An interview with Maggie Nelson

Henry Ace Knight

Photograph by Tom Atwood

“To rigor!” Maggie Nelson’s undergraduate thesis advisor toasted at her college graduation. 
“People loved to throw around the word rigorous in the eighties,” Eileen Myles said in her “Art of Poetry” interview with The Paris Review. “I’d go bleh. When I started to pull something out of the pool of incoherence, it was exciting in itself.” 
Rigor was “what you were supposed to toast to, you know,” Nelson said in conversation with Myles at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2016. “But . . . the amazement of things being able to bubble out of that incoherent state,” she went on, referring back to Myles’s “Art of Poetry” interview, “that seemed really interesting to me.” 
“On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible,” Nelson writes in The Argonauts, a book-length essay on relationship, queerness, transformation, and language that elegantly braids together memoir and critical theory. “On the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live.”
This is the character, the modality, and the joy of Nelson’s work: wed neither to taxonomy and sense-making nor to flux and mystery, but to the conversation between them, the unfolding drama of their interplay.
Her writing is like popping a stubborn lid off a long-neglected jar—it relieves, exposes, brings to light, makes space, turns the rigid elastic. It’s helpful. It achieves what feels urgent but improbable.
The Argonauts, which garnered the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, is Nelson’s third autobiographical work, following Bluets (2009)—a hybrid lyric essay on grief, loss, and the color blue—and The Red Parts (2007), about the murder of Nelson’s aunt and the ensuing trial.
Nelson is also the author of four collections of poetry—Something Bright, Then Holes (2007), Jane: A Murder (2005), The Latest Winter (2003), and Shiner (2001)—and two books of critical scholarship—Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007) and The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011).
A fellow of the MacArthur Foundation in 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011, and the Guggenheim Foundation in 2010, Nelson is currently Professor of English at the University of Southern California. 

I want to begin by asking what it has meant to you to have your earlier poetry collections—Shiner, The Latest Winter, and Something Bright, Then Holes—reissued this past year and perhaps (re)read in conversation with your more recent prose work. 

It’s been great. I feel pretty remote from my first two books of poems, but it’s been nice to see them again. Something Bright, Then Holes feels closer—probably because a lot of its material overlaps with material in Bluets, The Red Parts, etc. But it’s nice to see that material refracted through a poetic prism, as poetry allows things to be more kinetic, crystalized, abstract. I’ve also enjoyed reading poems out loud again, which I hadn’t done for a long time.

You’ve said that Jane: A Murder, The Red Parts, and The Art of Cruelty became something of an accidental trilogy. Do you feel similarly about the resonance between Bluets and The Argonauts

Kind of, but not really. I’m not overly fond of the biographical reading I’ve sometimes heard, that Bluets is, like, the sad prelude to the happy Argonauts story of finding true love. The books are autobiographical, but they’re not literal in that way. The narrator isn’t me exactly, and the timeline of literature is not the timeline of living. I guess they’re a bit formally related, in that both experiment with the relation of anecdote to generality. But in my heart, they’re very different experiments, with very different sounds. (Of course, other people are free to feel differently!)

In conversation with A. L. Steiner for BOMB in 2015, you talked about Steiner’s film Community Action Center, which “made that little portal swing open for me,” you write in The Argonauts, “the portal that reminds me of our right to be free.” The exchange with Steiner opens up a broader meditation on your experience of good art: “What I like about certain experiences of art is that if they’re really good, you can keep going back to them, and keep getting that feeling. You can attempt to figure out how and why the work gives that freedom-feeling and, to some extent, you will figure it out, but in another sense, it remains a mystery.” The Argonauts, especially, seems to have delivered that freedom-feeling to a wide readership—freedom from certain false binaries (e.g. the normative/the transgressive, devotion/self-reliance), oppressive frameworks of discourse, limiting partitions (e.g. between scholarship and lived experience). Is it your intention to construct work that supplies that freedom-feeling, that “swings open the portal” for your readers to glimpse the sunlight (referring back to the Naomi Ginsberg quote from The Argonauts) that reminds us life can be otherwise?

