Michael Hettich interviews
"Above all, a belief in poetry as a healing, absorbing, and necessary art form."
I’ve never actually met Cyrus Cassells, but I’ve known of his work and its stellar reputation for years, and though I’d never read it with any serious focus, I was curious to do so when Bill Schulz, editor of Hole in the Head Review, suggested I approach him to see if he’d be willing to be interviewed for the August issue of the journal. Though extremely busy with various writing projects and responsibilities—including those related to his recent appointment as Poet Laureate of Texas—Cyrus agreed without hesitation and with the enthusiasm and open hearted engagement I’ve come to see are as fundamental to his personality as they are to his work . His answers to my questions are characterized by the honesty and probity--as well as the profound poetic intelligence—that distinguish all of his writing. It has been a pleasure to delve into that writing and to work with him on this interview.
As Spencer Reece said of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, Cassells’ 2020 chapbook, “Cassells couples one dialectic after the other: the human and the divine, the land with the stars, the secular with the religious…They come out of the depth of a man having worked in his craft for forty years. Joyful, extravagant, lyrically-packed, strange, memorable…It is a lovely thing to have Cassells as our watchman.”
MH: To get started, would you please talk a little about your background? I’m curious to hear about your family circumstances and/or formative childhood experiences. I’m also curious about how and when you first knew you wanted to write and write poetry specifically.
CC: I'm an Air Force brat, born in Delaware but raised primarily in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. During my childhood summers, I stayed with my maternal grandparents, Frank and Annie Williston, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, so I have a keen sense of the South as well. I come from a very committed and distinguished African American family. As a cadet in the early 1950s, my father Cyrus helped to desegregate West Point. My maternal uncle, Roger (Bill) Terry was the national president of the Tuskegee Airmen and was Jackie Robinson's college roommate! My Uncle Claude worked for Dr. King and my cousin Claudia Young (who worked for the King Foundation) grew up as a close friend to the King children. Among my relatives are National Book Award winner, Jacqueline Woodson, Mary Jackson of Hidden Figures fame, and Stedman Graham, Ophrah Winfrey's longtime partner.
I'm one of those people who knew from elementary school that I wanted to be a writer and have never wavered from that ambition. I constantly studied the N volume of my Encyclopedia Britannica to bone up on the history of the novel, so I started my preparation in grade school! My first writing assignment was in fourth grade: I was asked to write the Class Prophecy for the other students.
It was reading Sylvia Plath's Ariel at age sixteen that first interested me in poetry--that convinced me that it was an emotionally potent medium.
Previously my poetry education had been confined to Shakespeare and 19th century writers like Longfellow. I soon became enamored of Confessional and activist poets.
MH: What poets from the past (and present) do you see as primary influences on your work? Have you had any particularly significant mentors? Do you see yourself and your work as part of a line or tradition in American poetry?
CC: My favorite poets are Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesare Pavese, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Carlos Williams. I guess my next tier would include Eliot, Jean Follain, Keats, Neruda, Plath, Roethke, Stevens, and Yeats.
Besides Plath, the first contemporary poets I read as a teenager were Ai (who was my colleague for a year at Texas State), Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich. As an undergraduate at Stanford, I discovered the poetry of Louise Gluck, our current Nobel Laureate, who remains a major inspiration. Other poets, whom I know personally, that have influenced me: Martin Espada (we ran a reading series together in Boston), Carolyn Forche (a colleague at George Mason University), Paris-based Yale Younger Poet, Ellen Hinsey, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whom I met as a fellow teacher at the Idyllwild Poetry Conference.
I'm a rare American poet and professor in that I have no terminal degrees. I won the National Poetry Series at age 23 and immediately had a New York publisher, Henry Holt, so at the time (in the early 80s), acquiring a master's degree didn't seem necessary. Nevertheless, my mentors have been Linda Gregerson, Alan Shapiro, and Timothy Steele (my poetry tutor and professors at Stanford), Stanley Kunitz, who awarded me the Peter Lavan Younger Poet Award, and William Merwin, who give me advice and invaluable help, especially with my fifth book, The Crossed-Out Swastika.
For the most part, my work is very international and multicultural, so I don't see it as particularly American in tenor, though poets Robert Hayden, Carl Phillips, and Tracy K. Smith come to mind as kindred spirits: they're all African American troubadours very at home in the world, unfettered by stringent stereotypes of what a Black poet should write.
