Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Louise Sayles in Depew, New York, where her mother worked in a laundry and her father in a steel mill. She attended Howard University and Fredonia State Teachers College, though she left before finishing a degree to devote herself to her writing. Supporting herself as an actor in the 1950s, marrying Fred Clifton in 1958, and working for a time as a claims clerk in Buffalo, New York, Clifton meanwhile began to refine the minimalist poetic style—a compressed free verse lyric, often untitled, with a short iambic trimeter line—that would unify her diverse subject matter. She published her first book of poems in 1969 after poet Robert Hayden entered her work into a poetry contest. She was interested in all of America's historic victims, including both black people and Native Americans, and was consistently eloquent about the special character of women's lives. She was also deeply religious and her poem sequences about Biblical subjects—here represented by "brothers," a remarkable dialogue with Satan—have been particularly inventive. She also wrote both poetry and fiction for children, as well as a history of her family ancestry, Generations (1976), that begins with her great-great-grandmother being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
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