Catherine Wagner: Writing Against the Epiphanies of Personal Narrative



Catherine Wagner was born in Burma (to American parents) in 1969. That means she’s just over 40. She published her first book, Miss America, in 2001. She’s published two others since then, most recently My New Job (2009). She’s also published quite a few chapbooks of poetry, and she’s published individual poems widely in a lot of influential journals, especially the more avant garde ones.

After getting her undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Wagner got an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she took workshops from well-known poets like Donald Revell, Brenda Hillman, and Heather McHugh, and where her fellow students included people like Chelsey Minnis, Martin Corliss-Smith and a lot of other subsequently successful young poets. She went on to get a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah.

She is now a professor of literature and creative writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She married Corliss-Smith (they later divorced) and they have a son named Ambrose; both he and his father have featured in her more recent poems to varying degrees, though to say her work is “autobiographical” would be a big mistake.


Experimental. Oftentimes in-your-face and let’s just say it: at times a little raunchy. I’ve read an interview where she says her favorite word is “poop.” That said, she’s also extremely smart and intellectual (which are two different things). I’d say the “Poetic Impulses” she’s governed by are the lyrical (the sounds and rhythms of language; the power of words themselves, the buttons they push and triggers they pull) and the expressive (her own take on the barbaric yawp of, say, Whitman – though her work and her interests seem very different from his). She’s also sort of performative in her readings (she sings a cappella sometimes).

As the attached essay suggests, she sees her work as political, too, especially in so much as form is political. She has been lumped in with a category of poets that is known (in some circles) as “gurlesque,” which the poet Arielle Greenberg has described as “a feminine, feminine incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.”

She often writes in sequences: the “magazine” poems, for instance, in the packet; also the “Everyone in the room is a representative of the world at large” poems. Individual poems often take their place in the scheme of a larger whole. She’s also currently engaged in writing a poem that will consist of a line a day for twenty years. That sort of thing.


In addition to the individual poems mentioned above and below, it’s safe to say that Wagner is somewhat influenced by an avant garde movement of the later 20th Century called Language Poetry. These folks were (are) interested in the ways language breaks down, the ways it actually can’t convey meaning, and/or the ways they see it as oppressive. They sort of (re)invented the “Poem that (really: no, literally) Doesn’t Make Sense.” A common complaint about such poems and poets is that not only do they not make literal sense, there’s not a whole lot of “pull the top of your head off” energy/soul to them. I’m not saying that’s the case with Wagner’s work. Just pointing out an influence, direct or otherwise.

Let’s let her speak for herself. From the interview I mentioned above:

On Influential Poets:

 ¶ So, even at an early age some of the poems you experienced played with language?

Yes, absolutely. Then, in high school – I think this is very normal – I liked Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas and maybe a little bit of E. E. Cummings. Really into them.

I went to college at a very conservative place. I didn’t come across much there that I have since been excited about, except Wallace Stevens’s imagination, his creepy enchanting little world. And my teacher Rick Jackson introduced me to a lot of Eastern European poetry. I also liked Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop, I still do.

When I went to grad school in Iowa, I found a decent bookstore, Prairie Lights. I started poking around and found stuff that blew my mind. I had been feeling dissatisfied with my own writing even though it had been well regarded where I went to school, and I knew something was wrong. I had learned to pull something off, this particular epiphanic, personal narrative poem and the more I thought about it the more I felt like throwing up. I was making the same sorts of moves in all my poems and I won a prize for them and couldn’t write any more. Then in Prairie Lights I found a book by Leslie Scalapino called Considering How Exaggerated Music Is. I read the whole thing in the bookstore. It was some of the first experimental poetry I had come across and I realized that there were lots of different things you could do. I felt untied. I started reading Gertrude Stein, and surrealists and the Negritude poets, and Jack Spicer’s voice was important in terms of making me think again about the line but also about content, what I could take on. Alice Notley was important, too.

On Influential Places:

¶ You have grown up in Burma, Baltimore, Idaho, and Ohio, among other places. How have your experiences in these various environments affected your writing?

I hit Idaho and Ohio after I became a grown-up, if there is any such thing as a grown-up. In Burma I was a baby. Then my family lived in the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, and India. I think about these places all the time, especially Yemen, which sort of seared itself into me. It was beautiful – huge desert, green terraces wrapping the mountains. And all the women blackveiled and all the men carrying guns and wearing jeweled daggers. Really good bread for PBJs. Mudwalled houses. I kept goats. But I don’t so far write about these places, and I am absolutely not sure how the experience comes into my writing. If I could get hold of the “control group” of my personal experiment I would ask her whether the experience is coming into her writing. I don’t retain the bits of language I learned while in these paces. If I had absorbed the common ways of speaking and read the literature I might be able to isolate some influences in my writing.

