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INNOVATOR SERIES
Words that make history:
Lucille Clifton & Alora Young
Our new series looks at innovators past and present
What makes an innovator? Boldness. Bravery. Creativity. Curiosity. The desire to #writenewrules for the world around them. At Cole Haan we are advocates for the extraordinary, and that’s the mission of our new Innovators Series.
Each month we’ll pair an innovator from the past—someone who should be celebrated more—with an up-and-comer from the present who’s following in their footsteps. Artists, scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, creators—we’re casting a wide net to find voices and stories to elevate.
We begin our first of two innovators stories this month with writers: one whose work spanned decades and defied convention, and another whose work will help define the coming decades.

Then: Lucille Clifton, poet

“I don’t even know how I write. I have no idea,” Lucille Clifton once said in an interview. “But I do know that it happens and it comes to me, and I am so grateful.”
Such a plainspoken assessment of her creative process speaks to Clifton’s writing style, which Christian Century described as “poetry so pared down that its spaces take on substance, become a shaping presence as much as the words themselves.”
Maybe it’s because Clifton wrote her first poems while navigating the maelstrom of everyday life, with work and children and the demands of family life. Her first book of poetry came out when her kids were 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.
“Mom wrote at our dining room table on a manual typewriter, eventually moving up to an IBM Selectric which she moved into our family room. For us as her kids, it was what moms did, work at the typewriter in your home,” says Lucille Clifton’s daughter Sidney.
When your hands are that full, you get to the point quickly, it seems. But that hardly made Clifton’s work simplistic. In an introduction to the posthumous collection, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, Toni Morrison—who briefly overlapped with Clifton at Howard University—described Clifton’s poetry as “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude.”
Left: Lucille Clifton as a child. Right: With Toni Morrison, who’d later write
the foreword to a posthumous collection of Clifton’s work.
Discovered by the legendary Langston Hughes, Clifton left her government job in 1971 to become a writer-in-residence at Coppin State College, an HBCU in Baltimore. The ’70s marked the beginning of a prolific run that would last until Clifton’s death in 2010 at age 73, which produced more than a dozen collections of poetry, a memoir, and numerous acclaimed children’s books.
Clifton would be the first person to have two books of poetry selected as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and she would win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2007. Throughout it all, her work emphasized “endurance and strength through adversity, focusing particularly on African-American experience and family life,” as the Poetry Foundation put it. (The foundation has a nice collection of her poems online.)
Writer Reginald Dwayne Betts—a Clifton superfan who discovered her poetry while imprisoned—wrote of her work, “Each poem is always its own world. Her poems touch the political, the personal, the spiritual.”
Clifton took a less lofty view. “I have a lot of unsure days and I know I can be tremendously corny…big time corny, you know? And clichéd,” she said in an interview.
But she also knew the power of her words. Speaking not long after Hurricane Katrina, she said, “Poetry can heal. Because it comes from a heart, it can speak to another heart. That’s why poetry is so big, say, after 9/11 and after this perilous time of the universe. It will be strong because it feeds us.”
For Sidney, there’s no doubt that her mother’s work still resonates today for up-and-coming poets like Alora Young, and will continue to do so for future generations.
“Mom’s work remains a testament of truth-telling on personal, racial, societal, and human levels,” she says. “Alora’s generation can be inspired by examples of that level of deep courage, vulnerability, and honesty of mom’s poetry.”

Now: Alora Young, poet

Alora Young has been telling stories since she could talk. It began as a toddler, when she’d tell them to herself at bedtime until she fell asleep. Like Lucille Clifton, she found an attraction to words at a young age. She started writing them down at 7, when her displeasure about a move from New Jersey to her current home of Nashville, TN, inspired a song.
“It was called ‘Stars of Sorrow, See You Tomorrow,’” says Young, smiling. “I was a very melancholy 7-year-old.”
Melancholy or not, it was the beginning of something. Ten years later, she’s the Youth Poet Laureate of the Southern United States (and one of four finalists for National Youth Poet Laureate). Young’s written too many songs to mention, a novel, numerous plays, and scores of poems—and not in a “Aww, what an adorably precocious child” kind of way. Her new book, Walking Gentry Home, is a heavily researched chronicle tracing her family history back 270 years, which she captures entirely in verse. Her agent is currently shopping it.
“Basically the concept is how has girlhood changed over American history, and how the story of Black girls is the American story,” she says. “Because it is, and it’s the American story we refuse to acknowledge and we refuse to tell.”
Left: Alora, center, with sisters Alacyia (left) and Alayna (right).
Right: Preschooler Alora in New Jersey.
Oh, and she’s currently trying to start a research project—not for school, just for fun—examining the rhetorical power of spoken-word poetry. “I believe that we can use spoken word poetry as a rhetorical device that has significantly better retention and persuasive ability,” Young says. She hopes to one day write speeches in spoken-word format for her sister Alayna, who has her sights on elected office and currently works for Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
That is Alora Young: boundlessly creative, shockingly prolific, and bursting with enthusiasm about making the world a better place. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. In addition to being the youth poet laureate, she was featured among The New York Times’ 10 teenage poets writing the future of poetry, won the Princeton Prize for Race Relations, and has performed at events large and small. The most surreal was Mission 2020, a climate-change summit.
“I performed for 300 of the world’s top climate scientists,” Young says. “There were several UN ambassadors. I think the person who wrote the Paris Climate Agreement was there. That was crazy.”
But not unexpected, given the attention her work has attracted. It started happening her junior year of high school, when she attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio over summer break. Several of her poems were accepted for publication, and she was invited to be inaugural poet for the Center for Racial Research and Justice. She won her youth poet laureate award not long after.
It was a mixed blessing. While her creativity was rightfully acknowledged, it also worsened the bullying she’d experienced since middle school. Writing has provided a refuge.
“It was my only escape, and going to writing camps during the summer was how I finally learned that I wasn’t the problem,” Young says. “‘Cause for years I thought it was me. I thought it was something I was doing wrong. For years I thought I just didn’t deserve friends. And then I started going to writing camps, and I realized that I was worth more than they made me think.”
That speaks to what Clifton considered one of the fundamental properties of poetry. “One of the things poetry can do is say to an audience: ‘You are not alone.’” she said. “It can also speak for those who have not yet found their voice to speak.”
Young found her voice as a toddler, but others aren’t so lucky. That’s why she started AboveGround, an organization that works with a local elementary school in Nashville—Young hopes to expand it to others—that combines Black history and the creative arts to encourage self-esteem and the pursuit of advanced academics in disadvantaged students.
“No one gives them role models, ‘cause, like, outside of Black History Month, we don’t talk about Black people,” Young says. “And that leaves Black children thinking they aren’t a part of history.”
That’s not a problem for Alora Young. The question is just how much history she’ll make.

Who inspires the innovators?

Our Innovators Series isn’t just about highlighting the people we select; it’s also about making connections to the larger world they inhabit. We want to give our innovators the chance to champion others whose work is important and/or inspires them.
Dr. Learotha Williams, @learothawms
Williams is a professor of history at Tennessee State University who’s an expert on African American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and public history. His work often focuses on what he describes as “African American spaces and Public Memory.” He and Young bonded over Nashville’s black history, and he’s assisted her with her novel and research.
Kelly Bulbulkaya & Metro Nashville Public Schools librarians
For her own writing and work with AboveGround, Young has spent a lot of time in district libraries, and in particular worked closed with Kelly Bulbulkaya, the librarian at Eakin Elementary, the school that works with AboveGround.
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