I didn’t expect to be talking again to y’all so soon after my sweet poet-friend, Lucille Clifton passed, but something happened, and I wanted to share it with y’all. Please give me a minute to go around the barnyard with my story, because it takes me a minute to tell something from beginning to end. All my friends know this about me. Miss Lucille definitely knew.
In my last blog post, I let y’all know that Miss Lucille was incredibly important to me and that I loved her so much. I can’t even describe how much I loved her. It was that much.
One of the reasons I did love her is that she was really sweet, really real, and really wise, all at the same time. She didn’t have to remind you she was wise. When we would talk on the phone, stuff would just come out her mouth, and I’d be thinking, “This lady is deep to the nth degree.” But she didn’t get all high-handed and remind you of how deep she was. That’s what made her deep.
And she had visions, too, that would come true. Let me give you an example.
A year and a half ago, right after Barack Obama won the presidential election, but before the inauguration, I called up Miss Lucille all excited. I’d had a vision that a poet we both knew was going to be the inaugural poet at Barack’s inauguration. I’d seen somebody—a woman—standing up on the podium and I was sure—positive—it would be that poet.
I must admit, I was pretty pleased with myself. About fifteen years ago, right around the time I became a serious writer, I had started having strange dreams and waking visions, and I had begun to think of myself as some sort of Super Special Person Endowed With Unmatchable Gifts.
Tangent: you know, when you are a poet, you have to work on yourself to stop taking everything you think and do so seriously, because you can start to become obnoxious and intolerable. I was knocking on the door of that address around the time this happened.
So I tell Miss Lucille what I had seen in my vision, and she said, “No, Honi, it’s not going to be that person. It’s going to be Elizabeth. I just feel it.” She was talking about our mutual dear friend (and my mentor), Elizabeth Alexander.
I actually tried to argue with Miss Lucille. I gave her all the reasons that I was right. I would never have said she was wrong, but I did want to tell her that I was right. And she was real nice about it. Some other older person would have cussed me out, probably, but Miss Lucille was kind and patient with me, all while still maintained that the inaugural poet would be Elizabeth Alexander.
The next thing you know, I’d heard on the news that Elizabeth had been chosen as the inaugural poet. And of course, my mind was blown. Though I was happy–ecstatic– for her, I gotta tell you, I was thinking, “Have I lost my mojo? Is it gone?”
Another tangent: you know, a poet has a hard time understanding, “It’s not always about me. The world does not spin on my jenky little axis every moment of the day. Forget about my mojo; let me celebrate the accomplishment of my dear friend and mentor.”
I’m a work in progress, y’all. And this story has a good ending. Just bear with me.
Anyway, I called Miss Lucille up again, and I said, “Miss Lucille, I just knew I was right. I’m sort of confused right now.”
And she said, “Well, Honi, your mojo is strong. But I’m thirty years older than you, and so my mojo is just a little bit stronger than yours. But yours will get there.”
I told you she was deep.
Another time—this was three years ago if I remember right—I was fussing on the phone to Miss Lucille about how I felt like people were ignoring my writing, poetry and fiction. Looking back, I want to slap myself upside the head for my arrogance. I was talking to Lucille Clifton, who at that time was in her late sixties. It took her thirty years of writing to win the National Book Award. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, and never received it.
Let me say that again: Lucille Clifton never received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. To most American poets—black, white, and everything else—this is a travesty of the highest order.
And there I was, complaining to this lady, six years after my first book was published because I wasn’t making six figures and wasn’t full professor (like some of my friends) and I hadn’t won the Pulitzer. But even while I was complaining about what I didn’t have yet, I’d already won some awards and people were paying me pretty good money to come do readings. I was getting my piece of the poetry pie, but I couldn’t see that at the time.
That day, Miss Lucille told me something I will never forget. She told me, I needed to stop focusing on money and the prizes and focus on the writing first, and that if I focused on the writing, I would be recognized eventually the way I wanted. She told me that I would be recognized not only as a poet, but also, as a fiction writer. She was nice with it, but she had a bit of steel in her voice that day, which wasn’t a usual thing for her.
I’m confessing something else here: I didn’t believe Miss Lucille. I thought she was just trying to keep me together in a nice way. I really did.
