Prac Crit

Artless

by Brenda Shaughnessy

Interview

by Sarah Howe

Last autumn, I was lucky enough to catch Brenda Shaughnessy on a rare visit of hers to the UK. From her home in New York, she had flown over to London for just a few days to read at the Saison Poetry Library’s 60th birthday celebrations. I had followed Shaughnessy’s work from afar since falling in love with her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999). That book of witty, luxuriantly lusty poems was followed by two more from Copper Canyon Press: Human Dark with Sugar (2008)  a finalist for the 2008 NBCC Award and winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets  and most recently, Our Andromeda (2012).

Shaughnessy has received numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission, and the Howard Foundation of Brown University. She is Poetry Editor-At-Large at Tin House Magazine, and is currently an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, where she also teaches in the MFA programme. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son and daughter.

I spoke to Shaughnessy about her third collection, Our Andromeda – dramatically different in tone, if not in sensibility, to her two earlier books. In the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson praised its laying-bare of motherhood in poems that ‘focus on the rigors and joys of caring for a young child born with severe disabilities. They are vulnerable, heartbroken, mean, vengeful, and thrilling.’

I was particularly interested in the relationship between ‘Artless’ – the taut and sonically intense proem which opens the volume – and the long, concluding title poem, ‘Our Andromeda’. The former is also the subject of Aime Williams’ essay in this edition. In the context of an interview dedicated to teasing out the ideas and formal decisions that lie behind a poem, I wanted to hear more about ‘Artless’ – its seeming disavowal, one after another, of poetry’s expected materials, like Yeats sloughing off his embroidered coat: ‘Song, let them take it’.

SH

Our Andromeda dwells on the idea of ‘revision’ in many senses – the notion of the ‘do-over’, but also of ‘re-visioning’ the past, re-seeing it with a new clarity. I’m really interested to hear about your processes of revising and editing your work – not least because of this, the opening poem’s, paradoxical claim to artlessness…

BS

Every poem is different. With the long poem, ‘Our Andromeda’, I did not let myself edit or revise until it was all out. It may seem like it’s just spoken off the cuff, but it’s been tremendously revised. ‘Artless’ was a really weird experience, because I had a bunch of notes for it. And then I was sitting in my writing studio – I had a fresh piece of paper and I was looking at the notes, thinking about where this part might go or that part might go, thinking about rearranging it. And then a portal opened in my head, and it just went, choo, choo, choo, choo. I moved my hand and it just wrote itself.

I’d written the words, all jumbled up. I didn’t know how they were going to come together. I didn’t know about the final line in each tercet – -less, -less, -less, -less. That wasn’t something I had come up with. And then suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, there’s the moonroof, and there’s the smokehouse, and there’s the meat stub, and there’s…’ choo, choo, choo, choo. The pieces came together. It was really mystical.

SH

Is that an important thing in your writing – the unconscious, the mystical, the moments when you’re not sure where the words are coming from?

BS

It’s the only thing that can guide us in poetry. I think, as poets, there’s something in us that’s bigger than us, that’s wiser than us, that knows way more about art, and about being human, than we do. Each of us has this little back brain: our poetry has abilities we just have to be skilful enough to let happen. But none of it is just conscious. Anything that’s just conscious is going to be pretty flat. There always has to be an iceberg-like root that’s way below consciousness.

SH

Do you have particular techniques for getting in touch with that place which is beyond rational thought?

BS

The way I usually try to call that up is a large blank piece of paper.

SH

How large roughly?

BS

Well, if I can get as big a notebook, a lined notebook, as I can – I’ve recently started using blotter paper.

SH

That’s interesting – almost like an artist’s layout?

BS

It has to be non-linear. I have to be able to… splotch ideas.

SH

When you talked about the ‘jumble’ of ‘Artless’, the parts of the poem waiting to be arranged, is that what you meant? And is the spatial layout important to that?

