“Sing: No More: A Conversation with Cyrus Cassells about The World That the Shooter Left Us” — curated by Tiffany Troy

Cyrus Cassells is the 2021 Texas State Artist-Poet Laureate. Among his honors: a 2022 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to conduct a statewide Juneteenth poetry contest; a 2019 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 my film and television reviews in The Washington Spectator. His eighth volume, The World That the Shooter Left Us, was published by Four Way Books in February 2022. His second book of translations, To The Cypress Again and Again: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, will be published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2023. His ninth book, Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch? (a National Poetry Series finalist) will be published by Four Way Books in February 2024.

Cyrus Cassells: Thank you for your interest in the book. I’m open to talking about anything you’re interested in bringing up. The timing’s good for me because it’s been about a month where I haven’t done anything connected to the book, and my tour cranks up again in two weeks. It’s a wonderful opportunity to dive back into the book and see what’s vibrating there.

TT: I felt your book was so moving. I was like, Oh my god, you got blurbed by Martín Espada?!

CC: He’s one of my closest friends in the poetry world. In 1988, we ran a reading series together at Trident Bookstore in Boston, on Newbury Street, and we’ve been close ever since. Martín was the first person to read a version of my book, just as I was one of the first people to read a version of Floaters, so there’s a wonderful reciprocity to that.

I’m thrilled for him that he won the 2021 National Book Award for Floaters. He was quite doubtful about winning, and I was like oh, no, no, I think it’s your time. So we’re compañeros and hermanos in poetry, and he’s just a magnificent poet and activist. I’m so glad you’re familiar with his work. He has a new book he’s developing called Jailbreak of Sparrows.

At any stage of being a poet, it’s essential to have a reliable close reader, someone who listens and pays attention to your work, providing you with invaluable support and ideas. It’s great to grow up with other writers. People that I grew up with became amazing writers. I went to the Fine Arts Work Center, and my closest friend when I was there in 1982-83, was Lucie Brock-Broido.

TT: Oh my God, the legendary Lucie.

CC: The legendary Lucie Brock-Broido, and it’s a source of love and pride that I was the first person to read an early draft of her first book, to prod her to literally pull it out of her drawer.  Her work was very different from what was getting touted in the early 80’s, which was New Formalism. It’s been wonderful to witness so many people develop themselves as teachers and writers. And some of my own students are doing extremely well, like Tomás Morin and Phil Metres. I had Phil Metres as an undergraduate at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. I’ve been teaching 35 years; it’s wonderful to live long enough to see your former students thriving.

A couple things about the book that I wanted to share, because they seem unlikely:

I wrote this book in about eight weeks.

TT: Really?

CC: Yes, I wrote Shooter in June, July, and August of 2019. I wrote it while I was completing two other books. My current publisher, Four Way Books, gave me a double contract in the fall of 2019. They acquired my book of love poems, Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?—which is due out Valentine’s Day, 2024. I said, Ah, but I have this other book, The World That the Shooter Left Us, and they said, “Well, let’s see that.” And then they decided they wanted both of them.

I wrote more than what’s in the final version. I added a couple poems in the spring of 2020, the pandemic poem, and the George Floyd poem. It’s the most mysterious process I’ve ever been through. There was no agenda for this book, which is why I chose the Adrienne Rich epigraph from her poem “And Now,” from her 1995 book, Dark Fields of the Republic: “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.”

That’s the best explanation I can provide about my process. Even when the book was published in February 2022, I had to go back three years and consider what its lightning-swift creation meant. My other book had been named a finalist for the 2019 National Poetry Series. I thought, well, I better trim it up some more. That book—and you’ll laugh—was called Is There Room For Another Hose on Your Horse Ranch? (And someone actually said that to me when I had a writer’s fellowship at a horse ranch in Wimberley, Texas. A young Parisian bartender teased me and said, in a marvelous French accent, the title line. I thought it was super flirtatious and charming, so I immortalized his seductive question. During a January fellowship at the Mabel Dodge Foundation in Taos, I culled scraps of mostly forgotten poems from my notebooks and files, and in the course of two months, almost as quick as the Shooter book, I came up with the Horse Ranch book. I wasn’t really sure it worked as a book, but, as a kind of lark, I sent it out to test the waters.

