Poet Brenda Shaughnessy speaks at Elizabeth Bishop Reading

Image courtesy of Bloodaxe Books.

“I don’t want to be surrounded by people. Or even one person. But I/ don’t always want to be alone.” So begins the poem “Identity & Community (There is no “I” in “Sea”)” by Brenda Shaughnessy. The sentiment is simple, but the way she describes it is so plaintive yet lovely that hearing it hooked me from the start. I was first introduced to the poem at this year’s Elizabeth Bishop reading on Thursday Sept. 29th, held in Sanders Classroom, where Shaughnessy read from her forthcoming collection, entitled “New and Selected Poems.” The poet’s seemingly effortless combination of seriousness and whimsy, her imaginative way with words and her charming stage presence made the event an absolute delight to attend.

Professor of English Molly McGlennen introduced Shaughnessy, speaking about her personal connections to the poet’s  work. She detailed Shaughnessy’s accomplishments, including five published books of poetry, several awards nominations and her current work with the English and Creative Writing Department at Rutgers University-Newark.

“It’s really fall,” Shaughnessy said to the audience when she got to the podium. “We fell for it. It’s fall.” She proceeded to read “Visitor,” a gorgeous poem that was the perfect introduction for this time of year. “Please come to my house/ lit by leaf light,” Shaughnessy writes, setting the cozy scene. Throughout the poem, her fresh, sincere words had a profound impact on me, and I scribbled a reminder to myself to find the work later to reread. I especially loved the line, “I was/ hoping to sit with you in a tree house in a/ nightgown in a real way.” “Visitor” felt like the perfect choice to begin with at this time of year.

Many of the poems Shaughnessy read had to do with self-reflection and captured specific emotions beautifully. In “I Have a Time Machine,” Shaughnessy uses the idea of past selves to write about her obsession with time travel. In “I’m Over the Moon,” she details anger directed at the moon, creating a powerful emotional experience without letting go of her signature humor: “It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band./ Better off alone.”

The topics of her poems vary—like any good poet, Shaughnessy finds inspiration in unexpected places. In “The Impossible Lesbian Love Object(s),” a commission by the Museum of Modern Art, Shaughnessy writes about Meret Oppenheim’s Object, the first work in the museum created by a woman. The piece is a cup, saucer and spoon all made out of fur. In the poem, Shaughnessy delivers clever musings on queerness, the historical position of women and her own personal and artistic relationship to these concepts: “I too am a mammal stolen from my original sense of thirst./ Women know this disappearance from meaning.” I really loved the ending of the poem: “The spoon is small,/ the cup, generous,/ the saucer extra absorbent—/ past story, beyond end,/ like a certain kind/ of woman I have been with/ and been.” Most of the work Shaughnessy shared didn’t rhyme, but I thought the slant rhyme in this poem was perfect.

Throughout the reading, Shaughnessy told stories about her creative process, shared her opinions on poetry writing and encouraged the audience to pursue their own literary endeavors. “The whole rule of poetry is that it doesn’t write itself,” she said. She explained that her poems usually come out of pared-down free writes or dialogues within the margins. When she read her poem “Artless,” Shaughnessy explained that the poem started off badly and only got to its final form after much revision. “It’s so strange to me that we’re pulling writing out of ourselves, and yet we don’t see what it is or know what it is,” she said. “Why can’t we see what’s inside of ourselves?” I think we’re often reminded that all artists still have to revise and edit, and still struggle with their work sometimes, no matter how successful they may be. But it’s still something that’s genuinely important to hear, and Shaughnessy understands this. This event was so wonderful because of the quality of Shaughnessy’s work and the smooth way she read it and it also provided a source of inspiration to writers of all ages in the audience.

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