by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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The magic of A. Van Jordan’s work is its ability to position the reader both inside of and outside of the poem’s subject or character. This poetic trompe l’oeil is a result of Jordan’s masterful use of formal innovations that create and operate within a doubled space of the subjective/interior and external/contextual. An excellent example is his poem “From” which appears in his 2004 collection M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. The first few lines of the poem read thus:

from (→) prep1. Starting at (a particular place or time): As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta; he wore a blue suit from Robert Hall’s; his hair smelled like coconut; his breath, like mint and bourbon; his hands felt like they were from slave times when he touched me—hungry, stealthy, trembling. 2. Out of: He pulled a knot of bills from his pocket, paid the man and we went upstairs. 3. Not near to or in contact with: He smoked the weed, but, surprisingly, he kept it from me.

The formal conceit of the poem is borrowed from the dictionary: the poem is set up as an entry, with the title as the word that’s about to be defined; the poem’s text integrates the visual format of the dictionary and is not lineated; and the poem includes the numeric organization as well as the italicized, bracketed parts of speech typically found in the such an entry. Ingeniously, Jordan uses the part of the dictionary template that gives an example of how to use a word in a sentence to create the meat of the poem, the “as in” that usually cues those examples, becoming an anaphoric poetic device through which Jordan is able to tell the story of MacNolia’s husband, John, from her perspective—“As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta…” The reader, thus is placed both inside MacNolia’s experience, but held at a distance through the form.

The form also makes the reader simultaneously aware of the external construct of definition and its constraints. Though rhythmic, the poem does not flow smoothly, but hiccups at each new revelation or realization. After all, the definitions that comprise a dictionary’s entries aren’t meant to be read as a seamless unit. Thus, the parts of speech, the numbers, the parentheticals, add a halting and disruptive element, mirroring the relationship between John and MacNolia. At the same time, the distinctness of the form gives a sense of accretion in which parts of John, MacNolia’s feelings for him, the different parts of their very different experiences, build and cohere—expanding the very nature of the definition, and showing how much is held in the word, the man, and the relationship.

Additionally, the authority of the dictionary is both transferred to and undercut by the content the form is asked to hold, i.e., a context that’s ostensibly objective (dictionary) is used to tell a relationship narrative. MacNolia’s experience and perspective are shored up by the definitive weight of the form, while the whole idea of being able to define anyone or anything is undercut some by the slipperiness of the poem’s affective content. The form here allows Jordan to juxtapose the intimate and the authoritative, bringing both perspectives to the poem, while destabilizing them both and demanding agility from the reader in holding both at the same time.

Jordan was the 2019 judge for the Furious Flower Poetry Prize, and came to JMU’s campus to read with the winner, Rachelle Parker, and honorable mention, Cynthia Manick. He visited my advanced poetry class on persona, and spoke with me about his poetics, his MFA experience, and what he looks for in a “good” poem. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

My students and I are thinking about persona, about the complications of it—what it means to assume another person’s history and character, and to imagine that you can speak through that. What are some of the things you weigh as a writer who works in persona? 

I think the toughest part is allowing myself to just do it as the first step. This is something I always have to deal with with my own students—they’ll ask questions about, you know, can I write in this other person’s voice? Can I do this? And I always tell them “You can do it, but it might be hard, and you have to be willing to be up for that challenge.” Because sometimes I think they think about doing it just because they think it might be cool to be in this other voice. And I tell them, “This is going to be much harder, probably, than what you’ve been writing, what you’ve been doing, outside of that voice.”

That being said, the two things I keep in mind. First of all, is to think about the emotion of the scene—the emotion that we want to address within the scene that we’re writing about. So if I’m thinking about what it feels like to feel rejected, what it feels like to feel loss, what it feels like to feel like something has worked out in your life and you’re happy about it, or overjoyed about it. All of those emotions are pretty universal; we all know what that feels like. The thing then is to think about the restrictions that we have around voice, and those restrictions are usually in the form of whatever the iconography is of that voice—of that persona. With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, here is the voice of a 13 year old girl in 1936 in Akron, Ohio. There are certain things, there are certain symbols, language, and themes that I can pull from and there are certain things I can’t bring into it, as well. Once I know what those parameters are and I have a handle on the emotional resonance that I’m trying to render, then I can just set out to try to approximate that emotion through that voice. But if I haven’t thought about those things—you know, sometimes that comes through the research—then I can’t begin to write about it.

What is your relational experience with research and imagination in writing a persona?

Sometimes I’m bad with this, you know? [Laughs.] Seriously. Because I’ll do something that I know I shouldn’t do, in that I will procrastinate through research, and I’ll spend too much time on it. And the thing that happens, though, is once I start writing, I’ll push myself to write about what I want to write about, and then I’ll look at it and I’ll say, “okay, now I’ve hit a wall. There’s something that I need to do right now and I don’t know how to do it because I don’t know this thing.” So now I have to go back into the research and find this thing and then I can go back and do the thing I want to do in the writing, and I think that’s the order in which it should come—so you should try to write what you need to say and discover what it is that you don’t know and what you need research-wise and come back to it. Because we spent too much time on the front end just gorging on information. What happens is that sort of becomes a bit of a black hole, you know, you just keep going deeper and deeper and then you realize you’re not really thinking about the thing you’re trying to write about, you’re thinking more about the research project. And there needs to be a balance.

