Friday, January 29, 2021

stps > slps 2: lucille clifton & janet wong

Before we begin:  it was "Climate Day" at the White House on Wednesday--and about time!  In case you missed it, get summaries here and here.

It's only Week 2 of my "Self-Taught Poetry Survey" and already I want to adjust the name of what I am newly doing here at my juicy little universe.  I'm expanding my universe by grabbing a book of adult poetry off my rather dusty shelves each Friday, choosing a poem I like, and then seeking a companion poem from one of my collections for young readers.  It's not a structured survey and I'm not teaching myself as much as I am studying the work of others.  So to be more honest and less thoughtlessly supremacist,* I'm renaming this project the Self-Led Poetry Study.  It SLaPS, as my son would say.  Or maybe by the end of this post I will have been struck by a better, more poetic name.  Either way, thanks for joining me.

I had forgotten what a big deal Lucille Clifton is to me.  I knew her first as the author of the Everett Anderson books which were so important in my early work with Black and Brown children.  Then I became a Marylander and learned about her important role in the American poetry "establishment." But most of all, her style, brief and fluid and unflinching, leads me.

There's so much to discover and discover anew in BLESSING THE BOATS (BOA Editions, 2000), but I chose this one, without really noticing that its title describes what I am doing.  You know it's a good poem when you think it's about one thing but it turns out to be about a whole different thing too.

        study the masters | Lucille Clifton

like my aunt timmie.
it was her iron,
or one like hers,
that smoothed the sheets
the master poet slept on.
home or hotel, what matters is
he lay himself down on her handiwork
and dreamed.   she dreamed too,   words:
some cherokee, some masai and some
huge and particular as hope.
if you had heard her
chanting as she ironed
you would understand form and line
and discipline and order and


And then, again because I hadn't given it its due, I pulled down A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED & MORE (Pomelo Books, 2019) by our well-known-in-this-community Janet Wong.  Look how she also brings the language and the textures of working outside beneath behind within, of smoothing and crimping to meet the demands of the dominant culture.  These two short poems both deliver words "huge and particular as hope."

Joyce's Beauty Salon | Janet Wong

They call my mother
the perm lady, "Pum Ajima."
Dozens of mad Korean women
come in each month, ugly,
furious with their families,
frustrated by their stubborn,
straight, heavy, hair.
A few hours with Mother
and they leave
carrying a lighter load,
their carefree curls
bouncing out the door.

The named women, their hands, invisible yet so central to the scene, the moment which is minutes, hours, a lifetime; the women who go by names from languages not their own all around us...thank you, Lucille and Janet.

Our host today is Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio, where there is singing, so much singing going on! Go hear the angel voices.


*This set of white supremacy culture definitions has popped up before me in several situations--this one shared by a fellow participant in a study group, so I don't have attribution.  But I'm having to see that I am--despite my efforts to acknowledge and honor other ways--a walking, talking, teaching, writing embodiment of this culture.  Claiming that I can, on a whim, at the drop of a hat, teach myself a general poetry survey, is putting many of the assumptions below into action.  I'm trying to do better.


  1. Wow, Heidi. This post is beautiful. I came across the Lucille Clifton poem somewhere on twitter recently and was struck by the simplicity of 'Learning from the Masters' as well. Simple...except that I was thinking about it long after I had finished it as well. And, it is similar to Joyce's Beauty Salon in that way. Thanks for your thinking and sharing. I like learning along with you.

  2. What a great pairing - Lucille Clifton and Janet Wong, and the nameless aunties and mothers and sisters both workers and worked on, resettling themselves into the dreams both had, even in a place which misunderstood and did not value them. And brava to your studying of the Master's - for some reason, that seems like a good position on poetry for a lot of us this year!

  3. Lovely to read poems by Lucille Clifton. I had a friend long ago who could recite her "Homage to My Hips" & we would feel comforted. This time she and Janet Wong pay homage to two women, but really all who've had the burden of caring for those who don't "see" them. I wonder how many poems there are that seek some honor for them? I will keep the graphic, Heidi, to remind me. Thank you!

  4. I will be checking out the Lucille Clifton books. It's a perfect paring with Janet Wong's books.

  5. I love how you put these 2 poems together. I've read Janet's book, but I haven't read Lucille Clifton. Such powerful language to honor the everyday work of women. Thanks for sharing these.

  6. I love this pairing! Each poem resonates on its own, but together, it's like an alchemy of some sort. Thanks for stirring things up with your thinking and sharing, Heidi.

  7. I saw Lucille Clifton at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2009. That festival exposed me to so many great poets/ people. I only went that one time, so I wonder...Anyway, your project is a teaching one to us readers. We are absorbing more poetry. Good for the soul. I am uncomfortable with the White Supremacy Culture Chart. Squirming about whether the traits that we thought were family traits, handed down from hard working good white people, somehow has resulted in a culture that is unaccepting of other cultures and acts superior. "Don't like it," as Leo would say.

    1. Yes, and the best I can do right now is keep questioning my assumptions, questioning, questioning. "Worship of the Written Word" can be a tough one for poets!

  8. Wow. I love both of these poems. I also love the study you're doing (and sharing--thank you) and the thinking that you're making me do. Self-examination is hard.

  9. So much good stuff here. I love the words in Aunt Timmie's head as she is ironing. And the "Worship of the Written Word." Wow! I am so guilty of that, always looking for something in print to verify or comment on what I've heard from people or seen with my own eyes. As though it's not real if someone hasn't written it down. Just never thought about it that way before. Thanks for making me think.

  10. Thank you for sharing the poems you find and your thinking and learning through them. I found much to think about with your post.

  11. Thanks for again broadening my poetic and self reflection horizons, Heidi. I enjoy visiting your posts. :)

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Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!