Messy Messy Mess Around—An Interview with Catherine Wagner
Catherine Wagner is the author of four books of poetry: Nervous Device (2012), My New Job (2009), Macular Hole (2004), and Miss America (2001) alongside a dozen chapbooks. Wagner’s poems and essays have appeared in Abraham Lincoln, Lana Turner, New American Writing, 1913, How2, Cambridge Literary Review, and other magazines. Additionally, Wagner has been anthologized most recently in Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd ed.), among other collections. She is now Professor of English at Miami University in Ohio.
I am overjoyed to have had the unique pleasure of taking Introduction to Creative Writing with Catherine Wagner as one of my first poetry courses at Miami University. Here, Wagner discusses with me her time growing up in different places in the world, her current reading list of poetry collections, the politics of crossing the lines between vocation/avocation as a poet, and how writers might forge a healthy sense of discipline (“to hell with discipline”).
Anthony Ramstetter, Jr.: I very much enjoyed your piece in The Poetry Project titled “I AM A POET AND I HAVE.” The first line of this piece is as follows: “I am a poet and I have one of the jobs that poets are supposed to want at our moment in history.” Could you explain what “working” a job means to you in terms of us being poets? How ought we develop this “working” in relationship to our writing-as-process selves? What a high-wire act this is for us.
Catherine Wagner: I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately while reading The Problem with Work by Kathi Weeks. She talks about how we identify ourselves and value ourselves overwhelmingly through our “work,” which is a problem when our economic system relies on a pool of the unemployed to keep wages low and drive them down (a problem endemic to capitalism), but also on a massive valorization of work that magnetizes our self-concepts, our feelings, and an ever-increasing amount of our time around work. Then there’s social media, which serves exhaustingly as an extension of one’s “personal brand” that actually does have ramifications for your income. Plus we’re literally working for Facebook, Google, etc. as content providers and as increasingly specifically targeted processors of ads. Anne Boyer noted on Twitter that there’s a problem with Weeks’s study in that Weeks doesn’t suggest solutions that involve deep changes to the system; the changes she proposes are intra-systemic, involving legislative and other changes, not revolutionary ones. I agree that this is a problem—so many terrific analyses of what’s going on with us founder on not imagining that we could do things really, really differently.
Yeah, so writing. Writing as “work” clocks right into the problematic way work defines us. There’s a sense that writing is an avocation not a vocation—but there is also a creeping vocationalization of everything, and an attitude that our avocations are necessary parts of our vocations. Think about care workers and service workers and the way that they are required to “care,” i.e., show signs of caring, and how I hear contingent-labor creative writing and composition teachers say that they don’t mind their low incomes because they love what they do and would do it for nothing (though recently loads of them are getting appropriately pissed off and activist). And conversely, writing gets vocationalized: did your story or poem “earn” that ending? What’s your “project” and how do you get your reader to “invest” in reading your work?
AR: What advice do you have for writers desiring to develop and cultivate (self-)discipline with their writing output? Relatedly, what sort of writing routine/s do you follow? I am thinking about when Lisa Robertson came to Miami University in April 2012 and, in addition to her awing reading, talked about her many-years-long journal excavation project, if I am remembering accurately.
CW: Hmm, I am not sure I’m the one to give advice on this one. I am just coming out of a period of burn-out—I worked pretty hard for a long time, and I lost the ability to “discipline” myself at all. Stopped writing, couldn’t meet deadlines, etc. So I think, mildly, to hell with discipline. I need to make sure I am eating right, talking to friends, going outside, playing (for me this includes singing and playing music totally amateurishly and with vigor), exercising, writing, having time and access to interesting books of art, science, etc. Then poems just come, if I walk around with my notebook. The question for me is not about how we should self-discipline but how these conditions for art-making can become available to more people, ideally everybody. Instead of thinking about self-discipline we could think about how to change the conditions that push so many people beyond their limits. Solutions that go beyond the therapy for individuals that help those of us who can afford it to realign ourselves with the market’s needs. Systemic changes.
AR: Could you talk a little about your time in Asia and the Middle East growing up, and how your experiences traveling through different countries might inform your language?
CW: I was born in Burma (don’t remember it) and lived in the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, and India, and for shorter times in England and Italy and Nicaragua, and have traveled in Latin America and Europe. When I was a kid, my dad was in the Army and then worked for Catholic Relief Services as an aid worker. Lots of writers and artists seem to have experiences as children that give them a little bit of an off perspective—so many writers were very ill as children, or had some accident (as when Robert Creeley lost his eye as a boy), or were immigrants. Though perhaps such off-perspectives are common to just about everyone, and I’m wrong about them being what makes people writers. Maybe access to reading and at least one person who encourages you? Anyway, in the story I tell myself, early travel did make me a writer, but I am not sure in what way it inflected my language. I learned very little of the languages in the countries where I lived as a kid—though apparently I learned some Tagalog as a toddler—“minta susu” I think means “I want milk.” I went to British and American schools. I did find out very young that people live differently and set up very different structures for their lives in different places, which gave me a sense of possibility, and writing is a field where you can play with potentialities.
AR: The deliberative nature of your composition mine-process continues to inspire me, specifically in “Everyone in the room” in your book My New Job. What are the unique freedoms of composing poetry under such conditional “restriction”; in this case, by having at least one person present?
CW: I guess I will just quote Charles Olson here, who said, “[L]imits are what any of us are inside of.” Constraints are super-generative and aren’t the same as discipline. Having said that I am thinking that presuming there’s capacity and energy present, discipline can be inventive and playful. I mean humans have huge fun with mutually agreed-upon S&M, etc.
AR: Could you share what poetry collections you are currently reading? How do you see your input informing your writing? I have the second half of Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught on my radar right now
CW: I love Lee Ann’s work. I saw her give a talk on Jonathan Williams once and she has a similar lightness of touch to his—she borrows so lightly, but the effect is magnificent and precise. I am reading a lot of prose, criticism and theory by Sianne Ngai, Lauren Berlant, others. I don’t know how those things go into my writing. I liked recent books by Giovanni Singleton, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Rae Armantrout, Trisha Low, Edmund Berrigan, David Buuck & Juliana Spahr, and Julian Brolaski. That is a very partial list of the top of my head, and I’m sure there’s a lot of great stuff out there I’m forgetting about. Reading the Greek Anthology is kicking my ass; it’s so, so great, and weird to come across the originals for early modern poems like Campion’s “I Care Not for These Ladies” and see what got left out and altered. I am reading about the songs of crickets, katydids, and cicadas for summer writing because Ohio is so full of bugs, and I might as well pay attention. I never know how stuff I’m reading right now will affect my writing; anything in the environment will unpredictably get in there. Messy messy mess around.