I met Lucille Clifton the first time, I think, in 1991 when she came to the University of Washington to read for our Watermark series. Her larger-than-life personality and her brash honesty about being black, about being female, swept me away. I was in the MFA program and I thought I had something to say. But I was too young, too sheltered, too inexperienced to have written the poems she had written: “homage to my hips,” or “lumpectomy eve,” or “in the meantime” (“the Lord of loaves and fishes / frowns as the children of / Haiti Somalia Bosnia Rwanda Everyhere / float onto the boats of their bellies / and die”). There seemed no subject that was so controversial she wouldn’t take a crack at it, and I was in awe of her.
At the reception after the reading, another young poet started telling Clifton all about herself. I knew it was nerves, but it was still a little stunning to see her binge-talk through the entire conversation. When she walked away, Clifton said, laughing, “Does she ever listen? How does she ever learn anything?”
As a member of the Watermark committee I was gifted with the opportunity to drive her to the airport the next morning. She said, “Oh, drop me at the curb,” but I refused. Over breakfast, I told her a little about the “verse-writing” class that had recently been assigned to me. My professor and long-time mentor, Colleen McElroy, had advised that I teach them “one thing,” a thing that she would not divulge. I asked Lucille Clifton what she emphasized in her classes, and she began expounding. Listening and learning–not just from teachers, from everything–was the general theme. “And never stop,” she said.
I remembered that she had been a visiting poet at some university in the deep south, and when I asked her what she listened to and learned there, she said, “Oh, they thought they’d teach me something, but they learned something else.”
Lucille Clifton had six children. That, she admitted, had taught her plenty. She asked me if I had children, and when I said no, she was quick to say, “It’s not for everyone,” leading me to break down and share my infertility woes, and my tentative decision to adopt. “Well, do it then,” she said. “If it’s your path, it’s your path.”
Friday evening, conservative David Brooks said on the PBS news hour, that he can imagine a leader who will help our nation unite around a conversation about race. It strikes me that in that conversation, white people might spend most of their time listening. Maybe some learning will happen.
…The foxes are hungry, who could blame them for what they do?… –“Foxes in Winter,” Mary Oliver
can blame her for hunkering
into the doorwells at night,
the only blaze in the dark
the brush of her hopeful tail,
the only starlight
her little bared teeth?
and when she is not satisfied
who can blame her for refusing to leave,
for raising the one paw up and barking,
Master of the Hunt, why am i
not feeding, not being fed?