Aileen Cassinetto, Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, California, is the author of The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems (Little Dove & Our Own Voice, 2018). In 2021, Cassinetto was awarded the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellowship to support the work of a cohort of twenty youth eco-poets selected in collaboration with local librarians and teachers. The eco-poets will participate in a series of workshops led by Cassinetto and field trips to deepen their understanding of San Mateo County's ecology, and to allow them to express the intricate, layered connections between nature, culture, and people through poetry. Cassinetto also plans to collaborate with the College of San Mateo’s film and digital media departments to document the project. The footage will be used in a short poetry docu-film featuring the youth eco-poets’ experiences as they craft their poems. The film will be distributed to the county’s school districts and libraries, as well as the U.N.’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, and will be shown at the College of San Mateo’s twelfth Asian American Film Festival and the Youth Ecopoetry Exhibit at the San Mateo County Fair.
Poets.org: Congratulations on being the first Asian American poet laureate of San Mateo County,California! What do you hope for the future of poetry in the county, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in California have?
Aileen Cassinetto: For the past three years, I worked and collaborated with various individuals, libraries, and schools, as well as local groups and agencies that are not necessarily arts-focused, to make poetry more accessible to people in their everyday lives. I would like for poetry to grow in relevance and resonance, and to continue to reflect and celebrate our county’s diversity—for example, in over 126,000 households, a language other than English is spoken—so that what emerges is a more balanced narrative of our collective experience.
In 2019, San Mateo County hosted a Bay Area poets laureate gathering which included working sessions and a public reading. A major concern that surfaced during the facilitated discussion was that not all laureates get compensated for the work that they do. My hope is that governing bodies who choose to appoint poets laureate will set aside funding to cover both stipend and project costs (i.e., a budget for curated events, including an honorarium for guest poets). Secondly, as we have not had a poetry advocate at the state level since 2018, that a California Poet Laureate will be appointed soon. My hope is that poetry will continue to be an active part of the social fabric in San Mateo County and around California.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
AC: Sometimes language is all we have, and poetry has proven time and again to be a great equalizer, transformer, and community-builder. Especially during the pandemic, many people found shelter in poetry as a way to process personal and collective traumas. Poetry that offers sustenance or healing, or that inspires during a time of major upheaval, often has the power to bring people together, to initiate change, or to call forth action.
I’ve curated three community poems so far, the first one in March 2020 where I asked county residents to submit lines or messages for frontline and healthcare workers, which I assembled into a long poem to raise money for the San Mateo County Health Foundation’s COVID-19 fund. The second was an ecopoem made up of lines submitted by high school students that explore human-environment interactions. The third was inspired by talk stories and messages on belonging where I asked contributors to share with me how they welcomed newcomers, especially immigrants, into their communities and neighborhoods (or, if they were newcomers, how they were welcomed into the community). In all three projects, the goal was to share personal stories and experiences, and to celebrate our differences as much as our shared identities.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
AC: I think that as I’ve grown into my role as poet laureate, the more intentional I’ve become in asking who is being excluded or erased, especially in my own writing. I’m not a prolific poet and my process tends to be very unhurried, partly because so much research goes into every poem. I’ve taken to writing in form to help me practice constraint and give me structure. I’ve also been writing mostly commissioned occasional poems which are as much calls to action as they are a documentation of a community’s hopes and shared experiences. I love and keep reminding myself of what [the writer and performer] Harry Josephine Giles has said, that “the work of poets is more often like roots, worms, rainstorm: slow, persistent and irresistible.”
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
AC: I am most excited when students first discover how poetry can help them engage with climate change issues. I am equally excited about the prospect of ecopoetry being incorporated into the San Mateo County Youth Climate Ambassadors Leadership Program. The program supports ninth to eleventh graders as they develop impact projects and lead action on climate change. Poetry is another lens through which they can process the layered connections between nature and culture, sustainability, and human ecology. And then, there is the second part of my project, which is adapting the ecopoems into short films. There’s much enthusiasm around this process.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
AC: I launched my project in June 2021, and a major obstacle was planning the field trips which would have given students a deeper understanding of San Mateo County’s ecology. It was a challenge to organize, as there were too many issues—especially with COVID restrictions, obtaining permission for filming, etc. I am tailoring the ecopoetry workshops to include virtual field trips in lieu of in-person field trips.
Poets.org: Your poem, “Legacy,” evokes your poet laureate project, which brings together nature, culture, and people through poems to help the community strengthen its relationship to the environment. In it, you write:
“To tell her story,
you must say a prayer, not of sorrow,
but of grace. You must loosen the earth,
pick daffodils to the base of the stem,
remember your roots and ordinary days,
and the grit under your fingernails,
the way your grandmother taught you.”
How can poetry help to heal or gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in nature?
AC: A poem is an ecosystem where life happens. There’s ruthlessness, but also so much grace and so much possibility. Poetry situates us where our story connects with other stories, where we navigate bodies and language and distance and place with agency and urgency. We don’t always get clarity and illumination, but the simple act of connecting may lead us to write ourselves into a world and a future that we want to see.
Poets.org: Why was it important to you to select youth poets rather than adult poets in the community for this project? Are you leading the series of workshops?
AC: It’s important for me to support the work that young people have already started in our county. It’s moving to see how our youth are engaging their communities, and poetry is one way to help them speak their truth and connect them with a larger movement. According to the U.N, at over one billion, we currently have the largest generation of youth in history. San Mateo County is home to over 214,000 youth below the age of 24, each one with a distinct voice and unique story. I wanted to give them a platform (or expand the one that they already have), and encourage them to use their poetry toolkit to reimagine a more sustainable future.
The first two workshops I organized were facilitated by current National Youth Poet Laureate Alexandra Huynh and 2020 National Youth Poet Laureate and U.N Sustainable Goals Ambassador Meera Dasgupta with whom I’ve collaborated in the past. I wanted students to hear from Alexandra and Meera, both accomplished poets and environmentalists, how powerful and impactful ecopoetry can be in communicating the costs of and possible solutions to climate change. I’ve also given one-on-one ecopoetry workshops and will be leading two group workshops in December.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in San Mateo County, particularly when thinking of ecopoetics and the workshops you have put together?
AC: "Map” by Linda Hogan on history, Indigenous knowledge, and environmental justice has inspired me to ask how we can honor the land beyond acknowledgment, as settlers. “Characteristics of Life" by Camille T. Dungy is stunning in its capacity for empathy and its nuanced activism. There is a sense of urgency that resonates with me, and that makes me want to “speak / the impossible hope of the firefly.”