Former Guggenheim Fellow Reads at Creative Writers House

As part of the Creative Writing program’s “New Salon” series, which features writers in conversation, Brenda Shaughnessy read and discussed poems from her new book.


Poet Brenda Shaughnessy read to students at Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House on Sept. 13. (via Copper Canyon Press)

Dani Herrera, Staff Writer

“I’m a firm believer in embarrassing oneself,” award-winning poet Brenda Shaughnessy said during an event at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House last week.

The author joined fellow poet and Director of the Creative Writing Program Deborah Landau last Thursday for an evening of reading and conversation. The event was presented by the NYU Creative Writing Program in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America.

As the two writers expressed their mutual appreciation for one another, Shaughnessy stressed the importance of supporting the work of fellow poets. 

“Unlike being a runway model, the support will last,” she said.

For this night, however, the spotlight was largely on Shaughnessy. Landau served as the host and interviewer as Shaugnessy read from and spoke on her fifth book, “The Octopus Museum,” released in March.

She selected a few of her new poems to share with the audience, mostly consisting of ones with themes of love, heartbreak and isolation. One of the most personal poems, titled “No Traveler Returns,” she describes a family on the run. It’s not autobiographical, but she uses the names of her own family members. An audience member asked what made her write the poem.

“It was that picture of the Syrian man carrying his baby,” she said as she teared up. She continued to explain that she couldn’t feel what the picture meant until she put herself in it and put it down on the page. 

Shaughnessy then talked about some of her more humorous poems. She read one short poem in which she immortalized her experience of being given the wrong dessert at a restaurant in Oregon, which received a wave of laughter from the audience. 

In the conversation portion of the night, Landau and the audience members asked Shaughnessy how she employs her unique writing style, particularly her wit. 

She responded that she worked her wit into her poems in a “kind of a sad and insecure way.” She said that she also sometimes uses humor as a way to communicate with fellow poets.

As the night came to a close, Shaughnessy reflected on her previous work and her own writing practices. She discussed the role of embarrassment in her life and said that she considers it a part of how writers can take care of themselves. She left the world of “magical” poetry, she said, for “the real world.”

Shaughnessy has received over five notable awards for her poems, and she has taught at a handful of universities including NYU. A former Guggenheim fellow, she currently works as an associate professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

Email Dani Herrera at [email protected]