I guess I’m interested, too, in the idea of the persona as a mask—how does the person behind the mask show through or how well are they concealed? How do you deal with that negotiation of self/persona in the poem?

I like being concealed, I have to say—I have to admit it. It’s a space that allows me to say things and do things that I probably wouldn’t say outside of the poem. I like the poem as a space — a safe space—for that. One of the things that I remember when I did my first book, which was my thesis, you know it came out and like many books of poems, it came out, a handful of people read it, and then it kind of went away. A couple years after the book had been out, I get a call about nine o’clock at night from my mother. She asked me, why did I write that poem about our neighbor, or rather, her son? This poem about this guy who owed some folks some money and was strung up in his garage and I realize that I don’t want to answer those questions. These are things I don’t want to talk about; I don’t want to have to answer questions about something that I’m actually thinking or something that’s real in my own world.

And then I was also extremely attracted to the work of the poet Ai; when I first started writing, I think she’s the poet who I tried to imitate the most. I just thought what she does on the page, the way in which she’s able to inhabit these voices is something that was very appealing to me as someone who likes story—the idea of storytelling and creating character. I think as poets we often talk about the personas, you know, like ‘persona,’ but I think it’s really just coming down to characterization. How do you build a character? And so with those characters, I feel like I can kind of hide within that skin and say things I normally say. I look at M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A as probably my most personal book because I feel like in that book I was totally unvarnished emotionally. I was able to kind of let it out in a way that I felt like I needed to at that time you know? I also just felt the freedom, like I felt total freedom, to say and write and be what I wanted to be on the page without feeling like someone was going to ask “Why are you feeling that way?”

You’re not liable in some ways. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Exactly, exactly.

I’m curious about other pivotal or foundational writers and specific moments for you.

I remember I had Cornelius Eady’s Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, and I was walking around with that book for weeks and just was in love with the poems, and the book, and the whole arc of the collection—what it was doing. Then I heard he was coming to town to read, and this was at a time when I had just dropped out of a MFA program and I thought, you know, I might still write poems as a hobby at some point, but I’m going to continue being a journalist. And I saw him [Eady] read at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and he read “Gratitude.” There are these moments in that poem that were exact moments from my own life, and I just welled up with tears listening to him. That was the first time I had that kind of experience at a poetry reading. So that was an important moment. He’s another person I just tried to imitate as much as I could. I still just love Cornelius — the turn in his poems, you know? I mean his poetry is so… it wants. It’s intellectual and at the same time it’s emotional. And it kind of sneaks up on it because the language can be so unvarnished and yet so philosophical at the same time. And it’s impossible to imitate, but it’s a good ambition to have and I still love his poetry.

Thomas & Beulah, Rita Dove’s book, was pivotal for me—having a book like that that also told a story that was in my hometown. Thomas & Beulah is such a beautiful book, I thought I would never be able to write a book about that same location. That book was a real North Star when I was writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. You know, I can still remember specific readings and I remember being at the Folger and seeing Patricia Smith read “Skinhead”. I was just electrified after that reading. I was just thinking I’ve got to get a handle on persona. Once again, the power of that reading really blew me away and I’ve been a big fan of her work ever since. And of course, the poet that I probably go to the most, still, is the poet my professorship is named for, Robert Hayden. Hayden’s work— the elegance of that work— is something that I still aspire to; it’s just so formally sound and also agile on a language level. You know, it’s just a great ambition to have. And I could go on and on.

Tell me about your journey to poetry: you didn’t start out as a poet. Also looking back now, did it seem like it was inevitable that you’d wind up here? 

No. 

No?

No. Not at any turn. Not at all. No, I just didn’t… I never thought that I’d be doing this work; I never thought that I’d ever have a book, you know what I mean? I never thought that that was in the stars for me. It was something that I used to admire: people who had books, people who were writers, and things like that. But it was something I just never thought that I would ever be able to live up to. So, I’m really grateful. The work that I do, either as a professor or as a writer, is something that I begin every day with great gratitude for having in my life. You know, I’m a first-generation college student. No one in my family has had a job like this. Everyone’s pretty much done blue collar work—my mother was a nurse but she went to nursing school at a hospital years ago—so there was nothing in my background that would dictate that I would be doing this work now. I recognize that and I’m immensely grateful for it.

You did a Low-Res MFA; what was the experience of that like, and how did you keep a writing practice when you weren’t in a workshop every week?

You know, I went to Warren Wilson — the MFA program at Warren Wilson college. It was transformative for me. I’ll tell you, first of all, who my advisors were— the people who supervised each semester for me— and you’ll get a better understanding of the luck I had. My first semester, there was a faculty member; it was her first semester and we were teamed up. It was Claudia Rankine. So that was the first person I worked with when I knew, like, zero, right? And then after Claudia, the second semester, I had the late, great Agha Shahid Ali as the next person I studied under. Then I had the beautiful Eleanor Wilner, and, you know she’s just, angelic, so, it was just great to have that good spirit guiding me through my penultimate semester there. And then my thesis advisor my final semester was Carl Phillips.

You just drafted a fantasy poet team!! 

