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Published on September 26th, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Interview with Poet Catherine Wagner

When Poet Catherine Wagner writes, she tries not to write with a predetermined intention, instead letting the poem take a course of its own.

“There has to be something I’m moving through, though,” Wagner said. “I have to start somewhere. But the purpose of poetry is to explore and discover.”

Often, her poems seem to take you on this journey of discovery, ending at a place you could not have foreseen. Using rich imagery that is sensual, dark and edgy, she writes about sexuality, politics and the body in a way that is often startling and provocative. Take this excerpt from “This is a Fucking Poem”:

“don’t expect too much.
Well I expect you to go into the
fucking human tunnel
I’m going.
pink grimy glossed
entabulature, welted
and tattooed. Enfolded in
ropy ceiling-hangings
but it isn’t a room,
and bumblingly sliding
out, little legs of
a little girl, bum on the wall/opening
pink legs sticking out like a
hermit crab’s, she’s coming!”

Drawing from her own experiences – examining sex and sexuality after her divorce, describing her experiences with pregnancy and motherhood, and giving small snapshots into her domestic life — Wagner’s work is highly personal, weaving together a quiet intensity with lyrical wordplay.  One of my favorite passages from the poem “Pleasure Trip” mentions her ex-husband, poet Martin Corless-Smith:

“Martin told me when I gave him [the chapbook to] Hole in the Ground he read it in the airport hotel bar. The bartender asked what he was reading. He said ‘Poems by my ex-wife about how great her sex life is now.’ They’re not about that. The bartender bought him a drink.”

Despite this candor in her writing, Wagner admitted that she still feels uncomfortable laying everything out in the open in front of people. We spoke on the phone briefly at first (I always feel you can tell a lot about a person from their voice), and then launched into the interview via Google Chat. She noted that it is much harder to talk about personal things when one’s voice or body is live. Although she described herself as often feeling “mortally shy,” I found Ms. Wagner extremely charming and disarmingly honest. Like any true artist, she recognizes the need to explore what makes her uncomfortable. Her latest work, a full-length collection entitled Nervous Device, does just that, exploring the poet’s role as performer and the boundaries between poet and audience.

Art Animal: Did you always want to be a poet?
Catherine Wagner: I think I have a myth about its being the only thing I ever wanted to do. This is perhaps Alice Notley envy — she always declares that she never wanted to be anything but a poet.  But in fact I remember in fifth grade wanting to be a millionaire, and reading a number of books about getting rich, perhaps in revolt against my parents who were nonprofit types all the way. I also wanted to be a shrink, and a geologist (I still would like to be a geologist). But I did want to be a writer always, from when I first learned to read and felt what writing could do to me.

AA: Each of your collections have distinct themes. Can you talk a bit about this?
CW: My books are rooted in experience as a lens, and playing with language is a way to exteriorize that lens, to feel its constructedness and artifice and look at it and mess with it. The first book, Miss America, is a young woman’s book, and is rowdy and punchy. It has a lot to do with feeling one’s body observed, with a sense of party-crashing when one enters any scene or situation (including literary tradition, which is a frat party, at least if you enter it where I did) and feeling the push and pull of belonging and not belonging.  In my second book, Macular Hole, I wrote about my experiences being pregnant and having a baby, and the economies surrounding that — how they connected with the market. I was thinking about money and exchange, and thinking about the strange invasion and transformation inside my body and then this exteriorization, a baby (a person), entering the market. I tried to think about how these exchanges intersected. With My New Job, I had gotten divorced and I was thinking about sex and work, and reading Blake — lots of abjection there — and taking my students to a homeless shelter where I interviewed some amazing women who had sold sex for drugs and had been on the street since they were girls. So I was thinking about fuckedness more generally.

AA: How is your new book Nervous Device different than your previous work?
CW: Nervous Device is like my other books in that there’s a concern with boundary and porousness in all the books. I think a hyperawareness of “skin,” of boundary and penetrations of boundary, is a gendered awareness, at least in part. I am white so I lack the kind of hyperawareness I’d feel not being white in southwest Ohio — my newest project is sort of about this. What might be new in ND is that I’ve become obsessed with performance (shout to my colleague, Cris Cheek, performer extraordinaire), which has made me think a lot about audience. I think many of the poems come straight out of thinking about performance, imagining performing the poems and projecting the bodies of the audience in my mind. The poem hovers between us and neither of us are there. But our presences charge the poem. I want the poem to notate that.

