Written by Clare Kelly.
Lucille Clifton’s profound impact on the St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) community still thrives today. Clifton’s writing created strides in modern poetry. She won the National Book Award for Poetry and was the first Black recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement. Amongst all of these accolades and awards, Clifton’s teaching and attentiveness to students show her dedication to teaching. Lucille is known for asking, “did it change the room?”
Two great poets did “change the room” in the name of Clifton. In the words of Michael Glaser, “two amazing poets and thinkers” visited the campus of SMCM on Saturday, Feb 29 for “An Evening to Honor the Legacy of Lucille Clifton.” Poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Danusha Laméris are both revered and accomplished throughout the country and worldwide.
According to the information provided by the college on the artists, Nye wrote many books of poems including “The Tiny Journalist,” “Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners,” “You and Yours,” which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and “10 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East,” a collection of poems about the Middle East. Nye uses her voice to her Arab-American heritage through her poems and short stories that have appeared in numerous journals and reviews.
Laméris’ first book of poems, “The Moons of August” won the 2013 Autumn House Press poetry contest. Her poems have been published among many journals, including the Crab Orchard Review, Poetry Northwest, and The SUN Magazine. Laméris earned her B.A. in fine arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also studied at the Shaq Valley Writers Workshop and with the poet Ellen Bass.
Before the event to honor the memory of Clifton, the two poets gathered for an informal conversation. To begin this event, Michael Glaser, the facilitator for discussion, asked both poets to read a poem that speaks to how poetry can serve us. Nye read a poem entitled “This Morning for the Girls of Eastern High School.” She comments on how “people, both girls, and boys, that would sit up stronger” when they heard this poem. Nye believes this poem “invites students to think about their own lives and how they mattered. It’s a great poem to enter any room.”
Following Nye, Laméris said “It’s surreal and emotional; [it’s] beautiful to be in this world of poetry and how poetry sustains [Lucille Clifton].” Laméris read her poem entitled “Small Kindnesses” that speaks to all the small acts of love. As Laméris herself says, “small things tend to be the greatest things.”
In her opening remarks, Professor Karen Leona Anderson, professor of English and Director of the Voices Reading Series, shared her personal story of courage and encouraged the audiences to use poetry as a means to “inspire our own [bravery].” President Tuajuanda Jordan remarked that Lucille Clifton was a transformative presence and a beacon. She created a space where taking risks wasn’t discouraged but encouraged. As Jordan exclaimed, “failures are our best friends.”
After her respectful and heartfelt remarks about Clifton, President Jordan awarded the President’s Lucille Clifton award, instituted in 2016. This award is given to an employee that best encourages students the way that Lucille Clifton impacted the campus of St. Mary’s. It’s given to someone who exemplifies the compassionate elements that Clifton embodied. This years’ recipients include Lee Capristo, the director of publications, and Janna Thompson, an assistant professor of education. Samorah Neal ’23, a student of Dr. Thompson, said, “Dr. Janna Chevon Thompson is a woman who highly represents Black excellence and is such a great role model for her students. She is a determined and highly motivated spirit who just wants to see her students strive for greatness.” After presenting the President’s award to Capristo and Thompson, Jordan presented Nye and Laméris with awards. Jordan presented Nye with the Certificate of Appreciation and Laméris with the Legacy Award.
As an interlude between speakers, the SMCM Women’s Ensemble, under the direction of Larry Vote, sang one of Clifton’s poems called “My Girls,” with music by Gwyneth Walker. Allison Johnson, a member of the SMCM Women’s choir, said, “Though her poetry speaks for itself, bringing it to life through song is a unique experience, and we were glad to share that experience with those in attendance. Both Alexa and Gillian Clifton, the daughters of Lucille Clifton shared their reflections. They stated how her legacy must continue, as one sister said: “reminds me of her celebration of diversity and truth-telling.”
Nye introduced her reading by reading a poem by Clifton. She talks about how Anderson’s introduction deeply moved her as Lucille had helped her put it all together. Nye reads “Roots” by Clifton, a beautiful poem with deep, meaningful lines such as “we become a field of flowers” and “it’s the light in us.” These lines show the imagery Clifton used to root her reader in poetry. Clifton’s poetic language and the meaning she instills in her words live on through her publications. Her comparison of all becoming a “field of flowers” follows the theme of how light lives in each person. Nye closes with reading “Gratitude List,” which powerfully includes the line “almonds, roasted and salted, cheese.” These items of food express how the richness of nature comes with age and experience. Nye’s deep, powerful reading encompassed the attention of all those in the St. Mary’s Hall.
As people digested and internalized the inspirational words and language of Nye, musical talent took to the stage. Brian Ganz provided a beautiful piano interlude that encompassed all the feelings of the room—his piece expressed both sadness and joy. Ganz described this night as “[the] most incandescent evening.” He remarks, “[Lucille] knew [how] to reach the light…walked straight up to the darkness and stared it down.” As Ganz played his expression proved the emotional appeal of the piece.
In her reading, Laméris comments, “Every person is a country” and “Lucille Clifton was a country of grace and truth and sharp wit…learn so much by traveling to another country” “Lucille Clifton [was] not afraid to speak more of suffering” Laméris tells the audience how “paying attention to nature’s music allows us to hear its harmony.” As she read “Small Kindnesses” Laméris said, “[it’s the] small things we so need to be thinking about.” These small acts of kindness “will the smallest graces” and “let something happen that’s unexpected and beautiful.” Laméris concludes her reading by saying that, “Lucille Clifton made a beautiful life here and it’s a blessing to […] be included.”
Kyra Smith ’23 says, “I loved the poets…they really moved me and made me want to start poetry up again. Especially the one where she talked about her childhood, I thought it was fun and engaging. But to be able to sit there in that room in the same space as those amazing women is something I can’t change and will remember it all my life [be]cause I don’t think I’ll get that opportunity again.” As Nye expressed with great gratitude during her reading, “Lucille gave everything she had” and we all need to follow in her footsteps.