[Laughs.] Exactly. Right? It was a transformative experience for me. And those are the folks I worked with but there were other writers there who I learned so much from. Ellen Bryant Voight has been a big influence on me and my work. Reggie Gibbons at Northwestern—I probably wouldn’t have gotten that first book published without him. There’s a poet who I don’t hear a lot of folks talking about, but I really love her work and I used to love her lectures, which is Joan Aleshire. You know, so there are a lot of poets I studied under in grad school who I really admired and just sort of changed things for me. That experience allowed me to do something, to study at that level, you know, at that “All Star Level” while holding down a job.

I had a regular job. I was working at a news agency in DC. I was working on my poems, working on my little annotations— these little essays we had to write—and getting these incredible letters from these writers engaging my work, and taking it very seriously. I’ll tell you this story: in my second semester I was working with Shahid, and his mother was dying. Shahid had gone to Kashmir, India, to do the funeral arrangements for his mother. And we weren’t doing the internet, this wasn’t an email—this was mail mail, right? So, he is in Kashmir taking care of his mother’s funeral arrangements, and he takes the time to go through my poems and write me a letter. And he sends it to me Global Express. Whenever I feel like complaining about work, and like, some student sending me some work or something to go over, I think about that. I think about what he gave me, and I try to give that back to him, to these students. That’s what it was like for me to be a student at Warren Wilson at that time. And it’s changed my idea — whatever idea I had — about what poetry was like, what the world was like. It’s like Philip Levine says, “this is what work is,” you know what I mean? And I’ve come to realize that and really appreciate that. I have blue collar roots and it does feel like blue collar work often, for me, and I say that out of respect for it.

As a teacher of poetry, you mentioned attention as one thing you try to gift your students. In a field where there is often discussion about whether you can teach poetry, what do you try to have your students leave with when they leave your classroom? 

I want them to be better readers of poetry. I think that’s the thing that’s the hardest to teach poets and non-poets alike. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had poets who would come to me, final semester, working on their theses and they’re asking questions like, “I don’t know how to sequence this.” I’ll ask them “What do you think this book is about? Thematically, what do you think you’re doing?” and they have no idea though they’ve been working on it for a few years. And I think a lot of it comes from not being acculturated to reading lyrically. From childhood we are taught about narrative; we’re taught that almost organically, right? So we have a sense of what the structure of a narrative is— a sense of the structure of what a story should sound like or feel like. And if someone hands you a tome of a novel, doesn’t matter how big it is, if you go through that tome, 900 pages, and you just read it and read it and read it and then put a bookmark and you come back to it. But, you know, a collection of poems? It doesn’t matter how thin it is, people will pick up a collection of poems and they’ll start on page 83—Oh, I like that title! I’ll go back and oh there’s something! Oh, page 54, ‘Dust’, I’ll try that one! And they flip back and forth and they never really get a sense of what the book should feel like, what the arc of it is, what the experience of the read is for the reader, and what the author attempted to do with that sequence. And because they haven’t had that experience, they haven’t internalized that enough, then when it comes time for them to write their own book, they have no idea how to put it together. So, yeah, to be better readers.

Also, I say to read with an annotating mind, so when you’re reading, you’re thinking how does this poet handle the movement of time? How does this poet handle moving between an exterior world of imagery to the interiority of the speaker? To think in those terms as they’re reading — so to read like a poet, to read like a writer.

It’s funny you mentioned the ordering thing because, Van, I call your name a lot. When I was in your workshop at Callaloo, I will never forget, you said, “There are at least three books in every collection, depending on the order.” It kind of blew my mind a little bit and it became a project of mine—I use it to structure my readings; I’m ask, “Okay, if I start here, where do these poems take me?” So in terms of that being something you try to gift your students, it’s something you gifted me without even knowing it. 

Oh, well that’s good to know.

But I’m also curious about your own process in pulling these books together. Where do you start? Do you always start with a project? And how do you move through, and how do you finally shape that final product?

You know, it’s gonna seem disingenuous if I say I don’t usually have a project like that in mind, but I often do not. I might have some project in mind but it rarely ends up being the project that I started writing, right? With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A — I started writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A thinking I was writing a book about the Great Migration. I started these poems on that topic and then… It’s a long story, I won’t go into the whole story, but I ended up coming home to Akron, Ohio to see LeBron James play in a high school basketball game. I got up the next day and opened up the Akron Beacon Journal, the local newspaper, and they had this column by this columnist, Mark J. Price, who writes this column called “This Place, This Time”. And that was — it was a full double page spread with photos about MacNolia Cox. I’m drinking coffee; it was at my parents’ home — both of my parents were still alive at the time—and as each of them got downstairs I would ask, “Have you heard about this woman? She would have been your time period — blah blah blah.” Neither of them had ever heard of her. And I thought, That’s really fascinating. I remember I kept the paper, and put it in my suitcase and I thought I might write a poem or two about her. And then the more I delved into her story, the more I realized that her story was emblematic of an entire era. I kind of stop worrying about these other poems — and they weren’t any good anyway [Laughs.] So it kind of got me the fresh reset, you know? And so I started doing these poems and there are a couple of poems from that— “Red Ball Express” and “Asa Philip Randolph”, those poems were a part of that [earlier project], but the central figure was MacNolia, you know?

