Half Revealing, and Half Concealing the Soul: Barrett Warner Interviews Cassie Pruyn
Cassie Pruyn’s first book of poems Lena was published in May by Texas Tech University Press. It was followed six months later by Bayou St. John: A Brief History, a prose collection of place. Poet Rachel Mennies talks about Cassie Pruyn’s writing this way: “Lena asks readers to understand love—crucially, a first love, an erotic love—in the context not of a love lost but instead of an identity gained: we must consider not only was she worth it, but also, who has she made me? This statement was shocking to me. Although I’ve known of Cassie for some five years now, I never knew that she had ever been in love. It just hadn’t occurred to me. So intense was her flower on the page that I neglected to consider that it was rooted in anything real. But she not only ran from love, way down into the delta, but she singlehandedly embarked on the cultural restoration of Bayou St. John in her natural and social history writings of that place. The message for me is that whether you fall in love with a person or place or even simply a river, the main thing is to fall in love, especially now, when so many of our souls were broken last November. —Barrett Warner
The story of how we met: a town—who knows—some small nervous shaking thing of a town, green hills, the sounds of water. I was in a car, crawling along. The driver was sure he’d kill us. Hasn’t everyone heard of someone who died on a country lane like Camus? You were walking on the edge of the road. Someone offered a lift. You clambered into our universal panic. I knew, or sensed, you may have just been drowning, or looking for a place to drown, in the way that swimming and drowning are really the same, and the talk got to wampy-trotting rivers and spirits.
That day, or what I remember of it, I was indeed looking for a place to drown, to be immersed. It was warm, almost hot. I was walking to or from a lake nearby. Golden rod and thigh-high field grasses buzzed with insects and windless-ness. And then there was a car beside me, with friendly-weird people in it.
Not everyone knows about my fear of alligators, but there you are in the Delta, amidst predatory reptiles, writing calm into very wild places. It’s this way you have of “writing to the other side” without wearing so much as a bicycle helmet! Frankly, I can’t understand how you’ve managed to avoid being eaten alive.
I have my own mild phobia of bayou wilderness—the snake-laced, alligator-strewn, perpetually-disappearing swampland that surrounds the city. Talk about dread, though—think how the wetlands feel! The Gulf nibbling away, day after day….
Being afraid has taught me to question this idea of me. Fear has a way of illuminating all the various layers of the self, and when this happens the “Narrative of Me” can no longer operate. My autobiography gets jarred and ruptured when I’m afraid. I think it has something to do with the truth behind fear.
Your experience is never passive. You choose to go to a place, to accept where it may take you, and so you’re not a victim of the experience. You’re complicit in your own art.
Writing the poems was terrifying. And yes, it’s scary as hell. But so far it’s felt…strange…to be declared brave for writing these poems. Is it because I’m a female in America, and therefore prone to unrelenting self-doubt? I never wanted to write these poems, and they came out anyway. They’re the brave ones.
Yes, your “Flaneur in the Bywater” (“a girl laughs, lets her head fall back // plaster swooping, stairs lolling / like a drunk tongue / the house heaves, sucks // me in”) and “Maine Morning, Age 5”—
Through my bedroom window,
I spot a peach-colored fish
stuck between stones in the old stonewall.
I imagine she’s been beached,
but once I slap through the screened door,
leaping past the snakes’ rustle,
I find it’s just another rock torn
by a farmer’s plunging knuckles
from the landscape’s lap…
To me, a poet must figure out which depths her poem truly wants to plumb. My Lena poems began in concrete moments, but I had to abstract them I order to get to her Lena-ness. What was once linear and horizontal, with perhaps a few images and emotions woven through, would then work to become vertical. The poem would enter a spiritual/imaginal realm involving a living, breathing thing, alive according to the logic of the imaginal.
