An Interview with Lucille Clifton

An interview with Lucille Clifton (1936 to 2010) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2008.

The little girl from DePew, New York, who stood in front of her house on Purdy Street with a white Easter dress and a shy smile, lives inside poet Lucille Clifton.

Clifton seems to have retained more of her childhood than most people, or perhaps she just lays it bare in her poetry. There’s still something about her that is vulnerable, wanting to please, to be the “good girl,” she says. And then she laughs and flaps her hand, tired of all this navel-gazing.

Lucille Clifton was born with “a heck of a good sense of humor,” she chuckles. It’s a good thing, because while “the light that came to Lucille Clifton,” as one of her poems begins, gave her the gift of poetry, her life dealt hard blows: childhood abuse, her mother dead of seizures at 44, her husband and daughter dead of cancer, a son and her only brother dead, her own bout with cancer.

Outside Clifton’s Columbia house, a gray spring rain is falling on the cherry blossoms. Inside, the living room wall is lined with books and a collection of antique Black dolls sit in a row on a shelf, their wide eyes staring out the back window.

When she was young enough to be playing with dolls, Lucille Sayles started working. At first, she earned a few coins “running numbers,” taking her mother’s lucky number 254 and the neighbors’ favorites down to the store to buy lottery tickets. Later, Clifton washed hair, bused tables in the doctor’s cafeteria at a hospital, sold wholesale jewelry.

Throughout her childhood, her family told her stories. There’s the one about her father’s great-grandmother, Caroline, kidnapped from Dahomey people in Africa and brought as a slave to America, who walked in 1830 from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight. There’s another, about Caroline’s daughter, Lucille, who murdered the white man who fathered her child, and was the first black woman lynched in Virginia. There were her uncles with Mafia ties, her nine-fingered Uncle Collie who played piano with Oscar Peterson, her brother and his drug-induced shenanigans that he turned into hilarious tales. And later, after she married Fred Clifton, she heard his family’s stories, like the one about Fred’s father facing down a lynch mob that had murdered his friend so he could bury that friend.

And then there’s her own story. Clifton had a sister, born to a different mother, who came to live with them. Her father, a steelworker, abused the young Lucille, and forced Clifton’s mother to burn her own poetry. Her mother had seizures and needed care. Because of her color, Clifton lived with prejudice; she remembers she wasn’t allowed to try on hats at the department store. The family had little money.

Throughout her childhood, though, Lucille read incessantly. She graduated high school at 16, with a drama scholarship to Howard University. She performed in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, in Antigone, and in an Ibsen play, though she forgets which one. After two years at Howard, she left, and later graduated from Fredonia State Teacher’s College. While acting, working and going to college, she wrote her first collection of poetry, Good Times, published in 1969. The New York Times named it one of that year’s best books.

Clifton’s eleven books of poetry include Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, which won the National Book Award, and others that received Pulitzer and National Book Award nominations. She has written more than 20 books for children. She served as the Maryland Poet Laureate, and taught for more than 30 years at colleges across the country.
The persona Clifton creates on the page reflects her own personality--wise, yet humble, earthy, blunt. Her work is not the arch posturing of an academic intellectual. As Clifton has often told her students, “Poetry isn’t about how smart you are. It’s about how human you are.”


Susan Thornton Hobby: You were born outside of Buffalo, New York. You spoke Polish as a girl?

Lucille Clifton: Yes, in DePew there was one group of people of color – my family. I had a job at twelve – I didn’t look twelve – washing hair in a beauty shop. They called me “the Polish colored girl.” I spoke it, I understood it. I kept none of that except my deep and abiding love of kielbasa. [She laughs.]

STH: You’ve always said that your childhood home was full of books. Which ones do you remember?

LC: There were not a lot of children’s books. My mother read everything she could find about early China, like Pearl S. Buck. Which is amazing, because my mother, to my knowledge – and I would know – never saw a Chinese person. My father read history, mostly Biblical history. I read everything, stuff I didn’t know about. I’m curious. It’s the reason I know a whole lot about nothing.

