Octopuses Have Been Trying to Research Humanity: An Interview with Brenda Shaughnessy – Michigan Quarterly Review

Octopuses Have Been Trying to Research Humanity: An Interview with Brenda Shaughnessy

Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of five poetry collections, a librettist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark. She received a 2018 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a 2013 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Her most recent book, The Octopus Museum, was a New York Times 2019 Notable Book.

Shaughnessy and Abigail McFee, a Zell MFA at the University of Michigan, discuss the museum-like quality of her latest book, The Octopus Museum, the nature of feminist poetry, and the possibility of truth in poetry in the follow interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.

Abigail McFeeGood morning!

Brenda Shaughnessy: Hi, how are you?

AM: I’m doing well. I’m so excited to talk to you. I loved spending time with this book [The Octopus Museum], and I was thinking about the sense of a “collection” as a grouping or gathering of things. I feel like this book is also working with that in terms of gathering relics and ephemera and documentation. I wondered if you would talk about the decision to structure The Octopus Museum as a series of exhibition spaces and at what point in your process that idea came to you.

BS: Yeah, that’s a really good point, because I think it came to me pretty late. Because, like the rest of us, when I write poems over years, I just write individual poems… And then your obsessions come up in the individual poems to shape why it’s grouped together. And the obsessions become— I’m really distracted by that picture in your background. 

AMOh, which one? There’s one of a woman holding a cat—kind of an older print. And then The Dog by Goya and a Stevie Nicks album cover.

BS: Wow, those are so great. Okay, anyway, I got totally distracted. What was I saying? These poems were linked by paranoia and fear and constant worry, and I felt like—you know how a poem will keep you company through a hard time? You read it, and it’s like, “That’s the one that got me through”? The feeling was so pervasive—the feeling of fear and stress and worry—that I kind of needed more than one poem. I needed an environment to hold it.

It truly was this experience of reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and this octopus book together. If you are a reader and a writer, you get this opportunity to actually answer back, in a way, to some of your favorite books. If you love a book, you can be like, I want to enter into this conversation with a book, to say back to the author of Station Eleven, “This is how I imagined it would be in your world,” or “I’ve added a wing to your universe, and we’re going to put the museum there.” 

How I came up with The Octopus Museum—meaning how I turned it into an exhibition—I think it was because I wrote the poem “Are Women People?” and I hated that poem so much. I still hate it. I can’t read it. It makes me feel so sick. It makes me so angry. Writing that poem did not make the feelings about the fact that, legally, we [women] are totally chopped liver—writing the poem didn’t help that. It’s sort of like, “Poetry is activism!” but does it change anything? Well, what it changed was the experience for me of—This will be edited, right? I’m kind of rambling. 

AM: Yes, please talk! It’s very interesting.

BS: Writing that poem and forcing myself to write it and then at the end being like, I’m going to cut this. This is bringing negativity to the world. Why should I create this ugly, ugly thing? And then my editor Deb Garrison at Knopf was like, “Oh, this book needs this.” The purpose it serves is it shows that the octopuses have been trying to research humanity, and this is part of their research work in the establishment of the museum, just like any other colonial empire would seek to say, “What is the history of these peoples that we have conquered?” That sort-of pretend responsibility that we take upon ourselves. So, it was an opportunity for this other species to go kind of” cross-culture” and attempt to publish or archive a sense of what people were. And if you go on what’s on paper of us, women look like we’re not really human. So, I think that having them discover that about us was a moment in conceptualizing [the exhibition].

Another piece of it was the letters—the “found letters” from Ned Grimley-Groves—and trying to trying to give a sense of total absence and cut-off of communication through these letters where he’s just like, “Hello, hello? Is anybody there?” and nobody is. Because we’re so overly dependent on our communicative devices and systems that having that be cut off needed to be expressed somehow. In many ways, the device of the exhibit—the fragments and the background research archives—those were to create the institution of the museum. So, that’s what those pieces served. I was hoping to find a good role for them in the book. It suddenly all seemed like it was part of an institution. 

