Reader Response: The REAL Lucille Clifton

We love getting your reactions to the material that we post. If your message contains new information or images relevant to one of our posts, we’ll even publish it as a separate piece. Here’s what one of our readers, also a contributor, emailed me regarding “A Tribute to Lucille Clifton.”

Dear Ilse,

Thanks so much–wonderful piece.

The Angel

A 1979 poetry reading at The Angel Tavern on Bank Street in Fells Point (Photo: The Baltimore Sun)

Lucille and I became friends years ago and she gave many gratis readings for Poetry at The Angel, a series of readings in a Fells Point bar that ran every single Sunday for 3 years; Dyane Fancey and I ran it. Readers ranged from poets laureate and folks like WD Snodgrass to bag ladies and drunks. Some of the latter weren’t bad either. Wot larks. Lucille, of course, was a star in The Angel’s crown.

I’ve attached “Bone to Bone,” a short story based on a Clifton anecdote. It won 2nd prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition (with a nice check and plaque) and a place in The Best of Carve in whatever year it was. 2005, I think.

The anecdote, a story Lexie says she remembers well, was this: for some months, Lucille was getting miffed phone calls from people wondering why she had not responded to their invitations to read, to run for Poet Laureate, etc., etc.; seems much of her mail was going to another Lucille Clifton who lived in Baltimore. When Lucille contacted this woman about turning over the mis-sent mail, Clifton #2 insisted she was ‘The REAL” Lucille Clifton and that those invitations etc. were meant for her! Quite the hassle.

The story’s about someone’s attempt to steal the identify of a famous poet. Everything about it is fiction (the physical look of the poet is actually based on my experiences with Gwendolyn Brooks long ago), but the story stems directly from Lucille’s mail problem.

Identity as a topic came up again at LPR’s tribute to Lucille at the 2012 Baltimore Book Festival. Inspired by her line “one evening I return,” I embedded it in the title of an on-the-spot poem that I wrote and read to the the audience. This time, I absolutely told the verbatim truth, recounting an anecdote exactly as Lucille had told it to me on the phone:

One evening I return to a Baltimore bookstore and find it closed
Clarinda Harriss

1969: Lucille Clifton went to Gordon’s to buy a book.
“Do you have any form of photo identification?”
She had no form of photo identification.
Why carry a passport in your own country?
She was told her credit card was no good without photo identification.
She walked over to a table covered with books by Lucille Clifton.
She stood beside a life-size cardboard cut-out photo of Lucille Clifton.
“But you can’t be Lucille Clifton,” the salesman said.
“Lucille Clifton is famous.”

 Your fan,



Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harris, BrickHouse Books founder and director, speaks at the imprint’s 40th birthday bash. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

“Lexie” is Alexia Clifton, Lucille Clifton’s youngest daughter.

“cl” stands for Clarinda HarrissClarinda is a Professor Emerita of English at Towson University and the former department chair, has served as the faculty advisor to Grub Street, the University’s award-winning literary magazine and is the founder and director of BrickHouse Books, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press. She has authored a number of poetry collections, most recently Mortmain and Dirty Blue Voice, and co-edited anthologies such as Hot Sonnets. A review of Hot Sonnets appears in this blog, as does “Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harriss” and “Self-Interview: Clarinda Harriss.” And remember that you can download and read her short story “Bone to Bone” here by clicking on the above link.

Clarinda’s mention of the readings at The Angel got me searching the Web. The only photo that I found was one offered on eBay, and Clarinda promptly bought it. According to her, the “100” is written in thick copy pencil, which she remembers from her dad’s newspaper days. She identifies the people as follows: “The three ‘front men’ are the late Jessica Locklear, poet, Lumbee Indian (black, white, Native American, like pretty much all Lumbees) and Frank Evans, still alive, well, witty, and wise, a never-closeted gay man. And Clarinda Harriss Lott, not yet divorced from the late Judge Hubert E. Lott.”

When I asked Clarinda for information on her father, she said he was, “RP Harriss, brought to Baltimore to be Mencken’s Special Assistant. Henry Mencken introduced my parents to each other. My dad went on to be an editor at The Evening Sun. His only novel, The Foxes, was a Book of the Month Club alternate, so it did pretty well. He was editor of The Paris Herald as well–hence received most of Ezra Pound’s crazy letters.”

I’d better stop here, though I’m sure there’s more intriguing material to uncover!

5 thoughts on “Reader Response: The REAL Lucille Clifton

  1. Laura Shovan

    I was amazed — as all of us were at the Baltimore Book Festival tribute to Clifton — when Clarinda wrote this little on-the-spot gem. I can picture every detail of the event she describes, but I’d never heard the story about Lucille’s mail going to the wrong Lucille Clifton.

    Ilse and Clarinda, thank you for these insights into a great poet and the scene at The Angel. If we keep alive our stories about a friend, that person never truly leaves us.


  2. david eberhardt

    lovwe the photo of Clarinda- she looks like CATHERINE THE GREAT?!?!?

    Lucille Clifton- like Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange? offer an antidote to the aneemic and acadeemic poetry one sees in magazines like Poetry or American Poetry Review. You won’t see spoken word poets in these magazines either. They are blanched white.

    As a radical white poet- I think my soul sistas and bruvvas- poetry closer to the heart- to emotion- to direct and honest feeling!

    The Sun does not even publish poetry any more!


  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 | Little Patuxent Review

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