Archive for the ‘Cassie Donish’ Category

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.


Cassie Donish: Three Poems

As a continuation of our feature of Cassie Donish’s poetry, we’re excited today to present three new poems. Please check back tomorrow for a short interview with Cassie, and after that she’ll officially join our staff as an editor. — AS

The Painted Trees

“summer berries”
a tiny restaurant / afloat

with afternoon sun / traffic noise

intoned your first poem /
was incidental

the ancient script and score:
before the stars were planted in the sky
the trees were planted in the woods, before…

tree leaves like berries / berry-winged birds

the now of branches / round and round the house


who was the we of whom you often spoke?

walking arm in arm on a narrow road
        cars that skim our hair / children at play

                (who will grow old and die or else die young)

you glanced at the roof
where a dog lived once

if everything / disappeared

it’s clear you’d / come here

and call for the dog
for hours


but to stop with all
the hypotheticals
conditionals old as / our condition

to move directly
into the metaphorical—

walking downtown / felt sick
leaned against concrete pillars / threw up pink

moments moved
in both directions / imagined properties of light

and something makes
something probable—

impossible / to forget / the painting:

how we stood at the edge of the strait
watched it tilt

and expand / and the waters

shone / unbelievably


You’ve come back from abroad
and all you want’s
a margarita
as we sit at a table
on the sidewalk
at the end of summer
unfolding each word
like a feared diagnosis.
I apologized, you wished
I’d said something
else, and vice versa.
I asked
if I could squeeze
lime onto the flesh
where your palm meets
your wrist.
Fine, you said,
pressing a nickel
through your scars.
You wanted to throw
the shining truck across
the restaurant.
I became enfolded
in an unintelligible series
of decisions and retreats
from those decisions
and to decide
was like trying to distinguish
the color of a tree’s leaves
at various times of day
and from various angles,
and at night not seeing the tree at all.


                                        to pour

into one another’s                       line of

vision an                         image: stockings,

say:                                   father,
friend, phone, leather
glove, siphon
                            this night

in which I approach

the edge of
the ravine where the
train stopped

                it recoils with each
account or does it

this blue night cut
out of water, dirty
humid light, scissor
it up, serve it here
we’ll taste


I allow the easy
sliding away from
one color

into a flower of sheets
knowing I said
otherwise, said I
don’t allow only
to hear the sound
of it, to call
it untrue

one way to mislead
is to stay in one place
while everyone
else keeps


where is the pink
bed of water
from whence
this dark

you wake (I wake)
and any other
coincident thing, any

final thread leads back
to a lit
pool, greened
by undertow
pink tones inflecting
this as a body


I opened my mouth to taste the world
the final sweet preserves of a given
in which we stand in the kitchen
opening every
empty jar

I dive in you dive
up I dive through
the green ring

and slide
again toward
a mirror so dark, I can’t
see anything

body of a dog
sky hinged to a door
waiting for fallout

my hair
fire                     caught

in a disaster or was the earthquake—no,
no earthquake lasts that long


I only felt
you leave as trembling

I only love
to be a haunting

                                        I consider any verge
a haunting

THERMOS 6: Cassie Donish

Las Escaleras, Oaxaca” led off our spring 2011 issue, my favorite issue of all. It’s representative of the poetry Cassie has written in the past decade — an extended sequence, concerned with place and people. Soon after writing this poem, Cassie went into a program in Human Geographies. We’ll publish some new poems tomorrow. — AS

Las Escaleras, Oaxaca

the play is called “dance of the indigenous stairs”

the plot involves a native species of maize
            as an emblem star)

it grows out of staircases, or soil where
stairs used to be

I stomped all day on ruins, the sun burned just my shoulders
two roses bloomed

the tall, wide stairs climbed up and up
till their ear-of-corn legs ached


you opened up

the upstairs, all around us again
the smell of herbs, all around us were vases
of black clay, barro negro and a repeated

line: I’m off course, of course

for one thousand years, or far
more, how women would bring gray rounded pots
to the river

they’d carry them between head and shoulder
back to the mountains white with little white

blossoms and back
to everywhere


the characters are totally obsessed
with whatever play they’re in

from across the field, say, one screams
this play is called dance of the indigenous stairs!

