You can see how the themes of justice and compassion and treasuring family and children were early themes that were there from the beginning.
Were there poems that you and Kevin decided to leave out?
Some very early poems didn't add anything at all to the body of her writing. And there were one or two occasional poems she wrote about, for instance, the opening of a school, that we thought didn't need to be included.
Didn't you discover an entire, unpublished book of poems that had been tossed in the trash?
That's an interesting story. When Lucille was retiring from St. Mary's in 2007, I was helping her move out of her office and brought her several wastepaper baskets.
After she left, I thought, "This is a really important writer, and there's all this trash, and maybe I should go through it before something valuable gets thrown out." "Book of Days" was one of the things I found there, and it is published in this collection for the first time. There were no other copies.
Did she intend to destroy that manuscript?
I don't think so. You only have two days to clean up after 15 years, and you don't know half of what you're throwing away.
Did you and Kevin make any changes to the poems?
No, we wouldn't do that. Once or twice when we were editing the early, handwritten poems, we had to make a decision about whether she intended to use a capital or lower-case letter. But that was it.
Lucille didn't have lots and lots of drafts of her poems. She had five kids who where born a year apart, so she got used to writing her first drafts in her head and revising in her head. Even after her children were grown up, she held on to that way of working.
What did you learn about her work by reading it from start to finish?
Everybody was very surprised at how much she wrote. The individual volumes are kind of thin when compared to books by other poets. But, when you put it together, she wrote a very large body of work.
If you've ever heard Lucille talk, you know that she could speak about the African-American experience and being part of an oppressed minority without making a white audience feel attacked. Instead, you'd come away feeling, "Wow, we're all in this together and trying to make a better world."
Lucille had tremendous sympathy and humor and compassion for everybody, without ever letting up on her insistence that we are all responsible and accountable. Her own sense of being a truth-teller, her tremendous integrity, is really impressive and comes through in her written work in a way that surprised me.
Compilation: "The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton," BOA Editions Limited, 720 pages, $35.
Images: Two photography exhibits celebrating Clifton's legacy are running through 2012, at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library and at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African-American History & Culture.
Talk: Joanne Gabbin of James Madison University will deliver a free lecture at 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Lewis Museum that focuses on Clifton's poems about the female body.