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“Room Enough to Say What I Mean”: An Interview with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

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The following interview with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon was conducted in 2014 by Matt Blakley as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

You once defined the South as “an imaginary place where real things happen.” I wonder if you might elaborate on this, as your definition interestingly welds together “place” and “space.”

Until fairly recently, whenever I identified myself as a southerner, someone would ask, “where are you from,” and, when I answered “Florida,” invariably the response would be, “that’s not really the South.” The murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis changed that. Now, instead, the response—a concerned “oh,” or even, sometimes, “oh no”—suggests an understanding that I am perhaps from the strangest of places, a space of which no one seems able lately to make much sense. Last week, a friend told me how she and some work colleagues often break up their day by declaring, “It’s time for news from a Florida man!” Then they Google the phrase, “a Florida man,” and read aloud the first thing they find, because whatever they find is bound to be bizarre or absurd, ludicrous and terrifying. “A Florida man” is the composite, imaginary anti-hero constructed from the strange and real things that happen there.

My sense of the South as “an imaginary place” begins with my childhood in Florida. As a truant teenager in Deland, I spent as much time as possible at the drop zone, watching the rainbow colored parachutes of both local and foreign men and women as they fell from the sky. It was spectacular, especially given my desperate desire at that point to escape my homelife, the beauty and terror of my Pentecostal upbringing and the shame and silence of sexual abuse. These contributed, I’m certain, to that feeling of Florida as mythological, as terrific, that colors my poems. I’d gone to elementary school in DeLeon Springs, a place where, legend had it, a Spanish conquistador had come looking for the fountain of youth; a place where the pool had no bottom, scuba divers sometimes disappearing into its maze of caverns never to be heard from again; a place where I saw gators the size of a boat dock. I’d stayed with my family through 1979’s Hurricane David and been allowed by my mother to walk outside during the storm’s eye, to witness the eerie silence of the knit-green sky. I’d seen sinkholes, where the ground had opened up and swallowed houses, and wherever I looked the swamp seemed at the ready to take back the land. I’d watched a thick haze settle over the saints as they shouted in church, singing and speaking in tongues. Standing on the sidewalk with my mother as a girl once, I saw a man hard-bopping down the street, muttering. As he approached, it became more and more clear what he was saying, repeating it to himself in an endless loop: I am a nigger. Nigger’s nigger. I am a nigger. Nigger’s nigger, was the chant as he moved past. Focused on whatever drew him down the street, he did not even see us. He seemed shell-shocked. So, it was my first experience with “the n-bomb,” as such, the way the word seemed violently to have shifted something within his internal landscape, the way seeing him walking through the space of that chant shifted something in mine.

Florida seemed, even as I lived in it, a mad story somebody was making up, one that struck me with awe. Just what distinguished the ground from the deep; flight from falling; storm from stillness; the present from the Pliocene? Certainly not enough separated my body from whoever sought, on whatever whim, to redefine it for their own narrative. Florida felt outrageous in its excesses. It was indeed the South. And, mind you, it was beautiful. And it was home. But it would not hold itself together properly. It was incoherent. It lacked some fundamental mode, some shade of integrity. Yes, devastatingly real things happened there, with both the threat and promise of real things to come. One threat, it seemed, was of winding up, or finding myself surrounded by those who had, wherever it was that “Florida man” bopping down the street found himself in his own mind, a place I always strangely think of as somewhere put can’t get.

The promise, for me from elementary school forward, was through poems to articulate, as always, space for myself.

In both your poetry collections you have a number of poems titled “Bop” which use Afaa Michael Weaver’s form of the same name. Why did you choose to write in this form and how did you come to it—or, maybe, how did it come to you?

I was a Cave Canem fellow in 1998. That’s where and when I first learned of the Bop. Afaa had developed it as a craft lesson for fellows during the 1996 retreat. So it came to me through that vital and necessary community, where poets like Honorée F. Jeffers and Evie Shockley and G. E. Patterson and so many others also were writing. It came from a sacred space, a humbling space, a space in which experiment was encouraged and diversity celebrated, a space in which, significantly, I did not find myself, as happens at some point every single day elsewhere, the only black girl in the room.

