Life of a Poet: Brenda Shaughnessy

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC. [silence]>>MARY ANN BROWNLOW:
I’m Mary Anne Brownlow, welcome to Hill Center, and to … we are entering our fourth
year of The Life of a Poet. Which has been an absolutely
wonderful program that we’re very pleased to
present with our partners at Washington Post, and
The Library of Congress and of course our extraordinary
moderator, the (inaudible) Ron Charles. Our guest this evening is
Brenda Shaughnessy and I’m going to turn things over to Anya
Creightney from The Library of Congress, she is the
program manager for the Poetry and Literature Center, and she
will introduce the evening. So please welcome Anya. [applause]>>ANYA CREIGHTNEY: Hi,
everyone, glad to be here. I’m representing the
Poetry Literature Center and specifically Rob Casper who
you may normally know in this role. He’s with the Poet Laureate tonight,
so he won’t be able to join. So, I’m thrilled and
delighted to be here instead. So, thank you Mary Ann, where
ever she disappeared to, and to Diana Ingram and the
rest of the Hill Center staff for hosting the Life of a
Poet, and thanks of course for The Washington
Post for their support and Washington Book World Editor,
Ron Charles as we have here, our moderator and guide, and
for those who are first timers to this series, I can tell
you there’s no one better to explore the poets
work, the Ron Charles, so we’re all in for a treat tonight. I do want to take this
opportunity to tell you a little bit about the Poetry and Literature
Center at the Library of Congress. We are the home of the Poet
Laureate consultant in poetry. The only federally funded position
for literary artists in the country. It also hosts a range of
programs, such as this one, just up the street at the Library. So if you want to see more
of our programs and check out our whole offerings, please
check us out And now I would like to
introduce Brenda Shaughnessy for the Spring kick-off of
our Life of a Poet series. Brenda Shaughnessy’s latest book,
So Much Synth, has been named one of the best poetry
collections of 2016, by Publishers Weekly,
and the NY Times. Her third book, Our Andromeda,
published in 2013, was short listed for both the Pen Open Book Award and the International
Griffin Poetry Prize. Taken together, her first and
second books, Interior Sudden Joy, and Human Dark with Sugar,
garnered eight honors. A James Laughlin Award,
and nominations for Land of Literary Award and a Norma
Farber First Book Award among them. Shaughnessy earned a BA in
literature in Women’s Studies at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, and an MFA at Columbia University. Her poems have appeared widely in
Best American Poetry, McSweeney’s, New Yorker, Paris Review, The
Yale Review to name a few. In 2013, she became a
Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and recipient of a Howard Foundation
Fellowship from Brown University. She’s also received fellowships
from the Radcliffe Institute where she was a Bunting Fellow, and
the Japan/US Friendship commission. She is the Poetry Editor-at-large
at Tin House Magazine and assistant professor of
English at Rutgers, Newark. Mary Jo Bang, herself a
Life of a Poet reader, said of Brenda Shaughnessy, “her
Voice is smart, sexy, self-aware, hip, consistently rye of her savvy.” Hilton also, believes
Shaughnessy read sequentially, presents a speaker
swathed in a cocoon, a keen and incisive
self-scrutiny who undergoes a series of empowerment’s and
connections that turn her into a ferocious source;
a col louses. For me Shaughnessy is
all about the corporeal. The physical body as normative,
legitimate, gazed upon, tremendous but oft flawed. Her poems, the other corpus are
quick looping, vivid and propelling. Her attention is expertly
slant, urgent and desirous, or put even more simply dazzling. We are lucky to have
her with Ron Charles to help us further understand the
impact of this essential work. So without further ado please help
me in welcoming Brenda Shaughnessy. [applause]>>RON CHARLES: I’m so glad you’re
here, thank you so much for coming.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
Thrilled to be here.>>RON CHARLES: I’ve had
the tremendous experience with reading your books in
sequence, as she just said, they really are remarkable,
and dazzling, and witty and sad, all at the same time. I wanted to start with
your first book, called, Interior with Sudden Joy. That collection’s very much
of the body, wouldn’t you say?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Mm hum.>>RON CHARLES: I wonder if
you’d read a poem called, Swell.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: You know
nobody ever asks me to read Swell.>>RON CHARLES: I did not know that.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: But I heard
that you had an uncanny ability to pick poems that no one ever asks.>>RON CHARLES: Does it include
words you know how to say out loud?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Oh yeah.>>RON CHARLES: Cuz that
happens to me all the time.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
No, this book is filthy so you really can’t include
anything here that’s…>>RON CHARLES: I went around
some of the more filthy ones.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Swell. Svelte with eventual sex. Who could help but gorge yourself
on low violet leaning everywhere. The shine and shifting slate of the sky murmurs it’s irresistible
confession, I am more than blue if you are the violet imprint. I am swollen, vexed, endlessly and
only finite against your bodies. This slim stalk of
silhouette slides via nimbus down the eye lights
without a skirmish. Glossy the sly undoing,
glister like, we are disheveled, though to skeptical to abandon our
dimpled lens and fill the insides of slips with mere threat
and straight of thunder peal. We toss freely with fever, this
