The poet Lucille Clifton once said that with her poetry, “I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When I wrote the poems in my new book Girl after Girl after Girl, I thought often of Clifton’s words. In fact, I wrote them on an index card and taped it on the wall above my desk.
I love Clifton’s quote because it speaks to both poetry’s intimacy and the work it can do in the world. Here, Lucille Clifton explains most accurately why I both write and read poetry.
In my new book Girl after Girl after Girl, I was writing about being a daughter in the 70s and 80s, about my own daughters, about raising young girls in the dangerous world in which we live. I was writing about female bodies, and the damage the world inflicts upon them. I was afraid of much of what I wrote in my first drafts of poems: stories of addiction, stories of violence, stories of fear and danger. I kept Clifton’s words close as I worked.
And then one day as I struggled through the poems in my new book, I recalled Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I wrote those words beside Clifton’s above my desk. To “tell it slant,” as Dickinson suggested, I turned to objects to tell the stories of mothers and daughters and girlhood—I read books of recipes, I visited doll and miniature museums, I studied the history of the breast pump, the cocktail, the mourning dress.
In different ways, Clifton and Dickinson gave me permission to write my poems. And as I read and reread their words and wrote my own poems, I also I remembered my second daughter, and how when she was younger and I left the house to give reading, she would stand at the front door, face pressed to the glass panes, as I closed the door between us, and shout, “Don’t go to poetry!” It was heartbreaking to leave her, but it also struck me that her exhortation also gave me a way to think about poetry.
My daughter was right. Poetry is a place I go. Sometimes it’s a deep, cold river where I sink down in darkness alone. Sometimes it’s a site of solace, more interior, a quiet and safe room, and a reminder that others have felt as I have felt. Sometimes it’s a geographical journey—I travel with Muriel Rukeyser to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia or with CD Wright to Angola Prison. I read poems both to come closer to myself and to enter a whole new world.
Most of all, I read poems that give me permission to take a risk, poems that make me wonder, How did she do that? She is not supposed to be able to do that! I want to learn to do that!
So sometimes, in search of poets who give me permission to take risks, I go out with a poetry book as I would with a new friend. I take a collection of poems out for coffee and spend a few hours with the book. The book and I sit together and I write in my notebook and we talk.
I have taken many books out for coffee, and I look to many women poets as guides to poetry. Here, below are six books of permission and risk that I have taken out for conversation many times, six books that I kept—and keep—on my desk as I wrote my poems in Girl after Girl after Girl, six books that I return to again and again.
Anya Krugovoy Silver, From Nothing (LSU Press, 2016). From Nothing is a book that illustrates to me how poetry takes you both from yourself and back into yourself all at once. These poems document the experience of life-threatening illness and the deep love of a mother for a son; these poems elegize dead and dying friends. And they show us the magical worlds of fairy tales and the rituals of Lent and prayer that sustain us. I love the fearlessness of Silver’s book.
CD Wright, One Big Self (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). CD Wright was my first poetry teacher in college, at Brown University. Two years ago, with time off from teaching, I spent days walking around my town listening to her read from One Big Self (on the Penn Sound Archive) and soaking up the poems in this book. She shows us new worlds—the landscape of southern Louisiana and the lives of prison inmates and their families. CD Wright died suddenly last year, and now I return again and again to the book to remember her.
Lucille Clifton, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (Boa Editions, 2015). I may be cheating by including a poet’s Collected Poems here, but when it comes to Lucille Clifton I can’t help myself. Clifton’s poems offer, in my mind, the ultimate permission to writing about the things in the world that most compelled me while I wrote the poems in Girl after Girl after Girl and that most compel me now—the female body, mothers and daughters, race and identity, religion and place.
Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Paris Press, 1996). Muriel Rukeyser published so much, in so many genres, and her life spanned the twentieth century, but I love this book most. The Life of Poetry is a book that teaches us how to live in and with poetry. Muriel Rukeyser is my favorite poet and most of all my poetry-mother. I teach her poems, I read them nearly every day, and I keep them close to me. As she says in this book, “For the last time here, I wish to say that we will not be saved by poetry. But poetry is the type of the creation in which we may live and which will save us.”
Solmaz Sharif, Look (Graywolf Press, 2016). Often, I can’t separate out what I read from what I teach, and I have taught this amazing book twice in the past year. Look is a collection that makes me think differently about history, language and what poetry can do. Sharif uses a Defense Department Dictionary as a text that splits open and refashions again and again to show the horrors of war, the devastation of the Middle East, and the violence we do to one another’s bodies.
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (City Lights Publishers, 2014). I chose one of the epigraphs to Girl after Girl after Girl from this book, originally published in 1914, because Stein revolutionized the way I think about language. In Tender Buttons, Stein gives us portraits of ordinary things. Coffee. Milk. Beads. Dresses. Every time I read it I wish I could go to a yard sale with Gertrude Stein and talk about objects. Stein shows us the magic of the things around us that we take for granted.
Nicole Cooley is the author of Breach, Milk Dress, The Afflicted Girls, and Resurrection. A native of New Orleans, Cooley directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College–CUNY, where she is a professor of English.