I was surprised to find so few notes of place considering that you’ve just published a book of prose, Bayou St. John, which is entirely about place. In Lena, there’s a reference to a collegiate building, a clam shack, some streets in Nola with French sounding names, a beach house (with little or no mention of sand).
I never worry about “factual truth.” We shouldn’t have that much faith in our memories. I took real events and emotion, the shredded tapestry of this former love and her death, and engaged with it according to my real-time imaginal state. The poems connected me with this dead woman, her ghost, her absence, in the present moment.
I’m obsessed with the poetry of meaningless biographical minutiae. Who was that girl? What was she like? Did she pray for love? Did she watch the sky for signs? Which reminds me, you spoke earlier about being female in America…
Women carry around their own particular kind of self-doubt. Patriarchy, like racism, makes it hard for victims and perpetrators alike to identify what’s at the base of their actions and emotions, i.e. Where does the conditioned female in me end and the “real me” begin? It’s hard to determine cause and effect when the beast is in the very air we breathe. My identity becomes more and more complicated, and perhaps more fraught, as each day goes by.
I had a nice dinner with your book tonight. I chose the grouper, fried plantains, rice, and a salad. Your book had basket of tortilla chips. We managed to half-finish a bottle of Chilean cabernet while talking about your poem “Androgyny” and then she left an effusive tip as I skirted around your language—“the trail hot-white and bumpy / and I traced it to find my way.” That is, traced the androgyny to find your way. Isn’t that what’s to do, to trace a path with a finger over the flesh, by touch and not by “logic?”
So nice to hear you and the book had dinner. I’m not sure why she ate so lightly and drank so heavily (she doesn’t weigh much, after all)—usually it’s the other way around. She must have been nervous! But always, always a good tipper—I’ve trained her well.
I find nothing more fascinating in this world of ours than gender expression. Gender; sexuality; identity; desire. I can’t pin them down, even if I attempt to build neat little boxes to put them in. They’re constantly busting out and escaping! We have no idea who we are! Nothing thrills me more. It’s like how we can’t even see our insides, but all day long this complex system of organs and liquids and other mysterious processes are working away unseen. We’re still alive, but we have no idea how. We want to make love, but we have no idea why. We’re blind to ourselves in all kinds of ways, and I effing love it.
The poems in Lena feel so sober. I mean, apart from a scene where a few other girls are trying to use cigarette lighters to pop beer caps. Are drugs and booze not part of your writing life or loving life? I’m curious because you definitely feel more T. S. Eliot to me than Charles Bukowski and yet you dive into such tremors of passion. People sometimes forget that Bacchus wasn’t only drinking wine. He was also riding a lion. And you’re kind of riding a lion in these poems, but you’re not fucked up.
I’m a terrible drinker and can hardly keep the stuff down. Once we were together, we had no use for alcohol—everything was intense and thrilling and confusing already. I reference smoking pot in “The House on Tator Hill.” We were alone in her aunt’s house off-campus, and the added stimulation of one or two puffs of marijuana resulted in an awful paranoia washing over me: I remember climbing the stairs with her ahead of me, and I was holding her hand, and as we got to the top of the stairs and she turned toward me I had the distinct feeling that I didn’t know her at all, that she was a complete and utter stranger. It was inexpressibly visceral, like seeing a djinn in a nightmare. Perhaps this is the psychosis of the lover: that the beloved is unknowable, can never be known and therefore possessed.
Speaking of sobriety, Emily Dickinson wrote, “We wear our sober dresses when we die.” The line sings to me, not like a bird or opera. More like Neil Young. You know, with his very flat voice. I wonder who would sing your very earthy and sexy poem, “Want.” Those lines: “as in I want to eat her // Eat as in bite her I mean / touch insides // I mean be inside her.” I’m thinking Beth Ditto could sing that very well.
