Nowadays when I think back to how Lucille and I were with each other, I think that she was in many ways my poetry mama.
EDITOR’S NOTE: One morning in May 2012, tweets from Afaa Michael Weaver lit up my screen:
“Lucille Clifton taught me—in the psychic space of literary influence—the elegant craft of weaving formal and vernacular language.”
“Lucille Clifton introduced me to spirituality in poetry when the younger poets who later claimed her were hardly 10 years old. Amen.”
I wanted to know more about how Lucille Clifton inspired Afaa Michael Weaver, as she has inspired so many others. Weaver’s essay that follows responds to this inquiry with candor, insight, and humor. He also shares a letter he wrote for her memorial here. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser was released in September from BOA Editions.
-Gina Barnard, Senior Editor
“Two Puffy Afros Going Down the Road”
—by Afaa Michael Weaver
In her inimitable way, Lucille Clifton wrote about the cartography of her interior, mapping the interior of the American consciousness in ways that will take the passing of at least another generation to fully understand. The confluence of her life experience with mine made for a deep wellspring of influence on me, but it would take years for me to understand this confluence. As poets we study the works of other poets and perhaps mimic them in the way student painters take their easels to the Louvre and copy masterpieces. We form friendships and mentoring relationships with one another, and those relationships develop according to the mysteries of bonding. Whether at a distance, in a bookish way or in a close mentoring friendship, we grow as poets in the company of poets.
Black was brilliant and brilliant was black.
I met Lucille for the first time in the winter of 1974-75, when a mutual friend took me to meet her at a reading she was giving at a branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library. Her presence impressed me immediately. A tall woman with expressive eyes, she was stately. Her voice sparkled in a regal way. Her work was, as her voice, going from a formal eloquence to a genuine vernacular. She was black and brilliant, and she was without the angst of determining how much of one was the other. Black was brilliant and brilliant was black.
As for me, my life was a fragile assembly of failure. My first wife and I married when we were nineteen. My wife was a young lady from the neighborhood, and we were an East Baltimore version of Romeo and Juliet. I had begun to write poetry before I married, and had formed my belief in myself as a poet as a fundamental faith. A year after losing our first child to Down Syndrome, the grief and untreated issues of my own childhood sexual abuse led to a nervous breakdown. My story was that of some military veterans today. In 1970, after leaving the university, I took a job at Bethlehem Steel and joined the Army Reserves and married, thinking I had formed the foundation of my future happiness. It all fell apart. When I met Lucille, I was trying to climb out from under the wreckage of broken dreams. Although never deployed to Vietnam, my life was a shambles. After my breakdown, my wife left me to my books and my poetry. When I met Lucille, I was working on a manuscript called Frenzy. Ten years later, that manuscript would become Water Song, my first collection of poetry and part of my manumission after fifteen years of factory life.
She was teaching me to be a mentor, although neither one of us thought of it that way.
Lucille was generous from the start, letting me call her to read new poems over the the phone. In the spring of 1975, right after we met that first time, I had tried to take two courses at Morgan State University while working in the liquid detergent packing floors at Procter & Gamble (P&G)—a job I landed after a year in the steel mill. Taking courses while working was too much. The packing floor was a dizzying swirl of bottles being filled with Ivory and Joy, a sometimes dangerous place where I almost lost my right hand trying to clear a jam in the packing machine. I gave up on school and decided to write my way out of the factory. I was twenty-four.
“Michael, you just keep on writing, don’t worry about finishing that degree.” She comforted me after I read her a poem I had just written. Now that I am sixty years old and have to be more mindful of many things, I realize the depth of her generosity and kindness. She was teaching me to be a mentor, although neither one of us thought of it that way.
Perhaps my fondest image of myself with Lucille is driving her to a reading at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in the winter of 1976-77. As from a camera’s eye, filming us from the rear window, we were two puffy afros heading down the new I-95 highway to a Washington D.C. poetry reading.
I was driving my father’s green 1973 Chevrolet Impala that he bought from Charlie Irish Chevrolet on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, near North Point Road, the main drag to the Sparrows Point Bethlehem steel plant. He worked at Bethlehem Steel for over three decades, and I spent a year there before moving on to P&G in Locust Point, where I spent fourteen years as a laborer. The Impala had air conditioning and power windows, worlds above my Ford Maverick.
As Lucille knew, I was struggling with depression and trying to fight the shame attached to the stigma heaped on people who struggled with mental health issues, she decided to cheer me up and surprised me when she spoke:
“Michael, you’re twenty-five now. It’s time I told you some grown-up stories.”
In the poise of generations of black raconteurs, she proceeded to tell me a hilarious story about the misdoings of an infamous womanizer in Buffalo, where she grew up. I laughed but kept a close eye on the road, mindful of the fact that I had a precious passenger as well as taking great pride in the fact that I knew her well enough to be a private audience.
