This episode, filmed at the Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, introduces us to Lucille Clifton and David Mura. As an African American and a Japanese American, these two poets explore their cultural histories and childhoods as well as racism and their views of life today.
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BILL MOYERS: They are here to celebrate life. They are have come to celebrate language. Poetry readings are flourishing across America in many different places in wondrous variety.
Nowhere is the renaissance of poetry more vivid than in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Every two years, thousands of people gather to hear some of the world’s best poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
In this hour, we will hear from Lucille Clifton. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and once the Poet Laureate of Maryland, Lucille Clifton now teaches at St. Mary’s College and Columbia University. And we will meet David Mura. David Mura’s poetry and prose have established him as one of our important young voices, a third generation Japanese American, speaking to life between two worlds.
David Mura and Lucille Clifton, theirs is THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I believe poetry can be fun, and I like to have fun. That doesn’t mean I’m not serious. And this is a fun poem. This is a great poem to read when there’s television, you know? Because you always think, “Now they’re gonna like have to deal with that. But this is just my response to a news report. And it’s — it’s the woman who is speaking, the “I” in the poem you may recognize, though her name is not given. The title is from a news report, “Woman Cuts Off Husband’s Penis, Later Throws It from Car Window.”
“It lay in my palm, soft, and trembled as a new bird. And I thought about authority and how it always insisted on itself, how it was master of the man, how it measured him, never was ignored or denied, and how it promised there would be sweetness if it was obeyed, just like the saints do, like the angels, and I opened the window and held out my uncupped hand. I swear to God I thought it could fly!”
BILL MOYERS: I have a hard time figuring out what this society expects of poets, frankly.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: When we say that, it’s because we like to think of poetry as this elite kind of thing that happens in the academy. But poetry is something that is — that is a very human urge. I was not trained as a poet. I’ve never taken lessons. I’ve never had workshops. I — nobody taught me anything really much, but I think that we are beginning to remember that the first poets didn’t come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off a savannah or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, “Ah.” That was the first poem.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: CLIMBING. “A woman precedes me up the long rope, her dangling braids the color of rain. Maybe I should have had braids. Maybe I should have kept the body I started, slim and possible as a boy’s bone. Maybe I should have wanted less. Maybe I should have ignored the bowl in me burning to be filled. Maybe I should have wanted less. The woman passes the notch in the rope marked ’60’. I rise toward it, struggling, hand over hungry hand.”
BILL MOYERS: In that poem CLIMBING, what’s your connection to the woman up there on that rope?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Well, on the other hand, I don’t want to be her, and, on the other hand, I’m going to be her very soon. (Laughs.)
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Well, it’s a woman who’s going toward a human who’s over 60, going to be 60. I’ll be 60.
BILL MOYERS: “The rope marked ’60’,” that’s what that’s about?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Yes. That’s what that’s about.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what I thought ’cause I just turned 60.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Did you? And, you know, when I was younger and I thought about 60, “Well, their life is over.” And suddenly I, inside myself, I don’t remember changing or getting older or not wanting to put on jeans or — or wanting — not wanting anything out of life. Well, I’m not settled yet.
BILL MOYERS: The poem suggests that you’re still climbing.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Absolutely. I hope so.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I’m human. I’ve alive.
DAVID MURA: Hey, guys. Hey, troopers. Off to the poetry wars.
DAVID MURA: I’ve been working with performance lately, so I’m going to do one of my performance pieces. And this is an Asian American deejay and he’s sort of like a sort of the Asian American libido run amuck. “Are you out there? Are you listening? Are you with me, love? Well, welcome to Kong, Kong Radio, K-O-N-G, as in Hong Kong, Vietcong, King Kong or Long Kong, and that’s me, Long Kong. And I’ve got it for you and for you and for you. Well, well, it’s the witching hour, just turned 12 and in the deep blue of midnight when the censors are out of sight and I’m feelin’ hot and tight and everything’s all right, I’m ready to roll. And I don’t mean egg roll, baby? I mean to get down, go down …
DAVID MURA: I think poetry, if it gets too far towards the realm of the aesthetic, the realm of the formal, the realm of the beautiful moment, then the life goes out of poetry.
