by Lauren K. Alleyne
“Oracular,” “arresting,” “rapturous,” are just a few of the words used to describe the poetry of Cyrus Cassells, each one attempting to capture the dizzying intensity he conjures in his poems. Each of Cassells’ soon-to-be-eight collections of poetry, though inhabiting their own worlds and subjects, bear the stamp of his lush and lyric poetic style. From his extravagant descriptors to his layered adjectives to his wide-ranging diction, Cassells’ mastery of language and unerring ear for music transforms the poem into a true vehicle for transport, sweeping the reader into and through the moment/persona of the poem. In “Return to Florence,” the poem’s lyrically rendered lyric question is answered in kind:
How do I convey the shoring gold
at the core of the Florentine bells’
Vast as a suddenly revealed
field of wheat,
that up-and-away gold
is equivalent to the match-burst
morning I returned…
Alive with the “shoring” hiss and alliterative chime, then bursting into a dynamic frenzy of “up-and-away gold,” the poem renders—both as in to demonstrate and to provide—an ecstatic experience of encounter for the reader, who is whisked into the “suddenly revealed” along with the poem’s lyric speaker.
The lavish beauty of Cassells’ work does not come at the expense of heft or depth. Rather, it is the poems’ insistence on beauty despite the difficult subjects they often tackle that intensifies them. In the title poem of his forthcoming collection, The World the Shooter Left Us, Cassells opens with a directness about the serious nature of the poem that is as breathtaking as the poem’s exquisite attention to its sonic and visual elements. It opens:
In this one, ladies and gentlemen,
Beware, be clear: the brown man,
The able lawyer, the paterfamilias,
Never makes it out of the poem alive:
The rash, all-too-daily report,
The out of the blue bullet
Blithely shatters our treasured
Legal eagle’s bones and flesh—
In the brusque spectacle of point-blank force,
On a crimsoned street
The well-executed dance of sound (not the least of which is the insistent “b” lamenting the loved one’s cessation of “be-ing” throughout the poem) spins through the poem, and carries the reader through this heartbreaking loss and its “brusque spectacle” of the “legal eagle’s bones and flesh” (note the satisfying internal rhyme of “eagle” and “spectacle”) askew on the “crimsoned street.” Whether it is love poems, poems of witness or poems of the quotidian, Cyrus Cassells’ aesthetic of lush transcendence lifts the poems of the page and embeds them firmly in the hearts of their readers.
In the fall of 2018, Cassells read and taught a workshop at Furious Flower, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about poetry in all its urgent and necessary languages. The interview has been edited for readability and clarity.
Thank you so much for being here, Cyrus. You’re such a lyric poet: what is it that draws you to that particular mode of poetry?
I think these are the most lyrical poems I’ve ever written! And I think what attracts me to lyric, a lot of it, is music. I feel like I want to get into the musicality of language. And it’s important to me to have both that musicality and also the emotion that I generally associate with lyric poetry. My new poetry is not so lyric. So it’s interesting to go back to these and feel like “Oh, yeah, these are…” I was told by one of my mentors, Stanley Kunitz, that past 40, it gets harder and harder to write lyric poems.
I wonder why that is?
I don’t know!
But, well, I think Gullah culture is very, very inspiring and beautiful. And that’s how these lyric poems came out of me. I was acting in a play called Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama); it’s a two-character play, and both actors have to do about 12 different roles. So, in order to ground myself for the play—I’d never been to South Carolina, even though my mother was from North Carolina and I grew up spending my summers in North Carolina, so this came out of research—I went to Charleston. I went to the lumber country that’s in the play, north of Charleston. The production got cancelled, so I never did a full production; instead, these poems came out of me. And that’s the story behind the Gospel According to Wild Indigo. They’re very lyrical, and I thought I love this because it feels buoyant, but also serious…
I feel your work very deeply, and the word feeling usually brings up “sentiment” or “sentimentality,” but I feel like it’s a deeply-felt poetry. I’m curious: what are some of the tools or techniques you use to navigate that wealth of feeling you use as your source? How do you make that into a poem, craft-wise?
It’s interesting, you know, I gave a reading in San Antonio on Friday, and an old friend of mine was there. And he said, “Well, you know, your work…it’s full of emotion, yet it doesn’t go into sentimentality or sentiment.” I don’t really know exactly how I do that.
