Cathy Wagner will be writing a column for LARB in the new year. She is the author of Nervous Device (just out from City Lights) and three other books of poems, My New Job (2009), Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001). She teaches in the MA program in creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.
Anthony McCann is the author of the poetry collections I Heart Your Fate, Moongarden and Father of Noise. He lives in Los Angeles.
Anthony McCann: When I was looking at the Catherine Wagner page on the Poetry Foundation site the other day I misunderstood something about how they had categorized your work. The primary category you were listed under was “living.” I thought all the categories were thematic, so I misunderstood it as meaning your work was about “living.” Which I thought was pretty funny. And then I began to think it also was very fitting. Your poems are so vital, so often goopy with life and life force, including literally generative power. They are also often about problems of daily life. Then there’s the vitality of the language — muscle and gristle and goop. Maybe my question is this: Do you think your poems are about “living?” What would that mean? “Living?”
Catherine Wagner: I am thinking all sorts of things, like what is living — there's something about it that sounds as if it's an activity; it's a verb or gerund. So a subject or agent does it, the living. That sounds all oddly separated out, and of course you can't be separated from your life. So maybe there is something here that has to do with the poems — something about wishing them to be a porous space. Also, that the poem is transactional, a reaching. So verb-like in that way. There is this thing about the poem as artificed object that I always end up going to when I think about how I want the poem to manifest this lifeliness. There is always artifice in revision that moves the poem more toward a drafty (porous/in-process) feeling, rather than the other way around. I think a lot of the newer poems are more object-y and obviously artificed, rather than artificed in a New York school way that's about making them feel lifely, active, enjambed leaping. Some of the other kind are there too.
AM: First, a question about “lifeliness.” Then, I want to ask about revision. Your thoughts here reminded immediately of the intro-note to your book and the scene it stages or re-stages where you ask the interviewer to put his/her finger in your fist to touch your imaginary cervix! Which then makes me think of “This Living Hand” — the Keats poem-fragment. And how that poem conjures, through direct address magic, the appearance of life or liveliness. How does life appear in a poem? Where is it? Can it appear?
CW: Yes, it is very weird, to imagine the location of what is living in a poem. Why does it feel that way? And how can that feeling be a made thing? The Keats poem is super-spooky because he reaches out to you having announced his hand as dead and then reinvigorated and then in the now — reaching out to you. The gesture is impossible — that&rsquo...read more