As I was trying to perfect Horse Ranch, I ended up writing The World That the Shooter Left Us. My 2020 book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, is a sequence of twelve poems that were written in the Christ in the Desert Monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico, not far from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home. Originally, the monastery poems were part of the Horse Ranch book. Then I decided to give the desert sequence as a gift to the Benedictine monks who hosted me. Since the Horse Ranch book is very homoerotic, I thought, Well, the monastery poems are all the way at the end, but maybe it’d be a challenge for them to wade through the rest of the book to get to the New Mexico sequence, so I made it into a chapbook, and then, later on, I realized it’s essentially its own complete book. I gave birth to poetic triplets in summer of 2019. I credit it to being media-free and incommunicado for the first time in my life.

I paid a holiday visit to the monastery a few months before my sixth book, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo came out, with no desire to write at all. But I got there, and the most prolific part of my writing career began with the invitation to write in a Benedictine hermitage in the desert. It allowed me a great opportunity to get more deeply in touch with myself and my expression. I decided to reactivate my career as a film critic— something I had given up when I decided to act professionally. I believed previously that I couldn’t be critiquing my colleagues in public. But sequestered in the desert in northern New Mexico, I realized I wanted to tackle cultural criticism again. I ended up writing for The Washington Spectator and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for my reviews. So there’s something about being in monk mode for a stretch that can really up your game. Shooter got written because I was trying to perfect the Horse Ranch book, and then the Christ in the Desert Monastery project, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, kind of tumbled out on its own.

I was in Spain and Italy the whole summer of 2019, so The World That the Shooter Left Us wasn’t written in America, except for two poems. That seemed to help my perspective somehow, and allow me to release my feelings about the unraveling democracy in America. I didn’t have to wonder what I felt about what was happening in my home country. The book that got me writing poetry is Sylvia Plath´s Ariel. I basically went into Ariel mode and wrote one or two or three poems a day during that summer.

When the book was finally published in February of 2022, it was akin to opening my front door and finding a colossal whale on the doorstep:  How did you get here? How did this happen? Honestly, I don’t even understand how I wrote so many poems in the middle of finishing the other two books, and traveling in places I know well.

The title poem was written a year earlier in 2018. My friend Edward Garza’s father had been shot and killed over a handicapped parking space in Houston in May of 2017. Because of the Stand Your Ground law, the shooter was held for a night, then released. He claimed he shot Mr. Garza in self-defense. Eventually he was declared guilty because forensic evidence made it clear that there was no physical fight. He just shot my friend’s father through his batch of mail collected from his P.O. box. This man is now in prison. He’s sixty-nine, White, and still unrepentant. James Garza didn’t die right away; he died two weeks later, close to his son Edward’s birthday.

Edward was living in my house at the time, and I was overseas, in Spain. I travel to Spain in conjunction with translating Catalan poetry. There wasn’t much I could do beyond contacting my friend Cecilia Ballí who had just gotten a job at The Houston Chronicle. It was important to me that people know what happened to this amazing, accomplished Latino family. There wasn’t any surveillance footage of the shooting. A year later, a very similar incident happened in Florida, and I decided that I needed to share something about what happened to the Garza family. I asked myself, Do I really need to say these things in public? And my internal answer was: Yes. I gave the poem to Ross Gay. I had run into him at the San Francisco Airport, and asked him to consider it for Poem-A-Day. It was published in Poem-A-Day in October of 2018, close to the time of the synagogue shooting in Philadelphia. Sadly, the title poem and the title of the book are perpetually relevant.

When Martha Rhodes took The World That the Shooter Left Us, she said: three years from now seems like a long time, but you’ll see that everything in the book will still be apt. In fact, given what happened in Uvalde in May 2022, it seems even more relevant than I could have ever imagined.