BS

The problem is, once it’s linear, once one thing follows the next, it’s very hard for me to decouple it, because it seems like it’s how it is, and I can’t see it anymore as two separate things. But if they’re separate ideas, I can keep them in flux – almost like a brainstorming exercise. That’s why it exists, that brainstorming technique where the ideas aren’t set out in a list. If you have a list, 1 to 10, we prioritize the first, and then it looks like the later ones are lesser. But this way, you can look at them and they’re all equal, they’re all moving in the space. And you can go ‘Oh, that’s the one!’ Even though you wrote it not thinking anything about it, you wrote it seventh – that might be the thing.

SH

So at that point in the drafting, you’re trying to experience the lines or snippets as simultaneous?

BS

Yes, they all are simultaneous, because what happens is if you write one thing and then another thing, you go in one direction. If you write one thing and then a different thing, you go in that direction. So then every single piece you attach is going to go further and further into some other poem. So it’s important to keep them all moving until the right groove comes along. You’re calling up the unconscious. How does this go? I don’t know. If I knew, I would write it all in one swoop: done! But that’s not what’s in play. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is weird… That goes with that… Oh that’s – now, that’s confusing… Now it’s all messed up. This part is bad. I’ll have to write a new bit.’ It’s not all necessarily there.

SH

It sounds a little bit like the way ‘Our Andromeda’ meditates on the forking paths that lead to all sorts of potential futures, from the chances of getting a Rhodes Scholarship to the chance your child will be in a traffic accident: ‘tweaking the odds of misfortune’, you call it. On the page of your blotter notebook, you’re holding all the poem’s potential futures in simultaneity. So putting the poem into a linear form is almost like setting its path in time.

BS

Yes. And I don’t trust myself to set it. I want the thing that is wiser than me to set it. I want it to be the one that does that. But I come in with my little will and go, ‘I think it should be like this’, and it ends up being pretty predictable, because I don’t have conscious access to the thing that truly unlocks the poetry. It’s weirdly out of my control.

I mean, it drives one crazy, doesn’t it? If I had just turned that corner earlier, I wouldn’t have met so-and-so. He and I wouldn’t have gone to that one funny cafe where we met so-and-so, whom I married. And sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, I missed that bus, caught the next bus, no big deal. Maybe that bus would have gotten hit, but it didn’t. Maybe I would have been on time, but I still was, more or less.’ Some things you do, which you don’t think of at all, have no consequences. And other things have enormous consequences. And there’s no way to know.

SH

At what point do you move the poem from the big notebook page into a word processor? Do you try and do that as late as possible? And will there be any more editing after that point?

BS

It goes from the splattering on the page, and then eventually when I feel that I’ve got enough ‘movements’ to constitute a poem, or somewhere close, I’ll then handwrite out a kind of draft. Then I’ll make some decisions about whether it’s going to have long lines or short lines, or whether it’s imagistic or even prose – I’m not sure what it’s really about. Once that draft gets pretty solid, I’ll type it, make it into a computer draft. But once that’s there, it’s very hard to rethink anything. Once it’s in a computer draft, it’s almost impossible to completely erase all the associations that it now has. So you can’t really start over once it’s there, I find.

SH

And then how do you order the poems in the book? Do you have a similarly spatial process?

BS

I don’t know. I haven’t done it enough. With three books, I’ve only swum three times in my life – I wouldn’t know how to get swimming lessons. I just try to put a good poem at the beginning, and a good poem at the end. I do have a spatial process, but I don’t have any sense of how accurate that is. I’m always stumped when my students ask me that question. I just tell them, you have to go with gut instinct – what goes with what, what follows what. Try. If you don’t like it, rearrange them. But you can’t really make bad poems good by rearranging them.

SH

Do you think your teaching affects your writing? Are they in harmony for you? 

BS

I feel I can’t write when I’m teaching. I’m always so involved with trying to think about what my students need or want, or just reading, and it takes over that decision for me. It’s not like I think, ‘What do I want to read today?’ I don’t get to, because I’m thinking, ‘Well, so and so needed this. Maybe I should try to find that.’ Exactly which sort of book by this writer a particular student should have. I find when I’m teaching I’m very immersed in what we are talking about. However, that said, no other job has you working for two 15-week sessions out of the year. Yes, you do work hard. Yes, you don’t write. But it’s half the year, how could anyone possibly complain?

