No Ordinary Woman: Lucille Clifton

Hilary Holladay

It seems like, maybe more than in most poetry, people can see what they want to see in your verse. If they want affirmation, it's there.
There is affirmation there. And that makes people uncomfortable. And I understand that. I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago. "I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." Of course, I would be nuts if I didn't see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn't sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful, because that's the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.

You're very accessible in your readings, and you kind of give yourself over to the audience. But it also strikes me that each of your readings is a very artfully arranged process, that it's even an artful exercise in consciousness-raising that you're leading your audience through.
I like to connect with people. I like people. Now, I am, on the other hand-nobody ever believes that-I'm shy. I am shy. But I think that one can teach without preaching, you know what I mean? And I know that there are some things that it would be helpful if people understood, and I want to say the truth. I want to tell the truth, you know? I believe that if we face up to our responsibility and the possibility of evil in us, we then will understand that we have to be vigilant about the good. But if we all think that it all happens to somebody else, somewhere else, over there, then we don't have to take responsibility for what we do.

Is this interest in the possibility of evil what leads you, in part, to write about Lucifer so much?
I've said that I know there's Lucifer in Lucille, because I know me: I can be so petty, it's amazing! And there is therefore a possibility of Lucille in Lucifer. Lucifer was doing what he was supposed to do, too, you know? It's too easy to see Lucifer as all bad. Suppose he were merely being human. That's why the Bible people—it's too easy to think of them all as mythological, saintly folk. It is much more interesting to me that these were humans—caught up in a divine plan, but human. That seems to me the miracle.

If Lucifer were sitting here, what would you want to ask him?
"Do you regret? What are your regrets?"

What do you think he'd want to ask you?
[Laughter.] "Why are you doing this?" But as I said to somebody whose class I talked to, "If Milton can do it, so can I!" Why not?

I'm reminded of an earlier interview where the interviewer asked you, "What do you try to avoid as a poet?" and you said you try to avoid being clever. Can you elaborate on that? Why would that be a problem?
Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected, in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out. I think about Rilke's [advice], "Hold to the difficult." And I try very hard not to do the easy, expected, smart thing. Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. To understand my poetry, I don't think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said-you know what I mean? I never had classes in this, I never took courses in this business, so I had to learn, I had to feel my way into the language. And you can have a visceral response to these things coming together, if you have enough authenticity behind them, enough power.

You use a lot of questions in your poetry, especially at the ends of your poems. How conscious are you of that?
I was not particularly conscious of using a lot of them. But I do think that poetry is about questions.

What do you say that?
Well, because I don't write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.

Do you consider Yeats—
I like Yeats.

Do you like him or do you love him?
I probably just like him a whole lot. [Laughter.]

Whom do you love?
I love—well, do we have to have writers?

Yes. Then we can move on to others.
Who do I love? I don't know. Adrienne [Rich]! We lived in the same town for a while. She's a fabulous person. We each had a child who had cancer at the same time at one point in our lives. We used to talk about that and commiserate quite a lot. I think we exchanged a poem at the time, something about "our children are bald," because they were both having chemotherapy.

Are there other poets who come to mind as a passion for you?
I admire Derek Walcott. I admire cummings—though that's not why I don't capitalize, okay? I admire Whitman. I admire Yeats. I admire Gwen Brooks.

What about Plath and Sexton?
I begin to respect Plath more now. When I was younger, I wasn't as into her. Sexton I do [admire], and I knew her a little bit. She was a friend of Maxine Kumin's, whom I've known for a long time. As I get older, for some reason, I admire Plath more. Sharon [Olds] I like very much. I think Sonia Sanchez is an underrated poet. Oh, there're so many! Joy Harjo. [And] there's a poet in Arizona, Richard Shelton, a remarkable poet. He has a wonderful line: "We will be known as the ones who murdered the earth."

Do you read a lot of newspapers?
I do. On Sunday, we get the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Did you grow up reading newspapers?
Yes. My parents were great newspaper readers, my father particularly. And my father couldn't write. My mother could write. Couldn't spell! As her daughter can't exactly, either. But they both had great interest in what was going on in the world. There were people who were curious about things, learners as well, I think.

Which magazines do you read?
Well, I try to read as many as I can. Let's see, what do I read? I don't subscribe to them, but I read the New Yorker; I try to read Lingua Franca, I read all kinds of things like that. I also read People, I read Jet, I read Essence, I read Ebony. Mode is for big women. [Laughter.] I like to tell my students, "I'm very eclectic—deal with it!" I am eclectic. I love Bach. I also love the Four Tops. And now I'm into jazz. I like opera very much. I don't know if I love it or not; I like it very much.

What else do you love?
I like to laugh. I can tell you better what I can't stand. I can't stand injustice. I can't stand seeing people being unfair to each other. I can't stand cruelty, indifference. I don't like that a lot. Oysters! [Laughter.]

Are you allergic?
No, I just don't like them. I don't like condiments. I never eat condiments. I've never had mustard, but I know I hate it. I've never had ketchup; I know I hate that, too. One of the things about living alone, without my kids around, I don't have to buy ketchup.

If you were going to have a dinner party for three people from history, famous people, who would you want to have?
David of Israel [and] Crazy Horse of the Lakota Nation.

You can have one more person.
It has to be a woman. Hmmm. Mary, the mother of Christ.

And what would you want to ask them?
Well, they all are people with contradictions in their lives. They all were people who were faced with something larger than themselves and tried to meet it with grace, I think. And I would ask them how that felt, what were they feelingmaybe a little bit about what they were thinking, but what were they feeling? With Mary, is that really what happened? With David, who did you really love? Because he didn't know how to love women, I don't think. He wanted them, he lusted after them, but I don't think he loved them. Crazy Horse—his life was a series of strangenesses, even for him, and he was a mystical guy. I'm always interested in people who are a bit mystical, and those three I think all were. I'd like to know: How was it for you? How was it for you?

In Langston Hughes's essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he writes, in response to a young poet who said he wanted to be a poet, not a "Negro poet," "[T]his is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible." It seems to me that you acknowledged and climbed that mountain a long time ago, that your blackness is very much part of who you are in your poetry.
Exactly, exactly. And what the young man was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I'm seen as that quite often. There's the poets and there's the subgenre [of black poets] and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so. I'm not either American or black. I am an American poet, and that's what American poetry is: me, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, David Mura—you know what I mean? That is American poetry. I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much a poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way, and Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all of that. I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, and my father was black. And so there I was: I was gonna be black! It didn't just zap me. And that's okay, that is all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this what American poetry is.

Hilary Holladay is director of the Fellowship Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. She is the author of Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton and co-editor of What's Your Road, Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Her current project is a biography of Beat Movement icon Herbert Huncke.