Q&A: Sidney Clifton, daughter of famed poet Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton (left) and Sidney. Photo courtesy of Sidney Clifton

Lucille Clifton (left) and Sidney. Photo courtesy of Sidney Clifton

Renowned poet Lucille Clifton, whose original name was Thelma Lucille Sayles, was born in Depew, N.Y. on June 27, 1936. Clinton became a poet who covered topics such as gender, race, individualism, and family life. Clifton became a writer-in-residence at Coppin State University in 1971, and in 1979, former governor Henry Hughes named Clifton the state’s Poet Laureate, making her the first African-American with such a distinction.

In 2000, Clifton became a recipient of The National Book Award for her book, “Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000”.  Her early writings were features in Langston Hughes 1967 anthology “The Poetry of the Negro.”

Clifton, who twice was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, also spent time as an educator in Buffalo, N.Y. before moving to Baltimore in 1967, where she began her professional career. She passed in 2010, and her eldest daughter Sidney sat down with the Courier to discuss her mother’s life, work, and legacy.

Can you introduce yourself please?

My name is Sidney Clifton, and I’m Lucile’s Clifton daughter. I’m also the President of the Clifton House which is a non-profit effort that we are launching in Baltimore in the house in which we grew up. It is also the house where mom’s poetry career began. 

Can you tell me more about  the Clifton House,  and how do you think your mother would have felt about this project?

I think my mother would be overjoyed, tickled, proud, encouraged, and she is. I feel her in every element of this project. It came about in 2019 on the anniversary of my mother’s passing on February 13, 2019. I reached out to the owner of the house to check on the status of it, and I was told by the owner the house had gone on the market that day. Which for me was a sign and signal for the Clifton’s to come home. I ended up buying the house, and I intended for it to be a family gathering space, so when I’d go back home, I’d go to my actual home. But, I thought about what the house was for me growing up, and my parents were both active in the arts, politics, and community building. My parents were mentors for young activists. As kids, we saw the intersection between art and activism, and evolution. So, I decided to launch this project, which will be a workshop space and artist residency space for emerging artists. It will also be a place where people can network, can have a meeting, and hold salons to come together to get the support which  my parents provided for the community when we were growing up. We will continue to provide for the community in person and virtually as long as we are standing. It feels like a responsibility for me, and the creative community, it’s something I take very seriously and my mom did as well.

Another important part of the Clifton House is teaching people what the life of an artist requires. I’ve been a recruiter and a mentor at art schools all over North America, and it’s a part of my career as an animation producer. One of the things that I found most often was people understanding what it takes to improve their craft, but not understanding what it takes to make this life. For example, being able to teach you how to budget your time, how to protect your mental health, how to prioritize your mental health, or how to look at your year and plan for tax time. We’re going to be talking about that too. Not only how to perfect your craft and find a community that supports that, but also the business of art. This is something I often had to learn the hard way, and people aren’t having these conversations but we will have those conversations and those resources at the Clifton house as well. It’s not about this is just a place where creatives come- which is probably enough. But beyond that, how do you make a living and sustain this life as an artist? It’s super important.

When is this project supposed to launch? 

I bought the house in 2019, and [COVID-19] has put a huge damper on in-person workshops and offerings. We have had some hybrid [events]. We are targeting June 27, 2022. Hopefully, some restorations would be accomplished by this time. The house is 113 years old, so there are a couple of things that need to be upgraded. Still, it’s a beautiful space, and it has a beautiful outdoor space as well. It’s an opening I believe on Sunday June 27, 2022. Before that, we might be scheduling private tours so people can just see the status of it now. 

Who was Lucile Clifton? 

