The Operating System

5th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 11 :: Keisha-Gaye Anderson on Lucille Clifton

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


[line][script_teaser]”The internal monologue, the tactile details, the use of language all come together to transform statistics into people with feelings and longings. Her work has had the ability to resurrect the nameless bodies of the enslaved and give them permission to tell their stories, as if they were whispering into your ear.”
Ever seen a plate-spinning act? Each plate, placed atop tall sticks, has to be kept spinning at a certain velocity to prevent them all from crashing to the ground. The most skillful plate spinning novelty acts would keep up to as many as 10 plates spinning at once.
And that is exactly what motherhood feels like, especially when you are an artist.
Feed, cook, clean, nurture, support, protect, earn a living, work on your writing—all at once—or everything comes crashing down. And broken people are as impossible to fix as unrealized dreams.
The force of nature that was poet Lucille Clifton showed me that it was possible to be simultaneously a good mother and a successful artist, producing work of substance as a part of my everyday life, not in spite of it. Clifton raised six children, published dozens of books, and won a National Book award, among several other honors.
Her writing resonated deeply with me. With my poet self, my mother self, my nine-to-five-worker self, my mystic self. Potent, spare, universal, timeless are just a few of the words that come to mind when I think about Clifton’s poetry. She could compress the arc of an entire lifetime into one stanza, or unfurl a universal truth in just one word. She swept you into her world like an ocean wave, and made you feel you from the inside out by simply speaking the truth as she saw it.

the death of fred clifton
age 49

i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and i saw with the most amazing
so that I had not eyes but
and, rising and turning
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things

[/box] [line]

Clifton didn’t try to write around her every-day life, or hang her words on dense theories and lofty philosophical constructions in order to make something called a poem, which the literary world would find palatable or novel. She lived fully and then wrote candidly about the details of that life, which was by all accounts a very typical, middle American experience. She didn’t try to sugarcoat, for instance, the banality that can encroach on a marriage and on motherhood, or the complicated family relationships that continue to hang heavily on adult lives. Clifton carried the reader with her through these life stages, and that is what I appreciate most about her work—its straightforwardness and ability to resonate with the average person. In the truest sense, she transformed the plain and mundane into the spectacular, and spoke to the common life experiences of most people, whether those experiences were full of joy or trauma.


speaking of loss

i began with everything;
parents, two extra fingers
a brother to ruin. i was
a rick girl with no money
in a red dress. how did I come
to sit in this house
wearing a name I never heard
until i was a woman? someone has stolen
my parents and hidden my brother.
my extra fingers are cut away.
i am left with plain hands and
nothing to give you but poems.

[/box] [line]

But Clifton was also equally skilled at reflecting the collective struggles endemic to the African American experience in her poetry. Even when referencing complex historical events like slavery, her work evoked an intimacy that placed the reader right at the center of the moment, making it impossible not to feel the human moment therein. The internal monologue, the tactile details, the use of language all come together to create a experience that transforms statistics into people with feelings and longings. Her work has had the ability to resurrect the nameless bodies of the enslaved and give them permission to tell their stories, as if they were whispering into your ear. [line]

slave cabin, slotterly plantation, Maryland, 1989

in this little room
note carefully

aunt nanny’s bench

three words that label
is my parent’s sister
my grandmother
the board at which
i stare
the soft curved polished
that held her bottom
after the long days
without end
without beginning
when she aunt nanny sat
feet dead against the dirty floor
humming for herself humming
her own sweet human name


Clifton saw the grandness of her life as a mother and an artist, but accepted that to get to reach pinnacle of each identity meant going slow, through many stages, with diligence and patience. In her great wisdom, she didn’t resist or resent these stages of development; she used them as prompts for her poems. And in doing so, Clifton gave voice to the myriad, complex emotions of the human experience, our relationships with others, and our relationship with our ever-changing selves. She helped me to remove the angst and impatience from my own artistic journey and to realize that it is perfectly okay to write what I know, in the moment, as it’s happening, because my insight might very well help someone who is struggling with the same moment and not able to come out of it to move on to the next. She taught me that we are all beautifully talented and imperfect, and all of that is poetry. But most importantly, through her work, I understood that I am not on this journey alone. The awareness of that connectedness in itself is cause for celebration, and fuel to keep pressing forward.

won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering

[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Keisha-Gaye Anderson is a Jamaican-born poet and creative writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of the poetry collection Gathering the Waters (Jamii Publishing, December 2014). Her writing has been published in a number of national literary journals, literary magazines and anthologies, including Writing the Caribbean, Renaissance Noire, The Killens Review of Arts and Letters, Mosaic Literary Magazine, African Voices Magazine, Streetnotes: Cross Cultural Poetics, Caribbean in Transit Arts Journal and others. She is a past participant of the VONA Voices and Callaloo Creative Writing workshops, and was named a fellow by the North Country Institute for Writers of Color. Keisha has also been short listed for the Small Axe Literary Competition. She is a founding poet with Poets for Ayiti. Proceeds from their 2010 chapbook, For the Crowns of Your Heads, helped to rebuild Bibliotheque du Soleil, a library razed during the earthquake in Haiti. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The City College, CUNY. Learn more about Keisha at or on facebook. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaGaye1.
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