Encouraging aspiring poets to ‘risk something big’

In recognition of National Poetry Month, this issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin features two faculty members who represent some of the many creative approaches to the study of poetry at Princeton: Brenda Shaughnessy, an award-winning poet who asks young writers to tap into their strongest convictions, and Susan Wolfson (also in this issue), a scholar of British literature who urges students to closely read every word when studying poetry.

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Brenda Shaughnessy offers aspiring poets in her classroom a simple reminder: All poets essentially begin the same way.

“Every writer, whether he’s the greatest living American poet or a total novice, has to start with a blank page,” said Shaughnessy, a lecturer in creative writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts. “You have your experiences, your reading, your passion, your intelligence and things you know about the craft, but in terms of getting all that on the page, you still have to start where everybody else starts — with nada, with nothing.”

poet Brenda Shaughnessy
Award-winning poet Brenda Shaughnessy assigns introductory students poems dealing with love, grief and heartbreak to inspire them to take bold, emotional risks in their own work. Denise Applewhite)

That blank page is both daunting and thrilling, said Shaughnessy, an award-winning poet who came to Princeton in 2007. She teaches Princeton students to tackle the empty page by showing them how veteran poets transform deep emotion and sometimes strange ideas into poetry and then asking her students to risk uncertainty, trust intuition and take leaps, she said.

For her “Introduction to Poetry” class, Shaughnessy likes to assign love poems.

“Love poetry helps young poets understand, ‘I can write about the feelings closest to me, with intimate subjectivity,’” she said. “I want students to know that their own experience is valid and useful in poetry. This helps them understand that their own strong feelings are great material, ideal stuff to use in their writing.”

Shaughnessy gives students love poems by Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings, as well as works that address difficult emotional states such as grief and heartbreak. She hopes that reading poetry on those themes will get her students to “cut loose on the page, risk something big,” she said. “I try to remind them that this is their voice, this is their shot. Are they going to take a stand? Are they going to say something powerfully?”

In her own poetry, Shaughnessy writes about love, loss and rejection with tenderness, wit and emotional precision.

“Brenda Shaughnessy’s work is jaunty, jestful, jiggy, joyous, juicy — and I’ve not gone beyond adjectives beginning with the letter ‘J,’” said Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who is the chair of the Lewis Center and a professor of creative writing.

Her first book, “Interior With Sudden Joy,” was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1999, when Shaughnessy was 29. It was a finalist for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, which recognizes the work of a new poet, and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award.

Writing poetry is as much about being tough as it is about being sensitive, Shaughnessy said. She tries to help students develop the ability to accept criticism of their writing.

Shaughnessy and students in class
Shaughnessy (right), who has taught at Princeton since 2007, urges students to take advantage of their opportunities to write poetry. “I try to remind them that this is their voice, this is their shot,” she said. “Are they going to take a stand? Are they going to say something powerfully?” (photo: Denise Applewhite)

“I want them to care enough about their writing to see it from a distance, so that they can hear when someone in class says, ‘That’s convoluted,’ or ‘That doesn’t make any sense to me,’” said Shaughnessy.

Despite her early success, she has learned to take her share of criticism, especially when it was difficult to place her second book with a publisher.

“Several publishers rejected the new book,” Shaughnessy recalled. “It made me understand that this kind of disappointment is part of being a poet. In a way, I had to believe in the book even more fiercely because it was so hard finding a home for it.”

Eventually Copper Canyon Press accepted the book, “Human Dark With Sugar,” which went on to win the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, given for an outstanding second book by an American poet, and to be selected as a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. (A selection from the book is below.)

Shaughnessy has been writing poetry since childhood, drawn to it because “it was short and dramatic and it seemed romantic,” she said. “It seemed to offer the simultaneous and attractive possibility of being deeply understood and completely misunderstood.”

She finds Princeton students are much more open to poetry and its possibilities than many people she encounters, even fiction writers.

“There’s a fair amount of anxiety and mistrust around poetry,” she said. “I know magnificent prose writers who can write huge novels with multiple characters and interwoven subplots, who will say, ‘I don’t understand poetry.’” To that sentiment she responds, “It’s language. It’s language stripped of a narrative scaffolding that you’re used to, but you’re a reader and a writer, so get into it.”

For Shaughnessy, poetry offers one of the most important tools for coping with life, one that she hopes to pass on to her students.

“It’s helped me tremendously to know that pretty much any state I might find myself in, no matter how dark it is, no matter how difficult it is, a great poet has probably written something marvelous about it,” she said. Poetry provides “a sense of connection, a sense that you’re not alone. That’s one of poetry’s greatest gifts, and whether my students become poets or not, I want them to always have that gift.”

Dancing in My Room Alone

© 2008 Brenda Shaughnessy. Reprinted from “Human Dark With Sugar”
with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Wash.

I could be an eel in whirled stillwaters,
the semiotic blue of trick quicksand,
meaningless and true.

In my room, ordinary yellow objects
like lapel labels and plates
smile like similes,

caressed like air in movies,
the texture of froth. I need sugar.
Need it like a right, so sugar

is given. A river of high
minutes rising to a horizon,
only ever seeing my double eyes.

I’m so really truly enough
that I should save myself for later.
Later, don’t come now.

Don’t turn me back into that seventh
grader in a human ring around the gym,
certain I’m not in the circle.

Now I’m slinging room-darkness
to sun. Swelling hips
incredibly undone,

my blind blood singing,
“qua aqua aqua,”

with this song’s cologne,
a silk ribbon of paint
driven through nature.

Fun, who knew? Spinning
with nothing, like earth does,
I flew more than I could lose.

Oh god of ether, god of vapor,
I could use one of either of you.
Take me like a swan would.

Take me, wing me up and make me
dance, impaled on a hooked
prick of cyclone.

Sightless. Wind my limbs, digits
clutching feathers, around you,
and disappear.

I won’t fall. I know how to do it now.
I broke the window with god’s ball.
I am smoothly used

and honeyed, self-twinned, fearless,
a wineskin emptying
into a singing stranger.