The English department’s New Writing Series had its first post-spring break session Thursday with a visit from poet James Wagner.
Wagner is a highly praised newcomer to the art, earning positive notices from the likes of contemporary American poets Lisa Jarnot and Ron Silliman. His 2003 book, “The False Sun Recording” earned a blurb from poet Robert Creeley:
“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 … Each word takes its own step, as it must, toward recognition,” Creeley wrote.
Along with “False Sun,” Wagner has published “Trilce” and most recently “Geisttraum (Tales from the Germans).” His work has also appeared in several publications, including Abraham Lincoln, Fence, SPD Today, Spring Formal, West Wind Review and Zoland Poetry.
Wagner read several poems from his books and collections, including some he is still fine-tuning. The “insistent sanity” Creeley noted was on full display.
For all of Wagner’s obtuse observations and flights of linguistic fancy, his work could still be tethered to the ground in a way that’s hard to put a finger on.
Aiding this notion was Wagner’s desert-dry wit. He often interjected quick comments between readings, such as noting after one particularly dour piece, “Well that’s some heavy stuff.”
Wagner seemed to be in control at all times, poised and clear spoken. His ability to take the reader on a chaotic yet safe journey into experimental poetics is something to admire.
During the usual question and answer session, Wagner elaborated on his Buddhist studies and the use of meditation before approaching a piece.
“Your mind is empty and so open at the same time,” he said. “It really allows for a more focused process.”
He also brought up his experience with autohypnosis, citing the event as a major turning point for him creatively.
“Before that,” Wagner claimed, “I was fumbling in the dark.”
Wagner also discussed his tinkering with homophonic translation, a technique he used to translate Cesar Vallejo’s “Trilce” into English. Instead of accurately translating Vallejo’s work, he picked up the sounds of the foreign language and cobbled them into English words. For example: “Zombie” becomes the German “Zahnweh,” meaning “toothache.” The whole ordeal is just as complicated to describe as it is to execute and Wagner should be applauded for using such offbeat tools.
The New Writing Series will continue on Thursday with a visit from Rosemarie Waldrop for the annual Milton Ellis Memorial Reading, beginning at 4:30 p.m. in Soderberg Auditorium. Admission is free, but seating is limited.