Poetry News

Catherine Wagner Is Real Life Cathy in New Interview About Nervous Device

By Harriet Staff

You were directed to Catherine Wagner's newest, Nervous Device, just the other day. Lucky for us, Wagner has just been interviewed about the book at Art Animal. Elizabeth Coleman mentions Wagner's shifts in demeanor from "mortally shy" (as Wagner self-describes) to "disarmingly honest" (Coleman's thinking). Beautifully, Wagner explains it all:

AA: Each of your collections have distinct themes. Can you talk a bit about this?

CW: My books are rooted in experience as a lens, and playing with language is a way to exteriorize that lens, to feel its constructedness and artifice and look at it and mess with it. The first book, Miss America, is a young woman’s book, and is rowdy and punchy. It has a lot to do with feeling one’s body observed, with a sense of party-crashing when one enters any scene or situation (including literary tradition, which is a frat party, at least if you enter it where I did) and feeling the push and pull of belonging and not belonging. In my second book, Macular Hole, I wrote about my experiences being pregnant and having a baby, and the economies surrounding that — how they connected with the market. I was thinking about money and exchange, and thinking about the strange invasion and transformation inside my body and then this exteriorization, a baby (a person), entering the market. I tried to think about how these exchanges intersected. With My New Job, I had gotten divorced and I was thinking about sex and work, and reading Blake — lots of abjection there — and taking my students to a homeless shelter where I interviewed some amazing women who had sold sex for drugs and had been on the street since they were girls. So I was thinking about fuckedness more generally.

And then there's Nervous Device ("What might be new in ND is that I’ve become obsessed with performance"). More regarding that:

...I think many of the poems come straight out of thinking about performance, imagining performing the poems and projecting the bodies of the audience in my mind. The poem hovers between us and neither of us are there. But our presences charge the poem. I want the poem to notate that.

AA: What do you mean by “Nervous Device?” Do you mean nervous as in uncomfortable? Or do you mean nervous like nervous system?

CW: Thank you for bringing that out. Yes, nervous in terms of self-consciousness, nervousness, but also nervous in terms of responsiveness and reactiveness. A nervous device could be a device with which we use to communicate: a phone, a computer or language. I wrote to my editor that “the nervous device is body, handheld connection, poem. It wants you to hold it, it wants to be noticed, it wants you to see how it works to bind and separate.”

AA: Many of your poems discuss your body. How has your relationship to your body changed over the years?

CW: My relationship with it is definitely better than it used to be. In my teens and twenties I slouched to hide my boobs. I hated the attention of men. It felt utterly invasive. I didn’t like sex and suspected that the idea of good sex had been invented as a way of oppressing women. I got over that one. It’s a way of oppressing men. That’s a joke, by the way!

AA: Do you feel that you take on different personas when you write, or is the “I” in the poem always the same?

CW: Poetry is a game where you can do whatever you want (well, the boundaries are flexible), but one thing you can do is take stances and see what happens. The “I” in my poems is often “me” in that I am saying something that I did or that I feel or that I want, but it is also utter artifice. The “I” is an element of the poem that is manipulable. Also I think that the poem is not unlike “real life Cathy” in that avatars are all that is there anyway. Nothing but avatars. I mean where is you? You are in everything you perceive, and you take on an identity in relation to that. I want to add, though, that I don’t think any of this relationality stuff means that I don’t have responsibility for what I do and write and say.

Coleman also smartly comments on one of Wagner's more characteristic approaches, giving us a new sense of it:

AA: Some of your poems have this almost childlike quality where they seem playful and singsong, while others seem deliberately abrupt and jolting.

CW: It is an eternal worry of mine that people will just find the work idiotic because of that playful mode. I have to risk being stupid though because there is nothing to be gained by pretending to be smart. I worry that in this book [Nervous Device] I’ve tried to be smart in some places because publishing with City Lights felt like a big deal and I knew — kind of feared — that the book might get more attention than my other books. That’s a deadly thing — the wish to appear smart — and I hope I didn’t succumb to it too often.

Read the full interview here! And peruse Art Animal while you're at it...we're very much into their mission statement:

Art Animal is a magazine that showcases women’s off-kilter art every week. We do not give dating advice or complain about our boyfriends, and we welcome (and hope) that humans of the male persuasion read our stuff. Our magazine is limited to—or, rather, filled with—projects thought up by women because, frankly, we just don’t see enough of it.

Originally Published: October 4th, 2012