The persona/ #MeToo poems were a big surprise. They’re the most daring poems I’ve written, and I found a way, through persona work to give testimony to my own personal history of harassment and sexual abuse as a child and as a young adult. The book is a combination of somewhat fictionalized character work and biographical work. In what I’ll call my aesthetic m. o. (modus operandi)—I’ve been acting since I was twelve years old—I just tend to leap into the personas and different vantages without much premeditation. I am certainly sensitive to issues of appropriation but this project just poured out of me—a cataract of poetry, written in grief, derision, and outrage. I can recite the title poem now; it’s taken awhile to be able to read it in public.

I just received the most intriguing invitation. I’m working in Maui part time on a historical novel about Kalaupapa, the colony for sufferers of Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) on Moloka’i. Father Damien (now Saint Damien) has always been my spiritual hero. Since April 2020, I’ve been writing this novel related to Father Damien’s work and legacy. 

I recently received an email from Anita Ahuja, a prosecutor working on Maui, to read from the book at a “Leave No Victims Behind” conference for professionals working with people who have been through shooter incidents. It’s being held at my own university, Texas State, in collaboration with the university police chief. What are the odds of that? I’ll be reading the last day of the conference. It’s a bolstering feeling to have your poetry seem useful. To feel we poets aren’t just spoiled dreamers; we can actually go out to the community and share work that might help people in some way in terms of making meaning of what they have lived and suffered through. It’s a protest, too. These poems are not “uplifting” but investigational, and I love the challenge of sharing them with an audience of caregivers and survivors.

TT: When is it happening?

CC: It’s October 27th, which is a Thursday. And just by chance, I’m flying into Austin from Montreal on October 26. I thought perfect, I already bought the ticket. I’m doing a lot of online readings with some great poets, including Dana Levin in a couple weeks since we were from the same hometown of Lancaster, California and attended the same High school. Antelope Valley High produced two poets.

I teach in the MFA program at Texas State. I’ve been teaching online for the most part during the pandemic. I was on a Guggenheim fellowship in San Francisco when the pandemic started. I was the visiting poet, working alongside Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Brenda Hillman, and Matthew Zapruder at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. As the pandemic arrived in earnest, we all had to learn quickly about online teaching, since the Bay Area was the first area of the country where citizens were sheltered in place. It actually took me a few years to get back to Texas because of successive waves of the pandemic. I left San Francisco to stay with my godson outside of Portland, and in September 2020, there was a rash of Oregon wildfires. Then I came to Hawaii. Friends urged, Why don’t you just go to do your research in Hawaii, rather than go through another month of seeping smoke and nonstop black skies? Once the fires started on Labor Day week, I never saw the sky in Oregon again. I have a history of asthma, and my family, all the same time ganged up on me: “Time for you to go. It’s going to damage your health, if you stay. I already had the ticket to Hawaii for the Christmas break, but they said, “You must go now!”

I never imagined I’d be staying in Hawaii for any length of time. I’m two hundred pages into the novel. It’s very straightforward and poetic. I revised my first novel over the summer in Montreal, which is a far more experimental book. It’s called My Gingerbread Shakespeare, and is about the life and loves of a fictional Harlem Renaissance poet.  It’s very elliptical and non-chronological in structure. My fiction is very character-driven. Parts of the book have already been published in anthologies and journals.

I’m excited because I just finished my latest book of poetry, Moons for the Magician Lorca—a book dedicated to Federico García Lorca. It’s a combination of poems I’ve written over many years connected to Lorca and newer poems that I wrote in the past year and this year. In 2021 I taught a graduate seminar in García Lorca. The summer before the pandemic, I went back to Granada, where I was lucky enough to attend the famous anniversary memorial celebration for Lorca held in the area outside the city where he was killed. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.