If you want to read the whole interview, it’s here:

And here’s her Miami University web page:


I’m not comparing her to a poet in the packet, but she’s definitely on the “Doesn’t Make Sense” end of the continuum. She’s using language as an act of provocation (a lot of the time, in a lot of different ways), and she doesn’t so much seek a connection with her reader as she tries to get a rise out of her/him. I gather from her interviews and her work that she’s not interested in distilling the meaning of a poem into a clean, clear “message.” She’s certainly not telling stories that lead the reader to an insightful epiphany. Perhaps she sees the poet and each individual reader as engaging in a (sometimes contentious, often confused) discourse that creates new – if imperfect – meaning as it unfolds. Or something.

As far as Whitman vs. Dickinson goes, she’s got a little bit of both going on. There’s definitely some idioglossia involved, but it’s a babble-language she shares with a large and growing camp of young contemporary poets in academia. I think there’s also some of Whitman’s ambitious/grandiose scope and his desire to write the American experience as he knows it. Wagner’s is a more global American experience, and by and large she’s not singing about the world she knows: she’s growling, screaming, and/or shouting about it (and all the while maybe she’s snickering a good bit too).

4 thoughts on “Catherine Wagner: Writing Against the Epiphanies of Personal Narrative

  1. Lita March 2, 2012 / 6:26 pm

    If Catherine Wagner and I knew each other, I think we’d have friendly debates all the time. From what I can tell, her poetry is pretty in-your-face and expressive. She likes to make people think about their beliefs, even if she doesn’t know what her own opinion is until the end of the poem (or series of poems). I can be the same way. I don’t think that I am as raunchy (or as confidently rebellious) as she is. I believe curse words should be used for emphasis; if overused, they stop being effective. Wagner uses profanity and overt sexuality to get people’s attention, and it works. I try to get people’s attention, but not to the extent that Wagner does. I would like to be fierce and growl at the world without using words purely for shock value. (Maybe I’m just a teenager who would like to make a big statement but worries what people will think.)

    As for the Language Poetry, I am interested in it as an idea, but I don’t think that I write like that most of the time. I like my poems to make sense, but they don’t always. Anyone who has heard someone speak in a foreign language knows that words can be beautiful without making sense to the listener. Anyone who has struggled to explain a feeling to someone knows that language can be limiting and oppressive. I like my poems to have a point, but if my audience likes the sounds in one phrase that I’ve written, then I’ve done my job.

  2. Jasmine March 5, 2012 / 8:22 pm

    Although I found some of her poetry to be a little too personal, I still think they were pretty cool, and they lasted in my mind. The fact that I can remember a poem, even recall some of the exact lines from a poems, I think that already makes the work successful. That may have to do with the subject matter, or just the fact that they’re so in your face, but still, they call for attention, and you get the feeling that whether or not you liked them doesn’t really matter, as long as you saw them long enough to be affected. positive or negative, as long as they left you thinking, I think this would be satisfactory.

  3. Kathleen March 6, 2012 / 9:21 pm

    The way Wagner writes sort of reminds me of a thought process, quick, half-formed ideas flittering around a single moment of action. She takes time to describe the little details so you can get the full picture, befor eslaming a new element into your face and running away, laughing. She’s not afraid to shove something in your face.

    • Sarah October 24, 2012 / 1:10 am

      Hi there. I am analyzing a poem by Catherine Wagner entitled ‘A Rose for George’

      If you don’t have any control over your life and being happy
      If you don’t have any control over your life and be happy

      A family in the wall
      Mouse avenue in kitchen
      A piece of cake
      Looms oozing
      Men and women are signs of life
      Children are signs of life

      When they put the cap on the oil well
      I thought my life pollutes
      Reading lamp = coal burn
      My failures to love
      To be friend family

      When are we given the right to control

      Sixty-eight is a little bit of
      Time in the world
      To be more sentient
      Kinder and “get up try again”
      Body ow

      I pretend if I were in New York
      I could choose friends as I did in school
      Fork into flesh of animal

      Work all your life
      Not hard enough! there are things undone

      I was thinking you were my father
      I wasn’t here, then I was
      Through you

      Through an internal externalized

      It bumps around the world
      Tries not to be stupid

      When Dad you grew up
      Trying to intentionalize
      Family back of you
      George, young and into the continents
      With problems

      I already have what I desire
      I just have it in the future
      The structure of being is wanting
      And like a fountain I suck up
      My excesses
      A little evaporates
      One day it’s dry and drying
      Means I’m done
      Oh whatever you’ll always be there no?

      I can say when I die
      “I was agent of clock”

      They call it an alarm
      I stopped having time to weed, friends

      Started in dark
      Light housed me

      The TV is so loud I can’t think
      I’m sorry I can’t be in that room

      Nobody has yelled at me for a long time
      Thank you

      You exist because your dad and mom
      And you tried to go away

      Continuity sweepstakes
      Freed under the cap

      Get up orderly loving

      is you could please email and tell me your feelings about the poem and what you think it means that would be great. Thank you!

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