Brenda Shaughnessy headshot on book cover background

The PEN Ten: An Interview with Poet Brenda Shaughnessy

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week PEN America’s Public Programs Manager Lily Philpott speaks with Brenda Shaughnessy, whose latest poetry collection, The Octopus Museum, was published this year by Knopf. 

The Octopus Museum book cover1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
Truth is bodily, emotional, and it comes out in speech, when I read a draft aloud. I can think my way into any old statement but when I read it out loud and my voice gets tinny and small and I rush through it like no one will notice, I think then that either I haven’t told the truth, or the rhythm’s off. And the good rhythm often stays away from cerebral contortions that don’t yield anything true.

2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I have long felt ashamed of the reality that I’ve never been able to maintain a “writing schedule.” I go long periods attending to other aspects of my life, looking longingly over my shoulder at poems and ideas I’d love to get into. Then when I clear away other responsibilities and I have some time and blank pages in front of me, suddenly I’m skittish, fearful of the quiet, silenced by an inner expectation, and just plain bratty and irritated. I don’t maintain momentum until, in a spate of writing, I am seized by it and then it’s not really inspiration but possession. The ideas and phrases and words start to take over other parts of my life, permeating it. It’s no way to live.