I don’t know what year it was when I met the inimitable Lucille Clifton--97 or 98? She came to Duke (where I was in grad school) to teach poetry and science fiction. At that time I wasn’t sure I was going to keep writing poetry, or at least what the big P big B Poetry Business would call poetry. I was thinking about other media and at the time I had begun to write a sci fi opera with Keith (which later became The Sour Thunder), so I took her science fiction class to workshop it.
There were many wonderful things about that experience. Only some of them have to do with science fiction. On the first day, she began: “I don’t know whether good writing can be taught, but I know that it can be learned.” I thought it was a wonderful thing to say, because even before I learned the good many things I would learn about discipline from her, I began to understand that I was going to have to become a seeker and do my own heavy lifting. With regards to “science fiction”, Clifton told us things you might hear in any fiction writing class, and I certainly learned some basics about the genre, but I was affected most deeply by the way she challenged our boundaries between science and the spirit and those between fantasy and reality. She was forthright about other-worldliness and comfortable in oddness. “I don’t mind being odd,” she said so many times. In fact, oddness was a quality she valued in herself and in others. I don’t yet know how to tell you what it did for me to witness her dedication to her craft and her awareness and acceptance of herself in that time of my life. I was trying to break out of some fears about being an artist and facing some unexpected fissures between communities of literary critics and writers. I have faith that I would have found my way one way or another, but the truth is that my way was made easier and more joyous and, thankfully, otherworldly by listening to and learning from Lucille Clifton.
You couldn’t talk about writing with Lucille Clifton and have a poetic bone in your body and not yearn to have her eyes and ears on your poetry. My friends Evie (Shockley) and (Candice Jenkins) were in her poetry class and I was so jealous! The next year, when she came back to Duke, I had the opportunity to take her poetry class. We met in the little house she was renting. (Evie drove a bunch of us to every class and that, too, was a gift. I believe Amy Carroll, Yvette Fannell, and Mara Jebsen were in that class with us.) I don’t know how to put down all of the things I gained from those meetings, but what comes to me simultaneously are two things: (1) the shape of the poem and (2) the idea of poetry as something we do for our lives. Clifton talked to us about shapes, lines, typing poems out (instead of writing them), economy, and rhythm that semester. She would cut right to it and didn’t mind telling you if you hadn’t gotten it right. She might chuckle and start by saying, “It’s funny…,” but she would tell you. Reading and writing and talking poetry with Clifton in that little house brought home to me how much writing poetry was a process of personal significance. Poetry was certainly something she valued doing in public, and it was certainly important to her to speak for those who could not speak for themselves (for a variety of reasons), but she also taught me that it was a way we could understand and improve our own lives.
When I came to Cave Canem in 2000, Lucille Clifton was guest poet and on the first day, she came to Group A with Toi Derricotte. It seemed mystical and yet, only fitting that she would be there as I entered a community that multiplied so many of these experiences. I cherish the memory of workshopping with her at Cave Canem and again at Duke--this time with Christian Campbell and Jill Petty, who went on to form a writing group with Evie and me: Four Bean Stew. I am so grateful to have these lessons, and to have shared the learning of them with so many wonderful others.
Each of us is a bridge. We lead one another to one another, and—if we do it right—to the lives we hope to live.
Love, love, love,