Editing the work, what surprised you about it? What did you take away from the experience?
Seeing Lucille Clifton’s work all together, I was amazed at the sheer breadth of it—both in terms how much work she made, but also the ways in which it all adds up to something greater. I knew this instinctively, but it’s another thing to read so much Clifton: it has the weight of what I call in my afterword “an intimate epic.” I hope readers might have a similar experience of discovery.
Personally, I found it inspiring to see how Clifton persevered as a poet—not to mention her work as a children’s writer. I was struck too to see how terrific her unpublished early work is—there’s a lot of it, and my fellow editor Michael S. Glaser and I had plenty to choose from the work found in her archive at Emory University. As a curator at the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, I helped acquire her papers there, but still am surprised at all that’s there.
What did you learn about her relationship to Baltimore and how the city might have shaped her work and/or worldview? You know, she claimed to speak to her mother via Ouiji Board, which was first produced by the Baltimore Talking Board Company.
I didn’t know that’s where the Ouija board was made! But it makes sense: her spirituality and the place of the Ouija board in it are quite interesting (not to mention the place Baltimore holds for her). Besides just communicating with her mother, in the late 1970s Clifton received a series of messages from the spirit world, examples of what is sometimes called “spirit writing” and Clifton herself occasionally referred to as “automatic writing.” Such writings place her squarely in a tradition of prophecy, from Jeremiah to “two-headed women,” as well as in that fellowship of poets who directly engage the spirit world in their writings, from Yeats to Robert Duncan to James Merrill.
Why are readers so devoted to this work? What do you see/hear as the kernel of truth within it?
I don’t think there’s just a kernel—there’s a whole busload of truth in Clifton’s work. Holding the Collected Poems in my hands, I was struck by how much life there is—both in her face on the cover and in the work itself. I think Clifton’s readers are devoted to her because of her willingness to say things others can’t, don’t, or won’t; for her bravery and her humor.
What other artists/writers might have a similar effect on their readership/audience?
In the Afterword I compare her to Neruda—like him, I think her work is personal, vernacular, political, playful, and ultimately concerned with justice.
Also, her craft should not be ignored—like Langston Hughes, her work has so many layers and little moments of grace, plus this tremendous sense of structure, much like Miss Gwendolyn Brooks.
Would you recommend a poem to our readers and tell us why it resonates?
There are so many great poems to choose from—I love “wishes for sons,” and some of the very well known ones, like “won’t you celebrate with me,” “homage to my hips,” and “surely i am able to write poems,” which teach me something new each time I read them. But for today I’d say “the light that came to lucille clifton” for the way it suggests her vision, and plays on her own name: Lucille, after all, means “light.”