Quantum Lyrics was very similar. I was trying to wrap my mind around what was going on with myself because my father had just died, and I was still trying to put things together and deal with that. And someone suggested — Ellen Bryant Voight, actually— that I write about it. I was resisting it. And then, like now, I still like to generate out in public— I’ll be at a coffee shop or somewhere—and I was living in Greensboro and they still had Borders [books]. I was at a Borders and I had my earbuds in and I was doing my thing. And I got up to walk around for a little while because I’d been sitting for too long, and they had — you know, I’m a comic book geek — they had a comic book rack and I started to look at the comics. And as I was looking at the comics my curiosity started growing around the physics inside the comics. There’s a comic book writer named Geoff Johns, and I was reading this Green Lantern that Geoff Johns had written. And if you know anything about comic book writing, he’s a very, sort of, philosophical writer of comics. And that issue — just something about it—grabbed me emotionally. When I went back to sit down and write I couldn’t get it out of my head; I started writing about comic book superheroes. And then I went on to write more about physics. And I was still writing this book and working on it and I ended up getting a solid-state physicist at The University of Minnesota who helped me finish the book, like just checking the physics and I was able to have these conversations with him about it. At that point, I was at the University of Texas and he was just invaluable in the process. But I had no idea that’s what I was going to end up doing when I started out with the book.

And then with The Cineaste, you know, I was writing these poems that were ekphrastic poems, but they had nothing to do with film. They were other kinds of art. And once again I was not satisfied with that process. I’m not even going to go into what I thought I was writing about, it was just about art. And these pieces, they were not satisfying to me. And in between that time, I was spending a lot of time watching movies. I had this thing called Mubi — mubi.com— it’s like a Netflix for independent classic foreign films — I would just binge watch those films. And I would also watch films that kind of had some kind of connection to my past in some way or another. You know, re-watching American Gigolo, re-watching The Red Balloon, re-watching Killer Sheep, things like that. And I realized, This is all I really care about right now, I’m not really thinking about this other stuff. And then I thought, What would happen if I just engage this and start dealing with this? In the interim, I got turned onto Oscar Micheaux. And I thought, Man, I just want to know more about this guy, so I ended up going to South Dakota, finding his homestead, and doing this research again. And that’s how that came about. I kind of stumble into them in a way.

I did have a question about ekphrasis and the skill and a challenge of writing into and about another art form, right? You have to engage the structures there, or think about, rather, how to engage them. So what are some of the things you found structurally intriguing that clearly influenced the book?

The one thing I’d say about that is ekphrasis is a lot like persona, you know? There’s a same level of a challenge in that, okay, this has already been done well. This has already been done by someone else. This is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful sculpture, this is a beautiful dance performance—whatever it is that you’re trying to render in a poem. And so, then the challenge is what else do you have to say about it? This is a question I’ll ask my students about poems in general: “Why are you writing about that in a poem? Why isn’t it an essay? Why isn’t it a blog? Why is a poem the right medium for this?” And so the first order of business for me, is that you have to bring something to it that’s not already there; there has to be something new. Otherwise, why would someone read your poem instead of just going to watch the movie? So, when I first started writing The Cineaste for instance, you know, the working title was Auteur and I was writing a lot about films by these great filmmakers and then I realized that: one, those poems weren’t that good and I couldn’t figure out why. And the main reason was that they were films I had nothing else to say about. And I was just kind of saying the same thing but in language, as opposed to the film. So those didn’t make it. And then, I realized there were films that I admired that weren’t necessarily like “auteur” level films. Westworld — this was before the TV show—I was writing about Westworld before it was ever on the radar of HBO. And I was writing about the film that really is not that good. It’s really not a great film at all, but it’s a film that meant a lot to me as a kid. Also, The Mack, another Blaxploitation film: people might look at that film and all they think about is Goldie the pimp, but there’s a lot happening in that movie as well, particularly around the relationship between the son and the mother. So, there are just different things that I wanted to do—I was thinking about the desire for escapism in Westworld; I was thinking about the relationship between the son and the mother in The Mack. They were films I felt like I could say something else about. Certain films I didn’t like the endings of so I changed the ending of the films. I would cast myself as a protagonist or an antagonist, you know? And in that way I felt like there was something else I had to say about it. Sometimes it was very personal, sometimes it was not that personal, but there was something new I would bring to it and I think that’s the first order of business with ekphrastics.

That makes sense. I’m curious because you said a couple times that you were writing poems that you didn’t think were any good. And you recently judged our [Furious Flower’s] poetry contest and so in that situation, what are things that you’re looking for? How do you determine ‘this is a good poem”?

Yeah, wow. That’s a question I’m going to have to think about. You know, I think for me, I always want to learn something from a poem. I want to go to a poem, and I want it to force me to think about something in a way that either I hadn’t thought about before, or give me permission to think about it in a way that I didn’t feel like I had permission to think about it in. And so, often I’ll ask someone at a workshop, “What’s new here? What are we learning about in this poem?” and sometimes I’ll look at my own work and that’s the question I’ll ask of it, “Is there anything new that’s happening here? Any new information? Any new approach to this thing? Would I want to read this poem again after that first reading? Is there something to come back to again and again? If I go back to that well, is there anything to bring up? Is there something formally that I admire about it? The structure, the music, the line? A turn of a phrase? Something that I can hold onto?” I think those are the things I, just as a consumer of the art, am most attracted to.

