Over a Skype call on Sunday, February 2, 2020, Tara Betts discussed Lucille Clifton’s poetic skill as well as her poetic influence with Editor Helena Mesa. During the conversation, Tara Betts sat at her dining table, which she linked to Miss Clifton, writing poems in her own domestic space. While the interview has been edited for clarity and concision, they allowed the exchange to develop naturally, like any conversation would, in the belief that the exchange would illuminate Lucille Clifton’s poems and being.
Editor: In an online article, you wrote that Lucille Clifton “reinforced in so many ways that I should keep writing.” In what ways was she a guide and a mentor to you, on the page and in person?
Tara Betts: That piece was on Delirious Hem, and it was about my time studying with her at Flight of the Mind in Eugene, Oregon. It was an all-women’s workshop—that was in 1999, and we all know that was about—what?—21 years ago now! I think being there with her for that week at a time when I was still doing a lot of open mics and slams and spoken word was a big turning point for me because it confirmed that writing for the page was something I really wanted to take more seriously. I wanted to write books—that was the thing I had always wanted to do as a kid, but you feel like sometimes the way you can get poetry heard is by making it audible opposed to having it on the page. But I also realized, too, you won’t be there to have it heard forever. I thought about that a lot as I was sitting there with her.
She told us so many stories about how she came to writing, how her mother was a writer, that Robert Hayden was the one who put her poems in for the Discovery Nation award—all of these little stories that kind of fed into my understanding of poetry. People always talk about, well, who do you like who isn’t a Black writer, and I’d often say Stanley Kunitz. I think part of the reason why I’m so into Stanley Kunitz is not because I read him in my MFA program, but because she talked about him.
So, there were all these little moments that kind of have accumulated over time that I realize, Oh, that’s her.
I know a few people have told me over the years that “your sense of closure in a poem is a lot like hers.” That’s one of the things I’ve always been attracted to in her poems—when she gets to the end of the poem, even if it’s funny, she’ll hit the end and you know it’s the end, or something that makes you viscerally feel something. And it’ll just be like one line that really moves you that way. Not everybody can do that. That’s a hard thing to do in a poem.
Ed: When you think about some of the arrivals of your poems, how do you see yourself either emulating or seeing how she’s influenced you? Is there a poem of hers that sort of makes you think about how you found the ending of one of your poems?
TB: Oh, yeah, there’s a poem—actually it’s a poem I used to perform a lot—but it was the first poem I wrote at Cave Canem. It’s called “Switch.” So there are versions of it online, and it’s been in a couple anthologies, but I think of her poem “move” from The Book of Light. It’s a totally different subject, but the poem is about the MOVE bombing of 1985 in Philadelphia. The structure of the poem is a beautiful thing; she has these really short-short lines. Each stanza is like a very concrete, descriptive image, then she’ll move, followed by two words: “away move.” Then by the time she gets to the end, those two words switch their position, so the poem says, “move away” as the last words. Clifton basically gives you the whole scene in those little images that move down the page.
before the whirling blades the whirling smoke
and sharp debris carried all clarity
if you live in a mind
that would destroy itself
to comfort itself
if you would stand fire
rather than difference
do not hesitate
When I sat down to write my poem, I thought a lot about that as the form. I was like, can I emulate this form and do a totally different story?
Ed: When you were thinking about “Switch,” and you were thinking about “move,” were you emulating the form in the way that the lines are patterned on the page or was it the way Clifton zoomed in and looked at those moments that captured the scene as you described it? In what ways did “move” influence “Switch” for you?
TB: I wanted to think about the small encapsulations of an image that further the larger scene, and also, the two words as the refrain between each one, they do switch at the end. That makes the poem more powerful. I wanted to use switch because, in the colloquial sense, switch has multiple meanings, right? Like if you think about it, you know, if you got in trouble, your parents made you go pick a switch; if you walk a certain way, you have a switch in your walk; so I wanted to play with that, but then also, the idea of things exchanging places, or their movement from one thing to another. Yeah, it was really an intentional choice of words for that, but my words were very different. It was like switch girl because it’s all addressing a girl who’s the major subject of the poem, and then by the time you get to the end, it says “girl, switch.” So, it’s a very different kind of thing.
