Thoughts about poetry

The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy

omI started reading Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2019 poetry collection The Octopus Museum a few weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. By the time I finished it on March 20th, over 200,000 coronavirus infections had been reported globally and over 2,000 people were dead, over 400 dead in Italy that day alone. And the numbers continued to rise.

Human life on earth as we knew it has changed, and we humans are to blame for the mess: There are too many of us. We live too close together. We conduct our business in environmentally destructive ways. We travel too often and unnecessarily. And we don’t maintain social safety nets for the citizens of our countries to ensure we have health care when we need it. Over time, people of comfortable means have developed a sense of entitlement to the status quo, and that smug entitlement, in recent weeks, has started to look even uglier than it already did.

I’m writing this essay for my low-residency MFA program in poetry at New York University where I am in my first semester, fully realizing there will likely be no face-to-face residency in July anywhere, let alone in Paris where my campus is. (I live in Europe, so that location was a factor in attracting me to the program.) It feels selfish to even be thinking about my studies when I can’t even be sure all of us will survive the next few months.

But it makes me all the more thankful for poetry. I have continued reading and done my best to continue writing. (Though that’s been a bit more challenging.) It makes a difference. Poetry won’t save anyone from coronavirus, but it may save us from despair as the society we’ve grown used to grinds to a halt.

The Octopus Museum, published by Alfred A. Knopf in hardcover, is Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth poetry collection. To quote the front flap’s blurb, The Octopus Museum is “a bold and scathingly beautiful work that imagines what comes after our current age of environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and divisive politics.” Sadly, here in the world that exists outside literature, now we know. Shaughnessy’s fictional account of cephalopods ruling humankind doesn’t seem as far-fetched after this past week’s news. Think about the fact that the coronavirus pandemic we’re now in the midst of would have felt like a work of science fiction a few months ago. Yet we are now faced with accepting it as real.

In the book’s Acknowledgments pages, the author tells us these poems were inspired by Station Eleven, a 2014 post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that takes place after a fictional flu pandemic has ravaged the world. (In horrifying irony, a mini-series based on that novel began filming in Chicago only in January.) Another inspiration for Shaughnessy was Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a book about the development of consciousness which compares cephalopods with mammals and birds.

My copy of The Octopus Museum is hardcover and oversized. The only other format I’m aware of is the ebook. The large page size enables Shaughnessy to work in long lines, which serves the work of mostly prose poetry well.

Instead of a table of contents, The Octopus Museum opens with a “Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits.” OM is short for Octopus Museum and is one of several acronyms used throughout the book. The Visitor’s Guide tells us there are five exhibition spaces with three more under construction, suggesting the museum is still expanding.

Early on, in the section/exhibit called “Gallery of a Dreaming Species” is the poem “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles).” In it, Shaughnessy writes of the COO (Cephalopod Electro-Overlords) who are now in charge of the world:

Likewise, COOPS are now called COPS, installed in watchtowers and moats in every human settlement. Most of us work in their salinizing centers. Before, we dumped our waste and garbage into their oceans, and ruined that delicate world.

Their vast home of millions of years destroyed, the COO came ashore. We knew they were intelligent. They could open jars and pretend to be more poisonous creatures than they, ostensibly, were. We found them darling, delicious.

Below are close readings of two other poems from the collection, “I Want The World” and “Blueberries for Cal.”

“I Want The World” from “Special Collection: As They Were” p. 22.

“I Want the World” spreads across two pages. It opens with an argument that each time you say goodbye, it’s the last time at least “for that particular goodbye.”

As the narrative develops, the speaker’s daughter (who overlaps with Shaughnessy’s real-life daughter Simone, to whom the book is dedicated) is complaining about not having enough choices. The daughter still doesn’t know at this point in the larger story, just how bad things are going to be: “The Legos are boring? Imagine no toys of any kind,” the speaker says.

And regarding choices, it’s heartbreaking as the child wonders what color lunch box she wants to have for a first grade that might not even exist in the fall. (Admittedly this hits home for me as one of my daughters is the same age as the child in this poem, and as I write, my own daughter’s very first year of school has been completely upended.)