That’s awesome. You mentioned the sentence and the turn of the line in another interview, and you mentioned your love of the sentence. I’m curious about how that manifests—what is it that’s attractive to you about sentence and syntax and certainly how it plays out in the context of poetry, but also outside of poetry? What does it mean to be a lover of sentences in the world?

I mean, I think if you don’t love sentences, you can’t be a writer. I’m always suspicious when I see someone who comes into a workshop and week after week, their work is in fragments, you know? I’m like, You’re hiding something. Who are you? If you don’t love the sentence and you can’t think through syntax in some way, something’s wrong. Truncated language, fragments — I mean, there’s a place for all of that as well, and it can work but you can tell when someone really understands syntax and they’re using fragments and truncated language and when someone is using it because they don’t have a handle on the syntax. And the thing about it is that I don’t know how someone’s mind can turn and really evolve in an opinion of something, without a handle on syntax. When you start thinking about complex issues, in my mind, I hear those opinions forming through sentences. And when I’m reading someone, even if it’s fiction, I’m very attracted to the way in which that person uses the sentence. One of the first things I was attracted to in the reading of Toni Morrison was her syntax. I feel the same way about reading Baldwin. If you read a Yusef Komunyakaa poem and you’re not swept up in the sentence of that, or a Carl Philips poem in the grammar, in the way in which he’s using the sentence? I mean, these people, you know — Marilyn Nelson — folks who can use the sentence, use it in different forms, use it in free verse, use it for different subjects, and it always feels like fresh language. It’s like a bottomless reservoir of ideas. I liken it to a musician, like a jazz musician, and they’re improvising, right? You can tell, when you listen to a musician, who really has a handle on their modes, who has a handle on scales, who has a handle on arpeggios. Because it’s through those modes and those arpeggios and those scales, those core progressions, that they’re thinking. And you can see the ideas and hear them as they’re being moved around and innovated upon. It’s the same thing with the syntax. I don’t know how someone can write a poem without really having a handle on syntax.

You’re also an essayist and talking about poetics in the third Furious Flower anthology, Seeding the Future, you write, “Our nouns and verbs will add up to nothing if we don’t know what we want to address.” And you point out, ‘No, I didn’t say that you don’t know what you want to say, what do you want to address.’ You write “we need the desire to say something, and to have a clear intention behind why we’re trying.” And so that the idea of not knowing how to think without the syntax, but at the same time, that not being the thing that ultimately drives the poem, but then it is the thing that drives the poem… talk to me about that negotiation.

I think people often will go to the poem and they’re trying to write the poem—the generation of the poem—feeling like they have to have an answer to something. We oftentimes will struggle with the end of a poem thinking about the answer. And I think the poem is a space in which we can celebrate the question just as much as the answer. In many ways, more so than the answer. Because the questions that come up inside of the poem, that’s when you see what the poet is trying to deal with, what the poem is struggling with. And just to witness someone in the throes of trying to understand something is enough for me. Like, that’s the thing that I’m most attracted to when I go to the work. If I’m reading someone and they seem like they don’t have that intellectual curiosity that leaves them feeling like a child at times in the process, I don’t really trust that voice. I want to hear someone who’s wrestling with something and presenting it to us almost as if they’re discovering it along with us, as we’re reading it. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in that piece.

We were talking way earlier, I think in the car, about voice. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to have a sure voice in a poem while questioning? 

Mmhm.

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I feel like you have to kind of separate the… posturing of the voice with the authenticity of the voice and what happens, there’s space inside the poem for hedging language, and for it to be a little messy at times. And I think sometimes what happens is that, particularly because of the dynamic of being in a workshop, and having, particularly if you’re in an MFA program, you have that weekly assessment. You have this moment where you feel like ‘oh, you know, I have to have a win this week’. You know, I have to come in with something that’s just like this perfect little jewel box, right? And the issue with that, is that’s not going to be your true voice. Because you know, you want that voice to be you in the dark, like, you want to know, like when no one no one’s looking, you want to reveal that voice to people. And so sometimes it’s messy, sometimes you’re uncertain, and there’s like some hedging on language in the voice. You know, sometimes you’re sort of — you’re self-editing. You hear that voice that comes in. So those are the voices I find most interesting as a reader of the poem.

So you can be questioning, just also in your own voice, not in someone else’s. As a writer what do you still find surprising, or that the craft of poetry still teaches you?

I feel like the craft of poetry teaches me to question myself and to evaluate myself. I’ve been working with these poems that are set up to sort of take the persona and do, like, a 360-evaluation —as my wife says — a 360-evaluation of that figure where we can look at what the speaker knows, what the speaker doesn’t know, what other people know about the speaker, what the speaker doesn’t know that other people know about speaker, and things that the speaker knows about the self that no one else knows that person. And so, I feel like the poem forces me to do that to myself. I’m constantly evaluating my limitations and my strengths through the poem and through the writing of it, learning things along the way. Every book I’ve written, I’ve learned something, and I’m not talking about subject matter. I’m learning something about myself in the process of writing the book. That’s what the craft of it does. When you subject the poem to something that you may not even believe in, but you’re subjecting the poem to that thing, you’re pushing that poem to say this thing that you probably did not understand when you first sat down to write it. I’ve said this before—my poems are definitely smarter than I am in that way because they’re constantly teaching me things about myself that I don’t normally see and don’t have the real opportunity to explore in my day to day.

