An Interview with Catherine Wagner
Catherine Wagner’s published collections include Miss America and Macular Hole (Fence Books). She has also recently edited two anthologies that are forthcoming from Fence Books -- a collection of poetry based on motherhood and one entitled A Poetry and Politics Primer. Her latest chapbook, Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large, is forthcoming from Bonfire Press. She currently teaches in the English department at the University of Miami, Ohio.
You’re constantly bullying your own grammar, and I can’t figure out if it’s your way of saying “you’re right about me, world, I can’t even speak right -- I’m not for you anyway,” or if you’ve set yourself to the broader task of finding a grammar that’s more suitable to what we hear when we lean way in to our own heads. Do you ever think of your writing in those terms?
The latter is maybe more what I think, but I also think it’s not just about “way into our heads” -- thinking is interrupted all the time, no one has a complete thought or makes sure the sentence is complete in thought, or even in speaking most of the time. Part of that is because we live in time, everything is always interrupted, and part of it is that language has a drift to it; it offtracks along sound and punning and sparked memory. In poems we can follow those tracks and maybe get somewhere, find out or feel something. I don’t see much point in sticking to standard grammar; what do I gain? a complete sentence? Who decided what that was anyway? I don’t object to subject-object-predicate, I use sentences mostly, but I do want to see where the language is getting pulled when I can feel some magnet or other tugging on it.
There are times when I feel acutely uncomfortable reading your work. Resentment, self-doubt, the mental prisons we build around us, it all comes crawling out of an extremely fragile and corporeal meshwork in your poems. You’re sick like we’re all sick, but because you’re able to bring that sickness so openly into your work, it becomes irreproachable -- something to assimilate, to make beautiful or worthy. Can you talk a little about the extremes of feeling in your work, with lines like: “If any of you die I don’t know / I’ll kill you bunch of / Pretend you left me for dead / Then I am good enough and loved you enough / Please shut up now”?
I found when I went crawling after the things I shrunk away from saying, that led me somewhere where I discovered something, so I started to try to go to where I felt uncomfortable. Not sure I think it’s irreproachable or worthy to present the sickness, if it’s sickness.
That poem was written while I was staying in the house of a poet whose son had died when he was just cusping adulthood -- had died not long before. I did not know the son, and didn’t know the poet or his wife, the mother of the boy, well at all. Had just met them. I couldn’t sleep and thought I could feel the presence of the boy, and thought I had no right to have this feeling, and felt annoyed with myself for just slightly enjoying it. I could sense myself congratulating myself on having this paranormal experience, and I was disgusted when I thought about the ratio of my stupid little ghost story to the rage and grief that the parents upstairs had had to suffer. There is an attempt I sometimes catch in my writing to build up the representation of the self, to self-present in a self-congratulatory way. Always when one talks about one’s own perceptions there is this risk of adoring one’s own perceptions, which is embarrassing (I’m thinking of the self-loving tone in the voice some people get when they talk to Teri Gross on “Fresh Air”) but that is not the main problem with it; that adoration has to have a thumb pushing it down hard; it is not to be borne; and it also won’t go away, it keeps rising up. It drives me crazy, so that I feel as if I’m always rounding on what I’ve just said and saying Bullshit. It’s like a tiger (though that’s too heroic and glamorous an image) that’s trying to go somewhere, but has to turn back all the time and growl to scare back the annoying other creature that’s following it. I wish I could go somewhere but I think a lot of the time I’m just roaring at the annoying creature and that ends up being what the writing is about.
You’re also incredibly adept at writing the female body, in all its bold peculiarities and punishments. You write: “this my swan is it / eyes at one end cunt at the other / a swaying hurting wonder between.” There’s certainly nothing redemptive or soothing about your style, and it becomes even more markedly unforgiving as you seem to get closer to yourself as a subject. Do you feel that your writing exposes you or, instead, that you’re creating something to be exposed as you write?
Well, I dislike the idea of redemption; I think the Christ-myth would be beautiful if God had died but not “for our sins” -- it is amazing to think God could die as a human body and feel human pain, that’s a miracle, but when it turns out to have been a plea-bargain it cheapens the miracle. Everything doesn’t have to be for something, in exchange for something else; I would like to do something that exactly isn’t that.
I do think I’m trying to expose something; I don’t know whether it’s me exactly. It’s me, but what’s that. The exposing is more about peeling back or picking at the skin grown over than it is about what’s underneath; I wish I knew what was underneath.
I can’t seem to get away from these spatial models for talking about writing. Do you think there is another way to talk about it?
Reminds me of something I read recently: Oppenheimer once tried to explain the innerworkings of the atom to a group of humanities professors by drawing little stick figures of electrons, protons and neutrons chasing after each other on the blackboard. After awhile, he gave up, frustrated, saying that all he’d done is convince them for all time that the atom contains countless harried little stick figures. Anyways, I guess no one’s immune to wanting to be understood.
Could you talk a little bit about how marriage (okay, the bits about aging, waning passion, etc.) finds its way into your work? I’m thinking especially of two lines from poems in Miss America: "Die and I know what to do comfort / Live and I fucking don't know / New in my house / Put me in jail" and "I will get cold. Demur, with fur. / Get cellulite, and pubes. Morose, / in there, the veinfugue, limited."
