A Conversation with Cassie Donish

With this conversation, conducted over the past few days, we conclude our feature of Cassie Donish’s poetry, and welcome her to the editorial staff of THERMOS. Whatever that means! — AS

First of all, welcome to THERMOS. We’re really excited to have you (finally, I suppose) join us as an editor. What have been some of your thoughts about THERMOS in the past, and what’s interesting to you about selecting and presenting poetry?

I’ve appreciated THERMOS immensely since its inception in 2008. I brought printed volumes with me to Ecuador, Spain, and Mexico while traveling to those places in 2010 and 2011, and I was often able to step inside the poems, to lose myself and forget where I was for moments, and to come out again with my head tilted in a slightly different direction. What does this say? Does it say the poetry of THERMOS has been working for me? And if so, why is that? Is it because the poems are intellectually and technically exciting without being oriented above all towards Conceptualism? Is it because I can always feel the presence of a living, breathing, animal body behind the words? Is it because of the poems that are wryly funny while also being serious and unironic? Is it because I’ve known you and Melissa and Jay and Zach for ten plus years, because you’ve been part of the community through/with which I’ve developed my aesthetic sensibilities over that time?

I like the idea that because “there is no canon,” selecting and presenting poems is not about what’s objectively good — unless we’re talking about the feminist objectivity advocated for by scholar Donna Haraway, which let’s say we are, so actually it is about what’s objectively good, and our objectivity is not a view from nowhere, it’s a view from somewhere, from particularly situated bodies in time and space. Speaking of objects, I desire poems the way I desire things, a good mug to drink hot coffee from, say, or something I can wear, like a sturdy pair of boots for walking in the snow – I’m currently in the process of moving into an apartment in Eugene and it’s been snowing here, which is probably why I’m desiring these particular things. But also, I think I desire to be objectified by a poem, to be rendered by it. I want to forget I’m reading a poem, to instead feel like a pair of boots, or a self.

I recently read Graham Foust’s long poem “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and one of the many lines I love is: “The poem is the continuation of poetry by other means.” Whatever this means, I trust the opposite is also true.

What’s changed in your poetry during the few years separating “Las Escaleras, Oaxaca” from these new poems? Also, since you often write in sequence, would you mind talking some about your approach to that form?

I’ll start with the second part of your question. I think maybe sequences suit my temperament. If you’ve ever walked around with me all day, or for a week, which you have, you know I like it when conversations have many threads, and the threads can be interrupted by events (like swimming in a river, or buying ice cream) but then returned to suddenly in a single breath, without syntactic regard for the hours or days that have passed; for instance, resuming a prior conversation with gestures like “But what about…?” or “And anyway…” Maybe poets are like this in general, maybe people are? I think the sequence is a form that suits this mental state; it turns out that a single breath can be hours or weeks or years long. Who wants finality and complete thoughts? I love coffee, but my coffee often gets cold over and over, and I have to warm it up again. It becomes almost a game: how many times can I genuinely forget it’s sitting there, this thing I do want? Maybe I don’t like for the cup of coffee to end.

There’s something about living in foreign places, perhaps, that lends itself to writing sequences. I think I started writing sequences when I left the U.S. in 2004 to spend a year in Prague. Over the next few years I read C.D. Wright, Anne Carson, Barbara Cully, Carolyn Forché, Donna Stonecipher. Place figures prominently into the writings of all these women — and actually, both Stonecipher and Cully wrote in and about Prague. All these women also wrote sequences I loved. I think when you’re living outside your own country, and when much of what you write is epistolary, it seems that longer, fragmented pieces take shape, because there’s so much context to build, so much that is unfamiliar to your imagined, distant reader or correspondent, which is really you, in a way, the you that wants to hear about unfamiliar things. So the sequence written while traveling (and it doesn’t have to be abroad, of course, but really any kind of being in transit for extended periods, which could just be a metaphor for being a person who is not asleep) ends up being a long conversation you’re having with yourself, where you’re telling yourself what you see and making connections in an environment that’s ongoing, in a landscape that’s speaking back to you, because it’s listening, because it contains an endless amount of information you’ll never understand. 

I wrote Las Escaleras in Oaxaca in 2011. At the time, I was getting ready to start a master’s program in human geography. I was filled with the landscape and with geographic questions. Some people say that poetry shouldn’t be about explaining ideas, and while I don’t necessarily agree, I think what those people are arguing against might be modes of explication that are poetically ineffectual. I’m pretty sure that the presence or absence of “ideas” or “politics” doesn’t determine a poem’s quality as a poem, but that poems can certainly suffer for all kinds of reasons. But poems are of course captivating and necessary for all kinds of reasons as well.

Las Escaleras seems to come from a busy mind, a mind troubled with questions and arguments. I was trying to tell several stories, to translate them. In a way, I was exploring several research topics that I hadn’t fully articulated (to myself), ones that were keeping me awake at night, about the relationships between humans and our environments, about being an American in Mexico, about identity, performativity, and being an explicitly conscious thing. Also, about consciousness itself as performed.