You talk about the poem as an opportunity to see the self, and I’m curious about the social role, function, possibility of the poem. What does the poem offer outside of the self in terms of opportunity?

We were just talking about social media before we even got on camera. So much of the way in which we engage larger communities is done through platitudes. You can go through a whole day without having a meaningful conversation with someone—even on Twitter! Even the impression of letting people into your life through Instagram and these different platforms is like the staging of a reality show—you believe it must be ‘real’, but you know it’s still scripted in a way. But I feel like the poem is that good one space in which we can talk, give real talk. We can be totally vulnerable and it’s totally appropriate. You can be totally emotional, and no one’s gonna be uncomfortable with it. You can say things that would make people uncomfortable in other situations and they can be accepted in this vessel. I think that’s what it does. We don’t know how to talk about race. We don’t know how to talk about sex and sexual orientation. We don’t know how to talk across gender lines. We don’t have enough respect for our elders, you know? Everything is about the new thing and how young someone is as the “hot new thing,” and because we don’t have space to have those conversations, we need some space for that and it can’t all be done in therapy. You know, everyone wants to go behind a closed door and talk to someone in confidence. But how do you replicate that on a larger scale and have a conversation with the world, with our community? I think the poem is that space.

That is a great note to end on. Thank you so much. That was awesome.

Thank you. Thanks for bringing me here.


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

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

by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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“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’
commingled chimes?

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! 


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

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

&In  art, intensity is defined as the saturation of color, the vividness of its hue. Intensity–that property of vividness that glimmers–is one of the hallmarks of Cassells’ poetry, which is to say that the images are layered, multi-dimensional and, well, intense. See this excerpt from his poem ” The Spirit of Slave Catchers are Still Walking Among Us” :

Robust enforcers insisting dark bodies remain

Ghetto-bound, earthbound,
Cradle-still in velvet-lined,

Elm or alder wood coffins—

As scholar-poet Roger Reeves points out, one of the tools Cassells employs in his work is the hyphen, which allows him to intensify his descriptors (i.e. “greed-swayed / kings of sugar”). Write a glitter-spun poem, with intensity as your primary goal and the hyphen as your primary instrument.

 

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Poems

By Roger Reeves, PhD

&

At first, I thought to trace an aesthetic through-line in Cyrus Cassells’ poems, from The Mud Actor, his first book of poems, a National Poetry Series winner published in 1981, to More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020), his most recent collection, a sequential poem broken up into twelve sections which was written while in silence / silent retreat at the Benedictine Brother at the Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I thought I might trace Cassells’ shifting use of nouns and verbs or his deployment and performance of queerness or Blackness since his writing life and books span a vast historical period that have seen seismic shifts in the way that Black folks and queer folks have been treated and incorporated into the mythology and narrative of America. The Mud Actor appears at the beginning of the Reagan years, in a post- Jim Crow America, that will see the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in queer communities that the Reagan administration will belligerently, nonchalantly address. Cassells writes his latest book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, at the height of a neo-fascist turn in right-wing, mainstream American politics—this fascistic turn ushered in by the Trump administration’s xenophobia, which Cassells deftly alludes to in the first poem of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, “Winter Abbey with Venus Rising,” when the speaker locates himself “Far from the deriding republic” and ‘mint-new Herod decrees’ (14). I thought to trace or overlay palimpsest-like these concerns, conflicts, and histories overtop Cassells’ work to see how he either explicitly or implicitly contends with the shifting nation and his place or the place of the poem in it. Or, more so to see how these moments of contestation, rupture, and crises shaped the poetics. But, you know what they say about best-laid plans. And, I, somewhat, sabotaged myself by reading the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with most recent work and moving backwards—starting with More Than Watchmen at Daybreak moving to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo (2018) and so on. However, whenever I moved on to the next books—The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012), Beautiful Signor (1997)—I couldn’t shake a bit of Latin that appeared in the second poem of the sequence of More Than Watchman at Daybreak, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage.” The poem begins with a command to the listener (reader) which also might serve as an admonishment to the speaker as well: “Listen, out of love and goodwill,…” (15). And you do, you listen, but what’s surprising is that after learning of the speaker’s small room he’s been gifted, a Latin phrase flutters down almost like the spirit of God descending like a gauze from the ceiling above: “….Benedictus qui venit / In nomine domini,…” (15). Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, I believe, is the translation. Please forgive my Latin or lack thereof. The phrase is a canticle from the New Testament of the Bible—Luke, Chapter 1, verse 68. But more than a hymn or chant from a Benedictine worship song, it is also a prevailing poetics or aesthetic concern of Cassells’ poems. But I would extend that snatch of Latin to say: Benedictus qui venit nominee domini…and the Body.