DAVID MURA: “Anyway, I was thinking the other day about how, despite all the kung-fu phooey and chopsaki muey, ah-ooh-ah! Despite all the screaming yellow monkeys storming GIs out in the Pacific or the jungles of Vietnam, we Asians are not frightening. Oh, we can be funny. All you have to do is speak with an Asian accent. Ask not what ‘yo country can do for you, but what you can do — somewhere over the rainbow — Jordan drives into lane, reaps, it’s a finga loll. Oh, what a pray! What a pray! What a pray!”
BILL MOYERS: There’s still a bias in this country that says unless it rhymes, it’s not poetry?
DAVID MURA: Well, I write in a lot of different forms. I mean I write some poems which are in free verse. I write some poems which may look in free verse, but actually have the ghost of blank verse in them. I think of it as two poles that my poetry exists between the concern the form, the aesthetic, the beautiful, and then the process of history, which is often brutal, which is often unjust, which is filled oftentimes with tales and lives which go, ah, neglected, ah, unwritten about, and which is often filled with a darkness that people don’t want to look at.
DAVID MURA: Both my parents were in the internment camps. They were fairly young. When they got out of the camps, they did not want to talk about it. It was like not like anybody, when they got out of the camps, wanted to hear about America’s camps. And they never talked about it to their children. And this poem, which is called AN ARGUMENT ON 1942, which is for my mother, the first stanza is my writing an imaginary poem about the internment camps and then when my mother says, “No, no, no,” she starts to argue back her view of the internment camps and saying, “Look, let’s forget the past. Let’s go on.”
DAVID MURA: AN ARGUMENT ON 1942 for my mother. “Near Rose’s Chop Suey, and Jinosuke’s grocery, the temple where incense hovered and inspired dense evening chants, prayers for Buddhist mercy, colorless and deep, that day he was fired. ‘No, no, no,’ she tells me. ‘Why bring it back? The camps are over, also overly dramatic. Forget shoyu– stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick. You’re like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick. Mostly we were bored. Women cooked and sewed. Men plays blackjack, dug garden of benjo. Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers? We were children, hunting stones, birds, wildflowers. Yes, mother hid tins of tsukemono and eel beneath the bed and when the last was peeled, clamped tight her lips, growing thinner and thinner. But cancer, not the camps, made her throat blacker. And she didn’t die then. After the war in St. Paul, you weren’t even born. Oh, I know. I know. It’s all part of your job, your way, but why can’t you glean how far we’ve come and how much I can’t recall? David, it was so long ago, how useless it seems.”
BILL MOYERS: What’s mother saying when she says, “I know it’s all part of your job, your way”? What’s she mean?
DAVID MURA: (Laughs.) Well, I think she knows that as a poet, part of my job is to dig up the truths that nobody want to — wants to look at. And the position of that Issei was very important . . .
BILL MOYERS: Issei? …
DAVID MURA: It’s first generation Japanese American, and a lot of the Issei believed in this country and what this country had to offer them and the promise that it offered its citizens. And then to be in this camp where they were accused of no crime, there was no trial, and then most of that first generation never recovered economically after the war. My — my grandfather — one grandfather owned a nursery. One grandfather owned a thriving produce store.
BILL MOYERS: Lost both when they went to the relocation?
DAVID MURA: (Overlap) Lost both, yeah. And the best they could do after the war were one grandfather, he like cleaned. Was a, you know, cleaner in a hotel. That was — that was it.
STUDENT: This is called MADMAN. “I stand on the edge of a new time, a beginning, an end. I’m yet a speck on the horizon of a new era, a dying ember, a point of no return. I am nothing.”
DAVID MURA: When I talk about writing poetry with students, I say that “What you don’t want to do is go I a straight line …
STUDENT: “I see a monkey. I see a lion. I see a baby hardly dying. I’m not a psychic, but I can hear …
DAVID MURA: … so that if I come to a word like, say, “sea” in a poem, I might start associating through sound and so, I might say the “sickly sea”, the “scissoring sea”. That association is not happening through any sort of logic. It’s happening through rhythm and music. And so what’s bubbling — what I think is bubbling up is your unconscious and really what is creative inside you.
JIM HABA: The next student is from Voorhees High School. Amy Heffernan.
