Interview with Cassidy McFadzean

Emily Brown

Cassidy McFadzean was born in Regina and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015), which won two Saskatchewan Book Awards and was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and Drolleries (M&S 2019)Her poems have appeared in BOAAT, Event, The Fiddlehead, PRISM international, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2016and have been shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize and The Walrus Poetry Prize. She lives in Toronto.

Emily Brown: The title of your book, Drolleries, refers to these half-human, half-animal drawings that would populate the margins of manuscripts from the thirteenth to fifteenth century. What led you to this title? Are the poems themselves “drolleries”?

Cassidy McFadzean: I came across these strange and mysterious drawings early on in the writing process and knew I wanted to borrow the term for my manuscript. Many of the poems in the book refer to monsters and mythological figures, and drolleries seemed to be a useful thematic conceit for working through ideas of transformation and change in a broader sense. I was also channelling the playfulness of these figures, which often depict bawdy or murderous figures in the margins of more serious works. My poems veer between seriousness and playfulness, the archaic and the postmodern, high art and low art, and drolleries seemed like a good illustration of these impulses.

EB: I remember reading your first book, Hacker Packer, when it came out in 2015, and being so struck by the way you used meter in your poems. It feels like there are two primary impulses at play in Drolleries—this very strict, almost formal use of language (meter, rhyme, form) with allusions to the classics and, on the other hand, this impulse toward an interior, emotional, contemporary, and digital-heavy landscape. I don’t mean to set those two things up as opposite, but I do want to ask you about how you see them working in tandem. At times they are blended, such as in the line, “I say goodbye with vocal fry” from the poem “Mood.” Are they at odds for you?

CM: I’m always wrestling between freedom and constraint, and in these poems, I like the structure and distance that form offers. In Drolleries, my poems are a bit more personal, and I think I feel protected by form—it’s as though the more structured I am in my verse, the more uninhibited I can be in the themes I address. I first fell in love with poetry for its musical qualities, and the hypnotic effect that poets like Emily Dickinson or Gwendolyn MacEwen—a really astounding Canadian poet who died too young—cast on me. A lot of my poems aspire toward song, and my use of meter and rhyme is a reflection of this. At the same time, I want my poetry to speak to personal experiences of the world I live in, and strict adherence to form is not always the best way to respond to a world that feels frenzied and chaotic. I wouldn’t say they’re exactly at odds, but the tension between these realms is what excites me the most.

EB: There are these shifts of language within the poems. We switch between lines like “twigs gashed / my legs, leaving two thin thistle kisses” in the poem “Nymph,” to the lines, “Like, if my father figures stop trying / to fuck me, will I still have daddy issues?” from the poem “Ten of Swords.” Do you know going into a poem which of these modes you will employ?

CM: When I’m first writing a poem, I can’t think about things too much or I’d be completely immobilized, but when I’m revising, I put a lot of pressure on each line. If it isn’t holding my own attention, how can I expect anyone else to read it? When a poem feels too boring, I’ll make a conscious effort to do something exciting with language like heightening attention to sound, which is what I tried to do in “Nymph.” I can also go too far the other direction, and initially there were a lot more cringe-worthy pop culture references in “Ten of Swords” that I took out. I guess I try to push myself as close as possible toward writing something really embarrassing or filled with obscure ekphrastic details without going over the (completely subjective and always shifting) line.

EB: Speaking of Hacker Packer, I was so delighted to see the “Leggings of Earthly Delights” pop up again! In that poem, the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights appears as a print on a pair of pants. The leggings appear in Drolleries in the poem “Leaving the Garden.” Was this a shout-out to your first book? 

CM: Yes! It was really surreal to see the painting in person after seeing Bosch exist everywhere in pop culture from Twitter memes to silkscreened onto a pair of Spandex leggings. It felt right to invoke Bosch again as there’s a lot of similarities between the two books; I’m writing about a lot of the same ideas in similar modes, and some of the poems that were cut from Hacker Packer were revised and found their way into Drolleries. My publisher at one point commented that they were treating the book as an unofficial sequel, and we kept a lot of the same design elements when working on the layout.

EB: Themes of marriage, divorce, and rings are everywhere in these poems. Could you speak more to that? 

CM: Drolleries is very much a divorce book, and there are a lot of poems working through my discomfort of wearing a ring and taking on the role of wife, which I never really felt at ease with. I experienced an anxiety between wanting to devote myself to someone and the desire for independence, and I work this out on the page because it started there; I didn’t start writing poems until the undergrad workshop where I met my ex-husband, so my development as a poet was in many ways tied to our relationship. While these poems grieve the end of our marriage, I’m grateful for the friendship we now have. He’s been a huge supporter of my writing and was enormously helpful during the editing of the book.

EB: Witchcraft and tarot also pop up in quite a few poems. Do you have a relationship with these things? If so, how do they inform your writing? 

CM: Though there are references to the occult in both my books, I am conscious of the ways in which white women often appropriate witchcraft, which has specific cultural roots I don’t have ties to. I do find tarot useful for the access it offers into archetypes and the subconscious, and generative to the creative process in the same way I find dreams, ritual, and superstitions to be generative. Though I’m pretty unversed in astrology, one element that is important to Drolleries is the idea of Saturn return, which occurs when the planet returns to the position it was in when you were born. This usually happens around age twenty-seven to twenty-nine, so for me, it fell right in the middle of writing the book, when I decided to move to Toronto, get divorced, and confront myself maybe for the first time.

EB: Do you set out to write in a particular form? For instance, in “Death March Sestina.” What was the impulse behind the sestina? I always think of sestinas as being super hard to pull off, but you do it well here.

CM: I really agonized over that poem and finding the right form to adequately attend to the death marches of WWII, as well as whether I should write the poem at all. I wrote the first draft of “Death March Sestina” in 2013 after travelling through Germany and Poland, and the poem was not initially a sestina, but an unstructured stream of impressions. I reworked it using the sestina form to heighten the repetitions and the fragmented feeling that was already present in that first draft. In this instance, form gives me a way of approaching the horror of the death marches through the repetition of imagery, which to me gives the poem a haunting, ceaseless tone. Whenever I set out to write a sestina or villanelle it can feel really arbitrary or forced, but I think in this case, subject matter led me to the form so it worked a little better.

EB: These poems seem very interested in how we view the past from the vantage of the present. In the poem “Catalogue” we have the juxtaposed image of this couple walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau and later being surrounded by teens singing Sean Paul. Why pull the reader out of the camp and into the bus? 

CM: I think I wanted to explore the disjunction between the solemnity of the camps, and the joviality of teenagers on a school trip. My initial reaction was one of judgment, but the more I thought about it, I wondered about the validity of their experience as well, which seemed to me to be one of spontaneity and perhaps innocence. Is there room for both solemnity and singing in our responses to atrocity? The juxtaposition in the poem is maybe a bit grotesque, but I wanted to explore whether a poem can hold space for both of these things.


Emily Brown’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Bennington Review, Prelude, Sonora Review, glitterMOB, and Lambda Literary’s Poetry Spotlight. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. 

Photo by Sarah Bodri