SH

Do you tend to write in the half of the year when you’re not teaching then?

BS

If I were very organized I would. But there are only so many weeks in my life that can become an actual habit. How many books do you publish in a life? How many kids do you have? Well, I have three books and two kids. So, there hasn’t been enough time to know what the schedule even is. Between the first book and the second book was years and years. Between second and third was four years. I have nothing to say anymore after the third book. I have no idea when I’m going to start again.

SH

Is that an exciting position to be in?

BS

It is exciting… I could say anything. And so I don’t know, the first book is a total new thing. The second book is also a new thing. Third book, feels like, ‘Okay, I’m getting used to this book publishing thing.’ But you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing. You still feel like, ‘Am I getting this?’

I have started writing again. I’ve tried and just completely and totally failed. I went to Yaddo, at tremendous inconvenience to my family – we had to get tons of babysitting, my husband had to watch both kids. Everything had to stop at home so that Mommy could go off to write for three weeks. And I would just sit there every single day, with pen to paper and nothing would happen. It was agony. I kept thinking that I would push through it, that I would write something, that I had to. But even in a magical place, even in a place that was designed to help you write, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.

SH

Is that kind of block something you’d experienced before?

BS

Between my first and second book, definitely. But it felt different, because I felt like I should know how to get over it. You know, every time you find yourself in the same spot you were in before, it’s not actually the same spot. I don’t know what I’m going to write next. I’ve tried. I’ve had some ideas, big and small. I’m very disturbed and confused by it. Part of me feels like I might not write anything ever again.

SH

I definitely know that fear! When you were working on your previous books, did you write in bursts, or are you a slow accretor of poems?

BS

Our Andromeda was a slow accretion of poems over a while. And then I went to Yaddo, in 2009, for a much more productive time. Yaddo is a writers’ colony. It’s an artists’ colony in the States. It has an amazing history, which is that this very wealthy family, the Trask family, had this huge estate and it became an artists’ colony years later. This is why: Katrina Trask, the mother of three children, had a terrible illness. It was contagious, so she wasn’t allowed to see her children during the whole illness. And then, when she was on her deathbed, she requested to say goodbye to her kids. So the kids were brought in. She said goodbye to them. They left. She didn’t die. And they all contracted her disease, and all three children died. And she lived. So they had no heirs. It’s a terrible, tragic story. And they called it Yaddo after what one of the young children had called it – from ‘shadow’. And because of the children’s deaths, this became a space for artists and writers. So it’s a very loaded space. And I had one winter there over New Year’s. I had Katrina Trask’s room. And I just, for some reason, because I was not home, because I wasn’t expecting it, because nothing was burdening me, I just let myself cry and cry and cry and write the title poem.

SH

So actually the last poem was one of the first poems?

BS

It wasn’t one of the first. It was the one that clinched the book, that made the book a book.

SH

Right… so that was the point when you felt it came together?

BS

Well, the disparate poems seemed to be all doing their own thing. Then, when I wrote ‘Our Andromeda’, I had to tell myself that no one was ever going to see it. That it was just for me. Let myself write and say, ‘It doesn’t have to be anything. Just keep going.’ And it’s magical and sort of haunted. When I was there, I was letting myself feel all of my feelings that I had not let myself feel before at home. I can’t. At home I’ve got my kid. I have my husband. I have all these real life things. I couldn’t afford to go into it psychically. But there I could. And I just let myself continue to write, and I wrote until I was done. I’d never done anything like it. And then maybe a year later, I showed it to my editor. He thought it was a book. And then in the two years between when it was taken and when it came out, I wrote other poems, including ‘Artless’.

SH

So despite opening the book, ‘Artless’ was actually a later poem?

BS

Much later. It was one of the last poems in the book. So actually, the opening poem and the closing poem were both late poems in the book.

SH

They do seem to have a relationship with each other – and not only because of the way they book-end the collection. It’s so interesting to hear that you were at Yaddo when you wrote the title poem. That you were alone at that point, apart from your family, makes me think of that fascinating coinage, ‘aloneless’, at the midpoint of ‘Artless’, and also the punning on ‘a part’ and ‘apart’ in the final stanzas. ‘Our Andromeda’ is not technically an epistolary poem, but it is addressed to your child. The way you had to trick yourself into believing it would never be seen – could that be what creates the feeling we’re eavesdropping on a private missive?

