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Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Warda Yassin resurrects Lucille Clifton

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Last year, just before lockdown, Warda Yassin and Suzannah Evans resurrected Lucille Clifton and Nadia Anjuman at DINA, Sheffield, on the third event of our Arts Council England funded tour. This was one of our very favourite events that we’ve ever run because both the poets were fantastic, the open mic was brilliant, and the atmosphere was perfect. In the wildness of the pandemic, we never published Warda’s response to Clifton. So – happy Halloween – here it is.

First, a little about Clifton, taken from Warda’s resurrection.

Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010) was a juggernaut African American poet who was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and who inspired others to question the use of form, structure, punctuation as she subverted the norms of poetry of the 1960s.

Clifton was born in New York as Thelma Lucille Sayles to a launderer mother (who secretly wrote poetry) and a steel mill worker father. Her parents worked hard to make sure their children read, and Clifton went on to study Drama at Howard University. Clifton’s family prided themselves on their roots and West African ancestry to the Kingdome of Dahomey, a tribe famed for their female warriors, self-sufficiency and bravery – and, as her mother would remind her, of her female ancestry’s strength.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when her work was first published in Langston Hughes’s anthology Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970 that she pursued writing professionally. Her first book Good Times (1969) would be a part of reinventing poetry and what is means to be a poet. It was a celebration of her childhood and included in the New York Times best books of that year. This was a ground-breaking achievement, considering her work centred on the domesticity and celebration of African American families, in a period which questioned its importance or visibility, in the literary and political world. She would continue to explore these themes, as well as the body, womanhood and politics throughout her career.

Clifton once said, “Poetry is a way of living in the world. I don’t produce texts and I don’t do it to be studied though I do recognise the value of those things […] but to me poetry is a way of trying to come to peace with the world.”

My first introduction to Lucille Clifton was ‘Homage to my Hips’ from Good Women (1987). It’s a poem which celebrates the Black body and depoliticises it in a beautiful yet sexy way. It’s the poem that I chose to respond to with my commission, which you can read below.

Back Off

My ass is not a trend, an avant-garde Kardashian phenomenon. It predates the Instagram era, these shackles around waists are stapled in some forgotten history book.

When this fad dies, it will still be too wide, too round, too much, too unprofessional. It is not a footnote in a music video, nor a twitch. This black dress is a mere visitor on my body, these Levi’s are no oath.

It’s not an excuse to discuss plastic surgery in damp student hallways, a party trick at the helm. It is not a beach token, a prop to a bikini shot deflated after the picture.

Believe it or not, it still exists in the winter and it yearns for longer t-shirts, quieter days, obscurity. Unfurled and indifferent, it belongs in the space between the small of my back

and my mother’s rope and her mother’s spine. It is not a compliment or any sort of proclamation, just a curve, a hollow unmarked inheritance.

When discovered, it does not flutter at remarks on these dusty streets. When ousted, it does not flutter at remarks on these dusty streets. Leave it alone, it is just walking home with me.

This creative response was commissioned as part of Warda Yassin’s resurrection of Lucille Clifton, for a séance at DINA in Sheffield on 23 January 2020, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Suzannah Evans resurrected Nadia Anjuman - find her poems in response to Anjuman here.

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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.


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