A Conversation with Brenda Shaughnessy

by Natalie Louise Tombasco

Brenda Shaughnessy’s books include So Much Synth (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) and Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She is a recipient of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. She has taught at Columbia University, the New School, Princeton University, and New York University, and she is currently an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, where she also teaches in the MFA program. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Shaughnessy visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series in fall 2016, offering a soft-spoken invitation into her bitingly honest odes of girlhood. Later Shaughnessy sat down with Booth to discuss her latest collection, which Ada Limón described as “a brilliant feminist excavation of adolescence,” as well as mold-breaking, her poetic toolbox, rape culture, and being a “nasty woman.”

Natalie Louise Tombasco: In your latest collection, So Much Synth, synthetization is at the forefront—this idea of combining multiple elements, such as past and future, through music, specifically the “zingy computer music” of the 1980s. Artists such as the Smiths, Dead or Alive, and Culture Club create this electric pulse through the pages, a soundtrack for the coming-of-age narrative. I found the musical accompaniment enjoyable because it encouraged me to revel in the speaker’s nostalgia. Some writers avoid placing a Chevy, for example, in a poem for fear that it may diminish its timelessness. Was the use of cultural references ever a concern? And what do you think is the value of their presence?

Brenda Shaughnessy: Well, it was definitely deliberate. I mean, I suddenly understood that whatever music you loved best when you were thirteen or fourteen is just forever indelibly imprinted on your soul, and you’ll always kind of think it’s the best thing in the world—because it made you, because it happened at the exact moment when your desire was being formed. And so music is always a safe place to put that desire. You fall in love with whatever band, fantasize about whoever you love in that band, and it’s safe—you don’t have to do anything—and you can go kind of wild. This is one of the first ways that we experiment with what we actually want. Not what somebody else thinks we want, and not what somebody else puts on us, but what we actually choose. The first time you do that is very, very powerful.

For me, it was the realization that even when the music has long been understood to be the worst—synth pop for a long time was considered to be “Ughhhh! It’s the worst!”—but even if it’s the objective worst, you will still think it’s subjectively the best, and you’ll always have a soft spot for it. I also went to see Duran Duran a few years ago, and it was so weird. They’re like these old guys—but they’re my old guys! They just seemed like they were so the same—the sound was so exactly the same. It was nostalgia, for sure, but it was also figuring it out and claiming it. It made me think, you know, I’m not going to pretend that this was not what happened. It brought me back to those moments of pubescence and adolescence, where I realized that so much of my reality was secret.

So much coming of age happened just listening to records and externalizing that—how you create your desire system, how you create what you love and care about, how you create a passion before the world comes, crushes it, and tells you that you can’t have any of these things because it’ll be dictated to you. Before rape culture comes in and kind of takes away this agency. It’s nostalgic, looking back, but it’s also looking back with a critical eye on just how violent that passage was. You know, just out of desperate sadness that it hasn’t gotten any better.

NLT: The mixtape is one of these artifacts from the ’80s that you describe as a “private language, lost art, / first book, cri de coeur, X-ray, diary.” The production of a mixtape was a tool of communication for a generation to establish identity, create permanency, and say, “Not ‘Love me!’ so much as ‘Listen to me! Listen to me always!’” Would you say this book is your mixtape to the reader, the beloved seeking understanding and connection? How does this mixtape idea parallel to the immortality of the poet?

BS: Mortality is more like it. Those mixtape poems are an ode to a lost art. The feelings behind the art, meaning “I want you to love me,” that most certainly was lost upon hand-off. The person receiving it might never have felt any of that. The fate of the eventual mixtape is that of a book. It may end up in a bookstore, in a library, on a bedside table—or it may not. It may end up never opened, never read, no one ever really cares about it—but that isn’t the point. Mortality is inescapable. You can’t make something that makes you immortal. But you can memorialize your love, your feelings, your way of seeing the world. You can inscribe it as best you can in something that seems at the time to be a medium that may last.

