In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Brenda Shaughnessy discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A hosted by the Academy of American Poets. My name is Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. And I’m here with the Guest Editor for Poem-A-Day in March, Brenda Shaughnessy. Brenda is the author of five poetry collections. Most recently, The Octopus Museum, a New York Times 2019 Notable Book. Brenda, welcome and thank you for joining me.
Brenda Shaughnessy: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Poets.org: Let’s get right into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Shaughnessy: Well, I thought about who I missed, what voices I wanted to hear. Whose voice did I imagine being delighted to find calling from my inbox to start another pandemic morning? I missed my friends, missed going to poetry readings, and missed meeting new poets out in the social world. What would it be like to hear new work by poets known and unknown to me? And to try to replicate that experience or surprise or pleasure of re-imagining the Internet or inbox network as a big room we could all hear a poem in.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Shaughnessy: That would be Robin Coste Lewis’s “Math”. This poem is a world, a world of grief and loss, of life, living and giving. Both of those sides turning into each other, turning toward each other. Turning because that world is us inside out, outside in, and out again, in again. The particular math of death the poet shows here are the numbers stacked mortally against Black people, the erasure of histories and the timelines of Black people. But they’re not just numbers. They’re loves, full and responsive, despite having been murdered. People whom we grew up with, people remembered radiantly here in this poem. What the poet shows here is how to honor the grief and go on loving.
Poets.org: “Math,” just for the edification of our readers, was included in the Poem-a-Day lineup back in April 2019, just on the eve of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Are grief and the problem of historical erasure themes that you also try to address in your work? Do you find yourself going to those themes and exploring them?
Shaughnessy: That’s a hard question because I feel that I’m in a sort of perpetual state of grief lately, maybe always. And a perpetual state of erasure, too. So, honestly, the question is too hard for me. I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of grief, and then I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of erasure. I mean, that’s why we write, right? It’s because we’re losing a lot. We lose people we love and we lose the rights that we thought we had. And we become aware that we didn’t have those rights to begin with. And I don’t know if what we say in protest to those losses are being heard. I don’t... All my poems are pretty much... I feel like I’m in a constant state of grief and erasure. I don’t know. We don’t know what impact our voices are having. We don’t know whether we’re being erased when we protest injustice or deaths or all the things that are facing us. I mean, whether we are speaking our grief, speaking our losses, we don’t know if we’re being heard, so that’s what writing’s about. We’re trying to write it. I’m trying to write it. I’m in so many various states of grief that I really can’t keep track. So, the question about how or if I work with grief or erasure may be part of the process I don’t have access to. I don’t really know. So, that’s a terrible answer, but it’s what I’ve got.
Poets.org: No, I understand. And I don’t think that you’re the only one who feels that way. Well, I think that grief is a cyclical thing anyway, but I think that, collectively, we all seem to be dealing with what feels like a never-ending state of grief.
Shaughnessy: I mean, my dad died in December and I keep trying to figure out if it’s a different grief than what was coming up before that, and what was sort of up and down. When the grief sort of swells more, it almost feels like, is this just the same wave or is there something specific, or is it even useful to separate them? I don’t really know. So, I’m as confused as the next person, maybe even more so. Maybe more confused.
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now?
Shaughnessy: I’m reading a lot of fiction, or trying to read a lot of fiction. The books that are really getting through are Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies. I love Nina Pollari’s The Path of Totality, which is a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking book, and that’s poetry. Dana Spiotta’s Wayward. I’m reading a lot and sort of dipping into bell hooks, Joan Didion, Anthony V. Toscano, Brian Tierney’s Rise and Float, Donika Kelly’s astonishing The Renunciations.
Poets.org: I’ve noticed from your reading list that a number of the books that you mentioned deal, again, going back to just the theme of grief, deal with loss or personal lives coming undone, which I thought was interesting. And, of course, some of the names that you mentioned, Joan Didion and bell hooks, are people whom we lost late last year. Some of our listeners might be interested in knowing, and you might be interested in knowing, that we’ve added some poems from bell hooks to our website to acknowledge her legacy as a poet.
So, what are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
Shaughnessy: So, since 2017, I’ve been working on the libretto for an opera. The opera is called Sensorium Ex, with the composer Paola Prestini. It has been really tremendous for me. I’ve never ventured into opera, and it’s just been a gift and a huge learning curve and just a delight. So, it’s due to premiere in Atlanta, this opera, in 2024, and New York City at the Prototype Festival in 2025. We have a lot of work to do, but we are working with choreographers and directors. And we are looking into having the piece premiere in these two places, and then go on to Copenhagen and Cape Town, so it’s thrilling.
I have a new and selected poems coming out from Bloodaxe in the U.K. So, that will come out in November 2022 and that collection is called Liquid Flesh. And then my sixth collection of poems, Tanya, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2023. And that collection is an homage to and a conversation about visual art and artists, and mentorship among women, and lost college roommates.
Poets.org: I just want to go back briefly to your mention of the libretto because I'm always very curious about poets who also work on librettos. Is this your first time working on a libretto?
Shaughnessy: Yes. Yes.
Poets.org: How does that work compare to the composition of poetry?
Shaughnessy: Writing words for other people’s voices, voices that you don’t know, are going to sound... It hasn’t been cast yet, right? And also you don’t know what the music is going to be. I didn't understand how operas got put together. I sort of assumed that the music came first, that the composer puts the opera together. But, what I learned is that everybody depends on the words. And that was the biggest thing that I learned, was how to write words when I have a composer saying, “I can’t write anything until I know what I’m saying in the music.” The music is supposed to be saying something and that has to follow the words.
And then the vocalists rely on the words and the music to carry their art forward. And they need the words to make sense and they need the words to provide the emotion that they’re going to use for their voice. So, I never realized that a librettist starts the whole process of meaning and making with the words. And then, the music comes from those words, and then the vocal interpretation comes from that altogether. I never understood that. I just thought that the words were sort of separately floating around.
But, writing into a drama piece, writing into characters, having to use the words to create the character, the plot, the progression, the arc, all that stuff was really... But it has to sort of rhyme and have the right kinds of meter. Yeah, it makes you feel, I don’t know, like you’re multi-tasking, even though you’re just writing the same line. You’re just writing word, after word, after word. You’re just doing one medium, but it feels like you’re doing four mediums, four media, because you are having to consider it. It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually. And constantly revising. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is in stone. Everything can move around for the last possible minute. You learn to not be so precious about your writing, completely like, “Move it. Change it. I don’t care.”
Poets.org: Well, best of luck with that. We’ll look forward to that, in addition to that sixth collection. And thank you, again, for joining me. This has been great.
Shaughnessy: Yes. Thank you so much, Mary. It's wonderful to be here talking to you.