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Spinning & Spanning with Miss Lucille

I still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lucille Clifton performing “Homage to my Hips.” That “put a spell on a man and spin him like a top” line made my head spin in that good, Dickinsonian, top-of-head-taken-off-way. She didn’t read that poem when she visited Seattle Arts & Lectures two years ago, but everything that she did read and everything about her in general, was just as–sorry, I can’t help myself–mind-blowing.

I had gotten away from her work in the years since college, but in reading her poetry and reading about her in preparation for her visit to the Poetry Series that I host, I was amazed by what her life had spanned and by who she had known. For instance, her first poems were published by Langston Hughes (Langston Hughes, people!) in Poetry of the Negro. If her life was a bridge, and the river below our troubled 20th century, on the one end stood Langston Hughes, and on the other, President Obama. Being in her presence felt vividly historical and I was vividly, awkwardly awed.

I had just started hosting the Poetry Series and hadn’t quite gotten in the swing of the improvisatory nature of the Q&A session at the end of each event. I wanted to recognize her great contribution to African American literature, and also celebrate a lifetime of historical intersections. “You’ve known,” I said, “so many amazing folks in your life.” And I listed Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and a few others–all African American. And Clifton shot back: “I’ve known some white ones, too.” The audience laughed, I blushed. And then she answered the question (whatever it was) with grace and humor and intelligence.

After the reading, after the book-signing line which stretched on (its own bridge) for over an hour as she talked at length to every person, it was time to take her back to the hotel, but she was hungry (not having eaten much of the fancy dinner I’d taken her out to before the reading). What did she want? She wanted McDonald’s. So with my husband in the back seat–both of us marveling at the surreal experience we were having–we’re taking Lucille Clifton to McDonald’s!–we went through the drive-through and got her a hamburger and fries and coke.

I feel honored to have had my drive-through moment with Ms. Clifton. Not the actual drive-through, but the chance to chauffeur her on a bit of the long drive of her life, and to get to look with her all the way back across the bridge to the very beginning. Godspeed, Lucille. I hope the food isn’t too fancy in heaven.