Thursday, October 2, 2014

TtD supplement #10: seven questions for Catherine Wagner

Catherine Wagner’s most recent book is Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012). Her work has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (second edition), Best American Erotic Poems and elsewhere. Her performances and poems are archived on the PennSound, Archive of the Now and Poetry Foundation websites, and her work has been translated into German, Norwegian, Slovene and Bengali. A member of the S(W)OP poetics collective in southwest Ohio, she is professor of English at Miami University and lives in Oxford, Ohio with her son.

Her poem “Notice” appears in the second issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: In “Notice,” you’ve built a short prose piece specifically for the journal composed in what could be seen as “corporate-speak,” a deliberately “un-poetic” language. It reminds slightly of Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007), in which she works to engage with the almost de-humanizing language of the business work-space. What made you decide to engage with such language?

A: I like Rachel Z’s work. Human Resources doesn’t accept the instrumentality of business-world phrases, it’s derailing them and mashing them into this or that terrine or vitrine. My piece uses businessy phrasing but it's not derailing anything phrasally, it’s a full-disclosure statement and not even ironic. For the first half of 2014, I sent “Notice” to any journal that solicited my work, just changing the magazine/editor names in the first sentence. I had been feeling weird about the way poem publication gets monetized for a shrinking class (mine) of academic laborers (publications get entered into annual activities reports and considered when salaries are re-assessed). Despite K Goldsmith’s recently saying “money has no value in poetry,” I wanted to think about money gets into the poetry game or doesn’t. I hoped the poem would come out everywhere at once to maximize publicly my ROI [return on investment] from the poem, but you were the first and almost the only sucker to take it. Either the piece is too obvious/boring/bad or it’s not what people thought they would get when they ordered from my atelier.

So the poem is aimed at laborers in the poetry factory or field (editors, readers, plus the less-visible laborers who make the field available and usable—papermill workers, custodians, code jockeys) and I seriously did want to thank them in it. I’m not sure that comes off. The tone feels different published than it did on my screen.

Q: I’m curious about the response other journals have had to the piece. As an editor, my original response was one of confusion, given that it wasn’t what I was expecting when soliciting your work, but in the end I decided to trust your judgment on what wasn’t entirely clear to me. What have other journals/editors said in response?

A: One said (this was a student editor of Sonora Review) “We very much enjoyed the political inquiry and discussion your piece evoked, which divided our board of 8 readers in a fruitful way” – so nice! they ended up not taking it. Bathhouse, another one run by students, took it and said it was “perfect for the issue”—I don’t know why. But the issue had lots of interesting stuff in it, look at this. I sent to a couple places that asked for prose pieces and that didn’t fly—one said “it’s not quite the right fit for our categories of content (articles, reviews, etc)—though I realize that’s stodgy.” Everybody has been fearsomely polite like you. Was the piece just confusing, or was it confusing because it wasn’t like my other work you’ve seen?

Q: In my case, a bit of both, I’d have to say. There was a part of me that wondered if the piece was meant as a slight to the editor/journal that had requested such. I find it interesting how your work has been moving away from the lyric and more into the conceptual over the past few years, from this current piece to some of the work in Nervous Device. Given your trajectory of over a dozen chapbooks and four poetry collections over the past dozen years, how do you feel your work has developed?

A: So happy you trusted me, yes. I guess I want to explain some more though it’s awk to explain a fail. I wanted the poem to lay out the labor, and the returns on it, that happen when a poem gets published, and to expose how its publication benefits me actually and monetarily, even if it’s not much money we’re talking about. Sending out the poem to a bunch of places was meant to maximize my benefit, so the poem is taking advantage of poetry laborers as it thanks them. It’s trying to be public about the advantage it’s taking, but I don’t blame you for wondering whether it was a slight. The gesture was blurry.

I just read this Sarah Brouillette essay called “World Literature and Market Dynamics” that is helping me think about what I was gesturing at in that poem. Whenever I read her I realize that she’s thought clearly through things that my poems think about in chaotic and clumsy ways and I feel relieved. She is talking about our tendency to ignore the inequities the economy fosters in the literary economy. (Pascale Casanova calls this inattention “the denial of the unequal structure of literary space.”) Brouillette diagnoses an “uneven distribution of...agency and ability to author” as well as “uneven access to reading materials and to the means of publication.” Then she calls out a trend my poem fits right into like a fart in the wind: “In these conditions we can observe heightened consciousness about the compromises, complicities, and constraints on literary work and its valorization, and heightened kinds of circular games with reflexive unease about the extent to which particular individuals have the right to represent certain kinds of experience in their writing.” You can see that self-consciousness in “Notice” and all over the place in the uncomfortably privileged writers I read and know, especially the few tenure-track academics out there. Who are not chilling out, who are laborers overworked, some of them, to the point of nervous breakdown, but who have so much more access to the game than some others do.