My Horse Ranch book is going into production in the fall. I’m also in production with To The Cypress Again and Again: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, my second book of Catalan translations. Salvador Espriu was Catalan Spain’s preeminent twentieth century writer of poetry, prose, and plays. This is a project I worked on for almost forty years! I met Espriu when I was twenty-seven, four months before he died. So it’s part memoir assembled with my English translations of his work, and in the last section, poems I wrote in homage to Espriu over the years. I’ve already received some distinctive, truly splendid blurbs from fellow poets and translators.

TT: I’m so happy to hear that.

CC: So the ninth and the tenth books are done. I have an idea for something– a kind of poetic dialogue with Rilke.  Each of my books is fairly different from the others, though the Horse Ranch book really is something of a sequel to Beautiful Signor, which won the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Men’s Poetry in 1998. Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch? is my most high spirited and fun book. The Harvard Review just published one of the poems called “The ‘Land Ho’ Kiss” and people seem to love it. I met someone on a cruise, and it was super romantic. I was practically swooning: ecstatic experiences breed ecstatic poems!

I don’t think I could have written Shooter if I hadn’t been writing Horse Ranch at the same time. It gave me some relief from the shadowy intensity of Shooter. Sometimes it’s confusing to move between projects and at other times, a fluid and energizing process. And sometimes you feel like you’re dragged kicking and screaming into your projects.

TT: What time of the day did you write the Shooter poems?

CC: Because I was traveling, literally moving, there were many different times of day, and on trains and planes. Normally I try to get up in the morning and write. This morning I was revising the introduction to the Lorca book—a series of vignettes about my five visits to Granada between 1984 and 2019. Mostly I try to write as soon as I get up in the morning. With More Than Peace and Cypresses, I composed almost all the poems outdoors. In that period, I couldn’t seem to sit and write at a desk. Every book has its own kind of rhythm, not to mention destiny, and you just have to surrender to the book’s current and kismet.

TT: How does form inform the Shooter poems?

CC: I’ve been using couplets since my fifth book, The Crossed-Out Swastika, but mostly abandoned them for the Lorca book, which demanded something more fluent and sinuous. Using couplets to handle tragic or serious matters, having some space on the page, allows the reader to bring their own lived experiences and emotions to the poem. I discovered this with The Crossed-Out Swastika, a book about young people’s courage in the “anti-miracle” of World War II. With so much information available about that roiling time period, the more succinct and piercing you can be, the better.

 For The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, I got the idea of working in couplets to suggest the reeds and water in Georgia Low Country landscapes—almost a painterly response. And then I just kept perfecting it as a handy poetic tool.

There are a lot of couplets in the Horse Ranch book, and in one the book’s newest poems, I decided to utilize tercets for a more playful, gossipy tone.

My writing ratio is something like three to one. I wrote maybe forty poems for Shooter during the summer of 2019, and I ended up only using what’s now in the book. There were some viable poems that were published in journals but for the flow of the book, they weren’t quite necessary.

I loved how Jorie Graham used blanks in her book The End of Beauty. I was inspired by the American Crime, Second Season, that had to do with male sexual assault, and how they would bleep out a portion of the racier language or dialogue, partially because it was mainstream TV. I like that the series was shot almost always from the teenagers’ perspectives. I’m inspired by certain techniques that allow for intensity, but also participation by the reader. In the final editing stage, I had to designate the length of the blanks—to remember what word would normally go in there. It neatly conveyed the specter of censorship in the poems—like a gag or a blindfold, or a scandalized “let’s drop a dark curtain on that.”

Now, how do you convey trauma? The result of trauma is usually fractured expression, fractured language. That was very key: supplying splintered language and fractured moments to signify the painful and unspeakable.

These are a few of the techniques I employed in bearing witness to rampant violence and exploitation. I’m not sure I’ll ever read the #MeToo poems in public. A poet requested I share them on the radio, and I declined, because I think they are potentially triggering.

