hope it does not...it makes the deity complex...more complex. We think that we are in His image, but I have a feeling that He is in ours. Quite often. There?s a manuscript, soon to be a book, called Mercy. I have a daughter who passed away two years ago, those who have lost a child know how very traumatic that is, and I was going someplace, and I was thinking about poems, about the beauty of the landscape and all of that sort of thing, and I was trying to find a poem of mine that was like that, and I couldn?t find anything! I couldn?t find anything that said that though every poem I write truly is a love poem. Truly is a love poem. In "Mercy" I celebrate how wonderful the world, water, grass and sky. And you know, it?s very hard for a person who looks like me . For instance - I was in Mississippi, and I know my sense of humor is very peculiar, but at the University, they were doing a tribute to a woman, an African American woman, whose children, graduated from the university, just after the difficult days. And I thought it was very interesting that in her honor they were planting a tree. I just found that very funny. But I?m sure no one else did.

Grace
This is true. Beneath every poem, there is another poem.

Lucille
One poem in the new book is about water. I live near the Potomac, I believe it is. I never remember whether it?s the Potomac or the Patuxant, but I live, in St. Mary?s County on a river, all my friends are very into the whitecaps and all of that. Well, I?ve always lived near water, but I haven?t ever thought about it much. And suddenly one day I was looking, and the whitecaps were coming in, and everybody was very excited. And I started thinking about the whitecaps coming in looked like nappy hair... looking like white nappy hair walking , you know, under water, walking toward shore. So, that poem is called "wind on the water."

Lucille
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.

Grace
And writes poems about it.

Lucille
Yes. So that poem is called "here rests.". My sister died, oh, years back, years back. She was quite something.

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

Lucille
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.

Grace
Watching out for you.

Lucille
Yes. Well, we were family, you know.

Grace
Tell us about Mama. Your Mama stories are well known.

Lucille
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.

Grace
Baby, this is the big time. You hit pay dirt. You?re in a dorm with people with matching slippers.

Lucille
Yes! Oh, that was exciting.

Grace
Well, bless you, Mama. Because you?re the one that made Lucille say Free and”... let?s see what you said, Empowered and Free.” That?s what she made you feel like. At five years old.

Lucille
Yes, our family, my father and the kids were always Baptists. My mother was what people call a holy roller”, and she would get happy and carry on, and my brother and I were terribly embarrassed most of the time. And I was supposed to do a recitation in church, and I... I think I was just tired of reciting. I was the smart one, do you know, how in small churches you all have labels. And in our family I had a label. My sister was "the pretty one," my younger sister, I was "the smart one, " my brother was "the boy." And my older sister was, "the one who was a prostitute" she was, a prostitute actually. She had gone off by then. And I went to the front of the church when my name was called, and I really just suddenly didn?t feel like it, do you know? I was tired. I didn?t want to remember anything. And I stood there quietly, and people were muttering. The ladies of the church were saying, Make her do it, why isn?t she saying anything? Come on Lu, come on honey.” And my mother marched from the back of the church, this was not her church as she was sanctified, you know, this was a Baptist church. My mother marched up the aisle to me and took my hand, and turned around and said, She don?t have to do anything she don?t want to do.” And I remember thinking, Wow! Is that true? That?s wonderful!”

Grace
Permission at last.

Lucille
She don?t have to do anything she don?t want to do.

Grace
And you really went through something. For a moment you said you changed inside. You felt suddenly free and empowered.

Lucille
Suddenly. Maybe this was true. Maybe I didn?t have to do what I didn?t want to do. And so I think, I have two, really, favorite sayings: one of them is from Bessie Smith, I was not built for size, I was built for comfort.” and the other was from Geraldine, Flip Wilson as Geraldine, who said once, Even when I do things I don?t want to do, I only do S?em because I want to.” And that just has kept me going.

Grace
Well, she blessed your boat early on, didn?t she? And your new book will be called Mercy. And please stay with that title.

Lucille
Oh, absolutely.

Grace
That is all-encompassing. The power that one word can have.

Lucille
Well, in the new book is a poem called "cancer," and I have had cancer several times.