Maybe I do like that idea that it’s a mixtape of a book—but there’s no B-side, right? Mostly I think the music of that period allowed me to organize not only my memories, but my critical apparatus for those years, in a way that I didn’t feel I had any power at that time. Now, looking back as a grown-up, it’s like I can call that what that was. I have enough distance and authority over it.

NLT: What do you think is the equivalent of the mixtape today?

BS: Audio technology today is so fast and nonlinear. You used to have to listen to songs in order. People used to save up money to buy albums. Now you just buy songs here or there, or just steal it—or whatever people do. There is no equivalent. It’s gone.

NLT: In your long poem “Is There Something I Should Know,” our heroine makes the transition from innocence to experience—her sexual awakening during the seven hundred days of puberty, while Duran Duran echoes in the background. She deals with feeling “Extra Medium,” the secrecy of tampons, her worth determined by fuckability, ending sentences in question marks, a constant reminder of the violence that blossoms with girlhood. As a mother of a daughter, can you speak more of your intentions with this poem and the “[un]restricted girl-version” of growing up you hope for her?

BS: Thanks for that question—that’s really key for me. No one ever thinks about what would be there if the threat of violence, the objectification, or the sort of gradual and then all of a sudden humiliation and diminution of girls didn’t happen. What would be in its place? So you have girls from the time they’re eight years old being told “Oh, be quieter” or “You’re not good enough to be on our team” or “You’re a girl, you can’t xyz.” The gendered world does this particular violence to boys, too. Absolutely. And I think it starts earlier than puberty. However, it becomes a different thing in puberty. Girls are given the impression that they shouldn’t outdo, outsmart, be stronger, louder, or anything more than boys. They’re given this idea early on and consistently, from teachers, coaches, other kids, parents—everybody tells them that they should never be more than boys—and because of what? Because boys don’t like it. And if boys don’t like it, then they don’t like you, and then what are you going to do? Not be liked by boys? That’s a heavy price because boys dominate in all places and spaces.

NLT: Right. We’ve seen it play out in this previous election, as well, with Hillary Clinton and the “nasty woman” dig. 

BS: Oh, yeah—you see it a lot in the election. I mean, I cannot count how many women I’ve talked to who said, “I’m crying through this whole thing,” because it brings up so much. You see Hillary Clinton bullied for the way she talks, being smart and prepared—but that’s how boys treat you in junior high school. You can’t escape, whether you’re beautiful, plain, in-between, smart, not smart, athletic—everybody gets it. They’ll find something to knock you down. And it is epidemic! Then when adolescence happens it turns sexual, and you can use this vulnerability that girls have against them. Suddenly bodies become public property, and it’s completely sick. What would happen if a girl wasn’t told what she could or couldn’t be, tone it down, be quieter, she should act more like a girl and diminish herself for her own wellbeing—for her own good? What if when she came into puberty, came into her woman body, what if it wasn’t filled with shame? What if getting your period wasn’t something everyone could make fun of all the time? What if this time was a sacred process that was considered beautiful, normal, and, most importantly, her body?

The permission and agency of what your body is for and what it does—that’s just gone. It’s taken before you even know what “consent” is. I mean, how do you know—already leered at when you were ten, commented on in your ballet outfit. It starts so young, and we’re all led to believe it’s just us, something’s wrong with us. The foundation for sexual assault and rape has already been laid down since we were babies, so we don’t know whose body it really is, and you can’t ask anybody. This is a basic right. Your human, bodily autonomy. You have no agency, from the time you’re little to an unwanted pregnancy. And that’s just the way it is. You can’t walk out on the street wearing what you want because someone’s going to say something, and then you got what you deserved. What could we have done with all that energy if we didn’t have to worry about all that? We would be more well-read, relaxed, and free walking out of any door—any time, day or night—free to be with our friends to learn, explore, and experiment in the world . . . which we know we cannot do now. And it’s crushing, though, to know that now I have a five year old, and I had forty years to change it, and I didn’t do it. We didn’t change the world in time for this one little girl who I’m in charge of. 

NLT: So how do we change that awkwardness and secrecy in order to embrace little girls, with all their abilities and desires?

