Interview with Catherine Wagner
Acclaimed poet and critic, Cathy Wagner, gave a poetry reading at CSU center for the arts on October 25, 2012, as part of a promotional tour for her book, Nervous Device, published by City Lights Books. Wagner is the author of numerous chapbooks in addition to three full-length books published with Fence Press. She is currently an associate professor of English at Miami University, Ohio. Wagner was kind enough to take part in an interview for this blog. She talks about her poetics and her newest book, Nervous Device.
In the Notes and Acknowledgements of your book you mention that the working title was “The Bounding Line,” in reference to a catalog essay written by William Blake. Ultimately you changed the title to “Nervous Device.” I’m curious what this change resulted from, given your interest in porous barriers (skin/ the bounding line/ language) and the intense self-awareness that “Nervous Device” suggests. Do you see Blake’s bounding line as being part of a separate body?
Really glad you asked this question. Blake got obsessed with what he called the “bounding line,” the outline around a figure in a picture, because without it (he thought) thinking was not possible. He thought: how can you represent ideals and contraries without carefully locating and representing their edges. For his teacher Henry Fuseli masculinity was associated with the firm sharp bounding line, while shapes rendered with color and shadow were more nebulous, and that was associated (negatively) with the feminine. I was attracted to Blake’s phrase “bounding line,” because of the way the line could be seen to move around as well as form a boundary – it could be a poetic line when you think about it that way – a line that goes somewhere and changes, and how do you think while the bounding line that articulates your thought is not a clean line, how do you think when it is nebulous and moving.
Around then I was doing a lot of readings and thinking about the poem and my performing body and the poem as these things that separated me from the audience and also connected us, and moved and changed, so I thought about the poem as bounding line. A poem has a firm sharp boundary in that there’s a usually a temporal beginning and end to a poem or a visual border to it on a page, but it’s also completely shadowy and nebulous the way a poem ends up playing out: it goes into other people’s bodies. Where are its edges. The “Bounding Line” poem that is in the Acknowledgements tries to play around with drawing attention to the nebulousness of the boundary of the poem, and though I didn’t think about it when I was writing the poem, I think the pronoun play in the poem is a reaction to Fuseli’s sexistly binary categories too.
But why did I change the title. I just ended up thinking “The Bounding Line” was a boring title for the book, it didn’t bounce the way I wanted it to, and it didn’t refer to bodies as a title the way it did in my head – the person looking at the book would have no access to that connection. I heard body and communication in “nervous device,” and things that have to do with phones, like screens and something buzzing in your pocket.
In a recent interview with Art Animal you say, “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.” Is the poetic lens an “object” in your poems? Would you describe these poems as being confessional, or an observation of a confessional/lyric poet engaging with life through a poetic lens?
“Confessional” is such a charged term; it’s usually used negatively, right? I’m nervous of it. But Barbara Guest said she thought all her work was confessional and I think she said that all poetry was. And her work is not particularly “personal” not anecdotally autobiographical. I think about one of the least “personal” poets I know of, the British poet Alan Halsey, whose work centers on wordplay and could not be less autobiographical; but Halsey’s work is a terrific representation of the way he lives, which is through books, he’s engaging all the time with his reading, tweaking it and twirling around off of it. In that way his work is utterly intimate.
Alan has a line “text used to say it’s not/ for me to document itself” — it’s text that is on his mind all the time; and for better or worse my neuroses and social life and body are on my mind all the time, all mixed up with what I’m reading, etc. Alice Notley says somewhere when asked about the mystical elements in her work, “I have mystical experience, am I supposed to pretend I don’t?”
I don’t want to use that Notley quote to get behind some position like “you write what you are given to write,” because I want to stretch away from my tendencies. But I have tendencies, I write to get away from them partly, or to situate them or exteriorize them so I can look at them and maybe critique them, but there they are, I meet up with them going round the corner even as I try to get away. And why would I try to get away by ignoring them? Better to (uselessly try to) get away by being aware of them and playing with them. Dodie Bellamy says in Barf Manifesto “To deny one’s lens is corrupt. Immoral even.” Now how you manifest the “lens,” your subjectivity, that’s a question; I don’t think you necessarily need to do it anecdotally, as Dodie does it, or any way at all that’s prescribed by anybody.
There’s an intensely musical quality to your work. Do you see the reader engaging with your poems like sheet music, the notes and timing being established on the page and the reader acting as a musician?
Do you mean do I think of the poems as scores for performance? I suppose I do to a degree — I read my line breaks and I want the reader to hear rhythms I hear — but I also think of the poem performed and the poem on the page as separate beasts. Because I sing a lot of my poems, there’s a register to the performance that’s not going to be available to the reader, though I try to indicate that some poems are songs. I don’t think something’s missing from the page, though. I want the page to work and the performance to work, separately. I like the way Bob Cobbing, the English performance/sound poet, thought of the making of the poem as performance, the page as performance, the out-loud poem as performance, none of these with priority over the other, none of these the “real” poem.
Recently I have been trying to record some songs and readings and play with them a little. When I was in Oakland recently David Buuck started playing piano riffs around a song I always had sung a capella and that veered the songs off in new directions, exciting for me; I thought about his being a New Narrative writer and how New Narrative strategy is always to embed anything in context and community. When you sing something (or perform or read aloud or silently) it’s an event in a particular context with bodies, and his playing reminded me about that embeddedness. There’s a recording of “Fools in the Frith” (my melody but not my poem, it’s a medieval poem) where my friend Laurie Traveline Nyer, a musician in Ohio, ran several versions of my singing that song over one another, it’s cacophonous, came out really cool and emphasized the multiplicity and crowding I was going for in the way I sang parts of the poem. So there’s collaboration too (not to fetishize collaboration, collaboration is always going on no matter what I think I’m doing). All of them the “real” poems (if any of them are) is a better way of putting it.