Poet re-emerges in the verses of newest works

Life's hardships serve as inspiration for Clifton's pieces, which she'll share tomorrow

November 03, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

When talking about poet Lucille Clifton this week, two of her colleagues quoted the same line from her poem "won't you celebrate with me":

"come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed."

In the past five years, Clifton, 70, has survived a kidney transplant, two types of cancer and the deaths of two of her children. But she still is on the literary scene, writing, teaching and reading.

"I think her will is very strong," said Michael Glaser, a friend and fellow poet. "She is a great gift to American poetry."

Via phone from her Columbia home, Clifton was more low-key.

"I'm doing all right," she said. "I'm pretty busy, I have to say."

Her busy schedule includes a reading and discussion tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Howard Community College's Monteabaro Recital Hall. The event is organized by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, of which Clifton is a board member.

A grandmother of five, Clifton said, "theoretically, I'm retired" from teaching at St. Mary's College of Maryland. However, she still lectures and visits classes at St. Mary's. In January, she plans to spend eight weeks teaching at Dartmouth.

She continues to give readings, having already shared her work in every state in the United States and many foreign countries.

She published a book of poems, Mercy, in 2004, four years after winning the National Book Award for her collection Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000.

And, she said, another book is in the works.

Clifton was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and began writing as a young woman. She was the first person in her family to attend college -- on a scholarship to Howard University -- but she did not graduate.

She continued writing while she and her husband raised six children and published her first work when she was 33.

In the next decades, she wrote more than 30 books of poetry and books for children, served as Maryland's poet laureate and recently ended a term as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

She has earned an international reputation for her poems, which use straightforward language and little punctuation to address topics that are simultaneously personal and universal.

Mercy touches on family relationships, racial prejudice, cancer and the Sept. 11 attacks.

"From the wreckage of what is lost in life to such forces as cancer and terrorism, to the redemption of what remains, like birth and otherworldly assistance," says Booklist's review of the collection, "Clifton's voice speaks truth and sings hope."

Lately, Clifton said, she has been writing about the authenticity of names, pointing to inaccurate portrayals of Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas, and to the concern people expressed when Pluto lost its status as a planet.

"I'm human, so I'm interested doing that which is human and expressing my wonder at the human-ness of things, including the negatives," she said. "Often times what people think is political [in my work] is just life."

Such an open approach gives her plenty of material.

"I write in my head a lot," she said. "It may sound mysterious, and it's not. Poetry knows I'm available to poetry, so it comes to me."

Glaser, who is a professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland and Maryland's current poet laureate, said he could see the positive effect of the years on her writing.

"I think her work has gotten braver and more honest and more open," he said. "It's not that she hasn't been writing about the same things, but she confronts them more straightforwardly. I think her poetry is less afraid of what others might do. I think it's better for that."

Clifton has traveled widely for readings, but she said she doesn't often read in her hometown of Columbia.

One of the times she did was in 1974 in a joint appearance with Carolyn Kizer at Wilde Lake High School. That was the first event held by HoCoPoLitSo.

The society's managing director, Tara Hart, said the group thought Clifton would be a good choice to launch a series of readings in the new space at HCC's Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

Also, "we felt it was time for people to hear from her again right here in Columbia," Hart said. "It has been a while."

The reading will be followed by a question-and-answer session and then a wine and cheese reception.

Clifton said she will bring some of her newer work, but she doesn't plan what she will read at public events.

"I feel what seems to me to be needed and wanted," she said. "Sometimes I surprise myself."

Hart said Clifton remains a strong voice on HoCoPoLitSo's board of directors, and plays a key role in bring in national and internationally known authors to Howard County.

Clifton also has pushed to retain the society's spirit and independence, even after becoming an organization in residence at Howard Community College in 2004.

Hart, like Glaser, said she was taken with Clifton's line about celebrating that which has failed to kill her.

The poem begins:

"won't you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life? i had no model. / born in babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did i see to be except myself?"sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

Tickets for "A Reading and Conversation with Lucille Clifton" are $25 for general admission and $10 for students. Information and reservations: 410-772-4568 or www.hocopolitso.org.

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