“I write in books, not in individual poems,” says poet Lyrae N. Van Clief-Stefanon, English. “A group of poems that make up a book will have an over-arching through line, all these threads that I’m holding together.”
Van Clief-Stefanon is currently working on a new book of poems titled The Coal Tar Colors, following the threads of seemingly disparate subjects and weaving them together in unexpected ways. The genesis for the work began with her interest in old-time folk music, especially from Appalachia, a region of the country with which she’s very familiar. “I started by focusing on the African roots of the banjo,” she says. “That led me to thinking more about family and history. Both my parents have died, and I have an adoptive family in Appalachia. The grandfather of that family was a coal miner. It’s been very interesting to me to realize the extent to which people think of Appalachia as the place in America where there is no blackness except the coal underground.”
The Coal Tar Color, Mauve
Thinking about coal and its uses led Van Clief-Stefanon to the story of the discovery of coal tar colors, the first organic synthetic dyes, which were byproducts of coal processing. The first of these colors, mauve, was discovered in 1856 by chemistry student William Henry Perkin. “He was looking for a way to make synthetic quinine as a cure for malaria,” she says. “By mistake he came up with this color mauve, the first of the coal tar colors. He discovered you can make any color of the rainbow through processing coal tar.” When Perkin discovered that aniline in coal tar could be chemically manipulated to produce vivid, colorfast dyes, he touched off a firestorm of scientific research. Rival chemists investigated other hydrocarbon components of coal tar and ended up making everything from paints to adhesives to anesthetics.
Van Clief-Stefanon was intrigued by the science behind Perkin’s discovery and the way his work led to so many breakthroughs. The link between Perkin’s wish to cure malaria and his eventual discovery of the many colors nesting within the blackness of coal tar sent her in a new direction. “That had me thinking about genetics because I have the sickle cell trait,” she says, “and that comes from the malaria zone.” Like a snail building a spiral shell, her investigations into genetics and family took her full circle once again, connecting her back to Appalachia and to the region’s music and the banjo with its origins in Africa. Despite the banjo’s African roots, however, she noticed when she attended old-time music concerts that she was often the only African American in the room.
“He was looking for a way to make synthetic quinine as a cure for malaria. By mistake he came up with this color mauve, the first of the coal tar colors. He discovered you can make any color of the rainbow through processing coal tar.”
“That became a part of the theme too,” she says. “I am thinking about identity and race but not using the lens that people usually approach it from. I am trying to point out the way in which one can be rendered invisible and thinking about that in terms of how the color, mauve, emerged in a bizarre way from the experiments the young man was doing to find a cure for malaria.”
How Personal Experiences and Discoveries Become Poetry
Van Clief-Stefanon established her style of creating through lines in each larger poetry project with her first book of poems Black Swan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The poems in that collection retold the stories of women from classical mythology and the Bible, reimagined with the speakers as black women. Van Clief-Stefanon’s own experience as a survivor of sexual assault helped her tell the stories of these women who were all, one way or another, victims of sexual violence. “It starts with Leda and ends with Helen of Troy,” she says. “All the women that Zeus attacked in some form are there. And all the women from the Bible who were assaulted are there as well. They are in conversation with each other. There is a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s First Duino Elegy that says ‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.’ I read that as an undergrad and thought, ‘That’s the truth!’ And I wanted to write something that spoke to that.”
Van Clief-Stefanon’s next collection Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) continued her expression of deeply personal experience by exploring the meaning of her name, Lyrae. She discovered it was the designation given by astronomers to a type of pulsating variable star, the RR Lyrae Variables. “I started out learning about these stars,” Van Clief-Stefanon says. “From that, the book wound up being about distance, the gaps in everything, the space in everything. It was about my name, but it morphed into this idea that your name is not you. There is a gap in identity between that word and your body, which we learn in junior high is mostly space. So, where’s the ‘you’ in your identity?”
Open Interval also took an unflinching look at Van Clief-Stefanon’s experience of divorce, which she was going through at the time. “Sometimes the absences in us seem so profuse/I wonder we don’t pass through wood,” she writes in the poem “RR Lyrae: Matter.” “I’m trying to get at what it actually feels like to experience your life and the way that it is largely ineffable,” she says. “That’s my job: to actually say those things, to find the language for those things. The more I research and pull from other places, the more I’m able to find that language. If I don’t have the language of science, then I can’t get at what it feels like to get a divorce.”
Van Clief-Stefanon sees each of her collection of poems as building on the previous, exploring some of the same ground in new ways and using what came before as a springboard for further exploration. “People think the collections are far removed from each other, but they follow hard one on the other,” she says. “There are always certain through lines. The Coal Tar Colors is becoming more and more about family, and about genetics and the inability to have children. That all started in Black Swan, but it’s taken this long to get the base built to be able to tell the stories I’m trying to tell.”