Issue 4

An Interview with Catherine Wagner

 · Nonfiction

By Jonathan Lohr and Christopher Schaeffer

Catherine Wagner’s books include Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012), My New Job (Fence, 2009), Macular Hole (Fence, 2004), Miss America (Fence, 2001), and a dozen chapbooks, including Bornt (Dusie, 2009) and Imitating (Leafe, 2004). Her work has been anthologized in the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK, Gurlesque, Poets on Teaching, Best American Erotic Poems, and elsewhere; new poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in Lana Turner, Poetic Labor Project, Cambridge Literary Review, Abraham Lincoln, The Awl, New American Writing, Evening Will Come, Claudius App, and elsewhere. Her performances and poems are archived on PennSound, Archive of the Now, and Poetry Foundation websites. She is an associate professor of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

I recently lucked into a copy of your 2001 chapbook Hotel Faust, which ends in the line “Must write poems to fill the huge demand for them” from the section “White Man Poems.” This is quoted in the opening poem of your latest book, Nervous Device, in a letter to your editor about being moved by the market. How do you see Nervous Device’s voice corresponding with Hotel Faust’s in terms of this language of economy?

I wrote that “Must write poems to fill the huge demand for them” line in grad school, feeling ridiculous about insisting on having private time to write, my boyfriend instructed (in the poem and in real life) to keep the phone away. I felt guilty about the effort it took to create a space to write these not very good things that would not make a difference to anyone, that certainly seemed to have nothing to do with markets. But unexpectedly, the line came true in that some people have liked some of my poems and I get solicited enough now that I don’t have enough poems to fill demand. I figure at some point the “demand” will slacken so I better enjoy it now. I have been privileged and lucky — lots of people have been kind to me, teachers and friends. My name is out there more than my work deserves and it makes me a little uncomfortable. Anyway. It turns out there is a market for poems. Poems don’t get us out of market at all. They might dig out little stretch-points where we can swing in an aggressive or peaceful hammock for a second which might stretch things further and we can think there, think in another way. Which is a tired argument for what poems can do but I still like it.

If there’s an overlap between the Nervous Device and Hotel Faust economies (those “White Man Poems” are in Miss America, too) and maybe some of the work in Macular Hole, maybe it’s to do with this sense of systems creating situations I feel uncomfortable fitting into and wanting to stay aware there and fidget at stress-points. From Hotel Faust till now I might have gotten more sophisticated about seeing these systems but I’m also more embedded in them so I don’t know whether I’m any further along.

You mentioned in a recent interview that Nervous Device shows a relatively new focus on performance (I’m also remembering a reading in Washington, D.C., where you cut out the poems and suspended them across the room). There are also deeply personal poems of disclosure. Does the sense of performance allow for sincerity? Do you see these working in opposition of each other or as parallel gestures?

Well…sincerity is a performance. Performance doesn’t mean fake, right? Though it does mean artifice.

There are instances of meta-discussion of the poem, such as “Ampersand to start the poem” in the opening to “Spell.” These moments also seem to speak to the performance of “Capitulation to the Total Poem,” where the poem is printed on a bracelet that is taken on and off during your reading. Do you see the act of writing the poem as a performance?

Yes. But I might need to imagine a temporal delay between the performance and anyone else’s observing it, because while I am writing, I need for some of my self-conscious constraint (or bravado) to slacken so I can do something I wouldn’t do in “public” (though I’m always thinking about audience). There’s a kind of Klein bottle thing here where I have a partly illusory sense of interiority and privacy that I need, but which is also performative — I mean, I’m making a surface that I intend to have be seen at some point. I have this sense that a lot of the peers I travel with think Elizabeth Bishop is a bourgeois pie plate, and maybe she is, but I’m going to quote this thing from “The Monument,” which I memorized in college: “Roughly but adequately it can shelter/what is within, which after all cannot have been intended to be seen.” In that poem she’s describing a monument built like a stack of boxes, at least that’s what it sounds like she’s describing, and she suggests that a poem works like this, too: it “shelters what is within,” but what is within “cannot have been intended to be seen.” Hmm, Bishop is on to something but I don’t think poems work exactly like that. A poem doesn’t necessarily hide anything from view, and if its interiority is sheltered, it’s sheltered by exactly what gives you access to it. If there is a secret, the conveyance for the secret is identical with the secret. So it’s no secret. It’s more like public intimacy with a time-delay component that forecloses touching. Though I’m sure someone’s doing some kind of somatic poems-while-touching thing.

Finally, in an essay for Poetic Labor Project, you discuss your position within academia in relation to the metaphor of adjuncts as “sharecroppers.” Because your poems discuss ideas of capital and commodification, as well as a sort of career trajectory throughout the basic impossibility for monetary gain through poetry, “I made no money from my poems but they statused me”; do you see a correlation between the status of a young emerging poet and that of an adjunct?

I don’t know whether there’s any correlation I can come up with apart from a very simply material one, which is that a lot of “emerging” poets have emerged from grad creative writing degree programs and a lot of them are teaching as adjuncts. English graduate degree programs, including creative writing programs, are mostly pimples on the ever-expanding butt of comp/rhet programs — they are funded by the need for cheap labor to teach those comp classes. And many poets who graduate from M.F.A. programs “naturally” go on to adjunct, hoping for something better in the long run, the tenure-track carrot on the stick that keeps receding till you’re, like, thirty-five and still adjuncting and, hmm, that stick was actually whupping you, while the withered carrot-on-string flings around nonsensically.

Poets are adjuncting because universities are, like other industries, reliant on ludicrously cheap labor, even though tuitions have gone up and up. Reducing the state’s role in paying for education by privatizing the costs of education was a genius plan for moneymaking — the banks could make money on our going to college. Which sounds good, we’re all good like that, we were all supposed to make money, except that it led to spiraling education costs and to huge moneymaking by the banks, not us, and the money has drained into offshore accounts and not into investment in our factories and jobs. And the loans game led to universities and banks getting into bed together in disturbing ways. This last part of the mess was elegantly exposed by the brave and dangerous (to themselves) actions of the Davis Dozen. Anyway, poets are correlated with this mess, not because they are poets, but because we’re all in this mess.

I am tempted to say something like: if more young poets were doing something else besides working in universities it would be great, we might get more poetry that was digging into more/other experience, let’s get these emergent wetsuit-wearing youths to splash around outside universities. But I know, there aren’t jobs anywhere. So on the other hand: the university is an excellent instance of what is messed up all over the place (Wal-Mart warehouse workers are independent contractors without benefits or job security, just like adjuncts at Temple or Miami). So I won’t idealize about some more varied field for poetry, “Oh, you young poets should be nurse-practitioners and farmers.” (This will happen, anyway, this expansion of roles for young poets; the university will diet and adjuncts will be excreted as waste, they will painfully distribute themselves elsewhere in the system). Why moan about so many young poets boringly doing similar labor when their labor is in such a charged place in the system, when there is this urgency and fat reality right where we are? If the poet adjuncts are paying attention they can do a lot. They can and are paying attention to their situation in their poems (however that attention might manifest itself — I don’t want to get into the game of prescribing that); and they can organize their fellow adjuncts. Of course that’s if they are willing, for one more second, to put up with the crap they’re getting.


Read “The Gravity Sanity Patrol” by Catherine Wagner in this issue.

Return to Issue 4