Interview with Cassie Lewis

The chapbook Bridges is written about your time in San Francisco. Could you tell me about its conception and development. For instance was Bridges started soon after your arrival in the U.S.A.? Were these first impressions, the clear eye of the outsider?

I wrote the long poem Bridges after I had been in the San Francisco Bay Area for two or three years, so I was nearing the end of my initial acclimation period.

Rather than being first impressions, the observations in this poem are the first coherent sense I was able to make of my own expatriate experience.

Myself and my husband at the time were living in the suburbs of Silcon Valley, rather than in San Francisco itself, though all my friends lived in that city, or in Oakland. My poetry life took place a 40 minute train ride from my own apartment.

It was a unique 'positioning' in that I had distance both from Australian culture, and from true cultural immersion. Living with an Australian, I think, both delayed and eased the transition to life in a new country.

For a long time I held out from integrating all that I was learning, hence the phrase 'gentle embassy' in Bridges. At times I felt like a kind of ambassador, living between cultures but belonging, in pragmatic terms, to none.

I began running the Poetry Espresso discussion list and small press when I arrived in California.

Because I didn't have a work visa, and because of an immense sense of drive and inspiration, I devoted most of my waking life to this project, and it rewarded me richly.

By the time I came to write Bridges, I felt that I really had built a kind of bridge between my two worlds, my two countries. More broadly, I felt as though my experience as a list moderator had given me training in empathy, the most sturdy bridge of all between individuals.

The poem itself is a departure from my publications prior to 2000. The events of 9/11 were a few months  after our arrival so there was a general sense of 'life after cataclysm' informing the piece.

Stylistically, I was also trying to build a bridge between what I saw as the best aspects of Australian poetry, and all the new influences I was finding in the Bay Area scene.

The diary format was a real change for me. Laurie Duggan was very encouraging during the writing of this piece and his own poetry strongly influenced it.


There is a line in the poem 'My home town, my home town, my home town.' [p19] it stands alone on the page and is quite arresting. Is your hometown a place?  Do you as a poet need a level of comfort to be able to write or is the opposite true?

It's very astute that you ask whether my home town is a place, Angela. Elsewhere in Bridges I say that I like the idea of winter being a place, rather than a season, because it means you can leave that place. Moving to a new country makes it clear that 'home' is much more than a location.

I think my answer to this question is different now than it would have been even a year ago. Now I feel that 'home' is mostly about staying close to the people I value most, and close to your own values.

At the time I wrote Bridges, I was experiencing for the first time what it meant to not live in Melbourne, to not know the streets like the back of my hand.

It was liberating, but also humbling, and at times painful, this separation from the familiar.

In answer to your second question ... I think that my best writing has tended to happen when I am most at home in myself.

Practically speaking, I can write in all weather, so long as I have the time I need to become meditative.


I've noticed you're using the form of the prose poem quite a lot in this recent work. How do you decide the form, is this dictated by the subject, the method of writing or is it a conscious direction?

My poems are always in the driver's seat regarding the form they take. In the case of Bridges, and indeed in all cases, it's less to do with the subject than with the demands of the words themselves.

It's hard to explain what I mean by this. Basically, I make decisions about form based on a kind of visual/gestural instinct when I look at the words on the page. To put it more clearly, I feel 'nudged' by the look and sense of the poem to place the words in a particular way.


I was in the privileged position of having seen the manuscript draft you sent to the publisher and so have seen those small final corrections you made. There really were very few changes at that stage. Are you one of those people who returns to your work to polish it or does it need little in the way of correction?

Over the years I've developed a method of writing that means that by the time a poem 'percolates' and actually is written on a page, it is almost complete.

I still review my work rigorously, but what I find is that poems that need a lot of changes simply collapse under the strain, whereas the  stronger ones just need a little polish added, yes.

When I first started writing, I was much more prolific, but I only published a small percentage of what I wrote.

Lately I write about the same about of good material but the editing process has become far less conscious. I will kick around ideas for months, either in conversation, or in my private thoughts, then one day the urge to write will come.


Bridges is an interior poem, there is not much 'action', more comment on what is happening outside. The tone is framed by the well chosen epigraph taken from 'America' by Bernadette Mayer "This gentle information comes as a prescription" and your style of writing is very gentle.  "Waves are made of the same water rotating tirelessly." [p5] Is this gentleness deceptive?

I think my writing is gentle at times, but it really depends on the perspective of the reader. I have had the opposition reaction to my writing too.

Gentleness is often seen as the opposite of being strong, whereas I see it as a sophisticated demonstration of strength. Philosophically, I am preoccupied with empathy and ethics in daily life as well as in art.

The Mayer quote invokes a kind of logical neccessity contained within the experience of gentleness - a 'prescription' to be filled.

In the case of Bridges, all of my positive experiences of San Francisco poetry led to huge change in both my personal and writing lives. In this sense gentleness was the catalyst for revolutionary change. To this extent my writing is deceptive in its gentleness, also - it can lead to uncharted conceptual territory.


Among the quiet observations I found a few pithy comments about American society: "and the train tracks/ keep poverty from touching us" [21] Am I right to read more than an air of puzzlement into this?

Yes. America is definitely a society of extremes. It was a shock to me to see both fabulous wealth and homelessness side-by-side in San Francisco. At the end of the dotcom boom this contrast was particularly stark.

Institutions that are as supportive of young artists as the Australia Council, for example, are unheard of. And most people can't even imagine what fully socialised medicine might look like.

It was a shock to me to realise that many people in hospitals here are more focused on the bills they'll recieve than on recovering. To be 'uninsured' - to not have health insuance - in the United States is to be extremely vulnerable.


What influence does place have on your poetry? For instance do you see a difference for you as a poet between living in San Francisco and now New York State?

Place has a huge influence on my poetry, both in terms of mood and imagery, and in terms of form. I've outlined some of the ways that the West Coast altered my writing.

The East Coast has effected a change also, though it has been less dramatic. I've consolidated all that I learned in the Bay Area and gained some new perspectives.

Living in a cold climate has made my writing more serious in tone, I've noticed. Also I'm fascinated by snow, and have written about it at length.


Finally do you think that now you've moved coasts can we expect a new chapbook about New York State?

I hope there will be a full length book or two before too long! I have a great deal of material that I have yet to send to publishers. My time so far in upstate New York has been one of consolidation and incubation for my writing.

Whatever happens next will be a surprise to me, this I'm sure of.