Literary Steward: A Conversation with Heather Lang Cassera

Heather Lang Cassera holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion. Her poems have been published by or are forthcoming with The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and other literary journals and have been on exhibit in the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather curated Legs of Tumbleweeds, Wings of Lace, an anthology of literature by Nevada women, funded by the Nevada Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. She serves as World Literature Editor and a book reviewer for The Literary Review, Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and Co-Publisher for Tolsun Books. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Composition, Professional Writing, World Literature, and more.


Lisa Grgas: Thank you for the privilege of interviewing you about your debut chapbook, I was the girl with the moon-shaped face. I’m thrilled to have a copy, not only because I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying your friendship and brilliance for years but, more importantly, because it’s a gorgeous collection. Could you talk a bit about how it came to be?

Heather Lang Cassera: Thank you so much, Lisa, for this opportunity to chat poetry with you. This chapbook was, in some ways, a long time in the making and, in others, a much quicker process. I crafted some of these poems, or versions of them, when we were in graduate school. Others were written during the couple of years that followed. However, I was recently approached by one of the editors of Zeitgeist Press, Clark County Poet Laureate Vogue Robinson, who has been noticing the work I do to support others’ writing through, for example, Tolsun Books as well as my curation of Legs of Tumbleweeds, Wings of Lace: An Anthology of Literature by Nevada Women. Having heard my own poems read here in Las Vegas, and knowing that many had been homed in literary magazines but not yet in a collection, Vogue demanded a “Heather book.” I was grateful for her support and happy to oblige.

At that point, I had many manuscripts and even many versions of each manuscript in some cases, and I needed to decide what to send her. I had recently read a chapbook by Karen Craigo, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard To Fit In. I loved the chapbook for many reasons but what sticks with me the most is how we clearly stay with one character, the escaped housewife, throughout the entire collection. And although the girl with the moon-shaped face is very different than the escaped housewife, Craigo’s bold statements about contemporary womanhood and her ability to tell a chapbook-length story inspired me.

LG: I’d like to talk about sound. It’s the first thing I notice when reading poetry; it helps me attune to the poetry’s mechanics and magic. Though the poems in your chapbook are numbered and sectioned, each feels sonically integrated with the next.

HLC: Have you read the craft essay “Four Temperaments and Forms of Poetry” by Greg Orr? He explores story, structure, music, and imagination. Imagination is clarified as “the flow of image to image or thought to thought,” and I’ve long felt image was my strength and story my weakness, if I had to boil it down. I challenged myself to find the narrative in my existing work, my piles of poems, and much more easily than I had expected, I found one. I found the voice of the girl with the moon-shaped face.

This was serendipitous because Zeitgeist Press often publishes spoken-word poets and others who have serious spines when it comes to sound! I especially wanted a chapbook that was meant to be read out loud.

LG: No, I’m not familiar with Orr’s essay. I’ll check it out.

As I moved through your chapbook, I could feel the voice open up. Poem 17 which, incidentally, opens with the titular lines, in particular caught my attention. The poem feels relatively gentle at first. I attribute that to the repeated “ts” in lines like “[…] I learned/ the origin of the world/ from the circus, // from elaborate beasts,/ from the sequins-covered acrobats […]. The voice changes for me at the line “who built.” You let it stand alone, emphasizing the “t” sound, which feels more assertive. Can you talk a bit about phonetics and how this contributes to voice?

HLC: A few years back I read an article by two economics professors, Keith and Robin Coulter, “Small Sounds, Big Deals: Phonetic Symbolism Effects in Pricing,” in which they explored the ways in which how words sound might affect their meaning. My takeaway from the article was that plosives—such as b and d sounds, for example, sounds we make by blocking all airflow—tend to feel big to a listener. Fricatives, on the other hand—such as s or th sounds, for example, sounds we make by narrowing the vocal tract and partially blocking the airflow—feel smaller to a listener. Although I don’t often consciously review plosives and fricatives in my writing these days, I think my former practice of doing this has played a big role in my attention to sound.

