Cassandra de Alba graduated from Hampshire College with a degree in poetry and history and holds two masters degrees, but she also boasts an impressive background in the world of poetry slams. She has represented both Slam Free or Die and Hampshire County at the National Poetry Slam and she runs one of my absolute favorite poetry blogs over at the Boston Poetry Slam tumblr. The BPS tumblr is chock-full of startling fragments from new poems employing unexpected language and images. In fact, I’ve found some of my favorite emerging poets over the last year by scrolling through its pages. Additionally, de Alba posts quotes from craft interviews with excellent insight into the processes of many poets. She also runs her own tumblr at outsidewarmafghans.tumblr.com. This spring, de Alba’s chapbook habitats will be published by horse less press. She is also working on a chapbook inspired by Tyra Banks.
In our last issue of Sweet, we published “End Times Fatigue,” de Alba’s poem voicing exhaustion toward the literary tropes of the apocalypse and a desire for “something more,” something strange. In the eschatological fantasy of the poem, it is “a conference room/of deer, shaking their heads,/pushing the red button” that ends the world, rather than a human-made nuclear disaster or judgment of God. After a bit of reading around in de Alba’s work, one soon sees a keen interest in using anthropomorphic animals in fresh, critical ways. I reached out to de Alba for an interview to ask her about some of the compelling aspects of her work and life.
VN: Many of your poems, from some of your earliest publications to your newest deer-focused chapbook, feature animal protagonists. In poems such as “The Coyotes,” “The Possums,” and your piece published with Sweet, “End Times Fatigue,” animals not only exist past the extinction of the human race, but often possess the power and intelligence to bring about the end of humanity themselves. Can you talk a little about your interest in animal subjects and what doors they open to you as a poet that human subjects may not?
CDA: There’s an essay by Larry Levis where he says that animals in poems represent the poet’s deepest and most inexpressible instincts. He also says that an animal in a poem is “altered from the prison of nature, and paroled, briefly, by the poem itself, and by the poet.” I read this recently, after I’d written all the poems in the deer manuscript and a series of prose poems about animals and it makes a lot of sense to me. I regret that the world’s not weirder. People talk all kinds of shit about deer, but to me there’s something eerie and otherworldly and almost magic about them. I suppose I wanted to free deer from their status as garden pests and human prey.
I wrote all these poems while living in a city; maybe I’ll have to move back to the woods to start writing about people.
VN: Your poem “Time Machine” published at the lit blog Drunk In a Midnight Choir evokes riotgrrl culture with references to Bikini Kill and the zine scene. In particular, it uses the speculative trope of time travel to revise the childhood of the speaker. She wants her younger self to know “that her body is a drum kit/with the right to crash and beat/and bang.” Do you think poets often overlook the ability of speculative elements to revise the past and rewrite it for empowerment?
CDA: I think there’s certainly a tendency to shy away from or look down on speculative elements in poetry, that they’re seen as not “literary” enough. But I’m not trying to get into the New Yorker with ten beautifully crafted lines about a tree branch. That’s not my style – that’s not the kind of poetry that’s exciting to me. And I do think that there are a lot of poets out there taking those risks, pushing away the whole Western canon idea of what an appropriate subject for a poem is. I think Kiki Petrosino is doing that; I think Rachel McKibbens is doing that; I think Sophia Holtz is doing that. More time travel in poetry in 2016!
VN: Your poems are full of startling, evocative images, which is something I always aim for in my own work. How do you find your images? Do you start with an idea, narrative, or scene and let the images unfold naturally? Do you start with a line/image and write the poem around it?
CDA:I don’t know if there’s a single way I arrive at an image. Sometimes one comes to me out of something like a half-seen photograph or a misread phrase and I build a poem around it (“The Beast Deer” started that way), but I think more often I’m trying to evoke a specific feeling – a sensation in the chest, a quality of light – and I use images to that end. I have a couple images that I’ve been playing with for years and the right poem hasn’t formed around them yet. I like an unexpected image; I think a reader is more likely to be struck by a poem, to carry it around after they’ve read it, if it surprises them.
VN: Your tumblr (which I loved reading!) was full of screencaps from America’s Next Top Model, and you’ve written a few poems about Tyra Banks. I’ve never watched the show myself, so I have to ask, what am I missing? What do find most compelling about it?
CDA: Reality competitions shows – the kind where a contestant gets eliminated at the end of every episode – are some of the most formulaic things on television, and I find them incredibly soothing. I also love that, despite its very questionable gender and racial politics, America’s Next Top Model is a show that (until they added men in cycle 20) focuses almost exclusively on women, how they interact with each other and what they want. Tyra Banks fascinates me because you can really watch her develop this persona over the course of 22 “cycles” – I just finished rewatching the first one and she’s so much more of a human being in it, but you can see the scaffolding of the figure she becomes by the end of it. I’m putting together a mini chapbook of the Tyra poems right now – they’re all explorations of the question “what if Tyra Banks, this woman who clearly thrives on attention and performance, were the last person on earth?”
VN: You also have some recent tumblr posts with pictures of collected things you “found on the ground.” Have you always had an eye for found objects, or is this a new habit of yours? Does it help you pay better attention to the world around you?
CDA: “Everything I found on the ground” is a project I started to justify my magpie-like habit of picking up pennies and beads and playing cards (I actually have a complete deck of mismatched ground cards). I really like objects as vehicles to understanding more about a person or a place – one of my favorite passages in all of literature is when Salinger spends two or three pages of Franny and Zooey describing the contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet. I guess maybe I’m trying to understand more about my city.