Lyric Essentials: Teri Cross Davis Reads Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton

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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_4097Teri 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.

Further reading:

Read (or listen to) the 2017 NPR story that celebrated Brooks’ 100th birthday
Read an interview with Brooks from the 1960s, printed on
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. 

Further reading:

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.

Further reading:

Read two of Teri’s poems from Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Purchase Haint (Gival Press, 2016)
Read a 2018 Q&A with Teri from Little Patuxent Review

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.

Lyric Essentials: Gabrielle Bates Reads “The Times” by Lucille Clifton

Gabrielle Bates Headshot

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Gabrielle Bates reads “The Times” by Lucille Clifton.

I love learning how poets found the work that inspires them. Do you remember when you were first introduced to Clifton’s poetry? What about this particular poem, any specific memory?

Gabrielle: When I graduated from high school, one of my dad’s friends (a badass female attorney), gave me a stack of poetry books. Clifton’s 1988-2000 selected Blessing the Boats came to me in that stack. As a seventeen-year-old, I knew I loved words, but as far as poems go, I’d only read collections by ee cummings and Pablo Neruda. Clifton’s work opened my eyes to poetry that dared to 1) reach beyond cleverness for clarity and 2) write from a female perspective about real-world issues, both public and private.

Despite studying creative writing in both undergrad and graduate school, I can’t remember ever being taught Clifton’s poetry. All the critical reading and thinking I’ve done in her relation has been on my own.

Poets have long looked to their own bodies to answer the question, “What is poetry?” Emily Dickinson said, famously, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” A. E. Robinson said something like “If it raises my hackles enough that I might cut myself while shaving.” For me, I know what I’ve read is poetry if it makes me clutch a part of my own collarbone as if it were something worn and in danger of falling off.

Last September, something told me to grab Blessing the Boats off my shelf before leaving for a seminar on San Juan Island. When I reached the last line of “The Times” (“these too are your children    this too is your child”), something broke in me. I saw Tamir Rice. I saw Trayvon Martin. And beyond those specific lives hovered all the others—the untold masses who have been murdered for nothing more than the fact that their very existence made a white person feel suspicious or afraid. A white person like me.

This poem—particularly that last line—is a statement against all that seeks to dehumanize or desensitize us.

I decided I needed this poem with me always, so I walked into the woods and didn’t come out until I had it memorized.

Chris: The lines right in the middle of the poem, “If this/ alphabet could speak its own tongue/ it would be all symbol surely;” create an intricate image—symbols speaking in symbols. What do you think this image contributes to the poem?

Gabrielle: Ahh, yes, an incredibly intricate image. Endlessly complex. (Can you believe people often think of Clifton as a writer of “simple” poems? Shame on them for mistaking clear syntax and brevity for simplicity).

The way I see it, this is where the poem pivots into the realm of ars poetica.

Language does not have a physical, mortal body. We do. There’s bound to be something lost in the translation of a body’s experience into a’s, b’s, and c’s. The way I see it, Clifton’s deep disappointment and emotional fatigue in this poem apply firstly to the endless onslaught of racial violence against children, and secondly, to the inability of language to do anything other than approximate experience and reflect back on the person who wields it. The two are related.

As someone whose own poems often rely heavily on image, I see Clifton grappling with the limits of language in this section of the poem, specifically the limits of objective correlatives (sup, Eliot?). There is a danger, not just a difficulty, implicit in this limit. If language in its purest form renders living beings (the cat, the spindle fish) and dead beings (the dust) immediately upon naming into pat symbols, what does that mean for the murdered child? For humanity? For elegy?

These are the sorts of questions I see Clifton circling around.

What would it look like to give language total agency, removing the human from the equation? Clifton can’t even really conceive of this hypothetical—Who can?—so her thought experiment breaks down before our eyes. In the end, our shared humanity is all there is, all that matters.

Chris: It’s interesting to see a poet speak about the limitations of language, and Clifton doesn’t mince her words—as you said, she’s brief and utilizes clear syntax. What do those devices (brevity, clarity, concision) add to this poem, or Clifton’s poetry in general?

Gabrielle: My poems seem to be sprawling larger and larger these days (a side effect of working for a literary journal that only publishes long work, no doubt), so it’s important for me to come back to poets like Clifton who do so much in a small amount of space. To remind myself it’s possible.

One aspect of Clifton’s style I admire is her ability to achieve surprising effects using fairly commonplace diction and whole units of syntax. She’s perfectly capable of writing what she calls “clever” poems with fragmentary syntax, uncommon words, and obscure literary allusions, but she chooses not to. She doesn’t get off on excluding readers without PhDs, and I admire that. Her brevity and clarity invite both the poet and the non-poet to enter, experience, and be changed.

Like Clifton, while I can appreciate a poem whose primary function is to tickle my intellect, I am not very interested in writing such poems. I am drawn to poems that grab for the gut, the throat, the bones. I want a poem to take off at a gallop from the first line and leave me flailing wildly at the edge of a ravine, not knowing how this fur got in my teeth. Clifton and I write very different poems, but we’re both interested in unsettling effects. “I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” she says. I think that’s maybe the highest goal poetry can have.

Chris: You mentioned Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. “The Times” is a poem that seems to be born from, and grappling with, politics of identity and what it means to be black in the United States. Is the most essential poetry that which is “political?” Or is all poetry inherently political?

Gabrielle: I’ve been thinking about the inherent politics of poetry a lot lately, especially in relation to race. Unfortunately, the word “political” is often used to describe poetry as if the word is synonymous to “bad.” As if one must choose between making a political stand in one’s poem and utilizing craft techniques—political content or language innovation. It’s an absurd distinction.

I believe, as Jericho Brown points out in his essay “Love the Masters,” all art is political in that it either supports or critiques the status quo. Because we are all raced beings, whether we consider ourselves to be or not, all our poems are in conversation with racial issues. I tend to read and write every poem, whether it mentions race explicitly or not, through this lens.

Chris: Are there writers writing today that affect you in the same way Clifton does—make you reach for your collarbone?

Gabrielle: Of course! In fact, the vast majority of the poetry I read and adore is contemporary. Entire books that immediately come to mind are Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, Beth Bachman’s Do Not Rise, Roger Reeves’ King Me, Richard Siken’s Crush, and Judy Jordan’s Carolina Ghost Woods. Individual poems: “It Was the Animals” by Natalie Diaz, “The Boxers” by Andrew Feld, “Veronicas” by Carolina Ebeid, and “Cold Comfort in October” by Keetje Kuipers. But there are so many more. So, so many more.

Gabrielle Bates is a Southern poet and writer living in Seattle, where she serves as coordinating editor of The Seattle Review and twitter editor of Broadsided Press. She is an Indiana Review Poetry Prize finalist, winner of Gigantic Sequins’ poetry comic contest, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Best of the Net 2015, Black Warrior Review, New South, Rattle, Guernica, Southern Humanities Review, The Journal, Radar Poetry, and Thrush, among other journals. She will graduate with her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in June 2016. Find her at, on Twitter (@GabrielleBates), and on Instagram (@Gabrielle_Bates_Stahlman).

Chris Petruccelli has successfully survived and escaped Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s back home in Tennessee, still breathing, still writing, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. You can check out his chapbook Action at a Distance over at University of Indianapolis’ Etchings Press. In his free time Chris continues to enjoy drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.