MH: Follow-up question: Whom do you consider the most “important” poets writing today? Who are you reading? Are there any trends in contemporary poetry/literature that particularly interest you right now? To your mind, who is opening up and extending the possibilities of poetry at this time?
CC: Rather than label them "important," I'll just say that I always look forward to new books by Martin Espada, Carolyn Forche, Suzanne Gardinier, Jorie Graham, Lousie Gluck, Robert Hass, Ellen Hinsey, Carl Phillips, and Patricia Smith. I loved the late C.D. Wright's work and the late Jean Valentine's distinctive poetry. I thought Yale Younger Poet Richard Siken's first book, Crush, was spectacular, and Natalie Diaz's Postcolonial Love Poem, which just won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, is a fabulous reinvention and updating of the erotic praise song.
In my graduate poetry workshops, I always include two or three "cutting edge" books by poets whom I feel are expanding my sense of what's possible in the genre. Books that I've loved sharing with my students: Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins, Victoria Chang's Obit, Jos Charles's feeld, Matthea Harvey's If the Tabloids Are True, What are You? Tyehimba Jess's Olio (2017 Pulitzer Prize), Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic, and Evie Shockley's semiautomatic. The open-ended Olio especially blows students' minds, with its "syncopated sonnets" that can be read three ways, and tear-outs that allow you to "co-create" and physically reconstruct this trailblazing book about Jim Crow era African American musicians and performers. it's the most experimental book of poetry ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I'm proud that Jess was a former Cave Canem student of mine and that we serve together as jurors for the LA Times Book Prize in Poetry.
MH: Which arts other than poetry, if any, have influenced your work in poetry?
CC: Attention to sound and the musical quality of my poetry is very important to me. I come from a very musical family. Both my brothers are talented singer-songwriters. I played the clarinet growing up and was exposed to a lot of jazz and classical music as well as contemporary genres. My years in Florence and Rome in the 1990s inspired my love of opera. Attention to sound and the musical quality of my poetry is very important to me. I'm a big fan of the "musical literature," as I like to call it, of Joni Mitchell and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, and of other accomplished lyricists like Leonard Cohen, Shawn Colvin, Paul Simon, and Sting. I've occasionally performed my poetry with musicians in the US and in Italy. I'm currently in talks to do a benefit reading in Siena, focusing on the Gullah poems in The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, with a group of Gullah musicians. The reading is to aid people in the Italian tourist industry who lost significant income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My undergraduate degree from Stanford is in film. Several of my ekphrastic poems have been inspired by movies. In 2019, I was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for my 2018 film and television critiques in The Washington Spectator. My love of film has been a constant, and I am slowly preparing a book of my collected cultural criticism called Renegade Charisma.
One of my hobbies is art appreciation, particularly painting and sculpture. My half a decade spent in Italy really enhanced my sense of the visual bonanza of life.
MH: One of the unfortunate but perhaps necessary tendencies of many artists in all the disciplines is the embrace of a “signature style.” In poetry this often results in the poet writing virtually the same poem over and over. How do you keep your work from falling into such a habit of mind and approach--while still maintaining a personal style and voice?
CC: The variety and shifts in my books so far have come primarily from my travels, which always involve diligent research, learning, risk, and self-revelation. I like to strike out in a different direction each time, though it has all been organic, without a lot of conscious forethought or agenda. I often don't know what I'm doing until well into the new cycle of poems. Hopefully, with each book, I explore different dimensions of myself. My forthcoming books represent me at my most political, scathing (The World That the Shooter Left Us), frank, conversational, and funny (Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?).
MH: I know you’ve translated quite extensively, particularly from the Spanish and Catalan, but also from Italian. Can you discuss your translation process? I wonder too what languages you speak and what level of fluency you think it’s necessary to have to translate. What draws you to the works you translate?
CC: I think the most effective translations require dedicated immersion in the world of the original artist, a solid cultural and historical grasp, and that's often a long, demanding process. Many poetry translations fail because the translators are too word-for-word literal, and just can't come up with agile and effective enough English. Regarding languages, I am most fluent in Italian, as I lived in Florence and Rome for six years. I was well-educated in Spanish from junior high up through college. I studied beginning level Japanese at Stanford and at Keio university in Tokyo as a summer exchange student but decided to change course when I left Stanfod. I spent two of my Texas State University sabbaticals in Paris and learned the language there: I have always been drawn to Paris and felt an affinity for French. I have a good reading grasp of Catalan but have never spent enough time in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca to master speaking. I ended up translating Catalan (which was banned from public use at the end of the Spanish Civil War by Franco) because, as an African American, it appealed to my sense of justice. The clear-eyed but ebullient celebration of life and the everyday in Francesc Parcerisas's work and the austere beauty and aura of perseverance in Salvador Espriu's volumes captivated me and spurred me to translate their poems into English. I was able to work with Francesc directly on my translations, but Espriu died in 1985, not long after our first meeting in Barcelona.