I guess the idea that we’ll be remembered by our works has been bubbling around in my head for a long time. When we think about being poets or wanting to become writers, when we’re forming this idea of what our identities are, I think that’s at the heart of it. We do want to leave something that’s not just our elusive and ephemeral existence. We write because we want there to be a record. And the idea that cephalopods would want to do the museum correctly—“Well, we aren’t taking over humanity. We’re just protecting it. We’re making sure we preserve it”—that instinct might feel like they’re trying to adopt human ways. Like, “Let’s do one of the things that [humans] like to do. They like to do museums.” In a way, it’s kind of innocent. They’re just trying to save us, trying to preserve us. Just the radical rethinking of our place in the hierarchy. We’ve all wondered what it would be like to be that little ant at the picnic that you sort of shoo away, but we’ve never really believed that we are those ants. But we are. We should think about ourselves that way.

AM: I love what opens up just with the conceit of the book. I’m glad you spoke to both “Are Women People?” and Ned’s letters because I think the effect of those for me was the sense that these issues that are built into the fabric of our daily lives do get taken for granted. There’s an active articulation in all of these poems that has an element of estrangement, because we’re reflecting on an era that has shifted, with the cephalopods coming to power. When Ned, for example, is speaking about how humans have poisoned our water systems with leaching plastics, so now we’re shipping off plastic bottles as a solution to it—those moments read as absurd, as they should. There was something about that that really struck an emotional chord for me, but also has an embedded element of humor to it. I love the humor in your work. 

All of that is tangential to the next question I’m going to ask. There’s a moment I loved in an interview when you were asked about the relationship between truth and fiction. And you responded, “Truth is bodily, emotional, and it comes out in speech, when I read a draft aloud.” I was wondering if there was a line or a moment in The Octopus Museum that surprised you with its truth, once you were reading it aloud back to yourself.

BS: Well, no, because it’s not a moment. The sense of truth can’t be a moment. It’s the bar that has to be passed to get to the next draft, really. So, truth is bodily—I don’t know when I said that. Was it a long time ago? 

AM: I think it was from 2019, but I also may be taking it out of context. What was striking about that quote, for me, was you were articulating the sense that, when something is read aloud, if it doesn’t ring as true, the voice expresses that. That reading aloud can become a barometer for whether truth has been articulated. I guess I was wondering about the sense that one might not know what is true or not until you read it back to yourself, and whether there’s ever any surprising revelation in that.

BS: Right, I mean, the concept of truth has gotten really complicated. One hesitates to say that one should gauge whether something’s true or not by how one feels, because that subjectivity is dangerous: “I know this is true, because I just want it to be.” We’ve seen the dangers of that, in this culture. That statement, I think, is really coming from a place of being a maker, of being a writer, how to gauge what’s true—not necessarily how to gauge what information is coming at you. I think what I mean by it is that our experience of our minds does not separate out what we know to be factual and true, versus things that we think at the moment—whatever thought pops into my head. The proof of that is memory. Memories don’t stay the same from one “session” to the next. We’ve all had this experience lately because we’re all living in our memories. We’re traveling in our old vacations instead of going places, and every time we go back to the campground of the vacation from 2017, it’s different in our minds. So, we know that our relationship to truth is unreliable, unless there’s some kind of outside reckoning with it, and the outside reckoning is not to be trusted either. What choice do we have other than going into our own organism, our own apparatus, and saying as honestly to ourselves as possible, “Do I believe this? Why do I think that this is true?”

This question of truth is at the heart of modes of deceit, right? We’re always being told that this kind of art is poetry, this kind of art is fiction, this kind of art is nonfiction, this is memoir, which is nonfiction—it has to be true; it can’t be made up. These are externally imposed rules, categories, and ideas. When we are writing, we know as poets that we mix them up completely. 

When it comes to feelings and responses and pain and memories of loss and the kind of torquing, miasmic, hallucinogenic sense of when bad things happen, your mind deliberately murks them—that’s a kind of truth, too. We can’t allow our own truth to be defined by things like what the Court thinks is truth, or what property laws say is true. I’m thinking myself into a hole here, Abby. 

AM: It’s really important. 

BS: I don’t have the bandwidth to say it right. This is the kind of thing that you would need to work over in an essay.

AM: Right, I did ask you a question about truth, which is a very hard on-the-spot question.

BS: It’s a very central thing, and I think about it all the time. All I’m doing is trying to find some rubric that I can live with. Because I can no longer live with the idea that whatever I say is true, and my experience is true, and my feelings are true—because I have come, greatly, to mistrust my feelings. And that’s devastating, because that’s all I really have. I always tell my students, “Live your truth, and that’s how you can write your truth. Know what is true for you,” and I don’t know if that’s possible, actually. Journalists can’t carry the burden of the entire truth all by themselves. They’re so embattled and dropping like flies, frankly. No good deed goes unpunished, as far as that field goes. I kind of feel like it’s up to the artists: writers, poets, creators of all kinds. It’s up to us to insist on presenting our versions of truth, just to have it there. 

That is kind of what The Octopus Museum exhibit is doing. It’s sort of like, well you have to admit that, if this is enshrined and put in a frame—that’s why all of the pieces are prose poems, because they’re rectangles—whether you think that what it depicts is reality or not doesn’t matter, because the very fact that it has been institutionally archived and logged and defined as a piece, there is at least that level of truth to it. It existed, it was written, it was found…

That is the essence of why we write poetry: wanting to share one’s own experience of the world and hoping that there’s something within one’s own experience that might break through to another psyche and have some kind of effect. That’s all we want, really, is that connection… I don’t know what our tools are. Poetry, for me, seems to be the only tool I have, besides making lists.

[Both laugh]

AM: I’ve gotten a lot from reading your work, in terms of feeling those moments of connection. There’s a video of you that I’ve watched several times—it’s an older one (from 2012), but it’s become a kind of guidepost for me, in thinking about writing my own poems. In the video, you describe an experience of giving a poetry reading in a church and being kind of self-conscious about reading these sexy poems in a church and then, afterwards, an audience member who is an elderly woman coming up to you and saying, “It’s time for you to grow out of your little girl voice and into your woman’s voice.” And you talk about taking that to heart. I was thinking of that recently because someone pointed out to me that I’m writing these feminist poems, yet some of them are very small on the page. They challenged me to take up more space on the page. Last night, at the Q&A after your reading, you mentioned how questions and greater fluidity have entered into your writing and process. I wonder if you think of that as a way of taking up space.

BS: That’s really interesting, of course, because another version of that dynamic is taking place right here in this interview, where I keep saying, “I’m rambling,” because as we’re having this conversation I’m letting whatever I’m thinking take up all the space. I’m not reducing and distilling and editing so that it’s palatable and easy to understand. Those are not the kinds of questions you’re asking, and that’s also not how I have been thinking of anything, these days. Anything you could ask right now that’s worth asking is going to have a long, rambling, verging on incomprehensible answer because we don’t have easy answers, if we ever did. 

So, what is feminist about insisting upon taking up all the psychic space, the thinking space? You have to be given, or you have to feel, a certain amount of authority to be able to think out loud. When you’re not given authority, when you think out loud you become instantly pegged as an unorganized thinker, as somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re saying, as a rambler. As somebody who was raised by a mom for whom English was her second language—who was very self-conscious about her speech, even though it’s amazing and perfect and she has incredible fluency in two languages—the anxiety about coming off as inarticulate is in me. So, the idea of coming off as rambling or not knowing what I’m talking about is a primal fear for me. It’s taken years and decades to feel like, You know what? This is my own brain. I shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong with it.

There is something real about speaking until you come to the point you’re trying to make. I’m showing you my work, in math terms. I’m showing you how I got there. I don’t think that people do it enough. I think that we’re all reduced to little sound bites and the perfect little tweet and the thing that’s edited down. So, where’s the process of developing an idea or developing a thought? That’s all supposed to be behind-the-scenes and done secretly, and you’re supposed to come to an interaction with fully formed thoughts. Alrighty, well, then you and I are going to have a stilted conversation. I’m just going to re-trot out the same things I’ve already said before, because I know them. 

AM: Right. 

BS: But you’re asking me a question that, right now, I don’t know the answer to, and I find it a worthwhile question and I respect you and it enough to try to think it through with you. So, my first thought with the idea that you have a poem that’s small on the page and, as a feminist, maybe [you should] take up more room, is that I wonder how much space that small poem takes up psychically. You know, it might bloom into a huge question, even though it’s only three lines or ten lines. It’s not a question of exact size, in the same way that taking up space in a public area isn’t about how big you are…

A small poem can be just as imposing, depending on what you’re saying in it. I think that the smallest, most domestic corner of a poem can be massive. What is feminist about taking up space and about being big on the page? It’s about creating an internal sense of authority: I have a right to say this because I think this is important. That’s all that needs to happen…

When I talk to people who have read my poems, especially if they say that they’re feminists, that is the secret message they’re giving: “I see that you have this authority on the page, Brenda, and how did you do that?” I think that’s sort of what the secret question is. Because if we say that there’s no truth, there’re no guarantees, there’re no facts, memories aren’t iron clad, how do you find your authority?