It would have to be Lucinda Williams. First of all, talk about sexy. That voice. That guitar. But also she has a song “Hot Blood,” and she, too, begins with the refrain—in fact each verse begins with the refrain—and each verse culminates in a completely mundane observation of the beloved that is rendered completely and devastatingly sexy by the way she structures the song (and by her delivery of the lines). Between each refrain/verse is a guitar solo, as if to let off steam. *blush blush*
You avoid a lot of politics, but it isn’t as if you don’t have some very political feelings, which you made clear in your VIDA essay published earlier this year. And you talk about living in New Orleans, but not about living in Louisiana, which is a very red state. At the same time I know how committed you are to The Resistance.
The political is personal. In Lena, for example, the poems that engage with the experience—emotional and physical and psychological—of being in a closeted relationship: these poems couldn’t help but be “political.” Homophobia had its meaty fists clenched around one of the most important relationships of my adult life and so the poems are going to sound different because of it. But I do think poetry begins somewhere else, somewhere more essential and uniquely human, closer to where song starts.
I was perusing Coleridge last night. Like you he was enthralled with rivers, especially the one where he grew up, the Otter River (in Ottery). I loved that point in the book where you say, “Enough with rivers!” Loved it for how you were becoming aware of your own conceits. Things had just gotten very realer than all those babbling brooks.
Yes, friend: things had indeed gotten realer than those babbling brooks. The issue was not with the rivers themselves, with but with the fact that I was writing next to the emotional urgency, or above or below it, or about it from a great distance, and not into it or from it.
I tend to read the classics with one eye out the door—even when I’ve really been trying. Once the line of Modernism is crossed, it’s sort of hard to go back. It feels like there are no edges in pre-Modern poetry, that it’s all formal lines and formal beauty, and yes, this attempt at wholeness. Still, Coleridge…“What happy and what mournful hours, since last / I skimmed a smooth thin stone along thy breast, / Numbering its light leaps! Yet so deep imprest…”
Let me remove the mask over my face to reveal that I am actually Helen Vendler!
Haha. After a reading I did recently, someone asked if I’d read Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” I was embarrassed to admit that it had been a while, and that I’d only read bits and pieces—embarrassed because it has so much resonance for Lena. He made particular mention of the fact that Tennyson’s good friend (and some speculate lover) Alfred, for whom the poem was written (all 133 cantos!), had died suddenly while overseas. His body was shipped back to England, and Tennyson writes on and on about this, about the body of his friend—the unbearable dissonance between this body that, just weeks ago, had walked toward him and grabbed his hand, and that was now wrapped up in the belly of a boat, lifeless. He made a connection between this sentiment and the speaker’s obsessive sentiments in my poem “Self-Interrogation.”
Rachel Mennies pointed out that you discovered love within a veil of mystery. You couldn’t be seen together, and so the intrigue of an affair blended with the drama of falling in love…oh my sweet Lord. You had no choice but to find an identity out of it.
I think we all find our identities when experiences are pressurized. The relationship that had to be hidden—all the secret rooms and threats of discovery and the “first-time-ness” of all of it, for both of us. I think you’re absolutely right about that. What a way to come of age! We could talk forever about that.
I grew up eating meals on plates which had triangles in them and have a terrible habit of breaking everything into sets of three. How did you choose three sections for Lena?
I love groups of threes. I love odd numbers. I’d prefer to always be an odd-number of years old. It launches me onto the next thing. Being slightly off-balance is good for the mind and soul. And obviously, triangles and the Holy Trinity and all that. For Lena, three sections felt intuitively right, but I wouldn’t be devastated if the poems commenced in the order they’re in now without section breaks. It might be appropriately obsessive.
Are there three stories, or was that a clever way to give abashed ones like myself a chance to mop their brows?
I’m going to ignore your problem with female eroticism and just say the sections are atmospheres. In the first, all the various tensions make their entrances. In the weird second section, the speaker is reaching for particulars in a very dark and abstract place. The last section represents how there is no conclusion to grief. But you’re right—the poems were not written in the order in which they appear at all. I think they’re almost perfectly mixed up.