I would take my sister to the library, and I would read, and my sister would look out the window, thinking “I wonder what it’s like out there?” I read lots of Thomas Wolfe – not Tom Wolfe, now – Thomas Wolfe. I was very romantic as a kid. My first poems were copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay. They were full of especial and ’twas.

We read the Bible a lot. I grew up in the church, Southern Baptist. But I’m not the kind of person who accepts the stories just because someone tells me they’re true. A woman called Mary in Israel? There’s a lot of women named Rachel, Devorah, Miriam, OK, but not Mary. I’ve been to Israel; I toured Israel with Galway Kinnell. How can you wander 40 years in that desert? It’s about the size of this couch.

STH: What was your mother’s poetry like?

LC: My mother’s poetry was traditional. It rhymed, you know? She never graduated from elementary school. I wish I had some of her poetry. She used to recite – Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adam.” [Clifton herself speaks the poem, concluding “And lo! Ben Adam’s name led all the rest.”] She used to rock me and recite. So the idea of doing poems was something that wasn’t strange.

STH: Did your mother ever see your poetry?

LC: [Laughing] She’d say, “That ain’t no poem.” It didn’t rhyme. [Clifton’s mother died one month before Clifton’s first child was born, and 10 years before Clifton’s first book of poetry was published.] That I wrote mattered to her. She was not allowed to finish her work.

She was a home girl. She would sit in a chair by the window and rock and hum. She was born in 1914, in Rome, Georgia. She was probably among the five top things on Earth that I couldn’t have done without. I’m somebody who never grieved enough for my mother. My mother, her life was so shortened. She died just before Sid [Clifton’s daughter Sidney] was born. I didn’t know how to be a mother. But my mother sustains me, as a poet. [Clifton laughs.] If she could just give me a hand finishing this book.

STH: You had a complicated family – your father had a separate family, a mistress and three children. Elaine, your half sister, was very sick with appendicitis and wasn’t being taken to the doctor, so she came to live with you. Can you talk about that?

LC: My mother was not thrilled with Elaine’s existence, but my mother said, “Go and get that baby.” My mother always said, “You cannot blame children for an adult’s foolishness.” And my mother made no difference between us. I remember everything tightening. But we consider ourselves very lucky to have known each other, to have grown up together. Good people can do things that are not considered good. It allowed me to see from several different perspectives.

STH: Your church threw you a party when you were going to college, right?

LC: I was the light of the church in some ways. I was the first one in my church to go to college. They had a ceremony, a big party, with cookies. I was 16. I had never spent a night away from my parent’s house. I remember coming in – myself and two girls from high school – to Penn Station in D.C. I remember I was young, but I was tall. And back then, Howard had people waiting at the station for you. I was petrified. There was a young man saying to my friend, “Oh, you’re Betty,” and turning to me, “and you must be her mother.” I thought to myself, “Uh-huh, I’m gonna hate it here.” And I called home, “Hi Mommy, I’m here. As soon as I eat, I’m coming home.”

But I learned so much there. One of my teachers was Sterling Brown and I was in the first play of James Baldwin’s that was produced. I used to walk down to an art gallery – I had never seen art in Buffalo.

STH: How do you write children’s books about serious subjects without talking down to children?

LC: Well, I try not to talk down to kids anyway. In writing for children, the worst writers are teachers. They think you have to teach them things; you can’t just have a conversation or tell stories to them. Teachers trust teaching, but they don’t trust learning. Children are not adults. I tell them that it’s necessary that I be something. If I be something, I’ll do something. I like to tell stories and let them know what happened.

STH: Who is “Lu” in your poem “Lu 1942?”

LC: First, I was “Lu” to my family. I was “Lucy” at Howard University. Then I was Lucille Clifton. I’ve been stuck in that one for a long time. I’ve lost the balance. I’m trying to re-find Lu.

STH: You had six children. How could you write poetry?

LC: I couldn’t plan it out. I wrote in my head. Which is why my first poems were so short. I composed in my head. As the kids got older, the poems got longer. One does what one has to do. I didn’t know you couldn’t be a poet if you didn’t have an MFA. I am the first of my kind and the last of my kind.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2008. All rights reserved.