Getting To Know Cassandra De Alba & Her New Book, Ugly/sad

As your artist bio states, your last two collections centered around very distinct themes (deer and the moon) — does Ugly / Sad have a central image at its core as well?

Ugly/Sad is centered more around a feeling, or a group of feelings, than an image – it’s this sense of muted neon unhappiness, a knife tucked into the sunset’s boot, humming along with your anxiety until it sounds like your favorite song.

I’ve noticed that throughout a lot of your work, you are highly concerned with decay – Tyra Banks in an apocalyptic landscape, photographs of ghosts, deer taking over a town, etc. Where did that fascination start? Has it always been there, or has it emerged over time?

I’ve never thought about this thread before but you’re absolutely right. I love remnants, and evidence, and forgotten scraps of life – the backyard of my childhood home had been the workers’ camp when they were building the train tracks down the street, so digging in the garden would give you rusty railroad spikes in addition to treasures like chipped marbles and tiny toys from later inhabitants. I’m interested in what people leave behind – in what we will leave behind, inevitably, at the end of society. Did you know that in the 1700s and 1800s European aristocrats would build fake ruins on their estates – abbeys that had always been crumbling, castles that were never whole? I hope these poems are less like that and more like a warning.

Speaking of decay and striking images, I have to ask: where did you get that cover image from? I’m obsessed with it.

My best friend’s dad saw a coyote in the back field and his reaction was to buy a wildlife camera and fill a baby doll with meat. He told me I could only use the pictures if I credited them to his dog.

If you dropped your poems off at a suburban mall in the early to mid-2000’s, where do you think they would go? Hang around the foodcourt for hours, raid Hot Topic, shoplift from Claire’s, etc.?

As someone who spent a lot of the early to mid-2000s at a suburban mall (shoutout to the Fox Run Mall in Newington, New Hampshire) I am in awe of this question, thank you for asking it. These poems are probably thinking about shoplifting from Claire’s to impress a girl but never going through with it because they’re too worried about getting caught. Or – my friends and I used to spend a lot of time hanging out in this big display bathtub by the TCBY until security finally sealed it off with plexiglass, so maybe some of them are doing that. I could talk about the early/mid-2000s mall experience forever? I have pictures.

You’re also a librarian and historian by education; have you found that your work is informed by that/do you often find yourself researching material for poems?

My library science degree is specifically in archives, so my research drive is very strong. There isn’t much in this collection, but I watched a LOT of documentaries about deer for habitats (if you only have time for one, make sure it’s Time Shadows, released by the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1987), and I’ve read pretty extensively about spirit photography, as well as the individual images, for the ghost project – almost none of which made it into the actual poems, but it’s there to inform. Research is about more than what’s on the page – it’s creating this web of knowledge that cradles your text.

What art, writing, or media is moving you right now?

All the work that’s been resonating with me lately has been book-length memoir or memoir-adjacent writing told in short sections and written by women? So Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. Also, everyone should see Cats (2019).

Sample poem from Ugly/Sad:


in the store of small desires i touch nothing,
afraid to break the delicate plaster hands,
dishes the size of dimes. i won’t decorate
another house where i don’t fit.
i’m almost ready to risk something 
the size of my life & full of blood,
to ride into town with my twin fears:
obsession, the jacket of knives
i look so good in –
desire, a foul animal
gone stupid in the heat.

Buy Ugly/Sad

Cassandra de Alba is a poet living in Massachusetts. Her chapbooks habitats (Horse Less Press, 2016) and ORB (Reality Hands, 2018) are about deer and the moon, respectively, and Ugly/Sad was released by Glass Poetry Press in 2020. She is a co-host at the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge and an associate editor at Pizza Pi Press. Photo credit to GennaRose Nethercott