BS

I mean, we have to play some trick on ourselves if we’re going to be honest about members of our family. But in this case, I felt like I owed other parents who might be in the same situation my honesty. I owed it to them more than I owed it to any kind of sense of propriety. I found nothing talking about any of this. Nothing dealt with it artistically. And I thought, I cannot be the only person who’s ever gone through this. But then nobody talks about it. Nobody wants to.

SH

‘Our Andromeda’ doesn’t apologize to the reader. In fact, it’s almost uncomfortably aggressive at some points because of its rawness. But then, in another way, those lines in ‘Artless’ are preparing us for the last poem: ‘No / fresh, special recipe / to bless.’ ‘Our Andromeda’ shows a figure learning, like Caliban, how to curse – to curse God, curse the world, curse other families with their untouched children – because she has to go through that invective to get the point of blessing. That poem, and the book, ends by blessing and finding the blessing in her family’s life.

BS

‘Artless’ is about trying to figure out how much can you subtract and have there be something left of you that’s whole. What is the essence? Is there one? Can you subtract less and less and have anything left? We know that if you subtract everything, it’s not art that’s the only thing left – is it?

Ideally, the crux, the heart – if you took everything away, that’s what we would be left with. Soul or heart, or something like that. But what is that? Is that just love? And if you took everything else away, if you took all the happy endings, if you took all of the sentimentalized baby joy away, all you have left is love. It was the three of us. It was just like… we have nothing. We have no certainty. We don’t have this baby joy. We don’t get to be the sentimental family. But we know we love each other. That’s all we had. And if the rest is sort of extraneous, or add-ons or extra, it felt natural to say, ‘Okay, well, what if it was all different?’ What if we’re like paper dolls, and we can just put different outfits on, and put a space helmet on, and do some other kind of reality? There are several other poems in there that address this kind of duplicity…

SH

You fantasize about the double life that cheating lovers are allowed, say…

BS

Right. Or wishing we had more sisters, like, ‘This sister’s not doing it for me, can I have another sister?’ Some idea that you could order up another set of coordinates, as long as that crux was there. And so I think that that’s one way those two poems – that opening and closing – worked.

SH

In ‘Artless’, we see a repeated act of imagining through negatives. That becomes emblematic of a process that runs down the spine of the whole book: Our Andromeda is named for an alternative reality – a fantasy world that is the opposite of the present. Could you talk a little about those acts of counterfactual imagination?

BS

When things are very anguished and unbearable; when active, attempted survival is to imagine what it would be like if it were different… it doesn’t necessarily ‘negate’, because this particular act of imagination was meant to take everything I love with me through the wormhole and leave everything else behind. I felt like it was a crutch for a long time: if only, if only. If only it hadn’t happened. Why did it happen? And eventually – and it took a lot longer than the poem took, in my life, to come in terms with – ‘Well, it happened. Let’s move on. That can’t be changed.’

There’s a way that when we’re still hoping things will change, we’re still attached to our anguish. Like when you’re in a bad relationship and you’re still hoping that person will change. You’re addicted to suffering in that way. You’re hoping that some other external forces are going to somehow magically zap the problem away. Then what will you do? There’s a way that we actually love our suffering, because we’re familiar with it. And so, actually letting go meant this reality is liveable. It was unbearable before, so I invented that. Now that I’ve been able to cope, there’s no longer the need for another imaginative reality.

I feel like imagining other realities for poets is always what we have the most practice in. Because how else do you become a poet, unless you imagine some bizarre reality in which you could become a poet? It was not something that was laid out in front of most of us.

SH

The point in Our Andromeda when that acceptance starts to take hold seems to be this haiku-like moment, ‘You in my arms, your little searching fingers / on my face. Wistful, graceful / stars on a wet, clear night.’ It courts sentimentality, but gets far past it, partly because of the clarity of its sense perception – that echo of Pound’s Station of the Metro. And clarity is the point: the face right in front of you is Andromeda, the distant galaxy.