Lucille
Now there is also one poem I mentioned that is a difficult poem. This is a poem that was very hard for me. But I don?t say No to poems, and I do believe that this is one of the two things poetry can do. One is to say to the audience, you are not alone,” and that seems to me very important. In traveling the country, and I?ve read in every state and some other countries, I have found Americans to be so very lonely. We are so lonely, as people. And to have someone say, you are not alone” is important. And also I think poetry can speak for those who have not yet found their voice to speak. And I know that there are a lot of people in this country who have been abused, by those who purported to love them perhaps. Anyway, this was a hard poem for me.

Grace
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.

Lucille
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.

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

Lucille
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.

Grace
Redemption. Is what the poem believes in so I think that manuscript may be very important. Because that seems to be the theme.

Lucille
Oh there?s also a poem for my friend 333333…444444 WS Merwin is a friend, and he?s just a dear guy. He was at St. Mary?s College, and a student asked him what he did all day, which I think is a very interesting question. And he started saying, well, I do so and so and so and so, then I walk the blind dog.” And I said whoa! I know a poem when I hear one!" And so I did ask about his dog - and William, first of all, William loves his dogs. And he has a black Lab called Muku. Muku means the dark of the moon, you know, just before there is new moon. And she?s blind, and he walks her. And thinking of that, well I wrote a poem "walking the blind dog."

Grace
Does he like that poem?

Lucille
Do you know I have not sent it to him? I know it?s awful. I?m so sorry William. I have to send it to him.

Grace
I am looking at your manuscript and I see the next poem looks like a different shape for you. A prose poem, I think.

Lucille
This is a prose poem, and I never do that, but this poem wanted to be that, and so there it is. This was a poem about a place because I?m very interested in history, and the whole history of a thing, and St. Mary?s County is a very historical part of the state of Maryland, certainly. It is the mother county of Maryland.

Grace
What year?

Lucille
Sixteen something. It was founded for religious toleration. The Carroll family, the Lords Calvert. And there?s a plantation there called Mulberry Fields, and what really was interesting to me was that Mulberry Fields had a slave graveyard. And it?s always interesting to me to go and try to find the graveyards of the slaves. They often are lost because markers, if there were markers, are done in wood, and of course they rot. Someone asked me once - I said I was going to try to find some slave graves, and they said, oh, do they have them?” and it occurred to me that everybody dies, they didn?t just throw you out in the yard, you know. Anyway, the slaves are something we don?t talk about, but it?s negating a history of my family, anyway. The thing about Mulberry fields that?s interesting is they had rocks and stones as markers, there at Mulberry Fields. But at a certain point, they were taken up, and used to build a wall around the big house. And some of them were used in recreating the state house. And that turned into a poem.

Grace
I wish that the stones were just a metaphor. But they are not.

Lucille
I?m afraid not.

Grace
Here?s why it?s a prose poem333333…444444it seems to me333333…444444because as you get more involved in history, you have more facts you want to explain. You just want to say more things. But with the 'intended narrative,' we come to the poem with what we want to say, and it kills the poem. So I see how you get around that is by putting yourself in the landscape, and taking the flack of the poem by saying, I say, I say, I say”. That takes away all the expositional problems.

Lucille
And then the they say”, because it was interesting to me that the man who was a preservationist on that land was interested in preserving places, not people, and not the stories. They want the stories of the place, but the stories of the people are what interest me always. And he said that on the rocks and stones there were marks, and triangles and things, and they must have been trying to invent a language. And I?m thinking, my lord, these are rituals, these are African kinds of ritual markings, and they mean all kinds of things, because you can see them, some of them still, on the wall.

Grace
Well, maybe that?s why you went to St. Mary?s.

Lucille
I?ve often wondered.

Grace
I mean, you were at Columbia. You were in three colleges, at Duke, but you took the chair at St. Mary?s, and you are unearthing the stones there.

Lucille
Well, I want to tell the stories.

Grace
And I remember sitting in the St. Mary's State House with you when you were saying, people were lynched here. Somebody was lynched in this house. I?m not feeling so good.” And you felt them rising up out of the ground.

Lucille
Oh absolutely, absolutely. My neighbors say that now they can never look out and see the whitecaps without saying, oh, the elders are coming.”

Grace
The ancestors.