Mentors, institutions, readers, friends, editors have sort of believed in me and given me a chance to write and to publish my work, which is something that has always been my dream—all I ever wanted was a chance to write and to publish and to be read. That is an honor and a gift, and my obligation to that offering is to generate my own sense of authority back… Regardless of whether it’s a reaction to support or a self-generated urge, there’s something in me that has— It’s really hard to figure out how to put it. You might need to give me a minute here…

AM: Yeah, no problem. 

BS: —an absolute belief in the possibility of minds and hearts and souls across species, across language, across time and space, to know each other. I think that’s actually possible, and it is the most hopeful thing ever. 

All the other writers I’ve read, and all the influences, they’ve all come in to convince me that, yes, connection is possible. You felt this way when you read Marguerite Duras. You felt this way when you read Virginia Woolf. You felt this way when you read Toni Morrison. You want to be part of that conversation. These are women who are dead, but they’re obviously not dead. I’m talking about their work as if they’re alive, right now, because they’re alive in me. There’s a wish for everlasting life in there, but the deeper wish is that you can connect to somebody you’ve never met, somebody you’ll never know.

You and I, right now, Abby, are lucky, because we actually have a chance to connect. We actually are having a conversation. This happened; this will always have happened. No, we don’t get to be in a café together and I get to see whether you choose herbal tea or black tea. We don’t have that plane of shared experience, but we have this one, and this is real and it will always recur in some form or another. It’ll be, you know, being in an interview, but also it’ll be this lived experience. It will live on in us. 

I think that is the essence of why—and I keep using the word “authority” when really what I mean is “urgency” or “necessity”—why, if you read a poem by certain people, it feels like it’s not just good and it’s not just interesting or creative or cool… but from an insider view, a writer’s point-of-view, it’s like, “How did you get that authority? How did you get me to believe? How did you get me to see that?” You can get inside my brain if I just write it correctly. If I write it in a way that really can get it across, then I’ve succeeded… If I can [make] the person reading the poem trust me because I have conveyed accurately and adequately enough that this is a moment of possible connection, then I think the reader goes with me.

AM: That felt like such a gift. I got chills multiple times. This is kind of rotating around the topic of voice, which makes me even more excited for your craft talk. I wondered if you would touch upon the idea of voice as instrument—the topic that you’ll be broaching in the craft talk in a few minutes. 

BS: We are conditioned—especially women and people of color—to be afraid of our own voice. There are all kinds of ways that we “do it wrong,” according to people who say whether it’s wrong or right. We learn that very early, often as kids: “You’re too loud,” “You’re hurting my ears,” or “That’s not how we talk around here.” All kinds of things that, now when you hear them, you’re like, Oh, right, we were just totally conditioned to think our own voices are flawed and bad and wrong and naturally intolerable. Undoing that damage within ourselves is, I think, one of the truest and surest ways to that sense of authority and a sense of belief that what I have to say, can be said… It has to do with undoing our own rage and fear.

The undoing of it is not so simple. It really is about going into ourselves and figuring out what’s been hurt. Figures that matter to us—figures that we loved, who loved us, who were in charge of caring for us, whether they were teachers or parents or other relatives—have told us, “You are not allowed to impose your bullshit on anybody else, unless you think it through, and unless it’s really, definitely worth it for us to listen to.” That’s the message we got. “Otherwise, shut up.” That seeped into our soul, that seeped into our poetry, that seeped into what we think we’re entitled to… The authority of the voice is something I think about all the time, and the craft talk will expand on this idea.

AM: Well, I’m so looking forward to it, and thank you for spending this time with me. I’m excited for the published interview, but just on a personal level, it was really wonderful to hear you think through these questions with me.

BS: Yes, we’ll always have this.

AM: Yes.

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