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Prepare to be Dazzled

A year ago, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, who graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1996, received a commission to write a poem inspired by the artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration Series,” now on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through September. His paintings cover lynchings, voter rights, riots in St. Louis and the incarceration of black men.

Earlier this month, Lyrae joined 10 other highly acclaimed African American poets who also wrote poems inspired by Lawrence’s paintings at MoMA for a historic reading of their contemporary works. Joining her were poets laureate Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey, MacArthur “genius” fellow Terrance Hayes and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney.

The evening’s host and brainchild of the event, poet Elizabeth Alexander, said: “Art begets art and influence crosses art forms. Prepare to be dazzled.” You can watch the entire performance on YouTube. Lyrae’s reading starts at 33:27.

Lyrae is an associate professor of English at Cornell University, where she teaches creative writing/poetry, African American literature and Southern literature, among other topics. She 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 in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast and Shenandoah, and in the anthologies “Bum Rush the Page,” “Role Call,” “Common Wealth,” “Gathering Ground” and “The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South.” She is at work on a third collection, “The Coal Tar Colors.”

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