24 February 2010

Farewell, Lucille Clifton, or Why we don't critique content in my writers' group

My poetry teacher at UC Santa Cruz died recently, which undammed a wash of complicated feelings. I liked her poems, but the best thing about being in her class was the other writers I met there.

Once I was feeling comfortable in the class, I submitted a poem about being a child in my father's car while he drove us home from a party, drunk. Lucille Clifton, instead of critiquing my poem on its literary merits, attacked my content: "A father wouldn't do that to his children. This isn't believable. This couldn't happen."

Really!? This was astonishing news to me.

But you know how it is when someone tells you "This can't be done" or "No, you are dead wrong on this"-- and you just have to set them straight. I was so flummoxed at first by Lucille Clifton's reactions to me and my work that I deliberately didn't pick up my final critique from her, which in a way was just hurting myself because now it means I probably only have a couple of those poems from long ago. Miz Clifton, I now see more clearly, had a chip on her shoulder about discrimination and privilege, understandably given our time and place. I am guessing that to her, most of us at UCSC appeared to be just-weaned, still-sniveling symbols of privilege. She asked aspiring poets who wanted to take her class to write about a time when they were in the minority. She barely believed me when I said that being from a hippie family made me different from my peers, even though I felt those differences acutely every day that I was in school or watched television or had some other opportunity to see how other kids my age lived. I believe she had in her mind a notion about what it meant to be a hippie that didn't quite match my situation. I didn't know enough about the way things were to explain that I wasn't talking about being the kid of privileged parents who had decided to chuck the whole establishment scene, but rather was talking about being a kid of a sociopathic father and a manic-depressive mother. Now I know, and I still feel a need to set the record straight.

I only worry that all this dwelling on what happened is giving me some kind of chip on my own shoulder. I feel compelled to record each new set of revelations, and I keep hoping that process will make it easier to leave behind me. But I haven't fully been able to name what has been whittling away at my shoulder all these years, and I now I can.

Not only can things happen that way but they did, to me. Bless your heart, Lucille Clifton, for not having the capacity to see evil in a father's heart, but I did. And if you are willing to listen, I'll tell you how it was.

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