How do you do work that’s essentially pissed off, but hopefully not off-putting? There’s a lot of experimentation with the presentation of the trauma in my current book. “The Hood” was a deeply unsettling poem to write and think about. The poem was inspired by Heather McHugh who mentioned the “hood” in “childhood”, which I never forgot, and I immediately flashed on the hooded figure in the famous Abu Ghraib torture photo. I’m thinking what kind of person would do that to another person, and that’s where the whole scenario in which a drunken father puts a pillow case over his small son’s head evolved, landing the poem in three places: the Middle East, Vietnam, and on a military base in America.

TT: You played the characters so well, taking on their voices while implicating other voices as a poet. How do you go about constructing persona poems?

CC: Ai’s book Cruelty was one of the first poetry books I purchased as a teenager. She was my colleague at Texas State University as a year-long Mitte Fellow. A National Book Award winner, she was the absolute American master of persona poetry. When I started working on the “Boys Don’t Do That to Other Boys,” I revisited her consistently frank and undaunted work. I then read a story about a gifted young Mexican singer who had been pimped as a teenager by his unscrupulous manager, and that became “Trafficked Angel.”

I drew very heavily on my own experience for the poem “Me Too, Me Too.” Most of what’s in the poem actually happened to me, and to a longtime friend of mine. When the book came out, and I sent it to him, and I said, Oh, I forgot to tell you I used your story. He loves my poetry and was fine with it. I wanted to talk about same-sex harassment, since there hasn’t been a lot of focus on that. I would say that most people from my generation were physically or sexually abused at some point. What happens is, when you’re a young person, you normalize the abuse and think it has something to do with you. I was lucky because my mother was very calm and level-headed when I told her about the molestation referred to in the poem. She said: “You know these things happen to a lot of people.” My mother’s clear-eyed response kept me sane.

 “Me Too, Me Too” is the most autobiographical poem in the whole book. As a child, I romanticized my molestation because my abuser was such a popular boy in high school, and I could pretend I was something like the cool kid’s secret boyfriend.

 When I moved to Italy, I went through a lot of sexual harassment, unusual for a man. I was basically approached every day by Italian men of all ages. At first, I was unnerved by it. And then, after a while, I understood it as their questionable way of expressing appreciation. It’s just like the whole catcall phenomenon women go through.  I might as well have been blonde for the amount of attention I received. That daily harassment went into the poem, too. In Rome, I learned firsthand about what women have to endure every day just walking down the street.

TT: How did you get to the place where you could write these poems?

CC: With this project, I was able to be satirical in a way my work hadn’t really been before, with the Trump stuff. People actually love to hear the “Quid Pro Quo” poem. I’m quite a political person and The World That the Shooter Left Us is, by far, the most political of my books. I am actually pleased that there was no strain and no agenda in writing it.  I received a lot of my political and moral education abroad. In the process of translating Catalan poetry,  I learned a great deal about the Spanish Civil War. I traveled to Russia in 1986 with novelist Edgar Doctorow and a group of writers. We visited the Moscow Writers Union and Chekhov’s house in Yalta and Dostoyevsky’s house in what’s now St. Petersburg. I met several people in Russia and Spain who helped to educate and inform me politically.

TT: You have five sections in the book, and each of the sections are thematic. How did you order the different poems within the sections?

CC: It’s always very much trial and error in terms where to start a new section. I kicked off Shooter’s second section with the question, “What is it about passed- out cold / That you find so sexy?”  It felt like a deer-swift way to investigate several phenomena: roofies, date rape, the Bill Cosby scandal and trials, etc. “The Hood” and “Those Return to Senders Children” are two of the toughest poems I’ve ever written: they’re unblinking in considering harsh issues, including child sex trafficking and detention—abysmal stains on our country and culture that will haunt us for decades to come. I can’t pretend, as a citizen and a contemporary writer, that I’m not familiar with this witch’s brew of violence, bigotry, and usury. I try, in the The World That the Shooter Left Us, to hold up a viable mirror to current corruption, damage, and shadow—hopefully, it’s not so unsettling that readers can’t discover something of their own truths in in the poems’ spiky scenarios.