In “I Want the World”, the daughter is blissfully naive, still able to believe she might get what she wants. The mother knows that in this post-apocalyptic world people are lucky to get anything at all. The mother understands but still wants her daughter to hold some of her false beliefs because they represent “A thread of hope wound, inextricable, all around and through her very person.”

The tragedy of the poem is that while the mother is at work (at a company called FedPlex) the girl will lose that thread, and the mother will come home to someone “broken off from my old girl, six years old.”

The poem ends with the mother giving the girl a pencil to chew on: “Soon you’ll be able to draw whatever you want,” she says, an invitation to the girl to enter a world of imagination, where she can make things herself because that will be the only way.

“Blueberries for Cal” from “Found Objects / Lost Subjects: A Retrospective” p. 54

The first thing that strikes me about “Blueberries for Cal,” the final poem in part four, is the title’s similarity “Flowers for Algernon,” a short story I read as a tween. That story, one of the saddest I have ever read, is about a developmentally-disabled man named Charlie who receives a surgical procedure to increase his intelligence only to eventually see it decrease again all while fully aware. Perhaps the title’s similarity is not accidental as Shaughnessy surely must have been aware of “Flowers for Algernon” as it was a much-anthologized part of the American curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s when we were growing up.

Because “Blueberries for Cal” is one of few poems in The Octopus Museum written in verse (“The Nest”, which precedes it, is another) it stands out. Additionally, the poem can be seen as an extension of the long poem “Our Andromeda,” (the title poem of Shaughnessy’s 2012 poetry collection.) “Our Andromeda” is in the form of direct address to Cal, and imagines a different universe in which things are different than they are in this one.

In “Blueberries for Cal,” the speaker is watching another child (Henry) eat blueberries. Neither of the speakers’ kids can/will eat them. Henry and his sisters Lucy and Jane are able to eat goldfish crackers and drink juice. The phrase “Tiny things” hanging at the end of the line describing how the two girls are interacting is a key. The children themselves might be seen as “tiny things,” but additionally the other things she’s describing can be viewed as tiny (blueberries, for example). But in this poem, as in the world, tiny things can be what matters. Here, they have never been so large.

The speaker wishes for these tiny things but then adds her wish that her “son had a nervous system that let him walk…” If that’s not huge, I don’t know what is.

The speaker wants to “curse everything I can’t give him” showing just how much she wants to give it to him, to have him be normal. “Admire / compare / despair” which begins stanza seven could be taken as a summary of the poem structure so far. And the speaker notes that it is wrong, that truthfully she’s able to share Henry’s joy as he enjoys the blueberries.

She points out that if not blueberries for all, then at least there’s enough “energetic sweetness” (perhaps a substitute for blueberries) to go around, even for her son. Another energetic sweetness might be “music and frosting” which her children seem to subsist on.

My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.

Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.

Where there’s music, someone chose to make a song

over all other things on this earth.

This poem ends with a reminder of why art is important, or rather essential, especially in times of despair or difficult times such as what we are facing as a species today.

My Conversation with Nick Cave

On August 27th, at the second of two “Conversations with Nick Cave” events at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki, I was one of about 30 people seated on the stage about 15 feet from Nick Cave and his piano. Yes, on the stage. And between a couple songs in the second half of the event, I got the chance to ask him a question. In truth, as the event material promised, it was more like we had a conversation, albeit a short one.

All this might not have happened. Two months earlier, the shows sold out before I was able to buy a ticket. (Both shows sold out in minutes!) Then, a few weeks before the show, my wife connected with a work colleague who had an extra seat and through her efforts I was able to obtain it for myself.

Then, on the night of the show, luck piled upon luck when I was standing in the lobby and was was randomly selected by the roving stage manager to be one of the lucky few to be seated on the stage. These special V.I.P. seats are not for sale, making stage seats even more of an honor as they do not simply go to people willing to pay more.

Many who asked questions seemed to have come prepared. By contrast, before asking my own, I had only loosely formulated it in my head. Retrospectively, the question seems to have derived from my fear of death as a creative person. When I turned 50 five years back, my wish to become a practicing poet and (to use an old cliche) express myself became greater. I more fully realized my time on earth is limited, and if I am to have my say, or even find out what I might have to say (part of understanding my life and giving it meaning), I needed to do it now.

