Interview: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon & Rebecca Gayle Howell

When the 2017 Appalachian Symposium was held at Berea College last fall, expectations were high. After all, the debut of the biennial event in September 2015 had set a high bar, when thirty of Appalachia’s most celebrated and active writers had gathered to discuss the current state of literature and Appalachian culture. Instead of another large assemblage, founder Silas House had decided that subsequent events would focus on one or two writers, who would share their work and expertise over the course of two days.

The second symposium did not disappoint, featuring two of the region’s—and the country’s—finest poets: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a National Book Award finalist for her 2009 collection Open Interval and a Cave Canaam Award winner, and Rebecca Gayle Howell, author of the acclaimed collections American Purgatory and Render / An Apocalypse, and poetry editor of Oxford American.

In between giving readings and teaching workshops, Van Clief-Stefanon and Howell engaged in a riveting, candid public conversation with House that examined Appalachian, African-American and working class identity; American politics; and the role of the artist in contemporary America. This conversation has been edited for length.

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SILAS HOUSE: One reason we have the Appalachian Symposium is because we want Appalachia to be thought of not only as a local place but as a global place. One of the great pieces of Appalachian Literature is “The Brier Sermon” by Jim Wayne Miller. In it, he says, “We don’t have to think ridge to ridge anymore. We can think ocean to ocean.” I’m wondering how you all respond to that idea of Appalachia as simultaneously very local and very global.

LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: I was thinking this morning—it hadn’t occurred to me ever to sit and figure out how long I’ve lived in Appalachia until I knew that you were going to ask us questions about it, and I realized that I’ve lived in Appalachia for half my life, and that was shocking to me.

I think that it is so tied up for me in family. Not just in terms of family drawing you in, but also family that you flinch from, because family for me has as much flinch as drawing-in in it. That’s where my mind goes with that question of the ways in which families are born, made, and found, and the way that those connections can be global of those born, made, and found families. You’re always finding those connections… What are the different ways in which we are tied to each other across the planet, and how can we move through them and make them visible so [that becomes] a thing we keep in our minds more often?

How do we keep [that] in our minds, instead of having our minds constantly [be] disciplined into shaping and thinking in ways that I feel like are not good for us as human beings [or] not good for us as people in this country? [It’s] not good for us as human beings to constantly be disciplined into thinking, This is how we have to think and talk about this, and this is the way that we know these identities. For myself, [I try] not to think about it in terms of claim but in terms of an expansion.

REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL: I have been processing my sense of place through an idea of Wendell Berry’s use of the word economy and his lifting it up as a metaphor and a word that might mean new things in new contexts. Last night, Thoughts in the Presence of Fear [a documentary about Berry] came on KET [Kentucky Educational Television], and I was reminded that it’s really just Wendell reading his essay “Thoughts on the Presence of Fear,” which he wrote on the anniversary of September 11th. I was reminded, hearing him read it, that he’s constantly saying, “We need a peaceable economy.”

My answer to this question is maybe the problem is not that we are not thinking ocean to ocean. Maybe the problem is we are born into a life and a livelihood that is inevitably ocean to ocean, and we are choosing to not be aware of it. So, we are thinking ocean to ocean in a global economic sense—we are pieces and parts of that globalized economy, and yet we are not aware of our global role in that. That denial and that silence allows for a lot of sickness. In some ways, I’m more interested in what happens if we do truly think ridge to ridge, meaning, what happens when we do know our neighbors? What happens when our food system is that local? What happens when our memory is localized, our love for each other? Maybe there is a liberty waiting in that.

SH: The older I get, the more I want my circle to be smaller and smaller. Do you find that, too? The more I learn about life and other people, the fewer people I want to know. It’s sort of that same idea. While I want my circle to be smaller, I also want my knowledge to be broader. Since [Rebecca] mentioned Wendell Berry, I wonder, [Lyrae], if you wouldn’t mind talking about what you were telling me about driving across the country with Wendell Berry[’s work].

