Reading Reports

Christopher Nealon & Catherine Wagner

[This event took place Wednesday, October 21, 2009]

Christopher Nealon and Catherine Wagner came together on this mild autumn night to read for a smallish but attentive audience. It was an auspicious pairing; both are confident, compelling readers whose writing styles complement one another.

Stacy Szymaszek started the evening by introducing Christopher Nealon, who, she told us, has been “compared…to O’Hara distracted by Bears Stearns.” When Nealon began to read from his books – first from The Joyous Age (Black Square Editions)– I could hear O’Hara clearly in them: funny, erudite, seemingly “off-the-cuff” but clearly carefully sculpted and bitingly insightful. Here are a few of the lines that hit me most forcefully; most of them drew laughs or little grunts of appreciation from the audience, too:

“I’m not crazy, right? The police are not the heroes?”

“Rise up, California. I’m tenured. I’m useless. I’m ready.”

“I enjoy the voice of the Prophet. It has a neighborhood feel to it.”

“I have this feeling that all my sexual fantasies are actually just breathing exercises.”

Nealon then turned to Plummet (Edge Books), his more recent book.  Some of the gems I scribbled down from this book are as follows:

“I am not gay; I am from the future.”

“Dude, I’m not gonna steal your acorn.”

“I think your poem is hot.”

“You walk toward it wearing antlers, and on to Pennsylvania.”

And my personal favorite, a reference to Jake Gyllenhaal’s sexy naked-with-Santa-hat dance in the film “Jarhead”:

“Jake Gyllenhaal, you are inconceivably beautiful, even in that Santa hat.”

I couldn’t agree more. Nealon was charming and relaxed in between poems; he provided commentary only when it was necessary, and for the most part he allowed the poems to speak for themselves, which they did, beautifully.

The lines above, plucked out of their context as they are, may not do justice to the overall impression I had of Nealon’s work, but they should give a sense of the balance he strikes between a casual offhandedness and an attention to the careful tuning of the line. What I heard as an audience member were drily funny meditations (tinged with sadness, solemnity) on life in the modern urban world, and Nealon’s delivery style couldn’t have showcased the poems to greater effect.

Stacy Szymaszek, in her black Buddha-emblazoned t-shirt, returned to the podium to introduce Catherine Wagner. She talked about Wagner’s “singular[ity]” and her “removal of inhibitions” – hers and ours – while, appropriately, referencing Freud. She made an apt comparison of Wagner to Lorine Niedecker – if Niedecker “had…kept a secret sex diary,” that is – because of Wagner’s ability to use rough, raw language in tightly tuned lines.

Wagner started by singing “This Land is Your Land,” a poem from her first book, Miss America, as a way of thanking Lee Ann Brown (in the audience) for first suggesting that she sing some of her poems.  She then went on to read (and sing) a few poems from Macular Hole.

Some of the lines that hit me were:

“I’m the control and the experiment bothly / you’ll never get a result out of me”

“My guilt is omnipotence erupting backwards”

“When you ask, when you ask / you pull back the healing scab / you permit the lie, you drain the bath / you air the unsealed meat”

Wagner’s reading style is both welcoming and unnerving; she has clearly (nearly) memorized most of her poems, and maintains fairly steady eye contact with the audience as she reads or sings. She reads at a carefully measured pace (as did Nealon), and she has complete control of the room. The only sound, in fact, was of her son, Ambrose, munching crackers (very quietly, but still audibly) as he watched her perform.

Wagner moved on to read from her just-released book, My New Job (Fence Books). I had just bought the book before the reading, so I didn’t know any of the work and was eager to hear it read.

She read from one section, “Hole in the Ground,” which begins with an epigraph (that Wagner sang) from a folksong: “Like a mole in the ground I would root that mountain down / I wish I was a mole in the ground.” She read some of the poems, sang others, and I felt that I was involved in this “singular” voice’s processing of the various experiences of the world – sex, love, work, motherhood, etc. – which she approaches with a dynamic curiosity and a rich and strange sense of humor. Wagner works language to the max. Here were some of my favorite lines from this section:

“Fill the / chick and filler well of ding ding dong.”

“Let me eat your face, neighbor / Who owns the Bagel and Deli on High”

“I dare you to give me pleasure. / THAT IS NOT HOW THAT IS NOT HOW / I’ll show you.”

Also from this section, Wagner sang “Song,” which is literally a penis and vagina song (and Stacy Szymaszek’s favorite poem in the book) that begins:

“Penis regis, penis immediate, penis / tremendous, penis offend us; penis / ferule us, penis, protrude from us”

Wagner finished with the poem, “My New Job.” She punctuated her reading with gestures at appropriate times, so that she was really performing the poem, not just reading it. I had the sense, from hearing and then later reading the poem, of the speaker transforming, floating away from her old body, her old self, and being born again into a strange new body that she herself has created, one that is mechanical, huge, and crudely made. But the poem also resonates with the strangeness of being in any body at all. Wagner makes the familiar new and unsettling in lines like, “I picked myself apart   With a fork / Connected a wire   Where my belly was / Coiled up   the plug / The prongs poke hurt.”

Before Wagner read “My New Job,” she joked that it was “an hour long.” I would have happily stayed there for the duration, and I’m certain I would not have been alone.

-Laura Sims