BS: We break that mold. If those secretive qualities are what allowed for misinformation and silence to win out, then we have to break it. The reason I wrote that poem was because I was embarrassed to bits. But what is so embarrassing about being an ordinary girl? Why is it so shameful when someone else does something mean to you? It’s all based on how we construct girlhood and womanhood. Anything that silence has allowed to grow and fester, we have to then vocalize. This thing happened with Hillary, and all these women began writing about their abuse, and how many times they’ve been groped, yelled at—this is all coming out on a national stage. Hillary said at one of the debates something like, “There’s not a woman alive who doesn’t know what this feels like,” and everybody was like, “Right.” And now the men in our lives—even the good men who are feminists—are absolutely astonished that this has been our reality. Now everyone’s realizing that we’re calling out rape culture. I didn’t do it enough for your generation, and I am sorry.

How do we stop this? We keep talking about it and don’t let ourselves be silenced or embarrassed. In practical terms, in life, when we see a friend or a woman who is too drunk at a bar and there’s that guy who keeps getting her more drinks and she’s falling down—you go stand next to him, you interrupt that. That’s what you do. You interrupt it, call it out, take a picture of him, and say, “I don’t know who this girl is, but I have this on my phone.” Those are acts of tremendous bravery.

Some other ways? My five-year-old daughter takes karate twice a week. That may be cynical, or it may be empowering. I’m not sure which it is. I don’t trust this world to change, and I want her to have some kind of power that she knows she has inside her body. I want her not only to be a kick-ass girl but to actually kick ass if she needs to.

NLT: It’s interesting in the poem “Postfeminism,” the idea of how feminism has changed from your mother’s generation to yours, and how in today’s world the predator isn’t always the masked man hiding in the bushes, but rather the classmate who drove you home from a party. We’ve been seeing those sorts of stories come out more and more.

BS: It’s the taboo and social cost for women for telling. Let’s say a woman from the 1950s is getting walked home from a party, she’s had three drinks, and she then is raped in her apartment. There was absolutely no recourse. If she was drunk and let him walk her home—she got what she deserved. If she got pregnant, guess what? She loses her job, she’s kicked out of her apartment, and she has to go live in some strange unwed mothers’ home, give birth to the baby, never see the baby again, and go back and try to make her life again. Absolutely no agency! And these weren’t rapes from the bushes. These were colleagues, cousins, professors—and we have such a long way to go. Most women won’t report a rape. The process they have to report is completely dehumanizing and humiliating all over again. They have to get every part of their body reexamined. They’ll lose the rape kit. There’s zero respect for the entire process. It’s so much easier for a woman to be like, “Forget it, I’ll take a shower and just forget this whole night.”

I was talking to another poetry teacher, and she asked me, “What percentage of your female students do you think write about, talk about, or are dealing with sexual trauma?” I said, “Probably seven out of ten.” And then two of our women students were next to us and each told us their stories, so nine out of ten? It’s a constant battle, and as I said earlier it isn’t just rape—it’s the constant threat of rape. It’s the constant fear that you’re not supposed to do anything that someone can misinterpret as some reasonable way to get at you. And that means not wanting to go to the gym at night because you have to park in the parking garage. For millions of women all across the country, we have to mold our routine and thoughts around this threat. I mean, you’re not able to go jogging. Jogging has become this flashpoint, like if you go jogging—just forget it. Whatever happens to you is your fault, because you had the nerve to go exercise at night. Oh, you got me started.

NLT: Going in a different direction, something I’ve admired about your writing is the use of different tones. Sometimes you merge the lyrical and dense musicality with a detached matter-of-factness and colloquial aphorisms, which speaks to the double life of the poet and creates layers of emotions. “Last Sleep, Best Sleep” reads, “The great fruits of my failure: / silk milk pills with little bitter pits. / Who talks like that? Says we are / ever-locked, leaving everything petaled and veined the way nature / pretended.” In these lines we get a clear break in the poetic voice and also a pun, which makes this somber poem humorous. This fusion happens line to line, poem to poem. How do you maintain a harmony between these voices? Is this something you think about, especially when writing long poems?

