It feels like we’ve lost quite a few amazing writers in the past handful of years: John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, JD Salinger, WD Snodgrass, Hayden Carruth, Reginald Shepherd, Normal Mailer, Liam Rector. I know there are more. Some of them were literary giants; some were less giant to the whole world, but still giant to me.
I, like so many others, had the distinct pleasure to see and hear Lucille Clifton at more than one Dodge Poetry Festival. She was, in every instance, unfailingly kind and generous with her time, often spending up to an hour after the close of a discussion panel or reading signing books and talking to eager fans. When I handed her my very worn copy of Next, I told her, “I have been carrying this book with me for 10 years.” She smiled at me and said, “You are a lovely child. Thank you.”
I don’t know exactly what made me love Clifton so much – maybe it’s the sparseness of her language, the way she can make me feel so much with so few words. Maybe it’s that I want to be like her, to have a family and take care of them, and still be successful in writing. Maybe it’s because she celebrated herself, and there’s not enough of that happening in the world. Or maybe it’s because she challenged me to talk about things that are uncomfortable: race, from the white perspective; my body, and all its intimate happenings; my friends, and how we can love and dislike each other simultaneously.
This year in Cape May, someone said to me that he “didn’t get” the fuss about Clifton. He didn’t understand why we should, as her poem encourages us, celebrate seeing ourselves being nothing other than ourselves (in her case, both a woman and nonwhite), or why we should celebrate that every day something has tried to kill us and failed. To me, it seems simple: what else is there to do but celebrate? How can we not celebrate self-appreciation, self-confidence, and the awareness that we have a personal strength? (This now makes me want to write an entirely separate blog entry about this conversation, and I might do it.)
When Vonnegut died, my friend Mike said “It’s like we just lost Grandpa.” Now that Clifton has gone, I feel like we lost Grandma, too.