It’s interesting because she was many things. She was a mother of six children, and she wrote her poetry with all six of us in the house. She used to say that this was the reason all of her poems were so short because she only had a little bit of time between  kids to do some writing. She was a momma bear when it came to her kids. She was gentle, but she was fierce when it came to her kids  and her family. You did not mess with Lucile’s folks! It was a very good thing, it made us feel very secure and protected, safe, and loved. She loved hard and she was also very funny. You would have to see her in her readings to see the depth of her humor, and she was whip-smart. She was also highly intuitive and sensitive, and I think that came through in her poetry. She was able to come out of herself to embody what someone else’s experience might be like. For example, in her poems about island mary, people from the bible, or women from history, she just embodied their lives and spirits, and it came easily to her. It was an interesting way for her to interpret the world and make sense of the world. Which also allowed her to connect with anyone and anything. That doesn’t necessarily mean she agreed with everyone and everything, but she was able to connect on a deep and resident level. I saw this, and it was important for me, and an important way of how she walked in the world. She was sensitive but needed her solitude. She wasn’t  the type to go out and party, she was not social in that way. However, her ability to have her space when she needed it allowed her to give through her art and connect to an audience when she was creating and teaching. 

How was it for growing up in a household abounding in creativity, considering both of your parents were artists? How did this affect you and your life’s vision?

It was exciting for me for someone who considers themselves a writer and a visual artist. I was encouraged to be curious, which I still am to this day. I get excited working with artists- I get excited with the process. I think that was something that spurred in me. I used to say, since I was my parent’s first child I had the whammy of all their stuff. I would paint, draw, write, and play guitar a little bit. Creativity is just the way I knew how to be. We were encouraged by it to be so. Both of my parents were pioneers in their family by marching to the beat of their drummers by being  courageous and going out. My father left home when he was a teenager and joined the military, but he was also a seeker, a philosopher. My mom wrote from the time she was 12 years old, but they were both actors. They acted as buffalo players in the 50’s. That’s where they met doing that. Just knowing that this was available, it never felt like anything was creatively off-limits. For me, it was supremely freeing, and I flourished in that. 

How did your mother get into becoming a writer in residence for Coppin?

That’s a good question. I don’t know if I don’t question that quite frankly. I do know that it was after her first book came out. I think it was actually when the six of us were old enough for her to be out of the house, and not have to worry about having to pick up the little kids from kindergarten. I don’t remember if she was asked to attend. She had a dear family friend who was a professor there {Coppin}, who I believed recommended her. We don’t know the full story,  but I know at one time she was teaching at Coppin, which was at the time called Coppin State Teachers College, and it was a very cool thing. I know she enjoyed it.

Why do you think teaching was such an important aspect of your mother’s life?

I think the ability to share her experiences and open other folk’s eyes. I think she may have been a natural teacher. I think education, and I don’t mean that by academics. Education for her,  which was information sharing, and being able to share that with students and young people who were just interested was very important to her.. Comparing it to the experiences she had in education. She never talked about disliking school, she loved learning but she may not have liked academics that much. She wanted to make a different experience than the experience she had growing up. She also loved mentoring young people too. She also has lifelong curiosity. This is what I know, this is where I’ve been, and this is a way to think about things that you might not be taught. Yet, also recognizing educational disparities so at least she brought her voice and her experiences into spaces where there may have not been instructors like her. She loved black folk. She used to say, “this is my peeps.” 

What legacy would your mother want to imprint on our society through her poetry?

A sense of authenticity, the value that everyone’s voices from their experiences being of value, and education. Not like academic education, but spreading the word so other people can understand one another. A level of courageous discourse, clear and courageous communication, and making a big enough table so everyone could have a seat. But the table would have to be round so there was nobody at the head. What my mother would do in her classrooms, she would arrange her chairs in a circle so no one would feel that there was a hierarchy.  Everybody had the same perspective, and everybody could see each other the same way. She would end her classes by people extending in a circle and holding hands, by saying or not saying, whatever came to them. I think that symbolizes what her legacy is. Folks holding hands, and not necessarily having to do the same thing, not necessarily having to agree on everything but recognizing the humanity and value of the person standing next to me. 

You can learn more about upcoming events from the Clifton House on https://thecliftonhouse.co