I had been at P&G for six years and had two manuscripts in the works. I was already taking cues from Lucille about the process of writing. Her children were very young at the time, and she told me how she sometimes wrote while minding them at the same time. In the kitchen they would be at various mischievous projects, opening cabinets and doors, while she sat in the midst of them, writing. She wrote in what I would call a stream, taking whatever came to her imagination first and following with successive poems, pulling them from the dream state of her imagination. She had that kind of fluency. It is the solid evidence of the gift. Later she explained something I had read about while studying the Surrealists, the process of automatic writing.
“Just sit at the typewriter and let your hands rest lightly over the keyboard. When the words come, start writing.”
I had remarried by then, and my wife and I were renting a house near Morgan. Working at a roll-top desk in the third bedroom I used as my study, I had a Remington manual that I rented from an office supply store. On a quiet day, I sat and did as she had suggested. The most successful poem that came that way was “Water Song,” the title poem from my first book. The poem is an elegy for the southern sharecropping way of life in which my father and his siblings were raised, a culture that was inscribed in my consciousness in the indirect teaching we call parental influence. Just growing up with a father who knew what it was to be called “little nigger” by white people rather than one’s proper name had an effect on me that I am still unraveling as I enter my seventh decade.
Rooted in that vernacular consciousness and endowed with an encompassing intelligence and supremely keen intuition, Lucille was also as originally American as the blues and jazz.
When I met Lucille she had published An Ordinary Woman, a book that affirmed black culture for me. There was a working class consanguinity between us that I took for granted. What I did not take for granted was the succinct eloquence she gave to the intensity of vernacular culture in the black working class. I think it is what made her voice so unique among her contemporaries, many of whom were trying to know the world from which Lucille emerged, a world much like my own. I was imbibing the poetics of her similar poetic consciousness in the way I took in parental influence, although Lucille was too young to be my mother. She was my elder by fifteen years and more firmly in that Depression era generation of poets we both belong to—poets born between the early to mid-thirties and the early fifties. Born in 1951, I am one of the babies of that group.
Rooted in that vernacular consciousness and endowed with an encompassing intelligence and supremely keen intuition, Lucille was also as originally American as the blues and jazz. She resisted the homage to western tradition with its Athenian origins. In her work, antiquity is African but not Afro-centric. In the distinctness of her poetic project she gave us a black woman’s confessional lyric that is as celestial as it is earthbound. She wrote openly of the female body, openly and defiantly, and she wrote about the pressurized space of a black woman as a survivor of childhood trauma. In doing so she gave me a model that would take me two decades to know, and the process of “knowing” is the key to that pressurized space. Lucille was aware of her childhood trauma when we first met. She was thirty-eight at the time.
In her forty-fourth year, her book two-headed woman was published, and she talked with me about her fears. The book had won the Juniper Prize, and the subject was her spirituality, a deeply personal aspect we had discussed many times. We talked about “light” and the voices of the imagination. Early on in our friendship, I had called her once when the shame of being treated like a crazy person had driven me to the depths of depression. Lucille supported me in a conversation I will never forget. She told me stories of friends she knew who shared my struggle, and she told me that I had to persevere, that I would grow and be stronger and wiser one day, stronger and wiser than most people. I still hold to that as faith. When I read her revelations about her own interior in two-headed woman I was amazed and strengthened.
Lucille was conscious of the source of her pain, but it would take years for me to discover mine and come to know deeper dimensions of the importance of knowing her in a mentoring friendship, although neither of us spoke of ourselves that way. When I discovered the root of my pain while in my forties, I often thought back to our Juniper Prize conversation.
Spirituality for her was not about religion. It was about a definite confidence in one’s own imagination and consciousness, filled as hers was with a singular intuition.
My own poetry and a tempestuous relationship with a woman from Liberia brought my childhood trauma to my conscious awareness. I was forty-six years old when half memories of being sexually abused as a child and young teenager came into full focus. It was the spring of 1998, and the revelations came from poetry and love, that fundamental faith in life I formed when I was a teenager. I was living with the woman from Liberia. Our intimate life was already filling in the memories when I opened the box of my author’s copies of my book Talisman. I began to reexamine my life, including out of body experiences. My childhood began to speak to me in the way Lucille described the voices in her own light, and it was not quite a coincidence that the epigraph that forms the frontispiece of Talisman is from the book of Matthew 6:22-23:
The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye
is clear, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your
eye is diseased, your whole body will be darkness. If then,
the light inside you is darkened, what darkness that will be!
In two-headed woman, Lucille’s poem about her father comes before the poems about light and knowing. As my revelations about my childhood came to me, I remembered how I had marked two-headed woman as my favorite book of hers. Now that I have her Collected Poems, it is difficult to say which of hers is my favorite book because I hold her entire project as precious. As much as I have included religion in my work, Lucille had helped me to an open and inclusive recovery from the piety of my childhood when she explained spirituality for her was not about religion. It was about a definite confidence in one’s own imagination and consciousness, filled as hers was with a singular intuition. So when I employed that epigraph as a frontispiece, I did it in the secular gestures of a poet who had taken Taijiquan as a spiritual strategy, part of my growth away from the repressive aspects of my Baptist upbringing to something more inclusive, an embrace of the Spirit that would, over the years, allow me to have that largeness in my internal container to handle recovery from incest. In my relationship with the woman from Liberia and the publication of Talisman, I would come to understand that my story was that of a favorite maternal uncle, the man who gave me the Appaloosa that appeared in My Father’s Geography. However, he was also the uncle who bragged of his sexual exploits with a few hundred women and who has confessed on more than one occasion his misdeeds with children.