mirror disilvered and break into rain upon finding such under
yielding of frost to feverous. This strumpet muscle under your
breast describing you minutely, volupt, volupt.>>RON CHARLES: It
just announces itself, this is a voice you
have not heard before. The language is so
alive, so surprising, so daring, syntactically. And the subject too. What was it like for you to announce
yourself with poems like these? What did it feel like?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: At the
time you’re not really announcing yourself, you’re really just
scrapping around in your notebook. Trying to figure out, oh what …>>RON CHARLES: What
feels right to you?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
What you’re about. That book was a book I
wrote in my twenties. And I think that I felt …, I
think that I felt so disempowered. I think that I felt so lost, that
I just wanted to take the language and just go, ooooooooo, you
know and try and make it into something that was mine. You know, and so I think that
was sort of the gist of it. Did I think anyone
would read it, or …? No, I thought it was just sort
of a weird little exercise that I was doing at
home, like what do I do, like Zumba, at home to save money. You know, sort of like that. Or maybe do your own version
of Zumba, just your own way …>>RON CHARLES: Who
were your poetic models when you were writing
lines like that? Lines that use alliteration …>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah,
I feel really vindicated, because at the time when
I was writing this book, my heroes were E.E. Cummings and
Silvia Plath and at that time, those were embarrassing choices.>>RON CHARLES: Why?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: You remember
it was written 20 years ago, if you like Plath you were
put into this category, oh you just like the goth,
suicidal girl, essentially. Now she’s … in twenty years her reputation,
she’s now completely understood, in pretty much all corners, it’s
just like she’s a totally genius and her ability to
like get at the reality of things is now understood
to be unparalleled. For some reason she was
sort of under estimated. I love E.E. Cummings, and he
still kind of has a reputation of being a word play
guy, but I loved it. I love the way they both
pull language apart. I was fascinated by it.>>RON CHARLES: And
have fun with it, especially with E.E.
Cummings, and you do that too.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: So much fun.>>RON CHARLES: And the
subjects you write about in that book are very, very intimate. For someone who felt
powerless, who felt a little .. well what was that like?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
It’s so strange …>>RON CHARLES: To write so
intimately about your own body and your own sexual experience.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah, I know, but I thought that I was
keeping it all a big secret.>>RON CHARLES: Because you
never thought the publication.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: No, I never thought anyone could
understand what I was saying. I thought I had such a you know … except those people who wear
dresses with lots of beads on it and then they’re back lit
and it’s totally see-through and they don’t realize it. It’s kinda like that. But, one example is that, my
Grandmother on my father’s side, who was very conservative, very
religious, I was sort of running around as an outed
lesbian in my twenties, and she didn’t know
that I was closeted. When this book came
out, I always thought of her as somewhat illiterate. I always thought she
was somebody like, she didn’t read, she
didn’t like poetry. Interested in any of that. No of the arts, none
of that was practical. No of that entered her psyche, but
she got ahold of one of these books and told my cousins, it’s
disgusting, it’s all sex. And I thought like, how do you know? How did you read this slinky,
lesbian, sex book so accurately? You know I just couldn’t
figure it out. I was surprised I felt seen,
and not is a happy way, I felt like oh god that
my cover was blown. If even my Grandma can
see that this is … just so lustful.>>RON CHARLES: Well
sometimes you can’t see it in your poems, you can feel it. Because you’ve broken the
syntax in strange ways. You’re not always clear with the
explicit sense of the sentence but you can feel what’s going on.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Right.>>RON CHARLES: It sounds to
me that you started writing in a diary in your teens.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. Always, when I was a kid. Anyone still have any
of their old diaries? I would give anything
to still have them. You still have them?>>RON CHARLES: Aren’t
they humiliating?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Sure. But then also I was still me,
I was me all the way back then.>>RON CHARLES: In your latest book,
you have a long spectacular poem. A sort of sum of myself
poem, that you all must read. It’s too long to read
here, it’s about 30 pages. It’s called, Is there
something I should know? It is one of the great poems about
what it’s like to be a woman. To grow up. To be an adolescent. To go through this society. I just think it’s remarkable. I wonder if you’d read
the first part.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. Um, are there any gen-xers who
recognize the title of that? Is there something I should know. No? It’s a Duran Duran song. The title of a song by
a band that existed. The first part? Okay. If I were 14 again I
wouldn’t be in this situation now. Trying to write without a pen. Isn’t blood a woman’s ink? Back then whatever I scratched into my well filled ill
hid diary was my existence and those scribblings, fast
as I could think or slow as carving a spell, forward
moving outer periphery of me the inner lining. The rest of me, juice, some sponge, electricity like synth riffs not
