Award-winning poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon shares wisdom

On Thursday March 29, award-winning poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon conducted a poetry reading and Q-and-A session with creative writing students in the College Union’s Fireside Lounge in Newton 214.

An English professor at Cornell Unviersity, Van Clief-Stefanon has published two books of poetry: Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award finalist.

For her reading, Van Clief-Stefanon selected pieces mostly from Open Interval since English professors Cori Winrock and Rachel Hall had assigned the book to their creative writing students this semester.

Van Clief-Stefanon opened both sessions by drawing attention to her attire: a hoodie and jeans, in solidarity with Trayvon Martin.

“[Winrock and I] are a little embarrassed to be human beings, given the state of the world,” Van Clief-Stefanon said, adding that there are things to worry about other than fashion. “I’m not apologizing for my hoodie.”

In both sessions, Van Clief-Stefanon addressed current events and stressed the importance of writing poetry that sparks thoTught and conversation rather than writing cathartically.

“You’re translating language and speaking to people,” she said. “Thinking about philosophy and translating an experience … You’re talking across all kinds of lines, to the future and to the past.”

As far as the subjects of her poems, Van Clief-Stefanon said, “There are a lot of different ways content comes to [her].” She mentioned the “germ of a poem” that had come to her that same morning. “If a snippet is in my head … then I will tend to veer toward that bop [a poetic form involving repetition of lines] … It depends what the germ is,” she said.

During the reading, Van Clief-Stefanon briefly explained the inspirations behind each piece, which ranged from her research in mythology to skydiving and her time in the Peace Corps.

“Go and do something else, somewhere else,” she advised. “It’s all about life and experience, going out and being a person in the world.”

Van Clief-Stefanon said that although she always knew she wanted to be a writer, she didn’t intend to end up at a university.

“It’s a good career to have but I wouldn’t say shoot for the university,” she said. “There’s kind of an academic bubble.”

“I’d say you have to go out and get your ass kicked somewhere else,” Winrock said.

A student at the Q-and-A asked if Van Clief-Stefanon ever sacrificed her creativity to get published.

“[Poetry] is the highest art,” she said. “There is no money in it, you’re doing it because it’s important … Our job is to tell the truth. It’s a bad idea if you’re starting off with the commoditization of your work … Trends end … I’m shooting for forever. I still open Shakespeare’s sonnets and get butterflies. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

For her poem “Maul,” Van Clief-Stefanon called for a student to join her and sing the poem in the blues style. Senior Tahirah Ellis volunteered and invented a melody on the spot with a few harmonies from the poet.

“I thought she was very engaging; she made poetry very approachable,” junior Yael Massen said. “She’s just a lovely person and I really respect her as a poet. The fact that she made a statement about the Trayvon Martin issue resonates with me as a writer. It’s so nice to finally meet her. She lived up to, even exceeded, my expectations."