Poetry News

Notice: Lyric Can Interrogate Frame (Catherine Wagner's Seven Answers)

By Harriet Staff


To accompany the publication of their second issue, Canadian small poetry magazine Touch the Donkey has posted a straightforward, substantive interview with Cathy Wagner, who has a poem in the issue called "Notice." There's a twist: "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." From one of seven answers to seven questions, Wagner continues:

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 [how] 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.

In light of "Notice," she's also asked about her work's recent development:

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.

Read the rest of the interview, and order issue 2, at Touch the Donkey.

For more recent talk from Wagner, check out her recent gchat with Laura Sims at The Conversant, where they mulled over "mulling over zombies and gender roles and the paleolithic diet and zombies and new motherhood and personal hygiene and race relations and the wars of the future and murderers and books and anarchist thinkers and zombies.*"