My question to Nick Cave went something like this: As a creative person who has been producing work across almost 5 decades, do you feel like you’re any closer to saying what you might have had to say, or does the finish line keep moving, i.e. do you still feel like you still have “everything to say” as you likely did at the start.

I introduced my question…

Me: Hi Nick, I’m David. As a person who has loved music my whole life, more often as I have grown older, I have experienced the deaths of my musical heroes. Two big ones recently were Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, two artists who were active up until the very end who spoke in late-life about their plans to produce new work. I miss them dearly now that they’re gone almost as if I had known them, as if they’d been close friends. You, yourself, are someone I’ve been listening to for about four decades. You’ve been making music in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and continue now in your early 60s. And I think you are still getting better.

Nick Cave: (Cleverly) Thank you for confirming my suspicions.

Me: My question is: Do you feel now as you are getting on in life that you have gotten any closer to expressing what you set out to express, or does it still feel a long way off as if you still have “everything to say” as you might have when you first started making music?

Nick Cave: (I need to point out I was so nervous standing there holding my microphone it was difficult to take it all in, so I  roughly and probably inaccurately characterize the response he gave, all the while looking directly at me as if he and I were the only two in the auditorium which at that time seated about 1,700 people.)  I don’t think of things as having a sort of predefined narrative where I would know at the start what I set out to do and what I wanted to say. Certainly, in most people’s lives there come defining events which shatter or destroy their original concept of who they thought they were, and and that may entirely change what they feel they have to say. For me, the death of my son was one such event. So instead of having had a sort of clarity about that I want to communicate, it’s been far more chaotic, and my songs have been more a response to what was going on at the time. There’s been a lot of flailing around. Does that answer the question?

Me: I hear you saying that chaos and flailing around is inevitable in life, that’s maybe a good thing, and we should even welcome it.

Nick Cave said some additional words I can’t remember at all as the conversation ground to a semi-awkward end.

I can recall only replying “Thank you” before I sat back down.

I wish there was a recording to see what actually transpired in the exchange. I know people listened and maybe even took it to heart as someone later referred back to Cave’s answer to me as part of their own question.

To give you an idea of the intimacy brought by sitting on the stage, below is an elicit video of Cave’s performance of “Stagger Lee” I found taken by another attendee that night. (Technically, no photography or video is allowed at these events, but as you might expect, Google still turns up a handful from each show.)

And here’s a link to the full set list of songs Cave performed on this particular night.

Driver Three

I’ve been taking an online poetry class from the UK’s The Poetry School. The tutor is Leah Umansky (@lady_bronte on Twitter), author most recently of The Barbarous Century (Eyewear, 2018).

The class, called “Only Love Studio,” is ostensibly about love poetry, but love is interpreted broadly and includes romantic love, platonic love, and love of place so the subject matter for the poems has been quite far-ranging.

It’s been a joy to be in Leah’s class. Her assignments have pushed me to write in ways I typically might not, and her feedback has been generous, encouraging and insightful. Time will tell if I get any keepers out of this class, but most assignments have produced at least one poem worthy of sharing in one form or another.

Our class of 18 students is diverse, and it’s been inspirational to see the depth of expression possible by poets of different levels. Based on my first experience, I would definitely recommend The Poetry School.

I made an audio recording of last week’s workshop poem called “1982.” It was a bit of retrospective on the experience of American high school when you’re a bit of a nerd. You can hear an early version of that poem below:

This week, I wrote “Driver Three” in response to a prompt related to “love of place.” On the surface it’s a 15-line story about a car ride (well, technically 3) that I had during a work trip to China last week. But more importantly, it’s about the necessity of trusting even in a world with plenty of evidence you should do otherwise. I struggled with it for 4 days while traveling, but when I got home my wife immediately gave me the feedback I needed to figure out how to end it.

It’s a work in progress, but you can see what I’ve got in the video below.

9 Great Poetry Podcasts

Recently I shared a list of 6 Great Ways to Get Poetry in Your Inbox.

In this post, I share a list of podcasts (iTunes podcast links are provided below, but most of these podcasts are available on all platforms) where you can hear poetry read aloud and discussed by poets and poetry editors. There are other lists, but these are the ones to which I subscribe and to which I regularly listen.