Poetry is the genre, the space in which I feel there is room enough to say what I mean. Rarely is that made more clearly for me than in the Bop. It’s such an expansive form. There’s room for layers, for complexity. I love the way the form fosters experiment. How it opens out to so many possibilities. I often say to my students that rather than withholding information from readers, rather than approaching writing with the attitude that we should “make the reader do some work,”—which I hate, because it puts me to mind of overseers and therefore makes me very uncomfortable—we instead should write down everything we know until we get to what we don’t know. There’s the space of mystery. I’m keen on that space, where poet and reader may find themselves working alongside one another. “Bop: The North Star,” for example, grew out of so many questions: Is freedom locatable? Is it even possible (and has it ever been) to move from a place of bondage to a place of freedom, and for whom is that a possibility? How might one direct others to that place? How to measure the space, I wondered, between Harriet Tubman and myself as I drove past the site of her house each week to teach at Auburn Correctional Facility? I’d heard myself described as having “poise” and wondered about the weight of that word, about its etymology. What does poise look like from the outside and what does it feel like—(thinking particularly here of Harriet’s narcolepsy, about the weight thrown by a slave owner that struck her in the head and caused it)—from the inside? Where and when and how does poise then intersect with myth? How do names—such as Araminta, which means “lofty,” and Lyrae, which means “of lyric poetry”—make mythologies out of the bodies to which they are affixed? How do mothers (and their absence) figure in that myth-making? I’d read about Harriet Tubman sticking her toes into smoldering ashes during cold nights as a child and thought immediately about Cinderella, about growing up with that narrative, about its relationship to my ideas about gender, freedom, movement, poise. What happens to the (idea of) narrative when Cinderella packs a gun and declares, “Dead niggers tell no tales”? Following the star of one’s own name, is it possible to chart the locations of (gender) identity and mythology, from Araminta to Harriet to Moses?

The Bop gave me a way to think about all these things simultaneously, a way to hold everything together. The structure of the form doesn’t crumble under the weight of so many simultaneous considerations. It is, in fact, meant to hold them. Within it, one can slide between the complaint and its complications, the movement towards resolution, and the refrain which in itself opens up a whole other area for thought. I think the form is like the diaphragm in its ability to expand like that. Thus, there’s so much room to breathe in a Bop. There’s room to sing. I need that. It gets compared to the sonnet—a form I also love—but it’s so outside the box. I tip my hat to this in the last stanza of “Bop: The North Star,” the way in which the form itself provides a north star of sorts. That is: the form itself is pointing towards a space of freedom, one that, like the space Harriet moved towards, still must be imagined, must be created. I know I am asking that allusion to Blake’s “The Tyger”—“Oh, Harriet, the stars/ throw down shanks”—to do a lot of work there, but it’s meant to point towards the form itself (like the tyger burning bright) as a new creation. The form itself is a promise, a resolution my stanzas were moving towards.

So Afaa in creating the Bop made room for me. Part of what makes Cave Canem such a humbling and challenging and miraculous experience and community is that that’s the kind of thing that’s happening there. There’s an excerpt from Terrance Hayes’ “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” I often use to talk about reimagining our relationships to language in this way, such that the poems we write make room for us and for others. It reads:

I know all words come from preexisting words
and divide until our pronouncements develop selves.
The small dog barking at the darkness has something to say
about the way we live. I’d rather have what my daddy calls
“skrimp.” He says “discrete” and means the street
just out of sight.

I love the way the passage shows how gorgeous, everyday speech and pronunciation—with that black fantastic bit of time travel in the syntax—can open out to possibility; can drop us into that (out of sight!) space of mystery. I often tell my students I’m writing towards that “street/just out of sight.” The Bop’s one way to get there.

Black Swan explores gender roles through such biblical and mythical characters as Dinah, Daphne, and Helen, while Open Interval uses the RR Lyrae variable stars to explore, as you say, “the quantum physics of identity.” Please talk about what you think each approach may offer your reader. Are they the same or different?