LVC-S: After the verdict came out in the Trayvon Martin case, I was so upset; I was just through. I was just through with America, just done. I already had issues with rage, with just being angry all the time, and I didn’t feel like just being rageful. I thought, what can I do in this moment to make myself feel better? I grabbed a collection of Wendell Berry’s poems and I got in my car, and I drove from Ithaca [New York] to Montana to Glacier National Park and back…I kept thinking about that piece [where] he writes about having scarred the land and feeling so sorry for it. But then, last night and this morning and this week, I was thinking about it like, no, it’s because of the way that Wendell Berry writes about the darkness. He’s one of the rare people who writes about the darkness in a way that makes sense to me and that doesn’t fall into that rut—which I think is there in the language that people fall into—where the darkness is everything bad and terrible and [something] you want to get away from and you’re terrified by. [He is] somebody who’s actually being conscious with language in the same way that he is with the land—that kind of ties into that kind of thinking about identity you were just asking about.

There’s this great line in one of Lucille Clifton’s poems [“won’t you celebrate with me”] where she says, born in Babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did I see to be except myself? That sense of thinking about the region and my connection to it and how that connection works—I always refer to the South as an imaginary place where real things happen…Even though I’m not from Appalachia, I feel like it’s a place where I belong. That sense of space in which you can be, in terms of the ways I think about being a black woman in this world, and how everything is just kind of this is where you cannot be. You cannot be here, you cannot be here, you cannot be here. So, to be in a space where I feel like this is where I’m meant to be, and my being able to be an author in that space—there’s something sacred.

SH: People can have such a narrow view of what it means to be Appalachian. Some think you have to be born here. Some think you have to live here your whole life. I tend to think it’s more about consciousness and how conscious you are of the place, and how you serve the place, and how you care about the place. Sometimes that caring about the place is questioning the place, loving it and hating it, everything in between and all that. I’ll be honest—I had pushback from people that you two are not “Appalachian enough” to be part of The Appalachian Symposium. What I said most loudly was, “That’s why we invited them. Because somebody like you would question their Appalachianness.” They’re basing that just on a standard bio without having any real knowledge of who you both are.

RGH: First of all, I just want to say that I think that critique sounds a little too much like you’re not black enough or you’re not man enough or you’re not American enough. It’s a really dangerous way to think.

Second, my mother was the daughter of subsistence farmers in Perry County [Kentucky]—the agrarian economy before the industrial economy in Appalachia had long gone. Her daddy had been raised in it. Her daddy refused to go to work [in the] coal [mines] or the railroads and instead decided to raise his family off the economy of the land. If they didn’t grow it or make it or barter for it, usually a hog, they didn’t have it. They did, however, have ten children, five boys, five girls.

[My mom] left her hollow at fifteen because her parents looked at her one day and said, “We can’t afford the books for school anymore, so you can’t go to school anymore.” It didn’t matter that she loved to learn and read so much so that she hurt her eyes reading in the dark after the rest of the family had gone to bed in their two-room house. She leaves… for a grown-up life [in] Louisville with [the promise of a job as a nanny for a family and that she could finish school. But the woman] locks my mom in her house and makes her an indentured servant. She ends up having to flee in the middle of the night. That’s the context for the fact that my mom was a girl working a job and laying in bed at night, practicing losing her accent, practicing standard American English pronunciations over and over and over again, so that no one would know she was a hillbilly, so that she wouldn’t lose her job, so that she wouldn’t be made fun of.

So no—I don’t have even the beginning of the understanding of the Appalachian dialect. No, I wasn’t raised in the hills because my mother left and did everything she could to pass [as not Appalachian]. [But] I trace my bloodline there. Those are my people.

LVC-S: When I started thinking about what drove me from Florida [where I grew up] into Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia, it was two things. It was a change in the law that happened when I was in high school—the Hazelwood decision [where] the Supreme Court…said that student publications… didn’t have First Amendment rights. I was the editor of my high school newspaper, and suddenly that decision comes down. And then…Tiananmen [Square] happened. There was a [dissident named] Wu’er Kaixi. He was one of the people who got an audience with Li Peng [then Premier of the People’s Republic of China]…I’m seeing and hearing of this kid who’s across the world. He’s eighteen. He’s on hunger strike, he’s in his pajamas. And I’m thinking, I’m going to go to school and be a journalist. I’m going to meet him to interview him, and we are going to fall in love and have revolutionary babies. That’s how my brain was working at eighteen.