AMY HEFFERNAN: Hi. Everybody has felt this way at one time right after you break up with somebody. It’s called, WISHES FOR THE GIRL WHO CAME TOO SOON AFTER ME. “I wish her spinach stuck in her teeth when she leans over to kiss you. I wish her a head of wire that pricks your fingers when you touch it. I wish her garlic and one too many cigarettes when she nears your nose. And I wish her armed with a rolling pin, a house dress, and a lifetime with you.”
(PERCUSSION AND RHYTHMIC CHANTING)
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Being a poet looks like interesting, right? You can wear funny clothes and you can hang out. I mean it looks very interesting. But I think that it’s a mistake to want to be a poet more than you want to write poems.
FEMALE STUDENT: I wrote a poem about it.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Did you? Good.
FEMALE STUDENT: I just ran into Lucille Clifton and told her that one of her poems was on our exam last year, English exam. It was the only one I understood. So I ended up getting an A and it’s all thanks to her.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I have written a great deal about my parents and this is a poem about my father. My father was a very challenging — he was a challenging son. He was a challenging husband, challenging father, challenging citizen.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: SAM. “If he could have kept the sky in his dark hand, he would have pulled it down and held it. It would have called him Lord, as did the skinny women in Virginia. If he could have gone to school, he would have learned to write his story and not live it. If he could have done better, he would have. Oh, stars and stripes forever, what did you do to my father?”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Most years I write myself a birthday poem. I always says I figure somebody’s going to do it, so … JUNE 20. “I will be born in one week to a frowned forehead of a woman and a man whose fingers will itch to enter me. She will crochet a dress for me of silver and he will carry me in it. They will do for each other all that they can, but it will not be enough. None of us know that we will not smile again for years, that she will not live long. In one week I will emerge face first into their temporary joy.”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Neither one of my parents graduated from elementary school. My father couldn’t write. He could only write his name. My mother went to something like the third or fourth grade, so she couldn’t spell, but I grew up in a family that loved books and loved … loved language. My father was a great storyteller. My mother loved poetry and my mother wrote poetry also. You know, she wrote very traditional poetry, iambic pentameter verse, you know? Ta-dah, ta-dah, ta-dah, ta-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah. Ta-ta-dah, ta-ta-dah, ta-dah-ta. (Laughter.) And she was quite wonderful. She used to say to me — she’d see me writing a poem, and I didn’t write like that. And she’d say, “Oh, Baby, that ain’t no poem! Let me show you how to write a poem.” And once my mother got a letter from somebody who wanted to put her poems in a book, and my father wouldn’t let her do it. Now — now you frown, because “What,” you know. But let me tell you something. In the ’40s and ’50s, husbands thought they could do that. Guys still try that now, okay? It’s not gonna work for you, you know. And so what my mother did was take her poems and she burned them. She put ’em in the coal stove. And I was standing on the steps leading down into the cellar when she did that, and this is a poem — and I understand — I remembered that I understand what fury and anger were.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: This is called, FURY FOR MAMA. “Remember this. She is standing by the furnace. The coals glisten like rubies. Her hand is crying. Her hand is clutching a sheaf of papers, poems. She gives them up. They burn, jewels into jewels. Her eyes are animals. Each hank of her hair is a serpent’s obedient wife. She will never recover. Remember, there is nothing you will not bear for this woman’s sake.”
DAVID MURA: I married into an old New England family. My wife’s family, three-quarters of it goes all the way back to the Mayflower. And, ah, her grandfather was prejudiced against Albanians. So when I came along, the prejudice sort of naturally slid over to me.
