Aileen Cassinetto never thought she would be named the San Mateo County poet laureate.
The immigrant from the Philippines has been honing her craft for decades, through a writers group while living in Europe, then under the mentorship of Filipina-American writers Remé-Antonia Grefalda and Eileen Tabios after moving to the United States in 2002.
She has two published works of poetry, “Traje de Boda” and “The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves and Other Poems,” and is co-publisher of the independent literary press called Paloma Press.
When her sister encouraged her to send in an application for the poet laureate position, Cassinetto figured she owed it to herself to try. She and her husband were getting Japanese take-out in San Francisco when she got the call from then poet laureate Lisa Rosenberg to congratulate her on her new role.
“I literally had to sit down,” said Cassinetto. “I was in total shock.”
It has been a wild ride since she took on the role in January, with a packed calendar of events, readings and workshops.
“My mandate is to make poetry more accessible to people in their everyday lives,” said Cassinetto.
This weekend, in celebration of National Poetry Month, Cassinetto will be bringing poetry to the Coastside through two workshops at the Half Moon Bay Library on Sunday, April 14.
The first workshop at 2 p.m. will be on hay(na)ku, also known as Filipino haiku, which was invented by Cassinetto’s mentor, Tabios, in 2003. Pronounced “ai-na-koo,” this simple style of poetry consists only of six words: three on the top line, two in the second line, and one in the last line.
Cassinetto says that hay(na)ku is a fun way for new poets to explore the art.
“It is deceptively simple,” she said, “but once you tap into the process of writing poetry, you see things differently, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. It is very enriching and life-altering.”
The second event at 3:30 p.m. will be a “paw-etry” open mic reading and reception, in which participants can share poems about animals and pets. This event commemorates Prevention Against Cruelty to Animals Month, which is also in April.
Cassinetto is an animal lover herself and has always had pets in her life. Currently she and her husband share their home with two cats and a 20-year-old blind python named Monty.
“Animal rights is one of the causes that I’ve been supporting for a long time now,” she said. “With this workshop, I wanted to highlight a cause that was close to my heart and make the connection with poetry.”
Cassinetto has developed her creative process over many years. She does a lot of research for her poetry, delving into her topics through newspapers, scientific journals and careful observation. She follows the rules of language, then pushes their boundaries to take words to their limit and find new and surprising combinations.
She writes and rewrites many times before perfecting her pieces. Sometimes, she says, it seems like a poem is not coming together. When that happens, she tries to leave it alone for a few days. Sometimes she completely abandons a project that just doesn’t seem to work.
As poet laureate, Cassinetto has had the opportunity to bring a bit of this magic to the community. One of the events that has affected her most deeply was a writing class she led at the county jail.
“I read somewhere that to be a poet you have to go through hell and back. These inmates are in so many hells,” she said. “It’s very touching and heartbreaking to read their poems.”
She felt that poetry offers them a kind of freedom they don’t otherwise have access to and a way to regain their dignity. Regardless of whether they will continue their poetry when they get out of jail, she felt like the experience would help them rejoin their families and their communities.
And that, really, is what she feels poetry is all about.
“As a poet, my most important lesson would be about community,” Cassinetto said. “Everything begins and happens through community.”