Under Pressure: Stephanie Cawley

2020, Under Pressure
Stephanie Cawley, author of My Head But Not My Heart

My Heart But Not My Heart, Stephanie Cawley

Stephanie Cawley is a poet from southern New Jersey. She is the author of My Heart But Not My Heart, winner of the Slope Book Prize chosen by Solmaz Sharif, and the chapbook A Wilderness from Gazing Grain Press. Her poems and other writing appear in DIAGRAM, The Fanzine, TYPO, The Boston Review, and West Branch, among other places. Her next book Animal Mineral will be out from YesYes Books in 2022. Learn more at stephaniecawley.com


Bina Ruchi Perino: Where do you get your title inspiration from?

Stephanie Cawley: I almost never have a title in mind when I begin something, and I rarely even put a provisional title at the top of the page when writing. The title of my book, My Heart But Not My Heart, came a while after I’d written most of it. In a workshop with Yona Harvey, she led us in an extended free-writing session — maybe two hours long, with some prompts intervening along the way. The phrase “my heart but not my heart” emerged there, somehow. It felt right for the book, and it felt right for this book that its title come from somewhere outside it.

BRP: When working on a project, do you give yourself deadlines? What does that time management/organization look like?

SC: I’m pretty resistant to the idea of internally-imposed deadlines in my writing practice, though I recognize that external deadlines (application or submission deadlines, workshop deadlines when I was in school, needing to put something together to send to a friend) can have a motivating influence on getting me to commit to a decision about a piece. Left to my own devices, I try to carve out time for writing but let myself “work” in a pretty intuitive way, whether that’s generating new writing, revising, assembling a manuscript, reading, or not writing. I think I do my best writing when I trust that my creative process isn’t something that needs to operate according to capitalist logics about productivity, organization, and time management. It’s more like a plant that needs tending: certain kinds of light, water, air, space, time.

BRP: Who/what is currently inspiring you, art-wise?

SC: I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire twice in theaters before beginning to shelter in place. That, plus Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, plus for a long time now Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love are haunting and inspiring a lot of the writing I’ve been doing recently.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

SC: Dawn Lundy Martin crossed out a line in one of my poems that was kind of over-explanatory, kind of facing towards the reader and pointing out what was happening in that moment, and Dawn said I didn’t need that line, that I should trust my reader. While other writers, mentors, and peers might have told me to cut a moment like that, too, I had never thought about it quite that way before. I return to that advice often. I think writing feels best to me when I am working to trust my readers, to approach them with generosity, rather than any defensive need to prove myself — whether proving my own skill or control, or proving or explaining my suffering, my feelings, my beliefs. 

BRP: What is your favorite literary city and what makes that community special?

SC: The two literary cities of my heart are Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. I really began to be a poet while living in Philadelphia after college, and I’m glad to be (almost) there again now. Philly has great bookstores (People’s Books and Culture, the new Harriett’s Bookshop, the Wooden Shoe) and truly more poetry readings than a human person could hope to attend. Then I lived in Pittsburgh for graduate school and a bit after, and I treasure and so deeply miss the poetry community there, bookstores like White Whale Books, incredible readings and workshops put on by the Center for African-American Poetry & Poetics at Pitt, plus DIY readings at venues like Glitterbox and in people’s houses. 

BRP: Besides writing, what else would you say you do you have a passion for making? What parallels do you see between it and writing?

SC: I have cycled through a lot of textile-based hobbies over the years: sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery. I think it can just feel satisfying to make something more tangible than a piece of writing, but I also think attending to questions of color, texture, and shape as you do with textile crafts can help me bring a different kind of attention to writing, particularly if I’m having a hard time getting distance from a piece I’m working on. 

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate or feel are important to your writing?

SC: I’m not particularly ritual- or routine-oriented, but for me, caring for myself is an important support to my writing. Taking my meds, going to therapy, cooking, exercising (horrifying), going to bed on time. Often if I’m not doing these things, I’m not going to be able to write. Other than that, while I don’t have a strict routine or discipline about it, reading is the most important practice to support my writing. I don’t even read every day, but I do love to carve out big blocks of time for reading, to read all morning when I can, to read on the train, to read before bed.

BRP: What is your process when drafting? Do you use a journal or draft in other ways?

SC: I mostly write on the computer, and I mostly write while looking out the window or off in the distance, paying as little conscious attention to what I’m doing on the page as possible, for as long as possible, or as long as I feel moved to do so.

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

SC: What an interesting question! Perhaps I am more of a curator. As you might suspect from how I’ve been talking about my writing process, I tend to generate a lot of writing, material, text, and then revision or editing for me is about shaping a smaller amount of that material into a poem, or a sequence, or a manuscript. I don’t think of this process as about cutting or discarding material to excavate something, like I’m carving a statue, but rather as about sifting through and gathering pieces that I want to assemble and then refine into something new, like making a nest. 