DAVID MURA: GRANDFATHER-IN-LAW. “It’s nothing really and really it could have been worse. And, of course, he’s now several years dead and his widow, well, if oftentimes she’s somewhat distracted, overly cautious when we visit, after all, Boston isn’t New York, she seems, for some reason, enormously proud there’s now a writer in the family and periodically sends me clippings beauty the Poet Laureate, Thoreau, Anne Sexton’s daughter, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, New England literary lore, in which I fit, if I fit at all, simply because I write in English, as if color of skin didn’t matter anymore. Still years ago during my first visit to Boston, when we were all asleep, he who used to require that my wife memorize lines of Longfellow or Poe and recite them on the phone so that every time he called she ran outdoors and had to be coaxed back, sometimes with threats, to talk to Pops. Though she remembers, too, his sly imitations of Lincoln, ice cream at Brigham’s, burgers, fries, all the usual grandfatherly treats. He who, for some reason, was prejudiced against Albanians. Where on Earth did he find them, I wondered? Who in the ’30s would vanish to New York, catch a show, buy a suit while Up North, the gas and water bills pounded the front door. His spendthrift ways startled me with my grandfather’s resemblance, who for over 40 years came down each morning, ‘How’s the old goat?’ — with a tie only his wife could knot circling his neck. He slipped into my wife’s room — we weren’t married at the time — and whispered softly, she thought he almost believed she was really asleep and was saying this like a wish or spell, so bohunk miscalculated Boston sense of duty. ‘Don’t make a mistake with your life, Susie. Don’t make a mistake.’ Well, the thing that gets me now, despite the dangling rantings I’ve let go, is that at least at that time, he was right. There was inside me some pressing, raw, unpeeled, persistence, some libidinous desire for dominance that in the scribbled first drafts of my life seemed to mark me as wastrel and rageful, bound to be unfaithful, to destroy in some powerful nuclear need, fissioned by childhood and race, whatever came near. And I can’t help but feel forgiving him now, but if she had listened, if she had been awake, if this flourishing solace, this muscled-for happen shared by us now had never awakened, he would have become for me a symbol of my rage and self-destruction, another raw, never-healing wound and not the silenced grandfatherly presence, a crankin scoundrel redneck Yankee who created the delicate seed of my wife, my child.”
BILL MOYERS: This poem expresses a feeling for what it is to marry into any family that’s — that’s not your own.
DAVID MURA: Yes. And that poem, I think, is about that confrontation with, ah, an old WASP family, which in many ways was probably as familiar, or even more familiar, to me, than a Japanese American family because what it — when I was growing up, that’s what I read about. I mean I read about the Pilgrims. I mean I read about the Mayflower. I didn’t read in my history books about Japanese American immigrants coming to America. But the poem is really about, forgiveness and it’s about, I think, forgiving him for who he was and for his prejudice against me. And then it’s also dealing with the fact that the irony is when he says, “Don’t make a mistake with your life, Susie. Don’t make a mistake,” that in certain ways he was right because in the early parts of our relationship, I was not faithful.
BILL MOYERS: You acknowledge the grandfather was — may have been right in saying to her, “Don’t marry David Mura.”
DAVID MURA: Yeah, but not in the way that he thought.
jBILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
DAVID MURA: Well, in the way that he thought was, “Don’t marry somebody’s who’s of this race and who’s different than you.” And in the poem what I’m saying is, “Don’t marry somebody who, really is acting like a jerk to you.” And so when I address the question of my love for my wife, it’s a very complicated question. And I — I do not want to bury those questions under the table.
FEMALE POETRY STUDENT: We don’t really know each other, but we just came out here and we’re just basically getting to know each other. We have a lot of common.
FEMALE POETRY STUDENT: Yeah. It kind of ended up like he came over to write a poem and we just kind of sat down and we’ve been here for what? Like an hour now?
MALE POET: I came over here just because I was listening to all the people doing open reading. And I kind of wanted to do one, but in a way I wanted to do a new poem because — I don’t know — it just inspired me to do a new poem, so I wrote a poem. It’s called MIRROR MAN. “Mirror Man, always trying to find people like me to feel at ease with, to be me with. Why? I don’t know. Next time I look at you, Mirror Man, show me, me, whoever that is, and teach me to see me, to be at ease with me.”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: This is a poem about ships that went to the African continent and took free people and brought them to this continent where they were enslaved. I did not say this was about ships that went to Africa and got slaves and brought them here. And there is a difference, if you can feel it. Now I noticed these names of slave ships and I wanted to write about it. One was called Jesus. One was called Angel, and another was called Grace of God.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: SLAVE SHIPS. “Loaded like spoons into the belly of Jesus, where we lay for weeks, for months in the sweat and stink of our own breathing. Jesus, why do you not protect us? Chained to the heart of the Angel with the prayer we never tell, are hot and red as our bloody ankles. Jesus, Angel, can these be men who vomit us out from ships called Jesus, Angel, Grace of God unto a heathen country? Jesus. Angel. Ever again can this tongue speak, can these bones walk. Grace of God, can this sin live?”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: There are people who would say they can’t relate to my poetry because I’m an African American woman and they are not. But I only write about being human. Other humans can recognize — if I do it truly, if I do it honestly and authentically, which I think I try to do, other humans can feeling something from it.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve just helped me understand why I can listen to a David Mura, whose experience is totally foreign to me …
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: … as a Japanese American and feel what he’s feeling for his mother or father …
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Mmm-hmm.
