Community gathers to honor Clifton with poetry, music

“American poetry is like a big house with rooms in it for everyone.” – Lucille Clifton

On Monday Sept. 12, the annual Voices reading series was off to a powerful start with a Lucille Clifton memorial. Daugherty-Palmer Commons (DPC) was completely filled as two poets that Clifton believed showed pure “clarity, vision, courage and compassion” read their poetry.

Evie Shockley started off the night with readings from her own repertoire. Shockley is the author of four collections of poetry and a professor of African American Literature and Creative Writing at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She calls Clifton her “only poetry teacher,” and says that she could not imagine her poetic life without her.

Shockley is soft-spoken, but she was entirely heard and appreciated, with the room completely quiet as she spoke. In the poems she chose to read, she puts her own ideas about race into words while also trying to understand the experiences of people who have not lived through what she has.

Her poem about life after Hurricane Katrina and her sonnet about a death-sentenced gang member reformed by his prison experience instilled shock and awe in the audience. She chose to end her reading with a new poem simply named “Third Attempt at an Elegy for Lucille Clifton.” With the line, “a leaf fallen but not dropped,” Shockley elevated the audience and praised Clifton in a way that ensured that she will always be remembered.

Following Shockley’s awe-inspiring performance, Kurtis Lamkin took the podium. Lamkin is a poet and songwriter who plays the Kora, a beautiful 21-string West African instrument. He works at the intersection of music and poetry, a West African tradition called “Djelia.”

Lamkin brought nothing with him up to the podium, speaking every poem directly from his memory. He reminisced about going to see Clifton do readings in New York City where he was living at the time. He says that she would “change people” with her words. As a precaution, Lamkin warned, “if I start to misbehave, I got love on my side; Lucille is here.”

What Lamkin does is far from misbehaving; the audience was entranced by his powerful words and overcome by his personal connection with every viewer. His animated poem, “The Foxes Manifesto,” infused laughter with saturated silence in the audience, and eventually brought them to their feet when Lamkin declared, “I am going to give you an opportunity to shake your hiney!” The audience did just that.

He says, “performing for college students is the most sobering experience. They have a habit of studying, so when I feel students getting engaged with what I am performing, it is beautiful.”

Junior Jacob Silver remarked after the performance, “I feel better than I did when I walked in. It opened me up to different perspectives and made me feel more lucid.”

Sophomore Juliana Torres was speechless but could describe the night as “super exhilarating” and said that “Lamkin’s combination of mixed medias and Shockley’s words were truly inspiring.”

Everyone in the room was certainly inspired as Clifton was honored with the words of a new generation of enchanting poets.

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