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).