Brenda Shaughnessy was born in 1970 in Okinawa, Japan, and grew up in Southern California. She received her B.A. in literature and women's studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and earned an M.F.A. at Columbia University's Writing Division. She is the author of Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award. Her other honors include an Emerging Artist's award from the Greenwall Foundation and NYU's Institute for Advanced Study, a Creative Artist's Fellowship from the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission, and a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She currently lives in Brooklyn. This interview was conducted by Robert N. Casper in March 2004.
Tell me about working at a tugboat company—how did you get that job?
Well, like you get anything in New York, half-randomly—a friend of mine knows someone who owns a tugboat company. My friends always ask me, "What do you wear?" My friend Mike thought I work in a windswept little shack at the end of a rickety pier, but I don't—I work in a regular office.
With a view of the tugboats?
Um-hmm. The tugboat place is a whole different world with a whole different vocabulary. It's not just business vocabulary, it's about how the boats work, how you float your boat. It's like learning a foreign language. The tugboat is a perfect metaphor: this tiny little mighty ship pulling this massive behemoth. David and Goliath, we always love that idea. It's us against the world, the human against the machine. In this case it's a human inside against a bigger machine against the big, bad sea. I'm lucky to be involved with it. Of course, that's the tip of the iceberg—pun intended—for what a tugboat is. I thought it was boring at first, writing tug specs and so on. I was a little bit annoyed that I had to do it. But I realized a year into the job that it was a real education. And so my next manuscript is called Fathometer.
A fathometer measures the depth of the water by sound: it throws a sound down to the ocean floor and measures depth by how long the echo takes to come back up.
You've been teaching at the same time, at Lehman College. How has that been?
That's like a new language, too. I love working in the Bronx, I love the students. They are very hungry for what poetry gives: the possibility to make something of your own, to make your own voice have weight. They really want their words to count, and that's a beautiful, life-changing desire. I can't imagine better work.
What attracts them to poetry?
Most of my students are attracted to poetry because they think it's a way to get famous. If you say the right thing in the right way, everyone's going to remember it and say it all the time, and it will be part of culture. That's how they get into poetry, which is brilliant. It's also an illusion, but who cares! They can start writing poetry and then realize, "Oh, God! I need to figure out what it is I want to say." And then realize what they have already said is not really good enough. And so they learn how to speak in the most powerful and effective way they can, which makes their lives better in any case.
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