This is the second in a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.
Today we feature Cassie Pruyn. Cassie is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She is currently studying at The Bennington Writing Seminars. Her obsessions include geographic history, geographic mystery, and the impossible struggle to express place through language. Her poems have been featured in The Double Dealer, she placed second runner-up in the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and she was a finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize.
THE NEW ORLEANS AFFAIR Poor Mississippi. Barge-laden, crowned with bluffs. She’s been scorned by this city, who once loved her enough to lay himself down along her S like a set of ribs (overeager stone- stacker, naive architect). Her lover’s put a wall up. He won’t touch her, won’t let her leave––he’s boarded shut the windows, girdled her, stripped her banks clear of “debris.” In the beginning, he smelled of blood and fresh pralines. She lapped at him nightly, cradling his churches and ridges, porches and cisterns; she flooded him yearly, tickled his drainage. Still he insisted on having her tamed. Planning her revenge, crisscrossed with tourniquets, she’ll claim him again––it’s his loss, she’ll make sure of it. For near the levees’ concrete bases, small cracks have begun to appear. She strokes the crevices with her long tongue, reminiscing: Remember those hand-dug canals? Canoes made of cypresses? Even those vulgar sawmills she’d prefer to this half-sunk grime. Only muffled voices now, as she considers her choices; seagulls, girders, and plenty of time.
How long have you been writing and what inspired you to choose this craft?
I’ve been writing poetry, at least semi-consistently, for about fifteen years. Like many writers, I started out as an avid reader, but primarily of novels and stories. I’ve given a fair amount of thought, therefore, to the question “why poetry?” as opposed to any other genre or craft, and my best guess is that it comes out of a strong love of words––for the musicality and physicality of words in specific––and also for the compactness inherent in poetry as opposed to prose. I always loved a good story as a kid, but I also loved song lyrics. I loved the container of the song, the way a song can be used as a vehicle for expression. But I was not cut out to be a musician—the words would come, but never a melody.
I also think the way I experience and think about the world lends itself to writing poetry––or at least the desire to write poetry. Any writer has to be a keen observer, but I imagine for a fiction writer this act of observing has more to do with the way human beings relate to one another, or to themselves, as it pertains to the sustainment of a narrative. Well, really, I have no idea how fiction writers think—narrative and imagining characters is never something that has come naturally to me. Rather, I seem to experience the world as a series of atmospheric moments––a kind of holistic sensory impact, as encapsulated by specific moments in time. This is also why I love writing about space and place.
Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?
Yes; and not yet. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve attempted to write a story, and they were all in response to prompts given by teachers. As I mentioned above, I’m a reader of narrative but not yet a writer of narrative. At some point, I’d really love to expand that part of my brain (because they really do feel like separate mental faculties––the writing of poetry vs. the writing of narrative prose) and challenge myself to attempt a novel, but who knows when and if that will happen. I do love writing critical prose—reviews, close readings, and the like—however.
What is your earliest recollection of writing and poetry as a passion? Do you remember your first poem?
I love this question! It’s been great to think back to those sentimental, angst-ridden poems of my adolescence. While I can’t remember my absolute first poem, I know I began writing them in earnest when I was 11, my first year in middle school and my first year in a new town. I grew up in an 18th century farmhouse in rural Maine, but when I was 11, after my parents had split up, we moved to the suburbs. If a new school, combined with the onslaught of puberty and a huge geographical/atmospheric change wouldn’t inspire a young poet-to-be to begin writing, I don’t know what would! I remember coming home from school, gazing out the window, and writing rhyming poems in my journal. I seem to remember a poem that revolved around the trope of a red rose with prickly thorns (obviously!).
Is writing your full-time occupation? If not, how do you fit writing into your work and personal life?
I consider writing to be my full-time job at the moment, in part because I am finishing up my MFA this semester, but I also work as a full-time nanny. Right now, my schedule involves dropping the kids off at school, writing most of the day, and then picking them up and working until 7 o’clock. It’s a lucky little life I lead; I love my job and I love having a lot of structured time to write. At some point, I’d love to teach in some capacity, but I also feel inclined to hold onto the schedule I have. Aside from money, time seems to be that thing that professional (or non-professional) writers covet the most. I feel lucky to be able to have that right now.
I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?
I find it really difficult to talk about process, because I find my process is constantly shifting to accommodate whatever project I’m working on. And in general, I find the process of writing a poem/series of poems to be an often frustratingly fluid experience. I try to balance structure with inspiration, routine with spontaneity, in order to be the most productive I can be without at the same time choking my poems before they even have a chance to come out. I’ll say, “Ok, I’m going to start writing at 9:30 and stop at 1:00, I’m going to turn off my phone, I’m going to take one or two short breaks, I’m going to work on developing this part of my project,” etc. but then who knows what actually happens on any given day within the parameters I’ve set for myself. I might strike upon an entirely new idea, I might finish something I hadn’t planned on finishing, or I might get virtually no writing done and spend the day sighing and un-inspired. If I ever start to feel uninspired, though, I run to the bookshelf immediately!
The amazing essayist Jo Ann Beard, in a lecture I heard her give once, said that process is as unique as a fingerprint: it’s utterly different for everyone. I find that idea really liberating. She said, regardless of whatever form it takes, though, that it has to do with entering into and staying inside of––for as long as possible––that realm of imagination, with sustaining the imaginal logic of whatever the piece of writing may be. This is an insanely difficult thing to do. She likened it to trying to hold a beach ball underwater for hours at a time, without letting it bob back up to the surface. I think that analogy is really apt. Process is definitely an unwieldy beast.