BS: It comes from trying to create a variety of cultural sentence types. I think it’s my job as a poet to find many different ways to be human. Sometimes we speak in a down-to-earth way because we need clarity and want to connect. Other times the thought is complicated, and we have to use slightly elevated or strange words. Mostly I believe in the idea that a poem is as complicated as it needs to be. When we are dealing with things that are so complex and possibly contradictory, and kind of a big mess of things—it’s just not possible to write about them adequately in merely one register. It might need a vernacular tone, a more academic viewpoint, political feminist language, or a pop culture reference at that moment. I think our world has so many different voices competing all the time, and I don’t see any reason not to use that to get at any truths they all may lead to.

NLT: There’s an interesting idea in So Much Synth of a generational hurt. I’m thinking of “I Have a Time Machine” in the lines, “Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me / because of the explosion / of some dark star all the way back struck hard / at mother’s mother’s mother.” This is also apparent in “Dress Form”: “Anyone / who hurts another was hurt that same way, / so how far back behind our backs do we go / to finally find the first hurt; whose finger / points to say, ‘You! You’re the one who god / knows why started a cycle of unending pain.’” Can you elaborate more of the cyclical wound between mother and daughter both not fitting the expectations of the other?

BS: We think we know each other so well. We think we know, “I know how she is. I know if I do that, then she’s going to do this.” And it’s very hard for one person to break it alone. But if you both figure out a way to say, “Let’s not presume based on the past that I know what you’re gonna do every single time in the future,” if there’s a way that one of you can break that expectation—let’s say Mom baits you like she always does, and you take the bait. What happens next time if you don’t take the bait and do something different? See if changing one part of the script can change the rest of it. The way hurts happen from mother to daughter is that mother is passing on hurts inflicted on her that were not examined.

Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child is about narcissistic parenting, meaning your parent can be either really evil and abusive, or they can be completely loving and do it for your own good. But the essence is when a parent needs the child to act a certain way and that becomes the most important thing, and the kid has no choice but to choose the love of the parent over what she needs to do. So, as a result, she chooses the approval of her parent because she cannot afford not to have that over anything else she wants to do. In this way the parent breaks the child, because the child has to suppress who she really is, and she becomes an adult who goes, “I have no idea what I want, why I want it.” Her true self, and that’s the gift—the gifted child isn’t the intelligent child; the gifted child is the one who knows who she is. Now, you see how this connects with rape culture, right? These kinds of enforced rules and conformity are things she learned from her mom, so she thinks it’s right. The way people think spanking is right—“Well, I was spanked!” And you never process that, so you don’t realize how much damage it’s done, and then you spank your kid, and they grow up and spank theirs. The only way you cannot pay it forward the exact same way—the spanking and narcissistic parenting—is to turn around and ask how your parents were parented. But you’ll see from Alice Miller, the world protects parents, and especially children protect parents.

NLT: I was wondering if you could speak to the balance of writing confessional and persona poems—using artifice as a liberating experience while creating a device, perhaps, to disguise or remove yourself, the poet, from the experience of the speaker. Are cheaters and liars the only ones who have a double life, or does the poet too?

BS: Fiction writers have this hard line between fact and fiction, so they’re understood to be like, “This is not me! This is a fictional tale!” Memoirists have the exact opposite and be like, “I have to prove that everything is true.” Poets get to be somewhere in between. The only thing really protecting us, from both ourselves and our readers’ expectations, is that little gap between the author and the speaker. The speaker of the poem cannot be collapsed into the author. So we can say the wildest things. And maybe someone says, “Did you really kill a man, boil his head, and serve it for dinner?” But this is a metaphor, so we get the satisfaction of having done this in text. And it’s not a metaphor for peace and love, but one for violence and a revenge fantasy. It’s a win-win. We can say whatever we want, and we can be protected in our truths, too. We can mix it all together so nobody knows what’s what. The “I” works as a sort of pseudonym to keep that distance. The speaker in the poem “Our Andromeda” is a sort of shattered speaker, and she is very, very angry. I don’t have to take the blame for being that angry person. I have protection if someone wants to call me out and be like, “It’s so rude for you to be angry at the wrong people.” And it’s like, that’s that speaker. She has every right to feel how that speaker feels. It’s a tremendous tool.

