Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage
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JACKET
INTERVIEW

Catherine Wagner
in conversation with Nathan Smith, 13 April 2007

This piece is about 10 printed pages long. It is copyright © Cathy Wagner and Nathan Smith and Jacket magazine 2007.

Born in Burma and brought up in Baltimore, Catherine Wagner has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Her books are Miss America (Fence 2001) and Macular Hole (Fence 2004). She has just finished co-editing, with Rebecca Wolff, Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poets on Child-Bearing and Child-Rearing (Fence 2007). A new chapbook, Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large, will be out in summer 2007. She currently teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which is precisely where I was introduced to her when I enrolled in her Intermediate Poetry class. She happened to be in her office on April 13, 2007, between two and three o’clock, an hour that led to the following conversation.

— Nathan Smith, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

Catherine Wagner

Photo: Catherine Wagner

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Smith: In retrospect, what first interested you in writing and influenced your writing?

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Wagner: The first poems I remember reading are in Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. I memorized some of those poems. They are fantastic, “Jabberwocky” et cetera. I started writing poems and I just liked writing them. My mom gave me a little notebook and I wrote things like “A rainbow is the sky’s necklace.” The poems I loved when I was a kid metaphorized the world extremely: “God, I can push the grass apart/And lay my finger on Thy heart” – Millay – or “Trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God, who is our home” – Wordsworth. It seemed like there was something about the way language worked in poems that made the world reverberate differently. I liked having my understanding of the world made lively in that way and made self-aware.

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So, even at an early age some of the poems you experienced played with language?

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Yes, absolutely. Then, in high school – I think this is very normal – I liked Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and maybe a little bit of e. e. cummings. Really into them.

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I went to college at a very conservative place. I didn’t come across much there that I have since been excited about, except Wallace Stevens’s imagination, his creepy enchanting little world. And my teacher Rick Jackson introduced me to a lot of Eastern European poetry I also liked Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop, I still do.

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When I went to grad school in Iowa, I found a decent bookstore, Prairie Lights. I started poking around and found stuff that blew my mind. I had been feeling dissatisfied with my own writing even though it had been well regarded where I went to school, and I knew something was wrong. I had learned to pull something off, this particular epiphanic, personal narrative poem and the more I thought about it the more I felt like throwing up. I was making the same sorts of moves in all my poems and I won a prize for them and couldn’t write any more. Then in Prairie Lights I found a book by Leslie Scalapino called Considering How Exaggerated Music Is. I read the whole thing in the bookstore. It was some of the first experimental poetry I had come across and I realized that there were lots of different things you could do. I felt untied. I started reading Gertrude Stein, and surrealists and the Negritude poets, and Jack Spicer’s voice was important in terms of making me think again about the line but also about content, what I could take on. Alice Notley was important, too.

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What about your experiences at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa?

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Well, as people say, it’s fairly conservative, and pretty much all you do is workshop there, which can get boring after a while, but the time you have there to write is amazing. I liked working with Donald Revell, he helped me a lot, and I had interesting classes with Brenda Hillman and Heather McHugh. The students were smart and some of my peers were terrific readers and writers, and obsessed with poetry, so we just hung out in the bars and talked.

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That is where you learned the most, you felt?

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I think so. I had a sense of community, a community of writers.

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So even though it was highly regarded, you felt that your earlier writing was...

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Fraudulent.

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Like a performance?

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Well, there’s always artifice. But it started feeling like a really dishonest form of artifice. And I felt there had to be some way not to talk like this, to direct everything toward this golden epiphanic moment.

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And how would you describe your current writing?

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It’s always hard to talk about current writing because, you know, nothing has really congealed. It’s a lot easier to talk about what’s happened already. But one thing that I’ve been trying to do for a little while is to make a didactic poem, thinking about Horace. I think this is something that a lot of people are doing though perhaps not describing it this way and maybe not thinking about Horace. The British poets who were just here in Oxford [Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, Peter Manson] are thinking about it. It’s the issue of content – how content can re-inscribe itself in a contemporary experimental poetics. For the last really important avant-garde movement in this country, the language poets, content wasn’t their focus, but to me it seems like a necessary project for us right now, considering the state of the world. Things need to be said. I want to figure out how to say them.

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Poets need to be willing to comment more directly on politics?