(Laughs.) You don’t have the secret.
I don’t have the secret. (Laughs.)
I strive for emotional clarity. I believe in emotion. I think the earth is a place of passion. It’s a schoolhouse for emotion. And poetry is one way of accessing emotion there. So, I’m not sure how I seem to be striking the right balance for other folks. I don’t have any special clue. But it’s just something that’s important to me.
Yes, and it shows.
Neutral in poetry—I don’t go for that. You know, detachment. My mother tried to teach me detachment growing up, but I’ve always been kind of a feet-first sort of guy, you know?
Well, and that feeds into the other question, too, because the word “ecstatic” is one that I feel like you’ve used in relationship to your poetry. I’m curious about the ecstasy: What’s valuable, do you think, as a writer, and also for readers to engage in the ecstatic?
This is great synchronicity, because when I was introduced on Friday by Wendy Barker, who’s a professor at UT San Antonio, an old friend of mine, that’s the word she used. She says, “It’s ecstatic. And yet it has a quality of sadness, too.” I teach courses on sacred poetry. And that’s an element of sacred poetry—the ecstatic—that’s important to me. I was a lot more conscious of and was trying to shape my poetry that way. And then after a while, I sort of gave that up. I remember I was trying to work on a poem called “Ecstatic Image,” which I never finished; it was inspired by Emerson’s essays. I had these, sort of lofty projects as a young person that I kind of abandoned, and I showed them to Galway Kinnell and he kind of shook his head as a master poet going, “Well, I’m not sure you’re ready to do this.” But the ecstatic is important to me. I read [at the JMU reading] a poem called “Duende”—it’s one of my earliest poems, in The Mud Actor. And when I was growing up, my most important teacher was my Spanish teacher, Concepcion Jorba, who introduced me to the poetry of Garcia Lorca, who remains my favorite poet, right. But Lorca has this concept of the duende. And the word literally means goblin, like, hobgoblin. And it’s a term used in flamenco culture: if a person is dancing with particular intensity, or playing the guitar with a particular intensity, they say that person has duende, right. So I was trying to think of something that I had done that had duende in it. And all I could think about was when I was a little boy, my father used to put on Ravel’s “Bolero”—it’s a piece of classical music that’s very repetitive and monotonous, it gets more and more intense until it kind of explodes something, right. And I would dance around like a dervish, and it was kind of like a form of family entertainment—“Oh, look what my son can do!” (Laughs.) So that has really got an ecstasy to it. So I’ve had this kind of strain in my being and myself since I was a kid, and it shows itself, I think, in the sensibility of the work.
When I think about ecstatic I think about celebratory, but my work is also very insistent on addressing trauma and actual real difficulty in life, and tends to kind of weigh them together or, you know, balance between the two… dimensions of our lives here.
Yeah, ecstasy is almost a painful thing, right, at the same point as it’s pleasurable, you know. One of the things I think about is that you can’t have an extended ecstasy; it’s not sustainable, right?
Though I did very well in Beautiful Signor.
I was just going to say that… Yes. I love that book.
When I read it, to me the great achievement of Beautiful Signor is that I sustain that. It’s my longest book, and yet it just stays at that level.
Were you a puddle when you were done writing that book?
No, I wasn’t actually. It was a really fun experience. The thing that’s strange about Beautiful Signor is that with my first two books, people said “You never write about yourself, Cyrus,” and I’m going, “Well, I guess I’m not interested in Cyrus—everyday Cyrus—per se.” So one of my tasks with Beautiful Signor was to write out my own life, write everyday events and things. So that’s actually the closest to, I don’t know, who I really, but I took directly from my life. And I read it, and it still feels like art, or some kind of contrivance, like the person in the poem still isn’t me. It’s still, you know, a created persona, right? But that’s what makes me really proud of Beautiful Signor. I read it and I think, “Oh, wow, it’s like a honeymoon book!” It stays in that… sort of garden. That was my goal, right, to bear witness to that for the LGBT community, that, you know that we have our moons and Junes and guitars and whatever. So yeah, that I sustain. And I don’t really understand how, I’m sorry to say: je ne sais pas! But no, I think I just I just get into the sounds of the words and the visual dimension is important for me. I mean, part of what I developed in Italy, in the years that I lived in Italy was just an appreciation of visual sense, because it’s such a visually rich culture.
