Six Questions: An Interview With Brenda Shaughnessy

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan in 1970, but grew up in Southern California. She received her BA in literature and women’s studies at the University Of California and a MFA at Columbia University. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. She is a poetry editor-at-large at Tin House magazine and also teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Shaughnessy is the the author of many collections of poetry that include Human Dark with Sugar and Interior with Sudden Joy. Her most recent collection is Our Andromeda. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, BOMB, Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.

I first encountered Shaughnessy’s work in the 2012 volume of Best American Poetry. The book features her poem “Artless”, a poem about failing to turn a painful experience into art. With such an intense and insightful poem, we decided Professor Shaughnessy would be the perfect poet to interview.

Brett Durbin: In reading a biography of you I noticed that you were born in Japan. Are you at all interested in Japanese forms of poetry?

Brenda Shaughnessy: I was born in Okinawa, Japan. I’m Okinawan on my mom’s side, and Irish-American on my dad’s side. I was raised in California, and didn’t learn the Japanese language until I was older (and not even that well.) So I feel, have always felt, a little removed from “Japanese” poetry, wishing I had a more organic language-connection to it. However, spiritually, I do have lots of respect and love for Japanese forms! Haiku is economical, surprising, and lovely. It can be reduced to an English-language formula 5-7-5 syllables which does bypass some of the more important concerns to the original Japanese form, which is primarily that there be two ideas and then a 3rd “cutting” idea. I love that. My favorite Japanese poet is Issa.  I love how quickly the world comes into focus with so few words, in his hands. I also love to read Buddhist Koan. My favorite Japanese fiction/prose writers are Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe. I spent 9 months living in Tokyo, years ago, and loved it. It makes me sad to feel so distant from a place and a poetic tradition with which I coulda/shoulda had a much closer connection.

BD: I read in the Contributor’s Notes that the primary inspiration of your poetry is emotional pain. Why do you suppose that pain is the primary inspiration of your poetry and are there other inspirations/emotions that inspire your poems?

BS: In any case, “emotional pain.”  I wouldn’t call it that. I would say that the way I live my life, and how I get through really rough, painful, scary, or despairing times is that I go to poetry, the blank page, to work it all out. That is, I am glad I had a practice in writing poems–that is the practice of exploring what you feel, what you think, the questions you have, the complexities that intrigue you–so that when really bad things happened, really sad things that caused me great “emotional pain” I had a self-generated place to work through my many mixed feelings. So that is to say it is not just pain that inspires me. It is the fact that pain is inevitable (people die, they suffer, we become brokenhearted, terrible cruelty abounds, etc.) and as a poet and person I choose to go deep into it in order to understand it and let it move through me.  I don’t want to avoid it or pretend pain is not happening. I want to use words to help me process pain, and come out the other side with a renewed ability to see and experience joy.

BD: What is the hardest thing about being a poet?

BS: The hardest thing about being a poet is twofold: both “hardest things” are really two sides of the same coin.  It was hard to give myself permission, as a young writer–high school was when I decided I wanted to be a poet–and to believe that I had something to say that people would listen to. I had very little encouragement and had to just believe in myself. I loved books more than anything, loved reading, and wanted to be a part of that great conversation. In that sense I wasn’t “alone”–I had books and the knowledge that humans wrote them–but in another sense I was alone. I had to keep believing in myself through many rejections, not knowing if I would ever be good enough to publish a thing. The other side of this is not the difficulty of beginning but the difficulty of KEEPING GOING! I remind myself that every single author and poet I love had to face the blank page every single time they wrote.  Sometimes I wonder how I can keep starting over and over and over, and what will I possibly say? Haven’t I said everything I wanted to say? And in the middle of this self-doubt, an idea takes shape and I begin writing again.  But each time, just before I start writing, I feel worried that I won’t be able to do it.

BD: Who are your favorite living poets?

BS: 3 of the best poets in our country died very recently. I love their work tremendously and am grieving the loss of these incredible minds: C.D. Wright, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Lucia Perillo.   As far as favorite living poets go, I love so many. I love the work of Jorie Graham, and Terrance Hayes, and Marie Howe, and W.S. Merwin, and James Richardson, and Robyn Schiff, and Rita Dove, and Francine J. Harris, to name just a few.

BD: How do you feel about conceptual poetry and the new experimental types of poetry that are emerging?

BS: I don’t think conceptual poetry is doing anything new.  The current iteration of “conceptual poetry” I have been finding utterly gross, odious, stuff like the hideous mansplainer Kenny Goldsmith. But I’m fine with conceptual forms like “found poetry, if that’s what you mean.  I’m also not sure what kinds of “new experimental” types of poetry you mean.  I love highly intellectual poetry, and I love poetry/theory/linguistics, and I adore all kinds of spoken word and mixed-media poetry (poetry with visual art or film, for example).   Now the great new “experimental” stuff is truly rare, like Jen Bervin’s “Silk Poems” in which she imprints poems on silk strands that have to be read through a microscope!! I mean that is genius. But mostly I like poetry to find ways to express our human condition however it can. The best poetry does this, whether it’s on microbes or on canvas or film or performance art. But it can also do it with just plain old words. How it does it is a question for the ages!

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