Lucille
Well, One of the new poems is sort of fun. This is funny I think. You know, I have, I think you might have seen them Grace, I have a lot of videos. I mean, I?m into videos. And they are eclectic, as am I, I?d like to think. That is to say, I?ve got all the Shakespeare things, and the poetry things. Then I?ve got a great collection of Godzilla, who?s one of my heroes and all those people as well. And I used to really like the Phantom. Do you remember The Phantom? You see this is something that people don?t talk about. As a young, at that time called colored girl”, I felt very safe around the monsters, because they only went for white girls. And it?s not something people talk about. So I wrote "the phantom." That's what the poem is about.

Grace
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?

Lucille
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.

Grace
That is your line?

Grace and Lucille
The only mercy is memory.

Lucille
The only hell is regret.

Grace
We have to say a word about your children?s books, before we get to a final poem, because there are about sixteen of them. You think eighteen.

Lucille
Something like that.

Grace
And do you have fun doing that?

Lucille
I do. I have been asked which I prefer. I would say that I don?t think preference” is the right idea, but writing for children is important. And when I first started, my first children?s book came out the same month, in the same year that my first poetry did. They were both November 1969. "Some of the Days of Everett Anderson."

Grace
And Everett Anderson has had quite a literary life.

Lucille
There are seven books, and I?m sure one day I?m going to write, you know, words at the funeral.

Grace
I like what your grandchild said when you called him in California.

Lucille
The teacher had been showing him Everett Anderson books,

Grace
By Lucille Clifton

Lucille
Yes! And she?d say things like, Look at this. Look what I have. Does this mean something to you?” No.” Don?t you think this is wonderful that I have this?” No, it?s nice.” So this one day I called, and his name was, is Dakota, and I said, Hello, who?s this?” and he said, This is Dakota Brown, who?s this?” And I said, This is Lucille Clifton.” And he said, oh”, and I said, Koti, it?s Grandma!” And he said, Grandma! Are you Lucille Clifton?” And I said, well yes!” I said, Where is your mother, I want to speak to her!”

Grace
There?s so much in that, because, there?s the very serious fact that our image runs ahead of us, and it really is quite different from the being, isn?t it? And he picked up on that. Hey, here?s the image, and here?s my grandmother. And how do these things match?

Lucille
Indeed, because the older child, 333333…444444at one point, his teacher - called home and said she wanted to talk to my daughter because he was making things up, because he was talking about Lucille Clifton, saying he was related to her. And so she went to the school and the woman said, well, you know, this is his fantasy life and all that, and he has this fantasy thing, and what can we do. And my daughter looked at her and said, Well, I don?t know. Lucille Clifton is my mother.” And she was shocked.

Grace
Wouldn?t you love to have been there to see that?

Lucille
I would have laughed.

Grace
We?re going to have a closing poem.

Lucille
This is, to me, a poem that was done as an assignment. I gave the assignment to my workshop class, and I try to write with them sometimes. And someone had said, do you think you can write a poem about anything”, and I said sure. And this is a poem that my editor at Boa likes a lot. And I hadn?t thought of it that way, but it?s called "three potatoes,"and that?s because I said sure, you can write about potatoes, you can write something wonderful. And it?s for Jeannie, who asked the question.

begin with the majesty
of three kings
rising over the wilderness,

add three wise men,
astrologers
interpreting the sky,

follow their watch
to three worlds meeting
and the line between them thin

as gold; three monarchs
kneeling, their eyes downcast,
three donkeys nuzzling the sleeping babe

and three potatoes, their naked eyes
glistening in a field.

Grace
The inimitable voice of Lucille Clifton. This is the Poet and the Poem.


Grace Cavalieri has authored 13 books of poems and 21 produced plays. The NYC Reading of her new play "Quilting the Sun" was staged by the Smithsonian Institution in 2003. She has produced "The Poet and the Poem" on public radio since 1977; it is now recorded for broadcast, annually, at the Library of Congress and distributed via NPR satellite. "blessing the boats," "donor," " the women you are accustomed to," "why some people be mad at me sometimes," " lucifer speaks in his own voice," " eve's version," " the story thus far", copyright 2000 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 by Lucille Clifton. With the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd."three potatoes" copyright 2000, Lucille Clifton. With the permssion of the author.