And that makes sense too because I do feel that as well, reading the books—there’s always a leanness to the poem to the lines, an economy… a trim beauty that seems to almost go against, sometimes, the ecstasy and the release of the poems. And so I was interested in how you think about form, and that visual dimension.
Well, I’m so glad you’re mentioning this because my new poetry… Since the winter solstice, I was invited to desert monastery. So for the first time in my life, I was incommunicado for eight days. And the results have been extraordinary. I’ve been writing. I’ve written about 80 pages of poetry since December. And since The Gospel According to Wild Indigo was coming out in February, I was planning to take a pause, right. So what’s coming out of me now is completely different from the other books. I’m writing a giant abecedarian, not the least bit trim. It’s already like 15 pages, this giant abecedarian poem; I’m writing these long three or four page, poems that are psychological portraits of my relationships with people, most of who have passed. So I’m certainly writing these modes that are very, very different from my usual mode, and I’m sure something about being in the desert… I’m very excited about the new work because it’s just so different from the previous books, and I’ve prided myself on creating books that were different from each other—I think there’s something new going on in each of the books. So that’s what’s happening, now: I’m really going to the opposite extreme. I don’t know whether I’ll publish my abecedarian dragon or not, because I keep adding words and I’ve refused to look in a dictionary to do my abecedarian. It’s been a year and a half now that I’ve been doing that. I used to think that the poets that inspired me were usually pretty succinct…
Also, I’ve written a novel that I finished a year ago and revised over the summer. So I’m trying different forms. And there are actually poems in the novel, it’s about a fictional Harlem Renaissance poet. So, I’ve tried a lot of different modes, and I keep trying. So I feel like no, even when it seems like I may have settled into one thing. I’m not settling.
There’re a few questions in there, because I’m interested in that idea of the project of each book. And that idea of each being really different. And so, are you intentional about thinking this is a collection of…, or are you an accumulator of poems and then see how it works? What’s that process of putting together the book? Was it different for each book, and how is it different?
My experience is that your poetry-making self is maybe two or three years ahead of your everyday self. I’m not an occasional poet for the most part, and my books have come through me and to me as cycles or sequences, right? And what I find is I often don’t know what the big theme is until maybe two or three years into the process. Like right now I’m not sure what I’m doing—the dragon book is called Dragon Shining with All Values Known, and that’s a line from a Joni Mitchell song about a person who’s having a breakdown. It’s like “dragon shining with all values known, dazzling you, keeping you from your own.” So it’s this sort of opened down, expansive, like a web—there’s so many values to choose from, which one I going to take? What are my priorities here?” And the abecedarian dragon is about… it’s got everything imaginable in it. And it’s doing things with language I’ve never done before. It’s just about juxtaposition—that poetry is all in the juxtaposition of the words, because I’m putting together words that I’ve never seen together in the same sentence. So it’s creating this sort of dazzling… thing. And I don’t know why (Laughs.) or what it is. I don’t know whether it’s going to be its own…like a chapbook or something…the psychological, relationship setting portraits…
And then I’ve been writing, my latest poems about family separation, about the “Stand Your Ground” law. A very close friend of mine, his father was killed over a handicap parking space, the same kind of event that happened in Florida in August [of 2018]. So I’ve finally written a poem about that. There’s a sense of urgency about what’s happening in our country politically. And I’m just like anyone else—I’m responding, but it’s just beginning to come out in poetry. They’re very different from what I’ve done; they’re kind of raw, and I had to be that way.
History is such a presence in the poems. And I know you’re a person who’s engaged in what’s happening now. How does poetry feed or sustain that? Does it make its way in over time or immediately? How do you engage the now and the traumas of the present with poetry?