interested in bringing light. Sometimes I just doubt rage and
hurt, yearning for finer feelings. Not the indignities I suffered, but if I suffered sharply I
could scarcely trace it soft. You think you pretty dork,
spat at me at school. Transcribed as swirly ugly vortex,
stupid me, alone in my room later, I scrounged for the
words, keeping the scope of the vault very open universal,
somehow dramatizing and minimizing. “The worst thing in the whole world
is that nobody cares, not even me.” Who was I kidding. Even in my private diary I performed
myself to an audience of one. No one. A stocked character
play to an empty house, though I’ve no theater
experience at all. I lied outright, wrote
day dreams of true, was all knowing, and exquisite. Simultaneously was the worst
person ever to have lived. Adolescence is all absolutes, if
bad one must be the very worst to avoid being mistaken for average. To be ordinary was
just being invisible. I’d surely slow naked death
by ants hurt less than that. The middles was always for losers. The middle seat, the middle
aged, the middle child, the middle finger,
middle school, midland. I remember writing,
one thing I know, I definitely am not is a
totally bizarre person. Only a few years later,
my entire persona so craved a real and
lasting bizarreness. I fashioned it out of my relentless
wholesomeness, easily, actually, because hallucinogens are
great for making you think that you actually are weird. But that came later. In junior high I was a kid under
the impression I was supposed to act grown up. And that meant knowing who I
was and how groups started, or shaped like on the bus, or
at lockers, if you didn’t go to the same grade school as a lot
of people who all knew each other. And what to wear and how my
own body worked at least. At least how to become
friends with people I like without just mimicking
them and trying to figure out how to join their group. But how? And boys can tease you
or yell anything, do anything. How’d you know where you stood? Every scene, lunch, PE,
English had different rules. Invisible. They changed depending
on who had power. That was never you. You couldn’t just be
yourself anywhere. There was an amazing story of me. One that I would live
powerfully in red velvet poetry. And this is a quotation from the
Duran Duran song, “and you wanted to dance so I asked you to
dance, but fear is in your soul.” The voice of Simon LeBonn
permeated all those new cells, the bloody ones, the ripenings,
and I knew his love was deep. Too deep, maybe. How’d you know what
everything he sang meant. He was also a little shiny,
the perfect pretty pout of John Taylor however, with that
sunken chest, fetishist forever after that was new romantic,
graceful, not as lured as make-up as Nick Rose, but still
breathtaking in girlish man-ness. Perfect. Perfect. All absorbed in brooding
sounds and slow distant love that maybe insinuated sex, but
was more like hopeless desire. A beautiful man mooning over me? Much emotional clutching of said sunken treasure
before glamorously running down the wet tarmac in a flappy
linen suit to catch a plane to the next, some people
call it a one night stand, but we can call it paradise. Yes, I’d be left newly
a woman, languid and a little tearful thinking about
my erotic awakening in the bungalow by really of any Duran
Duran except Andy. No one liked Andy.>>RON CHARLES: What did writing
in that diary do for you now? That poetry does for you now? Anything? Is there any kind
of satisfaction or …?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
Yeah, it’s that split-ness. That sort of split existence where
you get to be, simultaneously alone, and completely free
inside your mind. With this other sort of fantasy, that you’re actually expressing
yourself and being heard. So it’s the same thing, you
get to have this two-in-one but you never really have … Our life, and inner life are
often just totally separated. You say one thing but we
secretly are thinking, how do I get out of this room? I gotta get out of here. Meanwhile you think, lovely. With writing you’re not
trying to please anybody, you have this amazing freedom
but yet there’s this yearning to be understood, heard,
listened to. So that’s the process.>>RON CHARLES: The girl you were, writing in that diary creating
this persona of yourself, someone you aren’t at
all anymore, at the time. Why write poetry now? Why not write prose
or plays, or letters? What is it that drives
you to poetry?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Because
young, very young people, teenagers, they start writing poetry, right? Because it’s seems dramatic. It’s just the dramatic
parts, none of the filler. No scene setting, character
development, it’s just like get to the drama, the emotion. And then I guess eventually
you learn to appreciate all those
elements of life, but sometimes you just get
kinda arrested, in that moment where you want to seek intensity and
it feels like that’s a new reality. I got stuck there. I got stuck there, and it just
seemed like that possibility of making a whole piece
of art that was this long.>>RON CHARLES: Yes.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: And the
page, maybe it was terrible. You know, but It can be finished,
it can be done, and it didn’t have to sort of be this
thing way out of you … you know you could
start a novel, right? And you can say, with
best intentions and I’m going write this
every day and keep writing and writing until it’s done. Maybe that happens,
maybe it doesn’t, but with a poem you can sort of just
say this is the world at this moment that I’m going to make and it feels like you actually accomplish
something. Even if it’s not good.>>RON CHARLES: Some of your poems
make it sound much more painful than that. Let me have you read one.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Well
you gotta externalize there, otherwise it’s stuck in you, and then you’re stuck
having it be there. You’ve sort of ah … it has to move.>>RON CHARLES: My 26 year old self.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Why? I told Craig my husband that I did
not want to put these poems in here. The letters to my former selves.>>RON CHARLES: They’re good. They are very good. They’re funny and poignant. It’s not long.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I know. To my 26 year old self. You really are being
such a poet aren’t you?>>RON CHARLES: Now what
did you mean by that? That sounds very preparative.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
I’m mocking myself. I’m so annoyed at myself. This is a moment where … this is a self-loathing poem. So, it’s me as an older poet
talking to this 26 year old poet. 26 year old self, who’s
just starting to imagine herself as a poet. You really are being
such a poet aren’t you? Ten dollars a week is the food
budget and that’s day old rolls for the freezer and looking for
butts, and considering the offer from friends who can get you
a job at their strip club. But you’re too fat to be a stripper
you say, starving down to nothing but this the life of an artist you
say, even when the electricity shuts down and the cop on the
corner offers you cocaine if you’ll fuck him. But you need money, not drugs. You write poems in the dark and
tell your friends you’re dieting but later at the posh lesbian bar, when she leaves her ten
dollar lychee martini to go to the bathroom, you steal
it and promise in your head to write some lousy poem for
her later to pay her back.>>RON CHARLES: That sounds like it
was a real struggle as a young poet?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: What? Being really, really poor? Hell yeah. It’s terrible.>>RON CHARLES: And you had the
skills, you were well educated. You could have done other things. You stuck with it.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
It was very foolish. It was a very foolish decision
to say I just want to be a poet. My parents were appalled. It’s just, it’s a ridiculous
thing to do. I just …>>RON CHARLES: What was it
that made you stick with it? With that sort of humiliation
and poverty, and even hunger it sounds like.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
People like drama because it proves they’re alive. You know? I did have this sense
that you kinda had to go out there and live all these, live the
full range of feelings in order to have material to write the poems. I didn’t realize that life would
just throw terrible things at me.>>RON CHARLES: You didn’t
have to look for them.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I didn’t
have to look for any material. Material just kinda … this is a youthful, this is a person
looking back at her misperceptions. But it never was about the posturing
and the excusing and trying to sort of say, well this is how artist are. It was a way to, it was a
way to, what’s the word? Create a holding pattern
so that I could develop as a reader and as an artist. I had to stay alive and
I did all those jobs. I was a receptionist
for seventeen years. Part time on and off,
starting when I was 16. I did all kinds of other jobs. I felt like wanting to be a poet. It was the only thing
that was going to keep me from being totally ordinary. And like I said earlier in the
other part, it just didn’t, it seemed like being a poet was the
coolest thing you could choose to do and this was a way of maintaining,
sort of validating that idea.>>RON CHARLES: In another one of
your poems you say, “I’m most afraid of panicked mind alone,
silent at the end.”>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: See when
you take it out of context …>>RON CHARLES: That’s not fair.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: It
makes me think, did I really? Is that? Is that the worst thing? Each poem is a moment and sometimes
they go back and forth in time, where I’m actually recalling a
feeling, and sometimes it’s sort of recording that moment.>>RON CHARLES: It’s
not fair, I understand.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
But I don’t remember it. I don’t remember what
that’s even from. Did I write that? I believe you.>>RON CHARLES: Paradox plays such
a delightful role in your poetry. Sometimes for comic effect,
sometimes for tragic effect. You write in one poem,
“artists though of themselves putrid with paradox.” That’s a funny line. And you’ve got a poem called Drift. (inaudible)>>I’m curious about
what kind of truth. What kind of larger point
is produced by paradox.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah.>>RON CHARLES: What
does a paradox say that an explicit statement
could not say?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Rob Casper
published this poem in (inaudible).>>RON CHARLES: Oh really?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Drift. I’ll go anywhere to leave
you but come with me. All the cities are like you anyway. Windows darken when I
get close enough to see. Any place we want to
stay is polluted, the good spots taken already
by those who ruin them. And restaurants we’d never find. We’d rut in a ditch
by a river in night. I just saw a typo. We rut in a ditch by a river in
night so long they must be cut by the many pairs of wrong-handled
scissors maybe God owns and doesn’t share. I water God. I make a haunted lake
and rinse and rinse. I take what I want, and have ever since what I want disappeared,
like anything hunted. That’s what you said. Disappointment isn’t tender,
dried and wide instead. The tourists snapped you crying,
and the blanket I brought was so dirty it must have been
lying around in lice and blood that whole year we fought. It wasn’t clear, so I forgot. I haven’t been sleeping, next to you
twitching to bury my boring eyes. The ship made you sad,
and the ferry, and canoe. All boats do.>>RON CHARLES: It’s a
love poem in a sense.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
That was a sad time.>>RON CHARLES: Sad one.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: So paradox,
what is the use of paradox? Um. I don’t know who said this
thing and I think it could be used for equally sort of freedom,
happiness and also fascism. This idea that sort of any truth, also a really interesting truth
its own inversion is also true. This idea that the opposite of something is actually just
another version of itself. I’m fascinated by this idea. It comes up over and over again. One of the great explorers of this
idea is a poet, James Richardson, he does this in his
affirmations a lot. Kinda of take that whole thing
and split it apart and find that the parts that make the
whole are sort of the opposite of itself, or the outlines of it. Any way it’s a way of thinking
that I’m really fascinated with. I’ve always have been. So paradox, you know, when we look
at something that seems unlikely, you have to go to what
splits them and unites them. What’s the scene between the two
elements that seem like jarring? I’m interested in that
line, I’ve always have been. I think that as a bi-racial
person, like I’ve always felt always on both sides of that, that very
way of being feels like a paradox. If you’re talking about race.>>RON CHARLES: Right.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: It doesn’t
come down to math or physiology. It doesn’t come down to science. It doesn’t come down to … it comes down to something
else that’s inevitable. I’m curious how many ways we
are actually living paradoxical constructions where we sort
of think the categories. You know. So, that
seems important to me.>>RON CHARLES: That
makes a lot of sense. The basic good structure for
a poem about relationships that gives you joy and
sorrow at the same time.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. You have a lover or a partner and
you always think, love is so happy and wonderful, you’re
actually in love with the person, this is terrible. This person whose brought me so much joy has actually
given me so much pain. Of course they’re totally together
and this is the amazing word cleave, cuz it means itself
and its own opposite. Contronyms I think they’re called. I’m fascinated by those. But also too, it’s not just in love
poems, although love poems are so, they sort of yield
this concern so well. But, the question of being
a parent also has this to. Like is this a child
that’s separate, or is this also a part
of me and how do I? There is no way to reconcile it. Whatever scene there is
between the two beings is fluid, it keeps changing,
it doesn’t really. It doesn’t stay still. That line is a constant
in so many things.>>RON CHARLES: That’s
very illuminating. You wrote a poem about
studying the (inaudible).>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I did
write a poem about (inaudible). I totally regret that I did that. r third collection begins,
‘Artless is my heart’, that’s really not true.>>RON CHARLES: Would
you like to red it now?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: No,
can we skip that please?>>RON CHARLES: It
will become a part of the Library’s permanent
It’s ok that I said that. It’s yeah. Yeah.>>RON CHARLES: Your
third collection begins, “Artless is my heart.” That’s certainly not true.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: It is.>>RON CHARLES: Is not.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: It is. Because artless is
that old fashioned word which means the opposite
of what you think it means. You think of the word artless
you think it means without art. Without aesthetic, without beauty,
but it’s this old fashioned word where you know the meaning, she’s
artless, usually about guile, she’s not fake, she
doesn’t have these wiles.>>RON CHARLES: Right.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: So
it kinda means both things.>>RON CHARLES: Yes, in a poem
called the Lamp Garden you write, ‘as you start to write a page it
doesn’t appear appallingly blank, something is soothing, encouraging,
like steam on the bathroom mirror that wishes you to
draw your face in it. You can tell, when a
sentence is hard to write, whether it’s because
there’s a knot in your throat or in the tree before
it was your tablet. Do you feel that there’s a physical
relationship with a blank page when you sit down to write a poem?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. Yeah. That is such a much better
question then do you use a computer or a pen. It’s just a …. because I do think … things are very physical. You’re joking right?>>RON CHARLES: I was
not gonna ask that?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I think
physically of my head expanding and going back like bride
of Frankenstein’s hair. Or Marge Simpson is another good
kind of example, it sort of, I’m not trying to visualize
this, it’s like a back brain and it opens up, and that part
I can’t see it and it opens up and it’s like a portal. So whatever’s happening
on the blank page, it looks like the blank
page except for, do you remember those pictures
we used to have at malls? They’re called magic eye.>>RON CHARLES: Oh yeah,
I never could see it …>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
You stare at it. This is just a bunch of dots …>>RON CHARLES: Could you see it?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I could,
sometimes, but it was not until I was really
frustrated, you look at the dots and someone was like, it’s a
dolphin and you were like, ugh! And you can’t will
yourself, it’s about relaxing and so the blank page is thing
where it’s always mocking you. It’s like, it’s like looking at
you saying, you can’t do it again, I don’t think you’re
going to be able to do it again, what do you got? What do you got? You got nothing. Here’s the proof. But I tell myself that
every writer has to start with a blank page, that’s … you can’t write on the back of the
thing that you finished writing. You start again. So the back brain helps
me in this confrontation. It is a confrontation and sometimes
it’s at the level of the pen where I’m just sort of looking at
it going, this is gonna be bad. This is … maybe it’s good, and then
this horrible I don’t know …>>RON CHARLES: The
steam on the mirror is such a great encouraging image,
cuz everyone wants to do that. Everyone likes doing
it, it’s fun to do. It totally takes the
intimidation out of the blank page. I think. It’s a great
way to think about it.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. I haven’t thought about
that in a long time.>>RON CHARLES: It’s
very fun to do that.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I haven’t
done that in a long time either. I’ll try it again.>>RON CHARLES: Would
you read a Poet’s Poem? Then I want you tell us
what a poet’s poem is.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Well you know
there’s a thing called a poets poet. This is alike a love poem to poets. Just how hard it is to be a poet. What it’s like to be a poet. A Poet’s Poem. If it takes me all day, I will get
the word freshened out of this poem. I put it in the first line,
then moved it to the second, and now it won’t come out. It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated, so I went out to
my little porch all covered in snow and watched the icicles drip,
as I smoked a cigarette. Finally I reached up
and broke a big, clear spike off the
roof with my bare hand. And used it to write
a word in the snow. I wrote the word snow. I can’t stand myself. How circumscribed we are. The nowhere of that circumscription
and the self-loathing. I own it.>>RON CHARLES: The physical act
of leaving your pen at your desk and going out and grabbing
this giant frozen pen and writing in the earth.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: But only
being able to come up with it’s … like it doesn’t need
to be re-inscribed because it’s the exact same word. That was all I could think of. That’s the point. That’s all you got? I’m already snow.>>RON CHARLES: You know
the poems’ wit deconstructs that sort of self-loathing.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah,
that’s why I agreed to read it. [laughter]>>RON CHARLES: We’re going to stand
up, turn around and sit back down. [pause]>>RON CHARLES: Ok. Let’s sit down please. As a young woman did you look
forward to becoming a mother?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I didn’t
think I was going to do that. No, I didn’t think I
was going to really. I didn’t know. Honestly. I thought maybe, but I didn’t really have
a clear idea of that.>>RON CHARLES: In that
great poem I mentioned, Is There Something I Should
Know?, there’s this great line. “Basically all the stories that
I’d heard about what it’s really like to become a woman
made me rather expected to gorgeous liquid-fication after
which I would emerge a cross between Jessica Rabbit
and Denise Huxtable.” Was it like that for you?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: No, the rest of the poem explains
it was much rockier.>>RON CHARLES: Your
life has been punctuated by a particular tragedy
surrounding your family. You write in another poem, ‘not
knowing how to grieve can poison like a directionless dart.’ In this series, we talked with
Ed Hirsch and Mary Jo Bang about the death of their sons. Horrible unspeakable tragedies that they found poetic
language to speak about. You experienced something different,
in the poem, you describe the birth of your first child Cal, like this,
“you were hardly alive, hardly you, horribly slimed chance,
I blacked out hard, but I heard you were blue.” In that moment, one vision
of your sons future died, but he remained very much
alive, and someone to celebrate. That was the strangest thing for
me, when that happened to me. After a perfectly normal pregnancy,
our daughter was born dark, dark blue and not breathing
for about 5 or 6 minutes and the while future that
we had projected was gone, and another future that
we didn’t know anything about as now first
time parents was born. In a poem called Our
Andromeda you imagine that distance parallel worked in which your son gets
the babyhood he deserved. You think you can read
that first section?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I
almost never read this one.>>RON CHARLES: You can
just read there and there.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: When
we get to Andromeda Cal, you’ll have the baby
that you deserved. All the groping at light sockets
and putting sand in your mouth, and learning to say Momma and I
want and sprinting down the yard, as if to show me how you are leaving
me, for the newest outpost of Cal. You’ll get the chance to
walk without pain as if such a thing were a matter of
choosing a song over a book. Of napping at noon
instead of fighting it. You’ll have the chance to fight
every nap, every grown up decision that bugs you, and it will be
a fair fight this time Cal. In Andromeda you will win.>>RON CHARLES: What challenges,
emotional and artistic did you face as you made the decision to
write about your sons experience and your experience with him?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
Well, it’s strange. We were encouraged to sue
the hospital and the lawyer, the hospital since went bankrupt
so there wasn’t very much for Cal. But the lawyer didn’t… put a gag on Craig and me. Wouldn’t let us write
anything about Cal. In our poems, in our … they subpoenaed my diaries,
they were very very concerned with the idea the defendants, the hospitals defendant
could make an argument that we were not profiting
from his thing so they wouldn’t let us
write anything at all. So we weren’t allowed
to write anything. We weren’t allowed to express … it was a gag that went
on for a few years. So, I wrote, I started