Although so much of Lena occurs in the past, many of the poems are in the present tense, and if they aren’t in the present tense, you still stay within the moment, so it feels present tense-y anyway.
It’s hard for me to remember without looking at a poem whether it’s in the present or past tense. Even with almost all of them nearly memorized, it’s still hard for me to pin this down. Even if the poem was in the past I had to feel as if it was happening again, in order to evoke her, and evoke the setting and the feeling.
Lena’s immediacy in my poetry feels spiritual, not as in I was waiting for her ghost to enter the room (although I’m always secretly hoping for that) but in the sense that I wanted to get below my conscious memory and to find what I knew my inner mind knew—something truer and deeper and stranger. Not the story I’d gotten used to telling myself, but the involuntary stories.
You freshen up Lena by relying on images to do the work of assertions, which sets you apart from your peers like Kaveh Akbar, while drawing you closer to someone like Kyle Dargan.
Images were crucial to the revision process. Only maybe three to four of the poems in the book came out much as the way they appear now. It isn’t editing so much as transformation. Almost always a poem’s intended beginning was totally wrong and had to go. Likewise, the endings. You know what I mean?!
Yes, it’s like assertions turn language into an artifact. But your images carry as much weight as the narrative, but without being too on the nose. The way, in “Dive” you compare Lena’s body to a bashful-headed fern and then in “Flaneur in St. Louis Cemetery Number One” you again speak of the ferns “taken root between the bricks.” I think it’s very interesting how your images return to slightly different form and effect from one poem to another so that gradually they become totems or forces like wave motion.
The language would reveal, slowly, if I listened to it and stayed patient with it, what central images were most important to a poem, and what the poem wanted to say, which would lead me to my endings. The beginnings were just about setting up the proper pace. Only a portion of this is conscious. The poem “Self-Interrogation” came to me in a dream. I had 5-10 lines in the dream and wrote them down and attempted to end the poem but it turned out the lines themselves were terrible (thanks, subconscious mind) and it was about finding the right language to express the intent and urgency of the dream, and not the language of the dream.
You said earlier that “poetry begins somewhere close to where song starts.” For me, the whole music in poetry thing is whether or not you mention Lana Del Rey or Van Halen in a stanza.
Here’s what I got: as for the overt references to music: Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. I also mention country music at least once. The person Lena is based on loved country music—the classics as well as the cheesy mainstream stuff. I was raised to detest country music, and now I find myself listening to it in order to remember her in a visceral way. A kind of forced nostalgia. The mainstream stuff is often terrible, often condescending towards women and questionable in its wider political attitudes as well as just painstakingly bad, but the genre is soaked in a shameless embrace of nostalgia and a particular kind of story-making. Now, I’m no country music expert, but this is what it feels like when I’m listening to it. All the songs sound so similar, I don’t know whether they’re songs she and I listened to together—but it doesn’t matter. Cheesy country music perfectly exemplifies how this person related to romance and to life in general.
Last week my Lyft driver was telling me that ego is a shifting surface—a liquid—which is why first person voice can be so tricky.
Lena was an attempt to unbottle the liquid. Hell, every time we talked until the day she died we told each other stories about our relationship. Our last conversation involved our trying to find the perfect word for our relationship, for what we meant to each other. The word wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough, but we had to get every last drop into the bottle—and quickly. After she died, I thought I had to screw the lid on even tighter—if I didn’t, everything might spill out. The poems taught me I had to let it spill. The memories had to be dismantled, and re-written into uncertainty. I think this is the truest way to express love, a love defined by magnetism and tension, its mystery, its landscape, the way it flows even in her (bodily) absence.