Ed: When you first started talking about “move” and “switch,” you mentioned that “move” is a very different poem for Clifton. When I think about that poem, I think of it being a historical poem, something that responds to current events and to violence in the moment. Would you talk about what compels you about “move,” and how you see “move” as a poem that both inhabits Clifton, but then also steps away from what we oftentimes think about when we think about her work?
TB: A lot of people look at Miss Clifton’s work, and they think “homage to my hips.” They think of all these moments where either she’s matronly or she’s funny—or she’s safe. She was a mother of five children, but that wasn’t her totality. When you think of her as a person, she was also a Black woman who was writing during the Black Arts Movement. She was a single mother, and her children just got back the house that she lost.
We did a panel at AWP a couple of years ago, and her daughter Sidney Clifton shared a piece for us to include in our presentation. She had written that, yes, the day my mother got invited to the White House to come read poetry, we were getting evicted from our house. I think that says a lot about the economic realities a lot of Black women face. You could be highly successful, and financially, you are just hanging on by a thread. So when I think about that and how powerful she was, and how much she did actually write in her lifetime—that says volumes to me. She was far more than “homage to my hips.” But I also think some of her later poems got even more political, not that her earlier poems aren’t. Like if you read stuff from good woman, I always think about that line when she says, “in the inner city / or / as we like to call it / home, which challenges the idea of “The City.”
And for me, as somebody living in Chicago, you hear people say “the inner city” now in the form of “the South Side.” There’s always that coded language for how we look at places that Black people occupy. I think she’s always been like that. In recent years, there were some things that became so urgent, she wrote specifically about them. If you think about the gentleman who was dragged in Jasper, Texas—James Byrd. She wrote a poem about that, and I was blown away by it because it’s not super graphic, but you get the understanding that his body has been ripped apart. That takes a lot of grace to be able to do that.
So, I always think about “jasper texas 1999,” I also think about “move” because I’ve actually met Ramona Africa. I’ve heard some of the people of the Africa family talk about what happened, and if you’ve ever seen recent photographs of the block where MOVE happened…. Basically, Mayor Goode, who was the mayor at the time in Philadelphia, decided to drop a bomb on their home—in the middle of a major American city. They dropped a bomb, and that block has never recovered. Some of the stuff has been torn down, but they’ve never rebuilt the area. It’s really telling of how, if you have dissenting politics, someone is going to try to deter you in the most bold way possible, and I appreciate that she illustrates that in that poem. You see this build-up to the smoldering pile of the house. If you know the story, it makes sense, but she also has a small epigraph. She wanted you to know: This is exactly what happened. She’s not going to give you a news report, but she’s going to give you enough, so you know what it is.
Ed: I remember that epigraph. And, I remember how it comes across in an insistent way of saying, “I need you to understand and I need you to not misunderstand what I’m saying within the poem.” It’s also interesting to me because I feel like Clifton—and correct me if you think I’m wrong—but I feel like Clifton is oftentimes misunderstood—because she’s spare and has a vernacular speech—that that she comes across as overly simple when she has so many layers and depth to her work, and her cadences are coming from so many different places.
TB: I think she’s interesting because, after she had done all this work that everybody remembers her for, she had this spiritual shift. Like in Mercy, all of those poems or from The Ones—she channeled that work from the spirits. Back in 1999, she created this limited-edition chapbook of these poems, Ten Oxherding Pictures, that were based on Buddhist drawings. I thought about all that as a young poet a lot—you can write about that cultural range and that political range that you’re deeply rooted in, but you can also write about these other things. You could write about almost anything, not just what people expect you to write about. Her work gave me that little seed of inspiration.
Ed: It sounds like reading Lucille Clifton, and potentially knowing her, opened up the idea of a poem’s subject and what you could write. Do you think that was the case as a young poet? Or, as a young African American poet, or a female poet? In what ways did she guide you in seeing what was possible in your own poems?
I definitely feel like she made me think about all of those categories you mentioned—being a young poet, a Black poet, a woman as a poet, all of that. I mean, when you think about how she talks about biology in her poems, she’s not afraid to talk about the uterus, the period, menopause or abortion—the whole range. She did it at a time when it was a lot less accessible to mainstream audiences.
Yes, she did have somebody like Robert Hayden who helped get her in the door, but I also think about how we have this influx of young poets of color who are being published and who are getting agents, but Lucille Clifton not only did all these books of poetry, she published a slew of children’s books. When she got in the door, she made sure to be as prolific as possible. If you’re prolific, then it’s harder to say you were never here.
