Nevada's Poet Laureate puts the lit in literature
By Melissa Gill
Heather Lang-Cassera is not only Clark County, Nevada’s Poet Laureate, she’s also a lecturer at Nevada State College teaching creative writing, a founder and an editor with Tolsun Books, a World Literature editor for “The Literary Review,” and much more.
She’s received many awards for her literary gifts, such as Las Vegas’ “Best Local Writer and Poet” by the reader’s of Nevada Public Radio’s “Desert Companion” in 2017, nominations for Pushcart Prizes, awarded grants by the Nevada Arts Council, among several other awards and honors for her work.
What’s a Poet Laureate? A poet honored for achievement and appointed by the government to compose poems for special occasions and events.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, OfftheStrip talks with Lang-Cassera about local poetry projects, playing the saxophone and her forthcoming book, “Gathering Broken Light.”
How did you feel seeing the Poetry Matters Hits the Road project come to life, a digital billboard truck displaying a series of poems by Nevada poets?
Seeing Poetry Matters Hits the Road was a bit like witnessing a super bloom of desert flowers in neon. The digital media poetry truck felt like a beacon of hope, a symbol of a slow return to being able to gather together face-to-face for poetry.
Because I had curated the poems, and therefore had read them all before, I didn’t expect to feel quite as wonderfully overwhelmed—almost breathless—as I was when I saw the truck for the first time. It was pretty exciting. It was beyond wonderful to see readers’ faces light up as they discovered the poetry truck. Some readers jumped up and down. Some read quietly and intently. Some sang and danced!
I’ve been thinking a lot about how small each person looked when they stood next to the truck and its poetry in that enormous font with such brilliant backgrounds. It seemed almost symbolic, representative of the power of language, of how poetry can allow us to explore and to experience the world in an almost larger-than-life way.
I felt deeply honored to collaborate, as Clark County Poet Laureate, with Nevada Humanities to curate this poetry project. I am extremely grateful to Clark County, Nevada for their support of Poet Laureate programing and to Nevada Humanities, especially Bobbie Ann Howell, for all that they do for our community.
Please tell me about your forthcoming book, “Gathering Broken Light.”
“Gathering Broken Light” explores loss. The collection confronts pasts we cannot understand, largely following the Route 91 music festival of 2017. Fractured narratives, surrealistic repetition, and imagistic lyricism work to contemplate grief, including both overwhelming sorrow and deep love. Many of the poems are anchored in the severity and the beauty of our desert landscape.
How has the Las Vegas scenery affected your writing?
My poetry has long tended to be sparse and imagistic and to have foundations in juxtaposition, and I think the stark contrasts between wide-open desert spaces and the glittering neon of our bustling downtown, both of which can be breathtaking in their own right, have guided me toward a more refined poetic voice, one that feels true to me. The desert has a way of teaching us more genuine definitions of beauty, I believe.
What’s the story behind this Instagram post?
Years ago, when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I played with a few different bands. I absolutely loved it! That’s a photo of me playing my saxophone alongside our trombonist, Danielle, with a now de-funked ska/reggae/soul band. That photo is a definitely a #latergram. I made that post in April 2020, years after it was taken.
I took a break from playing out for quite a few years, including while I was formally studying creative writing, earning my MFA in Poetry and a Graduate Certificate in Literary Translation.
I’d love to find other musicians with whom I could play here in Las Vegas. The timing of that post, just a month into the pandemic, was most likely fueled by a combination of anxiety and hope; already then, I wanted to look forward to gathering again, in the same physical spaces, with other artists.
Which local poet should everyone be reading or listening to right now and why?
It is very hard to choose just one! This said, I recommend reading Rodney J. Lee, especially his most recent book, “Along These Trails” published by Zeitgeist Press. This collection explores the founding of Las Vegas and Nevada history.
His publisher describes the book well: “it is a landmark achievement drawing a mystical connection to the past, the diversity, the daring and sacrifice of our forebearers. It illustrates the trails and pathways they traveled that frame our community and lives today and into the future.”
Congratulations to Rodney J. Lee Poet/Photographer for a phenomenal book release party!Posted by Zeitgeist Press on Sunday, October 13, 2019
If you could give your younger self a piece of writing advice, what would you tell her?
Writing will always be about the journey; embrace it and enjoy it.
Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
I’d like to give a shoutout to my undergraduate writers at Nevada State College, where I serve as a lecturer, and to the student and alum editors of “300 Days of Sun,” the college’s literary magazine, for which I serve as one of the faculty advisors.
I am so deeply proud of these editors for the ways in which they give back to the literary community. Their 2020 issue was an online issue. It features a number of local writers—such as Ms. AyeVee, Dulce Sol, Nathan Say, and more—but also authors from California; Wisconsin; Evigado, Columbia; and elsewhere. The editors are currently working on their next issue, which will be a print issue, and it is going to be excellent. Themes of water and intergenerational connections have been emerging, which are important for exploration here within the Mojave Desert.
“Gathering Broken Light” will be released on September 28, 2021 and is now available for pre-sale directly through publisher, Unsolicited Press. Also, consider visiting Writer’s Block, the local downtown bookstore, when picking up a copy of her new book.
To get involved in the poetry scene in Las Vegas, reach out to Heather Lang-Cassera on her website.
Feature Photo Courtesy of Michael Cassera