October 27, 2021

A Place to Grow: Lucille Clifton’s Life in Baltimore

Poet and author Lucille Clifton described herself not as a Baltimore writer, but as a writer in Baltimore. However, Baltimore was not simply a place for Maryland’s poet laureate to rest her head. Rather, the city’s impact echoes throughout her poems and prose, from the schools where she poured inspiration into young artists, to her family home where she grew her family and herself.

photo by: Estate of Lucille Clifton

Early 1960s photograph of poet and writers June Jordan, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde.

During her time in Baltimore, Clifton wrote iconic poetry, nurtured young talent, and grew alongside a community of local writers as she continued to expand into her own voice. She stepped into an understanding of her inner voice, communed with the universe, raised a family, and wrote seminal works of art. In the 20 years Clifton spent in Charm City, she left an indelible mark on the places she frequented and wrote. Below we outline four notable places where Clifton created and conjured her writing in Baltimore.

Angel’s Tavern

Angel’s Tavern was a small bar in Fells Point, a historic neighborhood in Baltimore near the Inner Harbor. It was also the site of an open mic that Lucille Clifton frequented, reading poems to an audience that “...ranged from poets laureate and folks like WD Snodgrass to bag ladies and drunks.” While “Poetry at The Angel” ran for three years, Clifton was a well-loved member of its community during its tenure. One co-founder of the series, Ilse Munroe, described Clifton as “...a star in The Angel’s crown.” The bar is no longer standing in Fells Point, but many who patronized it remember Clifton’s impact there fondly, like this reflection published in the Little Patuxent Review.

Exterior image of the Enoch Pratt Library.

photo by: nf utvol via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Exterior image of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

Enoch Pratt Free Library

When Lucille Clifton served as trustee of the Enoch Pratt Free Library from 1974 to 1985, her oldest daughter, Sidney Clifton, described it as one of many places her mother would have had contact with young writers and library patrons in the city of Baltimore. Clifton taught on many educational levels, but serving as a trustee for Baltimore's library system allowed her to engage with education in a different way.

Supporting young people in their explorations of the world around them through literature and their experiences was important to her, from her work at Coppin State University and St. Mary’s College to speaking to students at high schools in Baltimore. The library was significant to her in the level of engagement and influence she had over programming, books in circulation, and other library matters. The Enoch Pratt Free Library is currently partnered with The Clifton House in offering an annual program celebrating Clifton’s legacy on the anniversary of her passing, with artist talks, poetry readings, and more in her honor.

Landscapes and Localities Outside the City of Baltimore

Lucille Clifton did not drive, but that didn’t mean she was not a traveler of sorts. Whether in her writing, using the Baltimore hack taxi system to run errands, or sitting in the passenger side while her husband, Fred, drove, Clifton explored other places in and around the city of Baltimore. One such place was Randallstown. Just a stone’s throw away from Baltimore, Sidney Clifton recounted how she would drive her mother through the community not only for her necessities, but for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

“Once I could drive,” Sidney says, “Mom liked to take long drives through Baltimore. ... She often said she liked seeing different landscapes. For someone who didn’t drive, it gave her a sense of freedom and other places and possibility.” The ability to leave the city for verdant green and rolling hills afforded her a space to wander. While she may not have had a vehicle, her writing was one of the ways she traveled outside of the physical boundaries she inhabited. Sidney also notes that these drives were inspirational for her writing as well, giving her space to create other characters, worlds, and places to explore in her writing.

photo by: Estate of Lucille Clifton

Portrait of Lucille Clifton.

The Clifton House

Sidney Clifton described her mother as a woman who was deeply intuitive and connected to sources of information and inspiration that were unseen. A pivotal place for her to develop this intuitive nature was at the family’s home in Baltimore. The Cliftons moved to Baltimore in 1967, and when they arrived, the house on Talbot Road was waiting to receive them.

In that 100-year-old house in Windsor Hills, Clifton wrote most of her famous poetic works, watched her children grow, and found a space in which she was able to connect to herself and her inner voice. Her daughter describes the house as being a dedicated place of serenity that allowed her to dive more deeply into her work and into herself. Through her mother’s writing and support of young artists, and her father’s activism in the city of Baltimore, the house became a space where people gathered to commune and spend time together.

Much like her mother, Sidney referenced her own intuitive nature when talking about what inspired her to preserve The Clifton House as a historic site and incubator for artists, founded and curated by Sidney and her family after the purchase of the home.

The impetus behind buying the house back—which was lost in 1980 due to foreclosure—began in late 2018, when Clifton's book Good Woman was set to be republished as an e-book. “There’s a famous picture of myself, my mom, and all of us kids from 1971 that was used in her first book that was going to be one of the potential photographs used in this publication. I had the idea to reach out to the owner of the house to see if we could do the updated version of the photo....We knew that she was preparing it for sale. Then on the following February 13th, the anniversary of my mom’s passing, I woke up with this strange intense need to reach out to the owner to ask her about the status of the house. She told me that it had gone on the market that day. So I decided that was a sign...and said I would like to be considered as one of the prospective buyers.”

photo by: Estate of Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton dancing with her children in her home in Baltimore.

photo by: Estate of Lucille Clifton

Alexia and Gillian Clifton (two of Lucille Clifton's children) on the front porch of what is now the Clifton House.

In 2020, The Clifton House received an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund project planning grant to begin the transformation of the house into its new use as a cultural arts space. Later that same year, building on that initial investment, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation granted additional funds to further support this important work. For Sidney Clifton, there were two major motivations for shifting the house from a private family residence to an artists and community space: understanding that the home had previously operated as a sanctuary for young artists, and the ability to reclaim ownership of land and home as Black people in Baltimore.

As gentrification continues to threaten not only Black historic sites, but Black land ownership generally, the reclamation of this house not only brings the Cliftons back to their family homestead, but also opens space for new artists' voices to grow and thrive, just as Lucille Clifton’s did while living there. The Clifton House will not only be a space to document a piece of Black women’s history, but it will exist as a living space designed to provide artistic support to the community that held Clifton and her family.

Artists draw inspiration from the places that surround them daily, using the places they frequent to create works of art that transcend the every day. Clifton’s writing emphasized the moments and states of being that we experience every day and called us to a greater attention to them.

Through the preservation of her family home and exploring the places that fed her poetry, we are called to “...think of the good times…” in our own lives, remembering the abundant beauty that we can find in moments of simplicity and knowing that we, too, can create a world of our own choosing from nothing but starshine and clay.

Orilonise Yarborough is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Orilonise is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public history at North Carolina Central University. Her research interests include oral histories, Black LGBTQ life and political organization, historic preservation of plantations and Black women’s resistance movements.

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