Cassells comes to the poem to not only write in the name of the Lord, in the name of the celestial, in the name of the divine at “the cusp of inchoate vermillion,” at “the sacramental banks with pallid embroideries of ice,” but also, as the two aforementioned quotes gesture towards, Cassells comes to write devotionally with impeccable precision of the body, the body “far from the deriding republic” and the body mocked by the same republic for ‘resembling a ‘red-boned’ angel in a hammock, one who finds himself falling in love with another boy with ‘tea-brown fingers’ (4). These devotional poems, which are always in proximity and conversation with “Herod’s decrees,” historicize and reframe a vast array of abuses—from national abuses enacted by governments and political regimes to the ongoing struggle against homophobia and queer antagonism in Black communities—through an attention to what is circumscribing or surrounding them—the stars, the sun, the beauty, the “deep-down plenty” in “the midst of bondage” (16). Cassells’ poems remind me of that moment in Cornelius Eady poem “Gratitude” where the speaker proclaims “I am brick in a house / that is being built / around your house”—the “your house” being the master’s, the nation’s, the oppressor’s house (143). Cassells is not only a brick in a house, but he, himself, is building a house to surround and neutralize various disasters and catastrophes as if to say beauty exists here, too. You cannot take this from me, from us, you old “conniving Caesars of Cotton” and “Greed-Swayed Kings of Sugar.” Cassells subverts, pierces, and disrupts that which might annihilate life through a devotion to that which faces extermination, liquidation—those who are historically and continually remanded to the liminal position of eradication. You and me.

Cassells expresses this poetics, this devotion in the Black-est of ways—the hyphen. Or, maybe I should make that assertion differently, with a little less essentialism. Revision: I’ve come to trace Cassells’ devotion to life in the middle of ongoing catastrophe through the hyphen and hyphenated phrases like “star-scouting / soul-of-a-nighthawk leap—….,” what Cassells calls “the bull’s eye of the beguiling / compound words of Gullah” (11, 25). In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston calls these sorts of constructions double-descriptors, action-words that dramatize Black life through metaphoricity, performance, “the will to adorn” this drab English language that was thrust upon Black folks because of our captivity. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer Devere Brody advances Hurston’s claims about the funkiness of the hyphen by interrogating American grammarians and their sacrosanct grammar manuals with their call for unification of words—a sort of treatise against the hyphen—as an extension of U.S. hegemony and liberal forms of consolidating power, politics, patriotism, and American nationalist ideology. Hyphens, in their visibility, highlight an incommensurability, an unresolved in-between-ness that performs the impossible while yet not healing or correcting the impossibility.

Cassells’ use of the hyphenated adjectives / double-descriptors, particularly in the title poem to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo and More Than Watchman at Daybreak, dramatize several impossibilities / incommensurables at once—the incommensurability of English to account for African Diasporic (Gullah) culture ways, bodies, sensuality, and life; the impossibility of queerness to reside in parochial, Protestant houses. While this might be considered ‘a will to adorn’ (to call back to Hurston), I think we must expand what we think of adornment. It is not merely ornamentation—superfluous and unneeded. Extra. Rather, the will to adorn is the will to critique, an improvising that opens up possibilities inside of a standard, an orthodoxy, a cage. Cassells’ use of double-descriptors opens up the possibility of reaching for a known thing, something like a Black life, behind and beyond the captor’s language. For instance, in “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” Cassells begins with a meditation (an ode that is also an interrogation) of the Gullah word for daybreak, dawn, the new sun—dayclean, which itself we can understand as a type of double descriptor, action-word even without a hyphen. With its connotations of awakening in a new day after some conflict or contestation, clear of some dirt from the day before, the word dayclean acts as a presiding sentiment, an ontological space of fugitivity, a moment of possibility and renewal in the ongoing disaster of anti-Blackness and homophobia. Dayclean, its always-arriving, acts as a bulwark against annihilation. However, its multiplicity, its standing-in-for-so-many-things, makes the term quite slippery. And makes meditating upon dayclean, writing lyrically about it, even more difficult. This difficulty pushes Cassells to dramatize the unsayable nature of the word:

Dayclean’s the Gullah word
for the gala sun, the looked-for

melon, meticulous,
up-and-coming,….(3)

It’s as if Cassells wants more out of the English, wants English to be able to accurately state multiples states of being at the same time. Cassells wants both a past (as evinced in the term “looked-for”) and present and future (as evinced in the term “up-and-coming”). He wants a state of being / a tense that exists an ongoing-ness.  A state of being that can express not-yet-arrived-but-known, which is the voicing of the incommensurable. However, this state, this tense does not exist so Cassells dramatically and poetically enacts it through the winding sentence over the time and space of two couplets and the hyphenated adjectives.

These hyphenated adjectives do not make one such appearance in the first section of the poem and then fall away. Instead, they are the engine that drives the poem. In section II of “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” these double descriptors / hyphenated adjectives appear on every other line of the first three stanzas—“glove-yellow” to describe the morning, “crow-carried” to describe mussels, “priest-gentle” to describe the pines. The phrases act performatively. Here I mean the term performatively in the J.L. Austin sense of the term—they make something happen through their vocalizing. Something like movement, action. It’s as if Cassells calls the morning, the mussels, the pines into being, into a present or ongoing-ness. These phrases provide not only an impeccable precision to the visual and emotional register to Cassells’ poems, but they also act as a blessing—a benediction—in the form of praise. “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo” praises the margins and the marginal of (Black) life—the Gullah people of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sea islands, the Mount Pleasant aunties, “okra-cooking grannies,” “shredded barbecue / in a Winn-Dixie plastic bucket,” “Marquetta’s stone-ground grits,” Augustus, the speaker’s boyhood crush (11-13). Cassells’ speaker even loves Augustus’ ‘gumption…to share // news of [their] pistol-hot love with [his] pew-strict, / disowning father….” (13). Cassells bring his mouth and ear to that which is castigated for its transgressions and transgressiveness, for its impossibility and incommensurability, and praises its difference—queer love, queer language.

