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.
Hi, Lyrae! I’m so excited to be doing this interview with you. Thank you again. I’d like to start off with a quote of yours that’s always in my head when I write and when I teach: “Write to think. Don’t think to write.” I have so many fond memories of your poetry workshops at Cornell, and I remember you saying this a lot. Can you talk a bit more about this quote and its meaning?
Thanks, Dorothy! And congratulations! I am so excited about your book! In my classes, it’s the easiest way to get students to turn off the editor voice, to stop stressing about whether a poem is “good” as it is being written. For me, it’s a way of getting out of my own way, of focusing on process instead of product, and of avoiding writer’s block, but also side-stepping a certain kind of “ambition.” If I know too much ahead of time or put too much pressure on what a poem is going to be and do—I don’t know. Something in me resists that. I want to be immersed in the making or unmaking that’s happening as I write. I don’t want to be judging it because I find that judgement stifling. I also want to acknowledge that I understand and know by making poems.
I associate the infinite with your work, whether it’s the deliberate open intervals ] [ of Open Interval, your quotation of Robert Hass’ “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances,” or your sonnet, “Eight” from Black Swan. “Eight” is an important poem to read. In this poem, the eight-year-old speaker is alone in her childhood home when a man “tries to coax me [her] down onto the bed,” and “He slides his middle finger round the edge / of my blue shorts. I don’t know if I should / shoot a bird at him, shoot him dead. At eight.”
She states, “I know more than I want to know” and ends with, “praise God. I’ve learned to call on other powers.” The ending sentence of “I’ve learned to call on other powers” makes the sonnet go back in a round, calling to its infinite nature. The speaker is also calling upon her own powerful and infinite nature. And finally, when flipped, the number eight turns into the infinity symbol (∞). Can you talk more about your thoughts on the sonnet, whether it’s within the context of “Eight” or poetry in general. What do you think about its infinite power? It’s got such a long history that doesn’t seem to slow down today. Why do you think the sonnet has had such lasting power?
Your question makes me think of the way “Eight” connects in my mind to a specific material object: a suitcase turntable my sister bought for me when I was a girl. I think that little Disco 80 Emerson turntable—a hard box that, opened up and turned on, revealed this infinitely turning mechanism—attached itself to the sonnet form in my mind. My mother had bought me The Living Shakespeare discography (all the plays on album with accompanying text) at a library sale when I was a little girl. So I fell in love with the sonnet listening to those plays. That box with its spinning platter, those black grooved records, served as an escape hatch with spiritual resonance for me. “Other powers” references the power of “the Word”—my mother also had purchased the entire King James Version of the Bible on cassette tapes and my siblings and I were required to listen and read along with our Bibles for an hour every day after school. But I was as well working through the powers of place, of gesture, of expression, of time and timing, as they were instilled in me via my experiences. Like how do I think about boundaries through the gesture of that guy’s finger sliding around the edge of that girl’s blue shorts. There are cycles referenced in the gesture. There’s also a hitch, a scratch, a bumping of the needle indicating that something needs to be turned over here. One thing I like about the seemingly infinite space of the internet: I can reach back and find an object like that, and look at it again and think about the way that little box was marking the era in which I was growing up. I can discover how it still makes its way through my work, like a ripple: the sparkle stars, the dancing silhouettes, the color schemes, the texture of the disco-lighted front panel that I ran my fingernails across, that I had forgotten until I found this picture. Then I can think ambit instead of ambition, which today, most days, is more interesting to me.
And in relation to the previous question, what do you think about the sonnet in relation to women poets and women poets of color?
I think I am a student. “My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device./But I lack access to my proper stone./And plenitude of plan shall not suffice….” I am obsessed with Gwendolyn Brooks. And with Lucille Clifton, with forms refusing, with “what did I see to be except myself?” With authorship, authority, augury and their relationship to the particular history of the idea of a black woman poet in America. And to that little blue box, that turntable, to the grooves I dropped into as a child. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete,” Brooks writes in “my dreams, my works, must wait til after hell.” And my mother would say to me when I was growing up, “a person can survive hell if they know one day they will get out.” I think at some point I started thinking about the sonnet as if it were a little Pandora’s box, a little hell where hope was also tethered, a cell to escape as I write in Bop: The North Star.
I love your collaborative chapbook with Elizabeth Alexander, titled “Poems in Conversation and a Conversation” (Slapering Hol Press). I love how my favorite poem of yours, “The Buffet Dream,” which is in Open Interval, is a part of this gorgeous chapbook. How do you think hunger drives our artistic work? What about desire?
I feel a certain drive to know things, to articulate the connections that I see between things. There’s “The Wish to Be Believed,” that part of me who’s like the speaker at the end of Mona Van Duyn’s poem, “saying to someone/ “‘Believe. Believe this is what I see.’” As I get older, I find myself hungry for (and thankfully finding) joy. Daily, I find myself hungry for kindness and peace. Beyond that, again, I get suspicious; I resist. I question myself constantly: what do you want with that—whatever it is. Freedom and generosity are the drives that interest me most. And love.
And in “The Buffet Dream,” you’ve got these gorgeous descriptions of food, such as “silver bowls of fresh berries and zabaglione” and “a glass display case of napoleons and air-pies, an éclair filled with waking.” I know that Elizabeth Alexander already asked you, “What is your perfect breakfast, perfect lunch, perfect dinner,” but I can’t help but want to ask you this question again. So, “What is your perfect breakfast, perfect lunch, perfect dinner?”
Now, a perfect dinner is kitfo with other Ethiopian specialties prepared by my bestie Dagmawi Woubshet. Breakfast: I like a bowl of oatmeal, yogurt, toast with butter & jam, maybe a soft-boiled egg, maybe a smoothie (lately banana matcha). I’m not much of a lunch person. I like brunch. I like breakfast foods any time of day or night. A Macro Mama’s platter from the Ithaca farmer’s market is a great lunch. I still love fresh greens. I grew kale in containers my front yard last year. That was awesome. There’s a song that says, “there’s just two things that money can’t buy and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” I got volunteer tomatoes the first few years I lived at my house. That was awesome. I need to get around to planting some heirlooms.
What are your current obsessions (these don’t have to be literary-related)? And how are these obsessions driving your artistic work right now?
I am obsessed with the rhetorical figure of adynaton. I cannot stop thinking about how black creative artists confront the impossible. Listen to Stevie Wonder’s song “As” and look at the way he uses the tilde in the lyrics in Songs in the Key of Life. Or check out the way Phillis Wheatley turns winter to spring in “On Imagination.” Or Gwendolyn Brooks insistence, “Nevertheless live! Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” I am thinking about these things constantly.
Can you talk a bit about your upcoming projects, The Coal Tar Colors, your third poetry collection, and Purchase, a collection of essays? I’m so excited for these!
Purchase is a collection of personal essays. I’m trying to write through how one finds a sense purchase in one’s time/country/culture/universe. One thing I am particularly thinking about is black creative artists as close readers. The title of The Coal Tar Colors comes from thinking about mauve, about William Perkin trying to make a synthetic quinine as a cure for malaria, about the history of that color. Like Open Interval, it deals with identity but uses science as one lens.
And finally, next time I see you, I’m requesting that we play the Proust Questionnaire together. I love the version that’s immortalized on the Vanity Fair website. I’m going to ask you question 27: “Who are your favorite writers?”
June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God may still be my favorite book.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Diode Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.