It took two years for me to really understand what she meant about not worrying so much about worldly things—I had stopped caring about what my friends had that I didn’t have. Or, I did for the most part. We writers are full of ego, and yes, sometimes it stung when a friend was published in The New Yorker or won some $50,000 prize that I hadn’t or one of my friends was nominated for the National Book Award or one of my friends new book was coming out from a big press (and not a small university one).
I’m human and it stung, but the good news was, it stung only for a minute. The first time it stopped stinging all day long, I thought, “Don’t I feel about things strongly anymore?” The second time it happened, I knew I had just stopped investing needless energy in something I couldn’t control. And I stopped feeling eaten up with doubt about my talents and with jealousy.
I realized that I might not have what some people have, but I have more than most, and that it’s downright ugly to complain about what you don’t have when you have good things in your life. It’s just not right. So, I just got back to focusing on my own work and trying to make it better. And I am paying my bills, which is always a spectacular event for a single, black woman.
Fast forward a year.
A few days ago, I was traveling to attend Miss Lucille’s memorial service in Maryland. As I always do when I travel, I take along materials to write with. Miss Lucille told me a few years back that “you should always be open to the poem.” She said always carry something to write down your thoughts and words that come to you, and no matter when they come, stop and write them down.
I’ve remembered that over the years. Sometimes, when I am talking to somebody on the phone or in person, a string of words will enter my mind, and I will interrupt the person in mid-sentence and say, “Excuse me, I have to write this down.” Then, after I write it down, I apologize, because I do have a little bit of home training, despite some of the stories I’ve told you in this blog post.
When I travel, I will always buy a book to keep me company, too. Reading someone else’s words sometimes helps me to spark my own words, words Miss Lucille told me I should always be ready for. So, three days ago, when I was preparing to board the plane for Miss Lucille’s memorial service, I bought a book. I couldn’t settle down to read it in Maryland, because it was a hectic and sad couple of days. I was on the plane coming back when I pulled out the book from my big lady’s purse. It was the Best American Short Stories 2009 anthology.
I decided to flip to the back of the book to the “100 More Distinguished Stories” section, to see if I recognized anyone’s name. This section is essentially the short list for the anthology, and even though there are one hundred stories on the short list, to be selected is a really big honor, because thousands (many, many thousands) of stories have been rejected even for the short list.
I guess you already know what I am going to say. I saw my name on the “100 More Distinguished Stories” list. They had left off my accent, but I didn’t care. There was my name,”Honoree Fanonne Jeffers” and my story,”Easter Lilies in the West Room” which appeared in PMS: Poetry/Memoir/Story 2008.
A story and not a poem.
I’ve been writing fiction for fifteen years. It took me five years to even get my first story published. And throughout those fifteen years, one of my biggest dreams—ever— was to see my name on the “100 More Distinguished Stories” list—at the back of this anthology. I’m not playing with you here.
I’d wanted so much for my poetry, before I found my artistic mind where I lost it. I’d wanted money, fame, the adoration of my peers, and stellar credit. But for my fiction, all I’ve ever wanted was to see my name at the back of this particular book. I probably would have peed my pants if they’d actually included my story in the front of the book. And that wouldn’t have been cool, because my seatmate was kind of cute. And he told me he was a doctor. I wished I’d asked for his number.
I’ve been sad about my friend and mentor. I’ve been missing her strong. She made me smile all the time, and she made me feel loved. And though she was beloved of many people who weren’t black, and she loved a lot of people who weren’t black, she was that quintessential down-to-earth sister that makes the black community a source, a font, of something great and sometimes even divine. That makes our community sometimes not all right, but always okay. At least for me.
So when I saw my name in the back of the book, first, I squealed and scared people (including my cute doctor seatmate). And then, I made one of them old black woman sounds: “Umph, umph, umph,” that indicate that something profound has happened.
And for me, it had. Somebody liked my little story. The editor didn’t give me a dime for it, but I wrote it well enough for somebody to say, “Well done. I connected with your words and I enjoyed them.”
That’s all. But that’s all I’ve ever needed. Finally, I received the wisdom that Miss Lucille was trying to give me. So even though I’m still a little sad about my friend, let me share with you that today is a good day, indeed.