BILL MOYERS: … why I can read one of your poems and feel what you seem to be feeling for those long-dead folk back in — on the plantations. Take this poem, AT THE CEMETERY, WALNUT GROVE PLANTATION, SOUTH CAROLINA 1989. Read. Read that for me and then let’s talk about what’s happening there.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Well, let me tell you what happened. I went to Walnut Grove Plantation in ’89 and I saw — I was the only person of color there on the tour. There’s a tour. It’s wonderful, 2,000 acres.
BILL MOYERS: Where is this?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: In South Carolina. I’m very curious. I say that all the time. I am. I’m a very curious person. I want to know everything. I gossip, all that. And I also when I go places to read, and I read a lot — I always liked to know what happened here. I take the tour and there was no mention of slaves. And now they have the — the original furniture. They had all the stuff and they talked about the difficulty of the work, a family, a small family, no mention of slavery. So I asked about why didn’t they mention slaves. The first answer was maybe “The guide was — don’t want to embarrass you.” “Well,” I said, “I’m not a slave. I don’t know why I’d be that embarrassed.” I suggested they check the inventory, because as slaves were considered property and were often inventoried, and what they discovered was he said they had ten slaves, but they didn’t — but they might have had more because they didn’t recognize women. And, well, I had to write about that. I mean some things say, “Hey, write me.”
BILL MOYERS: You mean literally women slaves didn’t exist.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: They were not inventoried, right. They were not considered valuable enough.
LUCILLE CLIFTON:AT THE CEMETERY, WALNUT GROVE PLANTATION, SOUTH CAROLINA 1989. “Among the rocks at Walnut Grove, your silence drumming in my bones, tell me your names. Nobody mentioned slaves and yet the curious tools ashen with your fingerprints. Nobody mentions slaves, but somebody did this work who had no guide, no stone, which molders under rock. Tell me your names. Tell me your bashful names and I will testify. The inventory lists ten slaves, but only men were recognized. Among the rocks at Walnut Grove, some of these honored dead were dark. Some of these dark were slaves. Some of these slaves were women. Some of them did this honored work. Tell me … your names, foremothers, brothers. Tell me your dishonored names. ‘Here lies’, ‘Here lies’, ‘Here lies’, hear lies hear.”
BILL MOYERS: And that last “hear” is h-e-a-r.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: H-e-a-r. Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there’s another poem in your collection that I like about
the slave cabin in Sotterly Plantation, Maryland and also 1989.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Yeah. I did a lot of plantations that year, I think, but Sotterly is — it’s a very interest place. And they have, in fact, a cabin still there. And you can’t go into the cabin, but on the door there is this little sign.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: And so I wrote this poem, SLAVE CABIN, SOTTERLY PLANTATION, 1989. “In that little room note carefully Aunt Nanny’s bench, three words that label things. ‘Aunt’ is my parents’ sister. ‘Nanny’ my grandmother. The bent bench, the board which I stare, the soft curved polished wood that held her bottom after a long days without end, without beginning, when she, Aunt Nanny, sad, feet dead against the dirty floor, humming for herself, humming her own sweet human name.”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: You see, Aunt Nanny isn’t anybody’s name. Aunt Nanny. And, to have Aunt Nanny’s bench is not to tell you about anybody, not to tell you about her, but to tell you about their perception of her. And I just wondered what was her name? You cannot ignore history. History doesn’t go away. The past isn’t back there. The past is here, too.”
DAVID MURA: I think that when you change the telling of the past, you actually change the present. Poets like myself, what we are doing is creating, I think, a fuller, more complete picture of what America always was.