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Yeah, perhaps directly commenting or in some way invoking it, or understanding that there are power relations at stake in any interaction. That is the way I think about poetry being political; it is aware of power structures and power relations, and attends accordingly. That attention can happen in any number of ways; I think the form of that attention is what’s changing right now; it’s certainly not that poets of recent generations haven’t been thinking about this…

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Rather than direct statement, or a kind of moralizing?

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Well, maybe directly, too. I like the word “didactic” because it is troubling. It refers to teaching, and there’s the problem of whether the poet should be a teacher, an authority over the readers. So, what I would like to do would be to rethink didactic poetry so that it would be an effort to teach, but would frame teaching in a different way that wasn’t necessarily part of an authoritarian power relationship. I don’t want the content of the teaching to be a foregone conclusion. I want the poem to remain a place of discovery, even in its didacticism.

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So a teaching poem, but a different kind of teaching.

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Yes, I would say so. Different eras argue for different understandings of freedom. You used to hear these phrases – not from the language poets themselves, necessarily, but from people reading them, imitating them – things like “this language forces the reader to play a more active role,” which is meant in a positive way, but I find it disturbing. Why don’t we assume the reader will do what the reader wants to do? Readers play active roles regardless of what I write. They can be invited to interact more or less, but it’s up to them ultimately. So why not risk teaching, and letting that teaching be rejected and transformed? I should add that I don’t think I can “teach” without making fun of myself. It’s not like it’s all going to be totally serious.

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You have grown up in Burma, Baltimore, Idaho, and Ohio, among other places. How have your experiences in these various environments affected your writing?

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I hit Idaho and Ohio after I became a grown-up, if there is any such thing as a grown-up. In Burma I was a baby. Then my family lived in the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, and India. I think about these places all the time, especially Yemen, which sort of seared itself into me. It was beautiful – huge desert, green terraces wrapping the mountains. And all the women blackveiled and all the men carrying guns and wearing jeweled daggers. Really good bread for PBJs. Mudwalled houses. I kept goats. But I don’t so far write about these places, and I am absolutely not sure how the experience comes into my writing. If I could get hold of the “control group” of my personal experiment I would ask her whether the experience is coming into her writing. I don’t retain the bits of language I learned while in these paces. If I had absorbed the common ways of speaking and read the literature I might be able to isolate some influences in my writing.

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What’s your favorite word at this moment?

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I’ve always liked “poop” and “poo-poo.” I would say those are my favorite words. My four-year old son Ambrose says them all the time. They are important words.

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What led you from writing to teaching writing?

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I didn’t plan it particularly. I got into grad school and they gave me a teaching fellowship, so I taught. I had just come from getting my undergraduate degree and it was kind of ridiculous. I didn’t have any training but I had to teach a creative writing workshop, so I taught it exactly how my teacher in college had, which meant no one prepared much ahead of time, students brought poems to workshops, and we had no homework; students turned in poems when they felt like it. (Which actually I still think is fine, though I give lots of assignments now to encourage writing.) And after class we went to the bar together, until I realized that wasn’t a good idea. I was twenty-two and my students were mostly 19 and 20. It just wasn’t a good move to go drink at the bar with them when I was their teacher and almost exactly their age. It got too flirty. So I started to think that I could interact with them better by bringing them in more work to read, getting them turned on to poetry by working through the language hard, doing experiments together in class. It took awhile to develop any sort of pedagogy; I’m still trying to figure it out. I got led into more grad school, which kept me off the streets, gave me time to read. Once I got my PhD I taught adjunct for a long time where my ex-husband had a job, and I loved it, despite the crap pay. I still do. I particularly like teaching literature. But “workshop” classes are wonderful because you can do whatever you want with them; it’s a new form.

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At the college level I feel that a lot of the professors believe that adjuncts should teach all the 100-level classes because they are “below” senior professors.

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Right, it’s like grunt work. Though it’s useful and important work. I think one thing about having younger people do it is that it is a grind and it wears you out after a while. That might be one reason to keep enthusiastic grad students doing it. I for one hated teaching comp, just because it’s hard to look at all those faces that don’t give a shit.

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Would you say that apathy is the greatest challenge to teaching creative writing, then?

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There are always those faces but not as many in creative writing as in other classes. The greatest challenge for me, in any class, is when students do not manifest any change over the semester, when they just show they haven’t had any insights or been sparked to any sort of change. New students come in semester after semester doing similar things, and it can be frustrating when they don’t branch out. How I respond to it depends on my energy. Sometimes there’s a new book that I just read or a way I’m thinking about writing that’s helping me approach students in a new way, or a student will amaze me.

