In 2024, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Cyrus Cassells discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with our Guest Editor for April, which is National Poetry Month, Cyrus Cassells.

Cyrus served as the poet laureate of Texas from 2021 to 2022 and is the author of Is There Room For Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch? and The World That the Shooter Left Us. Cyrus, welcome, and thank you for joining me.

Cyrus Cassells: A pleasure to be here. Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for National Poetry Month?

Cassells: What I was looking for when I was curating my poetry selections for National Poetry Month: sonic richness, vivid imagery and metaphors, candor, attention to craft and detail, engagement with the myriad world, advocacy on the behalf of the oppressed, and compelling authenticity in voice and tone.

I was surprised how often animals were pivotal in terms of the poems’ power and poignance, the “unsecured and fast horse at Lascaux”; a mystical lion’s paws and a marsh; in response to childhood bullying, a willed and powerfully imagined centaur; and a mourned lightning bug. Now, if you could direct readers to one poem on that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

Cassells: My choice would be “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World” by Martín Espada. What I have to say about it is that this elegiac poem’s obsessive and purposeful music, its grandeur and anthemic power is equal to the immense tragedy it addresses: the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. What are you reading right now?

Cassells: What I’m reading right now is my friend Ellen Hinsey’s new book, The Invisible Fugue, which was inspired by Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. And one of the things that’s amazing about the book is that it’s presented like a score, like a compositional score, and I find Ellen’s poetry to be incredibly exquisite in terms of its cadence and language. I think this is maybe her fifth or sixth book, and it’s particularly … It’s questing and mystical in a way that I’m finding intriguing. So that’s what I’m reading. I wanted to ask you about another poet. You dedicated three of your poems in The World That the Shooter Left Us to the late poet Ai, who was a former colleague of yours. Correct?

Cassells: Yeah. And she was another poet who frequently wrote in dramatic monologues, a form that you sometimes use particularly in that collection. In fact, she’s probably best known for writing in dramatic monologues. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about what you learned from knowing and working with Ai.

Cassells: Well, Ai was one of the first poets I ever read as a teenager. I read Cruelty. The poets I read when I was a teenager were Ai’s poetry, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde’s poetry. And like many people, I was just stunned by the intensity of the poems. The Cruelty poems were really short and like, you know … blows almost. So what I found in writing The World That the Shooter Left Us is that Ai’s often explored taboo subjects, and it allowed me to write about sexual abuse and harassment and, within my own life history, it was that “Me Too” moment. I wrote the book in the summer of 2019. So I felt like her audacity, her boldness and subject matter, and exploring taboo things really liberated me to write those poems. I think they’re the most daring poems I’ve ever written in my whole career in terms of talking about rape and harassment and molestation. It gave me permission to explore a part of my life I hadn’t written about before and didn’t think I would ever write about. So …

Ai was a glorious eccentric as a person. [laughs] She never flew. She didn’t drive, so we were always constantly arranging. Plus, she was a shopaholic, but a self-described shopaholic there. But, there’s no … I love introducing my students to her work because there‘s nobody’s poetry that’s like hers; her voice was utterly distinctive. And I also appreciated the mystical dimensions of her work because, often, her characters would go … they’d be talking beyond death or raging beyond death, which I thought was extraordinary.

Actually, the work I’m doing right now, which is a lot of persona work, some of it bold and erotic, but not as quite as intense as those poems, those “Me Too” poems for The World That the Shooter Left Us. Plus, I was trained as an actor. My whole education was gearing me to be a film and theater actor, so it seemed relatively easy for me to slip on the mask, the character mask, and explore that way, so, yeah, lots of permission from her. I was so lucky to get to be her colleague, I think it was 2002, and just to get to know one of my first poets was really an extraordinarily lucky thing to have happened to me as a writer. I was going to ask you more about what you’re working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life. Can you tell us a bit more about those persona poems that you’re working on?

Cassells: Well, I managed to get back to Italy this past summer for the first time in, I guess it was four years. I lived in Italy in the nineties. I went to school in Florence, and then I worked in the movie industry in Rome, mostly as an actor and as a dubber. And I found that, every time I go back to Italy, there’s a new cycle of poetry that comes out of me. So when I got to Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, I told myself that I was going to do kind of like a gathering of my Italian poems, and then I thought, “Well, that’s too easy. I want to challenge myself to write new poetry.” So what’s poured out of me is a lot of persona poems, and many of them are set in 1930s Italy and have to do with fascism and sort of queer adolescence and fascism and anti-Semitism; and it’s coming through pretty quickly, and they’re longer poems.

I’ve taken a couple of my old poems, one called “Pentimento,” and just trying to collapse the boundary between short stories, novellas, and opera with the poems. So it’s a lot different from what I initially expected, but I’m happy about it because, you know, I am not resting on my laurels; I’m doing something really different. The book is called “A Poet is Cousin to Life Itself,” and that particular sequence is about Pier Paolo Pasolini. I was staying in his old neighborhood last summer, and I just got a lot of inspiration about his work. I happen to be one of those people who prefers his poetry to his movies. Interesting.

Cassells: Yeah. I find his movies a bit stilted [laughs] though, though I’ve written a poem inspired by Teorema, which I don’t like so much as a movie, but it still inspired me to write this poem about what was happening in the movie there. So yeah, I mean, I think he’s an underrated poet. Also, he was such an outlaw person in terms of 1960s and seventies Italy. I was reading an article that said he was prosecuted thirty-three times for all sorts of observed crimes, including supposedly stealing something with a gold gun. So people were out to get him in a way that was real. So I admire that outlaw dimension of him.