MH: Of your most recent Copper Canyon book, The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012) one reader has commented: “The book's arc and scope reach so far beyond the tragic, earthly event they intone as to recreate, quite literally, a history that seems to have been overlooked. There is an emotional ethnography of the Holocaust that has become sacrosanct among most contemporary writers, but in reading The Crossed-Out Swastika the blurred portions of this history are wiped clear, given focus, and held up to the light.”
This strikes me as extremely prescient and insightful. How closely does the comment rhyme with your intentions in writing the book?
CC: I hadn't seen this comment before, and I find it quite moving. It is deeply gratifying for a writer to have this profound a response. I felt very driven to write the book. There was an urgency about it, and I had to put aside another still unfinished project (a novel-in-verse) to write and complete it. My project was to consider the role of children and young adults in the Holocaust: war's devastating effect on children is generally something we prefer not to think about. In a substantial way, it's a sequel to the Holocaust poems in Soul Make a Path through Shouting. I am consistently drawn to the past, to places of trauma (Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Dresden), and to stories of hard-won spiritual triumph.
MH: Your new book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (Nine Mile, 2020) was largely written while you were a resident in a Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico. Would you please talk a bit about that book, and about the experience in the monastery?
CC: In 2018, I was gifted by the prior and Benedictine brothers of Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico, with two different hermitages as writing workplaces: at Three Kings Day, The Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage, close to the novice's quarters, and in May, The Saint Augustan of Canterbury Hermitage, alongside the Chama River, on the monastery's outskirts, roughly a fifteen-minute walk away from the striking chapel and main grounds. There was no internet or phone reception, so this was the first time in my life that I was incommunicado for a long stretch, and the results were dramatic: I've been composing, nonstop, new poetry and cultural criticism from the first wintry day that I landed in Abiquiu.
The spare book is comprised of twelve-poem sequence, a lyrical meditation on faith and monastic life, that examines the immense natural beauty of the abbey's Chama Valley setting, with its red and saffron-yellow cliffs, and the devotional life and hardy activities of the monks. The title comes from Psalm 130:6
"More than watchmen at daybreak,
My soul is longing for the Lord..."
My book is a poetic thank-you to the monks, who graciously allowed me into their world.
MH: While many poets organize their manuscripts only after they’ve written a book-length number of poems, you seem typically to organize your manuscripts around particular themes or formal challenges. To what extent is my hypothesis correct? And how do you create something larger than the sum of its parts--something with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end—while still maintaining the integrity and power of each individual poem?
CC: I’m an atypical poet in that I work almost exclusively in book-length cycles; it often takes several years for the full “theme” of the cycle to emerge, which can be both frustrating and exhilarating in terms of the dogged detective work and ever-expanding odyssey required. In my forty-year career, I’ve hardly ever written an occasional poem. I seem to crave length and structure as a poet; my lyric impulses are almost always linked to a far-ranging project. I’m a world citizen and inveterate traveler, so crafting my thematic books often involves actual pilgrimage, cultural investigation, and historical study.
MH: The most recent poem of yours I’ve seen, "Rumors and Exits," is a three-part poetic sequence inspired by Lorca's three greatest plays (Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba). It's from your in-progress poetry project, If Lorca Had Lived in Morelos: Poems and a Memoir of Granada, which is a homage to Lorca and Frida Kahlo, that also explores the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the bonds between Mexico and Republican Spain. You’ve told me that you’re about half-way through the hybrid manuscript. Your approach here seems to me to open up new possibilities for your work. I’m curious to hear more about this project, and why you chose to pay homage to Lorca and Kahlo.