NLT: The poem “Visitor” reminds me very much of Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” in the way that it uses the imagination to transform the domestic sphere and merges it with natural imagery, creating a house of poetry that has trees, sun, and “leaf light.” The final lines, “Like a dark book in a long life with a vague / hope in a wood house with an open door,” have this almost anxious rhythm and conclude with an iambic release through “an open door.” I think this use of meter to create a resonating harmony or disjunction is something that Dickinson’s rhythm often does. Another similarity is the image of the door, as this metaphysical portal into the imagination. Can you speak a bit about influences—ways in which you channel another poet or pickpocket something you admire?

BS: I don’t do that consciously. I’ve internalized Dickinson’s exhortation, like when I say myself, I do not mean me, I mean a supposed person—that is what I believe in. I’ve also internalized Whitman’s “I contain multitudes,” like I believe in all of that. How do I use my reading, and how does it get into my work? I don’t really know. That process is mysterious. Somebody—I’m not sure who—said if a line comes to you whole, you might want to research it because it might be somebody else’s line.

That poem in particular was guided by longing. It was just yearning for the company of a particular friend. The inspiration was what I could come up with as a bridge, or a lure, for this friend to come. Part of that bridge was a particularly seductive way of using prepositional phrases. When you’re speaking to other writers, there’s a way that we know what they like, because we know what they write. I don’t know. This is a funny question because, for me, I didn’t steal any patterns from Dickinson for that poem. It’s lovely that you read that influence, because it’s one that’s there, but I didn’t do it consciously.

NLT: Who are some artists you think have duende?

BS: Some poets who have serious, serious duende are Robin Coste Lewis, Rachel McKibbens, Natalie Diaz, and Jericho Brown. As far as visual artists go, one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time is that film Moonlight. It is a game changer. I also think the Iranian-American painter, mixed-media artist Toba Khedoori is a really interesting person. Those are some people I’m thinking about lately. Oh! Hilton Als is one of the best, best, best writers on the planet. You read his pieces in the New Yorker, his reviews on film and theater, and you’re like, “Who wrote this masterpiece?! Oh, Hilton. Of course.” Every turn of phrase is stunning.

NLT: Sweet. I’ll have to check him out. I’d like to end on a simple question. What is your “internal landscape”?

BS: That is the most complex question. My internal landscape is probably a mixture of dreams and past landscapes. Not the actual landscapes of my childhood, but the way my childhood landscapes come up in dreams. Probably things like my high school hallways, and my kids’ school hallways, and just the way you wear a path. For example, I lived in an apartment with my family in New York City for five years, and it was like there were these worn grooves in the sidewalk I would see when I’d go the same way every single day. I have a sense that some deep part of my brain is lined with those brownstones. And now we live in a house in New Jersey, and I feel like my landscape is an innerscape, although there is more sky. I’m thinking of one of those View-Masters with all the little discs—that at any given moment or time might change. But generally my landscape, when I’m alone in my thoughts, and I’m not reading anything, so I’m not getting any input and not trying to process anything, just in my head is a truly private blend of wishing to be nothingness. You know, if you try to think of nothing in some kind of Zen meditation it’s impossible—it’s just pop-up after pop-up. Who comes up often? It’s not a scene. It’s a who in my landscape—the faces of my kids, the sudden realization I’ve said something stupid, or terrible, or wrong, and I’ll look at that person’s face in my mind for a while, wondering if I should make a call. There is some landscape—sort of sky, sort of street, sort of faces—nothing all that calm.

Natalie Louise Tombasco is a poetry candidate in the MFA program at Butler University. Her poems have appeared in the Poydras Review and the minnesota review. She lives in Staten Island, New York.