BS

Finally looking – really looking, it felt like, ‘Oh, that other universe is already here. Not only is there no other place to go, but we also don’t need to pretend that we need to go someplace else.’ The problem is that when you’re just yourself, a regular person, not accepting reality is kind of okay: be delusional, it’s your choice – who cares? Maybe it’s immature. But when you are suddenly a parent, suddenly you are responsible for somebody else. So it gets very muddled. And there’s no discrete self anymore. The boundaries of your self now include this other being.

SH

The anagrammatic imagination in this book – which sees ‘a part’ in ‘apart’ and ‘art’ in ‘heart’, and gives rise to that line, ‘But then, “beginning” begins with “beg”’ (‘Our Andromeda’) – finding these cabalistic meanings hidden within words, is that emblematic of the relationship between parent and child here? The child is a part of her, but also a separate being.

BS

That’s a great point. I mean, it’s a real shock – that separation with a tether. I didn’t know what it was like to be a parent before it happened. It was my first experience of parenthood.

SH

‘It’s a riddle’, you say in ‘Magi’. And there’s a sense that all the book’s linguistic riddles feed into that poem’s one devastatingly loaded, unfair ‘riddle’: ‘How could I have been a better mother?’ The last poem talks about ‘Mixing up the card files Comedy / and Tragedy’. And you do – those snippets of wit never stop coming in this book. Though of course that playfulness with language has been there since your earliest work. Why did you find it necessary to mix up those two card files?

BS

Necessary to me to write it. The greater the grief, the more the need for levity, right? I mean, you can’t just sit in the dark sobbing always. You do need something else. And so the painful, awkward, inappropriate bits of humour, they’re so important. I don’t claim to know how and when and why they come up. It’s something that one’s unconscious sort of drums up for you. Those serious things are always going to have lightness in them. Otherwise, we would just see nothing. But if you see a little bit of a glimmer of light in the dark, then you suddenly see, ‘Oh, there are the contours of the space I’m in.’

SH

The book is very attentive to light and shade and effects of illumination…

BS

Light is such an amazing metaphor, because we always think of it as illumination: ‘I was blind and now I see.’ It’s always about the light bulb, the understanding. But in the case of stars, they might already be dead by the time you see the light. It’s actually much more dodgy – the qualities of light, they’re not static.

SH

Keats with his bright star, ‘would I were steadfast as thou art’. But as you say, stars fluctuate, they’re a tricky emblem of fixity…

BS

Yeah. They’re an emblem also of not knowing what your light actually is, not knowing the source. Thinking you know what light is, but you really have no idea. It’s not quite just illumination.

SH

Re-reading Interior with Sudden Joy today, I noticed afresh these lines from ‘Jouissance’, one of my favourite poems in that book: ‘Your shaggy, sceptical / quasar has died the way Andromeda dies: / so very late at night.’ Andromeda was already with you as an idea from your earliest poems…

BS

Yes, years ago. I had no idea. I didn’t realize it until I picked up the book to read again years and years later. I was surprised to see it.

SH

Would you be happy to talk about what you were reading as you wrote Our Andromeda? As far as ‘Artless’ is concerned, a lot of reviewers have picked up its implicit dialogue with Bishop’s ‘One Art’. But I wondered if there might be other past poets there too – Yeats’ ‘A Coat’, or Herbert’s ‘Jordan’ poems?

BS

They’re not… I don’t feel like I have overt influences. Sort of like the mention of Andromeda 13 years ago in an earlier poem, I feel like poems I learned and read years ago, they pop up unbidden. Bishop’s ‘One Art’ came up because I needed it. ‘The wet black bough’, there was a way that that was… there. I sort of reached for it and this line just stood right next to that line. It’s not a conscious process at all.