CC: A friend, a gifted poet, Ellen Hinsey, read my fourth book, More Than Peace and Cypresses, and felt perhaps I was the reincarnation of Lorca!--which I'm not, of course, but the indelible Spanish bard and playwright has been my hero-poet since my earliest language classes. My high school graduation gift from my Spanish teacher, Concepcion Jorba (the most influential of all of my teachers), was a leatherbound edition of Lorca's Collected Works. It was Ellen who suggested that I write a book about Lorca, so in 2012, 2013, and 2019 I visited Granada, happily following the Lorca trail, and my volume in progress, a memoir of Granada with accompanying poems, documents my sojourns. I taught a graduate course this past semester on Lorca and it definitely helped to advance the book.
This time I am mostly creating a documentary of my encounters with Lorca, with flamenco and Andalusian culture, and with the wonderful people that I have met there over the years. In early 2020, I stayed, by chance, next door to Frida Kahlo's La Casa Azul, the most visited spot in all of Mexico City. My bedroom window and writing desk faced Frida's fabulous garden and bedroom, and I was there long enough to begin considering my connection to her--one of the world's most distinctive, innovative, and inspiring artists. I am writing about the early period in her life when her crippling bus accident and hospitalization spurred her toward painting instead of a medical career. I am also writing about Mexico as the refuge for the Spanish Civil War exiles: the only country to offer true asylum and support. It is now known, after decades of secrecy, that Lorca was planning to leave for Mexico with a young lover, Juan Ramirez de Lucas, when the war broke out and the poet was assassinated by Franco's occupying forces. Ramirez kept the secret of his relationship to his grave. Two years after Ramirez's death, his sister found and shared their correspondence and a poem that Lorca wrote for Juan. The title poem of my new book imagines Lorca living in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City.
MH: Beyond the overt themes and investigations we’ve already touched on, what role, if any, does politics play in your work? To what extent can politics be overt in good poetry: how does the poet resist or go beyond sloganeering? As a corollary, how does a political poem stay relevant over time?
CC: My new book, The World That the Shooter Left Us, is due out in February/March by Four Way Books. This is the most political work that I've created to date. The title was inspired by the 2017 Stand Your Ground killing of a close friend's father over a parking space in Houston. The man was later convicted of murder, based on forensic evidence that made it clear that the gun-wielding man had lied regarding his claim of self-defense.
The rest of the book burgeoned in the space of two months while I was traveling in Spain and Italy during the summer of 2019. All my feelings about Trump-era America just poured out of me, sometimes at a rate of two poems a day. Perhaps being away from my own country allowed me added insight and genuine permission to create no-holds-barred political satire and commentary and to focus on the shadow side of America: #MeToo and rape culture, drugs, police brutality, rampant racism, and child detention. A friend, who was a close reader for me, said it was my first volume that also functioned as "a historical document." The epigraph for the book is from Adrienne Rich's Dark Fields of the Republic and really expresses the project's aim:
And now when you read these poems...
don’t think I was trying to state a case
or construct a scenery:
I tried to listen to
the public voice of our time
tried to survey our public space
as best I could
—tried to remember and stay
faithful to details, note
precisely how the air moved
and where the clock’s hands stood
and who was in charge of definitions
and who stood by receiving them
when the name of compassion
was changed to the name of guilt
when to feel with a human stranger
was declared obsolete.
—Adrienne Rich, “And Now”
I think it's important, most of all, to bear witness to events, without any overt attempts to explain or persuade. The work stays relevant through the poet's deep commitment to justice, far-reaching compassion, emotional truth, and memorable language in exploring the refractory and nightmarish elements of politics and oppression. Poets of "the political imagination," such as Martin Espada, Ellen Hinsey (especially Update on the Descent and The Illegal Age, Carolyn Forche (her recent poem, "The Boatman," about a Syrian refugee and cab driver is unforgettable), Milosz, Evie Shockley, and Patricia Smith constantly inspire me.
MH: Finally, what qualities do you think most distinguish you as a writer?
CC: Empathy, lyricism, a penchant for sequences and persona work, and a keen attention to the psychological, musical, and visual dimensions of a poem. Above all, a belief in poetry as a healing, absorbing, and necessary art form.
Cyrus Cassells is the 2021 Texas State Artist-Poet Laureate. Among his honors: a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Poetry Series, a Lambda Literary Award, a Lannan Literary Award, two NEA grants, a Pushcart Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award. His 2018 volume, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translated Book of 2018 and 2019. He was nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for his film and television reviews in The Washington Spectator. His eighth book, The World That the Shooter Left Us, will be published by Four Way Books in March 2022.
Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.