Iowa Writers' Workshop grad reads at Dey House


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Everyday life morphs into poetry for writer Cathy Wagner.

"I'm very interested in poetic processes and finding ways to allow whatever is going on in my life to make poems," she said. "Then I can think about how life works by having investigated it through the poem."

She will read from her new manuscript, Nervous Device, as well as from her third book, My New Job, at 8 p.m. today at the Dey House.

The poet is an associate professor in English at Miami University of Ohio, a single mother of an 8-year-old boy, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"The thing that was amazing was to leave my undergrad and suddenly show up in Iowa and find that, what felt like everybody, was obsessed with writing and wanted to talk about it all the time," Wagner said. "There was this incredible community of peers to think with and to relish poetry with."

Wagner said that often, her writing comes from rhythms that she hears — from a pop song, from some other type of music, or from something in the natural world that she notices.

Another spark of inspiration for Wagner comes from sexual relationships. She said she is fascinated by the idea of sex as a way that we interact with one another and the world.

"It's got a lot of pressure on it," she said. "People freak out about it and get really nervous about it, and it's something that we all kind of walk on top of all the time. It's where we come from, and it's always there, and it's always a layer of whatever's going on."

Wagner said sex can also be viewed as a metaphor for other ways in which people interact, including the writing process itself.

"You could imagine the poem itself as a sex act," she said. "That's a little gross, but there's a contact that happens there, and I want to think about what that contact is."

One of Wagner's colleagues, Professor Keith Tuma, said that although her subject matter appears to be scandalous, there is much more at play beneath the surface of her work.

"Cathy's recent poems are fearless in their treatment of subjects, including sex and sexuality in a manner that is performative but also reflective, ethical, and increasingly political," he said.

Wagner is also interested in songs and lyrics, and she will sometimes sing her poems at readings.

"Her work, while innovative in many ways, is also at its core lyric, as her use of song demonstrates," Tuma said.

There is a performance aspect to what Wagner does both on the page and at readings. This might include singing, acting things out, or taking on a part.

"Even when she's not literally singing, she's still very much performing," said Wagner's publisher, Rebecca Wolff. "She's not a poet who just sort of gets up there and reads the poem; she's carefully kind of constructed the tone of it."

Wagner said the most important thing for writers to do is follow their own paths.

"Relax about making sure that you're doing what's hot right now in writing," Wagner said. "Because if people are talking about what's hot right now in writing and are able to articulate it, that means it's over, it's already dead, so you might as well do your own thing."

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