August 12, 2012


Introduction to James Wagner March 31, 2011

It is a great pleasure to welcome James Wagner to our New Writing Series.

James Wagner is the author of Geisttraum (Esther Press, 2010), Work Book (Nothing Moments, 2007), Trilce (Calamari Press, 2006), and The False Sun Recordings (3rd bed, 2003).

In his envoi to James Wagner’s poetry, Robert Creeley wrote: “at a time of extraordinary displacement and global confusion, these insistently sane poems manage a remarkable interaction of viable realities, of multiple twists, turns and provisions of language’s singular instrument, syntax, and the words which it puts in order.” This is, to my senses, one of the most precise assessments of Wagner’s compact, tremendously engaging, and often difficult poetry. But as I bring forth and carry forth Creeley’s words this afternoon—and as someone who carries Creeley in her heart (particularly today, on the 6th anniversary of his death)—I would also want to note that if the “viable possibilities, the multiple turns and provisions” of syntax are indeed what makes Wagner’s work so appealing—it is the subtle, elegant musical sweep of this poems, the persistent, exquisitely “aural” quality of the language of these poems what makes Wagner’s work so deeply captivating, what also places Wagner in the company of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and Clark Coolidge (and I am aware that this grouping might sound eccentric, but such are the multiple twists of poetic and intellectual legacies).

Wagner’s musicality emerges from the landscape of a syntax torqued to its extremes and sometimes utterly reinvented; this musicality generates, in the reader, the strangest, most beautiful a sense of ethereal yet tightly constructed meaning. As we behold Wagner’s rare accomplishment of a meaning that is both torqued, and musical—musical because torqued, we are again reminded of the fact that these poems deliberately seek meaning out of language, that this poetic project wants to recover and bring forth “the line below which one’s identity refused to echo outward” a recovery through excavation of “an identity held by strings and effervescent metal.”  [This identity we hear is held by the lines or strings of syntax, “language’s ultimate instrument,” encased, as if, by the “effervescent metal” of the page].

Outside North America, Wagner’s poetics is linked to the multilingual transnational modernity of César Vallejo and Paul Celan, two poets Wagner translated homophonically, that is to say, transposing and reconstructing their language, Spanish and German, into English—as it is expected of all translations, but working exclusively through the sound pattern of Spanish and German, and arriving, through this work, at a most eerie (inspiring) similarity of syntactical and thematical designs. The exquisite musical and translinguistic sensibility Wagner expresses in his homophonic translations has been called “magnificent,” and has received and continues to receive nothing but such high praises.  I can only invite you to read Trilce, his homophonic translation of Vallejo’s 1922 long poem, against the original text. You will see these are well-deserved compliments, and you will be transported.

Charles Bernstein has written about the extreme difficulty, and the strange, difficult beauty of homophonic translations in terms of a contemporary sublime. I think Wagner’s Trilce does present us with such sublime. Terrifying, other, sometimes even imperviously other, and quite beautiful.

The quality of Wagner’s own poetry reflect the profound cognitive turn caused by homophonic translations, and reflect Wagner’s translinguistic sensibility—his way of thinking his own language from the vantage point of other languages and other cultures. Thus Wagner’s writing often seems to call us—and demands our attention—from a region close, but not too familiar, a region dislocated in time and languages—a region of radical dislocation.

In poems that might appear, but never quite are, surreal because of their compactness, their exquisite and intelligent strangeness, Wagner wakes us up from “the sleep of prose” to the often harsh light of a mind that moves with the intent of  “filming the forgetting,” as he does, for instance, in Geisttraum (Tales from the Germans), measuring the impact of “the misapprehensions of saying this is because of that,” (which I take to be the aesthetic project of his first book, The False Sun Recordings) and comprehending, as in his most recent QUERY/XOMBIES, the numbing “hyperactivity” of language production in the cyber environment, the constant, rushing event of the information flow that moves “faster than a flood, rendering mind blind.”

Sustained by the undivided attention of the mind, these poems shows that language is no mirror to the world but a meaning-generating machine that speaks through us, often against or beyond our own will.  In a poetry that both re-appropriates and bears witness to language, Wagner reminds us we cannot “remain uninvited to [our] own conversations” that there can be no aphasia of the heart as long as there is poetry-writing. And on this note I want to close and ask you to join me in welcoming James Wagner into our conversation.


Carla Billitteri is an Associate Professor at the University of Maine, where she teaches poetry and poetics, and critical theory. Her scholarly work on modernist and contemporary American poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Aerial, Arizona Quarterly, Gravesiana, The Journal of Modern Literature, Paideuma, and Textual Practice. She is a translator of contemporary Italian poetry, with work in Aufgabe, Boundary2, and How2.

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