writing what I really felt. Knowing that it wasn’t real. Knowing that it wasn’t going to
be published, that it was just me, that I had to get this out, and
I wrote most of it at Yardo. I was in Katrina’s room at Yardo. Now Katrina was this sort of
the women who started Yardo, had three children who all dies. So there was this sort of thought
that Yardo was kinda haunted. So there I am I had given
birth to a beautiful baby boy who was really disabled,
really compromised and we didn’t know what
was in store for him. And I had gotten this precious
two weeks, and there I was alone in this room, this beautiful
room of a woman who lived there after suffering the
death of her three kids. I just … the pen just flew it just flew .. and the first part is
what happened to me, I had happened to be since then. But this was the first time I just
happened to be writing and crying onto the page so it was like, it was
smearing the ink, the pages were wet and it was just, I just told myself,
this isn’t a thing, it isn’t real. This isn’t a real poem, this
is just me getting it out. I can be as angry as I
want, I can blame anybody, I can say whatever I
want I can blame anybody, I don’t have to be fair,
I don’t have to play by any rules I can just
say what is inside me. Because no one can ever
see it, and my son’s alive. I owe it to myself to explore all of
that, so that I can get to a place where I can celebrate him. So we can see him for what he
is and not what happened to him. But really get there with him. I had to get all this
anger, all this rage, all of this terrible
terrible grief out of the way. Then the lawyer said, guess
what, the hospital went bankrupt, you can write whatever
you want we don’t care. There’s no more, the kid’s not
going to get money so I don’t … so we don’t care what
you do with your writing. I didn’t know if I would have
the courage to think of this as a real poem, but it got there. It was the most profound
writing experience I’d ever had.>>RON CHARLES: How do you resist
some natural problems with a subject like this, like mortality?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Natural
problems or national problems?>>RON CHARLES: Natural problems.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
I don’t I felt like the most important thing
was I couldn’t be afraid. I’d never been a mom before
so I felt like if I sound like a doting mother who thinks
their kids the most amazing thing in the world, screw it. Fine. Give me that I’ll take it.>>RON CHARLES: Yes.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I’m
sort of more afraid of the … basically I felt I’ve
been lied to so much about motherhood that
I read was about. Like, it’s so beautiful and
amazing, you feel so fulfilled and I was just like, ugh this
is like the worst, like saddest, grueling, grading, devastating, pulverizing thing I’ve ever
been through, and I just felt like if I’m going to say anything
at all that means anything to me.>>RON CHARLES: Yes.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I have to
find some words for that truth.>>RON CHARLES: How do you keep
your sense of blame and guilt from just consuming
you and the poem?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I don’t know.>>RON CHARLES: You say in this
section, “it’s all my fault you see. I can blame just about anyone
for what happened to you but it was ultimately my job to get
you into this world, and I failed. There’s no other way to look at it.”>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I mean, I can tell myself that’s
not what I really believe, but I can’t make myself believe it.>>RON CHARLES: Did writing
that help you realize that was not in fact
the whole story?>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yes. This is where sort of notions
of motherhood lie to one. They say your job is
to protect your kid. You have no choice
but to feel this way.>>RON CHARLES: Yes.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Did I write
this whole poem to try to get myself out of feeling this terrible guilt? Maybe. It definitely
failed, if that’s the case. Getting it out meant at
least I wasn’t afraid of admitting it anymore. It’s to me, I didn’t know
at the time that I wrote it, but the hardest time of
dealing with Cal’s injuries and subsequent medical
stuff and surgeries, and all the stuff was the months, after his diagnosis
before I could except it. When we got this terrible
diagnosis, he’s not going to walk, he’s not gonna talk, and we’re
just feeling like, no, no, no, no that can’t happen, that
can’t be true, that can’t be. That was the most painful
time of my life. It was when I finally accepted
it and said okay you know what, this kids gonna have a
different kind of life, time for to just let
it end, let it happen. Just stop fighting it. And that’s really at
the very least what that moment in that poem can do. I’ll always blame myself,
I’m the mom. What else, I mean … I can’t open the role up bigger. To pretend that’s somehow
that’s never gonna be there.>>RON CHARLES: But
now you have days when you aren’t thinking
about it all the time.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah. Yeah.>>RON CHARLES: But there was a
time that you could not imagine that you couldn’t think
about it every minute.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
It’s kinda always there. I mean it’s just that it’s not
all rage, and terror and grief. It’s also this really deep adoration
and sweetness and tenderness and there’s really other things. The sad thing when something
happens to your kid, makes you feel like this is how’s
it’s always gonna be, but no matter who your kid
is they change and develop and you relationship changes and
there’s so much new that happens. I didn’t know that. I thought that I’d always
be stuck feeling that way. I couldn’t bare it. Writing poems did make me feel like
it was pushing the process along or moving the emotions around so
