Cyrus Cassells continues to form a cultural legacy as “a poet of witness” By Amy Francisco, University Marketing
You could say that spirits speak to Cyrus Cassells. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and professor of English at Texas State has a talent for channeling life experiences — his own and those of others — into lyrical language that evokes empathy and compassion.
His most recent book of poetry, The Crossed-Out Swastika, tells the stories of young people who lived through World War II in Europe. Cassells took the name of the book, to be released in 2010, from the story of Hans Scholl, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement who bravely crossed out swastikas on the walls of Munich under the cover of night.
“I think World War II is such a massive wound on the psyche of the whole planet that we can’t help but go back to it and look at it and say, ‘This is as bad as it gets on a lot of levels,’” Cassells says. “With The Crossed-Out Swastika, the subject matter sometimes feels like it’s beyond our comprehension, but I think the task of literature and art is to help us understand that these are all human beings, and every day they were in situations in which they had to make incredibly challenging decisions. But they did it for better or for worse.”
Cassells believes this is why people treasure writings such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. “It personalizes what feels like this overwhelming experience,” he explains. “When we first encounter the images of that period — the camps, the piles of skeletons — we have a tendency to just shut down because it’s overwhelming. We begin the processes of empathy and demystifying what happened when we understand that all of that came from day-to-day decisions that we all make."
In the Classroom His belief in the impact that such writings can have is one reason Cassells insists on bringing only the highest-quality literature into his classes at Texas State, where he has taught English composition and creative writing to both undergraduate and graduate students since 1998.
He also recounts for his students stories from his extensive travels and life experiences, which include working as a film critic, translator and actor, as well as a poet. And he encourages his students to share their own experiences as well.
“I really believe in the importance of what each student brings to the reading in terms of their own experience,” he says. “I’m interested in personal anecdotes. I think that they can be relevant to whatever it is we’re reading. It’s important to me to get students to understand that their perspective may be the most powerful thing they have to offer in a classroom setting.”
Cassells’ teaching philosophy reflects the manner in which his parents raised him. “I had this sense that I could contribute my thoughts and ideas and that they mattered in some way,” he says.
Early Success Cassells grew up in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. He started writing in high school around age 16. “I read Sylvia Plath and thought, ‘This poetry stuff, it’s pretty powerful.’ So all through college I wrote.” College for Cassells was Stanford University, where he studied film and broadcasting and wrote poetry on the side.
Upon earning his degree in film and broadcasting in 1979, he landed the perfect job: creating poetry filmstrips in the film division of a publishing house. But soon he received a call that would change his life by placing poetry front and center.
“I had written this book, and a judge from the National Poetry Series called me and said, ‘I hear you have a poetry manuscript,’” Cassells says. “I told him, ‘Yes, but it’s not quite done.’ And he asked me if I could get it done within three months or so. I said sure, I delivered it, and he picked it.”
The judge was nationally renowned poet Al Young and the book became The Mud Actor, published in 1982 but selected for the National Poetry Series in 1981 when Cassells was just 23 years old.
A Celebrated Career Inclusion in the National Poetry Series yielded Cassells a poetry fellowship in Provincetown, Mass., but halfway through the seven-month residency, he hit a writer’s block that would last two years. He used the time to explore another interest, translating Catalan poetry.
In the late 1980s, Cassells began his career in academia as a lecturer in English literature at Chamberlayne Junior College. From there, he moved on to hold poet-in-residence and lecturer positions at several Massachusetts institutions during the 1990s. It was during that time that Cassells began writing poems that would become his second book, his most famous work to date.
“I only slowly evolved the work that became Soul Make a Path Through Shouting,” he says. “It is a cycle of poems concerned with spiritual endurance set in several different places in the world, including war-torn Afghanistan, Central and Latin America, Catalonia, Soviet Russia, Italy and America during the civil rights movement and the AIDS crisis. This was a very serious project for a young poet, and I revised it many, many times in order to do justice to the testimony that came to me from several different survivors of war, illness and persecution. I wondered at points if I was up to the task of conveying these intense experiences in poetry. It was a very, very difficult process. I had to decide for myself if I was really a poet.”
Cassells received the validation he needed when the book, released in 1994, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received the William Carlos Williams Award. Rita Dove, the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time, called it “the most spectacular book I’ve seen in years” and Cassells “one of the most exciting poets writing in the United States today.”
Soul Make a Path Through Shouting was followed by Beautiful Signor in 1997 and More than Peace and Cypresses in 2004. The next year, Cassells won the National Endowment for the Arts grant that led him to Europe, where he was inspired to write The Crossed-Out Swastika.
A Cultural Legacy Cassells is already receiving positive feedback on The Crossed-Out Swastika, including one endorsement that calls him “a mystic, a love poet, a poet of conscience, a poet of witness, above all a lyric poet whose alchemy makes beauty of bitterness.”
“I sent [the book] to Alicia Ostriker, a significant Jewish American writer who has always been kind of a mentor to me,” Cassells says. “I thought that she would be a great person to send this to and get some feedback from on it because I’m not Jewish American. I’m African-American. But instead of getting a lot of crib notes, I got this [endorsement]. That level of affirmation made me feel like ‘OK, I am hitting the mark. This is working.’”
With affirmation such as this, Cassells continues to create works that just might become part of a greater cultural legacy. When he’s not teaching or acting, he’s penning poems for a sixth volume, The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, and trying his hand at a novel about a fictionalized Harlem Renaissance poet.
“Our cultural legacy is very, very important,” he says. “When we think about the 19th century, we’re not going to journalism. We’re going to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. And that’s part of the bigger truth culturally. So what we’re doing, what we’re investing in, what we’re putting our life energy into is part of a spiritual and social continuum in our culture.”