Catherine Wagner’s third collection My New Job (Fence Books, 2009) is a highly structured work of experimental poetry in which we follow Wagner through both physical and poetic exercises. In the first section, “Exercises,” she writes a poem for each session of physical therapy she endures after a collarbone accident. The second section, “A Hole in the Ground,” evokes Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein as Wagner questions sexuality and politics with precision. The third section, “Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large,” is a series that “was written with at least one person present in the room.” Throughout My New Job you can hear the wheels turning in Wagner’s head as she tries to keep her writing going amidst career and motherhood by experimenting with different structures to incorporate her work into her daily life. She meets this challenge with imagination, inspiring fellow readers and writers to search for ways stay creative amidst the doldrums of everyday life.
Catherine Wagner’s other books include Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001; both Fence). A selection from her new project, an epic romance, appeared in the fall issue of Verse; recent chapbooks include Articulate How (Big Game Books/Dusie, 2008), Hole in the Ground (Slack Buddha, 2008) and Bornt (Dusie, 2009). She is associate professor in the MA program in Creative Writing at Miami University in southwest Ohio, where she lives car-free with her six-year-old son Ambrose.
Susie DeFord: The first section of My New Job is called “Exercises” and is explained in your notes section as “was written between sets of physical therapy exercises, one line per set.” What were you in physical therapy for? Will you tell us about how you came up with this format and how you feel the therapy and writing played off each other?
Catherine Wagner: I broke my collarbone in 1993 and it took a year to heal. I got way out of alignment and ended up with neck and shoulder and sacroiliac pain. Physical therapy eventually improved my posture and strength and helped with the pain. I started writing a line between sets of exercises to keep from being bored. Poems always have to fit themselves somehow to the structure of one’s life; I ended up being interested, for that series and later series, in what happens when the writing engages those structures on purpose. I love Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets and Bernadette Mayer’s work for the way they thematize life via form: the poem might or might not try to represent experience, but it acknowledges that it’s bound up with life. If I’m doing some dutiful striving, following rules, trying to avoid pain, what does that do to the poem? If I am on the floor at 7am and 11pm year-round, sweating and staring at the ceiling, what kind of poem will happen?
SD: In the second section “Hole in the Ground” a lot of your poems really play with the musicality of language but also the meaning of words. You play with a lot of sexual somewhat taboo words like in the poem “Song.” Can you speak about what draws you to challenging these words?
CW: Some people find the word “fucking”—or the whole topic of the sexual body—more abrasive than I do and I suppose they won’t be able to read the poems in that section.
I wrote that series with a definite aim, to use poetry to try to figure out something about fucking, which was and still is a mysterious topic for me. I meant exactly fucking, not only sex. The sexual connoted by fucking but also the other meaning, as in, we’re fucked. Sexual fucking is both separate and not separate from other kinds of fucking in its strangeness. How come we fuck each other up. Is pleasure involved?
I love some didactic poetry, Horace’s for example, and a lot of poetry that is clear about its intentions. Dryden’s, Martial’s. I suckled on indeterminacy, cross-genre, “margins”; I’m supposed to hate it when poetry is didactic. Anyway I wondered whether I could write didactic poetry about the situation of fucking. I figure readers are ready to push back as hard as I push on them; if I put a big sign up that says “Go this way” they can go the other way. They don’t need to be encouraged, by form or anything else, to do so, and I don’t like to insult them by trying to set them free. Anyway, the idea was to try to say something, rightly or wrongly, to the reader, and to figure out what that was in the course of writing the poem. So the poem would be didactic and I wouldn’t. (I have no idea what I, outside the poem, would have said about fucking. I do take responsibility for what the poems say.)
Poetry was the only way I could think of to be accurate to fucking. Poetry is texturous, and its iterative qualities collapse and stretch time and make shapes in time. The textures of poetry and the figures it moves through were, I thought, a good way to try to think about sex. Thinking of sex without using a heavily sensory thought-device doesn’t make sense.
To be didactic about fucking in poetry meant that the qualities of the poetic created temporary opacities, sonic or figurative, that led me aside and let me say something that I didn’t already know about fucking (pretty easy because I don’t know very much about fucking). I could work inside the texture of the poem and it would tell me about fucking because poems are already sexual.
The poems as often with my poems made me think: what an asshole (I am). Homelessness, homeless people, were in the poems; they were sexualized and I couldn’t figure out why. Did I have some kind of fucked-up thing for them? Some people do, explicitly; there are web sites. Also of course there are lots of people fucking the homeless people who, for many reasons, are selling their bodies for cheap. We require homeless people, we need to fuck them. Figuratively and literally. They are part of a system that defines itself against and through them.
Fucking is soaked in class and I got worried about trying to address it by myself. I sent out an anonymous survey asking for about people’s thoughts about homelessness and fucking. Meantime I was reading about issues associated with homelessness. Then I got in touch with a shelter and interviewed some women there (I wasn’t allowed to interview the men at the shelter). I tried to put the interviews and survey results in the “Hole in the Ground” section but it didn’t work. The language didn’t sound right next to the poems; also, I was nervous about the ethics of trying to turn these people’s language into poems (though I was open with them about what I planned to do with the language). The very fact of my interviewing the women felt a little bit grotesque, like putting my hand in their glove; they were there to warm me, because I did the interviews in part to make me feel less guilty about my fucked-up poems. But the women, I think they could see what was going on, were amazingly kind and forthcoming. In the interviews, I found out that the power structures around gender and sexual relations that exist at any economic level are horribly twisted and exacerbated for these women. I would like to figure out a way to publish the material in a way that is respectful to the women I interviewed. This book wasn’t the place.
