Mine the Tension Series: Reading Lucille Clifton in a Time of Trouble

This week, I read it Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light. Toward the end of the collection, Clifton has several poems that explore the nuance of a single voice across several pages. I confess that as a reader and writer longer poems present something of a challenge because they require sustained attention to the possibility of language. In her poem about Satan in particular, I find myself lost in either the story or the voice, unable to – without extreme effort – focus on both at the same time.

As an exercise, I attempted to create a poem that topically traversed several pages and formally oscillated between structure and free verse. The most difficult part was the most basic: picking a topic. What is it that requires sustained attention? One poet I know complains that not every poem ought to have been written. I am not sure I agree wholeheartedly, but I do think it worth considering. The other difficult part of creating a longer poem is the interrogation of specific words – what something means in the first section or stanza could/should? change. No? Last, I found myself in the predicament of needing to choose which sections required more structured engagement than others. I suppose that right now my choice is random. That is what editing is for.

This is the tension I’m in right now: how to creatively sustain attention and possibility with ideas and concepts as ephemeral as the words used to describe them.

About TAPPhD

Therí A. Pickens received her undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature from Princeton University (P'05) and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA (2010). Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. She recently published her first book, New Body Politics (Routledge, 2014), which investigates the role of the material body in constructing social and political critique. Her critical work has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, Al-Jadid, Journal of Canadian Literature, Al-Raida, and, the ground-breaking collection, Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English at Bates College. She is also a creative writer. Her poetry has appeared in Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, Save the Date, and Disability Studies Quarterly. Her drama has been performed at the NJ State Theater. She offers courses on Arab American and African American literature. In her introductory courses, she seeks to provide students with information and skills that will enable and empower them to critically and constructively engage difficult topics like race, sexuality, gender, disability, and class. In her upper division courses, she pushes students to synthesize their knowledge from other classes and expand their critical thinking repertoires.
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