When I started practicing Taijiquan in 1978, I told Lucille it helped me feel whole. She gave me a talk that goes right up there on the star list with the grown up tale of a womanizer and the Juniper Prize conversation. We were talking over the phone one day when I gave her the news.
“Michael, I think that is wonderful. All these other people out here are acting crazy, but you are studying Kung fu. I think that is very intelligent.”
I was so happy, as happy as a twelve-year-old who got approving remarks for having made the track and field team, which I had failed to do in real time. Nowadays when I think back to how Lucille and I were with each other, I think that she was in many ways my poetry mama. As a poet, she filled a mentoring space my mother did not have the resources to fill, and as a woman, she shared a space a few women mentors occupied for me over the years, not the least of whom was Dr. Valerie Sedlak, my professor in British literature at Morgan for that semester when I tried to finish my degree while working on the packing floors.
Lucille suggested books to me too—most importantly the second edition of An Introduction to Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy. She gave me a copy of How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi, and that book helped me form a vision of the writing process as being both deliberate and intuitive. I thought of the deliberate as working in stone, and the intuitive as the water, further associations of which took me to Alan Watts’ book Tao the Watercourse Way, one of two Daoist texts I was influenced by at the time. The other was a translation of Laozi by Gua Fu Feng with photographs by Jane English. I had already engaged Chinese culture as a way of sustaining my work, of ensuring a way to find my path to my creative process in the midst of all the contradictions in my life as a poet developing in the world of factory work.
Like Lucille, I was both in and out of step with my black poet contemporaries whose origins were in the middle class, and Lucille and I were more rooted, in that way, in the core of the African-American vernacular culture.
In January 1985, I received an NEA and was able to quit my job in the P&G factory. I had managed to write my way out of factory life and become Baltimore’s working class hero poet, being featured in the Sunpapers and wined and dined around the city. I did not know the magnitude of my accomplishment, just as I did not know competitiveness as the public face of ambition. I had justified my ambition as my way of handling my disappointment in life, and I was in denial of how a faith in my poetry as gift and the drive to be known appears to other people. When I landed on the board of the Maryland Arts Council serving alongside Lucille, I was unaware of her challenges accepting the laurels that were being heaped on me. My rise seemed meteoric. It arose, as it did, out of the alignment with the aspirational white working class that my upbringing and formal education had created. I studied alongside white working class students and shared their ideas of the possibilities for success in life at Baltimore Polytechnic, a rigorous public high school, and I spent two years at the University of Maryland before dropping out to begin my life as a factory worker. But I did not have their white privilege—I had to work harder. Like Lucille, I was both in and out of step with my black poet contemporaries whose origins were in the middle class, and Lucille and I were more rooted, in that way, in the core of the African-American vernacular culture.
In the years after serving on the Maryland State Arts Council with Lucille, I would learn that generosity and kindness are disciplines that live in the core of my spiritual studies.
After being made the first Elder of Cave Canem in 1998, I occupied the letterhead for a couple of years. Finally, I spoke with Carolyn Micklem, the organization’s director at the time. I wanted to maintain my Elder status, but I wanted some company, so I asked if she would invite Lucille to be an Elder, which she did. There we were, the two puffy afros that rode down to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library some twenty years earlier, now occupying the space in a letterhead that had become too lonely for me.
In later years I called her once in awhile, but we had not spoken in over a year. Nonetheless, she was making her transition. About thirty-six hours before she passed away, an idea came to me to post a tribute to her on Facebook, which I did. I had no idea that she was deathly ill. When I got the news I was stunned at first, but that gave way to recognizing that it was the knowing, the communication of imagination and intuition poets sometimes have and which is heightened, I believe, by childhood trauma. The knowing I refer to here is the knowing as she presented it in two-headed woman as she wrote, “my knowing / flutters to the ground.” It was the knowing of a cultivated intuition.
Alone, as I drifted into sleep that night after hearing that Lucille had passed, I felt the distinct affirmation of her gift to me, her stately presence embodying that magnificent voice. It was as if she were there, talking to me once again, from the light.
Afaa Michael Weaver is a poet, playwright, and translator born in Baltimore, Maryland. His twelfth collection of poetry, The Government of Nature is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in 2013. His previous collections include Like the Wind, a translation of his work into Arabic by Wissal Al-Allaq and The Plum Flower Dance (University of Pittsburge Press 2007). His newest play is Berea. He is currently writing his memoir and is a Professor of English at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.
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