Lie Down in the Ha-Ha: A Conversation between Anthony McCann and Catherine Wagner

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 FateMoongarden 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’s what is moving about it. It’s one of the lyrics where the apostrophized absent addressee becomes the reader, as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman claims to see you and know you. It’s direct-address magic — magic because it can’t ever be direct address — and even if I am talking straight to an audience, there is an awareness that this is a poem, that a thing is between us, it’s a conduit but it’s between us. I have this little drawing of lyric, it’s totally too generalizing, but I like thinking about it. In it there is a stick figure of a person with a lyre, with a little open cone emerging from mouth indicating song. Then there is a dotted line around that figure, and the apostrophized person (beloved) is on the other side of the line. Can’t hear the singer in the now. Then there is on the other side a few more stick figures who are listening but also not present in the now of the singing/composition. So then we have several aspects of lyric: musicality (sound play etc), and address, and divided time. Time is withness, and a poem is always with, just not with its various participants, occupiers, in the same time. This is why improv and collaboration can feel like political acts for a minute. A poem models a kind of withness and you can play with that, and think about power relationships.

Grain Sand

I think performance has changed my writing; I always think about audience when I am writing now, and imagine the poems in performance, and my body and the imagined bodies of the others. So the gestures in a poem might be shaped by my sense of what that audience is.  I mean, I don’t think there could be a poem that would always be alive in every setting, how could that be, it’s activated only under certain conditions. Which is not a restriction but a generative fact. If it weren’t activated only under certain conditions, between people, there couldn’t be any love in it.

AM:  I love how “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” works its magic by insisting that we are also seeing what Whitman is seeing: the wheeling gulls, the light on the water. To paraphrase Jonathan Culler, who said this about Keats’ poem: it enforces this impossibility, that we be there with Whitman, “as an event.”  I love your lyric diagram. It makes me think of Spicer.

CW: I used to love Spicer so much for that urgent “real lemon” desire embedded in the poem, the active poem. The last few times I’ve tried to read him I got hung up on his aggressiveness. He starts to feel small in his prodding. Ungenerous. But talking about animation and reactivation makes me remember what I adored in him. His poems wake up so athletically every time you read them, they jump up, like the poet falling up off the bed in Cocteau’s Orphee. It makes sense, thinking about that connection, that his first really great thing was this very self-conscious and funny sort of vampiric reinvigoration, “After Lorca.” And that the reinvigoration is sexual, the homoerotics of getting in bed with dead Lorca. It feels like getting into bed with dead Keats to read the “Living Hand” poem.

I was thinking about the fetish theory we’ve been talking about and those articles you sent me to. A poem seems to me pretty clearly to fit as a fetish according to William Pietz’s definition. He says, in “The Problem of the Fetish,” that the fetish, in all its forms, is characterized by four things: “irreducible materiality; a fixed power to repeat an original event of singular synthesis or ordering; the institutional construction of consciousness of the social value of things; and the material fetish as an object established in an intense relation to and with power over the desires, actions, health, and self-identity of individuals whose personhood is conceived as inseparable from their bodies.” Typing that in I realized maybe poems are not fetishes for everyone in this way. Some poems for me are very, very fetishy. The spell for my mom and the bracelet poem (“Capitulation to the Total Poem”): those are totally magical objects in my mind.

A dear friend of mine criticizes my writing for being too narrow and I think it is this “charm” or power-item thing about them that frustrates him, that they are too narrowly focused on my own private life and desires. Thinking about them as fetishes is helping me sort through this — David Graeber [in “Fetishism as Social Creativity”] prefers the fetishist who is “ostensibly aware that he is dealing with an illusion” — or how about not illusion, but a made thing to look at and know as fetish. I don’t know that my fetishes go there but I want them to.

AM:  The way you use the Pietz quote makes sense to me. I mean, it sounds like a poem!  It also reminds me that many of the fetishes Pietz talks about were actually ingested. People would “drink fetish.”

I’m so interested in what you said earlier about revision. That how you revise tends to make the poems more drafty, more porous, more in process. It makes me want to ask about how you revise. Are you very consciously going at the poem trying to make it more in process, more under construction, and alive in that way?

 CW: Yes, consciously going at the poem in that way; this is totally stolen from Alice Notley’s early work, which I am pretty sure got revised this way. Also Frank O’Hara’s.

AM:  Also, what you say about the difference between the poems in this book and previous books does feel true to me. In My New Job for instance, the title poem, which I read again this morning, is very enjambed and leapy and gathers a lot of choppy music in that way. A lot of the new book is more “objecty,” as you put it. Do you have any thoughts about how that came to happen, that you wrote these two kinds of poems? And does this kind of difference emerge mainly in revision? Do both kinds of poems start the same way?

CW: I think there’s always been an urge in both directions in my writing. I love to make these tight little objects.  I don’t know whether you ever saw that series “Boxes,” that Guy Bennett did as a chapbook: tiny six-line six-syllable-per-line poems that I made into paper cubes and gave to people, each was written for someone. I am absolutely crazy about highly wrought little poems like some of the medieval lyrics, Now Goth Sunne Under Wode, or Herrick, Sidney. Then there is this more discursive messy “lifey” mode. It feels really good to move between these modes. One is sort of manifesting transaction, reaching out to an other, by declaring the reaching, or showing it. The messy ones I mean. The other ones are these little things to hold, made things that are obviously made things and hanging out with themselves in their madeness and patternedness. I suspect people like the more discursive poems more, they feel intimate, and they won’t like this book as much because it has more of the other kind of poem.  But I love so much digging around in patterning and staying with a poem that way. It feels intimate and also sort of honest in its declaration of the poem as a thing that is not a conversation, not the same thing as a conversation at all. 

