A Conversation with Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells was the 2021 Poet Laureate of Texas. Among his honors: a 2022 Academy of American Poets Laureate fellowship to administer his statewide Juneteenth poetry project; a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship; the National Poetry Series; a Lambda Literary Award; two NEA grants; a Pushcart Prize; and the William Carlos Williams Award. His 2018 volume, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award, the Helen C. Smith Memorial Award, and the Balcones Poetry Prize. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translated Book of 2018 and 2019. To The Cypress Again and Again: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, combining translations, poetry, and memoir in homage to Catalan Spain’s most revered writer, was published in 2023. Cassells was nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for his film and television reviews in The Washington Spectator. He teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University, where he received a 2021 Presidential Award for Scholarly/Creative Activities.

Evan Goldstein: Cyrus, thank you for taking the time to sit and talk with me about your eighth and newest collection, The World That the Shooter Left Us. First, though, I want to congratulate you on your recent tenure as the Poet Laureate of Texas. I know you are part of a long and venerable tradition of poets turning down state honors, so what does this position mean to you, and what are your plans as Poet Laureate of a state that is in many ways at the center of so many of America’s social and political conflicts?

Cyrus Cassells: I have just received a 2022 Poet Laureate fellowship from the Academy of American Poets to sponsor a 2023 statewide Juneteenth poetry contest for high school students. I served as Poet Laureate of Texas from May 2021 to May 2022, and as the only-ever African American laureate (that I’m aware of), amid the current controversy about gender and race in the classroom, I wanted to celebrate the new federal holiday and to give young poets imaginative and empathetic access to this significant event in our history. The winners’ poetry reading and ceremony will be held at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, which features Austin’s only intact slave quarters.

EG: That’s wonderful–congratulations on the fellowship! A public poetry contest and reading sound like the perfect way to give young, new voices access and a stage from which to talk back to the current conversation. Texas is often in the news for extremism or hatred, or being a state where the “culture wars” are playing out, but I know it’s a vast and extremely diverse place—the history of Juneteenth is of course one aspect, but having lived and taught in Texas for decades, how would you characterize it?

CC: Despite the specter of extremism and fundamentalism, the state is continually evolving. Houston and San Antonio are now the fourth and fifth largest cities in the country, which means all sorts of folks have located here. Houston is quite a diverse and international city, and the Austin area, where I have lived since 1998, is a well-known hub of youth, music, and progressive culture.

EG: It seems like that sense of fighting for progress despite the specter of extremism is a way of thinking that really animates The World That the Shooter Left Us. It’s a fiery, explicitly political collection that takes up the responsibility of capturing “the public voice / of our time,” as the opening epigraph from Adrienne Rich calls for. Not only does the collection stare the violence and brutality of daily life in America in the face, but it also inhabits it and questions it from inside and out, sometimes speaking as the oppressed and sometimes as the oppressor. But the poems are also joyous, funny, and seem to take a distinct pleasure in the ability to speak, sing, and travel between consciousnesses. Can you talk a bit about how the collection came into being, what was going on as you were writing, and what you felt yourself responding to as you were writing? 

CC: The collection was written almost entirely in the summer of 2019 while I was in Spain and Italy. It was written in a period of eight weeks in the midst of completing two other books, including More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020). Being abroad enabled all of my feelings about the ongoing moral chaos of unraveling America and Trump era dynamics to pour out of me. The title poem, in response to the Stand Your Ground killing of my friend Edward Garza’s father over a handicapped parking space, was published in 2018; all the poems flowed from the title poem.

EG: To write a collection, especially of this breadth and intensity, in just a summer, is astonishing. The murder of James Garza is a case that most people might not be familiar with, but here you not only immortalize the shooting in a poem, you also cast the incident as an aesthetic and political challenge, to “turn the soul-shaking planet / Of the desecrated parking lot … Into justice-cries and ballots? / Into newfound pledges, / And particles of light?” The poems in The World That the Shooter Left Us certainly take part in the type of social witness that political poets like Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, and Langston Hughes believed poets have a duty to engage in. But your opening poem ends in a place of uncertainty, asking questions about the masters’ “bracing challenge.” What do you think the relationship between poetry and politics ought to be, and how do you think you’ve navigated political responsibility in this collection?

CC: This book was born of personal urgency after Mr. Garza’s murder. I had to ask myself if I needed to bear witness, to say these things in public, and the answer was, “yes!” I don’t believe in prescriptions about writing. A poet is challenged, with every poem, to say what needs to be said—some may deem that dynamic political, since truth-telling and authentic questioning, two of poetry’s paramount tasks, are inherently political. Rukeyser and Rich have been major influences since the start of my writing career. Sure-footed contemporary political poets whom I admire are Martín Espada, Patricia Smith, and Evie Shockley. I admire and look to them for what a puissant political poem can be in this period.

