Poet Laureate Aileen Cassinetto: ‘This is the book that ultimately decolonized me’

Borrowing questions from a favorite literacy feature in The Guardian, San Mateo County Poet Laureate Aileen Cassinetto shares her love of Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou and poems about ecology, nature, and "small acts of love." Learn more about Aileen's work and the work of other local poets at the San Mateo County Poet Laureate webpage, opens a new window.  

You're invited to share your love of poetry with us during National Poetry Month. Register, opens a new window in advance to listen to poems and ask questions for local poets during Poetry Reading Parties, opens a new window and master the tradition of haiku with an expert during Haiku Writing Workshops, opens a new window!

Q&A With San Mateo County Poet Laureate Aileen Cassinetto

The books I am currently reading...
Right now, I'm getting into nature and the environment with The Ecopoetry Anthology, opens a new window, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street. I also recommend Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, opens a new window, edited by Camille T. Dungy. Black nature may be the first anthology featuring works on nature by African American poets and I highly recommend this emerging genre!

My earliest reading memory...
Where the Sidewalk Ends, opens a new window by Shel Silverstein. This book was funny to me when I was four years old, “...all the colors I am inside have not been invented yet.” I find it clever and captivating still, and, in hindsight, unapologetically empowering.

The book that changed my life...
I was 7,000 miles away with no real grasp of forced migration and race-based slavery when I read And Still I Rise, opens a new window by Maya Angelou. My childhood had already been blighted by years of martial law and repression in the aftermath of centuries of colonialism; so, how could I not be affected by this book when the speaker—a woman—is so bold and forthright, so confident in the power of her words.

Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I've got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?

It still amazes me that decades later, as a poet laureate in America, I would be able to write a poem inspired by this book, on movement, and rising, and small acts of love.

The book that changed my mind...
The book that ultimately decolonized me is Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American Poetics, opens a new window, edited by Eileen Tabios and Nick Carbo. This is where I’ve started to pay more attention to the Filipino transcolonial experience and postcolonial concerns in a multicultural setting. Seventeen years after its release, the anthology still speaks of shared histories, connections, and the nature of kapwa.

A second volume would be most welcome, to see how the poets—many of whom have since become household names—navigated their way out of “stubborn invisibility.”

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing...
There are so many. During these pandemic times, I feel mostly inspired by House of Light, opens a new window by Mary Oliver, with lines like, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” This book is inspiring, yes, but also so astonishingly candid and present. It shines a light on the commonplace and everyday, a way out of the brokenness. 

The book I wish I’d written...
I would have to say another book by Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, opens a new window. To render lines that are so unadorned and yet so singular, and anchor them in hope, it’s something I continually aspire to do. “And here you may find me / on almost any morning / walking along the shore so / light-footed so casual.” 

Upcoming Poetry Events

Poetry Reading Party - Part 1
Wednesday, April 7 ∙ 6:30 PM
Our first reading party stars East Palo Alto Poet Laureate Kalamu Chache, former San Mateo County Poet Laureate Lisa Rosenberg, Peter Carroll, Diane Lee Moomey, and Carol Park. These amazing local poets will share their favorite poems and will take questions from the audience during a panel discussion.

Poetry Reading Party - Part 2
Monday, April 12 ∙ 6:30 PM, opens a new window
Immerse yourself in the world of spoken word poetry at our next reading party! This time, the poems and panel discussion will include Joe Cottonwood, Monica Korde, Hilary Cruz Mejia, Tony Press, and Lee Rossi.

Haiku Writing Workshop
Friday, April 16 ∙ 6:30 PM, opens a new window
Join us for a hands-on interactive haiku workshop with Jerry Bolick! Learn the historical tradition of haiku and how to write your own.

Haiku Writing Workshop
Tuesday, April 20 ∙ 6:30 PM, opens a new window
For syllable counting experts or absolute beginners, it's hard to argue with the brevity and simplicity of haiku. Join us for another workshop with Jerry Bolick.

Will you be reading or writing any poems to celebrate National Poetry Month? Let us know in the comments!