A Virtual Interview with Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells will be the featured reader Thursday, April 12, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Cyrus Cassells is the author of six books of poetry: The Mud Actor, Soul Make a Path through ShoutingBeautiful SignorMore Than Peace and CypressesThe Crossed-Out Swastika , and The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, just published in the Crab Orchard Poetry Series (SIU Press). Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a William Carlos Williams Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.  He is a professor of English at Texas State University and lives in Austin.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of writing? Your first memory of poetry?  

CC: I was asked to write the class prophecy in fourth grade. My first memory of reading poems is rather blurry; I didn’t care for poetry much as a child; I was solely interested in fiction. The first book to interest me in poetry was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, which I read as a teenager. I also read Ai, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich shortly after.

CH: When did you begin to consider yourself a writer? A poet? 

CC: Only when my second book of poems, Soul Make a Path through Shouting, was published in 1994.

CH: Your first book, The Mud Actor, was a National Poetry Series selection. How was this collection conceived? Looking back, what factors helped you achieve that first success? 

CC: I conceived the book as a three-part meditation on the possibility of reincarnation. I was experimenting with hypnosis and past life regression therapy during the time I wrote the book. Poet and novelist Al Young heard from others who knew me that I was working on a manuscript. He asked me if I could complete it within a three-month period and submit it to him as a judge, and he ended up choosing my manuscript for the National Poetry Series.

CH: Your fourth book, Riders on the Back of Silence, is a novel in verse. What were your inspirations for that project? What are the particular challenges of that form?

CC: I never published the novel-in-verse, with the exception of seven poems that became part of The Crossed-Out Swastika. My main goal with the project was to explore the theme of family secrets. I viewed it, after the fact, as a kind of laboratory for creating characters in verse and as a preparation for my first novel, My Gingerbread Shakespeare, which I completed last fall.

CH: Now you’ve had your sixth book, The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, published. What has changed in your writing practice over time? What remains the same? 

CC: I’d say very little has changed in my writing practice over time—with the exception of working on and completing a novel, which requires a more sustained, even daily practice.

CH: Please tell us a little about The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. How did the poems for this book take shape?

CC: I was in Charleston and the Sea Islands doing research to play Eugene in Dael Orlandersmith’s drama, Yellowman, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the production got canceled, but then poems about the area began to pour out of me. I visited South Carolina three more times before I completed the title sequence. The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, contains two song cycles. The book’s title sequence is an extended paean to the enduring strength and integrity of the dynamic Gullah culture of Charleston and the Sea Islands; the poems celebrate the legacy of resilient rice and indigo working slaves and their irrepressible descendants (“Who better to define freedom / than slave?”). They also praise the true-life triumph of Gullah people over the systematic repression of their once banned and imperiled language. The second sequence, “Lovers Borrowing the Language of Cicadas,” has a vivid Mediterranean backdrop and explores themes of pilgrimage, erotic and romantic love, classical history, the solace and majesty of the sea, reunion, regret, and loss; this European cycle concludes with elegies to my mother and to the countless men lost in the juggernaut of the AIDS crisis.

CH: You’ve often spoken of the importance of travel to your writing. How would you describe the relationship to place in your work?  

CC: Landscape and history are ever-important in my work—not only the physical but the psychic landscape, as I often write about historical trauma.

CH: How has your work as a creative writing professor influenced your writing?  

CC: It has spurred me, on occasion, to take more chances with my writing, in terms of subject matter and approach.

CH: Who are some of the poets to whom you turn, time and again, for inspiration? 

CC: From the past, Paul Celan, T. S. Eliot, Jean Follain, Robert Hayden, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Boris Pasternak, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams; among contemporary poets, Frank Bidart, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Suzanne Gardinier, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Ellen Hinsey, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Li-Young Lee, and Jean Valentine come to mind.

CH: What are you working on now? 

CC: Several things at once: a seventh volume of poetry, Dragon Shining With All Values Known, a book about spiritual quest, set partly in a desert monastery: a second novel called A Horse is a Very Big Dog, set in New York, New England, and Greenland between 1897-1918; and The Book of Spanish Mentors, about my experiences as translator of Spanish and Catalan poetry.

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