Well, in some cases, like my Stand Your Ground poem, it just sort of tears through you. And for me, I kept silent about this situation for a year, it happened in May of last year (2017). My friend’s father was shot point blank in an argument that was not witnessed. And the person was held for a night and then released without any charges. Since we’re very close, and his family had lived in this suspension of not knowing and his father was a highly regarded lawyer, you know, it was this incredible nightmare. My friend was taking care of my house; I was overseas, and he had to leave town in order to deal with the family situation. So I was walking around Austin (often I get my ideas walking around: I’m like, a poet in motion. Laughs.) And language about the Stand Your Ground shooting started to come through me. I thought, “Oh, do I really have to say this?” And it was like, “Yes, you have to say this now.” And then when the incident happened in Florida, where they actually had footage of it, I thought, “Yeah, you must not only say this, you must share this now.” So the poem is going to be in an anthology that Martín Espada is editing, [What Saves Us]. So there is a there is an urgency about things right now, a sense of political and personal emergency that’s not quite like what I’ve experienced before, given that I’ve led a relatively privileged life, right. You know, as Black folks, we know, these phenomena have been going on for a long, long time. It’s just that now the mainstream media has all this incredibly horrendous footage of various events and people being done to, and that started to seep into my poetry and also into my play that I’m writing. And history is harsh—our history as a community is very harsh, and there’s no getting around it. That’s what I learned from Toni Morrison, that we can be proud in terms of resilience. And I try and not shy away from the harshness of the history, but also celebrate… I mean, I see The Gospel According to Wild Indigo as a celebration of our resilience as the descendants of Black slaves.
You’ve mentioned your multiple genres, and I know you translate as well. What do you find stays the same across genre? What’s the experience of writing the play versus the memoir, or the novel you’re finishing? How do you negotiate those different packages of language or do you negotiate them differently at all?
Because it’s still relatively new… Well, for instance, I worked on my novel for nine years. And the reason it took so long is that it’s a non-chronological novel. And it’s set in many different places in many different time periods. (I’m making it sound like Cloud Atlas. Laughs.), but it’s mostly inspired by the Harlem Renaissance poets. But I’d never written a novel before, even though from childhood I always thought I’d be a novelist. I’m only now getting to that task into my 60’s, right? But of course, it’s about poetry and a poet. I’ve never had a novelist’s discipline, for instance, sitting down and doing it four hours a day or whatever—I did that only two years of the nine years I worked on it. So I don’t have any prescription in terms of how to do a novel. What finally helped me was… because it was such a complex thing, an international novel, I kept trying to do it geographically, so the Canadian portions of my novel were written first. But then I felt like I couldn’t move the book. So only when I began to follow the characters and their voices did it really just take off, you know, and then really start coming. A character that I thought was a minor character, I started kind of channeling his voice and thought, “Ooh! His voice is so interesting!” So the thing about my fiction, which is just beginning to get published (I had two chapters of the novel published a year ago), is that what I like about it is that it’s very, very character driven. I think my characters are quite juicy. The poet’s mother is an actress, her name is Lady Viola; his grandmother’s name is Queen Cascabel.
That’s a great name.
Dark Gable is his love interest—he’s this Paul Robeson-like man… I think the characters are actually kind of amazing. And then, believe it or not, I myself really like my novel. When I read it, I feel really content like, “Oh, this is really interesting.” And I don’t often feel that about my poetry. So that happened, right?
In terms of the plays, I was trained as an actor and a filmmaker, so I had a lot of school training. I’m on my second play, which is about the African American Boston community in the 1850s after The Fugitive Slave Act, getting together to rescue folks. That was a period when the slave catchers and the police could come up to Boston. So how that got generated: I was in the Boston Public Library 27 years ago, and I saw this sign that said, “Colored people of Boston beware,” from a distance, I’m like, I’m leaving the library, “Colored people of Boston, beware.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, what is this?” And I walked up to it. And it’s a poster from 1851, saying, you know, “Avoid the police. They’re in cahoots with the slave catchers and keep top eye open.” So that’s how this play got engendered from seeing this poster, and I actually put that in the play itself, like, you know, the sort of timeless warning, right?
So, I’m still making my way in these forms. I think my sense of order developed from writing poetry. I don’t necessarily write in chronological order. I’ve often been inclined to do the endings first, which, I don’t know, doesn’t always work. But whereas the novel, I waited six years to find the ending, and I think the ending is very wild there. So, I tend to work toward the middle of things. It’s just my way of… my relationship… to time, the play of time—the beginnings and the ending, of course, and working my way to the middle. That’s very consistent across genres.
