Poetry News

A Conversation between Anthony McCann and Catherine Wagner

By Harriet Staff

Hop on over to LARB for this interview Anthony McCann conducted with Catherine Wagner.

Here, Wagner talks about "lifeliness" and revision:

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?

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.

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.

Full interview here.

Originally Published: October 25th, 2012