I’ve read things that suggest that Black Swan and Open Interval are wildly different, but for me, one collection follows hard on the next. They’re part of the same larger conversation. The approach is the same. Open Interval sprang from conversations with the work of black women poets who made space for me. It owes so much to Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light, to June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America: Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley,” to their thinking about identity, about the black female form, about names. In “won’t you come celebrate with me,” Lucille Clifton raises this wonderful question: “born in Babylon/both nonwhite and woman/what did I see to be except myself?” And there’s this promise, this fierce, powerful declaration in “Poem About My Rights”: “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name /My name is my own my own my own.” But what was Phillis Wheatley’s name? “Phillis” was in fact the name of the ship that brought that little girl to these shores. What did her mama call her? What happens when we are “called out of our names?” Writing Open Interval, I wanted to use these thoughts as a springboard while continuing, as I’d begun in Black Swan, to interrogate mythology and its relationship to women’s lives.

I’ve spoken before about my love for Rilke’s work in general and about the influence of the “First Duino Elegy” specifically on Black Swan: the idea that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” Not only the mythical or biblical characters, but all the women in Black Swan—the girl in the strip club; the eight-year-old girl in blue shorts in a back room where bullets are kept; the girl on an NYC subway falling in love in springtime—grapple with this suggestion in some way. Or, at least, I mean for them to do so. They are all, in a sense, asking “who, if I cried out, would hear me?” Black Swan ends with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, the child of myth who sparks myth, looking at herself in a mirror, catching a glimpse of herself in her 15-layered reflection, “Girl, you’re looking/ right through me—the words behind her/ wide black eyes.” Even though her reflection seems to go on forever, there is not enough space for her. The language is accusatory. There’s a particular kind of anguish, a particular kind of rage.

When we enter Open Interval with the “Bop: The North Star,” it’s a return. The refrain is from Rilke’s “First Duino Elegy.” It’s the same terrain. I wanted Rilke’s suggestion of how strange it is to “set aside even one’s own/proper name like a broken plaything” to rub up against narratives of Harriet Tubman, of Phillis Wheatley. As we know, that “slender, frail female child,” naked, wrapped in a carpet, purchased “for a trifle,” made a name for herself writing poems. As we know, Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the crazy math, tried to lay down an alter equation, a counter-spell, a desperate misspelling, to inscribe “Wrong” as if the idea of culture, of country depended upon it, writing in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”

The notion of what makes a poet, the identity of poet as mythology, is so much a part of the Clifton and Jordan and Rilke for me. Throughout Open Interval, I put the name] Phillis [in an open interval, because when Rilke suggests I listen for “the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence,” hers is a voice I hear. Hers is a language “fallen/off the edge of the world/into the dragon’s mouth” that Lucille Clifton describes in “here yet be dragons” in The Book of Light. Almost everything about Phillis is a space of mystery. Often I wonder for who is that not true? The pull to articulate such spaces is the same in both books. The sonnet “RR Lyrae: Sign” in Open Interval is meant to call back to the sonnet “Eight” in Black Swan and vice versa. The monologue “Helen” is meant to call to “Black Hole” and vice versa. I mean to revise, rethink, expand my own work.

You teach poetry at Cornell University as well as at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Please talk about your experiences working with these two communities of students and how they may have affected you as a writer.

In graduate school, I taught a poetry workshop at a medium security men’s prison in PA. I taught in a girls’ probation house in VA for three years before coming to Cornell. And I’ve taught workshops at Auburn, a maximum security men’s prison in NY. There was something so disturbing about driving past Harriet Tubman’s house every week to get to Auburn, I felt compelled to write “Bop: The North Star.” I wrote above about how that poem seeks alternate spaces of freedom.

There’s a process for getting into the prison on the nights you teach. A guard behind glass slips your I.D. card through to you. Another guard checks your bag, makes sure you are “properly dressed;” as a woman this means “not provocatively.” A guard stamps the back of your hand with something in invisible ink. You pass through the first gate that rattles closed and locks behind you, then pass your hand under a special light so the guard behind glass can see whatever’s inked on it before opening the next gate. A guard escorts you through another gate, then another, then another, with other guards signaling for the gates to close behind you. I forget how many. Just that one banal exhausting fact becomes increasingly clear: you are locked up when you teach in a prison. At the gate that opens to the yard, your group is reminded to stay tight, close to each other. One guard walks at the front of the group; one guard walks at the rear. They signal for the imprisoned men to stay back if they get too close. Beyond the yard is another gate and beyond that the building where classes are held.