DAVID MURA: I’m going to read one, maybe two sections of the title poem of my book, THE COLORS OF DESIRE. And in this first section it’s called, PHOTOGRAPH OF A LYNCHING CIRCA 1930 and it starts off with a photograph of the lynching. It then moves to my father in the internment camps in 1942 and after a certain period the Japanese Americans in the camps in the South were allowed to get off to — on weekend passes. And my father would get on this bus going to Little Rock to go to a movie and then they’d come back. Now the curious thing about this was, my father got out of the internment camp and he got onto a segregated bus. And the question is, where do you sit?
DAVID MURA: PHOTOGRAPH OF A LYNCHING CIRCA 1930.“These men in their dented felt hats and the way their fingers tug their suspenders or vests, with faces a bit puffy or too lean, eyes narrow and closed together, they seem too like our image of the South, the ’30s. Of course, they are white. Who then could create this cardboard figure, face flat and grey eyes oversized bulging like an ancient totem this gang has dug up? At the far right in a small brown cap, a boy of 12 smiles, as if responding to what’s most familiar here. The cameras click. And, though, directly above them a branch ropes a dead negro in the air, the men, too, focus their blank beam on the unseen eye, which is at this moment, us. Or, more precisely, me, who cannot but recall how my father as a teenager clutched his weekend pass, passed through the rifle towers and gates of the Jerome, Arkansas camp and in 1942 stepped on a bus to find white riders motioning, ‘Sit here, son,’ and in the rows beyond a half-dozen black faces waving him back. ‘Us colored folks got to stick together.’ How did he know where to sit?”
DAVID MURA: The whites urged the Japanese Americans to sit in the front of the bus while the blacks urged them to sit in the back of the bus. And the Japanese Americans tended to sit in the front of the bus and one of the ways they talk about this is, America has offered Asian American oftentimes honorary white status. But that status is predicated on a deal, which is that you get to sit in the front of the bus and be honorary white, but you don’t get to sit at the very front of the bus and you don’t ever get to drive the bus. And then you must pay no attention to what’s happening to the people in the back of the bus. You must claim no relationship to the people in the back of the bus and you must absolutely never do anything to change the status of the people in the back of the bus. And if you agree to all of this — all of this, “We will let you be honorary white.”
BILL MOYERS: You — you’re — you’re grappling throughout your poetry with what it means to be neither black nor white, to live in the kind of country in between. Are you confused? Honored? Or repulsed?
DAVID MURA: I think I am confusing and honored and at times repulsed. (Laughs.) I grew up under the assimilation model during the ’50s, where it was you try to lose your ethnic heritage. You try to sort of blend in and the ideal was a sort of middle class white identity.
DAVID MURA: When I was in high school during the time of sort of intense period where you want — you want to be part of the crowd and be part of everybody, I used to think it compliment when a white friend would say to me, “I think of you, David, just like a white person.” I sort of deliberately shunned connections with — with other Asian Americans and I had this image of sort of myself fighting against this sort of image of the geek-science-nerd Asian. And I sort of deliberately developed a very sort of flamboyant way of dressing and an obnoxious personality in order to sort of combat this. And I — I really wanted say, “Well, I’m not like Steven Chen, you know, who wore a white shirt and pencils in his pocket and white — white socks.”
DAVID MURA: And after a lot of thinking about these issues, I wrote this poem — and a love of living, I wrote this poem, which is called, MISS JUNE 1964, which is about the discovery of Playboy’s Miss June 1964 in my father’s closet. “I’m twelve, home from school with a slight fever. I slide back the door of my parents’ closet. My mother’s out shopping. Rummage among pumps, flats lined in a rack, unzipped the garment bags, one by one. It slides like a sigh from the folded sweaters. I flip through ads for cologne, LPs, a man in trench coat lugging a panda-sized Fleischmanns fifth. Somewhere past the photo, of all people, Albert Schweitzer in his famous pith helmet and walrus moustache, I spill the photo millions of men — white, black, yellow — have seen. For the body before me is white, eighteen. Her breasts are enormous, almost frightening. The areolas seem large as my fist. As the three glossy pages sprawl before me, I start to touch myself and there is some terror my mother will come home, some delight I’ve never felt before. And I do not cry out. I make no sound.”