This playing in the non-normativity of language and love simultaneously, through the use of the hyphen resists the unifying narrative of nationalism, resists a monolithic construction of Blackness. Locating American Blackness in the Gullah, a group of Black folks on the territorial margins of the United States, and in queer love in youth (youth being another position of political marginality), Cassells makes a poetic statement about the complicated-ness of nation, belonging, and community; he locates nation and Blackness not in its unities but in its moments of contestation and difference, in its ruptures—at the hyphen. There, Blackness becomes itself—its many varied and multiple selves, at its margins—dayclean. Divine.

It’s irony for sure, but it’s the divine irony of a poet who understands that it is being devoted to difference—to the banal and the celestial—that brings about the divine. In other words, Cassells’ attention to that which we might call God and that which we might call the flesh, the body, is a type of divinity, one that understands the secular, the corporal, the sensual, the sexual, the political as connected to that which historically and theologically we have thought as beyond the body, pure of its stink and wants. And Cassells performs this praising, this attention, this devotion through the difficulty of the incommensurable. Through impossible. And provides for us, the reader, a path through the shouting.

 

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Cassells, Cyrus. The Mud Actor. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.

Beautiful Signor. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

–. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

–. The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2018.

–. More Than Watchman at Daybreak. LaFayette, New York: Nine Mile Books, 2020.

Eady, Cornelius. Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” http://www.ypsilonediteur.com/images/documents/Zora_Charateristics.pdf.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Roger Reeves by Beowulf Sheehan
© Beowulf Sheehan

 

Roger Reeves first book of poems, King Me, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, among others. He’s won awards and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, The Whiting Foundation, and Princeton University. This fall and spring, he will be fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His next book of poems, Best Barbarian, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February / March of 2022.

(more…)

by Cyrus Cassells

1

Mister, from love’s keening distance,
I send you dread, discord,

A dead pauper’s
Unerring kiss, “double, double,

Toil and trouble”—the foraged
Bolts, welts, and buffoonish stitches

Of your own meandering,
Pell-mell Frankenstein;

From Lady Justice’s impeccable scales,
I bequeath you

A child’s flimsy cootie-catcher,
Opened to the words

Comb-over or Snake!—
A throwaway crown, a fake,

Fracked-to-the-hilt
Share of heirloom land,

Acres of unsellable real estate
On the very dissipated earth

You doggedly lacerated
And dismantled—

At an eleventh hour, when the lollygagging,
Wall-building, around-the-clock inanities,

 

2

And countless renegade cruelties
Have ceased to grow and cascade

Like Rapunzel’s hair,
And the glittering hourglass sands

Have nearly halted,
Apprentice felon, primetime charlatan,

Un-budging jester on the Hill,
May the emperor-is-naked folderol,

The blight of your slipknot reign,
Your slap-shrill tenure,

Shock your tattered soul in full…

 

Poem copyright 2021 by Cyrus Cassells. All rights reserved.

&
See two more poems from Cyrus Cassells debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Maples Anticipating Their Autumn Colors,”  and  “My Only Bible


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Cyrus Cassells

Yoshi, at your sudden death,
What stays under my lids, in my body,

After decades: how we biked
The placid length of Kannonji,

Pedaling past ample rice fields
And Shikoku’s ramshackle docks,

The ragtag blue stacks
Of an imposing factory in the distance—

Beside an uphill shrine,
Its irrepressible maples anticipating

Their vibrant autumn colors,
We found an unlikely vendor

Hawking Cokes and gimcrack prayer beads,
His piped-in koto music

Sinuous among the pines,
A midsummer effort to conjure

The melancholy female ghost
Who lingered and sang on the glinting slope,

Her inescapable voice calling down a god
In the form of a crane,

Its white wings dripping
The cool water of Ursa Major—

 

 

Poem copyright 2021 by Cyrus Cassells. All rights reserved.

&
See two more poems from Cyrus Cassells debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: My Only Bible,”  and  “The Absence of the Witch Does Not Invalidate the Spell


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Cyrus Cassells

Is this blood-red joy
Of breathing beside you

And never divining
Your next beguiling voilà:

For instance, the nubile lemon
You culled in Sóller,

Brand new husband,
Shines, sun-blond and solid,

On the sill,
Pure as a murex shell

Or a nomad’s wish—
No wind whistles down

From the timeless sierra,
So after our solstice vows,

You press your apt citrus’s
Soothing, gently cooling rind

First to my lips,
Then my slightly sunburned nape—

Finally setting it to rest
On my shirtless torso;

With this honeymoon abracadabra
As nimble cue,

Let me linger and praise
The hermitage and gleaming groves

Above the cobbled village
Where your harlequin mother was born,

The gospel of bougainvillea
At your boyhood gate—the apotheosis,

Bridegroom, balm-giver,
Bell-clear dreamer,

Of your own full blossoming
And transfixing flair,

Of the soul’s endless, luxuriant
Coming and becoming…

 

 

Poem copyright 2021 by Cyrus Cassells. All rights reserved.

&
See two more poems from Cyrus Cassells debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Maples Anticipating Their Autumn Colors,”  and  “The Absence of the Witch Does Not Invalidate the Spell


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt