Interview with Brenda Shaughnessy

by Ann van Buren

Brenda Shaughnessy earned a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of Interior with Sudden Joy(1999), Human Dark with Sugar(2008), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, Our Andromeda (2012), and So Much Synth (2016). Her new book, The Octopus Museum, will be published by Knopf in 2019. KPS welcomes Shaughnessy to the Katonah Village Library on September 23rd, 2018, at 4PM. We are grateful to the poet for sharing her perspectives with KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren.

AvB:You mentioned that a phone interview would include “kid noise.” Can you tell our readers about that kid noise and the kids who are making it?

Brenda Shaughnessy: I have two kids, a 7-year-old daughter named Simone and an 11-year-old son named Calvin.

AvB:  Once we are parents, we can never go back to who we were before we had children. On the other hand, we are always that person, the one who existed in the past. What are the best parts of your old self which have surfaced, since being a mom? I am thinking of your beautiful lines from the poem called “Hearth” (Our Andromeda):

Love comes from ferocious love

or ferocious lack of love, child.


A to and a from, and an urgency

a barefoot sprint in the high snow


for the only sagging shack in sight.

Brenda Shaughnessy: I don’t know who said this amazing thing, but I second it: “Children are a great source of joy. But they turn all other sources of joy to shit.” But also, it’s a very deep question—the very heart of “why do we do anything?” A split self we chose (as opposed to the split self, imposed on us as children) that is never whole again. But then again, were any of us ever whole to begin with?

AvB: That’s also a good question. We are constantly in-the-making, as we pick up and shed perceptions and experience, or as we are framed in a different light. Yet we look for ways to keep adding pieces to a perceived whole. I’m interested in the fearless way in which your work reflects upon societal interactions, as a whole. Your poems provide safe harbor for any number of perspectives. “Twenty-Three-Year-Old Self” (Our Andromeda)is an example of this. Itnarrates a young woman’s crush on another woman. Your poem, “Straight’s the New Gay” (Human Dark with Sugar) is an invitation to embrace the non-binary. The poem is liberating and amusing as well. Your work addresses the subject of lesbian love on many levels. The poem, “Why I Stayed, 2000-2001” (So Much Synth), describes an abusive relationship, in which one woman hits another. “I’d never/ take that from a man.  A man/would be a criminal/ if he did what you did.” How would you describe the persona of these poems? Who is the poem’s audience? Did you write these poems with a goal in mind?

Brenda Shaughnessy:The thread of lesbian connection and being part of a queer community is definitely present in all my books. I’ve always wanted to posit the lesbian/queer voice as central in my work, in hopes that a lesbian/queer readership might recognize their own songs.

AvB:  So Much Synth references the cultural icons of your day. The sections of the poem “A Mix Tape: The Hit Singularities” are labeled with the titles of pop songs. “Is There Something I Should Know” begins with a quote from the musical group, Duran Duran.The latter poem, written in couplets, one which spills over to the next, continues for more than 30 pages of the book. The length of the poem reflects the gushing, inner thought process of a young teenage girl, the incessant reflection/projection of a not-yet-formed self upon her middle-school world. The couplets, on the other hand, are a cross between brilliant revelation and something someone would send via text or instant messaging:


is all absolutes: If bad, one must be the very worst


to avoid being mistaken for average.

To be ordinary was just being invisible,


And surely slow naked death by ants hurts less than that.

The middle was always for losers. The middle seat,


the middle-aged, the middle child, the middle finger,

middle school, middling.


I’m wondering if this poem is drawn from your actual teenage diary, or if the trials and tribulations of middle school are still so fresh that you could write them from the perspective of adulthood. Do you feel as though middle school actually ends? Or are we destined to re-live the search for our own identity into middle age, despite knowing what we know?

