Tuesday, September 24, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Cassie Donish

Cassie Donish is a queer Jewish poet and writer, author of the full-length poetry collections The Year of the Femme (University of Iowa Press, 2019), chosen by Brenda Shaughnessy as winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Beautyberry (Slope Editions, 2018). Donish's nonfiction chapbook On the Mezzanine (Gold Line Press, 2019) was chosen by Maggie Nelson as winner of the Gold Line Press Chapbook Competition. An interdisciplinary thinker, geographer, and educator, Donish's writing has appeared in Best New Poets, The Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, jubilat, Kenyon Review, Tupelo Quarterly, VICE, and elsewhere. Co-editor-in-chief of The Spectacle, Donish earned an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, receiving an Olin Fellowship and serving as the Junior Fellow in Poetry. With a BA in English and comparative religions from the University of Washington and an MA in human geography from the University of Oregon, Donish currently teaches at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where they're pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing. They grew up in South Pasadena, California. cassiedonish.com

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

In the last year, my first several books came out relatively close together. I don’t know what it all means yet. I’ll say, though, that life and writing just go on after publication. One thing that feels clear to me right now is that gender and queerness will continue to be central in my work.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Gosh—I was always writing poems at the back of math class in high school.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I usually generate a lot of writing first, and then work with it as material to shape and mold. I often work on many poems at once (even in a single work session), editing and moving things around, using a kind of collage approach.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I want (need) to feel that I’m working at the limits of my writing and thinking abilities with each project. This means it might take a while for me to find my way into a new project. But once I do, I feel that I’m working on a manuscript, a set of poems that are speaking to each other. For instance, I’m now working on a new poetry manuscript (I think?) after more than two years of revising The Year of the Femme and not really drafting anything that felt like a new poem (although I was writing prose during that time).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy doing readings so much more than I used to! I used to get very nervous and feel like I couldn’t be animated, like my face would kind of freeze. Now I feel like I’m able to use my voice and body to give my poems to the audience. It feels good. I plant my feet, I let my poems inhabit me physically. It’s satisfying.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Questions of gender and sexuality are pretty consistently on my mind. I have a background in geography, so I’m often thinking about bodies in space, “nature,” and human-environment interactions. I love thinking that attempts to trouble the lines between binaries: subject/object, mind/body, thought/feeling, culture/nature, human/environment, etc.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I don’t think there’s a fixed role for “the writer.” Writers are different from each other. And when your work enters the world, it may take on a life of its own. But I’m interested in conversations, in communities, in exploring what’s happening in the culture. As a queer, nonbinary writer, I’m particularly interested in questions of identity and how we each negotiate agency and joy in a complex world made up of drastically, violently uneven power relations. In my life, these conversations often happen on couches rather than at a podium. They also happen on the page.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Some editors are more hands-on than others. It depends. I really appreciated working with Vanessa Angélica Villarreal and Brandi Wells, my editors for On the Mezzanine.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Keep asking the hard questions.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Creative nonfiction (especially the form of the lyric essay) has become an important genre for me in the last few years. At some point I found that I needed to write in sentences and paragraphs instead of lines and stanzas. It allowed for a different kind of thought, different rhetorical moves. My poetry is not particularly narrative; when I found myself wanting to tell more of a story, I moved to prose (although, arguably, my prose isn’t particularly narrative either; hence the pragmatically helpful “lyric essay” label).

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It really depends on what else I have to do. This past year I was very busy with the PhD—
teaching, taking seminars, doing some scholarly writing, etc. There was less time for my own writing. Over the summer, I try to write daily, but I don’t always write at the same time. I like to write in the afternoon, in busy cafes, and on public transportation. I like to write when I’m supposed to be doing something else (see my answer to #2).

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Coffee grounds.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough. Geography and geology. Work happening in the field of queer science studies. Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s Antarctica documentary. And stuff like this.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Record an album. I love singing. I also want to learn how to make Jewish pastries (rugelach and hamantaschen) as a way of getting in touch with my Jewish heritage, which I didn’t have a lot of connection to growing up.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Therapist, speech language pathologist, professional singer, professional rock hound, or interpreter. Or a primatologist. I loved Jane Goodall when I was a kid.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

An affinity. It was compulsive.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

feeld by Jos Charles. And I’ve been carrying around Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems.

As far as film, I loved Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. And I’m excited about anything Phoebe Waller-Bridge is doing—I love Killing Eve and Fleabag.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m writing poems about a figure named Johanna who is sometimes but not always human.

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