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

butter

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The collection includes unpublished poems found in a file that Clifton had labeled: "Old Poems and Ones that May Not Be Poems at all and Maybe should be thrown away One Day."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

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.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

On Clifton

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.

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