Brenda Shaughnessy

Award-winning Poet
Griffin Poetry Prize
NBCCA Finalist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Brenda Shaughnessy





“Shaughnessy’s voice is smart, sexy, self-aware, hip, consistently wry, and ever savvy.” —Harvard Review

“The resonance of Shaughnessy’s poems is that of someone speaking out of an ecstasy and into an ecstasy, momentarily pausing to let us in on the fun, the pain.”—Richard Howard

Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of four collections of poetry: So Much Synth (2016); Our Andromeda, which was a 100 Notable Books of 2013; Human Dark with Sugar, winner of the James Laughlin Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award—all published by Copper Canyon Press—and Interior with Sudden Joy, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999.

Our Andromeda explores the dark subjects of trauma, motherhood and love, loss of faith, and stark questions such as What is the use of pain and grief? Reviewing Our Andromeda in The New Yorker, Hilton Als called the book “a monumental work” and said: “I am certain it further establishes Shaughnessy’s particular genius, which is utterly poetic, but essayistic in scope, encompassing ideas about astronomy, illness, bodies, the family, ‘normalcy,’ home.”

Stephen Burt in reviewing her latest, So Much Synth, finds a connecting thread between the two collections, writing: “Our Andromeda, was an earthquake of sorts: Its combination of sculpted, pun-rich language…and heartbreaking directness…presented the poet as the reflective, generous mother of a disabled son. Now the chief topics differ—Shaughnessy writes about her teen years, about the most troubled decisions of her twenties, about her young daughter—but the ferocity, the variety, and the trustworthy, charismatic speaker are the same.”

What is beautiful, what is terrifying,
what is absurd in me?
[H]ow far back behind our backs do we go

to find the first hurt.

Shaughnessy has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, where she was a Bunting Fellow, the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission, and the Howard Foundation of Brown University. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harper’s, The Nation, BOMB, The Rumpus, The New Yorker, Boston Review, and The Paris Review.

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan and grew up in Southern California. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, son and daughter, and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark.

Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of four poetry collections, most recently So Much Synth and Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press) a New York Times’ 100 Notable Book and a finalist for the Griffin International Prize. Her other books are Human Dark with Sugar and Interior with Sudden Joy. Her poems appeared in Best American Poetry, Harpers, McSweeney’s, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s a 2013 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark.

SO MUCH SYNTH (2016)

“Shaughnessy finds ever new ways to rend the heart in this biting and poignant anthropological study of girlhood and adolescence.” – Publishers Weekly

In So Much Synth, Brenda Shaughnessy revisits the romances, isolation, and music of adolescence. This book is composed of equal parts femininity, pain, pleasure, critique and synthesizer. Hilton Als of The New Yorker calls the book “utterly poetic, but essayistic in scope.” Adam Fitzgerald wrote: “Shaughnessy’s poems come often at a visible cost for poet and speaker alike: to describe the complexities, traumas and incompatibilities of queer inner life (as much as her familial one) amid the cold noisy backdrop of a busy world.”

OUR ANDROMEDA (2013)

“Love is the fierce engine of this beautiful and necessary book of poems. Love is the high stakes, the whip of its power and grief and possibility for repair. Brenda Shaughnessy has brought her full self to bear in Our Andromeda, and the result is a book that should be read now because it is a collection whose song will endure.” —The New York Times Book Review

Brenda Shaughnessy’s third collection, Our Andromeda, delves into the idea of parallel existence by imagining the galaxy of Andromeda as a utopian. At once humorous and heart-breaking, fanciful and filled with difficult realities, Shaughnessy takes on the vastness of the universe by turning inward, examining human vulnerabilities as they are manifested in the struggles surrounding motherhood, human frailty, and a divided self.

HUMAN DARK WITH SUGAR (2008)

“In its worried acceptance of contradiction, its absolute refusal of sentimentality and its acute awareness of time’s “scarce infinity,” this is a brilliant, beautiful and essential continuation of the metaphysical verse tradition.” —Publishers Weekly

Winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for the best second book of poems by an American poet, Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar revisits and modernizes the classic themes that have inspired generations of poets. Love. Loss. Sex. Rejection. Pain. Time. Exploring the strange wonder that is perception, Shaughnessy pressures language and holds nothing back; her poems encompass emotional states such as tenderness, devotion, resignation, bitterness, and rage. Shaughnessy masters internal rhymes and surprising rhythms—her poetry is at once improvisational, impeccably controlled, and highly refined.

INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY (1999)

“A heady, infectious celebration of the range and peculiarity of erotic life.” ―The New Yorker

Interior with Sudden Joy introduces a poet at once hyper-contemporary and archaic, erotic, indecorous, and extravagant like nobody else. Brenda Shaughnessy’s poems seek outrageous avenues of access – funny, vernacular, ulterior – to the heart, “this strumpet muscle under your breast describing / you minutely, Volupt, volupt.” This first collection is the next illogical step in love poetry. The Library Journal writes: “The poems are sunlit with her boundless energy, with her passion, determination, and, yes, joy, which simply radiates off the page.”

I HAVE A TIME MACHINE

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future

at a rate of one second per second,

which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant

committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next

moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—

well not zipping— And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,

I’ll fall into space, unconcious,

then dessicated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.

So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.

It’s like a television or fish tank.

But it’s never live; it’s always over. The fish swim

in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance

to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time

wasted sleeping.

Myself age eight, whole head burned with embarrassment

at having lost a library book.

Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting

to be found charming.

Me holding a rose though I want to put it down

so I can smoke.

Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me

because the explosion

of some dark star all the way back struck hard

at mother’s mother’s mother.

I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.

I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.

But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;

the past is so horribly fast.

–from So Much Synth

WHY SHOULD ONLY CHEATERS AND LIARS GET DOUBLE LIVES?

(a poem inside a poem)

That is, why should they get two stabs at it while the virtuous

trudge along at half-speed, half-mast, halfhearted?

If an ordinary human can pull the fattest cashwad

out of the slimmest slit,

and the fullest pudding out of the skimmest milk,

then it might be possible

to insert a meager life in Andromeda

into, at the very least, our wide pit of sleep.

Duplicity after all takes many, not merely two, forms,

and just the very idea

of doublness, twinniness, or even simple, simpering

regret, or nostalgia, implies

a kind of Andromeda,

a secret world, the hidden draft, the tumor-sibling,

the “there-are-no-accidents” plane we could learn to fly.

There’s always that irreducible “something extra”

to life on Earth:

The way some men won’t “talk that way” in front of women,

not wanting to astonish us with their secret man-ness,

as if there is another world bisecting ours,

living among us like an unspeakable mold.

The recent invention of the double-decker pill,

equally effective on sunny and rainy days.

On the wall, a plural mural: a diptych of Paula ‘n’ Wally’s.

What fallopian and what fellatino! Like a Nan Goldin oldie,

but an impostor. Okay. Why not try to offer more

squalor no matter who the photographer?

When someone’s called a “lifer” it means that person is trapped.

A “lifer” has no real life but what do we call the rest of us?

How terrifying it is to try trying!

Which frying pan will best

kill the loved one? Which will

make the best omelet?

The books on the bookshelves are touching themselves

like virgins. But I’ve had them.

–from Our Andromeda