INTERVIEW WITH BARRY CASSELMAN
Describe the room you write in.
I write my first drafts of poems in many rooms and spaces. These first drafts are often written in restaurants,
or on trains. Sometimes they are written during concerts. Or outdoors. Music is very nurturing to me when I write.
I usually write first drafts in longhand on pads of paper. In recent years, I do final drafts on my computer
located in an office in my apartment. This office is filled with books and files, but has a large window which
face the street. I can look out this window when I write.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to finish a novel I began many years ago. It is a saga something like those novels written in
the 19th and early 20th century by European novelists who had many generations behind them who lived in one
place. My novel takes place in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I was born and grew up. My family settled there in
the late 1800s, but the place was also the home of a now extinct tribe of Native Americans called the Eries
(after which the lake and the city were named). The remarkable, and probably unique, geography of Erie has
much to do with the form of this book. In my generation, virtually everyone I knew left Erie, as I did, to
live elsewhere. This broke the pattern of generations remaining in the place where they were born. So it is
a fictional memoir and saga of a kind of American life that probably no longer exists.
You write political articles. How has this affected your poetry? How long have you been involved in writing about politics. Talk about it some.
I have not ever taken a course in journalism. I received my graduate degree from the Writers Workshop at
the University of Iowa, and then took a job as an editor at Harcourt Brace in New York City. After a year,
I moved to Minnesota, which I had visited to see my brother who lived there during the time I lived in Iowa.
I planned to start a book publishing company, rented an office and bought an IBM typesetter. The problem was
that I did not have enough capital. So, to pay my bills, I started a small newspaper in a Minneapolis new town
suburb where I lived. Another new town development began soon afterwards in downtown Minneapolis, so I started
another newspaper there. This grew and became successful, but after 12 years, I was worn out from selling ads,
layout, editing and publishing it. It was a great experience, and in many ways, my truest education. Among other
matters, I wrote about local, state and national politics for this newspaper. We had always talked politics at
my family dinner table. My father was a physician, but he loved to talk about politics. As I wrote articles and
editorials about politics, I realized my role as a journalist which, to me, is about fair and accurate reporting.
I strongly disagree with those who say that journalism and journalists should be propagandistic and ideologically
partisan. Like good poetry, the best journalism reveals truths, not imposes them. After closing down my newspaper,
I became a freelance writer about national politics. Today, I write a regular op ed column, and frequent articles
in various national publications on presidential politics, congressional races and international affairs. I am
perhaps the only full-time American poet who makes his living as a journalist. I try to keep them separate, and
I donıt know that my journalism has affected my poetry. I do think it has affected my fiction in that my writing
style, over the years, has become more economical. I suspect, however, that my poetry has affected my journalism
style in that I write about politics now with perhaps more with a sense of the inherent drama of history
Have you always lived in Minneapolis? What is the writing scene like there?
I have lived in the Twin Cities and environs or more than thirty years. I came here in my late 20s from
Erie, PA via Philadelphia, New York, Iowa City, Madrid, Barcelona, London and Paris. It took me five
years to learn to wear a hat in the winter. I kept getting bronchitis. It shows perhaps that being a doctorıs
son doesnıt make you smart about your own health. I was drawn here from the first time I came here. When I
began publishing my newspaper, I nicknamed the area the biomagnetic center. That was because there was so
much innovation and culture and entrepreneurial spirit here in the 1970s that people were drawn here, even
in spite of the notorious cold and isolation from the coasts. I have always traveled 2-4 months in most years
for my work, and that would include Florida and California in the winter where I have family. Other cities
have become biomagnetic centers now, and Minneapolis no longer has as much originality as it once had, but
I have many friends here. Good friends, as you grow older, become very important. There is, and has been, a
writing scene here, but I am not really part of it. I know many of the writers, but my work does not fit the
predominant Minnesota style. Poets are also not necessarily good company, and I find that I have more friends
who are chefs, musicians and actors.
What writers make you tick?
I feel sad that there are not more living or contemporary authors who make me want to read their work.
The writers who I read and reread include Lady Murasaki, Rilke, Musil, Gertrude Stein, the authors of the
Chasidic tales, Tomas Transtromer, the seven sages of the Bamboo Grove from 3rd century China, Rolf Jacobson,
Kafka, Calvino, Buzzati, Turgenev, Octavio Paz, Hawthorne, Melville, Donald Barthelme, Ortega y Gasset and
Abraham Lincoln. I can't imagine what ties that group together other than my odd brain.
Do you write poetry everyday?
I THINK about poetry every day. In recent years, I have been writing so much prose that I need to
discipline myself to sit down and write poetry. But the same kind of phenomena which stir me and inspire
me to poetry are always at work on me.
Talk about some of your publications.
My first published work was a short story that appeared in Portuguese in Brazil. A Brazilian writer,
Sergio Sant'Anna, who I knew from the International Writers Workshop in Iowa City, had, without telling me
in advance, translated the story and had it published in a major Brazilian literary review. Soon after that,
it was published in English. My first book of poems, The Rippling Water Sleeve, was published in a very
limited edition. Then my second book of poems, Equilibrium Fingers, was published by Kraken Press in 1978.
The great experimental American composer Kenneth Gaburo was also fascinated by language, and after we met in
the 1970s, he took an interest in my work. His Lingua Press published a small book on language that I wrote
called Language, A Magical Enterprise, The Body. This was later translated into Bengali by the Indian
troubador poet Deepak Majumdar. Gaburo then published a sequel Language Is Not Words and some of my poems.
He was very supportive of my ideas and experiments, as he was of many other composers and writers. His passing
was a huge loss. I began collaborating with the composer Randall Davidson in a performance work entitled
Among Dreams, and my friend Mike Finley at Kraken Press brought that out as a book of short stories.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, my poems were published in magazines all over the United States, including
American Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Boston Literary Review, Kansas Quarterly and many others.
Some of my work was translated into Portuguese, French and Bengali and published abroad. I have a book of
poems from that period called "The Boat of the Blue Rose" which is waiting for a publisher. I suppose I could
have been published more often if my style fit into a neat category, but my work is very idiosyncratic and
some editors perhaps have not been willing to publish my poems. Other editors have, however, and I am very
grateful to them.