Mary Karr and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

Memoirist and occasional poet Mary Karr joined poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon on stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library this evening as part of the museum/theater/library’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series. I vaguely remembered reading about Karr’s third memoir, Lit, but knew nothing about her poetry nor anything about Van Clief-Stefanon.

I would guess that Karr’s poetry is very similar to her autobiographical prose. Narrative and formally uninteresting. This was my opinion of her work while browsing through their books before the reading and Q&A session began.  Now, I would add “garrulously loud and asinine.” But that’s more of a personal description than an aesthetic statement.

I started dislike her when she kept hogging the spotlight from Van Clief-Stefanon (the visuals weren’t good either, with the white poet, Karr, hardly letting the black poet, Van Clief-Stefanon, get a word in edgewise when they shared the stage together). Then she made a comment about 90% of what Emily Dickinson wrote being “s–t.” I don’t necessarily disagree (Dickinson was incredibly prolific, but in practice we really just read a relatively small percentage of her work), but she started doing a version of the “I’m going to tell it like it is” (though her version was “someone has to say it”). Generally, when someone says, “I tell it like it is,” that person is about to be an enormous a–hole. Then Karr laid into the poet Rae Armantrout, calling her precious and saying that to like her poetry you have to “give a s–t” about the thoughts in her head “and I just don’t give a s–t.” Leaving aside the fact that I appreciate Armantrout’s work, the way Karr kept going about Armantrout was just irritating. And the purported impetus was a question about poets they liked. At least they agreed that they liked the Philadelphia versifier Terrence Hayes.

On the other hand, Van Clief-Stefanon was charming. Her work was formally inventive – and successfully used a variety of forms with amazing success, even introducing me to a new poetry form, the Bop. She also managed to write about the personal without seeming to vomit real life, unfiltered and unpoeticized onto the page. Van Clief-Stefanon is also a fellow Floridian and anybody who manages to become a relative success in a state that looks at people like Rick Scott, Mike Haridopolos, and Dean Cannon and says, “we should totally put those people in charge,” well, let’s just say that the person that overcomes that deserves some credit (I would include myself in that list, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve been traumatized by the sheer volume of stupidity and misbegotten garbage spewing out of Tallahassee).

Needless to say, I purchased and had autographed a book by only one of the poets.

]Open Interval[ was the book I chose. When I’m done reading it, I’ll tell you more.

On another note, the exhibit going on that the Folger is called Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science. It’s great exhibit about early medicine and the curation (as the title suggests) gives it a strong feminist slant.




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