DAVID MURA: And the image there was of a white woman. And so when I think about my sexuality and what I was taught that was beautiful, it was white faces. And I had to figure out what is the question for me about my own sexuality? And my friend, Mark Hiashi, says, “Well, every culture needs its eunuchs and Asian American men are it. We’re the eunuchs of this culture.” And I think I felt it instinctively as a — as a young boy and really felt rageful at that fact. But, I had no language to articulate that. And I think that in a lot of ways— had I not been a — a writer, had I not been pushed by what I feel is a writerly duty to look for the truth of your life and the world around you, to dive into those complexities and contradictions — I might have ended up so messed up that — that I could conceivably be dead now. And I don’t think that’s melodramatic to say, because there was a point in my late 20s, where my identity just simply just fell apart. I had a lot of self-destructive behaviors, I mean a lot of dealing with, drugs and drinking and promiscuity and that was all fueled, I think, by a self-hatred and a rage that I didn’t understand.
BILL MOYERS: How does poetry help you grapple with these conflicts, these struggles?
DAVID MURA: Poetry helped me to see how those things are connected and helped me, I think, to go on with my life. And what I love about poetry is it is up to readers to take in each poet’s own subjective personal notion and their understanding of what the world is. And it’s sort of like suddenly there’s more information coming. There’s another voice coming in and you have to listen to that voice.
DAVID MURA: “Women and people of color compose 65 percent of the workforce, white males 35 percent. White males, though, hold 95 percent of the top management jobs. “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! What’s that? Oh, I just keep hitting my head against the glass ceiling. Oh, do I detect a conspiracy here? Say it ain’t so, Toto. Say it ain’t so! Oh, I do believe in America! I do believe in America! I do believe in America!”
FEMALE POETRY STUDENT: The first thing I’m gonna read is called, PATERNAL LOVE. “Last night at dinner, it’s funny how I watch you work that empty Pepsi can like it was your salvation. Finally, my eyes were opened at the sight of your hands, gnarled, grasping desperately, needing reassurance as you told of another let-down at work. With a passion that seared, you crushed the metal in your peaceful hands. Squeezing tightly, you could have deflated that flimsy cylinder. Instead, you looked down with the resignation that aches, settled back in your chair, and quietly placed it on the table. Isn’t it funny how our stoicism becomes an obsession. When I’m watching your hands speak the loneliness you feel and I can’t reach out with my own, warm and soft, to sooth their dryness? We are strong in our silence together.”
BILL MOYERS: Back to this business of writing poetry, when terror walks into that waiting room, what if what you receive you don’t want to hear or frightens you or is a terrible truth about the past or about your family?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Oh, it certainly has happened lots of times. But you ace— you have to accept it anyway. You cannot play for safety and make art. If you will draw back from what frightens you — you may as well stop writing almost. You might as well stop attempting, because everything is frightening in a way, you know? Every morning you wake up to the unexpected and to what might kill you, every morning.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there’s one of your very small poems that — that reinforces what you’ve just said. Read that for me.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: This doesn’t have a title. “Each morning I pull myself out of despair from a night of coals and a tongue blistered with smiling. The step past the mother bed is a high step. The walk through the widow’s door is a long walk. And who are these voices calling from every mirrored thing, ‘Say it, Coward. Say it’?'” Every day there are things that would make one hate and you have to mention them and try not to hate as soon as possible.
BILL MOYERS: The shape shifter poems …
LUCILLE CLIFTON: MmM-hMm.
BILL MOYERS: … you didn’t read those the other night.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Just read a couple of them and tell me who is the shape shifter and what does that mean. I’ve never heard that term.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: The shape shifter is a creature that changes for some reason. One doesn’t know why. One sometimes doesn’t know when, but all of a sudden they are different. SHAPE SHIFTER POEMS. This is the first one. “The legend is whispered in the women’s tent how the moon when she rises full, follows some men into themselves and changed them there. The season is short, but dreadful. Shape shifters, they wear strange hands. They walk through the houses at night. Their daughters do not know them.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Now they’re — this is — these poems — it’s a series of poems abuse. There’s a child, a girl child, who is being interfered with by — I guess by her father, since it says, “Their daughters do not know them.”