it’s frightening to know the many-acre field
is a small bandstand

where who you are is simply being performed

you’re surrounded by a plaza and trees you can’t see
or you face an audience, people dressed up and disturbed
in the darkness, in their anonymity

or you’re center stage, facing away, they’re behind you

how are you to know, this could even be an opera
and you don’t know you’re singing—

all you see: a field, and someone else across it
and you call


in the basement of the building
a man asked if he could kiss her stomach

she said okay and lifted her shirt a little
her back against an out-of-tune organ
she watched him kneel

meanwhile, up the stairs and out the door
                  in the plaza:

thorns on the trunks of pochote trees
ladle moon on a slanted roof
outdoor theaters projecting films
in inadequate dark—

                  the streetlight thrown from over the wall—the branches’
shadows cast on the screen—the thought
of what lay before us

it’s done before we have the time to ask
but there’s a place we’ve now been second-hand

                                and through a space of years a brass band played

in the street as we
were passing by

we stopped to listen, we went beyond
to the false pepper trees


to recommend a film
repeat a word: gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous

how about a romantic lunch?
one of us was cold
I gave him a scarf or I gained a scarf

we wrote verse about the shore, as if the state we’re in
has two coasts, we wrote twice
the state we’re in

black vases lined up in rows, they can’t hold
water because they’re not totally sealed, there’d be some filtration

but they can hold dry herb branches
hierba santa, cilantro, epazote


the method was discovered by dona rosa

fire the pots for only nine or ten hours
instead of the traditional thirteen or fourteen needed
to seal the clay

then with clear quartz burnish them

it was a windy day
my skirt kept flying up

we started saying the owls on the walls
to mean we felt watched

the man didn’t use a pottery wheel, but two clay plates
and the tone made by tapping a pot with a stick
depended on the amount of time in the kiln

the glossy black ones made a shallow sound
without resonance or richness, and they couldn’t

hold water of course, the designs have holes
so you won’t forget

but the people come and pay

in the van I slept
I dreamt of flor de calabaza
I dreamt of epazote

we arrived at the buffet


a story such that
you (the character) open your eyes and realize your eyes
are still closed

floating in a black philosophy

a small plain shell opened up to show a vast blank interior—

though you still have the capacity to see
the man using various tools to shape
                                                                the pot before the crowd

piece of cow hide
reed from the river
a gourd, a stone

started wondering if the capacity to make art
originated in a random variation
a glitch that was spark, a strange way of
                                                            selectively focusing

for instance not filtering out all stimuli unnecessary
for physical survival

what is “just an organism”


ear of corn, cereal that is a spike

“but what’s an inflorescence? the flower cluster

                the arrangement of flowers on the flowering
                axis of the plant”

they say without maize
there is no song
whatever’s growing
is growing for a reason

we walked beneath the nispero trees
at the fruit, spit out the seeds

we passed back and forth as if flame trees
and little cafes burned two o’clock signs

it was a windy day
unripe walnuts blew down off the tree

whatever’s growing
is growing, for some reason
on the cement walkway

green shells crushed underfoot


the dull gray pots were also used
to carry mezcal or milk
and if you tap them the sound
fulfills richly

I found a bell made from barro negro

you’ll ring it for the dogs
you’ll say lines that are either already in the script
or that will be after you say them

and I miss the organized outline
                                the profile I once recognized offhand
I wanted you there called out between the lines
as if a parade could force

we’re off course
outside the city, weeds grow in the maize
they’re messengers, they carry the most
important information while we’re busy
destroying everything in
the garden we’re busy not seeing in


each day I meet the last living speaker of a native language

we interact on the bandstand and then step down
for intermission

gorgeous weeds in her hair


at midnight all the church bells tolled

under the tops of fireworks, I heard

your words a crowded river in the dark

street dogs started barking

                at stars white with steam


the cement gleams as we step through it
as if on our way toward something unlocatable

the dialogue becomes a call and response—

will or would or had
“a freeze frame waterfall”

a dance that ends where it began
a corn maze, and many ways to say the night
will soon be over / will
not end

“a long-night plant”

                and ways to say you’ll find

yourself here once again

an old woman’s tamale stand, the smell
of masa rising, the music droned on all night, a wind
was up again

the idea that anything can be a flight of stairs—
that anything should be

there’s a wall of sweet corn growing I couldn’t
see anything

the voices keep calling in the field
out of the dark toward the dark

New Editor: Cassie Donish

We’re pleased to announce that longtime friend of and one-time contributor to THERMOS Cassie Donish has joined the editorial board, so to speak, of this magazine. Cassie presently lives in Eugene, Oregon. It’s not entirely clear why it took us 6 years to ask her along, but we’re very excited that she agreed once we did.

As a welcome, and prior to her taking on an editorial role, we’re going to feature some of Cassie’s poetry this week. We’ll begin with two versions of her sequence, “Las Escaleras, Oaxaca,” first published in THERMOS 6, followed by some new poems and a conversation.

Welcome, Cassie!