SD: The section “Everyone in the room is a representative of the world at large” is a series that “was written with at least one person present in the room.” Why do you think this structure was important to your writing? Did you find having another presence in the room influenced what you wrote?
CW: When I had a baby and found myself spending a lot of time alone at home with him, I felt the social universe moving away from me. I could sort of hear it move—it was changing its tone, Doppler-effect-style—and I knew I wasn’t part of it in the way I had been. I didn’t have time to do the reading I had done formerly. I didn’t have time to read the news. Writing wasn’t happening either. I was used to writing while alone, but now I was never alone. My son barely napped. He needed to be held and breastfed constantly. Like some other writer mothers I know, I realized that if I wanted to write I had to break the habit of writing alone. I started writing with my son in the room, often while holding him, and also wrote with other people there. I tried to write at times I hadn’t thought of as writing time. (Laynie Browne’s work—see especially Daily Sonnets—inhabits a similar practice with wonderful results. Also of course Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown, Hoa Nguyen.) The sentence “Everyone in the room is a representative of the world at large” came into my head and I decided to write it at the top of each page I wrote with others in the room. I knew that many other people had been in the same radically lonely-though-accompanied situation, and I wondered about how my tiny social situation was related to other social situations, small ones and larger ones. At some point I started to think that this writing process made the lines of energy between people, the inequalities, louder in these poems than they had been in my other poems (I was noticing the colonialist tendencies I have as a parent). The poems seemed to be drawing attention to power relationships and to my own efforts to exert power.
So yes, I am pretty sure anything that’s the case about the place you write will influence what you write.
SD: You quote Phantase Almarelm—“My chicken lisp turns you on, bright howard.” In my research I was unable to find a reference to this. Who is this and why is this quote significant to you?
CW: It’s obscure and personal. Rebecca Wolff, my editor, thought I should keep it in the book, so blame her too. Phantase Almarelm is an anagram for Stéphane Mallarmé. Mallarmé never said anything about my chicken lisp, or his. Phantase Almarelm, his ghost soul-realm, did. That quote is the epigraph to a long poem, “Roaring Spring,” which misquotes Mallarmé on the first page. Mallarmé said poetry existed “to purify the meaning of the words of the tribe” (that’s one translation) which hints at an urge-to-cleansing that’s a disturbing aspect of some versions of modernism. I changed it to “impurify the meanings of the words of the tribe.” I’m thinking of the “tribe” as the group that shares language with me. Not one coherent language, or one genetic group, but a messy complex of innumerable transactions.
The poem talks about “art and objecthood”—what’s aesthetic. “O taste and style.” I love Mallarmé’s aestheticism but I want an aestheticizing that’s not proposed as a filtration system. I also love the nonrational, but I am suspicious when the nonrational is invoked, idealistically, as asemic, a momentary escape from the game of signification or a representation of the escape-attempt. I ended up in this poem thinking of the poem-as-thing as an artificed version of the boundary between me and you. Which is not crossable. In art, when you cross that boundary, you just make a new boundary, because the gesture gets reuptaken instantly into the realm of the aesthetic. In life, well, we can try. The poem is maybe where we are together not understanding one another entirely and understanding that we don’t—a visible boundary/meeting place.
The “chicken lisp” = nervous about speaking/writing to a reader or a lover. I’m a dead ghost chicken, and it’s horrible to be turned on by a talking chicken, especially a dead chicken with a speech difficulty. It can’t happen. I hope it will. That’s my back-formation reading of the line. “Bright howard”: the reader or lover, analogous in the poem. I’m too-hopefully imagining her/him as bright-eyed, froward, resistant, hopeful, curious, interested in the how as well as the what of the transaction—turned on. The poem then gets turned on too.
Jack Spicer liked to riff on the radio in Cocteau’s movie Orphée, saying that “the poet is a counterpunching radio,” but that’s not right (even though it’s accurate in that we don’t know where the transmission might originate) because it doesn’t consider the reader’s role in the energy transfer. For Spicer the radio is the poet (i.e., receiver of transmissions from the Outside), and the reader, if she or he ever comes along, listens to the poet-radio. But actually the poet is nowhere near when the radio plays. The transmission takes place in the absence of the poet. The counterpunching radio is the poem, a meeting-place where no one actually gets to meet, but which marks meeting in what I’m going to go ahead and call spirit-space.
Anyway “Roaring Spring” is about love and about poems. The connections they make and don’t make. The epigraph is a hopeful fake-quote about connecting and not connecting. It’s too obscure actually to connect to anyone, especially now that I’ve explained it at such length (no one will have read this far, and if they have they’re really annoyed by now) so it plays out my doubts about the possibility.
SD: Your Miami University page says you are working on “an epic romance tentatively titled Mercury Vectors and continuing A Day, a 20-year line-a-day book project.” Will you tell us about this?
CW: The romance is on hold for now—I’m working on shorter things, for time reasons—but it’s about the adventures of two public-relations crisis-management executives; it’s loosely based on a couple of women I know. I wanted to write a contemporary version/homage of Philip Sidney’s brilliant The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, but it’s not turning out as I had imagined it would.
I’m writing A Day in a hardback page-a-day journal. At the top of every page there’s a date, but no year. Every night before I go to bed, I write a line on the page bearing that day’s date. There are six lines on most of the pages because I’ve kept the journal for about six years now. I will keep it up for 20 years if I live that long and I don’t lose the book. Then I’ll edit it severely. Lots of people have done similar things (Bernadette Mayer,and Hannah Weiner (Weeks), for example). My version is very personal; it’s not collage or erasure or commonplace book. It’s more a lot of little “slices of life.”
My New Job is out now from Fence Books.