“Anything She Didn’t Want to Do, She Don’t Have To”: Finding Voice, Agency, and Blackness in the Life and Poems of Lucille Clifton

Ashley M. Jones


Ashley M. Jones

Where can I begin?

Maybe in 1936, when Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York. This was five years after my grandmother, Willie Lee Lipscomb was born. This was 13 years after my grandmother, Ola Bell Jones, was born. This was 54 years before I was born. I did not know her, was not linked to her by blood, was not raised at her feet. But her birth has mattered as much as these other women who shaped my life. Her birth made way for so much of who I am today and what I want to be.

Where can I begin?

It’s hard to say when I began knowing Lucille Clifton. What’s easy to say, however, is what happened when I started to know Lucille. Maybe she would let me call her Lucille. From the very first poem, which must have been around the end of high school and the beginning of college, I felt an inexplicable sigh of relief. Relief which I never thought I could feel as a Black woman, as a Southern woman, as a Black Southern woman aspiring to be a writer. From the first lowercase letter, I knew this woman was inviting me in. I had not yet read her own words about her poems, but I could hear her speaking very clearly to me—saying, in words that had not been uttered by the white poems I had been taught in school, that I was valuable in poetry, that I could enter through this door she had just opened. Clifton said in an interview with Pearl London in Poetry in Person that “the only poets I ever saw were the portraits that used to hang on the elementary school walls. They were old, dead white men with beards. I had no relationship to anything there. So it just never occurred to me. Still, when I felt things—and I was always feeling things—I wrote them down. They didn’t look particularly like the poems that I read in school and in books, but I still continued to do it” (Neubauer 156). For poets who have always seen themselves in the canonized, celebrated, ivory-towered poets taught nationwide in schools and at universities, maybe these words don’t mean anything. But to me, these words, and the way Clifton put herself on the page, are invaluable. They were gold for me as a young writer.

During my undergraduate study, I wanted nothing more than to be like her. She was my guide, finally, to understand how I could use poetry in my own voice. I could finally hear my voice—I had studied Creative Writing seriously since the seventh grade, at a fine arts school in Birmingham, Alabama, and I was quite blindly ambling through my poems, hoping my “poetic voice” would show up on the corner of Tradition and Expectation. But I didn’t start to see the familiar sights and sounds of My Voice until I saw how Clifton and other Black poets used language to shape their stories. I started writing without capital letters. I changed the shape of my poetry, trying to make the piece as slim or spare as I could. I was proud to be a part of this legacy. I was proud to say that I imitated Clifton, that she was my favorite poet. I fancied myself a student of her poetry, and it made me feel like I finally fit into the genre while still being me.

Where can I begin?

Maybe at the table in the thesis defense room, spring 2012. My undergraduate thesis was a testament to this exploration of voice. It was a representation of my study of Clifton, of my deep-dive into Black poetry. My thesis was a collection of narrative poetry written in English and Spanish—I was an English major and Spanish minor in college, and I had been writing in both languages for about a year and a half. This was my triumphant moment, my chance to show all that I’d been working on, diligently, with my advisor for the past year. The project was a reprise/re-imagining of my high school thesis about two Black people in love, a la Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove. I was proud. I had worked hard. I felt like, finally, I was writing poems that I felt a part of, that had my name written all over them. They were uncapitalized, they were Black. They were my first foray into a world where I had agency over what went on my page—where I could express my authentic feelings. Although it would be another couple years before I started writing in that voice about myself, I was really happy to feel like I was in control of the words, like I wasn’t playing at the Ivory Tower. I was, instead, walking through that door Clifton had opened. I was walking, with great wonder, through the hallway of Black poets who had built this literary mansion, brick by bloody brick.

Where can I begin?

With my favorite Clifton poem, “what the mirror said.” In it, she tells us how to move through the world with the knowledge that we are “some / damn / body!”

what the mirror said

you a wonder.
you are a city
of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.
somebody need a map
to understand you.
somebody need directions
to move around you.
you not a noplace
mister with his hands on you
he got his hands on