For example, in the last stanza of the first poem about the girl with the moon-shaped face, I wrote, “but I already preferred / the gasping stars.” If I try to remove myself from my own writing, which can be hard to do, and analyze this final line, the g sound, which is a plosive, makes the “gasping” feel large, or overwhelming, while the stars, which begin with the fricative s sound feel small. Hopefully this helps the stars, an often-used symbol in poetry which might quickly become cliché, pack more of a punch.

LG: As I re-read that stanza, I’m forced to hear the poem differently. When I first read the poem, my ear was pulled to the “s” in “gasping” and “stars.” A hush fell over the poem. Now that you’ve drawn me to the plosive, I’m forced to re-think the poem and my interpretation of the girl with the moon-shaped face.

In trying to de-code her, I’ve been drawn to the lines “I want a haircut that reminds everyone/ of the color red, but isn’t red” in poem 18.  I’m curious: What do you see in the girl with the moon-shaped face? Who is she?

HLC: I have been asked if the girl is me. We share some experiences; however, the girl’s narrative diverges often and in some major ways. What I hoped to convey were emotional truths, those of a child who experienced upheaval in her early years, one who still navigates her past as an adult.

There wasn’t much room for the girl, figuratively speaking, which is likely why she often refracts her emotions through the objects around her. Although her coping mechanisms change during adulthood, she is definitely still processing, still learning about herself and about the world that surrounds her as an adult.

LG: The sonic qualities and narrative flow of the chapbook move fluidly; they feel very much pieces of a whole. Were the poems initially written with the chapbook in mind or as stand-alones?

HCL: The poems in this chapbook were not written with this particular chapbook in mind. Rather, as I looked through the many poems and manuscripts I already had, I discovered a voice, that of the moon-shaped girl and, in this case, because I wanted to tell a story, I ordered them largely according to chronology to tell the story of a girl whose family was damaged by the loss of her older sister, one born before her, one she had never met. We move through the girl’s adolescence and dip our toes into her adulthood, as well. I revised most, if not all, of the poems, some more than others. Some were in third person and needed to be changed to the first-person point of view. Also, in the chapbook as published, almost all of the poems are in couplets. It was my hope that, amidst material that can sometimes be a bit dark, and because the story is told by a sometimes small voice, a girl who often doesn’t feel there’s room for her in this world, the couplets might offer the reader a sense of balance (versus tercets, for example, those odd three-line stanzas that can create a sense of imbalance). I think there’s something about couplets, likely the simple fact that they are paired, that whispers love. Revising the poems to be a story told through couplets was, in part, my attempt to offer comfort to the reader and to the girl in the chapbook, as well. Finally, I went with what felt to me like an untraditional title, a full independent phrase, I was the girl with the moon-shaped face, to place a spotlight on the girl as the main character.

LG: You mention the use of couplets, but I want also to touch on the shorter poems interspersed throughout the chapbook. Are these haiku? What led you to this form and how do you see them serve the collection?

HLC: I would say that they are probably heavily influenced by haiku. I often teach haiku, both in my World Literature II course at Nevada State College and at a Henderson, Nevada library. I often title the sessions “Re-imagining Haiku.” Do you remember when you first discovered haiku? All that I can remember from my childhood lessons is that they “should” be three lines long and should follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Although there are beautiful poems written in that structure, exploring the more traditional haiku form and spirit opened up a fountain of possibilities for me. For example, I was interested to learn about some differences between the phonetic units in Japanese haiku and the English syllable. I’m also fascinated by kigo, words associated with season, and kireji, a term that is often translated to something like “cutting word,” which is, in some ways, an oversimplification. Anyway, I recommend The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter to folks who want to begin their re-introduction to haiku. I’m sure my study of kireji affected my use of punctuation and how it is used to cut and to color the poems.

Also, some of these poems, such as the brief piece which begins “At night our sprinklers brimmed,” were poetic responses to JR Tappenden’s prose. She’s a brilliant writer, and we sometimes collaborate to create haibun-like hybrid works containing both prose and poetry. JR previously lived in Las Vegas, and I live there now, and we were inspired to dig into a sense of place by the haibun’s tendency to function a bit like a travel journal.

