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Poet laureate brings passion for poetry to Clark County

Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.

Maybe poets are born, maybe they’re made. Maybe it’s even a bit of both, when a poet-to-be just needs a gentle nudge from, say, the inspiration that comes in a box of books from a relative.

That’s how it worked for Heather Lang-Cassera, who on June 1 began her two-year term as Clark County’s third poet laureate. As the county’s ambassador of poetry, Lang-Cassera will travel Clark County to, as the job description goes, “promote poetry as an art form and a medium for inspirational public commentary.”

Lang-Cassera plans several initiatives, including readings and workshops where Southern Nevadans can take a stab at writing poetry themselves.

Born in Salt Lake City, Lang-Cassera, 33, and her family moved to Wisconsin when she was a child. She studied poetry in high school but wasn’t particularly taken by it.

“I actually did not like poetry at all until I was in my mid-20s,” she says. “Part of that was, I really believed there was one way to read a poem. That’s completely wrong, but I think it was that kind of fear, (that) I don’t know if I’m going to be right or not, and this seems kind of difficult.”

This is where that box of poetry books comes into play. A relative was moving and passed them on to Lang-Cassera. “It totally changed my life. I opened it up, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is what poetry can be,’ and nothing was ever the same after that.”

Those poems, unlike the poetry she had read previously, “spoke to me in both their topics and also in their language,” she says.

“Literally, when I got that box of books, I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a poet. This is my thing.’ It was one of those moments of super-clarity.”

Lang-Cassera moved to Las Vegas from Seattle five years ago. Her husband, Michael Cassera, is supervisor of lighting and special effects for Cirque du Soleil’s “Love,” and Lang-Cassera teaches English classes and is adjunct faculty coordinator for the school of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College.

“What I do is help teachers teach, and I love that,” she says. “It’s interesting. People will ask me, ‘What do you do?’ and depending on how they ask, what they really may be asking is, ‘What do you do for work? How do you get paid?’ and then I tell them more about the college.”

“But, then, I identify as a poet, if that makes sense,” she adds, laughing.

As poet laureate, Lang-Cassera hopes to help take poetry “more broadly throughout and more deeply into the county. Reading poetry, yes, but also writing poetry.

“I didn’t like poetry until I was in my 20s. It was life-changing. I just want to give other people that opportunity, too.”

Review-Journal: Were you a bookish kid?

Heather Lang-Cassera: I loved reading. I was definitely one of those kids. I’d sneak out of my bed at night and put all the books from my shelf on the bed. So I’d wake up and all these books were on my bed and the floor. But I really wasn’t much of a writer. I thought that I wouldn’t be good at it.

What turned you on to reading?

My mom always read to us every single night before bed. I think that was our quality time together. I remember my mother reading a lot of Berenstain Bears stuff. Then, after that, it was anything I could get my hands on. I even read the backs of shampoo bottles. I don’t know why (laughs).

Why do so many of us feel intimidated by poetry?

I think a lot of people find poetry intimidating because of the experiences they’ve had in the past, maybe in a classroom setting where you were graded on it, which is a little scary sometimes, or maybe they were taught there was one correct reading of a poem, which really isn’t the case. When you read a poem, the poem becomes yours and your reading of it is correct.

Any advice about how to read a poem?

My advice would be to read the poem for your own enjoyment and ask yourself what do you like about it or how it relates to you in your own life.

Why does poetry matter?

Poetry matters because it can be fun, but also because it helps us pay attention to the world around us and to ourselves … Also, there are a lot of really short poems, or we can write short poems that are bite-sized, so no matter how busy we are we can take a couple of moments to really spend that time enjoying the world and more deeply understand things.

How can poetry newcomers begin?

I think one great way is to take the leap and go out to poetry events. There are a lot of them happening and our community is incredibly welcoming. … Or, maybe going to something like the Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) where you can look up poems according to topics. I think that’s a great way to do it.

What’s the poetry scene like here?

Amazing. Super-welcoming. One of the things I really love about the poetry scene here is how encouraging folks are. So if you go to open mic, for example, I’ve been to open mics where people read for the very first time ever and people cheered. They’re so supportive and so genuine … The scene here is awesome in that the community meets you at where your poems are at and they want to help you become the best poet you can be in your own style, in your own voice.

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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