In Baltimore, the date just happens to coincide -- lucky for us -- with the annual Baltimore Book Festival. What better way to honor Poets for Change than with a tribute to Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010. Her work is a powerful voice for women, for children, for people of color, and for the urban experience. Thanks to CityLit Project, Little Patuxent Review and my co-host, poet Virginia Crawford, for making this tribute discussion and reading possible.
|Our event poster, designed by LPR design editor Deb Dulin.
Although she is known as a major American poet, Clifton also authored over a dozen books for children. Her daughter, Alexia Clifton, will be participating in tomorrow's tribute. I asked Alexia about her mother's books for kids.
1. Your mother was a prolific children’s author, yet she is better known for her poetry than for her children’s books. Why do you think that is? Which is your favorite of your mother’s books for children and why?
I think that with poetry, Mommy was able to tap into our need for shared human experiences, or "human-ness" as she would say, in a way that other forms of writing simply can't. I also believe that as I aged, I paid more attention to her poetry than I did the children's books. As children, my siblings and I were very aware of the books for children and of Mom coming up to schools or doing readings at various libraries. My favorite is "Some of The Days of Everett Anderson" because it was the first one I remember reading on my own and I just loved the way it flowed.
|Find it on Amazon.
2. The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring was a favorite at our house when our kids were young. I especially appreciate the portrayal of a boy who has a chip on his shoulder, but who is also very much a young boy. I love the book’s surprise ending, how King Shabazz finds spring. Why was it important to your mother to write about urban kids like King Shabazz?
It was always important to Mommy that her children see their reflections in books. She wanted people in urban cities to be able to point to books and tell their children, "see, he's/she's like you!". We spent a lot of time reading or at libraries as children and always had references that we could identify with.
|This book has a great surprise ending.
3. I’m looking at the dialogue, where King says to his friend Tony Polito, “’Everybody talkin bout Spring comin, and Spring just round the corner. I’m going to go round there and see what do I see.’” I noticed that “talkin,” “bout” and “comin” would typically have an apostrophe to show the dropped letter.
As a poet, I see the choice not to add punctuation here as a political statement. This is how King Shabazz speaks. He’s not shortening the word “about” intentionally, to sound cool or street. This is how the word “about” sounds in his neighborhood, among his friends. There’s real dignity and respect for the child as a full person in that small choice. Can you talk about that?
Thanks, she would appreciate your comments about that. One of the things that Mommy always talked about was being realistic. She said that children, in particular, can spot something that is inauthentic and that she wouldn't dishonor them in that way. She had six children and so was constantly surrounded by conversations and insights from and about kids. She was also wise enough to know that all children don't speak that way and to respect that as well. Very often she said, "my commitment is to the story or the poem, not to the storyteller." She was one heck of a role model.
4. From what experiences did your mother draw her characters, such as King Shabazz and Everett Anderson? I imagine that these characters, especially Everett Anderson who stars in a more than a half dozen picture books, became like real people.
|This book covers one year of Everett Anderson's life, a poem for each month.
I can remember Mommy saying that when the first Everett Anderson book was published, my brother (her youngest son) was 6 like Everett. I'm sure that was significant for her though the character isn't based on either of my brothers.
She was always a great observer of life and of people and I think that the characters she wrote about are combinations of lots of types that she was familiar with. In fact, as kids, we would find ourselves looking at other people and saying, "he reminds me of Everett Anderson" or if their were very relatable characters in children's books, asking, "did Mommy write this?" Pretty funny.
5. In her poetry and her books for kids, your mother was a master at the small, but telling detail. I’m thinking of the poem “November” from Everett Anderson’s Year, which is a Thanksgiving prayer. It includes the lines, “thank you for Mama and turkey and fun,/ thank you for Daddy wherever he is.” How would you describe your mother’s ability to say so much in a so few words?
We are as awed by Mommy's ability to do that as everyone else! I do not remember a time when she couldn't. I've been told that I have a little bit of that gift as well but don't bet on it :-)
Mommy was a very complex person in a lot of ways and I think that there was a lot of thought that went into her perceived simplicity. She was a combination of so many things and witness to so many pivotal periods of history and I believe that must have informed who she was. Authentic and genuine connection was very important to her; and as it turns out, important to us all.
Thanks for stopping by, Alexia. I look forward to tomorrow's event and we're all thrilled that you can participate.
Alexia “Lexi” Clifton is the owner of No Sweat Fitness, Inc. a personal training and fitness studio located in Baltimore. With over twenty years of experience and four national certifications, she enjoys volunteering with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let's Move” initiative and “Marathon Kids,” organizations that are dedicated to fighting childhood obesity.
She is her parents’ fourth daughter and youngest child, and has inherited her mother love of reading and her father’s love of physical fitness. She enjoys spending time with her friends and family and is humbled and proud to be a part of her mother's extraordinary legacy. Alexia currently resides in Columbia, Maryland.
Enjoy your Poetry Friday, everyone. For more poetry and more multicultural books, head over to Paper Tigers, our host this week.