April 12, 2016

Friday, September 28, 2012

Poetry Friday: Lucille Clifton, Children's Author

Tomorrow is 100,000 Poets for Change day, all across the world! Check out the international poster gallery here.

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.
A few weeks ago, I posted about Clifton's new Collected Poems, 1965-2010. I predict it will be an award-winner.

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.

Hi Laura! 

Hi, Alexia!
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 Clifton
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.


Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

It's funny, but I was not aware of the fact that Lucille Clifton wrote children's books, I only knew of her a a poet. Now I shall have to check out these treasures. She sounds just as extraordinary as I imagined...thanks for sharing this, Tabatha,

Author Amok said...

Hi, Tara. Lucille is such a huge presence in the world of literary poetry, I think many do not realize that she wrote for children. She was a beautiful writer. I'm very much looking forward to tomorrow's tribute event.

Tabatha said...

Hi Laura! Thank you for sharing this with us today -- I loved hearing from Lucille's daughter! Are her children's books still in print? I will go check!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Tabatha. That's a good question. They were very easy to find at my public library, but I'm not sure whether they are still in print. Alexia was surprised that "The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring" was still available.

Liz Steinglass said...

I too was only aware of her poetry. I will look for her children's books the next time I'm at the library.

Joyce Ray said...

Laura, I also did not know of Clifton's children's work. Thank you for this interview with her daughter. I think Alexia's words are true about many great poets who we revere for their simplicity. She says Clifton 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."

Best wishes for an awesome day tomorrow. I'm participating in NH.

Joy said...

Thanks for a great interview. Clifton is one of my favorite female poets and it was enjoyable to hear from her daughter and to learn more about some of the picture books.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I have enjoyed "The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring" with all three of my own boys and hundreds of children in schools. It is really a masterpiece! Thanks for this interview with Alexia.

Author Amok said...

Joyce, if you appreciate simplicity in poetry, you must get Clifton's Collected Poems. It is quite a lesson in voice, simplicity and speaking the truth.

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Liz, Joy and Andi. I'm glad you liked the interview. I am very much looking forward to meeting Alexia tomorrow. She has a positive spirit, as did her mother. For those of you hosting 100 TPC events tomorrow, enjoy! Tag me on the organizer's Facebook page so I can see your photos and videos, please.

jama said...

Thanks for this wonderful interview! Will have to look for Lucille's children's books, too :).

Linda B said...

Hi Laura, Thank you for this interview, Alexia telling about her mother & what sound like wonderful books. It was good to hear about Lucille Clifton's life, obviously so busy with raising children and all the writing accomplished. What gifts she gave us! I found all the books in our libraries! Thank heavens for libraries.

Mary Lee said...

"She was one heck of a role model." Obviously this is as true when we're considering her as the Mommy as it is when we think of her as the author.

Thanks for the fabulous interview.

Ruth said...

Thank you for this. Last week I posted a link to a podcast of an interview with Elizabeth Alexander, and she talked about Lucille Clifton as a mother. This is a great companion to that.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Jama, Linda and Mary Lee. I appreciated Alexia's insights into her mother's work and to learn that the wise voice we know from Clifton's work extended into her daily life.

Thanks for the tip, Ruth. I'll go back and check out that interview.

Renee LaTulippe said...

What a special thing to hear these words from Lucille's daughter. I have long loved Clifton's poetry and, like many others, was completely in the dark about the children's books. What a talent. Thank you for this, Laura.

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Renee. We had an amazing discussion and reading of Clifton's work yesterday. The panelists, who each knew Clifton well, gave a fascinating portrait of her both as a person and as a poet.

Irene Latham said...

Laura, my favorite part of this interview is how Alexis calls her "Mommy" and this: "my commitment is to the story or the poem, not to the storyteller." YES. Thank you so much for sharing! Hope the event was wonderful.