Aileen Cassinetto, San Mateo County’s poet laureate, knows the impact of a creative outlet.
On April 28, Cassinetto spoke via Zoom with sophomores from four of Jim Ward’s English classes at Half Moon Bay High School. For the better part of an hour, she read students’ poems, gave feedback, discussed the impact of the medium and what her role as poet laureate entails. The visit coincided with the class poetry unit. Students had been reading and analyzing poems from the Academy of American Poets’ selection of poetry for teens.
During the shelter-in-place, Cassinetto has Zoomed into other classes, most recently at a high school and elementary school in Portola Valley. But Cassinetto’s work goes far beyond educating students. She’s led writing classes in a county jail, and she saw the full impact an outlet like poetry could have on people. Before the shelter-in-place orders went into effect, she traveled to county library branches on a regular basis.
“This is a great opportunity for kids to see modern poetry and what’s going on in the world of poetry, and what a poet laureate is,” Ward said in explaining why he invited Cassinetto to speak.
Using poems from eight students, Cassinetto compiled them into a form resembling a villanelle. These include “five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains.” The form is one of the more formidable poetic constructions, according to Cassinetto. A famous example of this form is Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
Cassinetto was chosen by the county’s Board of Supervisors in 2018 and is the author of several poetry collections, including, “Traje de Boda” and “The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems.” Though she knows that not every student she spoke with will use poetry on a daily basis, she hopes exposing this medium prompts some to gain a new perspective.
“Whether you choose to be a practicing poet or not, poetry matters because it forces us to look beyond the superficial,
especially during this time,” she said. “It helps us connect with each other and helps change the way we look at ourselves and the world around us. The deeper our understanding, the more able we are to inspire others and make change.”
With few jobs tailored specifically for poets, Cassinetto is grateful to have this chance to make poetry more accessible to people in the county, whether through public readings or school visits. While each poet laureate has their own approach, she says her work is “really informed by social justice issues and relies heavily on building strong community relationships.”
It was Half Moon Bay librarian Julie Smith who connected Cassinetto with Ward’s English class. At the time, the library was bolstering its online programs and resources to meet the demands of students taking classes during shelter-in-place, and Smith wanted to hear any recommendations from Cassinetto.
At the same time, Ward, who expressed gratitude for the library’s resources, reached out to Smith to discuss possible sources for the poetry unit his classes were starting. One of the benefits Ward saw from the discussion was how transparent and thorough Cassinetto was in her methods. For budding young writers in his classes, this was a valuable lesson from a professional. She explained that poetry doesn’t always come through on a whim; crafting them takes time and effort.
“She did the work involved to figure it out,” Ward said of a poem she wrote about Half Moon Bay. “She talked about taking notes, exploring Half Moon Bay and writing things down. I think that was really effective.”