AA: What do you mean by “Nervous Device?” Do you mean nervous as in uncomfortable? Or do you mean nervous like nervous system?
CW: Thank you for bringing that out. Yes, nervous in terms of self-consciousness, nervousness, but also nervous in terms of responsiveness and reactiveness. A nervous device could be a device with which we use to communicate: a phone, a computer or language. I wrote to my editor that “the nervous device is body, handheld connection, poem. It wants you to hold it, it wants to be noticed, it wants you to see how it works to bind and separate.”

AA: Many of your poems discuss your body. How has your relationship to your body changed over the years?
CW: My relationship with it is definitely better than it used to be. In my teens and twenties I slouched to hide my boobs. I hated the attention of men. It felt utterly invasive. I didn’t like sex and suspected that the idea of good sex had been invented as a way of oppressing women. I got over that one. It’s a way of oppressing men. That’s a joke, by the way!

AA: Do you feel that you take on different personas when you write, or is the “I” in the poem always the same?
CW: Poetry is a game where you can do whatever you want (well, the boundaries are flexible), but one thing you can do is take stances and see what happens. The “I” in my poems is often “me” in that I am saying something that I did or that I feel or that I want, but it is also utter artifice. The “I” is an element of the poem that is manipulable. Also I think that the poem is not unlike “real life Cathy” in that avatars are all that is there anyway. Nothing but avatars. I mean where is you? You are in everything you perceive, and you take on an identity in relation to that. I want to add, though, that I don’t think any of this relationality stuff means that I don’t have responsibility for what I do and write and say.

AA: Do you ever feel over-exposed in your writing since you are writing about such personal things? Or does the language create a barrier?
CW: Oh well, yes, I suppose it is much more difficult to say embarrassing things, or anything at all, when one’s body and voice are live, than on the page or screen. I still have trouble having my body in front of people and feel mortally shy a lot. But that is part of why performance felt so important to investigate. The other part of this is that as many artists say it is useful to head straight for the most embarrassing or uncomfortable thing. There is a lot of energy and information there. It is never just that you’re embarrassed. Something in the culture is flooding you, and that can be examined.

AA: How do you start writing a poem? Do you have a method?
CW: I have different methods and sometimes don’t realize I’m writing a poem. But most often I play around with sounds and phrases and just follow attractions and, eventually, if I pay enough attention to the sonic field, there will be connections that happen there that I then respond to and go somewhere that does maybe say something, while staying in that sonic matrix. I think that’s very traditional for poets — at least some poets.

AA: Some of your poems have this almost childlike quality where they seem playful and singsong, while others seem deliberately abrupt and jolting.
CW: It is an eternal worry of mine that people will just find the work idiotic because of that playful mode. I have to risk being stupid though because there is nothing to be gained by pretending to be smart. I worry that in this book [Nervous Device] I’ve tried to be smart in some places because publishing with City Lights felt like a big deal and I knew — kind of feared — that the book might get more attention than my other books. That’s a deadly thing — the wish to appear smart — and I hope I didn’t succumb to it too often.

AA: In A Well is Mine: A Good Belongs to Me and in Nervous Device, you use big concepts like “freedom” and “art” that can mean so many different things to different people. Are you ever afraid that people might misread or misinterpret your poems if you use such big concepts?
CW: There’s never going to be an exact correspondence between what I am thinking I’m putting in play by putting certain bits of language together and what you think when you read them. I feel desolate though when I think that there’s no correspondence. I do think there’s such a thing as bad writing and misreading. But yes, those equations in A Well is Mine are wildly open, though I invoke libertarian and liberal versions of freedom.

AA: There is this Zen Buddhist saying that goes “When you rearrange flowers, you are rearranging someone’s mind.” Do you feel like you are rearranging people’s minds with your poetry?
CW: In a sense, yes. But there is a history of avant-garde lefty thinkers/writers who operate on the assumption that thought is language, and when you change language, you change people and the world, and thus “writing” takes on a massive, perhaps outsized importance in relation to its effects. Though I do agree with Shelley that poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world!

Wagner received a MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Her poems appear in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry and numerous other anthologies and quarterlies. Wagner has authored four full-length poetry collections, Miss America, Macular Hole, My New Job, and Nervous Device, which is set to be released mid-October from City Lights Publishers. 

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About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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