Gwyneth Walker

Woman of Words, Woman of Music

Poet Lucille Clifton and composer Gwyneth Walker combine their talents at Sunken Garden

by Kathy O'Connell
Published 08/27/98

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Read notes for No Ordinary Woman! (1997) for soprano and piano
Read notes for My Girls (1998) for SSA chorus

(Photograph of Lucille Clifton courtesy of BOA Editions, Ltd.)

The irony, not at all lost on Lucille Clifton, is that growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., she had a friend named Gwyneth Walker. She asks questions about this coincidence quickly, in a rich, full voice, just to make sure the celebrated composer--one of a tiny handful of women who make their living writing orchestral music--is not the same person.

A photo of Lucille Clifton

She isn't. In fact, though Walker, who now lives on a dairy farm in Vermont, has set several sets of Clifton's spare, elegant poems to music over the last six years, the two have never met or even had a conversation.

They will soon, though. As the final event of the 1998 Sunken Garden Poetry festival at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington this week, Walker and Clifton will be brought together for an evening featuring Walker's music and Clifton's poems, performed by members of CONCORA under the direction of Richard Coffey and soloist Denise Walker and pianist Estrid Eklof.

"It just seemed like a natural thing to do," says Sunken Garden festival director Rennie McQuilkin. He had wanted to bring Clifton, a National Book Award finalist for her latest collection, The Terrible Stories (BOA Editions Ltd.) to the festival for quite some time. He is also an admirer of Walker's work, which he'd often heard during her 14 years of teaching and working in Connecticut.

"I've set a number of poems to music in the past," says Walker. "In 1992, I got a commission from both Farmington and Simsbury high schools for a work for chorus and strings. I thought, aha! I'm not going to write two pieces. I wanted something jazzy they could both premiere. I went looking for poetry and found Lucille Clifton's 'Dreams and Dances' and 'Bones Be Good'."

Walker, who is known for compositions with a sense of wit, realism and visual effects--her Match Point calls for the conductor to use a tennis racquet and for tennis balls to be dropped on the timpani--loved in particular that Clifton's work is very forthright and spare. "I don't deal in abstractions very much," Clifton, who lives in Maryland, says. "So why should I write in them? Poetry should matter."

Indeed. Clifton, who is 60 and was Maryland's poet laureate from 1979 to 1985, has led anything but an abstract life. She grew up poor in Buffalo and was abused by her father, something she will not let get in the way of seeing him as an individual, a flawed but whole person. "I identify myself in many ways," she told Jean Marbella of The Baltimore Sun in 1996. "Victim is not one of them. One goes on if one can."

And Clifton certainly has. After she got a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1956, she discovered the burgeoning African-American intellectual community there--and Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor. They married in 1958, and Lucille Clifton gave birth to six children in six and a half years.

Having four kids in diapers at the same time, she says, is part of the reason she does most of her writing in her head. She's written since childhood, but her first volume of poetry wasn't published until 1969. Since then, she's written nine other collections, 19 children's books and won an Emmy Award as the co-writer of Free to Be...You and Me in 1973. She's also a distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Md., whose students call her by her first name. In 1988, she became the first poet to have two of her books, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir: 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems, chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Walker's work was received with enthusiasm by audiences at both high schools, which led to yet another commission, this time from Miss Porter's School in Farmington. She'd been asked to do something specifically for girls' voices, and the result was Sisters--and McQuilkin happened to be in the audience. From that grew a set of songs, No Ordinary Woman, using more of Clifton's poems, which had its premiere at Brown University in Providence last year. McQuilkin was there, too--and that's when he asked Walker if she wanted to come to Hill-Stead when Clifton was going to read.

With her strong Connecticut connections--Walker is a Hartt School of Music graduate, and before she began composing full-time, she taught there and she still has family here--she was delighted to participate in the event. "Rennie just couldn't resist bringing us together," Walker says with a laugh. "I'm looking forward to it."

So, for that matter, is CONCORA director Richard Coffey. "Gwyneth has a real ability to capture the essence of the text, and to me that's the sign of a great composer," he says. "She's also got a very vibrant, very theatrical style--in her choral works, the singers don't just stand there, holding their books." It is exactly that sensuous simplicity of Clifton's work, in fact, that appeals to Walker's ear.

"You have to make the meaning very apparent, because very often you're expressing words through musical images," Walker explains. "If there's a good, steady rhythm in the poem, you have to address it musically." In Sisters, for example, the singers perform the sort of hand-clapping that schoolgirls do, enhancing the poem's "me and you" refrain. "The singers become the characters," Walker adds.

Walker's setting of Clifton's work to music isn't the first time she's worked with poets; other compositions of hers have used the work of e.e. cummings, May Swenson and William Butler Yeats. "One has to remember a lot of good poems aren't singable," she says. "There's an audience sitting there listening, and you can't lose them. Lucille Clifton uses words in a very powerful way without needing to be buried in them. She's also got a sense of humor, and that's important."

Clifton's humor, in fact, is wonderfully bold, even as her writing itself is subtle; this is one strong woman who has lived a full and thorough life and celebrates her femaleness. Among her best-known poems are "Wishes for Sons," in which she rails against the unfairness in life all women face ("i wish them cramps/i wish them a strange town and the last tampon.") and "Homage to My Hips" ("these hips are mighty hips/these hips are magic hips/i have known them/to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.").

"Homage to My Hips" is another of Clifton's poems that's been set to music, albeit in a rather different form than Walker's. One, says the poet, was a lesbian rock 'n' roll group in Texas. "Why not?" she says of their request. "They really liked the poem."

Despite a long, rich and sometimes difficult life--she underwent a kidney transplant last year, the organ donated by her youngest daughter--Clifton believes her best work is still ahead of her. "I've only been published for 30 years, which doesn't seem like a long time," she says in a voice that makes you believe it.