It says something about her tenacity. For me, that’s also a model that I want for my own work. I think about her, I think about June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, or Toni Morrison, people who kept writing, kept publishing, and because they did that, their body of work is still here. I think about that a lot, not just with Clifton because of just everything she wrote, but because there were a lot of prizes that she never really got. She would get shortlisted. Once she got older, she became one of the Chancellors for the Academy of American Poets, but she didn’t get the prizes. Sometimes those make a world of difference for a writer’s career, as you already know. If you get the right prize, then everybody wants you to come and do speaking engagements. Everybody wants to make sure you get a certain type of teaching post, or something like that, and that probably presented some of those challenges, economically, that I was talking about earlier.
The lesson is that you have to keep showing up, that you have to keep publishing. I thought a lot about that lesson early on—your work travels, even if you don’t. Because she’s one of those writers who underscored that in a lot of ways, it made me consider how you have to be tenacious in that way. Even if you’re not with a huge press, you have to keep putting it out into the world.
TB: I love the idea that your work travels even when you don’t. And how Clifton became a model of tenacity for you, and for others. If you were to introduce Lucille Clifton to a reader who hasn’t come across her, or who hasn’t read beyond her highly anthologized poems, where would you suggest that they start reading to really to see her the way that you see her?
TB: Honestly, I tell people to get the Collected now. I tell them, It’s a doorstop, you’re gonna to have a big book!, but they can jump around in it. If you’re on a budget, sometimes I tell people to read Blessing the Boats, and you can also read a bunch of them online.
The funny thing is that the poem that everyone seems to quote now, “won’t you celebrate with me,” is my tattoo—it’s my only tattoo—on my left forearm. Sometimes when I go teach, if I have on a t-shirt, they’ll see “Lucille Clifton” because I have her name under the poem. I start getting that look because, I guess, I don’t come across as someone who would have a tattoo. What I’ll do is either flip up the sleeve, and they can read it, or I’ll just recite it and flip up the sleeve. Honestly, part of me really thinks about that—it sounds very grand and eloquent, in a very succinct way, but it’s also a poem that I’ve always thought was her stating, “Yeah, I’m not dead yet,” so you’re just gonna have to be restless and think about that idea. Like there’s somebody somewhere going, Damn, she’s still alive!
I like that idea, that you can be so present, that the people who really can’t deal with the idea of you have to really just twitch about it. But she says it in this beautiful way: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something tried to kill me / and has failed.” How does somebody hit you with that last line, or how do they give you just a little bit of “starshine and clay,” and make that work? Miss Clifton didn’t have to do a whole lot, but Miss Clifton had to have the right balance. I think she does that throughout her work. She’s always looking for that just-so balance.
That is often a starting point for me, but if I tell people to read the book, I’ll be like—Clunk. Here is the Collected. I tell people, Don’t read the foreword or introduction, just go straight to the poems. She’s one of those people I would probably do that with. You can always go back and read the foreword later. Once you get an opinion of the poems that’s your own, then you can just see how the foreword fills in the information for you.
There’re so many recordings now. I used to feel bereft thinking there’re gonna be all these young people who never have the chance to meet her now. Sometimes, if I pull up a video and I play her, I hear her talking all over again. Same thing with Gwendolyn Brooks, or even, if I want to go non-poet, if I hear my mom. You hear that voice and you know where it’s going to dip. You haven’t lost it completely. Technology did us a solid with that.
Ed: I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, but it’s so powerful to hear her voice in these recordings.
Ed: I’m thinking about what it means if you’re going to have one tattoo, to have her language, on your arm. It’s a beautiful thing to be carrying her along not only in your mind, but on your actual body.
TB: I’ve noticed that, some days, when I’m feeling stressful or I feel things are going on, I touch that part of my arm now. I didn’t realize I was doing it for a while, but I would. And I’d think, Oh, I’m touching it around the part where that last line hits me, and I’m like, Mmhmm.
I think about that a lot, too, because when I saw her over the years at different things, even if she didn’t recognize me right away, if I said something, she immediately knew who I was because she knew my voice, she remembered my voice. It was that vivid to her. One time, I was in an audience, and I asked a question—she didn’t know I was there, but she heard my voice, and her head literally cocked to the side. She goes, “Tara, I didn’t know you were here.” To be heard—everybody talks about being seen now, but to be heard that way let me know that I meant something to her, that she remembered me that way. People want to say, “I’m so seen” right now, but she heard me. And I can’t say everybody is a listener like that.