Brenda Shaughnessy: So Much Synth was written in the spirit of “looking back.” Acknowledging all the small ways that a little girl finds herself adjusting, accommodating, accepting, all the aspects of rape culture and patriarchal expectations suddenly everywhere in pubescence and adolescence. The music of the day, in this case 80s synth-pop, represents the first space of culturally-sanctioned, and “safe” desire for a pubescent girl. It’s empowering, yet Okay’d by grownups, to have crushes on pop music groups as a tween/teen. It’s not seen as threatening and so it’s allowed—a girl can begin to explore her sexuality and desire in this safe mode. This, in the book, is contrasted with what the “real world” offers: objectification, coercive sexuality, constant failure to measure up to sexual expectations—what a woman is supposed to be. The book really looks at what is lost when a girl—so many girls—have so much of their energy, power, dreams, desires, drained by having to defend against the status quo.

AvB: The poem, “To My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Self,” is an expression of gratitude to Billy Collins, who was your teacher. As you know, the Katonah Poetry Series is indebted to Billy Collins for his continued guidance and for the many years he ran the series. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this poem? 

Brenda Shaughnessy:  Billy Collins was the teacher on a ten-day workshop in Ireland one summer. He is, as you know, a real character and very charismatic. We didn’t see eye to eye on poetry, but he was very supportive. Even more so several years later, when he helped me get my first adjunct teaching job at Lehman College. I’ve always been grateful to him for his poetry, and his support of me even though he didn’t especially like my poetry!

AvB: Which contemporary poets do you like, especially?

Brenda Shaughnessy: Contemporary writers I admire are: C.D. Wright, Octavia Butler, Natalie Diaz, Justin Torres, Carmen Maria Machado, Donika Kelly, Elizabeth McCracken, Lydia Davis, Tayari Jones, Kelly Forsythe, and so many others.

AvB: That’s a lot, right there. Thank you!  Is there anything you would like the KPS audience to know about you or your work?

Brenda Shaughnessy:  I have a new book of poems called The Octopus Museum, which is coming out from Knopf in April, 2019. This book is about a near-future world in which the octopus overlords have taken over human civilization, and, given how things have been going lately, that may not be such a bad thing.

AvB: Ha! That sounds wonderful. A creature take-over of the world is such a satisfying way to dispense with some of our troubles. Tell us more. What else do we have to look forward to?

Brenda Shaughnessy: I am also writing a libretto for the Atlanta Opera. The opera is about an AI proto-human and the scientists who create her. It’s an original story, for the composer Paola Prestini, and will debut at Atlanta Opera in 2020.

AvB: Paola Prestini’s music is a far cry from Duran Duran! Can you tell us what drew you to opera? In the 1980s, poet Thulani Davis wrote the libretto to The Life and Times of Malcom X. More recently, I heard Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis perform what one might call improvisational jazz opera at the MoMA. Last spring, Terrence Hayes debuted the libretto to Cycles of My Being, an opera by the American composer Tyshaw Sorey. Can you speak briefly about your experience as poet-librettist? I’ve read that Gertrude Stein collaborated on Virgil Thompson’s opera, Mother of Us Alland completed the libretto without ever having heard a note of the music. What has your experience been like? 

Brenda Shaughnessy: I can only speak briefly about my experience as a poet-librettist as I have just started the process. Paola Prestini and I worked together (I was the librettist and she, the composer) for a Mass commissioned by Trinity Church Wall Street and that was a mind-blowing experience. The words I wrote seemed wholly inadequate, they fell away for me completely when I heard the instrumentation and the voices, but apparently the composer and the performers all base all their aesthetic decisions on the words given to them to set/sing/play to.  This surprised me so much.

AvB: We should never underestimate the power of words! This opera is something to look forward to. Meanwhile, I think that the KPS audience would be interested in Prestini’s rendition of your poem, “I Wish I Had More Sisters,” as performed by The New York City Young People’s Chorus. ( get chills, hearing the young women sing so meditatively about the complicated dynamics between sisters, and I love the poem, from your book, Our Andromeda. I will end with this excerpt, as it is a striking image of solidarity:  

…I could be,

for example, the hopeless

one, and the next day my sister

would take my place, and I would

hold her up until my arms gave way

and another sister would relieve me.

Thank you so much for your work and for this interview. We look forward to seeing you on September 23rdat the Katonah Village Library.

Brenda Shaughnessy: Thank you.