I don’t want to lose the translation aspect, because I find translation is so fascinating…
Well, I just got a beautiful endorsement today from Ilya Kaminsky about my Catalan translations; he’s been a big supporter of them over a long time. This is a book of translations of Francesc Parcerisas, who was Catalan, Spain’s sort of most prominent poet. I met him years ago when I first went to Barcelona in the 1980s, and then I came back in 2005 and we became more friendly, and I made the decision to translate his work. His work is rather different from mine— it’s very much about, kind of everyday wisdom and domestic wisdom. It’s called Still Life with Children—that’s one of the titles of his volumes. I chose that because I think he’s an amazing dad. He’s married to an American woman, and when I went to work with him on the translations, he was there with his sons, and they spoke English and Spanish and Catalan and French. So it’s very wise, warm, wonderful poetry there. It’s taken a while, and went through various publishing travails, but now it’s coming out in the spring (2020) from Stephen F. Austin University Press. A mutual friend of mine and Francesc did the cover art, which is very, very beautiful, so I’m excited. I’ve also done translations of their major writer, Salvador Espriu, who died in 1985. I met him just a couple of months before he died. So the Espiru volume, which is almost done—I’m trying to finish the memoir part of it—is his fiction, poetry, and one of his plays. What a lot of people don’t know about the Catalan language was that it was banned from public use in 1939 when Franco came to power, so for decades. For instance, Salvador Espriu, his first book of poems was published underground. And as an African American person interested in justice, it appealed to my sense of justice, to learn how to read an imperiled language. I tend to be drawn toward imperiled languages, including Gullah, Hawaiian is another one that I’m that I’m drawn to. So I think for me, or for any poet or writer, going outside of yourself, trying to get into the reality of the writer…
In this case, Salvador Espriu was a prodigy, in Spanish and Catalan, from when he was a teenager. And by the time he was 23, the Spanish Civil War had broken out. And then at 26, his language was banned. And I was that age when I was translating. So it was really quite a leap to try to imagine what it would be like to—remember, I won the National Poetry Series when I was 23—to have that kind of recognized mission, and then suddenly have it all taken away. And he had started out in fiction, but after the war, the banning of the language, his work was almost entirely poetry—some plays, but almost entirely poetry. So I had to learn. I also had to learn a lot about the Spanish Civil War, which wasn’t a war we hear much about in our country in terms of being educated in school. So that’s been a long kind of odyssey of learning. Plus his work is very stark. It’s like Samuel Beckett! And here I was thinking, “Well, my work is lush, why am I going after this stark, barebones guy?” So it’s taken me a while to figure some of that out… Like I say, not only your poetry-making, but maybe your translation-making is also ahead of you that way. I was getting a kind of political and moral education abroad, and that was the beginning of the process—in Spain.
That’s wonderful. I’m interested, too, in your relationship to research. I feel like in reading the poems, they feel very lived in, but it sounds like you do a fair amount of getting into the spaces and the history and the environment: talk about that.
Well, sometimes I think you just have to follow the voices and imagery that come through and then do the research and not get so caught up in it. You know, as everyone discovers, you can research and research and research and never get to the actual writing—the terror of the blank page, right? So that’s what I tend to do. I’ll get some ideas. And I’ll think “Well, is that authentic? Or is that… Do I have the right time period?” I mean, I did a lot of initial guessing for my novel, about, you know, what songs were fitting in what periods, and I discovered I was, I’d say 90-95% right. But of course, you have to do that kind of fact-checking with a novel. You know, normally, you don’t necessarily have to do that so much with poetry. But, you know, research can be fun. And then it can just feel like…you’re postponing, like, “Oh, yeah, let’s do some more research.” Like, well, what about just sitting down and writing?
I think the most valuable research is more physical. Like when I was writing The Crossed-Out Swastika. There’re certain things you can’t fully understand until you’re in those places where the camps were… Like, I went to Dachau, and it’s so beautiful with the fields out there, and you go out there and you think it’s unimaginable that the camp was there. And that, of course, that was the point. Right? Right. Are you going to Munich, and it’s so beautiful, I mean and you’re thinking, this is the place where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, it’s like “No, it can’t be…” I remember even when I was a student in Florence, learning Italian and I went to the synagogue in Florence, which I think is one of the biggest ones in that part of the world. And I was told that that, that the Nazis had parked their tanks, and they’d used the synagogue as a garage. And again, because Florence is so beautiful, you just can’t imagine them even on the scene. And you just learn things about how that was perpetrated by being physically there, being in situ, that you can’t just do with regular research, right? You have to actually experience certain things; you know, experience is very valuable research—going to the place, or making the pilgrimage. Or going to Auschwitz, when Auschwitz proper looks very institutional. And what we think of as Auschwitz is like the windy field that was Birkenau where the trains would come in, but Auschwitz proper looks like it could even be almost a campus or hospital grounds. And it’s tiny. You know, the famous sign, the area you walk, everything is sort of small and institutional-looking. So yeah, physical presence, pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, I’d say, is important.