The two kinds of poems don’t start the same way though sometimes they occupy the same composition afternoon or whatever. If I am walking I will tend to make a song. Then the piece will be patterned for sure. My songwriting is not strong enough to be more than little repeating melodies. I have only ever written (recently) one song with a bridge. Anyway the more patterned pieces are often songs, or feel like songs to me even if they are not, and songs have (this is a pretty conservative thing to say and I mean it only for my own songs) a responsibility to resonate inside themselves with the sounds they activate. The more discursive poems, on the other hand, I might not know are poems when I’m writing them. In fact if I know I am writing a “poem” and it’s not coming as a song or as some kind of thing-I-don’t-know-what-it-is it tends to suck pretty bad.

It’s so lucky that a poem isn’t a marble sculpture that I would just completely fuck up and not be able to go back to an earlier draft. Though so what, the sculptor would just shift in response to the mistake. There is this thing about making a change and that change affecting everything else in the poem, and that is something you have to deal with in real time, and that is the exciting thing in revision, it’s just as exciting as drafting, maybe more. Barbara Guest says this thing, I think about it all the time: “The poem takes you and shakes you.” In “Invisible Architectures” she frames it as a battle with the poem that must be lost to be won (I don’t know about “battle”). Do you know this thing Henri Meschonnic says about poetry; this is Lisa Robertson’s version of it: “A shape of life transforms a shape of language and a shape of language transforms a shape of life.” Well that is about poetry and culture and power. But if you take it in a smaller way to be about revision, the things that the poem does are transformative, they make the world you’re in when you’re revising, and you move inside that world and move the (Spicerian/Martian) furniture around.

I had this dream about lying in a sailboat and the sail was covered with words and whenever I looked at a word all the words all around it changed. That happens, the text-changing thing, any time you read in a dream of course, but it is just a sped-up version of what happens when you are awake.

I should add that I always feel like describing the making of a poem is a lie. In fact I lie to myself about it, have caught myself doing so. I imagine a setting in which I wrote a poem, and then come back to a couple of notebooks and find that it’s all cobbled together and maybe I was in the imagined setting for one line. I cast back for an imaginary origin space. I am curious about why I need or want to do that. Like falling in love, I guess, I want there to be a there there.

AM: Those two quotes and the way you describe revision are all marvelously fetishistic! In that “under-construction” way David Graeber describes. What you say about “casting back for an imaginary origin space” resonates with me. It describes something I do, that I know I do but that I’ve never put in those terms. I’ve always thought that a poem needs to be very clear with itself about its space to work, even if it isn’t describing that space at all. If the space isn’t clearly there in some way, the poem needs to invent or “re-discover” it.  If it doesn’t then there’s no poem. “Casting back for an imaginary origin space” sounds more true to my own experience than what I might have said previously.

CW: I have felt uncomfortable with my desire to create this imaginary origin-space, or the fact that the poem seems to call it up unbidden and then I freaking believe in it. That seems very fetishy. Can you make the poem and know the constructedness of the imaginary space at the same time, or is there some falling-in-love type of thing that has to happen?

AM:  I would say there’s a flipping back and forth that happens constantly. Like kids when they play. They are totally in it, and then they step out of it. And then they step back in. The imaginary space is always both totally accessible, alive and under construction. Graeber would say it never becomes “theological.”  Falling in love doesn’t have that kind of, shall we say, flexibility.

CW: Ah yes, that’s good. There is something about the poem’s status as object and connective device, it won’t absorb you, it resists you, so it helps to keep that lively flipping back and forth happening.

AM:  Last question. There are a lot of landscape poems in Nervous Device that seem very made in the way you described earlier. They feel like they’ve been made to be both discrete objects, and also to be very much in process. They are drafty; they breathe. I’m thinking especially of “The Sun-Went-Down Calamity” and “A Landscape.” These poems feel like landscapes under construction. “The Sun Went Down” ends outlining the shape of valley with creatures. But what I really want to know is how you think about these poems and how you made them and also any thoughts you might have on “landscape” in poems.

CW: Well, one thing is that I wrote a lot of the poems while at Millay Colony in summer 2011, so was walking a lot in these low green mountains. Maybe being unused to writing in such places and feeling peculiar about it — I mean, what a faked-up thing, to be permitted to stand aside from my regular single-mom bizzy biz and walk in the mountains and be cooked for at night. It was as if the mountains slid in front of my face like a scrim. But there they were, I had to deal with them, and I had my view of them through my body lumping around the roads and paths there. The end of “Sun-Went-Down Calamity” substitutes creatures that make sounds at night for my view of the
“landscape” — I lose view, but there’s still a horizon and in the dark the horizon is made of sound. Landscape has to be perspectival, it’s not nature, it’s got somebody in it looking. Sometimes that changes the land literally. In the rewrite in Nervous Device of Robert Duncan’s poem “The Meadow,” the meadow is literal, it is there because the forest got cut down for lumber, and because of that not-nice thing, I can see the next mountain, so it’s a “place of forced permission.” Constructing landscape that way is like looking at the ha-ha in English landscape architecture — where the cows and sheep aren’t able to come up onto the lawn, but from the house it looks like the landscape goes forever. But what if the ha-ha is right in the front of the poem. Lie down in the ha-ha.