Writer Lucille Clifton describes her poetry, process and love of the form


In her unassuming home in Owen Brown village she's a neighbor, mother, grandmother and friend. To the rest of the world, Lucille Clifton is an award-winning poet, a weaver of words about life, living and love.

Today Mrs. Clifton will share some of her work along with poets Sharon Olds and Galaway Kinnel in the sold-out performance of "Poetry of Love."

The 4 p.m. reading at Slayton House, in which poets will take turns performing their work to create a sort of three-way poetic conversation, is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

The reading was arranged by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), the nonprofit group that brings writers into county schools and holds reading series and workshops each year.

"HoCoPoLitSo does one of the best reading series in the country. They're a group of dedicated people who wanted to bring poets to this place. They've brought Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners to just this little town so the young people in high schools and even elementary schools get exposure," Mrs. Clifton said.

"I think now it has a reputation of people who care about poetry," said Mrs. Clifton, who is on the group's board of directors and has done numerous poetry readings for the group.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Mrs. Clifton has owned a town house in Columbia for two years and keeps an apartment in St. Mary's City, where she's a humanities professor at St. Mary's College.

A longtime Maryland resident, she lived in Baltimore for 17 years and was the poet laureate of the state for five years, but moved to California for a teaching job after her husband, Fred, died in in 1985.

She returned four years later to accept the Distinguished Professor of Humanities position at St. Mary's.

When asked about the inspiration for her poetry, she said it comes from her own experience.

"I'm like every poet in the world. I write out of who I am; those things that have caught my attention or whose attention I've caught. I write out of the accumulation of all the things that make me, about being human, about everything," she said.

"Asking what I write about is like asking for a linear, rational answer to something which is more than a rational action. It's not just intellectual. Poetry comes from intuition as well," she said.

Mrs. Clifton has written nine books of poetry since her first, "Good Times," which was published in 1969. Her newest, "The Book of Light," which was released in February, marks her 30th publication.

She has written 20 children's books and one book of prose for adults, "Generations," which, through flashbacks of stories told by her father and through her own voice, chronicles her family history. Mrs. Clifton was also nominated in 1987 for a Pulitzer Prize.

She said people often have the wrong idea about poetry, many times believing that all the poets they read are dead or that poetry is something they cannot understand.

"Poets even sometimes think it some kind of elite upper crust matter. It's a matter of humanness and all humans can relate to it in some way. I love poetry, I don't just like it, I really love it," she said.

For Mrs. Clifton, writing came naturally, and her success, it seems, was destined. She was discovered after a friend submitted some of her work to a poetry contest in the late 1960s.

She said she's always been intuitive.

"I'm the kind of person who's always curious about the world. From a young girl I was always interested in the substance of things and not the form. I was always a great feeler, one who feels out things," she said.

"I know when a poem is going to happen. I have a line or a phrase and I have a feeling for where it wants to go. I try to follow it. I don't take it any place. Most of my six children were in diapers at once so I learned to do two things at the same time. My process has to be done in my head," she said.

With all of her children now grown, the grandmother of four spends a lot of time traveling, sometimes making as many as 10 appearances a month.

In the summer months, she relaxes in the Owen Brown town house she shares with two daughters.

"It has been an enriching life so far. I am sometimes quite happy and that's mostly what humans can do. I have the capacity for great joy. Growing up in the '40s and '50s in Buffalo, I probably would have imagined myself a schoolteacher. It's better than what I imagined when I was a little girl."

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