I went to Granada. When I went to Granada in 1984—I’d grown up revering Lorca—and I go to Lorca’s summer home, there was nothing for him. There wasn’t even a plaque: I was so shocked. But I did not understand the dynamics of the Spanish Civil War. Basically, what happened in Granada was all the people on the left were murdered at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. So bringing them up… But it’s so different now, that part of my memoir about Lorca… Now it’s about the difference between 1984 Granada and 2012 when I finally went back. I land in Granada, Federico Garcia Lorca airport; the house that I went to, now amuseum, now pretty much part of downtown. That there’s been this huge shift in moving away from all the drama and conflict of the Spanish Civil War…
The two things you’ve mentioned—Auswitz, Birkenau, even Granada—show how history is modified as we move along, right?
Hopefully as we evolve and progress and get more information! I mean, Lorca’s murder was a huge scandal for the whole culture, because when his book Gypsy Ballads came out in 1928, it was the first best-selling book of poetry in the history of Spain. And then he was just beginning to be known as a playwright. But the deeper you get into Spanish history, in the Spanish Civil War, the more complicated and fraught it is. I went back to Barcelona this summer when I realized that the bulk of my work with Francesc Parcerisas was done maybe almost like 10 years ago, and because of all the violence around the referendum last October, when people voted to become independent, I thought, “Oh, it’s really important that I do an update.” So I did that. I got a crash course in the referendum from Francesc Parcerisas, and he is a person who favors independence. When I arrived there, he picked me up at the Barcelona Airport and took me to his town of Vilanova, where he has a summer place, and said “Welcome to occupied Catalonia,” right. What you see in Catalonia is a lot of Catalan flags draped over balconies and yellow ribbons all over Catalonia that are in solidarity with the exiled government and people who are in prison. Francesc himself shared his latest poem—he went to Brussels to read before the exiled government. So what happened was, in the fall, a friend of mine calls, and I was finishing my novel, and I was writing about Barcelona, Spanish Civil War, he sent me a cryptic message that said, “Has the Spanish Civil War broken out again?” Nothing else. I thought, “What? What’s going on?” I turn on the TV. And I see scary footage of the police routing the voters and literally, like, taking the ballot boxes—not a good advertisement for democracy. Apparently, Angela Merkel stepped in and by noon that day it was stopped. She let the Spanish government know that was not cool.
So once again, it feels like things have gone in a kind of circle. From a repression of Catalan culture, that’s very clearly linked to linguistic stuff as well. People tend to feel these days that any kind of independence movement is a bit crackpot, or ill-advised or whatever. And then I have to remind them that they don’t know anything about the history of the banning of the language and what that must be like to have your language banned from public use. There used to be signs all over Barcelona from Franco that said, “Don’t bark! Speak the language of the Empire,” or “Habla Cristiano,” you know, “Speak Christian.” So it’s a very intense history of linguistic and cultural persecution that people there have been living with and responding to in terms of wanting to have their own country or culture. Most people aren’t aware there are four different languages in Spain: Castilian Spanish (as we know Spanish); Catalan (half the words in Catalan are almost the same as Spanish. So having been a Spanish student, I had this loop on it, right. I didn’t know French, then. And now I know French, but the other half is closer to French and Provençal); the Basque language (no one knows where it comes from); and then you’ve got Galician (that’s sort of close to Portuguese). So you had four languages in Spain, and those were repressed when Franco came to power, again, under the guise of nationalizing, which is how these things happen.
Okay, so because you’ve mentioned Italian and the Spanish—the various Spanishes—and French, tell me how do the foreign languages inflect your writing in English?
