Poems of­fer wry view of ev­ery­day life

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS&STYLE - BY RON CHARLES book­world@wash­post.com Ron Charles is the edi­tor of Book World. You can fol­low him @RonCharles.

Brenda Shaugh­nessy wins praise from so­phis­ti­cated crit­ics, but she isn’t in­ter­ested in writ­ing poems only for pro­fes­sors and other po­ets. “Peo­ple who don’t read poetry — we owe those peo­ple too,” she once said, and her work re­flects that re­fresh­ingly ex­pan­sive vi­sion of her au­di­ence. These are poems you can get on one level — or many.

Shaugh­nessy will be my next guest for the Life of a Poet se­ries on Tues­day, Feb. 7, at Hill Cen­ter. This se­ries, in its fourth year, of­fers a chance to con­sider a writer’s en­tire ca­reer dur­ing an hour-long con­ver­sa­tion.

Shaugh­nessy, who was born in Ja­pan and raised in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, was poetry edi­tor at large for Tin House and is now an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Univer­sity-Newark. “So Much Synth” (Cop­per Canyon), the most re­cent of her four books, was named one of the best poetry col­lec­tions of 2016 by Pub­lish­ers Weekly and the New York Times.

“So Much Synth” be­gins with a painful ado­les­cence. In “Dress Form,” she writes:

My­self I’m like a dress my mother made

me, a fab­ric self split open with a sigh

as I grew and — be­wil­dered or proud

or full of rage — patched with nicer

ma­te­rial than we’d had be­fore. I got

the sense it was all wasted on me.

But a nee­dle’s sharp to piece, is it­self

pieced — so as to sew like I was taught.

Like I learned: no dress could ever be

Beau­ti­ful or best if it had me in it.

That leads even­tu­ally to poems of pas­sion and even vi­o­lence, some­times spiked with a kind of winc­ing wit. For in­stance, in “Why I Stayed, 1997-2001,” which re­calls a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship, Shaugh­nessy asks, “When a woman you love hits you/ on the head with a book/ you love, is that love?”

The col­lec­tion con­cludes with the chal­lenges of moth­er­hood, such as this wry de­scrip­tion of try­ing to bal­ance the chores of do­mes­tic life with the de­mands of be­ing an artist: I talk about poems for a liv­ing, and I bake muffins, bran with raisin puree in­stead of sugar and I’m chapped when no one eats them. These de­tails make it seem like real life, this one spent man­ag­ing and wran­gling as much as moth­er­ing, writ­ing lists and emails in­stead of poems.

The Life of a Poet se­ries is un­der­writ­ten by Na­tional Cap­i­tal Bank and co-spon­sored by the Li­brary of Congress, the Hill Cen­ter and The Wash­ing­ton Post. In ad­di­tion to talk­ing with Shaugh­nessy about her life and in­spi­ra­tions, I’ll in­vite her to read sec­tions from her col­lec­tions. Her books will be of­fered for sale in the lobby, where you can talk with her and get your copies signed. When: Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. Where: Hill Cen­ter at the Old Naval Hospi­tal, 921 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. SE (two blocks from the Eastern Mar­ket Metro stop on the Blue, Orange and Sil­ver lines). Come early and en­joy a light snack at the Bayou Bak­ery in the ad­ja­cent car­riage house.

Cost: Free, but you can reg­is­ter for a seat at hill­cen­terdc.org.

Call 202-549-4172 or con­tact me for de­tails.

To watch re­motely on Face­book Live, go to face­book.com/hill­cen­ter.

DENISE AP­PLE­WHITE/PRINCE­TON UNIVER­SITY OF­FICE OF COM­MU­NI­CA­TIONS

Brenda Shaugh­nessy’s most re­cent book of poetry, “So Much Synth,” was named one of the best poetry col­lec­tions of 2016 by Pub­lish­ers Weekly.

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