Anyway I don’t want to write more poems like this, it’s a cul-de-sac, how long can I stay on a sit-and-spin that loathes itself. Do something else, loathe other stuff like prisons that pay immigrants thirteen cents an hour, imitate cicada sound-architectures. I don’t know what I’m doing now or what I’ll do. I can send you a new poem that’s more like my other stuff if you want. Soundplay, passionately inchoate blurting, line breaks, colors, stinky bits, etc. I do want to say that even though “Notice” has a different linguistic texture, it’s not that different from what I’ve been messing with for a while. It’s a lyric, it’s concerned with matters of address, with a projected addressed other who is often a beloved—in this case the reader and the editor.

I think lyric can interrogate frame. I don’t think conceptualism owns that game. I keep on being interested in lyric and in how lyric hooks into historical and economic systems and is this sort of glinting micro-facet of them or bursting blister.

Q: What I find so very compelling about the piece, especially with the explanation of such, is how you are working to push the boundaries of what a poem should be doing, and playing with. What is really being asked of poets when they’re solicited for non-paying markets? I’m slightly disappointed in myself for having to wait for the explanation to fully understand such.

A: I don’t mind poets being solicited for non-paying markets, any more than I mind being encouraged to sing along when I’m by the campfire. Writing poetry is work but that doesn’t mean I think it ought to be waged. I do want to think about the hierarchies involved in the ways poems get processed for and by the market. Both the symbolic/cultural capital market and the market where digits get altered on a screen and you can buy stuff or not.

You asked about the development or trajectory of my work. I am not sure it develops though it changes. It’s always a response to whatever’s going on, it marks experience so I can look at it. It feels rebellious, I put on my fuck-you hat and play around. But putting on the fuck-you hat is increasingly charged and peculiar because how can I be rebellious while being paid as an institutional writer? I guess we’ll see how I cry glitter. I don’t have to cry diamonds like Lady Gaga on the Simpsons (she says it hurts like hell).

Q: Is the poem “Notice” part of a larger, current project? Will it be included in your next poetry collection, possibly?

A: It’s been a slow couple of years for writing and I usually have no idea how poems will start to cohere into a book until I’ve got a big batch. I’m thinking of including other sorts of writing besides poetry – some criticism and essays – in whatever I do next, and “Notice” could go in. I’ll revise it though.

Q: Do you have any difficulty shifting between poetry and criticism, or is it all part of the same large canvas? Poems and criticism don’t often exist together in single-author volumes, yet some authors such as Anne Carson, Erín Moure, Phil Hall and Susan Howe have all built careers on their own take on the “poem-essay.” Where do you see the two connecting in your own writing?

A: When I’m writing about other texts, it’s easier to see where some idea I’m working with came from. It feels more like “applied research.” Whereas I often write poetry in a truancy (autocorrect for trancy) way and have no clue where something came from. I don’t want to oppose the two though. A friend of mine says it takes many years to mature as a critic, whereas poets can write great poems when they’re young. That seems right, because to develop intuition as a critic, you need to read so much, and eventually the texts you read start to connect to one another and to history and feel like a world to you and then you can swim there and feel the currents. That’s when associations could start to generate themselves intuitively. Great critical writers like Rachel Blau Duplessis or William Empson or Kristin Ross or John Wilkinson or Olson in Call Me Ishmael are working intuitively for sure. Not just the poeticky critics. I think of Chris Nealon or younger critics like Margaret Ronda—I admire good critics on the traditional model so much – it’s glorious work to rigorously demand of yourself that you come to terms with some aspect of a tradition and try to define it or redefine it in some way useful to others.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Well, that is a good question to hit me with right now – I felt dead as poet while writing most of the above (couple months ago) but writing is starting to come back. So I think I know: going for walks, listening to crickets and cicadas, reading anything that I’m reading just because I feel like it (anti-dutifully), listening to music, having sex, sleeping enough and having a life that lets me remember dreams, not letting job take over, singing, waking up early. Listening to ballads and blues, hiphop. Alice Notley, Suzan-Lori Parks, Larry Eigner. Medieval lyrics. The Tale of Genji and long proto-novels with Russian-doll plots like The Water Margin and 1001 Nights. Rae Armantrout, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge—these people all have a prosody I can’t figure out and I keep trying. Science journalism. People whose sentences kill me—Carlyle, Nabokov, recently CLR James—I am finally reading The Black Jacobins and James’ prose style is kicking my ass; it’s weirdly Carlylean (despite their political differences) but with less grandeur and pirouetting so the argument moves like a flow-chart instead of a cataract. The Greek Anthology, Catullus, Martial make me remember that people have been writing for a long time all kinds of shit about minor things that loomed large to them, people who weren’t good people, who were horrible to one another especially women and slaves as they negotiated the horrible politics of their world, and they wrote great poems and the poems are here and they are dead, this makes me feel better though I want to be good people.

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