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"A Riot Nobody Paid Attention To": An Interview Norene Cashen

Norene Cashen was a writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. She's the former coordinator for Citywide Poets, Detroit's award-winning youth slam team. She also served as the contributing editor for the literary journal Dispatch Detroit. Her poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Temenos, The MOCAD Journal, markszine.com, Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poets (Wayne State University Press), and thedetroiter.comThe Reverse Is Also True, her first collection of poetry, was released by Doorjamb Press in 2007.

Her poem, "Encounter with Justice," appeared in Isseu Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Sarah Huener about Emily Dickinson, Black Lives Matter, and the need for beauty in a shadowy world.

The opening to this poem is incredible: it’s powerful but understated, and succinctly introduces the reader to the sequence of transformations that creates the poem’s momentum. I’m interested in your process of composition—when you wrote this poem, did you begin with this beginning? Did the gravity of the opening affect your process or your attitude toward the rest of the piece?

Thank you for the kind words. I like that term “sequence of transformations,” because that’s exactly what it is.

I did begin composing this poem with those first lines. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz - when I died –“ and “Because I could not stop for Death.” I was thinking of those Dickinson poems because of gun violence and recent police shootings of young black men and black youth in the United States. There was nothing but gravity in that.

I think the poem was driven from there by profound sadness. It’s that kind of sadness has to be attached to hope. And Dickinson’s work was still echoing there, because I know ““Hope” is the thing with feathers” was running through my mind as well. People who write poems have obsessions. Flying things (bullets, birds, and flies) were an obsession of mine while writing this poem. Flying things feel out of our control, out of our reach.

I’m especially intrigued by “the night-/ blooming Jasmine…” at the heart of the poem, which brings us to an important narrative turning point of departure and return, then unrecognition, perhaps alienation. The capitalization and hard enjambment emphasize its importance, and you allot more space to this image than others. How did you come to include Jasmine, and what is its importance to the poem as a whole?

This is a real thing in nature, a rare flower that blooms at night. Maybe it’s placed in the poem that way because flowers adorn things. In this poem, it’s a reminder of the beautiful life we are given, and how the darkness hides that from us. I believe we are living in an age of blindness and shadows.

“Encounter with Justice” is made up of two-line stanzas, with relatively few—and relatively soft—enjambments. (When Jasmine appears, it’s particularly dramatic in contrast to the texture of the rest of the sentences and lines.) How did you arrive at this form?

I had to just feel it, see it, and hear it. I needed space between transformations. The Jasmine is an adornment, a sacred symbol. It gets its own space.

Is there anything you’re reading now you’re particularly excited about, or that you think is having a particular impact on your writing and thinking?

Since John Ashbery passed, I’ve been revisiting his poems, particularly the collection called Wakefulness. His work leads me back to Wallace Stevens where I look for connections. I feel a reverence for language in Ashbery’s work.

The poem “Encounter with Justice” was dedicated to Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His work has had a profound impact on my life.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m working on a new poetry collection that is heavily influenced by Alan Moore. It explores relationships through the lens of magic and the paranormal.

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