Last spring, I finished my master’s degree in human geography at the University of Oregon. After sort of a break from writing poems, during which I was focused on a qualitative research project dealing with art and the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, I think I’ve come back to poetry with less ideological franticness. But maybe that’s not true. I’ve been swinging back and forth between the social sciences and the humanities for a long time. In my current oscillation, I feel a kind of intellectual investment in faith in aesthetics. A faith in that faith. This has implications for the kinds of poems I will write, and the kinds of breaths I will take.

I’m interested by the ways in which pursuits outside of poetry do and don’t intersect with poetic approaches. In New Orleans, I heard you talk with Robert Fernandez about theories of social space, and some other topics that were beyond my reach, related to your coursework in Human Geography. Here, you say that the Master’s program you recently completed gave you a two-year break from writing poems — but I wonder if you’ve tried to imagine ways in which the two pursuits might interact with one another. Specifically in terms of poetry, and specifically in terms of you, does that seem possible?

First I’ll say that a break from poems was really not a break from poetry, but certainly a break from finishing anything that looks like a traditional poem.

I’ve been calling myself an interdisciplinary thinker for a while, which means something pretty simple: that the categories outlining the basic questions and interests I want to spend time with don’t situate me easily in a particular discipline within the academy. Luckily, I’m far from alone in that regard. And there’s a good reason for that, which is that the disciplines in their current iteration are relatively new, historically speaking – less than two hundred years really (and that’s being generous), which is short in terms of the history of knowledges. And for some disciplines, the timeline is much shorter.

Pursuits outside poetry have always affected my poetic approaches. There are inspiring, incredible things to read that really transcend disciplinary divides, such as Henri Lefebvre’s lyrical writing on everyday life in cities and the gorgeous, large-scale metaphors (“theories”/“models”) he comes up with; Donna Haraway’s wild and imaginative critical pieces on feminism, primates, science, and cyborgs, among other subjects, which even in the 80s were probably ahead of our time; Bruno Latour’s brilliant, witty, and somehow warm and inviting analyses of the processes through which scientific facts and objects are produced, and his insistence that objects/things have a kind of agency we’re not good at articulating; and dare I even mention, like, Foucault? At times I’ve actually preferred to read such writers for poetic inspiration over “poetry.” But at my gut I’m looking for the same thing. Call it truth or beauty if you will, call it being shocked into presence by language. Call it disorientation that offers much more than it could ever take away.

I’m not sure I’m answering your question.

But I’ll also say I was very blessed to spend several months talking with artists, performers, musicians, and activists for my thesis project – and there were lots of wonderful opportunities for conversations about intersections between the various arts and social and spatial justice work. Those experiences were invaluable to me as a person and a poet.

Lastly, I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably easy for ideas, experiences, and conversations to mingle, always – but to practice a particular craft within a particular set of expectations or boundaries is different. So if you’re practicing writing songs, or writing academic articles, or writing stories, or letter, or poems, you’re going to be using different sets of aesthetic knowledges and different standards. If there’s a relationship between writing an academic article and writing a poem, I’m not sure what it is, besides that a creative attention to language and syntax will hopefully make both more interesting. There are probably other interesting things that could be discussed, like the aesthetic or ethical trajectory of a piece, but I’m not sure. I will say that I have more of a variety of registers to write in after immersing myself in the language of academic geographers, and that’s always exciting, and a good reason for a poet to study anything else in depth.

In working with us to edit THERMOS, you’ll be engaged directly with poetry as a contemporary happening. What’s exciting to you, right now, about contemporary poetry?

I have a biased view, of course: most of my closest friends are participating in the making of contemporary poetry. No other world has ever made as much sense for me. Often when I meet someone I connect with, I like to assume the person is really a poet, even if they’ve never written a word of poetry, and I sometimes try to convince them that I’m right.

No one’s in poetry for the money; I love what Paul Killebrew says about this at the beginning of your interview with him, about poetry as “the cheapest date in the arts.” I agree with him that if poetry and money were on better terms, the possibilities wouldn’t be as open-ended. Of course, there are all the various pressures even in the poetry world, but it’s just not controlled by market values in the same way as other arts. This changes the game in all kinds of ways – the way people have to be invested isn’t greater necessarily, but different. The organizing values are different, or, if they’re not, they’re at least attempting to gesture toward something not yet determined. Am I being idealistic? Sure. That’s part of it too.

Another thing that’s incredibly exciting is the sheer variety of poetic worlds and the number of people that seem to be writing poems right now. And people are sharing their poems in unprecedented numbers because of online forums. Some people might see this as a bad thing, but I think it’s amazing, and I don’t think we can really know right now what the future holds for poetry. So it’s a very exciting moment. Lastly I’ll just say that there are so many people writing good poetry right now, and I feel lucky to be so continuously impressed.


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