Instructor Spotlight: Cassie Pruyn

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On November 27, poetry and prose instructor Cassie Pruyn released her second book, Bayou St. John, A Brief History. Bayou St. John played a significant role in the New Orleans’ neighborhood of the same name, fueling debate over the waterway’s use, control and ownership for centuries. Native Americans first used it as a trade route. Later, it became a backdoor entrance for settlers to the present-day French Quarter. As commercial use declined, residents witnessed a progressive shift toward recreation. Following the Civil War, tourists flocked to witness Marie Laveau’s voodoo ceremonies. The early twentieth century brought two amusement parks. And events like the Bayou Boogaloo music festival draw thousands of visitors. Despite its many costume changes, the bayou continues to be the Crescent City’s most beloved waterway.
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Cassie will be reading from her new book at Octavia Books on Sunday, December 10 at 2:00. She’ll also be teaching a 6-week NOWW course titled “Tough Subjects” in the Spring of 2018. We interviewed her about her writing process below.
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Interviewer
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How did you get interested in the history of Bayou St. John?
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Pruyn
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As a poet and a person, I’ve always been drawn to bodies of water. Specifically, their history: the way they’ve impacted so many facets of human development, as transportation corridors or food sources or, in the case of alluvial rivers like the Mississippi, as land-builders. I’ve always loved to think about how given spaces have been transformed over the centuries—their physical, visceral histories—and how you can see and feel that in the present day. When I moved from rocky, oceanic Maine to New Orleans, I couldn’t get over the city’s relationship to water. Bayou St. John as a subject seemed to me to be the perfect way into this relationship, and I knew the bayou was both beloved and important to the residents of New Orleans. 
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Interviewer
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Can you share any stories you uncovered that particularly surprised you?
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Pruyn
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I found so many quintessential New Orleans anecdotes over the course of my research! Often, these were the stories I blogged about because they were just so whimsical and bizarre, and often didn’t necessarily have a place in the body of the main narrative (also, they couldn’t always be verified). 10-foot gators plucking pate from a pirogue without overturning its owner; drunk, dancing bears on the bayou’s banks; girl-on-girl duels and stolen airplanes! The list goes on and on!
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Interviewer
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What was your research process like? Where did you find your best material?
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Pruyn
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I spent time in local libraries and research institutions, I interviewed residents, and I wandered along the bayou gathering visual evidence. Rinse and repeat! When I first set out on the project, I cast a wide net. I looked for any mention of Bayou St. John in the archives or in other sources, and from there, I narrowed in on specific subjects and time periods. I also spent a ridiculous amount of time on the Historical Times-Picayune database, available anywhere as long as you have an New Orleans Public Library card. What a treasure trove of information! I sifted through somewhere around 10,000 articles over the course of two years. It was both exhausting and exhilarating!
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Interviewer
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In addition to writing non-fiction, you’re also a poet. How did poetry inform this book? Has this non-fiction project changed your approach to poetry at all?
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Pruyn
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I knew that what I could bring to the narrative as a poet would be lyrical, descriptive language, and that proved to be a super fun part of the process. What surprised me were the ways in which my “poet’s brain” seemed to kick into gear when I was organizing information in preparation to begin outlining a chapter, for example. It felt like the same part of my brain that wrote poems was also at work making connections between pieces of information. That was an unexpected link  between the two genres for me. And yes, the research skills I developed over the course of the project will certainly influence my poetry in the future. I’ve often looked to history for material for my poems, and, going forward, I’ll have some ideas beyond doing a Google search for how to integrate those kinds of information into my creative work.
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Interviewer
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Do you know what your next project will be?
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Pruyn
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I want to do something spooky! By that I mean that I’m toying with the idea of writing a “faux” history of the colonial farmhouse I grew up in in rural Maine (archival research!), and using that to explore the ways we are influenced by space and how space influences us, and how those interactions become inscribed in the physical environment. It’s hard to explain exactly—but I’m curious about the concept of “haunting,” and in blurring the boundaries between past and present, physical and abstract, real and “not real.” In other words, poems with ghosties in them. I think that’s where I’m going next!
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Cassie Pruyn is the author of Bayou St. John: A Brief History (The History Press, 2017) and the poetry collection Lena (Texas Tech University Press, 2017), winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in AGNI Online, The Normal School, 32 Poems, The Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal and many others. Born and raised in Portland, Maine, she holds a BA from Bard College and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She teaches at Bard Early College in New Orleans