This poem is so brilliant in its content, but it also demonstrates what I think is one of the great underappreciated strengths of poetry, that the craft is truly secondary to the content—that the craft may be the reason you arrive at a poem, but it shouldn’t be the only thing with which you leave a poem. For too long, I think, we’ve taught craft first or craft only, neglecting the very basic communicative functions of poetry—were the first sonnets not little songs? Were the stories we were told as children fantastic because of what they said, not because of the mechanics of how they said it? Good poetry, for me, does this storytelling, conversational labor, and the craft part of it as an extra gift. “what the mirror said” is one such poem. Yes, I’m struck, from a technical standpoint, at Clifton’s use of the line. This is a constant in many of her poems—she said, “[p]oetry…is not about sentences, it’s about lines” (162). This is abundantly true in this poem—“listen” always stands alone, commanding the reader and drawing attention to the great power this speaker holds. This power, we realize, is our own. The mirror is speaking. Who is in the mirror? We are. In that one action—putting the word “listen” on a line by itself, and then, moving down the page, “woman, anonymous, girl, some, damn, body,” Clifton tells us exactly what we are and how we should confront the world. There is urgency and meditation within those one-word lines. The reader must slow down to read them, but in each breath of line, they are all we can consume. The caesuras created by the line breaks give pause and purpose. This is a poem that was crafted, yes, but the content of the poem is what keeps me coming back. It’s why I have this poem framed and hung above my desk in my classroom. It’s there to remind me of who I am, of what poetry can be, of the way a Black woman can speak life over me even from the page, even from the Great Beyond. Lucille Clifton is a masterful poet. But she is more than the craft. She is the story.

Where can I begin?

While I can’t articulate the disappointment, hurt, and frustration I felt when the secondary reader of my thesis, a White Southern Man who had expressed very limiting and traditional views on what poetry could be, wrote the word “gimmick” on almost every page of my thesis document, what I can say is this: the rooms Lucille and others had built for me must have been built with all kinds of burglar bars and security lasers, because that frustration and hurt didn’t stop me from applying to graduate school, where I was accepted on a full fellowship. It didn’t stop me from reading and idolizing Lucille Clifton, whose influence was all over those pages. She was no gimmick. The whole of Black poetry and the freedom it gave me was no gimmick, no mistake. Lucille taught me to simply continue on this path. Clifton’s mother said, one Christmas at the church pageant, upon seeing Lucille’s reluctance to participate in the annual recitations, “[a]nything she don’t want to do, she don’t have to” (155). That’s the power I find in Clifton’s poetry. She tells me, clearly and sternly—anything you don’t want to do, you don’t have to. And, conversely, anything I want to do, I can do it. So I moved on. I kept writing, I kept Clifton close. Like her, I put myself on the page as authentically as I could. I played with language. I explored form. I wrote about Black people. And this was the most liberating experience of my writing life to date—to lean into myself and put that on the page. Clifton was asked if she would ever stop writing about Black things and write “real poems” (162)—she said she would never do such a thing because her liberation was tied to her commitment to her culture, and I feel that way, too. I am not just a poet. I’m a Black Southern Woman poet whose dad is a firefighter and whose mom stayed home (after getting her degree and working) and whose siblings are artists and whose hair is coarse and whose skin is dark and who loves collard greens and who can write in meter and who doesn’t always write in meter and who loves loves loves loves Black people. I can’t even begin to approach the page if I don’t make room for everything I am. Lucille taught me that.

Where can I begin?

Maybe I should have started with the day I met Lucille Clifton. March 2, 2019. Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010. I should clarify. Let me begin here: I have been fortunate to win two awards which bear Clifton’s name. First, in 2018, I won the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize from Backbone Press, selected by Camille Dungy. I was beyond thrilled to be selected—my poem could have received no higher honor. For my poem to be named the piece to represent Clifton for that year—unreal. Then, in 2019, Sonia Sanchez chose me to be the winner of the 2019 Lucille Clifton Legacy Award at St. Mary’s College of Maryland—the last university at which Clifton worked. Again, the most surreal joy filled me—I have always felt that Clifton guided me from the page, but now there was something else—a spirit appearing, calling my name.

This award required me to travel to Maryland and spend the day with Sonia Sanchez, who is another one of my poetry heroes, who was Lucille’s friend, who is the on-earth spirit-guide, honorary grandmother, beautiful flower who has blessed my life in ways she will never understand. This gift, I felt, was another one of Lucille’s—how did she know I needed this day with Sonia, with her stories?

Again, March 2, 2019. Sonia laughed with me. She rested her hand on my arm to help as she boarded the van that would take us to St. Mary’s. She told me how to stop food poisoning using apple cider vinegar. She told me how pineapples could cure anything. She leaned on me when she laughed, like a sister. She held my hand at the dinner table. Sonia sang softly behind her closed door in the morning in that old house in which we stayed. She made me tea. She called me sister, and when I read my sonnets at one of our events together, she said, “now you see why I chose my dear sister for this award?” And I saw, too—I saw Lucille, giving me the thing she’d always given me in her work. She gave me this light, this moment of absolute clarity, this doorway into poetry, so far away from anything resembling an ivory tower.

Where can I begin?