Now, the route to that, to me—Florida girl that I was—was to go off to school. Washington and Lee [University] was the first journalism school in America, and so that’s the school I picked. That’s how I ended up in Virginia. And then [I found myself at Penn State] in graduate school [with Appalachian poet Lisa Parker]. We’re the only two southerners. Everybody treats us like we’re complete frigging idiots because we are Southern, and we’re just like [to each other], hey, you seem really familiar to me. The more that we talk, the more familiar we are, and she takes me home to her house in Virginia for a singing. Her granddaddy, [with] generations of people in there singing, leans over to Lisa [and] says [about me], “That’s good people.” The rest of the family’s like, “Well, you ain’t never getting out of here now.” So, suddenly, I have an Appalachian family. If you go to our mom’s house, you can’t tell her she didn’t raise me. You cannot tell that I did not grow up right there. Faye Whitt, Grandma, would say to me, “Your heart knows where home is. This is my grandbaby.”

So there’s all these different threads that pull you into a space of being…There’s no place in my life, there’s no identity that I’ve inhabited, where I wasn’t told, “You are not black enough.” I was never girl enough, you know? I was queer, so I wasn’t straight enough. I was not black enough. And so, yeah, I’m just more interested in all those threads and connections and the way they come together than in that argument [about not “being enough” of something].

SH: Since the [2016 presidential] election, the South and Appalachia keeps getting held up as the worst of [America], right? It seems like nobody else is at fault for that but Southerners and Appalachians. How do you respond when you see that happening?

RGH: I’m going to go back to the last question for a minute, but [what] comes to my mind is who isn’t Appalachian? in the sense that what I was saying earlier. If we are the bellwether, if we are the ground zero of what happens in the corporatocracy—what the fallout is, what it looks like when it’s done doing its business—then the rest of the country needs to be paying real close attention, because we’re all part of this system. That’s what I mean when I say we all ought to start looking ridge to ridge or hollow to hollow—real close.

To that end, then, I think that because we don’t want to acknowledge our culpability in this system, globally, nationally— just like I think we don’t want to acknowledge our culpability in the brutalities of American racism or the patriarchy—because we don’t want to have to get people to come to Jesus about that, we have a natural disposition to start pointing fingers. Well, racism is the South’s fault; Trump is Appalachia’s fault.

I’ll tell you this. There’s a West Virginia photographer named Lisa Emaleh. The blame game [about the election had] really started to come down the pike. I was at my desk at the Oxford American when Lisa called me, and she said, “I just am so angry every time one of these stories hits the news.” And she said, “I want to do something.” And I said, “Well, let’s do a little something.”

So she and I got into the car and started traveling around Arkansas together and documenting. I was interviewing people, and she was photographing people, and trying to find people who had voted for Trump. Every single person we found and talked to was not only wealthy—they were a millionaire. These people went out of their way to express the amount of their wealth. These are not poor white people who put this man into office. These are white people with means who are scared shitless of losing those means.

LVC-S: Since the election—since before the election—I was the person who was running around in my town saying, “Hey, hey, hey, the thing’s coming!” And then people were saying to me, “How do you know?” And I said, “The sight runs in my family.” That’s not acceptable knowledge. And I’m saying, “No, he’s going to win.” And they’re saying, “It’s not possible what you’re saying is going to happen. Numbers say that it’s not possible.” All of this stuff, blah, blah, blah.

And I’m saying, “Hey, the sight runs in my family, and so here’s this thing that’s gonna happen.” And ever since then, since not being paid attention to and not listened to, I’ve been going back and delving through particular histories.