EG: A number of the poems in The World That the Shooter Left Us are spoken by characters or personae–these voices are sometimes the tools, witting or unwitting, of state or social violence, such as the speaker of “My Black Friend,” “Plantation Tour (One Star),” or “Quid Pro Quo (Two Baritones on a Phone,” and sometimes the voices are those of the victims of state or social violence, as in “Trafficked Angel,” “Boys Don’t Do That to Other Boys,” or “The Mother Who Says Yes to the Sword.”

CC: I was inspired by the great persona poet Ai (Florence Anthony) and I have also been a professional actor for some time. The persona poems allowed me to go deeper into the controversies and dilemmas of our current volatile period. I think these poems are perhaps the boldest (or spikiest!) poems I’ve produced in my 40-year career. They go deep into malignity and egregious shadow behavior.

EG: A number of the personae you deploy speak from places of marginalization and in conditions of oppression, but it is remarkable how many of the personae also inhabit voices that seek to do harm. Why give space to these voices and, to an extent, these social forces? What is it about malignity and shadow behavior that interests you? 

CC: In assessing our current and continuing political and moral crises, our shadow selves must be addressed, so a measure of active empathy and compassion is required to illuminate our crumbling republic–hard to do when devious, even cruel, behavior is written so large and “normalized.” Exploring the psychology of demagogues, abetters, and miscreants is one way of demystifying what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” the juggernaut of daily betrayal, mounting crime, and nonstop unaccountability.

EG: I noticed that all but one of the poems in the collection are written in couplets—what is it about couplets that feels like the right form of expression for this project, and why did “Those ‘Return to Senders’ Children” require a formal break?

CC: I like the fact that couplets allow for some space and silence when the subject matter is intense, such as the Holocaust in The Crossed-Out Swastika, or #MeToo in the new book. For “Those ‘Return to Senders’ Children,” I needed a raw, urgent documentary quality to that piece, so I opted for a run-on prose poem—a thick, furious block.

EG: The poem, in addition to feeling raw and urgent, is quite compressed and syntactically overwhelming. You end up with sonically packed phrases that drop punctuation altogether, like “sprayed with a winnowing hose at the sacrosanct border slapped seized tear-gassed caged shunted to ex-internment camps holding pens sally ports forbidden…” It’s documentary, but it’s also remixing testimony and pushing syntax to extend the document. Can you talk more on your relationship to documentary poetry? How does that tradition inform your poetics?

CC: I’m a curious person, so documentary art satisfies my need to know how my fellow humans are living (and dying) these days in our turbulent era—to help me make sense of the world and the life I’m living. The verbal strategies in this propulsive poem reflect my sense of disgust and high dudgeon about the moral bankruptcy of child detention in the Trump era.

EG: I love the idea of curiosity being a motivating force here, and by extension compassion. There’s certainly a deep vein of disgust for the political establishment and the rampant exploitation that seems to form the basis of American culture, but in a book that so relentlessly questions evil, it also contains so much joy and beauty. I love the way the collection ends, in the poem “Courage Song for Scott Warren,” with the idea of crossings, and a gesture of compassion, with the “rescuing sip / & the heaven-sent gourd required / At all our desperate crossings.” I think this is a wonderful metaphor for the work these poems are interested in doing as well. Why does the collection end thinking about Scott Warren, the aid worker who the US government attempted to imprison for providing water to migrants? And how did you balance those gestures of compassion and interrogations of violence throughout the collection?

CC: The book originally ended with a long poem. It was my publisher and editor, Martha Rhodes, who suggested “Courage Song for Scott Warren” would make for a very effective ending. I took lines from the long coda poem, “The Pharaoh Tried Brutality Before,” which was published by Ilya Kaminsky in Poetry International, and I incorporated them into the “Icebox” sequence.

There’s so much harshness and tragedy in the book, so the moments of rest, empathy, or communion became key in terms of making The World That the Shooter Left Us a more balanced and digestible experience for the reader.

EG: I love those moments of rest in the middle of the storm—it feels like those moments point toward the work we can be doing outside of the poem as well. As we speak, you’re working on a new project in Hawaii currently, is that right? What brought you there?

CC: I’m here part time, working on a historical novel set in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Hawaii. It’s inspired by Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope’s work with the sufferers of Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) in the isolation colony in Kalaupapa on Molokai.

I’m about two hundred pages into the book.

EG: Is this your first time working in the novel form? What started you on the project?