I do know that I spend an incredible amount of time editing––or reimagining––every poem I write. I tend to work in series of poems, and so I spend a lot of time rearranging and re-conceiving how my poems relate to one another, as well as tweaking individual lines and words. Writing successfully, for me, has everything to do with editing, which is not to discredit the value of those momentary bursts of inspiration––but those, for me, can come at any time during the process of working on the poem, and not just when I’m first setting it down on the page.
Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?
When I’m trying to come up with a new idea, I really enjoy writing in coffee shops. I like the buzz and the energy (although I’m always the dork in the corner with ear plugs in; I can’t write to music because it messes me up when I’m trying to “hear” my poems). But, because I tend to come up with long-term “project” ideas that often require research or printing a bunch of poems out and rearranging them, I do a lot of my writing at home. I’ll write anywhere in my apartment––on the couch, on the bed, at my standing desk, at the counter. I find when I’m really trying to sit with a poem or group of poems, really trying to “hold the beach ball under,” as it were, I like to be at home. As most writers seem to be, I am very introverted. While I enjoy being the fly on the wall sometimes, the occasional “flaneur” about town, at the end of the day I really just want to be alone in my little cave!
Do you have any tips you can share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?
Don’t give up! Allow yourself to struggle! Sit with the discomfort of struggling. This is something I’ve learned the hard way, and will probably learn the hard way again. I’m a perfectionist, and I like to achieve––but this is something you have to both cultivate and push against as a writer. You have to want it enough to keep going, but be humble enough to understand that you’re going to have to mess it up to get it right. I’ve been circling about one project––one source of inspiration––for over five years now, and failed countless times in trying to give voice to this inspiration. Like, really failed. But, it’s like Bob Dylan says: “There’s no success like failure.” It’s such a cliche but it’s true. Understand that you’re going to “fail,” but don’t let it demoralize you; learn from it instead. And, during those occasional moments of confusion and panic, if you come back to your essential love for writing, the reason you came to it in the first place, you’ll push through to the other side. At least this is what I tell myself literally every. single. day. It’s far easier said than done, but I think it’s the difference between writing and, well, not.
Who’s work has inspired yours?
There are many poets who’ve inspired me, but Elizabeth Bishop is someone I’m thinking a lot about right now. Bishop achieves this very real intimacy with the reader, but never by giving the reader information about herself directly. You get to know her by looking with her. She describes objects and landscapes with such detail and texture, and the way you end up feeling close to her is by getting to see these things too, in the way that she sees them. It’s about witnessing the rhythms of the poet’s unique mind, thinking the way she thinks for the duration of the poem. I am not what you would call a “confessional” poet. Even when I am writing on or from emotion, I am always fictionalizing it to a certain extent. I think I am an inherently private person. But a writer has to make the reader feel welcome, nonetheless; she has to let the reader get to know her in certain essential ways, even if it’s not the way she’d let, say, her best friend get to know her. Bishop really exemplifies this. Plus, she writes about geography too.
I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?
I could never pick just one favorite either, but here are some poets I love:
Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Anne Carson, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sarah Messer, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Maggie Nelson, Frank Stanford, Lyn Hejinian, Donald Hall, Joan Ashbery, Joseph Brodsky, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare….and that’s just poetry! I could go on and on….
Where do you see yourself with regard to your writing in 5 years?
It feels silly to try and predict what I might be working on in 5 years, although it seems as though I’ve got two projects going at the moment––I thought they belonged together at first, but now I don’t think they do. I’m working on a series of historically-based poems about Colonial America, and another series having to do with a particular relationship in my life. It’d be great if, say, I finished one of those projects and published it as my first book of poems, and were on my way into writing my next book in five years. Who knows how these plans will change, though. It may take considerably longer to achieve that. I also have an idea for a series of poems on the Mississippi River. I’d like to write a magical-realism history of the Mississippi River, in verse––go big or go home, right?!
Whatever I’m doing, I hope I’m making time to write and feeling inspired. That’s all I really want for myself, period––but it’d be nice if something got published here and there along the way….
Are there any online or print journals you read and recommend? Are there any venues for sharing/listening to poetry that you recommend?
I’m definitely in the beginning stages of combing through all the awesome journals available online or in print. As in, I’ve only been playing the trying-to-get-published game for about a year (although that’s not the only reason to read literary journals!), and not as consistently as I ought to be. I find the process pretty overwhelming. There is so much out there. And if I could afford to just buy subscriptions to all of the journals that look interesting, and had the time to read all of them, I really would. It seems really difficult, however, to put quality time into your writing and to also find enough time to really expose yourself to the world of published work. I don’t know how people do it!
As for the second part of the question, I think any poetry event––readings, Slam performances, etc.––in New Orleans is worth going to. It’s such a welcoming (and relatively small) city, so going to these events is a great way to meet people, and to connect and reconnect with other local writers. I’m easy to please with this type of thing––I love just being around other people who also find it worthwhile to sit down and write every day, regardless in our potential aesthetic differences. I think New Orleans is a great place to be an artist right now, for many reasons. It’s a highly inspiring, highly stimulating place with delightfully low levels of pretentiousness, and you’ll start to hear it creeping in to everyone’s work, your own included, which just serves to create another connection between you and other local writers.
What are some of your favorite words and why?
This is even harder than picking a favorite author! In general, though, I like English words with more Germanic sounds, words with texture and punch. I also like single-syllabic words a lot.Straw. Gut. Hook. Orange. Those are my favorites tonight!
Thank you, Cassie, for sharing your interesting pov with us today!
Cassie will be reading at the upcoming literary event Yeah, You Write, a Word Rebellion: Readings and Music, on April 18 at Cafe Istanbul. For more info see the FaceBook page of Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, sponsors of the event.
To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here.
Next Friday: Julie Kane