Well, people made me aware to a certain point; they thought my vocabulary was very intense. And what I had to say then, and I still say, is that I never use a thesaurus or anything, that these are the words that come to me. Sorry, I’m not trying to make your life difficult! But I also think that we tend to forget that English has a huge vocabulary, that it’s been fed into by other languages. I think Jorie Graham said that it was because of all the trading on the eastern seaboard as America was developing, you know, you’re a trader, you have to deal with some French folks, etc. So, you know, German, French, Russian and all went into our language, it’s just that we don’t tend to use the full breadth of our language… So for me, it’s a matter of precision. And that feeling… in certain languages, there’s, you know, one word… but if you happen to know more than one, you can use another word that seems more precise. So it has to do with precision, I think, in terms of being sensitive to other languages and the sounds of our words. Because I lived in Rome for a while, and I was often in the Vatican—the Vatican mail was the only reliable mail at the time—I would say the word eleemosynary, or elemosine. I think it’s beautiful to use, the word eleemosynary. I’m fortunate that I learned Italian in Italy, in French in France, so it was a rapid kind of thing there. But I guess also, I just consider myself a world citizen. I grew up in the military; my father was in the Air Force and traveled all over the world, so I always felt like well, I should be able to… not feel at home, but just navigate different cultures and languages.
Over all the course of these books and experiences, what has writing taught you?
What has writing taught me? Well, I think because my career began so early, I still didn’t understand certain aspects of who I was. I was raised to think of myself—I had asthma as a child—as being very sensitive and fragile. I was raised to think that I was a fragile person, and then I discovered in the course of writing these books and translating that I’m not. That I’m really a survivor person, that I’m really quite stoic. I’m built to get through everything. And I’ve lost a lot of people in my life. Even when I was 40, a friend of mine said, “Well, you’ve lost a lot of people already.” And I thought, “Yeah, people who seemed so much stronger than me.” I survived them. So that… That I was a strong person after being told that I was maybe too fragile for this world or something. My interest in human rights wasn’t something I was so aware of as a younger person, but through traveling and translating in Spain and going to the Soviet Union in 1986, and going to different cultures where people had been persecuted, I think for me, from my place of privilege, I was called… I had been called upon consistently to sort of speak on behalf of people who have been done to, or gone through really difficult experiences. So when I was still in my late 20s, early 30s, and people were bringing me their stories from the Holocaust, and literally putting them in my lap. I met a man who had been a child in Terezín and he started a poem, he wrote, “When the Russians liberated the camps,” and he hadn’t finished it, and he said, “Cyrus, I think I need you to finish the poem for me.” So, when things like that started to happen, I thought, not exactly “Why me?” but, oh, I am a repository of another generation’s war experiences. Just in the way that Steven Spielberg was when he did Schindler’s List. So I’m one of those people, especially since that generation is dying, who had been called upon to carry those stories and legacies through. I did not know that about myself. All of that, “Oh, you’re so sensitive!”—and of course, you need to be to be an artist—but I didn’t know about the tough part in me. My father passed away 20 years ago, my mother 12 years ago. I guess everyone assumed I wasn’t going to get to be this age, you know, even maybe 40 or whatever. I had pretty serious asthma, health issues as an infant. So, my interest in human rights and just my stoicism that allows me to operate in that sphere was the big surprise for me as a person and as a writer.
What a gift for writing to give you!
Yeah, well the second book took 12 years. I had this Cinderfella experience. I was chosen. I won the National Poetry Series when I was 23. I hadn’t gone to graduate school; I did not think of myself as a poet or even a writer. I just happened to have written some poems. So I had to grow into this role of poet; I had to decide for myself. And that was maybe like a 12-year process. I had two years of writer’s block and then I started doing the translations and that was a way of getting the machine going and then my writing was very different. I went from writing a very mystical sort of book and having a very mystical sort of perspective to being, writing about things that had a lot of gritty, political dimension to them. So, I think your art and your writing can be a form of continuous self-revelation.
That’s wonderful. And lastly, because you also teach, too, what is the one thing you try to give to writers who are coming up behind you? What’s the thing?
The main thing is permission to speak. And standing in your own experience. It’s hard… a lot of us work with people who are 18, 19, 20, and our culture tends to infantilize them. Because I wrote my first book when I was that age and contributed something, to convince them that 20 years of life is really a lot to draw from, that maybe they’ve gone through things that I’ve never gone through and I could benefit from the wisdom in that. So yeah, permission to speak and standing in your own truth and vantage, and believing that wherever you come from is worth speaking from.
Thank you so much!
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh