The Conditions that Make Our Story Possible: A Conversation with Cassie Donish – by Zach Savich

Cassie Donish is a queer Jewish writer from Los Angeles. They are the author of the poetry collections The Year of the Femme (University of Iowa Press, 2019), chosen by Brenda Shaughnessy as winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Beautyberry (Slope Editions, 2018). Their nonfiction work On the Mezzanine (Gold Line Press, 2019) was chosen by Maggie Nelson as winner of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Competition. An interdisciplinary thinker, geographer, and educator, Donish has writing appearing or forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, Iowa Review, jubilat, Kenyon Review, Tupelo QuarterlyVICE, and elsewhere. Co-editor-in-chief of The Spectacle, Donish earned an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where they received an Olin Fellowship and served as the Junior Fellow in Poetry. With a BA in English and comparative religions from the University of Washington and an MA in human geography from the University of Oregon, Donish teaches and writes at the University of Missouri, where they are pursuing a PhD in literature with concentrations in creative writing, queer and feminist theories, and ecopoetics.


Note: This interview was conducted by email between August 2019 and February 2020. In March 2020, Donish’s wife, the writer Kelly Caldwell, who is referred to in the interview, passed away. Information about Caldwell’s life and work is available here:  

Zach Savich: You had three books come out in close succession. Because I’ve known you and your writing for years, I’ve been tempted to see them through the tint of those years, or at least in relation to one another. And it’s true that On the Mezzanine could be read as offering backstory (side-story?) to some of your poetry. But each work is also distinct. How are you currently thinking about the connections between these books?

Cassie Donish: My two poetry collections, The Year of the Femme and Beautyberry, both emerged from my MFA thesis at Washington University in St. Louis. The thesis was kind of a mash-up of the two books. But I knew it felt like two different manuscripts, so after my MFA, I separated them and began developing them in different directions. The poems in Beautyberry were almost all written during the first year of the program, the poems in YOTF during the second year. Through those two years, my poetics (and my life) were changing. Beautyberry has underlying themes of gender, desire, and anxiety; in YOTF, these themes become more explicit, evolving into questions of queerness and gender-nonconforming identities and experiences.

Beautyberry was initially picked up by a press that folded while the book was in production, which was heartbreaking. In the meantime, I was working on YOTF, revising and adding to it. When Slope Editions then picked up Beautyberry, some time had passed, and YOTF felt finished. I’d been sending it out, and I found out that Brenda Shaughnessy had chosen it as a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, which was very exciting. The books ended up coming out only a few months apart, but Beautyberry came out first, which felt right to me.

My nonfiction chapbook On the Mezzanine, which is written in the form of a lyric essay, ended up coming out around the same time as well. That manuscript was drafted while I was teaching as a post-MFA fellow at WashU—the same year I was working on (sometimes radical) revisions of the poems in YOTF. As you say, the chapbook can be read side-by-side with YOTF; themes of eros, gender, queerness, mental health, family, and caregiving are prevalent in both. It’s also intertextual, in dialogue with Anne Carson, James Baldwin, Lyn Hejinian, Simone Weil, Roland Barthes, and others. It definitely tells more of a story than my poems do, although that story emerges through fragments, images, and an exploration of feelings and scenes. I wrote it through a difficult time, when I was constantly filled with desire and fear. When I found out that Maggie Nelson had chosen it for publication with Gold Line Press, I sobbed for like half an hour.

In terms of other connections between the works, a friend of mine suggested that the prose sequence at the end of Beautyberry, which is the title sequence, might have been a precursor to On the Mezzanine, and I think that’s true, both formally and tonally.

ZS: Yes, I can see that. On the Mezzanine presents a relationship that is an acute revelation and gradually reveals itself. It is very much a memoir from the middle of things. What process or practices helped you write about events that were/are ongoing?

CD: The writing was very intense and necessary in a way that was different from anything I’d experienced before. There was a flood of images and feeling and language in the midst of what felt like a catastrophe. My lover was going through a divorce; we were both coming out as queer (and eventually I would come out as nonbinary and she as trans); and she was also diagnosed with a serious mental health condition. Everything was up in the air–not only love and sex and gender, but also health insurance and daily transportation, family relationships and faith, housing and careers. I wondered, can I write about this while it’s happening, while it’s affecting every aspect of our lives? Then I started reading from the manuscript-in-progress in public, and I always got a very strong and positive reaction from the audience. People seemed struck.

In a way, the time I spent writing about the situation was the only respite I could find. The writing put me in a different space, one in which I was thinking about craft, about other texts, about language and form. I was obsessed with an idea about writing and time that Anne Carson addresses in Eros the Bittersweet when she talks about Plato’s Phaedrus. On the perspective of Lysias, Carson writes, “The nonlover sidesteps painful transitions between ‘now’ and ‘then’ by stationing himself permanently at the end of desire.” In other words, the “nonlover,” in an attempt to be rational and stay in control, “puts the erotic relationship in the past tense.” She also says that this is “the vantage point of the writer.” When you’re writing, you get to be in control of a story that has already happened. But from Sokrates’s perspective on love as a kind of madness and a gift from the gods, “‘Now’ is the moment when change erupts.” Carson writes, “The ‘now’ of desire is a shaft sunk into time and emerging onto timelessness.”

