Aileen Cassinetto // The Cagibi Express Interview + Poem

Widely anthologized, Aileen Cassinetto is the author of the poetry collections, Traje de Boda and The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems, as well as three chapbooks through Moria Books’ acclaimed Locofo series. She is the third Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, California, and is serving a two-year term that began January, 2019.

Her role as Poet Laureate is to elevate poetry among San Mateo County residents and to celebrate the literary arts by making poetry more accessible to people in their everyday lives. She is also the publisher of Paloma Press, an independent literary press established in 2016 which has released 17 books to date.

Sections in this feature:

  • The Cagibi Express Interview
  • “The Cabinet of the World and the Journeys of Women,” a poem by Aileen Cassinetto, excerpted from The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems
  • More about The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems

Aileen Cassinetto // The Cagibi Express Interview

: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Aileen Cassinetto: I grew up in an archipelago of 7,641 islands. I’ve never strayed far from the largest island, except through books. And when I was 11, I read a story about three adopted sisters who would train for the stage in 1930s London. A decade later, I would find myself wandering around their city, seeing for the first time the places that were so fascinatingly described in the book. Most of the encounters were unintended as I like to wander when I travel, and my travels are almost always an assortment of mapped itineraries and meanderings. But there was never an instance where I wasn’t pleasantly spellbound.

: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Cassinetto: Old bookstores and libraries, old churches. No matter how lost I get, these places always help me find my bearings.

: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Cassinetto: I find vast, open spaces extremely compelling, but whatever insight I may have gleaned from them that somehow ended up in a poem, got fleshed out in restricted spaces. I write whenever and wherever I get the chance, but I prefer the feeling of being invulnerable when I work. I also cannot work in messy surroundings. I can, however, shut out noise when I have to; many of my poems were written while I was sitting in traffic.

: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Cassinetto: I’m currently working on ancient roads and storied paths, and how they all lead back to us. My research process is painstaking and unhurried, so it will be awhile before I’m able to shape the poems into how I want them to be. I will also be editing two more poetry anthologies as part of my “Speak Poetry in San Mateo County” campaign.

: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Cassinetto: I remember the first time I saw snow a quarter of a century ago (I am awed just saying that, thinking of all the days in a century, and how one’s days can be measured in virtues and misdeeds)—I was staring out the window of my room in Scotland when I saw snow falling on the gabled roofs. It was pure magic. I ran out excitedly, forgetting to put on shoes; but then I ran right back in because it was freezing. My socks got so wet I had to dry them by the fireplace. I was so ridiculously happy. I told myself I will always remember that day—I was 6,000 miles away from home, with snow falling at two feet per second all around me; I couldn’t catch it, but everything seemed possible in that moment; hope was inexhaustible, in that moment.

: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Cassinetto: I don’t really need an excuse to travel. I go when I can; as for an excuse to not work? I try to always get the job done, no matter how mundane or how tough it is.

: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

The Mockery Bird cover 200wCassinetto: The Mockery Bird by Gerald Durrell. Though fictitious, Zenkali is enchanting, peopled by charming characters who are all connected ecologically. Also Scent of Apples by Bienvenido N. Santos, about the Filipino immigrant experience, which I read when I was in high school after seeing a play that was based on it. I’m also very moved by the fields and canneries in Veronica Montes’ Benedicta Takes Wing.

: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Cassinetto: Not by choice, and it was not necessarily a physical space. It turned out to be a sacred space—a metaphorical threshing floor, if you will—which I withdrew into, for a very long time, to come to terms with a lot of things, aspects of which were subsumed into my later poems.

: In your local poetry community in San Mateo County, who else working in poetry should we know about?

Cassinetto: San Mateo County is blessed with so many poets in residence. My predecessors, for instance, are award-winning poets Caroline Goodwin and Lisa Rosenberg. The cities of East Palo Alto, Pacifica, and Belmont are fortunate to have, as poets laureate, such gifted and community-minded artists as Kalamu Chaché, Camincha Benvenutto, and Jacki Rigoni, respectively. Other local poets include Terry Adams, Chuck Brickley, Peter Carroll, Joe Cottonwood, Sanderson Dean, Paul Fericano, Dorsetta Hale, Rosemary Ybarra-Garcia, Monica Korde, Ida J. Lewenstein, Eileen Malone, Lisa Suguitan Melnick, Diane Moomey, Tony Press, Lee Rossi, Tanuja Wakefield, and many more, including poets from the San Mateo County Poets Alliance and the California Writers Club-Peninsula, and the many youth poets we mentor. The county is made up of 41 cities, towns, census-designated, and unincorporated communities, and we’re working on having a complete list of poets from these areas.

: How has your role as a poet laureate influenced the way you see yourself as a working poet?

Cassinetto: I’ve been raised to think in terms of family and communal unity. Writing, however, has always been a solitary experience for me, until I stepped into the role of poet laureate where my mandate is clear: to make poetry more accessible to people in their everyday lives. Everything, suddenly, has become permeable, including the interior world I inhabited as a poet. When deliberating on context, for instance, I used to ask myself, “where is the poetry in this?” These days, I add, “and where does the community fit into it?”

The Cabinet of the World and the Journeys of Women

Caroline of Ansbach’s cabinet of curiosities
is probably the most famous in the world—
it held a ‘unicorn horn’ (naturalia),
bezoar stones (mirabilia),
an ivory box of gold dust (artificialia),
a gallery of portraits (artefacta),
and all the books ever written (scientifica).
But how do you catalog
ideas such as inoculation?
or “miniature shoes belonging to lost children”?
Or newer installations such as
a dress of sorrows,
or the journeys of women
or mapped on cloth.
Surely, these must be classified
apart from items wrested
from nature or wrought by man;
surely, it warrants its own class—
one that speaks of grit and
mother wit. Like the secret
name of woman—triumpha,
which means undaunted, forever stronghearted.

Excerpted from The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems. Appears with permission. Copyright 2018 Aileen Cassinetto.

More About The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems

The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves cover 250wThis collection of Aileen Cassinetto’s poems was published in October, 2018, and is available for purchase or order wherever books are sold. From the publisher:

The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems is a collection of poetry and prose written over a period of 20 years. From Asia to Europe to America, it is a sketch of scenes already vanishing. More importantly, it is about engaging cultures and landscapes, as well as fortified domestic spaces and the lives lived within them.

“Steeped in histories and cartographies, this book transports you into another realm. Lyrical and thoughtful juxtaposition, Cassinetto’s poems delve into pasts threading them together into a majestic tapestry. The pink house representing childhood memories and worldly travels. The purple jam or ube as they call it in the Philippines is a delicacy unto its own. Cassinetto’s collection comprises of finely crafted poems, prose and essays, which weaves a story of migration into earthly and divine dominions.” —Cristina Querrer, author of By Astrolabes & Constellations and The Art of Exporting

Appears In

Issue 8.1