Funny, the circumstances of those two poems were similar in that I was in my house awaiting the arrival of my ex. I adored him but I loved being alone and writing and resented his impending presence and I couldn’t wait for him to come back so that I wouldn’t have so much room to decide what to do. Those poems were written before I got married; there are some poems about my ex-hub written after I was married, like “An Hendy Hap” in Macular Hole. I used to write about my ex all the time. It drove him a little nuts, I think, because I used to write about his hairiness, etc., very personal things. I thought it was affectionate. I didn’t quite know what to think about the aggression toward him the poems manifested. “An Hendy Hap” made me so uncomfortable I decided so that my brain wouldn’t split apart that it wasn’t really about him, that it was about some archetype of maleness; I think it’s about that too. I don’t know what to say about marriage, exactly; this particular marriage didn’t work out for my ex and me, though we got a fantastic son out of it.
After we split I realized my poems knew more than I did about our relationship. I keep on finding out that my poems know more than I do, very specifically; there’s some kind of wall up that keeps me from finding out what I obviously already know until I’m ready; I am trying to learn how to take them more seriously as information about the present. But that might mean I’d be interpreting them using information I don’t yet have. I think there’s a danger here -- I might start treating the poems as if they were some kind of mystical message, and I don’t by any means think the poems are always right, or that they have some kind of special access to truth. They have special access to something though. They are a less limited way of thinking. I do think they are a fine research method. Also that their claims are as disputable as any other kind of claim.
The last line of your White Man Poems series is “Must write poems to fill the huge demand for them.” This comes after a soliloquy on the unreceptiveness of your lover, so it comes off as a very off-key and self-protective statement. Is writing ever a staving off of larger emotional boundaries? Where does the desire to write come from for you?
That line is a joke about there not being a huge demand for poems, poking fun at myself for making such a big deal out of making time to write and asking my boyfriend to tell people I’m not available, because it means I should think that my writing is worth something. Which always feels pretend to me, or at least the public manifestation of the claim of worth feels nonsensical; the regular world is this place where time and space have specific values, exchange values, and it is very hard to justify writing in those terms. So writing time ends up being a fuck-you to those terms.
In my private head there is something about writing being a secret communication among my personalities and nonpersonalities and the world, hey let’s go down here and see what happens, and that is the most important thing in the world, I know I learn things there and can find out important things there. Yet that place does not have a space in the world. There are sort of photocopies of it that are my poems, or the poems are something else, they aren’t exactly the same thing as the space, they’re fine, they do what they do, and I get to go to that place because I’m trying to write. That’s another damn spatial model. I’m sure the spatial model is restricting my thinking somehow.
In Macular Hole, many of the poems center around the loss of personhood that comes with giving birth and raising a child. In “My what to replace my,” it’s a political and economic sacrifice, as your body literally becomes a shared space and “you” disappear in the process of perpetuating the larger concepts of “family” and“exchange.” But this leaves space for some crazy reversions/relapses of a linguistic kind, like a mother, child, guardian, and demon are all trying to speak at once through one mouth. How has motherhood confirmed (or disappointed) your experiments with language?
Well that is a huge question; I don’t think I can answer it very well yet. My son is four and I’m only now returning to writing as much as I did before he was born. I did write some poems when he was tiny, some of the work in Macular Hole, but otherwise writing has been difficult; I have not been alone enough for language to start moving around in my head. But I am realizing now that it was okay to take a break for awhile; I wish I hadn’t freaked out about not writing, there have been other things to figure out.
That’s the practical level. As for specific experiments, they have had to do with the situation at hand; they usually do. For example, I have a chapbook coming out soon with Bonfire Press, new press run by Sasha Steensen and Gordon Hadfield in Colorado, called Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large. Each of the poems has that title. The idea was that I had to write the poems with other people in the room (usually that was my son). I was surprised to find that in the presence of another person I could not help thinking about the invisible energies strung between us, power inequalities, desire, all sorts of things, and the poems tended to be more directly social and political than my other poems as a result.
I’ve just edited an anthology of poems on motherhood with Rebecca Wolff, and people often ask me what they all have in common -- what happens to people’s poems after they have children. I don’t think there is an answer. What happens to people’s poems when they grow up? or fall in love? or get old? there’s certainly a cause and effect, and occasionally or often the effects resemble one another, but people are too different from one another for those effects to be tabulable.
I’ve seen you read a couple times, and have had the pleasure of hearing you sing from certain sections of Macular Hole. Most unbelievably, a really light and charming verse that goes: “Here comes baby / Screaming down vagina / Brain tissue coning / Making of himself a painful / Squeeze-toy.” So do you write songs or do you sing poems? Because, really, this has summer jamz hit written all over it.
I love writing songs, I wish it happened more. I get a tune in my head and I make up words to it. I didn’t sing the songs at readings for a long time and now I do; Lee Ann Brown, who sings poems, gave me courage to do it; she asked me after a reading why I hadn’t sung the poem “This Land Is Your Land” and I didn’t know, so I started singing it. I often find a rhythm when I am writing and then write to that rhythm; that’s the same process, except that there isn’t a tune. It’s like finding a hall or hole to go down; then the shape of the space I’m going down informs what I write down and I am a little bit released because the tunnel or whatever it is, ribcage, does the guiding for awhile. It’s another way of temporarily shutting down the editor while drafting.