I’m obsessed right now with Phillis Wheatley—just obsessed. My poem “Migration” keeps saying “black is an ardor” and everything like that because Miss Phillis writes in her poem “On Imagination,” T’was an intrinsic ardor bid me write. You know, everybody likes to tell [her] story like that that little girl was taught to read and all this other kind of fabulous stuff happened as a result of it. [But] I keep thinking about the fact that that seven-year-old got in those people’s houses, and she picked up a piece of coal and she started writing on the wall, and that is the thing that precipitated teaching her to read. They say it like it’s this happy story, and I’m like, what was that baby writing on their wall? I mean this. I’m really trying to figure out—when she picks up that coal and starts writing on the walls, what is she writing that needs this containment around it? What are they trying to stop that she’s doing in this thing that I’m studying—black women writers and women writers, and how often that comes up, that writing on the wall?

Up until the election I was like oh, okay, let me discipline my way of speaking so that people can understand what I’m saying so they don’t think that I’m crazy—and I’m talking about the sight and all of that. That shit is over. No, I know things. The things that I know are acceptable forms of knowledge, and I’m out there just saying the stuff that I know now instead of trying to fit things into this molded way of being that has never made any sense anyway.

That way of approaching the election is leading me to think about the things that we do write down and how we write them down, and living in the impossible and making the history of that a visible thing instead of being like, These are the ways we’re supposed to have these conversations. This is whose fault Trump is. This is whose fault this is. This stuff is happening.

No. I don’t believe in the system. The system has always been nonsense, because all the system has ever said to me is, “You don’t exist.” And I’m like, “But I be right here.” Again, that way of talking is just disciplining us into certain ruts so that we have the same conversation over and over again in a way that I’m just not interested in. I’m much more interested now in different forms of knowledge and how they work and how we express them to people and where that gets us…That’s where I am on the whole Trump thing.

SH: When people feel abandoned by their representatives, they always turn to their artists, so do you feel that responsibility as an artist? You [both] write about big issues—you’re writing about gender and race and class and religion. Do you feel compelled to do that? Do you do it just because that’s what you care about, and do you feel responsibility to do that as an artist?

LVC-S: I do. Terrance Hayes has a line in one of his poems [“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy”] where he’s talking about the way his father speaks: I’d rather have what my daddy calls / “skrimp”. He says “discrete” and means the street / just out of sight.

I’m always telling my students, “I’m writing for that street. That street right there. Discrete.” That’s where I’m trying to get to and bump all this other stuff…I feel like it’s imperative to just call bullshit on these models at this point. I’m done with doing it in the way that it’s supposed to be done. Like, if you’re going to write about race, or if you’re going to write about gender, or if you’re going to write about any of these things, these are the ways that you have to do it. And instead be like, oh yeah, skrimp and discrete, you know? I want all of the stuff that’s in there. I want the mass in there. What are the equations that go with that skrimp and discrete, and how do I follow that and write open intervals and really start to comment about thinking?

This is the way that my mind actually works—instead of this is the way that your mind is supposed to work. [I want to] just follow that—follow those portals is the way I think about them. How do we get through those spaces so that we can get somewhere, instead of spinning around in a circle all the time, saying the same things in the same way, so that the system that grinds us up can just grind us up, and then grind up a new generation and a new generation?

RGH: Let me ask you a question. I have felt a very powerful impatience since the advent of us giving Trump so much power. Was that the feeling you were referring to when you say I’m done now? Is that the now?

LVC-S: Yeah. I’m saying for so long, “Here’s a thing that’s going to happen. It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s happening.” And everybody’s telling me, “The thing that you’re saying is going to happen is impossible. We have pundits, we have number counters, we have crunchers. They’re saying it’s not gonna happen.” And I’m saying, “You are wrong.” And they’re saying, “How do you know?” And I’m like, “‘Cause my mama had the sight, my great-grandmama had the sight, and I have it, too.” And then instead of dismissing that, thinking, What does that mean? Why could my great-grandmama see things? Why can my mama see things? How am I able to see things?

I’m tying that back into what I do, so that I’m thinking of it more and more now as a type of close reading. I’m a really good close reader. I can close read the hell out of some stuff because if I didn’t when I was a child, bad shit was going to happen if I didn’t close read the situation. How is the sight a type of close reading that people then should acknowledge as a type of close reading, you know? Where does it come from, and how can we then use that to get us out of some of the situations that we’re in?

