Recently, the Oxford, OH-based poet Cathy Wagner traveled to Cleveland, OH to perform her work for the Poets of Ohio reading series, primarily focusing on material from her latest collection Nervous Device (City Lights Books, 2012).
Anyone who has heard and seen Wagner read her work will probably agree that she is quite the performer. For example, her live renditions of poems such as “A Well is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me,” “Capitulation to the Total Poem,” and “Note and Acknowledgments” all contain theatrical elements that call attention to the body in space as a critical (but non-verbal) aspect the poem’s delivery.
But Wagner doesn’t limit her performativity to the physical realm; no, she also calls attention to voice and its articulation through song. Whether singing portions of her poems or chanting medieval verse, the musicality of her performance adds another compelling layer to the reading. Take, for instance, the below clip wherein Wagner sings a poem she wrote on the drive from Buffalo, NY to Cleveland, OH:
About one year ago, Wagner read at the University of Denver. Afterward, I asked her via email how she conceptualized the intersection of poetry and performance. Below is an excerpt from that conversation:
[Performance] has become more and more important to me—1st long ago I wanted to work on performance because I suffered too often watching people who thought it was OK to bore people. But the more comfortable I became performing the more interested in it I got; I could watch the audience, and I am fascinated by the weird interaction that is performance and in thinking about it in relation to, and as figure for, other kinds of relationships, political sexual economic, and in thinking about the poem on the page as performance, as interactive device. [Nervous Device] comes straight out of thinking about performance, or really, the poem as interactive device…There is a poet Bob Cobbing in England, dead now, whose work/thinking influenced me. He thought anything was a performance—any aspect of the artwork’s life in the world. Its making is a performance, its page version, its live version—none of these is the poem, one is not the real poem while the others interpret it, all versions are equally poem. I do think there is tension between page and live at times because sometimes I prefer one to another; I might like an ambiguity on the page that it’s hard to register in performance, and of course the songs lose their tunes on the page (I am trying to figure out how best to deal with that). But generally I think that the performance on the page and performance live are related but separate beasts and I don’t feel pressure to make them resolve or be more similar. I am interested in both cases in drawing a reader/listener’s attention to the fact of interaction and to the particular thrust or effect (these are not the right words…) of the interaction.
You can find more of Cathy Wagner’s work at Fence Books, who published her first three full-length collections: Miss America, Macular Hole, and My New Job.