Kamilah Aisha Moon
I recently went to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library at Emory University with my dear friend, writer Aracelis Girmay, to review Lucille Clifton’s papers. She was there working on a specific project, and I was there because, for any reason, or no reason at all, to sift through Lucille Clifton’s papers is to learn and leave with something I need to carry me forward.
Every time I go feels like a pilgrimage. This time felt particularly precious because I went with someone who has a similar reverence—Lucille Clifton is one of our literary North Stars.
Aracelis and I met each other and had the privilege of sitting at a workshop table with Clifton for the first time during the summer of 2003 at Cave Canem. She was the visiting writer and led a workshop with founder Toi Derricotte. To have her keen eyes on our poems as we were beginning to find our way as poets, as women of African descent, as seekers, as human beings, was priceless! She deftly helped us edit and consider new directions for our drafts, one by one, with an uncanny accuracy.
The next year, we both attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey and watched Clifton read her work and speak on craft panels. At the Poetry Foundation Booth, they were giving away free tote bags if you recited a poem from memory on the spot. We recited “won’t you celebrate with me” in unison, one of her enduring mantras, and walked away with our free stash, laughing.
17 years, 6 books with national recognitions and prizes between us later, we walk through the doors of Emory’s library still laughing, still in awe of the woman we return to again and again for sustenance and guidance; for permission to tell the full, unadulterated truth on the page as beautifully, powerfully and succinctly as we can.
We decide on this particular day to go through a box together. Our time gingerly going through one of dozens of boxes is sacred, funny, and revelatory! There is a folder labeled “bad poems,” and those drafts hush us not only because it is wild to discover that she also had one of these folders—even her throwaways are golden. Yet this was one of her strengths—the willingness to be vulnerable and openly share her process, to embrace the toil and magic of this poetry path that chooses us, rather than the other way around.
We sift through flyers advertising readings with her esteemed contemporaries, to-do lists, bills, and finally, the scribbles of her six children on the backs of drafts of poems that have moved multitudes, and changed minds and lives. The math of budgets scrawled in the margins, side by side with queries to be on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize, a Coretta Scott King Award notification and job appointment letters, class assignments and loans…the notes of funding a family and vocation, managing care of the body as the spirit elevates and does its work. This is what it looks like—a woman building an extraordinary legacy, day by day.
We are also moved by the correspondence…writers congratulating, consoling, venting, teasing, giving feedback on new drafts and checking in with each other in messy, loving script. Denise Levertov, Ann Allen Shockley, Gregory Orr and Toni Morrison, to name a few…the masters in our eyes present here simply as friends, lovers, mothers, fathers. Friends who ask if you’re getting enough rest, friends who say we’re on our way when a spouse passes away unexpectedly.
Different poems and letters trigger both new thoughts and old memories for each of us as we flip through each carefully labeled folder. We tell each other where we were when we read certain poems, or perhaps how one resonates differently now that we’ve lived a little longer and have more experiences of our own to bring to them. There are moments when we exclaim out loud at the pure truth of several lines, her level of introspection and astute powers of observation taking our breath away and helping us to breathe at the same time. Oh wow, this is how a poem we love began, and how it evolved…the versions of her poems teaching so much about revision; the world of change that can happen with the right verb, the slightest shift in diction or syntax, the addition of a stanza break.
We talked about so many shared memories with other young writers that she touched, mentored, and championed. I told her about the beautiful blanket that writer Remica Bingham-Risher gave me that I still have, with lines from a poem in Mercy stitched into chenille fabric to memorialize a special moment: “the angels have no wings / they come to you wearing / their own clothes.” At a timely moment, during a walk with Clifton, I recited these lines from her new poem, and Clifton said, “how good of you to give those lines back to me.” Aracelis talked of how nervous she was to introduce Clifton at the faculty reading during our final summer at Cave Canem, and how amazing it was when the crowd responded with extended applause as she introduced our queen just right: “Lucille Clifton. What can I say? She is the Lucille Clifton of her generation!” Clifton smiled broadly and pointed knowingly at Aracelis: she saw each of us so clearly and let us know how grand we already were, how powerful we were becoming at every turn. She did it broadly, generously and consistently with countless young poets. “So many of us come through her,” Aracelis remarked.
My first encounter with Clifton’s work was in the stacks at Fisk University when I was in high school. A copy of good woman caught my eye. The poem, “The 1st,” wouldn’t leave my mind.
what i remember about that day
is boxes stacked across the walk
and couch springs curling through the air
and drawers and tables balanced on the curb
and us, hollering,
leaping up and around
happy to have a playground;
nothing about the emptied rooms
nothing about the emptied family
How did this small poem say so much?! To depict the innocence of children as the family faced horrible circumstances; I could see them playing in my mind, oblivious to the import of the situation. She showed me that you could take anyone anywhere through a poem, evoke compassion. I didn’t truly know the breadth and depth of her body of work until much later, when I solidly committed to the path of a poet. But I immediately recognized her gift for excavating the profound in the simplest gestures; mining the extraordinary in mundane acts, moments. I can still hardly believe that I had the chance to interact with her in various settings throughout the years. But I’ll always remember how her hand felt resting on mine during a casual conversation we had at one of the Furious Flower conferences between panels; her way of being gentle and direct, those kind eyes that saw so much.
Sitting with my dear friend in the Rose Library so many years later, we remember together the bounty she has left us. We marvel at her ability to say so much with so few, well-chosen words: a prophet’s concision. The spiritual dimension to her work astounds…she was famous for saying, “something in me knows how to write poetry better than I do,” and not getting in the way of it. She understood herself as a vessel, a channeler transcribing what it meant to be a soul in her particular body, having the life she was having. She knew the key difference between prescribing and proscribing in her poems. She listened to what was said and wasn’t said, encouraging us to do the same. She gave us permission to be and keep it real. To be shameless, unabashed. To wonder and be amazed. To decipher dreams. To rage eloquently and elegantly. To claim and proclaim! We definitely feel her presence, sunlight pouring into the room, illuminating our skin, the table, our hands turning the pages as if they are made of a parchment with the scriptures that were dictated to her spirit: Let every human congregation say Amen, say Thank You.
She was THERE I tell you, communing with us! There’s so much I see that I don’t believe in. Why wouldn’t the inverse be true?
For those who need proof: this poem was the last poem we read before it was time to leave. We just looked at each other wide-eyed, smiled while shaking our heads back and forth in awe:
A writing prompt that I’ve given my students is to study Lucille Clifton’s poem “Miss Rosie.” First, we discuss the portrait of a woman and a life portrayed through striking images. Next, we examine the import of witnessing the trajectory of that life on the poet. Students are encouraged to simultaneously see who Miss Rosie was and who she is on the stoop; a living ruins of sorts that people look away from or step around as they go about their own lives. I stress the poet’s way of honoring her as a tragic heroine and cautionary tale at once, choosing to “stand up / through [her] destruction.” Finally, I ask them to write a similar depiction of someone who has been rendered invisible somehow, to bear witness, with this kind of compassion and clarity, to see beyond the person who is right in front of them.
Lucille Clifton, “the 1st ,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Kamilah Aisha Moon
The author of Starshine & Clay and She Has a Name, Kamilah Aisha Moon teaches creative writing at Agnes Scott College and has been published widely, including in Best American Poetry and Poem-A-Day.