RGH: I haven’t addressed this publicly, but I will because I, too, have felt the last straw for me was giving [Trump] the keys to our kingdom. [In] the spring of 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer, but before I got my diagnosis, I had been reading a lot of Audre Lorde, because I was coming here [to Berea College] and she was on my heart to [give] to the students. Lorde had loosened her tongue upon her [own] cancer diagnosis. That was her moment of I understand now that there is no time left for bullshit.

I did not connect those events when I got my diagnosis. I just went into panic and then went into surgery after surgery after surgery. I’m fine now, but it was in the midst of those surgeries that [Donald Trump was elected]. When that season came upon me, I had my Audre Lorde moment of oh, right, there is absolutely no time to waste.

Art is many things to many people, and I’m not going to be the person who says art can only be this thing, but for me, it is my practice of prayer, it is my practice of seeking truth. And maybe because my daddy was a Marine, maybe because bad things would happen if I wasn’t paying close enough attention as a kid, I am obsessively watching—or, I should say, reading—all the time, so I can’t help but now have it all in my work. Pretending like it’s not on my mind is not going to do anymore…There’s no time now to not say whatever you’ve got in you to say, what you know to be true.

LVC-S: It’s funny that you bring up Audre Lorde with that because, also back in 2013, I got really sick. The worst of it was that I woke up one day and my right leg was paralyzed. I went to the emergency room, and my best friends were with me…I had an MRI. I got back a test result from the hospital that had on [it]: “likely due to the patient’s wig.”

This is the hair that grows out of my head; there are no extensions on my head. I went into the hospital with a paralyzed leg. They gave me a diagnosis that said, That can’t possibly be your real hair. And I thought, why in the world would I continue to listen and discipline my own thought processes and the way I think and everything in this system that is set up—where I’m meant to say, this is empirical science, and we know a thing, and we’re going to tell you about your body. With everything Miss Audre is writing in the cancer diaries where she’s like, I’m not believing anything these people tell me about my body. They’re not living in my body. Until I feel this, this, and this, she told herself, then I’m not buying any of it.

After I [got] back [the] MRI result, that happened in me, too, where I’m just like, I do not have to be in any way engaged with this system in the way that people say that I have to engage with it. I do not have to be polite about that either because this is some nonsense.

SH: Audre Lorde, if I’m not mistaken…called that unsilencing “the transformation of beauty into action.” I love that idea of beauty in action and that writing can result in those two things.

RGH: I don’t know what the responsibility of other artists is, but I know what my responsibility as a citizen is, and I just happen to also be an artist. What is it like for you? What’s your answer?

SH: Well, that’s exactly my answer. I don’t have a judgment for artists that don’t do that, but I feel like I don’t have a choice in the matter. I feel like I have to say something. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t that way, you know?

RGH: Well, it doesn’t make you popular. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I know as a woman that if you speak your mind, you’re angry and a bitch.

LVC-S: And a diva.

RGH: One thing I’m meditating on right now in the poems I’m working on is that we are in this cacophony of noise, but it’s all a repetition, too. It’s this absolute chaos that’s made of repeated ways of saying and thinking. I find my peace when I pull back into bell hooks’s work or Wendell Berry’s work— people who have the imaginative and intellectual prowess to reframe. Every time I watch Wendell in an essay make a move, he’s making a move to reframe. He pulls back. He offers another frame. I don’t have that prowess yet, but I want to be in its company.

LVC-S: You were saying something [to me] earlier [in conversation] about your process that I thought was so important and so interesting—that you approach your writing as a listener. I think that’s so important, and I’m doing the same thing. Lucille Clifton had that poem [“why some people be mad at me sometimes”] where she says, they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine. I’m trying to remember things that they say it’s not possible for us to remember…I feel like words have power in them. How do we get there? Part of that is writing into the silence with that ear attuned for am I gonna hear this voice? Is it gonna come through? What is it gonna say? Not I’m gonna say this thing that people are not saying is smart for people like me.

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels, most recently Same Sun Here (with Neela Vaswani), as well as three plays and one book of creative nonfiction. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his writing has appeared in Newsday, Oxford American, Narrative, and many others. House serves as the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in creative writing.

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