In celebration of National Poetry Month I’m chatting with poet/writer, Annis Cassells about her indie-published poetry collection, You Can’t Have It All. Congratulations, Annis! I’m so excited for you.
Q: Please share your background (educational/where you grew up):
I grew up mostly in Detroit, Michigan and attended public schools. Not knowing what I might want to do with my life, I decided to go to a business high school so I’d have some saleable skills. I learned shorthand, typing, office machines, bookkeeping and was able to be part of their Co-op program where I worked in an office ½ day and went to school ½ day.
After high school, I knew I wanted to become a teacher and I attended and graduated from Eastern Michigan University, majoring in physical education and minoring in English Language & Literature.
Q: Which poet was a major influence in your life? Why?
Several poets. Maya Angelou as a “life influence” with her familiar themes and language of encouragement and empowerment. As a writer, Ellen Bass. I took a half-day workshop with her at the writer's conference in San Miguel. In fact, the poem “Vanished” in my book was generated in that workshop. Then, in 2016, I did a week-long retreat/writing workshop with Ellen Bass and Pam Houston. That experience was a huge factor in my growth as a poet, and several poems (“Debut,” “Sunday Mornings,” and “Awakening Song”) came out of that experience.
Q: Themes of family and motherhood, segregation, and current events appear throughout your poetry. What process do you go through when drafting a poem?
You know, who we are comes out no matter what genre we’re writing. So, as a Black woman, a mom, a daughter, a septuagenarian, and an observer of today’s world, these themes emerge.
I may take a word or topic from anywhere (i.e. OctPoWriMo or Matt Woodman’s theme for the community anthology) and play with it by generating a list of related terms or doing a free write or a journal entry around it. Something in those is often a springboard into the poem’s early draft. Or, in the case of current events, the poem is often a reaction to what’s happened. From there it’s the usual distilling or revising.
LOL, the first version of “Cancer” (2009) was 5-6 pages long. Now it’s 24 lines.
These poems were written over a period of time, and I didn’t realize how many referenced or were about my mother until I began to put them together.
Q: When did you start writing the poems in You Can’t Have It All?
Some of those poems are 8-10 years old. A good number were generated in 2013 and 2017 while participating in OctPoWriMo. (31 poems in 31 days during the month of October. This was originated by Georgia writer/poet Willow Althea because “one month for poetry (April) was not enough.”)
Q: Tell me about your rewrites/edits. Did you have others look over your work? How much time did it take?
I read poems aloud to family and friends, published most OctPoWriMo versions on my poetry blog (poemsbyannis.blogspot.com), shared with my WOK critique group and got feedback, shared with my writing groups in Coos Bay and Bakersfield. When I’d gathered all the poems for the manuscript, Dennis VanderWerff read them and gave me feedback. Then, I handed them over to Matthew Woodman of CSU, Bakersfield to read, give me feedback, and suggest an order for presentation. Dennis and Matt each had the poems about two weeks before we re-met to discuss them.
Q: You also write memoir and fiction. Tell me about your other work:
I’ve been writing memoir for many years. Since 2006, I’ve conducted workshops for those who want to write memoir, both in Bakersfield and in Coos Bay. (And many of my poems are mini-memoirs or “poemoirs”) As I’ve learned more about writing and with feedback from my critique groups, I’ve improved on them. Regarding fiction, I am still quite the novice. I’ve taken a few online workshops, and that’s helped me greatly.
Q: Might we look forward to another poetry collection or other work from you in the future?
Yes! I’m thinking about the next poetry collection, making some notes, and doing a bit of journaling. Just after I’d uploaded You Can’t Have It All to the KDP website, I found a poem I hadn’t included. “Here’s number one for the next book,” I said to myself.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add—about your writing process or about your poetry collection?
I’m thrilled at the reception the collection is getting. As a poet or writer, we strive for universality so one thing that’s surprised and delighted me is how the readers and the appreciation span several age groups.
April 27, 2019, from 1-2 PM, I’ll be reading at Russo’s Books showroom (1601 New Stine, Bakersfield, CA) as they are hosting an event to commemorate National Independent Bookstore Day and celebrate my poems.
Annis’ book is available on Amazon.