at least they didn’t get stuck. I did think that if those emotions
got stuck the way they were it would be so toxic.>>RON CHARLES: Yes. You write about your
friends and how they>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
My so called friends.>>RON CHARLES: really let you
down in ways that I recognize. So bitter.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
Did that happen to you? It does feel really
painful, isn’t it?>>RON CHARLES: It’s amazing. Our favorite line, one of our best
friends telling us months later, “I sensed something was
wrong so I didn’t call.”>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah
we got a bunch of those.>>RON CHARLES: You refer
to them as, “their toxicity of their shit on their lives …” something along the line like that. How did you get the
courage to write about them. I’m sure that they
would read these poems, they might even recognize
themselves, or maybe not, in their own self-righteousness.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah
I don’t think people tend not to recognize those faults. Al the fiction writers
say all the big villains in these memoirs never
recognize themselves. That person was awful. You’re like it’s you. I have never had anybody … I’ve had people think
that it was them. I’ve had people say, I
don’t really even know you. I mean you had to be there
in my life to have done this.>>RON CHARLES: You said that
the childhood friends were okay. That they reacted in
a way of humanity. The parents with their own perfect
children terrified into viciousness.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY:
It was terrible. They just dumped us.>>RON CHARLES: You’ve become a
kind of symbol of their worst dread.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Yes. But the poem was a lot of
bargaining, it was like, you should be happy, it happened to
my kid not yours, you should look at it and be like phew
that happened to you, I’m over here, I’m relatively sick. That’s not how it works.>>RON CHARLES: It’s a long time … you’re not getting a fair … it’s a long complex
problem, it moves the speaker through a beautiful and
very, very painful process. I wanted to ask if any of the
friends recognized themselves.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: I would
be so satisfied if they did.>>RON CHARLES: Would you read the
final part of, “Our Andromeda’? [pause]>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: The truth. I’ve been wrong, or I’ve been
lying or I’ve been ignorant. It doesn’t matter which, but
now it’s time to give it up. You’ve came from Andromeda Cal,
that other galaxy came to me, to us. The moment you were born, when the
membrane between the world snapped, and all that alien world
love flooded my body. It came from you, there was awful
confusion because you didn’t seem to be of this world, and the ordinary humans
didn’t know what to do. Not even me. Mommy and her stories. Those fairytales we have. Wretched and unending. Children lost in woods. No wonder you always looked
at me so quizzically a story like that is too tiny to
contain Andromeda and you, lost in the Milky Way magical boy, weak from his first
intergalactic journey to my arms. I found you didn’t I? I’m here, we found each other. We are here. [crying] This is why I
don’t usually read this. And here is where we belong,
for here is where you are you, exactly you, not some other
boy in some other world. I was wrong to mourn so. He deserves better and
so forth you are better. Better than any rested
truth I could invent. I open my eyes form that long dream
to find you here my perfect child. You taught me the truth Cal. Accept the truth from whoever gives
it the ancient said to your people, the truth is you are the truth. A child born to a liar
who is learning to change. A dashing boy who may never walk,
who traveled so far to be here. A joyful boy who may never talk who ruthlessly teaches
the teacher the truth about where children really live. Where you are alive, you are the
most perfect Calvin Lakota Teicher of the Universe. A tough, funny beauty of a boy who
holds my hand and blinks his eyes until I’m excruciated mad with love. How hard it was for you to convince
me that I deserve that love. My glorious son, a mother’s
boast is never mere delusion. A mother knows if she can
forgive herself for not knowing. I know now Cal, your frail
arms are perfect arms. Your uncertain eyes, perfect eyes. Your anguish, your illness
your pain, your difficulty, your discovery, your joy is my
joy, it is a perfect boundless joy. God must exist, a god
for me after all. And he must be good, everlastingly
so, to have given you to me. I don’t need any more
proof then this. You in my arms, your little
searching fingers on my face. Wistful, graceful stars
on a wet clear night. Galaxies exploding everywhere
around us, exploding in us Cal, faster than the lightest light. So much faster than love, and
our Andromeda, that dream. I can feel it living in
us, like me, it’s home. Like it remembers us
from its own childhood. Our maybe Cal we are home,
if God will let us live here with Andromeda inside us,
doesn’t it seem we belong? Now then will you help
me belong here? In this place where you became
my child and I your mother, out of some instant of
mystery of crash and matter, scattered thought he cosmos. God scooped and poured toward our
bodies with so much love somehow. I am so tired I cannot
beat my own heart anymore. Cal shall we stay? Oh let’s stay. We’ve only just arrived here. Rightly, whirling and weeping
freely, breathing, brightly born.>>RON CHARLES: Such
a triumph of a poem. I don’t think that I have
anything left to say. Thank you so much. I’ll just never forget this evening.>>BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: Me too. Thank you. [applause]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc dot gov.

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