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  • Living Witness:An Interview with Cyrus Cassells
  • Mary Frances Jiménez (bio)

Since the publication of his first volume of poetry, The Mud Actor (1982), Cyrus Cassells has become known for the twin themes of beauty and trauma that permeate his work. Drawing inspiration from his genealogical and artistic ancestors, as well as his own experiences as an African American, a traveler, a gay man, a teacher, an actor and a writer, Cassells's poetry evinces the complex possibilities of an artist's—and a reader's—relationship to historic and personal subjects. The motif of journey distinguishes Cassells's life and work: though he makes one home in Texas, where he serves on the faculty at Texas State University, Cassells has lived in Japan, Italy, and France (to name but a few venues), and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. This international life and Cassells's careful attention to place enables him to bring readers to the sites of his poems in ways that gift them with shares in the writer's own poetic vision. His empathetic approach to events as gripping and as tragic as the Holocaust, the bombing at Hiroshima, the AIDS crisis, American slavery, the repression of women in Afghanistan, the integration of public schools in Little Rock, and his father's death invites readers to enter the spaces of torture and grief; Cassells simultaneously gives voice to victims of trauma and probes that trauma for the beauty to which it can give birth.

At the same time, Cassells's works often take a celebratory tone: his 1997 volume Beautiful Signor adopts the troubadour tradition to depict a love affair between two men unfolding across Europe, and even his renowned collection Soul Make a Path Through Shouting (1994) is never satisfied with mere recounting of tragedy; rather, the poet's witnessing voice becomes a means toward reclaiming the wounds of the past and returning agency to those who have suffered, revealing hope in its least-expected dwellings. As he writes in More Than Peace and Cypresses (2004), in the poem "Catechism in the Garden of Five Pines," which commemorates the murder of Cassells's "hero-poet" Federico García Lorca:

More terrible than the heart's carnage,to walk the road to paradiseas if the road were leprous,to journey, immutable,a flat-worlder, a trudging sleepwalker,in realms of jasmine,precincts of showy verbena,wandering scornfully amidpealing bells, ringing anvils,voluptuous pageantry,forever reticent or stony, forevergutted or stuffed with straw:at each anniversary,in every season, an impassivestranger on this earth.

Rejecting the perspective of boundaries and stasis of the "flat-worlder," Cassells allows his poem to move outward from the specificity of Lorca's murder and the garden in which it occurred to an image of the earth bursting free of constraints [End Page 69] in a show of "voluptuous pageantry." The contrasting images of silence and clamor in these lines attest to the necessity of witnessing voices in Cassells's vision of global renewal: awareness alone is not enough; one must give insistent voice to the world's rapture or risk remaining "impassive," numbed to sensations not only of pain but also of joy. To speak these lines aloud is to feel the potential for exuberance and rebirth in one's mouth and body: while Cassells's lines do not end-rhyme, repeated initial and internal sounds knit the poem together, as when the phonetic sound of the "ringing anvils" resonates with the "anniversar[ies]" Cassells uses to mark time.

The notion of anniversaries is particularly apropos to the treatment of time and history in Cassells's work: although an anniversary commemorates the passing of years and denotes the distance between chronological moments, it also provides a signpost for recurrence and remembrance. Anniversaries also suggest cycles, such as the passing of artistic knowledge from one generation to the next. In this interview, Cassells not only discusses his own sources of inspiration, but also provides insight into the shift toward a new season in which he finds himself as a teacher and mentor within the community of writers.

The following conversation took place in April 2005 at the University of...