why is your mama so funny

Posted on August 6, 2010


when they ask you
why is your mama so funny
she is a poet
she don’t have no sense”

(from “admonitions”)

I remember vividly, as a child, sitting in the stacks of the library where my father worked, days upon days, reading whatever books I fancied. Sometimes I read things because I had heard them mentioned by adults; sometimes because the author’s name sounded interesting; sometimes I grabbed books simply because the binding looked interesting. At some point in all these scramblings through dusty pages I discovered poetry. The first poets that moved me to the point of remembrance were Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. I took it upon myself to memorize the poems “There’s a certain slant of light” and “Mother to Son” (respectively) so I could recite them to myself when no book was near.

The university library in which my father worked had private study rooms for the students that amounted to little more than broom-closet sized cubbies with a chair, attached desk and small flip lamp screwed above the writing surface. With the door closed these study rooms were eerily dark and completely soundproof. In retrospect, I imagine they were more often used for elicit meetings than any actual studying by the students, but I loved the cool, dark of them and imagined the wan light of the pitiful fluorescent lamp as the light of a candle in my secluded and writerly cabin. I would take my books into the rooms and read aloud to myself, stumbling through the strange dialects or deciding my dramatic purpose behind the recitation of a poem.

When I first left high school and my home state and made a stab at college, I entered as a continuing education student (to avoid out-of-state fees) and, not beholden to a particular curriculum, was thus allowed to take any course with open seats. Even though I had decided to be a good child and major in (eek, reel, vomit) Accounting, I still signed up for a “Survey of American Poetry” course to quench my less-than-secret obsession with words. As most “survey” courses tend to be, it was not particularly focused and a little hit-and-miss. Essentially we were taught the greatest hits collection of American twentieth century poetry as determined by our professor’s personal taste. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating class for me because I was introduced to all these different voices, most of which I’ve never heard before, and gave me an excuse to pretend that poetry was real.

All throughout high school (and before) I had written poetry. It was my main outlet, as it proves to be for many overemotional, angst- and hormone-ridden pre-adults. But I never thought it was something people actually did, Langston and Emily aside, once they became adults or Real People. This course showed me otherwise. Not only did the books (sometimes, and in small amounts) get published, but people (other than me in my darkened cell) read them, and talked about them, and were forced to write highly inept overly long analytical “papers” about them. Who knew? For a moment, I even considered digging up all my own poems and trying to do something with them. (Don’t be fooled, though. By “digging up” I simply mean retrieving the 3-ring binder full of bubble jet printed copies from the bookshelf in my bedroom.) When I went back over the stumbling efforts I’d made though, they felt trite, dull, ignorant, immature and so on. I could never actually write good poems, this much I knew.

Then midway through the course we started reading ‘Good Woman’ by Lucille Clifton and my whole outlook changed. Clifton wrote in a style that I immediately identified with, she used words in a way that fit into the pieces of my mind correctly. She showed me in black and white what I had always imagined to be true, which is that a whole idea can hinge on one word, placed carefully and properly, and that the overadorned word did not necessarily relay the most emphatic or beautiful meaning. Her poetry showed me that getting to the image in the most direct, concise and polished way could be just as, if not more effective and powerful than the gilded sentiment. Her work told me that what I thought to be beautiful was okay, and that some people even agreed with it. She gave me the courage to call myself a poet, something I would have never thought of doing before. And her life, like that of Emily Dickinson, also told me that being a poet doesn’t necessarily mean being recognized, or receiving adulation or awards, or even, frankly, being widely read. She was a mother, a career woman and a wife, with many responsibilities who wrote her poems whenever and however she could and did not achieve wide “acclaim” until well into her life. She showed me that being a poet meant that it was a declaration of how you could chose to express yourself; that it was, as cheesy as it sounds, a valid way of bringing out your art. No matter where my life leads me, or what endeavors I achieve or fail, I will always write poetry. It’s my personal confession, my way of praying, my way of exploring my dreams and creating imagined spaces that make me feel – well, all kinds of ways, really. It, above all else, is what I am. And I have Lucille Clifton to thank for finally embracing that definition of self.

She lead me to many other poets whose style would shape and reaffirm my approach and aesthetic; Jack Spicer, Ai, and Grace Pauley being at the top of that list. But she was the first, and she was the one who gave me the courage to accept something I consider very important about myself.

Sadly, Lucille Clifton passed away on February 13th of this year. I am not a person who immediately deals with their emotions – one of the “calm in a crisis” types – and I typically don’t express what I am feeling, however strong, until I have had a good bit of time to process it. But when I read the headline that Lucille had died, I cried. I sat down, winded, and tears came down my face immediately. It was the first time a public figure’s death had affected me in such a way. There are a great many people whose art, personality, or achievements I have deeply admired and, of course, with their passing have felt a great sadness. But this was different; it felt as if something had been taken away from me personally. As if someone had reached into my life and snatched away something prized and cherished. It was entirely new to me.

I never had the chance to meet the woman, or, for that matter, see her read or speak in public, and, of course, I realize that she is in no way mine or specific to me but nevertheless it was a profound moment. I have no grand message to convey from this experience, no “meaning of life” revelation or anything lending itself to emotional hyperbole – which I think would have pleased Ms. Clifton. She is someone who survived racism, sexism and cancer along with all the thousands of nicks, bumps and heartbreaks that life gives us all and I think her message was always, no matter what, that you process, deal and proceed.

I leave you with the poem, “miss rosie.” It is only a few pages into the ‘Good Woman’ collection that introduced me to her work, and I vividly remember my first reading of it. I remember exactly the book on my desktop, and how the words looked on the page, and the flush of excitement I got reading it and how I wanted to jump up and run and tell everyone I could find, “Read this poem!” but instead, I looked down and read it over repeatedly until I could manage to turn the page and keep going.


miss rosie

when I watch you

wrapped up like garbage

sitting, surrounded by the smell

of too old potato peels


when I watch you

in your old man’s shoes

with the little toe cut out

sitting, waiting for your mind

like next week’s grocery

I say

when I watch you

you wet brown bag of a woman

who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia

used to be called the Georgia Rose

I stand up

through your destruction

I stand up

Posted in: moody typeface