BRP: What advice would you offer to young writers on the topic of inspiration?

SC: Cultivate it, but trust it. Figure out, through trial and error, what fuels your particular creative process (movement, stillness, solitude, sociality, looking at art, listening to music, reading X kind of book, mornings, evenings, quiet, routine, lack of routine, being outside, etc. etc.) and try to arrange your life as much as possible to give yourself space for those things. And then don’t panic if things move slowly, or strangely, or irregularly, or mysteriously, or if what you need changes as you and your life change.

Order My Heart But Not My Heart here!

Stephanie Cawley

2016, Poetry


The first half of my novel will be a series of tedious first dates
i.e. squinting in a dark bar at pictures of waterfalls

on a tiny screen. The second half will be a long description of a party
from the point of view of a dead person i.e. punchlines

with no jokes attached and platters of half-eaten crudité.
The first half of my novel will be a catalog

of street signs that, if mapped, spell out the names of the dead
scrawled around the places they died. The second half

will be a long-winded speech about the dangers of going outside
i.e. skin cancer, loose shingles, mountain lions. The first half

of my novel will be a long description of a single cheese sandwich
i.e. a last meal, i.e. a grave. The second half will be in the voice

of a woman who has never seen the sea. The first half of my novel
will be a series of forlorn soliloquies and the second the same

words in reverse i.e. a return to the point of origin, i.e. a tape
played back suggesting an endless loop. The first half

of my novel will be a collage of lyrics to sad songs i.e. an accurate
transcription of the inner life of a white ceiling slept under

by a grieving daughter. The second half will be the same
lyrics with all the verbs taken out, i.e. love, i.e. hunger, i.e. gone.


                             Starring Joy Katz, Miley Cyrus, Donald Winnicott,
                             Mary Ruefle, and 28 Teeny Tiny Wild Mice

To bring a baby into the poem,
you must, the poet says,
introduce a counterweight
for all that cuteness. Whatever
the opposite of cuteness
is, she says, do that.

In class, the students discuss
the sentimental via the pop star’s
music video: teary close-ups
of a red-lipped trembling
mouth cut with shots of her pale naked
body straddling the heavy swing
of a wrecking ball.

I think about bringing a baby into
the world and what counterweight
I would prepare
to offer or suffer, the baby plopped
on one end of a seesaw, dense
and heavy as the universe
crammed in a nutshell.
On the other end: Big
Suffering, the beloved dead standing
on each other’s heads.

But the mother and baby balance
each other as not weight but
mirrors. In the psychologist’s
theories, the grim
tug of a frown starts the mirror
cracking. The problem is
how to look at anything
and let it be not-you, separate,
what it is and isn’t.

The kitten, in the essay,
for instance, which is, the poet
writes, of course, cuter
than its mother, eyelash whiskers,
nose a smudge of palest
pink, eyes wide and terrified
and hungry. But, she says,
it’s the cat we keep and not
the kitten, so which is worse, which
the true sentimental?

To put a kitten in a poem,
surely, even worse
than a baby. Or worse, the tiny mice
clinging to stalks of grass
in the pictures my friend sends me.
They grin and the smallest puff
of wind slicks back
their baby-fine fur hairdos.
To imagine a field mouse smiles,
the wind whispers, its own
sentimental, or not
sentimental, exactly, but failure
to see the clouds
for what they are, not horses
or houses, but water, in air,
holding its fragile shape.


                    —after Galway Kinnell

There was you writing me
letters about glass
broken in Georgia dirt. You
in a dream with long hair, vines,
a veined stone at your throat.
Then a bullcalf dragged
from darkness—a dark
world and the born thing
broken out of it.


I’m useless as a locket—flat
oval of memory, a gold chain
spinning at my throat, the weight of—
a dead cow, a ton sunk
in mud. Black-and-white, blue
tongue, soft horns, wet
hooves. I am this lowing
towards nothing—sopping
with darkness—towards
some branchy trouble.


If I could make you, I’d make you
the stars, my body
grass. We are a we that goes on
going. Despite this
branchy trouble
I invite. You are this bird
in the throat. This sky
gone dark.


All this a way of not
speaking about—to take
the grass above a grave
out of the poem. Cow,
dung, man, anything
they want. Bark
and branch, leaves ground
into dirt, moss against
a mouth, the grass pushing up


What’s beautiful
is dark—thorned hands,
smooth calves—to be
broken and held.
I should make you
the ground. Glass
in the dirt, and above—
grass, glittering


Stephanie Cawley is from southern New Jersey. She currently lives in Pittsburgh where she is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in H_NGM_N, The Adroit Journal, Prelude, Phantom Books, The Collagist, Linebreak, and elsewhere.