Room 314 of Bachelor Hall is lined with shelves of books. A plush, pink couch dotted with throw pillows sits across from an organized desk, giving off a comfortable vibe. The centered, rectangular window on the far wall overlooks Cook Field.
Cathy Wagner has made herself at home at Miami University.
Wagner is a professor of English at Miami and has been for the past 13 years, but she’s filled those years with more than just teaching.
Growing up, she moved around a lot.
Her dad was an officer in the army during the Vietnam War, so when the military called, they went. Adapting to new places has since been second nature to her.
Born in Burma, now present-day Myanmar, Wagner grew up around a way of life nothing like her own.
“I feel like my childhood was really lucky because I got to see all of these amazing things and … massive contrasts, you know?” Wagner said. “We’d move every year or so. I saw a lot of poverty, a lot of really, really interesting ways of living, and heard various languages. I think that has been sort of key to my thinking ever since, just to know that things can be otherwise.”
After the military, her father became a part of Catholic Relief Services, which took them all around the world from Indonesia to the Philippines, India and Yemen. When she was nine, they returned to the States and continued their lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Experiencing so many unique ways of life at such a young age ignited a spark inside of her. She began to write.
“I think there are things that will skew your perspective so that you see things a little bit differently than the people around you, and then that pushes you to write things down,” she said with a laugh. “What else are you going to do with that kind of feeling?”
She attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as an English major, then the University of Iowa for an MFA and finally the University of Utah for a doctorate in English with a creative dissertation.
After completing years of schooling, Wagner decided to give back by becoming a professor.
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While Wagner was working as an adjunct professor at Boise State, she and her ex-husband split, and she decided she needed a fresh start in a new state. She was drawn to Miami’s poetry cohort at the time, so she applied and eventually got the job.
Shortly after graduate school, she published her first poetry book, “Miss America,” followed by four more in the following years. Her third book, “My New Job,” was about her position at Miami.
“I felt very very lucky to land here with these folks who were thinking in really original ways about poetry and teaching poetry in really original ways,” she explained.
She doesn’t set times or places to write because it’s not organic.
“You shouldn’t set up rules for yourself that are going to get in the way,” Wagner said about her creative process. But she does enjoy writing in nature, specifically while she’s walking.
“I really like sounds … a lot of my poetry comes out of sounds, and I feel like there’s this whole world of sonic landscape that is often unattended to,” Wagner said.
When she’s not writing, she spends her time exercising, walking trails and biking. For years, she didn’t even own a car.
Yet, even with all of her work in the literary field, Wagner says her biggest accomplishments lie elsewhere.
She is very involved in activism and enjoys advocating for causes she’s passionate about.
As president of Miami’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), she works toward more fair wages for all teaching faculty at Miami. As a tenured professor, she feels obligated to use her position of privilege to invoke change.
“I feel like being an artist is [hard] … It’s so subjective, and you don’t get to have really firm accomplishments,” Wagner said. “I feel like the stuff I’ve done in terms of activism has been more clear to me in terms of accomplishments. That’s where I can see results.”
Wagner lives in Cincinnati and is working on her fifth book.
“I think a lot about, ‘What is my role as a poet?’ and writing poetry and publishing poetry in light of all the problems in the world, and how my poetry needs to change in light of those problems,” she said. “I don’t know what my poetry should look like right now. It’s been changing a lot and I’m still thinking that through.”
Wagner loves teaching, especially undergraduates, and hopes that she has a positive impact on their new way of thinking through poetry.
“There’s a way that you can end up thinking that there’s a way you’re supposed to be,” she warns young writers. “If you can just try to hold a space where you can look at that and understand what bullshit it is, then that is the advice I would give.”