A crucial turn in my younger writing life was studying with Lucille Clifton at Flight of the Mind in Eugene, Oregon in the summer of 1999. All of my poems weren’t necessarily great, but there was something in the way Ms. Clifton talked to you that felt gentle. She told us countless stories, talked about poems by Stanley Kunitz and how Robert Hayden encouraged her. She also talked about her mother’s poems being thrown into the furnace by her father and recited some of her own work. She pushed me to write even more furiously that week, cramming as much as I could into my journal with 3-10 pages a day. I was reading Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Crusade for Justice that week and soaking up her poems. Ms. Clifton seemed surprised because I had five different books by her that I hoped she would autograph. I still have them, and her latest release Voices (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) which has the text of a meditation on ten oxherding pictures. She actually had a copy of the limited edition “meditation” with the Buddhist illustrations that inspired the poems. The book is sadly out of print, but the poems are still inking paper.
In some ways I craved her gentle. She reminded me of my grandmother’s soft sweet polite and her cut-you-to-the-quickness. She wrote in cursive like my grandmother, even though she insisted that they’d probably learned penmanship from the same textbooks. She was not afraid to put her hand on your shoulder, make you laugh, or give you a knowing smirk. I sent her a few letters over the years. In the few times she came to Chicago after our workshop and if we saw each other at conferences like AWP, she always remembered me. When she came to read at the Guild Complex’s annual Women Writers Conference in Chicago, I was honored to be a personal assistant to Ms. Clifton and Maxine Kumin, whose Selected Poems helped kickstart my crush on poetic form. I got to follow them around for days and again, it felt like being with my grandmother. Listening to these women talk, and in some cases give each other knowing looks that said, “This is not easy. This poetry. This balance of life, health, creating, remembering.” For a long time, I’ve carried that with me, this image of women negotiating space and kindness with a fierce need for expression.
I got into the Cave Canem workshop in 2002. She’d insisted I should have been a part of it before I thought I had a chance. In fact, the first poem that I wrote in Cave Canem was “Switch”, a poem that’s structurally similar to Clifton’s poem “move” from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993). Since then, the poem has been published in several places. In 2004, we sat together at the Furious Flower Conference, and I literally sat at her feet because they were out of chairs. We were excited to hear Nikky Finney. Even though we were both chatting up until the introductions, she stopped and said, “Tara, don’t you need a seat?” I said, “No, I just wanted to share this time with you.” It was a kind of thoughtfulness in these all-too brief moments that made me love her. Over the years, we did not get to speak much more, but we had opportunities to speak briefly at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2006 and 2008. She heard my voice and immediately knew who I was. So, to think I would see her again, felt like a familiar tide.
On February 13, 2010, I was in the car with my fiancé and ready to go to Carol’s Daughter, the one store with so much smell-good and soft-skin-inducing loveliness that it felt right to go there just before Valentine’s Day. I received a tweet from No Tell Motel, an online literary journal. It said “Lucille Clifton, honored poet from Buffalo, dies.” It was followed by a link. I refused to believe it until I clicked the link. It was a Buffalo newspaper article stating that she had died that morning due to complications with an infection during surgery. She was 73.
I simply found myself trying to breathe and started heaving with sobs. My fiance asked me what was wrong. I simply said, “Ms. Clifton died this morning, Rich.” I felt like I had lost another elder who gently nudged me toward my heart’s endeavors—my great uncle Dr. Lem D. Callahan, my grandmother Charmaine Betts, and now, Ms. Clifton. We had to pull over. I texted Jericho Brown so he could contact the Cave Canem listserve, and I tried to be coherent through tears. Rich got me a box of tissue and some water. I was able to pull myself together, but I’ve just felt like a voice that helped shape me should be happy and perhaps finally reunited with Fred, her husband. I felt so heartbroken because Ms. Clifton felt like someone in your family, someone on your block, someone who would eat barbecue with you in the summer at a family reunion. In a world of straitlaced poets who sometimes look down upon the common folk, this mattered to me. It meant that I could be myself, all of nuanced selves, and still write.
Ms. Clifton reinforced in so many ways that I should keep writing. Write if you have children, write if you don’t. Write if you come from difficult circumstances. Write in spite of the world saying you lack beauty. Write to celebrate your hair, your uterus, and your hips. Write to point out your home is not what the euphemism known as “the inner city” implies. Write to the lost men, women, and children and how it is everyone’s loss. Write that insistent circumstances will attempt to snuff you out every day, yet somehow they will fail. My fiancé has already taken to saying that death has tried to kill Ms. Clifton and has failed. She is bopping in our bloodstream and our memories, and her poems are like well-loved marbles cradled in our palms.