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So you’re really open to new experiences and seeing things in a new way through your teaching writing workshops? I don’t want to say “feed off” because it makes you sound like some kind of leech...

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No, but it does yield energy. If a class goes badly I feel completely sucked dry but if it goes really well, I mean, I feel absolutely fantastic. It’s a great feeling, like writing a poem or something, but this year hasn’t been a good year for teaching. I haven’t had enough energy and time to do a good job.

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Why not?

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Well, really straightforward reasons, actually. I just moved here, so I didn’t have enough time to prepare for classes, plus I have a four-year-old son who demands a lot of attention. So, I don’t have my weekends or nights or mornings to do any work. And I travel far too much to readings. I also had a big project, the Not Just for Mothers anthology, which I just finished. It was wonderful co-editing it but it is almost like a full-time job by itself.

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What was the goal of your anthology?

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It’s an anthology of poems on motherhood. Rebecca Wolff, who runs Fence Books and published both of my books, suggested we do this anthology. Part of it is that we are both on a listserv for poet mothers and there are a lot of good younger writers on the list, and people were talking about how they felt isolated writing poems on motherhood. We had a good, strong experience being on the listserv, and we were reading fantastic poems on motherhood by older writers, they were keeping me alive, Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, and we realized there was a gap we could fill – there was no go-to place to start investigating contemporary poems on motherhood. There are other anthologies on motherhood, but their spin is completely different. They’re all subtitled “Celebrating Mothers and Daughters” or something like that. I wanted to divorce our anthology from that. I find the whole cult of motherhood really, really disturbing.

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Yes, it can get pretty creepy.

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It’s really creepy when you think about things like Mother’s Day. The cult of motherhood has an agenda: it’s all about boxing mothers in, making a virtue of self-sacrifice.

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So did you want your anthology to document the changes of motherhood, the good, bad, and neutral?

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If I was directing the subject matter at all, I was looking for poems that challenged the typical subject matter of motherhood poems, the clichés of the mother cult. The other thing I wanted to do was pay a debt to the poet mothers who wrote poems in the generation before me, because before that, there really was very little work from poet mothers, for reasons that are strictly to do with economics, money and time; but also because there was a taboo on the subject, which was seen as domestic and uninteresting, irrelevant, not to do with important issues. I’m afraid to say there are people out there who’ve said things to me that make me realize people still think this way. So, even more reason to put out the anthology. Anyway, I mentioned Notley, Mayer, lots of others like Fanny Howe, Anne Waldman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Alicia Ostriker’s really surprising early work on motherhood that’s now out of print, these people who wrote fantastic poems on motherhood when not much else had been done in that area. They laid the groundwork for my generation, so I wanted to publish a significant amount of their work to make it clear that poetry on motherhood had to do with poetry and poetic influences and poetic forebears, rather than just a response to the situation at hand.

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So how has your poetry changed since you became a mother? Has it affected your poetry?

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This is something I thought about a lot because of putting together the anthology. There is no way to put your finger on exactly how people’s work changes when they have kids, but there are some constants. By necessity your process changes, because you have less time. Because I was used to writing by myself and was never by myself any more, I came up with a new process – I made a rule I would write a series of poems only with other people in the room – the other person was usually my son of course. All these poems had the title “Everyone in the room is representative of the world at large,” and a lot of those poems have Ambrose’s activity and his voice in them. Bonfire Press is putting these out as a chapbook. A lot of the poems in my second book, Macular Hole, were written right after my son was born and they are so enraged. I still can’t quite believe so many people still have babies and raise children. The first year, it just fucking killed me. The nuclear family, which is a result of capitalism, people moving all the time for jobs – it makes for a lonely animal life for a lot of mothers. I developed access to this place of intense rage that became harder and harder to deal with because there was nowhere to direct it – I couldn’t blame myself or my ex, and certainly not my son. There was nobody to be angry at. Meanwhile, such joy in my son, and determination to take excellent care of him; very confusing.

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What about your process in general? How do you write poems?

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Yes, the process question. I have self-conscious process projects which come out of what I am doing at the time. Like the “Everyone in the room is representative of the world at large” series that I mentioned earlier. Or I will take on some sort of series. I’ll write a bunch of letters to magazines – that was a Spicer project – or use some number game; there’s an example of those in my chapbook Boxes, which Guy Bennett’s Seeing Eye put out. Then there are poems where I try to just see what happens. Those are the ones that I like the best, not the result, necessarily, but just the possibility of sitting with a notebook and without a plan. Even then projects come into play. Something I often do is write poems in song or in meter of some sort, that will sometimes just happen by itself. If a tune has been in my head, I just have to exorcise it by writing words to it. I enjoy that too. There is no one method. These are first-draft methods; revision is different.

