Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton, poet laureate of Maryland and National Book Award winner, on Oct. 22, 1981. (Jed Kirschbaum, The Evening Sun / October 19, 2012)

Former Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton was a former "Jeopardy" champion who used a Ouija board to communicate with her dead mother. She was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who as an adult unabashedly celebrated her physical self.

And in the newly released, 720-page volume of her collected poems, Clifton writes about cancer and racism and motherhood and her hips.

"The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010" includes a foreword by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The volume also offers longtime fans of the National Book Award-winner some never-before published verses. Among them is a tantalizing 32-word morsel called "Sunday Dinner":

One wants

in a fantastic time

the certainty of

chicken popping in grease

the truth of potatoes

steaming the panes and


gold and predictable as

heroes in history

melting over all.

For all its down-home flavors, this compact little verse is deceptively simple. There's a mystery at its core, the deliberately ambiguous "fantastic time" that leaves the poet seeking solace. But Clifton hides her unease from readers — and perhaps from herself — beneath a seductive evocation of sensual pleasures.

Clifton died in 2010 at age 73 of an infection, and this literary retrospective was put together by others.

The volume was edited by Kevin Young, curator of the Emory University archives where Clifton's papers are held, and Michael Glaser, the poet's longtime friend and former colleague. Glaser, himself a former state poet laureate, recently talked by phone about how the collected poems took shape:

The collection includes unpublished poems found in a file that Clifton had labeled: "Old Poems and Ones that May Not Be Poems at all and Maybe should be thrown away One Day." Later, that folder was renamed, simply, "Bad Poems."

Did you have any qualms about publishing verse that the author considered to be second-rate?

Writers often keep poems that they think are of value but maybe need work. I would never do anything that Lucille wouldn't want, and Kevin and I didn't think that these were all bad poems. Some, like "Sunday Dinner," are quite lovely.

We also included some poems that will be of interest to scholars. Lucille had a distinctive style that was very crafted, and you can watch how she developed that voice from the time she was a young woman. You can watch her play around with line breaks and capitalization. You can watch her abandon rhyme and punctuation.