What was I reading at that time? I was probably reading the hodge-podge of poetry and fiction and non-fiction I usually read. The only time I have a poem that really is ‘after’ something, I will write a note about it, like the ‘Nachträglichkeit, for example. That really was in response to a particular body of work. Otherwise, all the poetry I read is just one big stew in my head…

SH

The last stanza of ‘Artless’ talks about ‘playing a part’. Were you keen to explore the idea of motherhood as a role, and one whose historical parameters women still find themselves constrained within? I’m thinking of those lines from ‘Liquid Flesh’, where motherhood is a dressing gown you can’t slough off: you ‘can’t denude the flora / or disrobe the kind of housecoat / “mother” always is. Something / cunty, something used.’

BS

And it’s so disparaged. There’s always something so disgusting about motherhood. It’s so deep in our culture – there’s the beautiful maiden turned into the slovenly gross mother – how internalized that becomes, especially when things aren’t going well. Suddenly you feel, ‘Oh I’m this new kind of person,’ and then you think, ‘Oh, I’m this old kind of person. This is an ancient archetype that I suddenly have stepped into. And how is that me?’

SH

And of course Andromeda is not just a galaxy or a star pattern – she’s also someone who’s chained to a rock because her mother boasted about her beauty. Like the Niobe story, there’s this trope in myth that taking joy in motherhood and pride in your child is somehow courting disaster.

BS

Yes, yes. That’s what I meant, though I didn’t want to use too much of that myth in the poem. I thought it could become a little bit fake. I thought, ‘I could try to pull this in,’ but I didn’t want it to seem like I was saying, ‘And now I’ve got Greek mythology to justify the choices I’ve made with these metaphors!’ But one of the ways I did incorporate it in the poem was at the end to say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to boast about my child’s beauty. I’m going to say he’s beautiful. That’s what a mother does.’ 

I remember when I was pregnant, reading books about motherhood and pregnancy, I was so blown away by how euphemistic everything was.

SH

I don’t suppose they say it’s ‘Something / cunty, something used’!

BS

No, they do not! The euphemisms about being pregnant and giving birth are so detrimental to women. It’s unbelievable. Looking at the symptoms that you might experience during pregnancy – for example, a common problem is something called pink toothbrush. Pink toothbrush is bleeding gums. It’s not a cute pink toothbrush. It’s not girly. Actually your gums bleed when you brush your teeth…

SH

I didn’t know that…

BS

Yeah. So there you are, you’re pregnant and suddenly your gums are bleeding everywhere. So you’re looking at your pregnancy book going, ‘What is this?’ – and there it is, ‘Pink toothbrush’ That’s a ridiculous euphemism. So you look at your toothbrush and tell yourself it’s pink. Actually it’s blood.

So these kinds of things, they make them sound so extraordinarily different from the reality that almost everyone who goes to deliver a child is completely shocked at what happens. I read every single book you could possibly read and I found myself, having given birth, looking at my overnight bag – I’d packed these little frilly nightgowns, as if I thought after birth I was going to be wearing these little cute, sexy, frilly nightgowns. What was I thinking? Just give me a big huge sack. And 5000 pairs of disposable underwear. No, you’re not going to be wearing your cute little negligee set in the hospital! But this is the idea that I had in my head from reading those books. I didn’t even bring any regular clothes. I don’t know what I thought.

SH

That all certainly helps me to understand Our Andromeda’s refusal to be squeamish or euphemistic about blood. It starts with the ‘meat stub of us’ in ‘Artless’. By ‘Nachträlichkeit’, the poem after Kaja Silverman’s Flesh of My Flesh, what I took to be the figure of the bruised mother has become a carved piece of meat: ‘Did you know that anguish thins the blood and thickens / the vessel? It was like cutting / a rare steak.’

BS

I’m so fascinated about the idea of meat because – it’s derogatory towards us humans, right? If you say ‘You’re a piece of meat’ to a human being, it’s like saying ‘You’re just the stump of a human, without any consciousness. You’re just the flesh of yourself.’ When we think about who we are, we almost always think about what we want to be, how we think. And so the idea of being reduced to meat is one of the more humiliating, degrading, scary things I can think of. But that’s what you are when you’re a mother. When you give birth, you are literally meat. It turns out you bleed like a stuck pig for a month after you give birth.

