The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
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 she cowrote with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and in journals including African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Shenandoah. She is currently at work on a third collection, The Coal Tar Colors, and teaches at Cornell University.
In June 2016, Van Clief-Stefanon visited City of Asylum for Cave Canem’s annual retreat and poetry reading. In this interview with Sampsonia Way, she discusses her convoluted, nonlinear research process, the influence of nature and landscape on her work, and the flawed social codes that poetry rewrites.
How would explain poetry to someone who had never read a poem before?
Poetry is when you’re trying to find language for the ineffable; the places where words fail us. It’s trying to push into that space where words have failed us and yet you’re still trying to say that powerful thing.
What are some examples of places where words have failed you?
Words have failed me in all kinds of spaces of beauty and joy. In 2013, I drove from Ithaca, New York, where I live, out to Glacier National Park in Montana. Going to the Sun Road that’s in Glacier is beautiful in such a way that you just find yourself thinking, “This landscape, wow.” I have that a lot with nature; I have it a lot with trees. My friends joke around about how crossing a campus and trying to have a conversation with me is hard because I’m always stopping and saying “Look at that tree!”
One of the things that I do in my classroom in order to get students to think about the ineffable is to say to them “Can you say that tree?” And then they realize, Oh no, poems are hard! You can’t say that tree. There’s that Rilke quote from “The Ninth Duino Elegy” where he says, “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, fruit tree, pitcher.” It’s that list of things that our time on earth is for.
I have a poem in my purse right now that I wanted to read tonight about the grapefruit tree that was in the back of my yard when I was a little girl. I feel like in a lot of ways, it’s a tree that saved my life. I used to go and climb up into the tree to have a safe space for moments in childhood that were unsafe in a lot of ways. I’m trying to say that grapefruit tree has become this great project. I haven’t finished the poem so I’m not going to be able to read it tonight. It makes me really sad but it’s that thing of, “How do you say the grapefruit tree was my first love?” How to get that into words in a way that makes sense to anybody who’s not living in your head—that’s poetry to me.
When does a poem begin?
That is always new and different every time. It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s a crazy thing that my job, in part, is to teach people how to write a poem. I tell my students immediately “I have no idea. I’m faced with that blank page every time I sit down to write the same as you are.” So where do we find a way in? I don’t know.
I think I’m the slowest writer in America because I think I tend to start at the most difficult spaces. Some people would start with description or music or something like that, but I like to start right in that space of the ineffable. Where that space is, for me has become kind of sign language for “I am at that space of mystery, I am at the unsayable.” What’s the closest that I can get to that the fastest?
Because for the most part, at this point, I don’t want to mess too much with the other stuff. I’m also always yelling at my students about not putting poetry in their poems. I’m not interested in poetry in that way. I’m not trying to write poetry or make somebody say, “Oh, look at how good at writing something she is,” or make somebody think, “Oh, she’s smarter.” I really am trying to get to that space.
How can poetry challenge social codes?
We were talking about this in the Cave Canem workshop. I was just teaching Thomas Jefferson and Notes on the State of Virginia where he wrote that the blacks have no capacity for poetry and Phillis Wheatley‘s poetry was below notice. So I think just being, walking through the world and being a black poet in particular is doing such important work. Just for me to sit down and try and find the space of the ineffable, to try and enter that space, to write it down on a page and to have it out in the world for someone else to read is doing the work that you’re asking about.
Does poetry ever reinforce social codes?
I think it can, if people aren’t interested at all in the liberation for their fellow human beings. I don’t know what people are thinking sometimes when they sit down to put something on a page. For me, it’s important that I’m not just trying to figure something out but that I am giving something; that I’m putting something in the world that I think is useful and failing. I have to say all the time, more and more, because I’m always up against, “Look at that tree,” and “How can what you put on the page be as useful as that tree right there?” That’s probably why I write so slowly.
Could you say more about the influence of landscape on your writing?
I’m from the swamps of Florida and from the ocean. I was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. Being someone who’s from a city that’s right on the coast is a big deal to me. We moved 30 miles inland when I was in the sixth grade, so the swamp is also a huge influence on my work. That density and that threat and the gorgeousness of threat is something I grew up dealing with a lot in my life; how threat is beauty. “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” as Rilke says—again because he’s always in my head. I also walk around in the world and I’m interacting with the natural world all day, every day. And I’m interested in that world.
When I’m trying to make a world in my head, it’s not that I think that the landscape or anything like that needs improvement. It’s that I think that the way we interact with each other needs improvement. If we could interact with each other in a better way, in conversation with the trees, I think that would be really lovely. I’m always thinking about things like that; those aspens especially get me. I see them and I think “Joy!” They’re like joy-makers on the side of the road. Can I make something that any time somebody sees it, it’s that instant making of joy like that? It’s instant before I even start to intellectualize it. I think when you see those great swaths of aspen that that’s all one system and they’re all in community with each other and that just adds to it. But at first I just think about the tambourine shimmer that they’re doing with their leaves and that is poetry to me.
Could you talk about your research process?
It is like falling down the rabbit hole every time. I don’t set out to say, “Oh, I’m going to write these poems about this 19th century 18-year-old who’s experimenting in a lab trying to figure out a way to cure malaria by making a synthetic quinine who comes across this pink trying to be purple.” I’ll just be looking at one thing and suddenly things like that just start appearing and I have to follow them and then one builds on the next. At this point, because it happened with the previous two books, I’m not as scared of it as I used to be. Now I start to think of it as the universe leaving me breadcrumbs to follow; like this is connected to this, and it’s connected to that, and it’s connected to this and that is part of the process of making a book for me. How do I leap across the gaps between the places where the connections are not clear to me?
It’s just something as simple as seeing a color that I think I’m going to write about because it’s pretty and then discovering this whole history of mauve that was underneath it and the more I dig, the more there is to the point where it becomes tied to unearthing. If you follow mauve out you get to immunology and chemotherapy. Then I’m screwed because I’m going to have to think about all of that and then suddenly because of the cancer connection I’m looking at chromothripsis and I’m looking at DNA and then I start looking at cell circuits and who’s doing work on cell circuitry. I just love that stuff.
Why did your research process used to scare you?
When I was writing Open Interval I thought it wasn’t going to make sense to anybody. I was so shocked by the positive reception that book got, because it feels to me as close to madness as you’re allowed to become. My own inability to think linearly takes over. All of these things are related and then I start thinking about the theory of everything. Then you go down that rabbit hole and suddenly you’re just like, “Okay, I might drive myself to madness with this.” So when I was writing Open Interval that was the fear: “Am I losing my mind?” Also: “Are people going to see that I’m losing my mind? Someone’s going to put me in an asylum because I’m losing my mind.” But instead it was, “Oh, yeah! We like it!” That was a good surprise.
Could you name three poets that everyone should be reading right now?
In terms of young poets who are coming up right now, somebody whose work I really, really like: Rickey Laurentiis blows my mind. Just brilliant in terms of the work he’s doing. Justin Phillip Reed was in the workshop that I was teaching two days ago and I just thought, “Wow, who is this person?” Airea Dee Matthews’ book is about to come out. She won the Yale Younger Poets competition this year. That’s more names that you asked for, but there’s a lot of young people who are coming up.