Interview with Clifton Archivist, Gabrielle M. Dudley


Gabrielle M. Dudley

Shannon K. Winston: How and when did Emory University acquire the Lucille Clifton Papers? Who is (or might be) interested in visiting the archive?

Gabrielle M. Dudley: The Lucille Clifton papers were acquired in 2006 by Kevin Young who then served as Curator of Literary Collections for the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

It is challenging to think about who is or might be most interested in examining Lucille Clifton’s papers, as the way that many people come to the collection is often surprising. In 2019, the Clifton collection was among the top ten most circulated materials for Rose Library. It has been accessed by faculty, students, and staff at Emory University and by researchers visiting from around the world.

SKW: What does the archive consist of and how is it showcased in your library?

GMD: Included in the papers are Lucille Clifton’s correspondences, writings, teaching files, photographs, audiovisual recordings, and born-digital materials. The collection features manuscript drafts of most of Clifton’s poems and prose; cards, letters, and emails from close friends, family, and professional contacts; Clifton’s journals and personal calendars, and family records.

The Clifton papers are so interesting and items from it are regularly featured in exhibitions in Rose Library. In 2014, there was an exhibition at Emory focused exclusively on Clifton’s work. More recently she was prominently featured in the “She Gathers Me: Networks Among Black Women Writers” exhibition which highlighted the connections Black women writers shared as friends, colleagues, and collaborators. Now the exhibition will be traveling throughout the state of Georgia until 2022. From now until May 2020, Clifton’s Magnovox VideoWriter which she used during her tenure at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is on display and part of the “Born Digital” exhibition at Rose Library. The exhibition highlights born-digital materials like floppy disks, iPhones, and computers that were acquired with manuscript collections, and as an added bonus, a kiosk is available in the exhibition that allows visitors to print a poem that Clifton wrote on the VideoWriter.

SKW: Why do you think maintaining this archive of Clifton’s life and work is so important? What do you think it will offer to future generations of poets?

GMD: Despite some gains, Black women still remain underrepresented across the archival landscape and far too few collections exist that solely focus on their lives and perspectives. The Clifton papers are also important because she is a celebrated American poet and had a long and successful career.

I believe Clifton’s archival collection and body of work offer us evidence of a life lived through creativity and fortitude. Her collection, much like her life and poetry, is personal and complicated. Anyone going through the collection might be arrested by the beauty of her words, be saddened by her sense of loss, and delighted by her affection towards friends and family. Clifton’s papers are not a monument to celebrate Clifton’s life, though deserving, but a testament to a woman’s work that continues to challenge us to deepen our understanding of ourselves and of our world. In the collection, one will see hundreds of invitations for Clifton to read her poetry, several rejections of poems she held dear, and more importantly, a writer and mentor nurturing future generations of readers and writers.

SKW: What surprised you the most about Clifton’s archive and why? Do you have a favorite item in the collection?

GMD: I am personally interested in the ways that Black women writers formed connections either through friendships or physical community with one another. It is something that can truly only be gleaned through archival collections. So, I was pleasantly surprised to read through her letters, cards, and emails to see her connections with other Black women writers like Rita Dove, Toni Morrison, Toi Derricotte, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Honestly, Lucille Clifton’s papers are one of my favorite collections hosted by the Rose Library, so it is hard to pick a favorite item. However, as it is a collection that I teach with often, I can say that I especially love to show undergraduate students Clifton’s spirit writings. She experimented with this form of unconscious writing in the 1970s and 80s to communicate with the spirit world. While this form of writing is a rare treat, it is especially gratifying that she tucked many of the short poems in envelopes and even included explanations of how and why she channeled a particular spirit.

SKW: What have you learned about Clifton’s writing by archiving it? What were some challenges of archiving the materials?

GMD: Although I was not on the team that arranged and described the collection, I have learned so much about Clifton’s writing by teaching with it via the Rose Library’s instruction program. As hundreds of new students are introduced to Clifton each year, she immediately becomes a fan favorite because her writings are so personal and relatable. A challenge for me is trying to encourage more faculty and students at Emory University to access the born digital files within the collection. A few years ago, two colleagues and I introduced students to both Clifton’s paper and born-digital correspondence during an archives instruction session. The students were very comfortable riffling through Clifton’s paper cards and letters, but expressed serious uneasiness reading her emails, which were accessible via a laptop. I believe that, for many students, the process felt too personal and similar to the way they access their own email accounts and private records today. Fortunately, Rose Library has digital archivists that are trained to help users feel more comfortable with using born digital materials in their research.

SKW: Would you be willing to share a photograph with us from the archive and explain why you chose that photo?

GMD: Though celebrated mostly as a poet, Lucille Clifton had a successful career as a writer of children’s books. She published eight volumes featuring the character Everett Anderson and many of the volumes won prizes. I love her 1970 alphabet book titled, The Black BC’s which seeks to teach young readers about Black history and instill racial pride. Through the manuscript drafts of this work, one can see Clifton negotiating which words to include in the published book. For example, for the letter “N,” Clifton is deciding between words like “News” to explain role of the Black press, “Negro” as variant terms for people of African descent though ultimately settling on “Natural” to discuss Black women’s hairstyle. I love this image of Clifton as a young girl as it reminds me that her writings were multifaceted and accessible to people at any age.

Lucille Clifton, circa 1940s, Lucille Clifton papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Library, Emory University.

SKW: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers about the archive?  

GMD: The Lucille Clifton papers are fully open and accessible at the Rose Library. We welcome students, scholars, and individuals with any interest in Clifton’s life or work to engage with the materials in our reading room. We have fellowships available to support research and use of this collection. To learn more about the Clifton papers and other collections in our growing Black women intellectuals collecting area, please visit our website or contact us at

Gabrielle M. Dudley

Gabrielle M. Dudley is Instruction Archivist at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. In this role, she partners with faculty to develop courses and archives research assignments for both undergraduate and graduate students. Additionally, she teaches the “Introduction to Black Print Culture” course for the California Rare Book School and is part-time faculty at Clayton State University. Gabrielle has taught classes, written successful grants, curated exhibitions, and led community programming related to lives and work of Black women writers. Gabrielle earned her M.A. in Public History and MLIS with a concentration in Archival Studies and Preservation Management from the University of South Carolina. She also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Montevallo.