SH

I didn’t know that…

‘There is no such thing as sacrifice, / though the bleeding doesn’t end’ (‘Mermaid’s Purse’).

BS

It never ends. And it’s really painful, psychically.

SH

Perhaps this patterning wasn’t very conscious at first, but the association of bleeding and sacrifice – from the word ‘excruciation’ on the first page – seems to come back again and again. But you don’t allow the reader to straightforwardly map a Christlike narrative onto the female speaker’s suffering…

BS

There’s one place that says, ‘but my son is not Christ. And I am no / damn Pietà Mary.’ This is not going to be that story. I’m not Pietà Mary. I’m not going to hold my dead son. It’s not going to be me. I won’t let it happen. Not when I’m in charge, and I’m going to say I’m in charge now. And there is not going to be a sacrifice there.

If the sacrifice is the mother… well, I’ll just join the club. There’s a big, long club through history – it’s secret. And I don’t want to continue that misleading tradition. For me, I feel lucky that I had years of practice writing poems. I had the skills already there to help me get through. Let’s say you’re languishing on the side of a mountain, it’s freezing, you’re in the Antarctic, and you have no way to keep warm, except you’ve got a bunch of thread and some knitting needles. Well, good thing you learned how to knit. Good thing you learned. Good thing your grandmother taught you and you knitted your whole childhood. And now you’re really good at knitting full body sweaters. Because otherwise, if you didn’t know how to knit, what would you do? Wind the thread around your body? You’d freeze.

Because I was able to write poems – and because I wasn’t trying to start with all that raw emotion with no skills; because I had years of working with emotions, working with real life and language, and had tried to expressively connect the two, I felt like I had the ability to get somewhere that might actually heal a little bit.

And it really did. This book took everything out of me. I used every part of myself to create it. And I feel good about it. My friend wrote a book about her grown son dying. When I asked her how she felt about having published the book, she talked about how writing it felt like she’d conjured her son, had him back in some way. And then she said something that broke my heart. She said, ‘And then I realized all I had was a damn book.’

I don’t feel that way. I feel like what I exorcised was my own demons. There was such a massive sense of internalized guilt. I needed to get rid of that. I had to reimagine it and transform it. And because I used the art that’s gotten me through my whole life to do that – for me, it was transformed.

SH

Do you feel like Our Andromeda is a continuation, perhaps by other means, of the feminist politics that was such a strong element of your first two books?

BS

Definitely. I mean, it’s very easy to be a feminist when you’re saying, ‘I want to go into the world and be tough and fierce and in charge of things.’ The earlier books are about sexuality. They’re about feminist empowerment around sexuality which, when you’re a grown-up, isn’t that tall an order. Obviously, when girls are young or underage, it’s very hard to figure that out. Being a feminist does not mean that you have figured out how to be a woman successfully in all ways. That’s not what it’s about. I realized how a new identity threw me completely, and had to reimagine the feminism that I would embody for this new role.

SH

So how do you see erotic love and motherly love sitting together in this book? Are the sacred and the profane the same things in different outfits?

BS

Well, that’s really interesting because I feel like it’s accepted that, in sexual erotic love, the sacred and the profane go together; that what’s beautiful, what you worship, is a complete openness, a complete absence of superego – letting ourselves go. The opposite of being frigid and controlled. And that’s something I think we’ve come to terms with in sexuality: to be receptive, to be giving, to be unafraid of bodily fluids, et cetera.

I was really shocked to see that the way we talk about motherhood was only to focus on what was sacred: just the beauty and the health of breastfeeding, and the sweet bond that mother and child have, and the miracle of birth. And actually every single one of those ‘sacred miracles’ has this profound horribleness to it. Ambivalence around any aspect of motherhood is perceived as totally profane. With people who don’t breastfeed their kids, the assumption is that the mom doesn’t care. The window by which you are a good mother, by everyone’s standards, is almost impossibly narrow. To have complex feelings toward your child, it’s pathologized.

And so the idea of the sacred or profane being, to a liberal-minded feminist, perfectly hand-in-hand in sexuality, but being completely inappropriate in terms of motherhood. What is this? Women are not allowed to have these feelings. As a feminist, I find that completely unacceptable. If women have these feelings, they must be acceptable feelings. Don’t think you can get rid of them – all you can do is make people feel bad about having them.

