Finding Brenda Shaughnessy’s ‘Interior Voice’

There were about 30 people in the audience, and three of them were men. On the one hand, that is a strong turnout for a poetry reading, but on the other hand it is a particular one. The venue, Radcliffe, and the nature of its publicity network probably circumscribed the audience’s gender composition. That does not mean they were all there for the same reason. While people who go to poetry readings generally know why they do, the same could not be said for everyone in this audience. During the question and answer period that followed the event, audience members were candid about their uncertainties. ‘What is this ‘poetry reading’ business anyway?’ ‘Is poetry meant to be read aloud?’ This discussion, which at first seemed provincial, revealed its deeper appropriateness soon enough.

The Bunting Fellows Poetry Reading took place on April 2, in the Cronkhite Living room on Ash Street, and featured the two poets Natasha Trethewey and Brenda Shaughnessy. Each poet has recently published her first book, Domestic Work and Interior With Sudden Joy, respectively. Trethewey read first. Her poems dealt, from many points of view, with a woman in a photograph projected on a screen for the audience. The woman was a prostitute, photographed in Storyville in 1912. Trethewey’s poems reconstructed a life around this woman, superimposing emotions and experience onto the subject images. Her reading style was conventional. Clearly enunciating every syllable and every break between syllables, she used a steady tone that demanded the listener’s concentration, and the audience seemed willing to give it. Many poets read in this way, and it seems generally accepted, but it can muffle the voice of a poem unless executed with prodigious expertise. Prior knowledge of Trethewey’s work probably would have benefited my listening in this instance.

Shaughnessy’s reading followed a different course, as does her poetry, which has found its place not only at The Paris Review, but also with Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a publishing house with a stellar poetry list that is not known for frequently taking on young, new poets. At the reading, Shaughnessy described her own language as being made up of ‘sound-bytes,’ and I would add that her poems, in the consistency of their composition, form a scrapbook of those sound bytes, running together in their similarity, each poem a byte composed of smaller bytes. Here is a sampling of those bytes: “‘Everything is only nothing’s truck.’ / I would revise it and say that everything is only / nothing, truncated.” “I’m gifted, I give in. I give you / all my old synesthetic fire.” These are the more saccharine moments, but they set the general tempo. More frequently, those bytes join forces to experiment in vagueness: “The sex & chess & cello fever’s gone / from your myopic trust, my Avalon.” “rare black-tipped cigarettes / in a handmade basket-case.”

As far as the reader is concerned, the fundamental unit of Shaughnessy’s work is the momentarily prickly idea, rather than voice, lines, words, sound, or syntax. She jumps from catchy notion to catchy notion, however banal, and those notions are all the reader can hear. It is not necessary to find the clever spots or dig them up as we contemplate what we enjoy; instead, those spots attack us, offering up all the subtlety and pleasure of a bad trombonist. If it seems like the other aspects of her work (the quirky formalism, for instance, which seems to exist merely as pretext) suffer at the hands of her ideas, perhaps this is why.

Shaughnessy read both from her book and her recent, unpublished work. I confess that although what I read of her poetry frustrated me before the reading, as the reading progressed I become more of a fan. As soon as she stepped up to the podium, she giggled something about nervousness, and that nervousness manifested itself between poems in humorous interjections. They were therapeutic, I suppose. “I never realized this podium was so technological—it has all these clocks and…it’s kind of distracting,” or, “I was having this fight with my girlfriend and I had this thought: that I was so much better at emotions than she was. Then I thought, ‘That can’t be true,’ but I thought it merited further examination so I wrote this poem: ‘I’m Perfect at Feelings.’” While she read, a dry sense of the absurd rose out of many of her poems, making me realize that I had probably read them unfairly. She showed us where the jokes were, and her relaxed and earnest reading style contrasted well with that of Trethewey. Shaughnessy did read some of her characteristic sticky-wicket phrases with the undue candor that I was afraid of, but at times her reading fully vindicated her work by confirming a tone of levity instead of bravado.

Then came the question and answer period, where the audience rather naively put it to the poets: What do they think of reading poetry aloud? It happened to be a terrific, obvious question to ask. Trethewey indicated that she needed to hear poetry with her ears, whether she was writing her own or reading that of students. Like her reading, it was a conventional treatment which offered striking contrast to Shaughnessy’s. Shaughnessy claimed otherwise, saying that she didn’t need to hear poetry, that she got everything she wanted out of it silently, that she didn’t read her own work aloud to herself, and that she especially didn’t like reading it aloud to other people. It was like a part of her body, and she was uncomfortable to show it in that way. Her work, she said, used an ‘interior voice.’

For me, this is where everything fell apart. It was as though my appreciation of her work had been briefly resuscitated during the reading, only to be smothered immediately after. I don’t think that Shaughnessy’s poems inhabit an interior voice. Maybe that’s how she prefers to see it, but during this reading I came to the conclusion that there was an audible voice in her poetry which shows itself at its strongest moments. An interior voice conceives itself, but a spoken voice listens to itself, which is exactly what Shaughnessy’s weak moments do not do.