For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Teri Cross Davis, who shares her thoughts about work by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. Teri tells us about her relationship to the protagonist in Brooks’ poem, why she loves teaching Lucille Clifton’s poem, and much more. Thank you for reading and supporting this series!
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose each of these two poems for your reading?
Teri Cross Davis: The music of these two poems are like songs constantly playing in the background of my mind. As a dark-skinned Black woman, I can identify with Chocolate Mabbie. To read this poem and hear the hurt of colorism, I could sadly relate. But I also appreciate Brooks writing a poem about colorism, calling it out in the Black community and the validation it gave me to read of someone talking about such a personal experience. The hopefulness of a young heart, first loves, how excited Mabbie is to see Willie Boone. Her excitement reaches through the poem and it just soars. How can you not be swept up and away by it?
RS: I love the rhythm in “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie.” What are some of your favorite moments from this poem?
TCD: The lyricism of the poem—”lemon-hued lynx,” “cut from a chocolate bar,” “hush in heart,” “Mabbie on Mabbie to be”—these are hallmarks of Brooks’ work for me. The resiliency of Mabbie, the support and love she must find within herself—all of this speaks to my experience as a Black woman in America.
Teri Cross Davis reads “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” by Gwendolyn Brooks
RS: In our emails, you mentioned that you’ve taught “poem in praise of menstruation” for over ten years. What makes it one of your favorites to teach? What do you think students of poetry (or anyone, really!) can learn from it?
TCD: This poem is a reclamation, wresting back the power of the period from the shame normally associated with menstruation. Leave it to Ms. Clifton to dig deep, tie the experience of being female and menstruation to a more global scale and give it a cosmic significance. When I taught this poem, the students would tell me how powerful it made them feel and how excited they were to talk about periods with no shame or stigma. This poem is always a moving experience for me, and I love to read it and feel this connection with more than half the world’s population. I think this poem teaches that one should not be ashamed by what is natural, be it periods or loving someone of the same sex, to not buy into restrictive or patriarchal societies trying to shame you for who you are.
Teri Cross Davis reads “poem in praise of menstruation” by Lucille Clifton
RS: Was there a reason that you chose to group these two poems together, specifically?
TCD: Between Clifton and Brooks, these two women’s words have shaped me as a poet and as a woman. To know their work so intimately (I quote “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” and “poem in praise of menstruation” to myself often; these words are imprinted on the fabric of me), and to walk around with them like talismans in my head. These poems and these two poets (among others: Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, etc.) let me know there is a place for me as a Black woman poet in this country, that the path has been laid out before me, and I can see the guide marks to follow.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas. She published her first poem at age 13 and continued to write throughout her teenage and young adult years, publishing her first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. In 1949, she published Annie Allen, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Brooks went on to publish many more collections and a two-volume autobiography. She was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer and the first Black woman poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Read (or listen to) the 2017 NPR story that celebrated Brooks’ 100th birthday
Read an interview with Brooks from the 1960s, printed on Poets.org
Purchase The Whiskey of Our Discontent, an award-winning collection of essays about the impact of Brooks’ work
Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, New York. Two of her books, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980, and Next: New Poems, were chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize; Clifton was the first author to achieve this two-finalist accomplishment. Maryland’s poet laureate for eleven years, Clifton also wrote acclaimed children’s books and served as a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received a National Book Award in 2000 for her poetry collection Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems 1988-2000.
Read the New Yorker‘s tribute to Lucille Clifton
Read (or listen to) NPR’s story on Clifton’s feature on Clifton’s life and work, along with three of her poems
Purchase The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 from BOA Editions
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint (Gival Press, 2016), winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is a Cave Canem fellow and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recipient of a Meret Grant from the Freya Project and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Grant. Her work can be read online and in many journals, including: Academy of American Poets, Auburn Avenue, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Gargoyle, Harvard Review, Kestrel, Little Patuxent Review, Natural Bridge, North American Review, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Poet Lore, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She is the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and lives in Maryland with her husband Hayes Davis, who is also a poet, and their two children.
Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.