Lucille Clifton's Poetic Legacy
February 13 marks eleven years since the passing of Lucille Clifton, the former Poet Laureate of Maryland. Sidney Clifton, one of Lucille Clifton's daughters, joined The Daily Dose to discuss her mother's poetry, the initiative to turn their former West Baltimore home into an artist sanctury called The Clifton House, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library's annual Lucille Clifton Celebration.
Sidney Clifton is president of The Clifton House and is Senior Vice President of Animation and Mixed Media at The Jim Henson company.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
Mark Gunnery: First, what can you tell us about your mother as a poet? How would you describe Lucille Clifton's contribution to the poetry world?
Sidney Clifton: Describing her as a poet is very similar to me describing her as my mother. She was highly intuitive, compassionate, empathetic, and was able to, because of her sensitivity and her life experience and her experience as a Black woman, able to translate her experiences into language that was resonant, not only with people of color and women, but I think resonant for readers regardless of their gender, culture, et cetera. I mean, I think she created the space for people to see themselves in their work and to recognize the value of all these experiences.
Mark Gunnery: Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, but she moved to Baltimore in the late '60s and would go on to become both the poet-in-residence at Coppin State University and the Poet Laureate of Maryland. Can you talk about why your family came to Baltimore and your mother's relationship to the city?
Sidney Clifton: Sure. Well, in 1968, my father got a job with the Job Corps. He was going to be education coordinator for Model Cities. Obviously my mom came with him and we moved to Baltimore. All of ours, but mom's relationship to the city was this is an opportunity for a new life. It's also the place where her poetry career blossomed, where her first book was published. And it really felt like a nurturing place for her as a artist, as a poet and as a mom to us six kids who were growing up at that time.
Mark Gunnery: You were able to buy your childhood home a few years ago. Can you tell us about that home and what it was like growing up in Windsor Hills during the '60s and '70s?
Sidney Clifton:The home was three stories, five bedrooms. The neighbors and the neighborhood were all really intentional about what community meant, what community could look like. And I think modeled that for certainly the children who were growing up there. It laid a foundation for many of us who grew up in the neighborhood to walk in the world as stewards and responsible citizens for whom diversity and community were really, really important.
My parents actually lost the home to foreclosure, and that was a family trauma back in 1980. From that time, that home and what it represented for us and what it meant for us. And also, the trauma for our family was something that never really went away.
Mark Gunnery: What is your vision for the home?
Sidney Clifton: The house for us when we were growing up was a sanctuary. It was a place where kids in the neighborhood would congregate, but also because my parents were artists and activists and community organizers, young people, and people who were passionate about those things also came to the house.
I think that a lot of the young people who came to the home also were mentored by my parents, directly or indirectly. I wanted to make this house, let it be what it was when we were growing up. So I've established a nonprofit that we're calling The Clifton House, where we will be overseeing and running workshops and classes for emerging artists, emerging underserved, underrepresented artists.
We will also provide artists residencies. This will be a place where artists and writers come to be able to grow their crafts, but also network with other people in industries where they get to see what it is to not only work as a professional in their lives, but own their narratives, own their art and creativity, own their stories and learn how to monetize them.
So we will be a place where we nurture the whole person as an artist, not just their craft. We tell them, give workshops on how to manage your finances and manage your mental health and manage your physical health and all of that. So we really want this to be the place that it was, as I mentioned, we were growing up. But we're doing it in a really, I hope, meaningful and resonant and sustainable way.
Mark Gunnery: What is going to be happening this year for the annual Lucille Clifton Celebration at the Enoch Pratt Free Library this weekend?
Sidney Clifton: We are very honored to have Natasha Trethewey as our featured writer. She will be reading some of her poetry, some of my mom's poetry, and we'll have some questions and answers. It'll just be a celebration of who Mom was, her impact on Natasha's life, certainly, but also the lives of the community. And it's really just a celebration of her life and her work and her legacy.
Interview edited for length.