At the awards ceremony, I read in front of two of Lucille’s daughters, her colleagues, her friends. I snuck glances at those beautiful daughters, wondering if they knew how much I loved their mother—if I was even allowed to say such a thing. If they knew how afraid I was of them—I would never forgive myself if I offended them, if I was underwhelming. That night, there was something floating, warm and heavy in the room. I thought maybe it was nerves. But then I thought about what Sonia had said earlier that day—there were spirits afoot. Slaves were alive and dead in Maryland. Harriet Tubman was alive in Maryland. Lucille Clifton was alive and dead in Maryland. And there we were—me, Sonia, and Dr. Jordan, the university’s president. All of us, Black women, communing with the dead, who gave us life.

And so I knew this had to be Lucille.

Many guests said as much after the reading, that Lucille was there, that she was pleased. That I had channeled something like her spirit. Reader, I don’t know if you believe in any of these things. I don’t know if you think a poem can be like a prayer. I don’t know if you believe me when I say I know Lucille was in that room on that cold, rainy night in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. And, much like Clifton’s poetics, it isn’t about your belief or your understanding of the mechanics of an uncapitalized line, of the spirit of a dead woman smiling beyond the grave. It’s about that power she gives, on page and in spirit. It’s about the power of that poetry which gave me permission, which gives me strength and peace.

What does it mean to be in someone’s legacy? It means being obedient to the spirit. To the ancestors. To the poetry. It means being a vessel and a ship. It means loving a world that does not always love you.

I have to begin where I will end—with her poetry. At Lucille’s written legacy, which is so much more than just poetry on a page. I can’t begin to thank all the Black poets who have made me possible—for those poets like Lucille who wrote their poems on paper, but also for those poets whose verse is something else entirely: the soft smile of my grandma Ola Bell Jones, her example of kindness and strength; the broadness of my grandma Willie Lee Lipscomb’s shoulders and the load they taught me to bear; my mother’s quick wit and freckled face; my father’s rough hands gingerly placing the tender flowers in our yard. These are the verses that have made me, and I’m grateful for them, for their call to action: I will write their truth forever, and I know Clifton would have told me to keep on doing it, because I’m some damn body. 

I Cannot Talk About The South Without Talking About Black Women

a golden shovel after Lucille Clifton

My grandmothers made America,
the fibers that made us
warm, made us invincible—heroines.

To tell you who they are, I must start with who they are not:
servants, kitchen-bound mammies, silently obedient wives—
can’t, in our modern comforts, imagine the survival they learned
was theirs to claim, can’t hold the
the light they burned through this colonial darkness, what tricks
this nation, this American South pulled, minute by minute, to
my grandmothers convinced: the
body you’re in is not enough, your race
and your gender work together
to mark you less, to mark you takeable, but
what they didn’t know was that my grandmothers still had
an unmovable strength, enough to
build a bridge from here to Heaven. I know when I leave
this broken earth I’ll find them there, sweetening every hour.

My grandmothers raised a generation of American men.
There is no other way to
say this. Look at any Southern family and you’ll find,
somewhere, in a past most will not claim, a Black woman. These men who call themselves
bootstrapping and self-made, somewhere there’s a Black woman and
her unthanked hands who lifted them to where they are now.

My father tells a story of the sons of his grandmother’s employers. How they,
instead of the pension she was promised, decided to give her a damned
old tire. An old suitcase, dusty in the yard. What
thanks is this for the years she raised that family, for the care they
forget? My father could never forgive
those men, their Southern tradition. Their American tradition. Even
now, they tell us Black women are going to save this whole
nation with votes or magic or our style taken and renamed. But this is no longer the
land of massas
and mammies, and we are only superheroines for our own daughters and sons—
my grandmothers did not give their lives
for me to keep nursing this country, to keep shucking and jiving in
bizarro American Dream—
my grandmothers are worth more than this corrupt remembering.
Now, there is no room for the
Dixieland lie:
no longer hold these truths you made
us accept. Under God, yes. We hear Him
singing a song of powerful love
despite the United Hate of America.

Grandmothers, women made
of salt and spirit, you are faith, continuous. Continue us—
raise us to be heroes and heroines,
to tell this country that we are not
mules, not beasts. You, an army of workers and wives—
fears and woes in your indestructible, ever-present ladyness—
the blood you passed down to us is all we will ever need to


Works Cited

Lucille Clifton, “what the mirror said,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).

Poetry In Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, ed. Alexander Neubauer (New York: Knopf, 2010).


“Black Women” by Ashley M. Jones, originally published in Southern Women (HarperCollins ©2019). Reprinted by permission of Ashley M. Jones.

Photo Credit for Ashley M. Jones: BANG IMAGES/ Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner.

Ashley M. Jones

Ashley M. Jones holds an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University, and she is the author of Magic City Gospel and dark / / thing. Her poetry has earned several awards, including the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, the Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, a Literature Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. Her poems and essays appear in or are forthcoming at CNN, The Oxford American, Origins Journal, The Quarry by Split This Rock, Obsidian, and many others. She teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, she co-directs PEN Birmingham, and she is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival.