Story by Miguel Angel Vega / Edited by Jeannie Le / Photography by Tiffany Dewberry | 26 August 2019
Cassandra Butcher (Cassie to those who know her) once believed that to be a part of the poetry community is to pass off a certain level of philosophical insight, an affinity for the complexity of the stanza and a scholar blend of symbolic puzzle-like imagery. Now, with a recently self-published debut titled The Peelback under her belt, she cannot be told otherwise that she isn’t a poet. And she doesn’t care if you disagree.
I met Cassandra early on in my freshman year at the California State University of San Bernardino, back when she worked at the school’s Cross Cultural Center, whose main role was to promote cultural awareness and identity within the campus. If I scavenge through the stressed-out filaments of my undergraduate studies I also seem to remember having Cassie in one of my only history classes, in which she was an active participant with a very easy-going and welcoming personality.
Personally, I think that is how a lot of us saw and interacted with Cassandra “Cassie” Butcher: a loving, nurturing and kind person who seemed to go through undergrad with a self-fulfilled flare.
Being present in a majority of events throughout CSUSB, Butcher has grown accustomed to being unapologetically in the moment, supportive and heard.
So, in the evening of April 9 while I was scrolling through Instagram, it made total sense to me to see that such an outspoken and intelligent scholar that was comfortable in her own words had self-published her own collection of poems under the title The Peelback. Whether you read poems such as the self-confronting “Ownership,” or the supportive “Friends After A Break Up,” or ones such as the confessional “I hated us,” it is imperative to note that everyone has their own personal struggles that serves as a paradox to the presentation of the physical or online persona. And Cassie Butcher is no exception.
Having finally the opportunity to read the collection for myself, Cassie and I exchanged a few business emails, a la Hilary Clinton, and managed to arrange for the following interview.
In the introduction to this collection you state that “these poems are what I consider afterthoughts.” So, after mulling it over, who was Cassandra Butcher then and who is she now?
I’d say I’m still figuring that part out. However, I know that Cassandra is always changing, always evolving. She’s someone who finally trust her growth process. She trusts her experiences and she knows they’re what make her so beautiful, so unique and so strong.
What is your writing process like?
Honestly, I’ve loved poetry and these are a collection of poems I’ve written over the last 3-4 years. When I’m frustrated or feeling overwhelmed I would remember just randomly saying things in my head and they were like poems to me. I’d be expressing how I felt about something in my mind and then one day I was like, im going to start writing these down. And I just began to look at my emotions as poetry. Looking at the fluidity in my emotions was captivating.
You have a very straightforward style - often free verse with rhyming sewn throughout and couplets ending them. What poets did you study/read as inspiration for your own collection?
I honestly can’t say I got this style from anyone else. I mean I am noticing that it’s becoming a popular style but when I started writing like this, it was based off pure emotion. I would write down what I felt and I would think to myself, who’s going to tell me this isn’t a poem? If I feel like it’s a poem, then it’s a poem!
The style you write in was popularized around 2013/2014 with such poets as Rupi Kaur, Savannah Brown, Nayyirah Waheed and Lang Leav. Since then it has been critiqued for being “too direct” with various back and forth between its legitimacy. At the same time, while free-verse poetry has been criticized before, it has also been praised and accepted. During the Beat movement of the fifties, free verse grew in popularity and acclaim (keep in mind most of the movement focused solely on white males). What are your thoughts on this? Do you think there is a stigma attached to direct poetry or just direct poetry coming from minorities?
I definitely think that this style is what’s needed. I remember when I first got into poetry, I told myself I could never write because poems require deep thinking, a certain amount of stanzas and I just didn’t know how to make my words sound all deep and fancy and like a puzzle.
Throughout your collection you mention and confront yourself; in your poem “Dead Roots” you claim how “I was the one who needed to be replanted.” At what point do you come to the realization that some, if not all, of our growth comes with this sort of self-confrontation and at what point did you confront yourself?
Over the years I’ve truly learned to watch with who I surround myself with. Transferring energy is real. And I would just find myself feeling so out of place around certain groups of people. I was always complaining, gossiping, and I just wasn’t happy. I got tired of feeling this way and I started taking my healing, my peace, and my joy serious and I knew that in order to receive what I was seeking, I had to make drastic changes.
In “Complete Dumbass” you refer to your undergraduate years when you state that you graduated “feeling incomplete” and you end that poem by saying “People looked at me dead in my eyes and hated me/ for being whole/ Then I began to hate me for being whole.” Now, for anyone who met or saw you during your undergraduate studies, they would assume (as I did) that there was no one who felt more whole in themselves as you did. Did you feel that at some point you were “putting up a front” in order to seem composed? What was it like to cross that stage and still not feel like it was enough?
I would say with certain groups of people yes. Thankfully around you, I felt like I could be myself. But I remember people always telling my significant other how I wasn’t the one for him, or people hating on the fact that other people liked me and this was when I cared and wanted people to like me. So when I heard someone didn’t like me, whenever I was around them I would try to act in a way that they approved of. Which was dumb because I just simply never would have been enough for them. Later on I realized that I had something they lacked and they hated me for it. Till this day, I don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s inner peace, maybe it’s love, maybe I was who they always wanted to be, I have no idea. I just know that I am no longer into the idea of shrinking so others can feel big.
Aside from mental wholeness you also write about physical unwholeness, such as in your poem “My Body.” Other poems also touch on this (such as “Skinny Frustrations”) and my question is regarding this unwholeness - can you explain the disconnect between you and your body? In what ways are you allowing yourself to be reintroduced?
Growing up I was a late bloomer. Boobs didn’t start growing until high school and I’ve always been skinny. I felt really insecure about this at one point and sometimes I still do. Even when my partners loved my body, I hated it. I also hated when I’d wear something and bigger women would be like “I bet you think you’re cute in that little outfit, your skinny but can wear whatever you want”. It was as if they would push their insecurities on me and I would let them. But now, I’m falling in love with my body. I find myself looking in the mirror and dancing, smiling, and saying “it’s a hot girl summer” lol.
You talk about a sort of “blood discrimination” in your work: being labeled or considered the “outsider” in your own family, such as the case in your poem “Generational Curse.” I myself have come across this exact feeling with myself and others. It isn’t a new feeling, but that just means that it has been going on for a long time. Do you think this is more prominent with families of color? Why or why not?
I think it’s a thing of your family members not being confident and secure in who they are so they try to make you feel the same way. I’ve learned so much from my mom. I remember one day discussing her insecurities and I was like wow, my super hero has insecurities? It was like a light bulb went off in my head and then I realized my mom is human, she goes through challenges just like me. Through this, I started thinking about other family members and how maybe they act the way they do because of personal issues they have and are afraid to share with the rest of the family because of judgement. It’s easier to judge others rather than confront your own problems. Also, family or not. If you are doing something in your life that other people wish they did, they will sometimes take it out on you and make you feel bad.
You talk about your father in some poems such as in “Why couldn’t you love me Better?” If there is one thing you would like your father or any of your family, or even friends, to take from this collection, what would it be? What version of yourself do you want them to be left with after reading this?
This is interesting because, to be honest, I didn’t write or publish this book for anyone except for me. I’ve always wanted to write a poetry book just because. I never pictured anyone reading it. Which is why I haven’t done much promotion for it. I posted it on my IG once. I love the support but I don’t expect it. I expected to release these emotions. Of course I was nervous because when I did start thinking about people reading this, I was like omg. I hope they like it but then I was like if they don’t oh well. But then I was like, hmm I wonder if anyone can connect to this? I wonder if I’m the only one experiencing these emotions.
This collection’s release was rather interesting, I noticed, with no prior announcement on social media such as Instagram. What was the intent behind the sudden release? Also, while this collection was more of a surprise, can you give us a hint of anything you are working on now or are you just focusing on your area of study?
Honestly, I think it goes back to what I said in the last post. I didn’t really prep because I just wanted to release a book. But now I am thinking of doing interviews, creating promo videos, and hosting workshops for the book because there are so many people who can relate to it and I want to create a safe space to where we can have conversations on these topics and discuss ways we’re practicing healing or moving forward.
I like to end on a rather positive, if not random note hence this bonus question. I noticed the theme and aesthetic of this collection to be floral. What flower(s) is your favorite and why?
I absolutely love sunflowers and carnation flowers. I feel as if I stand tall and bloom beautifully like a sunflower. I also feel like it takes a lot of time to grow, I have to constantly water myself and allow myself to stand in the sun just like a sunflower. Carnation flowers are the flowers for my birth month. They have so many petals and that makes me think about how I have so many attributes that make me who I am. Each attribute is what makes me such a beautiful flower.
*END OF INTERVIEW*
It certainly seems that where it concerns Cassie Butcher, we don’t have a “finished product.” What we have is someone who is going through a growth, and as long as she is content with who she is, she will not let anyone get her down.
“. . . sometimes we encouraged others to love us incorrectly because we love ourselves incorrectly. This book is me peeling back layers I allowed people, my fears, and my insecurities to place upon my identity,” — Cassandra Butcher from The Peelback.
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