BILL MOYERS: And a shape shifter is a young woman who …
LUCILLE CLIFTON: No. The shape shifter is the man …
BILL MOYERS: Ah.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: … who is on one— you know, you don’t expect to be molested or — in whatever way, in whatever way by someone whom you trust and love and think of as an authority figure.
BILL MOYERS: So he’s shifting his shape?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: He’s shifting, shifting from Dad-Father, et cetera, into this Other. There’s another one, the second one. This is a — this is more clear surely. “Who is there to protect her from the hands of the father? Not the windows, which see and say nothing. Not the moon, that awful eye, not the woman she will become with her scarred tongue. Who-who-who, the owl laments into the evening. Who will protect her, this pretty little girl?”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: The last one. “The poem at the end of the world is the poem the little girl breathes into her pillow, the one she cannot tell, the one there’s no one to hear. This poem is a political poem, is a war poem, is a universal poem, but it not about these things. This poem is about one human heart. This poem is the poem at the end of the world.”
BILL MOYERS: Did you know the little girl in those poems?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I surely do. In this poem she was me.
BILL MOYERS: So, you were the child being abused?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Yeah. I — that seems so stark, because …
BILL MOYERS: This is journalism, not art. . .
LUCILLE CLIFTON: … because I don’t think — I want to assure you that — and I’ve written many other — I’ve written other poems about this subject. This — that is not my identity. I’ve had lots of things in my life that — that are not my identity. It goes back to, nor was it my father’s identity as well, but I try to see things wholly. I am one of the people, I want to see wholly. I should say also that the first person who came to me and said, “Thank you for those poems. I was a shape shifter,” that is to say, “I was a sexual abuser of a child,” was female. The first person who came to me and said that. And when they said, “thank you,” all of I could was hug ’em. I mean, you know, I’m not about judging them.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: “Begin here, in the dark where the girl is sleeping. Begin with a shadow rising on the wall. No. Begin with a spear of salt like a tongue. No. Begin with a swollen horn or finger. No. No. Begin here. Something in the girl is wakening. Something in girl is falling deeper and deeper asleep.”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: This is called, NIGHT VISION. “The girl fits her body into the space between the bed and the wall. She’s a stalk, exhausted. She will do something with this. She will surround these bones with flesh. She will cultivate night vision. She will train her tongue to lie still in her mouth and listen. The girl slips into sleep. Her dream is red and raging. She will remember to build something human with it.”
BILL MOYERS: Do you try when that dark figure enters, to shift its shape with your poetry?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: No. I try — I don’t think so. I think I try to say — to say what it is.
BILL MOYERS: To name it?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: And that’s — to name it. And that’s because what I know is that it doesn’t just come to me and that there are others there for whom my naming it can give it name for them as well. If you name it, you can understand better.
BILL MOYERS: Again, poetry is healing.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I think so. It can be, healing certainly for me as a poet and for the audience as well.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I’ve been widowed for ten years. When my husband died, he was 49 years old. This is about what happened after that, when you decide — you have to decide, “What am I going to do now with my life?”
LUCILLE CLIFTON: This is called, SHE LIVED. “After he died, what really happened is she watched the days bundle into thousands, watched every act become the history of others, every bed more narrow. But even as the eyes of lovers strained toward the milky young, she walked away from the hole in the ground, deciding to live and she lived.”
BILL MOYERS: Listening and watching and experiencing, I thought “This human being has had a very hard life.” But now I think I see something of how she’s been able to survive.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Ultimately, if you fill yourself with venom, you will be poisoned. And I don’t want to be. I’m a survivor from my heart. I figured that out a long time ago.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: I’d like to end with this poem. This is a poem I wrote for myself and I’d like to read it for myself and I’d like to read it for poetry and I’d like to read it for my kind and I’d like to read it for humans, for the Festival.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: “Won’t you celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life? I had no model. Born in Babylon, both non-white and woman, what did I see to be except myself? I made it up. Here, on this bridge between star shine and clay, my one hand holding tight my other hand. Come, celebrate with me, that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
This transcript was entered on June 22, 2015.