All My Travels: The Life of a Poet Isn’t as Bad as They Said It Would Be. Even Without the Money, Trust Me, You Still Have a Life, So, Com’on, Be a Poet if You’re Cut Out to Be

Every now and then, one of my teenagers jokingly says, “Mom, get a life!”

And I often say, “I’ve got a life, child, and I’ve got a good life that I’m grateful to have.”

One of my highlights prior to the OSU visit was my reading for the Fall for the Book Festival Reading in Sept. 2009: Here we go above and immediately below. Maybe I don’t have a life, but at least I have wonderful friends who love poetry.

It’s interesting when art and poetry merge: The woman in the painting is like a new competition in the world of poetry reading. I love this photo of her taking over the mic from me even though she’s only in the picture.

Associate Vice President and my good friend, Robert Killoren of Ohio State University, who was one of my hosts on February 25, 2010, photo taken after my talk on: “Travel Research and Writing: A Big World in the Small Storie We Tell”


A Chinese lady in the audience at the talk. She was one of the sweetest people I met on my visit.

Assistant to the Associate Vice President, Theresa, who worked so hard with the VP to bring me to OSU.

My African sister and a professor at OSU, originally from Sierra Leone, Miriam Conteh-Morgan, who was gracious to sit through the talk after she’d listened to my radio interview on NPR.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow U? I still want to be a poet when I grow up.

When I was a kid in Monrovia, Liberia, my father’s company of men and women would take a break from their beer, food and laughter to talk to us children. In the living room, near Capital Bye Pass or Warwien, where we lived, my father would call me out to greet his company of Grebo people, mostly middle class, affluent, Grebo people who had settled in Monrovia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were now doing great in the Monrovia of the 1970s.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” A tipsy man or woman would ask me in the middle of the Saturday laughter, the bright Liberian, sun piercing through everything. “What do you want to be, baby girl? They say you ae clever, ” one of them would say, staring at me.
“I want to be a writer, a poet or something,” I’d say, often trembling, scared to death of my stepmother who didn’t like me very much.”
“A writer? A writer?” Someone in the group, sitting on my father’s plush sofa would rebuke.
“What kind of clever girl want-to grow up and be a writer?” They would roar with laughter.
“You should be a doctor or something, a doctor, I mean,” one of the men would add, and there was more laughing. All of this was said in impeccable Grebo, with all of the nuances and sighs a Grebo person is capable of. There of course were proverbs to spice up their disapproval. A woman these days had to learn something, they all agreed, not be some writer.
“She wants to be a writer,” my father would come to my rescue, “and that’s okay. I only want her to be educated, very, very educated so no man takes advantage of her,” he would finish.
“Girl, you need to grow up and be a doctor or some kind of big politician,” most of the company agreed, and I’d walk away to my room or to the kitchen or to the front porch, away from the suffocation of their adult world.

Emmanuel Wettee and the young Ms. Nagana after the symposium, snapped in this photo with me. It was a pleasure to have a few Africans at the OSU symposium talk.


I wondered all through my childhood and adolescence what was wrong with becoming a writer. Why did people think a poet or a writer wasn’t important just because doctors make money and poets didn’t?
“Or maybe you can become a teacher so you don’t have to starve while you write,” another of the visitors would follow me with one last comment even as I fled their company. I didn’t have much to say  since an African child was not supposed to express strong opinions in such a situation.

Daughter of Dr. Nanaga, young med. student at Ohio who took time out to attend my symposium talk, Emmanuel Wettee, one of the leaders of Liberians in the Diaspora at the symposium at OSU.

Dr. Ado Dan-Isa of Beyaro University in Nigeria, now a Research Scholar at OSU


So, I ended up being the writer who could have become a medical doctor, making money somewhere to feed me and all my relatives from my home town. If you know Liberians, then you know that they do not care about writers or poets or any such crazy folks like me. For most Liberians, you have to be a government cabinet minister or an important official if you want people to listen to you. But that’s one of our many problems as a people. Any nation that refuses to understand the importance of art in the life of its people is simply moving toward self-destruction.

Below is a link to one of my interviews at OSU. This link is to the one on NPR with Ann Fisher. Here is a photo in the studio, and then the one hour interview. Ann was one of my highest points, an exciting and vibrant interviewer who comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan. What a nice surprise to know that only in the studio.

http://www.spokenword.org/program/978685

The life of a poet or writer isn’t as bad as it was made out to be, I now know.

When I look at my life, the wonderful people I meet as I travel for poetry readings and talks from campus to campus, the wonderful students and lovers of poetry that enrich my life, I say, I’d never give up this for anything else. Where would a poet be without poetry? Where would the world be without poetry, you may ask.

A cross section of the audience at the poetry reading during my Ohio State Visit: It was an added treat when fellow poet and former grad student from IUP, James Barker came to the OSU reading with his students.

This academic year alone, I have been to several places, reading and signing books alongside my life as a teacher. My world is larger because of the many friends of my writing whose lives have enriched mine, and yet, I can still feed myself, which is a surprise. Often, I get bored reading my own poetry from place to place, bored that after I have written something, I have to go out and read it. But when I see the excitement of those who know how to appreciate art for its sake, I am encouraged. They bring a lot to the life that we lead.

