Poet Lucille Clifton Recalls a Life of Well-Chosen Words African American poet Lucille Clifton's first book of poems Good Times was cited by the New York Times as one of 1969's 10 best books. She recently became the first black woman to win the prestigious Lilly Poetry Prize, which rewards lifetime achievement. Clifton talks to Farai Chideya about her life, legacy and plainspoken way with words.

Poet Lucille Clifton Recalls a Life of Well-Chosen Words

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Lucille Clifton published her first book of poetry while raising six young kids. She wrote when there were diapers to change and mouths to feed, and then she kept on going. Nearly 40 years later, Clifton is a literary star. She has won the National Book Award and she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice in the same year.

Tomorrow, she'll be in Chicago accepting the mother of all awards, the Poetry Foundation's Lilly Poetry Prize. The Lilly judges a poet's entire body of work. Lucille Clifton joined us by phone from her Maryland home. We had a chance to talk about the prize, her legacy and her humble beginnings as a wordsmith.

Ms. LUCILLE CLIFTON (Poet): Both of my parents were word people. My mother wrote poetry, actually. And, may I say, my mother didn't graduate from elementary school.


Ms. CLIFTON: She loved (unintelligible). When I was young, I'd sit on her lap. I actually sat on her lap when I was a little bit older, and she would read (unintelligible) and recite poetry.

CHIDEYA: One of the marks of your poetry is that it's written in plain language, sometimes about no good times, which was the title of one of your books, as well as one of your poems. It's about good times during hard times, and then other ones like "The Photograph of Lynching" is just very political, kind of a strange fruit. But your language is very - I just have to read a little bit of "Good Times," I know that you're going to read to us later.

(Reading) My daddy has paid the rent, and the insurance man is gone, and the lights is back on.

It's just the first three lines of that poem. Why do you write the way you write?

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, I write - I try to write in that poem particularly the way people speak. And I write to celebrate life, I think. And some people believe that poetry is only supposed to be about things. It's not even beautiful things, it's pretty things, you know. Some people believe that. But if it's to be about being human, it ought to be the whole story, it seems to me.

CHIDEYA: A poem that cracks me up is "Wishes for Sons."

Ms. CLIFTON: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And you're, like, I wish them cramps, I wish them a strange town, and the last tampon. That poem has me in stitches.

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, you know, I had six children - four daughters and two sons -and I think both my daughters and myself felt that poem quite often.

CHIDEYA: Definitely.

Ms. CLIFTON: But people think you're not supposed to write about such things.

CHIDEYA: What's your - do you have a favorite poem out of all the ones you've written?

Ms. CLIFTON: Oh, it's always the one you're writing now, you know? I like - I'm fairly proud of them all, to tell the truth. Right now, I'm working on some poems that have to do with naming and the difference between what one calls someone and what they call themselves, and I'm fond of them.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're hoping you'll share some of that with us before you go. How did the ability to share your work with the public stage occur?

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, it was an unusual story, in that someone took my poetry, some of poetry, and sent it to the National Endowment for the Arts. This is in 1968, I believe. And I won the Discovery Award, of which I had never heard. Remember, when I was writing, nobody that looked like me, I certainly didn't know them they were writing, and publishing wasn't something I ever thought is possible for people who looked like me. The prize at that time was a trip to read at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which is a big venue for reading. And there was an editor in the audience, she heard the poems and Random House offered me a contract.


Ms. CLIFTON: Absolutely out of the blue. I never sought it. And at that time the first book "Good Times" came out in 1969, and I had six children under 10.


Ms. CLIFTON: I like to say that to women who think, you know, they've got two kids, how can they possibly manage. Well, I had four in diapers at once, because my children are very close in age.

CHIDEYA: Tell me, when you wrote, did you write while - I just can't even understand when you wrote.

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, okay. I had four kids in diapers, as I say, and they didn't have Pampers until my final kid. But I think you do what you have to do. I learned how to write in my head quite a bit, and so I still do, you know. I don't start - I've never written longhand, first of all, and then I don't start on the machine until I'm sort of halfway through. I didn't have any time. I wrote between feeding and diapers and all of that stuff. You see, I never think about - I never thought about writing poems as my career. I never thought about that. It's what I do; it's part of who I am. I also write children's books, you may know, and that probably is more, in my head, a career, but they're two different things completely.

CHIDEYA: So you've been and are a mother.

Ms. CLIFTON: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: You've been a wife.

Ms. CLIFTON: Mm-hmm.


Ms. CLIFTON: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Teacher.


CHIDEYA: You have taught many people who, I'm sure, appreciate the energy that you gave them and the inspiration. What have you sought to teach as, you know, in your role as a professor?

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, I primarily taught creative writing, the writing of poetry, but I have taught the writing of children's books, because I do write children's books. And I have been fortunate at St. Mary's College of Maryland, in that I could teach when I wanted to.

CHIDEYA: So what is this prize, the Lilly Prize, mean to you?

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, what I like about it, beside the fact that it's money and one always needs that, but I like that it is a validation of my work. It's not for one book, you know, it's for the body of work. And that matters to me because it means that perhaps some things I have done have mattered in the world. And one isn't always sure.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLIFTON: Thank you. Some days I'm not. So...

CHIDEYA: Yeah. On that note, do you mind sharing with us a little bit of something you're working on now?

Ms. CLIFTON: Well, right now I'm doing like a group of poems that deal with naming. Let's see, there are a number of them. One is "Aunt Jemima" and this poem is called "Cream of Wheat."

(Reading) Sometimes at night we stroll the market aisles, Ben and me and Jemima. They walk in front, remembering this and that. I lag behind trying to remove my chef's cap, wondering about whatever pictured me that left me personless(ph). Restus(ph), I read in an old paper, I was called Restus, but no mother ever gave that to her son. Towards dawn, we stroll back to our shelves, our boxes. Ben and Jemima and me, we pose and smile. I simmer without a name.

CHIDEYA: Wow. That is great.

Ms. CLIFTON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Well, Lucille Clifton, thanks for sharing your time and your energy with us.

Ms. CLIFTON: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much, indeed.

CHIDEYA: Poet Lucille Clifton will be Chicago tomorrow to accept the prestigious Lilly Poetry Prize. Her latest book of poetry is called "Mercy." To read some of her poems, visit our Web site, npr.org/news¬es.

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