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What would you like to see a book about?

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I would like to write or see written some thrillers that are pushing the genre and playing around with language. I have a plan for a political thriller like that.

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Sort of taking a popular genre and trying to play with it in a poetic sort of way?

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Yeah, sort of poetry thriller, only it would be mostly prose. Bring back the romance. I don’t mean Harlequin romance novels, I mean the romance genre popular in the middle ages/early modern period. Sidney’s Arcadia is my favorite. The kind of romance that involves a lot of moving around the world and encountering people and big fights – but also lots and lots of discussion, political discussion and lots of sex and lots of poems. A book that sees the world and makes observations. I think it would be a great genre to bring back in this globalized economy.

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How do you feel about the writing culture in America?

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It’s very lively – tons of presses, tons of chapbooks, tons of reading series, an increasing focus on performance and digital work, lots of great, diverse stuff. Lots of “samey,” trendy stuff, but that’s no different than any other era. I do think American poets, like most Americans, could stand to have a lot more interaction with other cultures. We are too inward-looking. There are some poets out there doing translations and trying to get other influences into this culture. It’s uphill work. I think one thing that’s going on with the young British poets who were just here [visiting Oxford] is that they are more educated compared to young poets here in America, who aren’t nearly as well read. And of course being well-read helps with writing poetry. Reading older poetry, European poetry, Latin-American poetry. No one speaks foreign languages, and there’s a feeling that it’s just fine not to do so.

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Do you want to talk about one poem in particular? I have “My what to replace my,” from Macular Hole. I was interested by its politics. Particularly, the phrase “In the name of God and country / give up your name / In God and country / given up and given.” This struck me as a very powerful political statement. What do you feel are the benefits or risks of that sort of political statement?

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I don’t really separate out the political from the rest of the poem. If it comes up it comes up. If I am not sort of pushing at something that is risky or that’s making me uncomfortable, at least a little, then it’s not right. I need to be taking a risk, otherwise why should I write?

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Otherwise, you might as well be writing the personal narratives you started off writing.

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Exactly. In “My what to replace my” I was thinking a lot about economics, and the body, and the birthing of my child. I wanted to see if there is a way the birth of Ambrose could somehow evade economic exchange, and I don’t think there is. It just saturates us. But, anyway, I noticed that I used the word “my” a lot in my poems, and I was wondering what it would mean not to have “my,” or a concept of ownership in the poem. Then I would be like ballast, I would be gone. And there’s the question of “whose,” and where you would be without a “my,” and this thought led to the line “In the name of God and country / give up your name.” The response “In God and country / given up and given” can be read as just an announcement of giving it up, giving up your name. The question then is, where does it go, what is it given to, can you get rid of it entirely? If you read the lines another way they announce that you can’t give up anything, except in the place that you are, in your religion, in your country. You will always be in this language and economic structure, where there is an I and a you and my. This is why, at the end of the poem, it comes back around with “greedy as a punch to make it go like mine.” It comes back to it, not escaping it at all.

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Yes, and of course with all these issues of body image and economics, it does make sense that politics would arise naturally, as you said. Do you have any projects you are currently working on, writing, revising, interested in?

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Lots of projects, but mainly I hope to keep things open and see what happens. It’s summer break and I’ve never had one before (not since age 16). I might explode. I’m starting a few editing projects, one on writing communities for The Paper, another curating British poets for La Petite Zine, and I’m apparently helping to curate an issue of Chicago Review on Barbara Guest but I’m not yet sure what I’m meant to be doing. Mostly I hope to write. The plans to write a romance are on hold for the moment because it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything and I need to figure out what the hell’s going on when I put the pen on the paper. I’m also trying to write a song that is also an interactive visual piece. It’s a fiddly project that will take a while. My son’s away for the month with his dad starting on Saturday and I’ll miss him terribly and also it will be glorious; I’ll string up the hammock and lie in it a lot.

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We are almost out of time, so I can only ask you one more question: Has your favorite word changed throughout the time we have spoken?

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No, I don’t think so. Still “poop.”

 
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