  1. The Poetry Magazine Podcast – (iTunes) In this podcast, the editors of Poetry Magazine (Don Share, Christina Pugh, and Lindsay Garbutt) “listen to a poem or two in the current issue.” Often the poets themselves read the poem. Then the editors discuss the poem, often a line at a time, (with the corresponding audio clip re-introduced). It’s a great way to hear new poems and get insight into their workings. It’s also helpful to get in the habit of paying attention to the way the lines within a poem work and contribute to the whole. Don Share’s voice is always welcome in my headphones, and I enjoy his relaxed and unpretentious presentation.
  2. Poetry Off the Shelf (from the Poetry Foundation) – (iTunes) Hosted by Curtis Fox, this podcast “explores the diverse world of contemporary American poetry with readings by poets, interviews with critics, and short poetry documentaries.” This is casual, unpretentious conversation about poetry that’s easy and fun to listen to.
  3. The New Yorker Poetry podcast – (iTunes ** Stitcher) Hosted by poet Kevin Young, poetry editor of the New Yorker Magazine, in this podcast, they “ask poets to chose a poem from the magazine’s archive to read and discuss along with a piece of their own which we’ve published in the New Yorker.” Again, here’s the chance to hear new and archived poetry read aloud and to hear poets reveal their own inner processes. Kevin Young is a great poetry conversationalist (would love to chat with him myself!) which helps to make these conversations lively and interesting.
  4. Poem Talk – (iTunes) Podcast recorded at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, where host Al Filreis leads a roundtable discussion about single poems with a rotating series of guests.  In its own description, the discussions are lively. They are correct in saying so!
  5. The Poetry Review Podcast from the Poetry Society(On iTunes ** on Soundcloud **) – Rotating selection of hosts interview poets who also read from their poems which have appeared in The Poetry Review.
  6. Poem of the Day (Poetry Foundation) – Daily (On iTunes ** -)  Poem of the day read by the poet or a reader other than the poet.
  7. The Kenyon Review Podcast – (iTunes) Literary podcast not limited to poetry.
  8. The Paris Review podcast– (iTunes) Features classic stories and poems, interviews from their archives, and new work and original readings by the contemporary writers of our time.
  9. The Writer’s Almanac – (iTunes ** Stitcher ** TuneIn) As reviewed in the daily email blast item, this is the old standby.  Garrison Keillor was returned in July 2018 with this daily 5-minute item which includes a  writer-related datebook and other histories, as well as a contemporary or classic poem, read in his trademark voice. Many poets have remarked that they love the way Garrison Keillor reads their poems.

6 great ways to get great poetry in your inbox

The Writer’s Almanac is back. But while it was on hiatus, my poetry habit necessitated I find other ways of getting poems to my inbox each day. It turned out to be a fruitful endeavor. My inbox now overflows daily with diverse and excellent verse. Below are 6 of my new mainstays:




Rattle – Easily my favorite contemporary literary journal devoted exclusively to poetry. Rattle also publishes interviews with poets, and each quarterly print issue includes a bonus chapbook.  To sign up for their poem a day (and bonus poems!) go to, select Subscribe and enter your email in the “subscribe by email box.”




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Poetry Foundation – Poetry Foundation publishes Poetry Magazine. Founded in Chicago in 1912, Poetry is the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world. The best poets and poems of the 20th Century have graced its pages. Go to and sign up for the “Poem a day” newsletter.




3.‘s Poem-a-day – daily email featuring over 200 new, previously unpublished poems a year. 2018 includes a different guest editor each month who curate the selections. Sign up from




Matthew Ogle’s Pome – (that’s no typo, Matthew Ogle’s email list is called “pome”)  – it includes short daily poems or excerpts from poems. You will always find the time to read these. Sign up from



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Garrison Keillor – Garrison Keillor has rebooted the Writer’s Almanac. No longer distributed via Public Radio airwaves, it’s now distributed exclusively from Garrison Keillor’s own website. The online-only audio version is the same as before, complete with that unforgettable theme music and inspiring biographical birthday notes. You can subscribe by email and iTunes





Knopf Poetry (sent every year during National Poetry Month only) – Knopf has been publishing great poetry since 1915. For more than twenty years, they have sent out a free poem every day in April. Sign up here any time of year.



I’d love to hear of your favorite “poetry by email” newsletters.  Please leave them in the comments.