Reading poetry at OSU

What do I tell my writing students? What do I tell fellow writers who enjoy this writing life, and often, this traveling life? Well, if this is your calling, don’t fight it. Use it to enrich some life, to bless the world, to be a consolation, to ask the questions no one wants to ask, to tell other people’s stories through your own eyes, to be there, simply, an ordinary writer whose gifts have nothing to do with intelligence or power.

And yet there were many other readings prior to this. Here are some of the past readings in brief. Sometime last year, there were readings for the Fall for the Book Festival as seen in these other photos, and of course, accidentally, with me wearing the same outfit. Being a writer does not often mean one will know which fashion to wear at an occasion, but here we go.

Signing books at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Reading in Sept. 2009


My poet friend whom I admire a lot, Gabeba Baderoon and me after the Smithsonian reading in Washington DC

Liberian writer, Elma Shaw who attended my reading at the Smithsonian and took this photo.

My life as a writer is a small gift that comes from God, the power that only the divine can give. Why did anyone think that something was wrong with being a writer?

Another reading at Clarion University in PA. Daughter of immigrant Liberians, now a senior student on the left and her friend pose for a photo after my reading in Sept. 2010

See how short I am posing beside this Math professor at Clarion. He is originally from the Sudan.

I grew up to discover early on in my life that there were others out there who love poetry and writing, those who value writers. There were my professors, and of course, my father who taught me over and over that I had something to give to the world. There were publisher, mentors, other writers, struggling like me both in Liberia and in the US, who made the writing life worthwhile. I discovered that publihsers who edit the junk I write, magazine publishers who discovered me for themselves were far more valuable than we make them out to be. Without them, where would we be? Speaking for myself, where would I be if no one had said to me, “This is not good; this is good or this is trash.”

My hosts, Poet and Professor at Clairon, Phil Terman, who is a good friend of mine and Roger, both who worked diligently to get me to their campus. Where would the world be without poets who love poetry?

Poets are because many others out there are: Here’s to you. “Where the Road Turns” forthcoming.

Not too long ago, the publisher of my third book of poems, Michael Simms sent me one of the best e-mails I’d ever got, asking if I wanted him to look at my new manuscript of poems, and if I were interested in him publishing it. I quickly placed it in the mail, and now, we have a book forthcoming, and I say “we,” since I never consider myself to be the only author of any of my books.

For who will ever believe that those classmates, friends, fellow poets, publishers, professors, and mentors who have shaped us are not also co- authors of any one book that comes out anywhere in the world? A book is like a child; it takes a village to raise it, so of course, I don’t believe that just because I grew up thinking I would be a writer means I am a writer on my own island.  In fact, I’m still trying to be a writer, if you ask me.

I didn’t know that despite the lack of money from the writing life of a poet, despite the lack of huge grants as other writers are lucky to get, that I would indeed love my life as it is. My life has been scarred by tears, but poetry has been a source of strength simply because it is beautiful and those who appreciate what I do are even more beautiful. I once told my medical doctor neighbors that I am the only doctor on our street whose patients are a bunch of lines and mataphors arranged on a page, penniless patients of words and yet, it is these same words that may heal what a doctor cannot heal.

LUCILLE CLIFTON: (June 27, 1936- Feb. 13, 2010) A great American poet- May her soul rest in peace.

Lucille Clifton departed this life as we know it on Feb. 13, 2010, having lived the full life of a poet.

I studied her poetry during my final doctoral project towards my oral defense when I chose to study her connection to African poetry under the topic: “The Influence of The African Oral Tradition on Black American Poetry: A Connection Between Lucille Clifton’s Poetry and its African forebears, using Okot p’Betik’s “Song of Lawino” as a Source of Reference.” Now I treasure AWP 2009 where I last saw her.

Finally, let me conclude this blog post with a tribute to Lucille Clifton, a great poet, a mentor, a woman whose poetry life helped to show me that poetry is worth everything, that writing is a calling, and that no matter what, a poet is a poet for life. Goodbye, Lucille. We will all miss seeing you at AWP this year, but your spirit will linger here with us. We are, because you were and still are.

The Mississippi River Empties Into the Gulf

By Lucille Clifton

and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
none of them emptying anything,
all of them carrying yesterday
forever on their white tipped backs,
all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
it is the great circulation
of the earth’s body, like the blood
of the gods, this river in which the past
is always flowing. every water
is the same water coming round.
everyday someone is standing on the edge
of this river, staring into time,
whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

sorrow song
by Lucille Clifton

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
buchenwald,
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us,   amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.

[if mama / could see]

by Lucille Clifton

if mama
could see
she would see
lucy sprawling
limbs of lucy
decorating the
backs of chairs
lucy hair
holding the mirrors up
that reflect odd
aspects of lucy.

if mama
could hear
she would hear
lucysong rolled in the
corners like lint
exotic webs of lucysighs
long lucy spiders explaining
to obscure gods.

if mama
could talk
she would talk
good girl
good girl
good girl
clean up your room.

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