And a few books back, I think it was More Than Peace and Cypresses, I wrote a poem called “The Two Deaths of Pier Paolo Pasolini” where, in an early poem in his Friulian dialect, he was from Northern Italy, he imagined his death, and, of course, his death was spectacularly violent and difficult, so I was comparing the two. So I’m going to include that in the sequence, but I found a poem of his called “Diary,” and I kind of translated it, and that’s where I got the title of “A Poet is Cousin to Life Itself,” which is just my version of some language in the diary poem there.

So that’s what I’m working on. It’s really exciting. I got up this morning. I’m writing a poem about Umberto Saba’s book, Ernesto. At the end of his life, he had this writing burst where he wrote about an affair that he had with a day laborer in his factory that he kept secret, and the book couldn’t be published while he was alive. So that’s exactly the kind of territory that this project is. It’s about outlaw queerness.

One of the things I found over the summer, years ago, I started to write a play about a Byronic Jewish poet who was scandalizing Mussolini’s Rome with all of his affairs and all these sort of trophy wives of fascists. He was like, “Oh, Mussolini loves you, but can you turn this down?” [laughs] So I’ve retrieved that character and then having fun with that step there.

So what I’m finding lately is that, sometimes, out of old scraps of poetry, now my book coming out next on the fifteenth, Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?, was all old scraps of poems that I found during a blizzard in Taos and started saying, “Oh, wait a second! These are actually really good,” and then it kind of “snowballed” into a whole manuscript after eight weeks. I wasn’t sure whether it was really a book, but I sent it off to the National Poetry Series as a lark and question. You know, is this a book? And the result was that it was a finalist that year for the National Poetry Series, which I won with my first book, so it wasn’t like it was imperative for me to win again. Right? Right.

Cassells: So that’s what I’m doing. I’m very excited about it. I’m researching it almost every day, looking at old movies, looking at Pasolini movies. A lot of the book is inspired by Bertolucci’s films. So I’ve done one based on The Conformist, one on Luna. I looked at The Dreamers again last night. It’s not material I think I’ll use for this project, but, you know, my degree is in film from Stanford, so it’s another way to sort of get back to my roots in film and theater through my poetry, actually. I think Pasolini is a great segue. I’m so glad that you mentioned him during this interview. I’m a fan of his as well. I agree with you about Teorema being a dull film, [laughs] a dull-and-too-slow film. I really like the movie that everyone avoids: Salò.

Cassells: Really? I do. I think it’s a really important film.

Cassells: You know, it was playing recently here at the Cineteca in Mexico City that it was tempted, but I am so sensitive to De Sade and all of that. It’s like I can hardly take it, but I feel like I’m a grownup, maybe I can do it. But the movie of Pasolini’s that I love, I mean, I really like Mamma Roma. I mean, who can resist Anna Magnani? But I love The Gospel According to St. Matthew. That I think is just my favorite of his films. It’s so beautiful and interesting to me. I didn’t think … I don’t care for his treatment of The Decameron, Medea, and all that. It seems very stilted and faux-naive to me [laughs] because he was a very sophisticated person, but also very in touch with the common people. They weren’t really common to him. Right? Oh, yes. As you see in his documentary, Love Meetings, I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

Cassells: No, I haven’t. I should. You must. If you have, you know, The Criterion Channel—

Cassells: Collection? No. ... It’s on there.

Cassells: The channel? Oh, yeah. Channel, right. He goes all over Italy, the film was made in 1964, and just questions people about—

Cassells: Oh, oh, I have seen a clip of it, like a five-minute clip. Yes, it’s very interesting. Right, just—

Cassells: It was only recently, yeah, on YouTube, someone directed it. Yeah. I didn’t realize it was part of a bigger thing. Oh, yes, yeah, it’s a two-hour documentary just questioning people about their sexual mores and attitudes, and he goes all over Italy, from Milan all the way to Palermo. It’s fascinating.

Cassells: I’ll have to check that out. [laughs] Please do.

Cassells: I definitely have to check that out. I’ll have to check out that new book. Thank you so much, Cyrus, for joining me.

Cassells: Yeah. It’s really been a pleasure. I’m so happy to have been a Guest Editor. It was really a fascinating process. And I’m also very pleased with the poems that were given to me to share with people. I reread them yesterday really. I think they’re solid poems, and I’m just happy to usher them to people’s attention there.

Have a great day. And it’s been fun to be mutual travelers. [laughs] I was thinking, since you asked me, I was in Rome and then I was in Berlin and then I was in Montreal, then I was in Austin and then New Orleans and Mexico City … and then all over the place. It’s been fun to mirror each other that way. I was trying to find some pictures of me when I was an exchange student in Tokyo through Stanford. I was in something called the Keio-Stanford exchange. I lived with a super-rich host family not in the city, but on the beach, and it would take me two-and-a-half hours to get to school. I had to walk through rice fields, take a bus around the Miura Peninsula, and take the train from Isuzu[gawa] Station to where my school was in Tokyo. And I was twenty-one, and I was so upset because I didn’t have any Tokyo nightlife. I had to leave the city at 9:30, but I found some cute pictures of me when I was like a skinny, skinny young poet. I was twenty-one years old. You must share them.

Cassells: Yeah, I’ll get this to you. Take care and have a great week. Thank you so much, Cyrus.