Ed:Her voice is so singularly her own. When you say that she would hear your voice, and instantly recognize that it was you—I feel that way about her voice. Not necessarily in terms of sound, but on the page, when I hear her voice, it’s so clearly Lucille Clifton and no one else.
TB: That’s a really important goal to strive for as a writer, to create something that nobody can say, “Oh you sound like this person.” It sounds like you.
Even as a teacher, I don’t want my students to sound like me. I want them to sound like themselves. You can let people know: This is the turn I would take, or this is the part that is unclear; but I also know if you do this all the time, then you may sound like me, and I don’t want you to sound like me. Is there another way you want to approach problem solving or create something in this work? And I think that takes a different kind of head space as a poet or a teacher to tell somebody that. A lot of times, if you had an instructor like Miss Clifton, they’ll tell you stories. They’ll tell you all these things that they braided together, things that they read, a question that maybe started the poem or an inquiry or a line, but they’re not necessarily going to give you the formula to make a poem work.
Now, everybody’s doing so many things where they think they have to have a formula to make a poem work, so you’ll see poems doing the same things that you see in a bunch of recent books. For example, a bunch of poems all have the same title. Yes, that’s been done or everybody wants to do you poems that have a certain structural quirk to them, which is fine because I love formal poems, but are you doing it because you really want to do, or are you doing it because everybody else is doing it? And I think those are some important questions to ask.
Ed: Do you think you learned that from Lucille Clifton?
TB: To some extent, I do. She wrote what she needed to write. It wasn’t necessarily “let me stick to a constraint,” even though there is constraint in her work. If you think about how much it takes to write a short line that is striking—that’s a lot of constraint. She would often joke about it: “Yeah, my poems are so short because I wrote them when my kids were taking a nap.” But that is a hell of a constraint. You gotta paint your way out of that box before people start waking up.
How much did she get done with five small people in the house? I’ve never seen or heard her talk about the kitchen table, but basically, she worked at her kitchen table, or it was her dining room table. It was some table like that—a regular household table, and that’s where she’d be writing. People forget how sometimes those domestic spaces are the best spaces to be a writer. They always think you’re going to be kicked back—I just have this room, this is actually my dining room, but because I don’t have tons of people over, it’s basically part of the library. People don’t realize that the laptop is sitting on a dining table with chairs, and when people come over, I put cookies on the table. It’s lived-in space, and I think there’s something to be said for that. If you’re really writing about life, why wouldn’t you write in a place where life happens on a regular basis? If you don’t have the money to have a studio, and the time to separate from your actual life, that’s the perfect space to do it in.
Ed: Is there anything else that you would like to address or end on?
TB: In addition to the craft, she was so funny. I miss being around an older woman who was just funny. She loved People magazine, or if she saw a handsome man walk by, she would just be like, Well.
I vividly remember Maxine Kumin and Miss Clifton being in Chicago; they were here presenting for this women writers conference that The Guild Complex did. I was their little chaperone, so we read poems to each other like backstage. I took them to the Artist Cafe, a restaurant downtown that’s been around for forever. So I took them there, and I got to hear these two older women pontificate, but also make these little jokes. People need to know that you know, there is some levity like that. They’re funny and insightful, and they like to have a good time and they like to do stuff like read People magazine because how can you deal with everything else in the world if you don’t have a little bit of that? How do you find things to celebrate? I keep that tucked in my head to when I think about Miss Clifton or Maxine Kumin or anybody else like that? We can get bogged down in the craft talk, and it’s almost like they’re not people anymore.
Lucille Clifton, “in the inner city,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “move,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “jasper texas 1998,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me,” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA, 2012).
Photo Credits: Two photos of Lucille Clifton courtesy of Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit, Arc & Hue, and the forthcoming Refuse to Disappear. She’s a co-editor of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives about Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century and editor of the critical edition of Philippa Duke Schuyler’s memoir Adventures in Black and White. In addition to her work as a teaching artist and mentor for young poets, she’s taught at Rutgers University, University of Illinois-Chicago, and Chicago State University’s MFA Program.