American Poetry Review publishes last interview with Lucille Clifton
If you happen to be in or near a bookstore this Mother's Day week-end, be sure to drop in and pick up a copy of the May/June issue of The American Poetry Review, which features poet Chard deNiord's extraordinary last interview with Buffalo native Lucille Clifton, the National Book Award, Ruth Lily Prize, and recent Frost Centennial Medal winning poet, who died on February 13th at age 73.
The Philadelphia-based APR--which has been this country's highest profile poetry "tabloid" since 1972--makes a portion of its content available online, but this interview is a print-only exclusive.
The career-spanning interview which was conducted on January 12th, 2010--just over a month before Clifton's death--at her home in Columbia, Maryland runs to nine triple column-spaced tabloid pages and extended, by deNiord's account, over three hours in real time. Even if you're familiar with Clifton's work and career, there is much here that adds perspective, including her discussion of poetic craft, and her early college experience at Howard University where her fellow students included Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison (later her editor at Random House), and Roberta Flack, and her teachers included Sterling Brown, Owen Dodson, and James Baldwin.
She also discusses her lifelong friendship with fellow writer Ishmael Reed, whose family was close to her (Sayles) family while both were growing up on Buffalo's East Side, and who later introduced her to her late husband Fred Clifton. Prompted by deNiord's gentle line of questioning, Clifton shifts with a certain valedictory frankness and grace into many of the painful issues and personal tragedies that would come to inform her work: her love and forgiveness for her abusive father, the illness and early death of her husband Fred, the deaths of two of her six children (daughters Channing and Fredrica, both in their 30's), and her own, now legendary nearly two decade long struggle with breast cancer, kidney disease, and an entire medical dictionary worth of recurrences and metastases.
Here, from deNiord's introduction, is his account of how Clifton, while quite visibly frail, rallied at the opportunity to discuss her life and work and the human voice that is the instrument of all poets:
"...As soon as we began to talk, I was struck by a remarkable quality in her demeanor; while her physical energy appeared all but enervated , her voice, though still weak and barely audible at times, emanated a quiet but indefatigable strength and stamina. Lucille talked for the next three hours without stopping, at one point getting up to show me pictures of her family on the dining room table. By the end of the interview I was exhausted, but Lucille appeared as if she could still go on. She walked me halfway to the front door and wished me well. When I looked back to say goodbye, she was resting against the back of the couch in which I had been sitting, smiling...