All of this translated, for me, into the formal question of temporality and tense–because, as you said, the events were/are ongoing, and yet I was trying to write. The opening section of On the Mezzanine is in the past tense. But in the very next section (on the same page), I admit that it’s all happening now. There’s an intense vulnerability in that interplay between past and present tense, because it’s about the relationship between narrator and story. Who has the power? Will the narrator exert power over the story, or will the story–the experience, the events–overtake the narrator?

ZS: In On the Mezzanine, you write, “The conditions that make our story possible are the looming backdrop of every scene [...] but if you turn the scene around, the conditions are in the foreground, and we appear behind them as fragments, ephemeral, illustrative, disappearing.” I admire how the book keeps considering the conditions around its central themes, keeps turning its scenes around. The narrator becomes embedded in shifting perspectives, in others’ language, in sex, in culture. How do you think about the autobiographical self in this work? 

CD: One answer has to do with the question of who the speaker is in a lyric essay. The narrator or speaker can be seen, on the one hand, as the same as the author, in the way of autobiography or memoir; but on the other hand, the speaker has something in common with the “lyric I” of poetry, which is not invested in the autobiographical self, at least not primarily.

I’m invested in thinking about the social and cultural conditions that make each of us who we are. Imagine: I’m writing this text in the lead-up to the 2016 election and then in its aftermath. While the story is very personal, there are also threads in it having to do with coming out and queer desire; with mental illness; with my partner’s deep repression that stemmed from an evangelical upbringing; with my own family’s many generations of divorce and single mothers. These stories are so much bigger than one self. They’re geographical and cultural and historical; they’re connected to broad and lively discourses happening in this moment. I wanted to explore those connections, which is also why the chapbook is intertextual. It had to be in conversation with others, especially with representations of queerness. I was writing with the strong feeling that the text was not only about my experiences, rather these experiences were part of an echo or ripple across time and space.

ZS: The Year of the Femme starts with a long poem that, among other things, contains propositions about a “she” (“She is selfish because she wants what she wants / She doesn’t want to negotiate about where to live or how”). These statements simultaneously describe a character, as in a potential person, and feel around the edges of character itself, as a quality. I keep returning to this moment: “It seems she keeps slipping on a binary // Is there a way to slip out of a binary into a body.” How do you see the “she” in this poem? Is “she” a stand-in for an “I?” For a “you?” Is it a linguistic site in relation to a binary and/or a body?

CD: I love how you say that the statements describe a character but also interrogate what a character might even be. This poem was a lot of fun to draft. For a while, I was calling it my “stupid” poem—although I don’t actually think it’s stupid! But the character, the “she,” is thinking in very reductive statements, then trying to balance things out by stating the opposite. It’s as if she’s trying to get out of a loop, not only in terms of gender (although that much is clear from the lines you quoted), but also in terms of a certain rhetorical logic, a dualistic mode that works in sharp reversals. Sometimes, she’s suddenly able to break out of those loops and make an observation that feels more nuanced, more present and strange, more alive.

I’m sure this “she” represented a certain part of me when I wrote it. I had been living in a kind of ping-pong ambivalence, trying to sort out my own emotions and drives around intimacy and gender (not that everything is all sorted out now!). The title of the sequence, “Portrait of a Woman, Mid-Fall,” is of course both seasonal and about being in motion. This sequence opens the book, and the title sequence, “The Year of the Femme,” closes it. For me this represents a movement from identifying as a woman to identifying as a queer femme. At this point—especially because I recently started going by they/them pronouns and openly identifying as nonbinary—the “she” feels a bit more distant from me. The movement of the poem, though, still feels very close to me.

ZS: In your poems, desire can feel very clear–and its clarity can include ambivalence, unknowing, complication. I admire moments that capture clarity in flux, like the line “At the edge of a field a feeling of arriving waits.” The poem “Desire and the Social” considers some possibilities for desire (“Desire is personal,” “Desire is social,” etc.). How do you see your work (or writing in general) in relation to desire? To clarity?

CD: The title of that poem comes directly from Deleuze, who wrote that “everything” is made up of desire and the social. Much of my work thinks about the processes through which our desires are formed by society; but how those desires, in turn, affect the social and material landscape. In many ways these processes feel antithetical to clarity—closer, as you mentioned, to ambivalence and uncertainty. I think I often turn to reading and writing not for clarity, but to wade into confusion, intensity, and distortion (including distorted desire), even if what I’m seeking in life is something more nurturing. Sometimes I think that the only clear desire comes from a place of privilege. If you don’t occupy a privileged position, how can you understand your own desire? Even the desire to be accepted, loved, and respected by others gets confused, incredibly distorted, when you grow up in a family, neighborhood, country, or society that tells you you’re not worth acceptance, love, respect, or trust (or employment, or healthcare, or education, or basic safety and dignity). Cultural norms and widespread institutional practices often result in repression and internalized hatred for women, for people of color, for queer and trans folx, for immigrants, and for many, many others in disadvantaged and disenfranchised positions. Sometimes we end up having clear desires toward people or things that would do us physical or psychological harm. How, then, do we find our way toward desire that feels vital and nurturing? There are many answers to this question, but I do think that one answer (besides education, therapy, and the arts) might have something to do with listening closely to the body, to haptic and affective textures, which Eve Sedgwick says are “irreducibly phenomenological.”