Six Poets, Six Questions: Brenda Shaughnessy in Conversation
Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins, and Brenda Shaughnessy presented a panel titled "The Anxiety of Audience: Who We Write For, Real & Imagined" at the sixth annual Poets Forum in New York City, October 18-20, 2012.
Poets.org: How do you know when you've finished writing a poem?
Brenda Shaughnessy: Honestly, I don't know. There could be an endless tinkering and reimagining, right? I often have several parallel "ways" things could have gone, and I choose one in a fit of intuition. Maybe one development was more surprising, or one led to a better ending, or one "felt" more authentic. At some point, the unchosen versions disappear as if they never existed and the poem is deemed finished by the printer.
Poets.org: What word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?
Shaughnessy: I'm equally delighted to have gotten the German word Nachtraglichtkeit in a poem (it's a Freudian term which means "second act" and refers to a kind of reliving of trauma) and the word "jimmies" as a funnier substitute for "sprinkles."
Poets.org: What do you see as the role of the poet in today's culture?
Shaughnessy: Not that the poet's work makes it all the way out into actual "culture" very often, but nonetheless, I do see the poet as someone whose role it is to push back against anti-intellectualism, anti-activism, and passivity in general. The purpose of this pushing back is to show that there are always infinite sides to a story, amazing unimagined perspectives on any narrative, and no limit to how weird and wild and unexpected our language and its meanings can get.
This idea makes more and more kinds of poetry, books, works of imagination, and art relevant. It legitimizes the ideas and originality of children and of teachers, of beginners and experts alike. Whatever gift a poet has, it is her obligation to give it back to everyone, especially to other poets (younger by way of encouraging and mentoring, and older by way of honoring their contributions to literature and continuing to read and teach their works) and to those outside the fold.
The other people who don't read poetry—we owe those people too. We must also write towards them.
Poets.org: Which poets' work do you continually go back to?
Poets.org: Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr? How does that fit into your writing life, if at all?
Shaughnessy: I'm on Facebook. Sometimes being on Facebook makes me feel like I've been social even though I haven't seen a soul outside my family for days. It's like an anytime cocktail party, without standing in heels, and with more actual news and opinion.
Poets.org: What are you reading right now?
Shaughnessy: In fiction: Jennifer Egan's Welcome to the Goon Squad. I just finished Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her. Next on deck is the new Sheila Heti novel.
In nonfiction: I had just started Jonah Lehrer's Imagination right before the exposé, which made me feel really messed with. I got so excited about that Bob Dylan stuff I was already putting it on a syllabus! Otherwise in nonfiction, Cheryl Strayed's Wild was totally amazing, and so is Julia Kristeva's The Severed Head, which is all about (guess what?) severed heads in history and art.
In poetry: just went back to Jorie Graham's first, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, and really enjoyed and admired Susan Wheeler's new book Meme.
Also, I am head over heels for Matthea Harvey's brand new children's book Cecil the Pet Glacier. It's an instant classic, and unlike anything else.