“In my travels, I have often stumbled upon new, unexpected topics,” explains Texas State Professor of Creative Writing Cyrus Cassells, recounting the global journey he embarked on last year, supported by a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. According to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, this fellowship is “intended for individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” The award is given to applicants from the United States and Canada, allowing artists and scholars to dedicate time to their work. An accomplished poet, Cassells often finds inspiration for his writing from “music and visual art, particularly painting”; and notes that he is “an avid student of history and languages,” a passion that accompanied him as he explored the cultural and geographic homes relating to his current projects. Spending much of his time abroad during his fellowship, Cassells visited such places as Spain, Italy, Mexico, and the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Cassells describes the effect “walking in historical places and looking at visual art” had on his writing, noting that travel is “always a great source of inspiration for [his] busybody mind and pen.” His inspiration from the arts shines through his selection of music and art as poetic sources. This is reflected in the title for his new volume, Dragon Shining with All Values Known, which is a line from the song “Trouble Child,” sung by Joni Mitchell.
Cassells says that his “Guggenheim project … explores poles of faith and politics” and includes a section inspired by his research on Father Damien, “a 19th century Belgian priest who worked in a leper colony [on Molokai].” Over the summer he spent exploring Europe, he went to “Rome for a month to look into the beatification of Father Damien, who is now Saint Damien.” This research informed his trip to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai, where he further studied the priest’s life. His writing and research supported a series titled “The Going of the Inland Soul to Sea,” included in his newest volume. Cassells’ interest in Father Damien’s work and legacy is reflected in his project’s focus “on the timeless influence of the 19th century priest … as his altruistic legacy pertains to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
Over the summer months he spent in Spain and Italy working on these projects, he also completed a collection of poems that strays from his typical style and voice. The project is titled The World That the Shooter Left Us (to be published by Four Way Books in 2022) and explores the politically charged topics of gun violence and border issues, new subjects for Cassells. He explains the collection was his “response to the ‘Stand Your Ground’ killing of a close friend’s father and to the continuing detention of children in the border crisis.” This “new, overtly political mode” has been described by readers as “ferocious,” comprising the work in but one of the completed projects Cassells plans to publish after the experiences gained from his fellowship.
While abroad, Cassells often found himself writing in these new modes or surprised by the inspiration he found from his surroundings. His trip early in 2020 to Mexico City and Tepotzlan, Mexico, places he had visited before as a teenager, led him “by coincidence … to staying with a documentary filmmaker, who lives directly behind the legendary blue house and museum of the great, internationally revered painter, Frida Kahlo.” This surprise in his travels developed into a rich cultural backdrop outside the window of his Mexico City writing desk: he “could directly see into Frida’s fabulous garden from my desk and bedroom window.” This exposure developed into an ongoing work for Cassells on Kahlo and her first love, Alejandro Gomez Arias, which he attributes to the proximity to Kahlo’s former home.
Among Cassells’ other current projects and travels are his exploration of New York City streets in his in-progress novel written in verse, called Reindeer in a Sunshine Land, and set in late 19th/early 20th century; and his two-month stay in Spain last summer to “work on a project related to Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet and playwright (1898-1936).” Cassells also completed his first chapbook of poems during his fellowship, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, which was published this April by Nine Mile Books and details his stay in a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico. He also signed a contract to publish Is There Room For Another Horse On Your Horse Ranch?, a finalist for the 2019 National Poetry Series Award; this collection will be published by Four Way Books.
Cassells’ Guggenheim Fellowship is only the most recent of the many prestigious awards he has earned, including the William Carlos Williams Award for his second collection of poems, Soul Make a Path Through Shouting (1994); a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the same title; and other fellowships including the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
-Kennedy Farrell, English Major