On Friday, March 1, poets, daughters, students, admirers, and newcomers alike gathered for “Nurturing the Compassionate Community: An Evening to Honor the Legacy of Lucille Clifton”. As guests filed in, softly conversing and enjoying refreshments, a grand piano played in the background, coming to an end when President Tuajuanda C. Jordan took the podium. Describing herself as a void-filler, taking up space while the poets readied themselves, she briefly spoke on the impact that Lucille Clifton, Poet Laureate of Maryland and Professor Emeritus at St. Mary’s, had on the community, a theme that would continue through the evening. She introduced the poets, speakers and musician for the night, as well as Clifton’s daughters.
Padma Soundararajan, a student who was at St. Mary’s while Clifton was a professor, spoke to Clifton’s dedication and love she had for all who came into contact with her. While vacationing in India, Soundararajan’s family was in a car accident, and most of her family tragically died. Upon hearing of this Clifton took action, making many attempts to get into contact with her, and attending the funerals.
Dr. Jordan returned to the podium and paused for a while, moved, before attesting that Lucille Clifton’s spirit was everywhere on the campus, and in the room while she was being honored. She then introduced the three other honorees, Mary Johnston, Sonia Sanchez, and Ashley M. Jones. Johnston, the operations/customer service coordinator for the Physical Plant was nominated by students, faculty and staff to receive the President’s Lucille Clifton Award. The award also came with access passes to the dining hall to, as Clifton often did, “spend quality time with students, faculty and staff in a community eating space.” Sanchez, famous poet and active member in the Congress of Racial Equality, as well as friend of Lucille Clifton, was also given an award along with the collected poems of Lucille Clifton, and the opportunity to choose a young poet to honor, for which she chose Jones. Jones has two books of poetry published, and received an MFA in poetry from Florida International University.
Clifton’s daughters then came to the podium, and told how Lucille was a mother to everyone she met– not just them, but her students and strangers too. While she was born in a small town and never set out to be a poet, she became a world presence but was constantly shocked by how well known she was.
Pianist and Artist-in-Residence Brian Ganz talked about his friendship with Clifton, and her favorite composer, Bach. He played some of her favorite compositions by him, and responses Chopin had to Bach.
Jones introduced Sanchez, who talked about her and Lucille’s chats on the phone, and the way that time had of stopping every time they spoke. She read a piece she wrote for black poets who had died within the last four years, as well as other published works, all interspersed with scatting and singing. She poignantly remarked that the people in obvious positions of power are not always the ones who are making real change, before introducing Jones, her nomination for the Lucille Clifton Award.
Jones talked about the influence Clifton had on her as an undergrad, studying her work and emulating her in her own poetry. She read several of her own pieces, including one on her grandmother after she passed away, one on the influence of Harriet Tubman, and one in which Clifton’s poem was interwoven with her own.
After a few closing remarks and thanks, the ceremony ended as Clifton ended her classes: with everyone holding hands. A recording of her reading her poem “Blessing of the Boats” played to conclude the evening. From personal tidbits, like her love of solitaire, to deeper traits, like the compassion she showed towards all people, it became clear how well loved she was. Student Alyssa Hawkins (‘21) said of her experience “I enjoyed the feeling of security it brought. I love Lucille Clifton and I’ve never met her, but I felt like I got a chance to encounter her tonight. It was truly unforgettable!”
This was the third event of its kind, but Dr. Jordan announced that for the fifth, the celebration will be on a much larger scale, with all previous poets honored hopefully in attendance.