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