The yard is loud. The yard is a wide and open space in the belly of the prison. The yard is full of men and movement. I used to hear only noise when I walked through the yard, whistles and shouts from above, surrounding voices, catcalls indistinguishable from each other. But then, unintentionally, I started listening. I’m sure the space of the yard, the experience of walking through it, of listening, of the way one voice or phrase could break into my thoughts of the night’s lesson plans, influenced how the] open intervals [work in the collection. So too did the landscape at Cornell, Ithaca’s famous gorges known both for their beauty and unfortunately for the way some have chosen to end their lives by jumping into them.

I often taught the same lessons at Cornell and at Auburn and found the students equally engaged with reading, discussing, making poems. But my Auburn students would sometimes apologize for the taunts of the men in the yard and in the cells above it. Lined up on one side of a fence while we lined up on the other after class, many would call my name and say goodnight and thank you before I followed the guards again back through the yard, as if their soft voices could mute the loud heckling I’d heard, as if to distinguish themselves in my mind from those other men. Meanwhile, my Cornell students would fret about grades in a way that’s troubling.

“Dear John: (Invention)” thinks about the ways we seek to soothe ourselves by imagining ourselves as separate from each other—“this lying distance.” Education and imprisonment both have been used to that end historically. We know, in the 1800s slaves caught assembling for the purpose of learning could be lashed. Teaching a slave to read was punishable by imprisonment. Now, articles are written and documentaries made about the school-to-prison pipeline. I am well aware that the chronic truancy by which I found my way to the drop zone as a teenager would have landed me in a juvenile detention center were I a student today. So, an alternate space working with these communities of students has pushed me to imagine is one where education leads neither to imprisonment or death for anyone.

You’re preparing a new collection of poems, The Coal Tar Colors. Tell us a little about the book, as well as a poem in it that may have helped propel it forward.

Mauve was the first coal tar color. I love the story of mauve: the search for synthetic quinine, for a cure for malaria; the discovery by an alchemist’s grandson of a “pink trying to be purple;” dyed silks and Paris fashions; 400 new shades; chemistry as a money-making industry; and—wow!—immunology; and—what?!—chemotherapy. I’ve wanted to do something with it, the story of the color—and “how a sound comes into a word, coloured,” how “Love is word another kind of open” (Audre Lorde, “Coal”)—for a while. Right now, because the manuscript’s not finished, I don’t know how it’s going to address, how to pull together, any of those things whether directly or indirectly. Right now, I’m writing poems on Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series. And poems on tongue rings and prayer (reaching back to and revising “RR Lyrae: Magnetic.”) And poems on the coal tar color Scarlet RR. And poems on Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller: right now, a fragment of a Bop with a refrain from the song “Ima Read” by Zebra Katz featuring Njena Reddd Foxxx.

At eighteen I left Florida. I moved fourteen hours north to matriculate as a freshman at Washington and Lee University, only to find myself again someplace that seemingly straddled a line between real and imaginary. The red brick and white columns of W&L’s campus elided with the open parade grounds and drab cream stone of the (then all male) Virginia Military Institute next door. Everyone on the Hill said hello to each other. And on VMI’s campus, the Keydets dressed in white uniforms all tipped their hats and said, “Good evening, ma’am.” W&L had just graduated its first class of women, so it was a co-ed university that perhaps still saw itself, and definitely still felt a bit, like a men’s school. The garage of the President’s house had been Traveller’s barn. So the garage doors were always left open in case Traveller’s spirit decided to cross the campus and return home. Visitors to Traveller’s gravesite behind Lee Chapel left pennies and apples and Confederate flags for the dead horse. These details are all trying to weave themselves together into that poem for The Coal Tar Colors, the rhythm of “Ima read. Ima read. Ima read”: the approaching sound of that horse’s hooves. We’ll see what happens.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award finalist, and Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, as well as Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, a chapbook collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. She is currently at work on The Coal Tar Colors, her third poetry collection, and Purchase, a collection of essays. She has written plays and lyrics for The Cherry, an Ithaca arts collective. She was one of ten celebrated poets commissioned to write poems inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in conjunction with the 2015 exhibit One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works for MoMA. She is an Associate Professor of English at Cornell University.