I’ve had a couple spiritual readings done—I am shamelessly fascinated with the spiritual, the otherworldly, the mystery of the unknown in any number of forms—and each time, the readers have mentioned Lena as someone I’ve known in many previous lifetimes, and someone I will know again. One of them said we were mother and daughter in a past life. But (back to this life), I remember imagining my childhood self in parallel to Lena’s childhood self, ignorant of her but still somehow, on some intuitive level, knowing she was out there, a mere two states away, and that we were simply waiting to meet one another. Sometimes I felt trapped by its seeming fated-ness, by the way it all seemed predetermined and charged with intensity, with the way she seemed to think she knew me but didn’t know me at all, by the way she sometimes turned out to know me after all, infuriatingly. We were born on the same day. I’m still trying to figure out what it means that she died before me.
I admired your “Closeted in Dutchess County.” “Back then she drove a car / red as a dragon.” What an opening! Dragon is the only two syllable word in that couplet, but also, “dragon” is defined as “a fierce and intimidating person, especially a woman.” In that poem, the wonderful hard K sounds, and how you travel from “my fingers at her crotch” to a “birch-skirted lake.” A sort of imagistic orgasm. No wonder Joni Mitchell sang about it. Did I mention the “branch-stitched dome?”
I loved that car, and I love the sounds in “dragon.” “Closeted…” is one of my favorites. It’s also one of the ones that took the longest to get right—particularly that “branch-stitched dome.” The poem required a stripping away of the initial memory, which led to the statue. The statue was there all along in the memory, but the poem kept missing it, kept trying to end elsewhere with some kind of artificial certainty. The statue haunted her way to the ending, finally, and her message is this: accept the mystery within the duality. She demanded not-knowing, she demanded a perpetual questioning.
In “The Mother” the speaker seems to be defying convention in her relationship with Lena while simultaneously craving it. Also, that line, “And Lena’s mother / (a woman with a mermaid’s name)” so simply indicates her layers without giving anything away.
I don’t think of it as craving convention—it’s more the desire to not be erased. The conversation surrounding queerness and, say, same-sex marriage is an interesting one: to what extent do we who identify as queer or gay, want to live within conventional institutions, etc. When it comes to this speaker and this story, I think it’s far simpler: we wanted to not have to hide.
What you said about disappearing fits neatly with Tennyson’s lines about half-revealing, half-concealing the soul. Which brings me to “Dive.” Your, “into which, part numb, I slip / every doubt I can think to dip, / my guilty ink, my fear for you, / before sweeping out to sea in you.” Your rhyme scheme in this evokes the other Maine poet, Edna Millay.
This was one of the early poems I wrote for the manuscript, when I was positively drowning in guilt, before the poems themselves lightened that guilt to a certain extent (that, and a particularly resonant spiritual reading I got a year and a half ago; I’m not picky about where the healing comes from).
Did you just say spiritual reading?
I won’t go into that spiritual reading in-depth—just because it felt kind of sacred and would also be hard to recreate or describe. But spiritual readings in general, and occult-type experiences, are ways I can hear messages from myself, to myself, that I otherwise might not listen to. We know very little about our own existence and all the forces within and around us—almost everything is mysterious, or at least mysterious to us, and that’s ok. I had no idea this particular reading would be a milestone in my Lena-related grief. Maybe it was just me hearing a message from myself that told me to let go of my guilt, and that the poems didn’t have to be these torches of loyalty that I was carrying around—that I could stop clutching and pawing at her memory, and refusing to let her go, and instead listen to what the poems really had to say. This was a better way of loving her. It meant that I finally allowed the poems to breathe, and when I did I realized that some of them were where they needed to be, and that some of them had not yet arrived at their truth—and that their truth could be anything, as long as it was true.
Five years after moving to New Orleans, are you still moving to New Orleans? Are there boxes of your old life in Maine you still haven’t found a way to open?
There’s a good chance my wife and I will be moving back to New England in the next few years to attempt to “settle down”—to tap into all the practicality required of millennial lesbians who plan to start a family. However, I will be perpetually never-leaving New Orleans. I will be haunting it forever.
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