CC: No, this is my second novel. My first novel, If Romeo and Juliet Had a Son, was finished over the summer of 2022. It’s about the life and loves of a fictional Harlem Renaissance poet named Maceo Mitchell, and important parts of it are set during the Spanish Civil War and during Freedom Summer in Mississippi—a major voting effort in the Civil Rights Movement. Portions of If Romeo and Juliet Had a Son have appeared in The Chicago Quarterly Review Anthology of Black American Literature and Opossum. I started the Hawaiian novel, The Going of the Inland Soul to Sea, during April 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. I visited Molokai in March of 2019 as part of my research for the project. The title is from Emily Dickinson.

EG: A beautiful title from a beautiful poem. “Past the houses–past the headlands– / Into deep eternity!” You’ve worked for decades as a poet. What now has made you seek out the novel? Do you find that the different forms allow for different modes of inquiry and expression? I’m also curious about what made you interested in the isolation colony, too—it’s a story that certainly resounds with the pandemic. 

CC: My first novel, If Romeo and Juliet Had a Son, is very global and character driven, with ten different first-person narrators covering events in the American South, Harlem, Maritime Canada, Japanese-occupied China, Ireland, Italy, Paris, the Soviet Union, and Spain between 1878-1999. The book is non-chronological and is constructed as a kind of mystical puzzle, with the full structure revealed only in the final chapter. It took fourteen years to complete. Fiction allows me an opportunity to revel in voice and character and to indulge my love of world history, since I’m primarily interested in writing historical rather than contemporary fiction.

My spiritual hero since childhood has been Father Damien, a nineteenth century Belgian missionary who lived (and died) among sufferers of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Because of Damien’s mission in Kalaupapa, the isolation colony on Molokai, he was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2009 and is now the patron saint of leprosy and HIV/AIDS. 

In March 2019, I made a pilgrimage to Kalaupapa, but I only began writing The Going of the Inland Soul to Sea a year later in April 2020, during my first sheltered-in-place weeks in San Francisco. I finished my second book of Catalan translations, To The Cypress Again and Again, and then the Hawaiian novel immediately began pouring out of me. It’s much more traditional in structure and presentation than my first novel, but very lyrical—with mostly succinct chapters told in the third person. It’s somewhat similar to my mentor Stratis Haviaris’s wonderful short novel, When The Tree Sings. Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, set in an early twentieth century convent in upstate New York, has also been a key influence on the Molokai book.

EG: The pace of your work over these past few years is astonishing, especially since you’ve been in the poetry world since your first book, The Mud Actor, won the National Poetry Series Prize in 1981. You were just twenty-three and right out of undergrad, but you didn’t end up attending an MFA, right? I’m wondering, through your four decades working as an artist, who were some other poets who were important influences, teachers, or mentors for you? 

CC: My undergraduate teachers at Stanford were Alan Shapiro and Timothy Steele. Linda Gregerson kindly agreed to tutor me in poetry when I was a Stanford senior. Unlike most poet-professors in this country, I never attended graduate school, but had a series of artistic residencies in my twenties, including Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Other poets who mentored or influenced me: Robert Hass and Galway Kinnell; Stanley Kunitz chose me for the Peter Lavan Younger Poet Award. In terms of reading, the following poets come to mind: Ai, Frank Bidart, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Linda Gregg, Jack Gilbert, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Ellen Hinsey, Jane Hirshfield, Audre Lorde, Lorca, Neruda, Sharon Olds, Pasternak, Pavese, Plath, Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Rilke, and William Carlos Williams. I minored in Japanese at Stanford and have always loved the work of Basho.

EG: I know The World That the Shooter Left Us is a product of an enormously fruitful creative period for you, and it seems like you’re only just getting started. What can we look forward to next?

CC: To the Cypress Again and Again: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, my second book of Catalan translations, will be out in the Spring of 2023 from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?, my most high-spirited book to date, will be published by Four Way in February 2024. It’s a sequel to Beautiful Signor; the unabashed, man-of-the-world poems in this ninth book cast over a lifetime of romantic and erotic experience with ready-to-roll lyricism and verve. 

I just finished my tenth book of poems, Moons for the Magician Lorca, a homage to the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. It has an introduction in twelve vignettes about my pilgrimages to Granada from 1984-2019 to trace and honor the poet’s legacy. The Lorca book features art by poet and visual artist Octavio Quintanilla.


Evan Goldstein

Evan Goldstein is a poet and educator from upstate New York. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. He received a BA in English from SUNY Geneseo, where he was awarded the Patricia Kerr Ross Award by the New York State Foundation for the Arts for his poetry, photography, and work with arts organizations. His recent poems have appeared in Poetry Daily, Afternoon Visitor, Anthropocene, and BathHouse Journal, and he has work forthcoming in The Experiment Will Not Be Bound, an anthology of experimental poetry by Unbound Edition Press.

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