SH

While we’re thinking about this balance between continuity and reinvention across the books, could you tell me about the last section of Our Andromeda, which contains the poems addressed to your younger self at various points in her life? What was it like writing those missives to a younger you? Did you re-read your early work in the process?

BS

I think that if there is one thread of feminism that’s the same throughout all of the books, it’s this notion that what women experience is valid. It feels radical actually. It’s always felt radical to me.

And then I look back and I see those poems and I’m facing the uncomfortable reality that, at almost any stage, I would often invalidate my own reality. And so going back to these younger selves, it was almost like this idea that if you think about your own childhood, think about that little six-year-old that you were, in some terrible jam, or who got in trouble, often your feeling is, ‘I was so terrible! What was I thinking?’ You’re so critical. But if you saw that six-year-old do that, you’d say, ‘Oh honey, it’s okay. You’re just a kid.’

But we do it to ourselves. And I wanted to go back and be gentle to this young woman, who didn’t know, who was so self-critical, who was so insecure, who just thought, ‘I’m terrible.’ I see her in my students, these young women now – they have no idea that they might very well get to be who they want to be. They might very well get that chance. And I want to help them become who they want to be, if I can help them. The kind of thing I wish someone had told me, but nobody did. And those poems, I hate them. They almost didn’t make it into the book. I wanted to take them out.

SH

Really? That’s interesting. Was it your editor who made you put them in then?

BS

No. My husband said, ‘It’s really important to have them in here.’ And I kept saying, ‘They’re terrible poems, Craig. They’re embarrassing. I don’t want them in there. What’s the point?’ He argued they serve a purpose. They serve this prismatic memory: take a step back and see this person at different stages. And he convinced me. And so I had to grit my teeth, even though I hate them like I hate that five-year-old kid that was me. And look at me, the big feminist. My husband told me that the poems are good. I can’t see the value in them. And I’m always struggling with this.

SH

Sickness does make it into Andromeda’s alternate universe, which you tell us isn’t an ‘afterlife’, or a place protected from death. ‘Our Andromeda’ describes people who ‘are whole-organism empaths / a little like Troi on The Next Generation / but with gifts in all areas of the sensate self.’ Their empathy is a physical as well as emotional thing: they can feel other people’s pain in their own bodies. Is that a goal you have for your poems, that they might speak to the ‘sensate self’ – activate something the reader will experience in his or her own body?

BS

I definitely believe that. One of my biggest goals, and one of the things I often teach, is this idea that if you can activate sensory realities in your reader – that’s why sensory details are so wonderful, the visual, textures, something fuzzy – if you can try to activate in the reader’s body a feeling, a smell, a texture, whatever it is you want to evoke, they’re feeling what you felt. You can make them feel something in their bodies and they connect with it then mentally, because they think, ‘Oh, I get that. I know what that feels like.’ So it’s a wonderful shortcut, a bridge into someone else’s mind.

Artless

by Brenda Shaughnessy

is my heart. A stranger
berry there never was,
tartless.

Gone sour in the sun,
in the sunroom or moonroof,
roofless.

No poetry. Plain. No
fresh, special recipe
to bless.

All I’ve ever made
with these hands
and life, less

substance, more rind.
Mostly rim and trim,
meatless

but making much smoke
in the old smokehouse,
no less.

Fatted from the day,
overripe and even
toxic at eve. Nonetheless,

in the end, if you must
know, if I must bend,
waistless,

to that excruciation.
No marvel, no harvest
left me speechless,

yet I find myself
somehow with heart,
aloneless.

With heart,
fighting fire with fire,
fightless.

That loud hub of us,
meat stub of us, beating us
senseless.

Spectacular in its way,
its way of not seeing,
congealing dayless

but in everydayness.
In that hopeful haunting
(a lesser

way of saying
in darkness) there is
silencelessness

for the pressing question.
Heart, what art you?
War, star, part? Or less:

playing a part, staying apart
from the one who loves,
loveless.

From Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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