INTERVIEW with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

Jacqueline Walker

Jacqueline Walker recently had the opportunity to interview Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and author of the poetry collection Black Swan. She has currently been working on a new collection of poems called Open Interval. Clief-Stefanon is also an English professor at Cornell University.

E: I know that you are currently working on a book of poems calledInterval,can you tell me about this project.

Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval’s all finished and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in April 2009. In that bookI’m trying to think about and play with identity, using the lenses of astronomy and math. My name, Lyrae, is also the name of a type of star. RR Lyrae stars are pulsating variables; that is, they regularly brighten and dim as they expand and contract. Because RR Lyrae stars share a similar absolute luminosity, they are useful for determining distances. The idea of looking at identity from the vantage point of these stars intrigued me. And their RR designation interested me metaphorically because it called to mind railroad signs: x-marked, blues-tinged sites of intersection. The poems in Open Interval are concerned with locating the self in the open interval between body and name. In mathematical terminology, an open interval is a line that does not contain its end points. The line constantly approaches but never reaches its ends, making the space between those points infinite. As an black woman poet, I am interested in where this concept can lead with regard to ideas of freedom and constraint, particularly within the context(s) of (cultural, racial, gender, etc.) identity.

Now, I’m working on a new manuscript called The Coal Tar Colors. I think it will reflect my continuing obsession with science, and with place, and with identity. Coal tar’s been in the news a lot in Ithaca lately, because a historic building in the neighborhood adjacent to mine—the Markles Flats building—is sitting on top of a coal tar deposit and NYSEG’s undertaking a massive cleanup. I’ve been researching how coal tar is used in the manufacture of artificial dyes. Mauve, the first of the aniline dyes, discovered in 1856, led to the production of over 400 other shades. I want to really dig into the science of color: color dictionaries, color theory going back to Alberti and da Vinci and Isaac Newton. In my research I ran across the coal tar color Scarlet RR and it just seemed a natural segue, a continuation of the conversation with the book I just finished.

E: How did winning the 2001 Cane Canem Poetry Prize affect your life?

C: It got my book published, which opened doors for me in terms of teaching at a university, getting a job that offers me time to write. Cave Canem has also just been a fabulous community for me. It was a conversation with Nikky Finney that led me to really run with the idea for Open Interval. I got to study with Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. I made friends with other black poets scattered across this country. It’s really an amazing thing that Toi and Cornelius did in envisioning that workshop.

E: Out of all of the poems that you have written, which one is your favorite?you give any information about your inspiration for writing this poem?

C: Right now, my favorite of my own poems is “Bop: The North Star”. I teach a poetry workshop at a maximum security men’s prison in Auburn, New York, about an hour from Ithaca. I have to drive past Harriet Tubman’s house to get to that prison each week. All my ideas about stars and identity and freedom started coming together in that poem. It’s the first poem in Open Interval.

E: As a popular modern poet, is writing poetry becoming more and more of a job than a passion?

C: I think of writing poems as a vocation. It is my work and I am passionate about it. It is what I am called to do.

E: It was very clear to me after reading your poems, “Garden” and “Fountain,” that personal experiences play a major role in your writing.you had to choose one personal experience that most effects your writing, what would if be?

C: Personal experience is just one of many elements that any writer may choose to draw from; but it’s actually not the only tool in my toolbox. If it were, I think I’d write a little faster than I do. I am a freak for research. And what may read like a scene from my own life may be ekphrastic. (I’ve had people assume the little girl on the cover of Black Swanis me; though that’s a Doris Ulmann photograph. And she died in 1934.) I am more interested in the (capital T) Truth in poems than what “really happened.” That is me on the cover of Black Swan. And I can say from personal experience, pulling out bindweed roots sucks.

E: What level of fame do you hope to achieve in your life time?

C: I wrote a poem called “Poem for Amadou Diallo” that addresses the concept of fame. I don’t want to be “famous.” That’s terrifying. It would be nice if someday my words could make someone feel the way Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Rights for Cousin Vit” makes me feel, or Prufrock, or Emily Dickinson’s 640.

E:do you feel about having the opportunity of influencing hundreds of students as an English professor?you enjoy getting to share your passions through teaching more than you do through your writing?

C: I believe a good education takes the form of an extended conversation and raises more questions than answers. So my students are influencing me too, not just the other way around. I really enjoy teaching. But do I prefer it to writing? No, definitely not. If I could only write and still afford to eat, well, I might. I’m fortunate that my job affords me time to write.

E: What message do you hope to give to your readers?

C: There is nothing I can say in an interview that would be clearer than a poem itself. It is in poems in which, I feel, I am most clear. Or rather, it’s that form that allows me to approach most closely what I actually mean to say.

Poems get hampered when I try to shove some message into them. I’ve heard Lucille Clifton joke that, if poems were meant to serve the writer, all her poems would end “I am cute and available.” So if I have to pick a message to give my readers, that’s it. Me: single, quirky, like motorcycles. You: outdoorsy, fit, willing to read aloud to me, good kisser.-e-