LG: I want to be sure, too, that we chat about literary stewardship and your incredible impact on the literary community both in Las Vegas, where you live, and in New Jersey where we met. I’ll toot your horn briefly: you’re a poet, critic, educator, editor, publisher, and an active member of several organizations including the Nevada State College’s Arts and Culture Council and AWP. How do you do it? Why do you do it?

HLC: Thank you for the kind words. I chuckle a little because, like most of us in our busy lives these days, I do sometimes wonder why—but, truly, never for more than 30 seconds at a time, just long enough to take a couple deep breaths.

I’m a bit of an introvert. Small talk can make me nervous. But I absolutely love people. And for me sometimes this can be a challenging combination. When immersed in the literary community, though, there never has to be small talk because we have poetry! It’s this common language and culture that folks who love words share, you know? And poetry is anchored in real life, so it isn’t as if we are skirting around truths. Rather, poetry is palpable and the best of poems, I think, are not didactic but they do explore life’s trials, tribulations, and celebrations in the most authentic of ways. I feel most alive, and often most loved, when I am surrounded by other writers. Part of the reason I spend so much time working with others’ writing, either at Nevada State College or through Tolsun Books, for example, is because I simply can’t imagine life in any other way.

LG: You have a better handle on your commitments than I do! I find it difficult to strike a balance between working with others’ writing and working on my own. How do you make time?

HLC: I suppose the amount of time I spend on other people’s work affects my own—although I do write regularly! I’m grateful that I’ve found folks who don’t just take, but they give, as well. For example, I workshop regularly with a few poets here in Las Vegas. That way, we aren’t just working to revise their writing, but mine, as well. Moreover, as mentioned previously, Vogue, for whom I will always be grateful, gave me the loving push that I needed, as well as a venue for this chapbook, The girl with the moon-shaped face, through Zeitgeist Press.

LG: You make an excellent point about reciprocity. It seems like the concept of “writer” is evolving. We’re no longer isolates but, rather, building relationships and creating opportunities for each other to get work out in the world. What do you think our role as writers is in sustaining and growing the literary community?

HLC: I’m hesitant to say what I think a writer’s role, generally speaking, should be in the literary community because I believe it takes diverse contributions to create living, breathing, and thriving literary landscapes, like any environment we have the pleasure of inhabiting. However, I do urge folks to give back, and to do so in the ways that feel right to them. Review books for literary magazines, or volunteer to be an editorial reader or to serve in another capacity. Host open mic nights at your local library, perhaps with educational components. Tutor K-12 learners in reading and writing. Curate an anthology featuring other writer’s poems, essays, and stories. Interview another writer. I could go on. In short, find a way to celebrate other readers and writers in life.

And for folks who simply don’t feel that they have the time, I like to note that it might not be immediately clear to you how these acts will better your own writing, but I believe they will. It’s often difficult to approach our own poetry and prose with an analytical lens, but we can learn so much by carefully attending to others’ work, and these lessons often seep into our own craft, both through mindful reflection and accidental absorption. I know it can be difficult to know how/where to start giving back. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin and first started writing poetry, I didn’t know any other poets. My path was to enroll in our low-residency Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA program, to become a Reader for The Literary Review, and to start a peer workshop at my local library in Wisconsin. Interestingly, the folks I know who write regularly are also some of the most selfless literary citizens. It seems that staying steeped in the literary community has a way of keeping one committed to their own writing.

LG: Thank you for talking with me about I was the girl with the moon-shaped face! Before I let you go, would it be too much pressure for me to ask what’s next for you? (That question makes my palms sweat!)

HLC: In some ways, getting this chapbook out into the world has given me some relief. I feel like I have some license to let myself write simply for the sake of exploration. I haven’t yet decided which of the many writing projects skipping around in my head will next demand my most immediate attention. I’m definitely excited about reviewing some books! And I want to hear more about your writing projects, Lisa! Thank you so much for chatting with me. I am grateful.



Lisa Grgas

Lisa Grgas is the supervising editor and associate poetry editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Atticus Review, Common Ground, Black Telephone, Ki'n, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.

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