Certainly I’m glad if my work has that effect on anyone. But I don’t think one can angle oneself at such a goal head on; it doesn’t really work that way. For example, sometimes the task at hand is to access something brutal or claustrophobic without knowing or caring if it’s going to spawn something awful or great or nihilistic or cathartic or liberating or whatever. You can’t always go in the front door. It’s like that Fanny Howe quote I love—“The point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” Most of the time I feel myself to be doing something more akin to what Wittgenstein was talking about when he said that the role of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. That’s a form of freedom, no doubt, but while you’re doing it you’re really just focused on your little fly, your little bottle, your little problem.

One of your technical achievements that I particularly admire is how forcefully you are able to express nuance. Your writing always seems to be removing obstinate lids from crude jars, with such energy and dynamism and precision. In The Argonauts, you reveal that your early drafts are “riddled with tics of uncertainty,” “tremblings” that you later “slash” out. Can you tell us a bit more about your approach to balancing maximal critical/philosophical complexity with writerly craft? How do you sustain your commitment to nuanced inquiry without sacrificing the clean line or larding your sentences with qualifiers?

Thank you for saying so. I do write a lot of larded up sentences and qualifiers, and I do go back in later and take a lot of them out. I madden myself and early readers with my “look at all sides” approach. But I can’t really write otherwise; I have to think on the page to know what I think. (This is probably true for everyone.) But again, I don’t think you can barrel at nuance directly. It’s not a goal. It just exists. I try to think aloud on the page and then go back and clean up my sentences until I like how they sound and mean, or at least until I can live with how they sound and mean. That’s kind of the whole ball game.

Have you always felt comfortable residing intellectually in a space of paradox, irresolution, ambivalence, and knottedness? 

Sure, though it’s probably something of an oxymoron to reside comfortably within a discomfiting space. But it beats the alternative.

In conversation with Eileen Myles at the Los Angeles Public Library several years ago, you mentioned that you had this fear as you wrote The Argonauts of the book being reduced to a “MOMoir”—the “tinny version of what you’re doing that runs alongside [it] . . . And you’re trying to keep your thing on this side.” Is this something that is generally true of your prose work, that you’re sort of calibrating your writing against an imagined “boogeyman” version of the chosen material, as you put it?

Oh yes. I think there’s always the parodically bad version of the book you’re writing alongside the book you want to be writing. That’s why most writers could pen their own scathingly bad reviews—writers know all too well what pitfalls they’re treading most near. But in the end, if you don’t risk the bad book, you don’t find the edge, so it’s pointless to hold back.

Do you keep a notebook? 

Nah. I stopped keeping journals etc. some time ago. I keep buying really good-looking notebooks to carry around but I rarely write anything in them. I’m sure I’ll act differently once my memory starts to fail more notably.

In The Argonauts, you share an anecdote from graduate school in which Rosalind Krauss shames Jane Gallop for using photos of herself and her son as subject material for a lecture. Meanwhile, your work has been praised for “lend[ing] critical theory something that it frequently lacks, namely, examples drawn from real life, real art-making, and real bodies.” 

Do you think this aversion to personal material that the academic humanities have traditionally practiced is changing, as the modernist ethos of stable, authoritative objectivity fades ever further into irrelevance?

The whole idea that people putting real-life bodies into theory is a new thing is totally inaccurate. That was the whole point of books like This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color; the fusion of the body into philosophy, or the personal into the political, the subjective into the objective, or however you want to call it, has been a foundational part of feminist theory (and other theories) for decades. Not to mention that there are plenty of bodies lounging and walking around in, say, Plato.

I think it’s less a matter of anything having been actually purged from a text or a genre and more a matter of what we’re willing to see and hear there. I’ve always been with Nietzsche, who famously came to read philosophy as “the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography.”

Also, people need to remember that combining personal material and theoretical writing doesn’t automatically make for good writing or interesting thinking. Often it just makes for academic writing dotted in with some personal anecdotes. Which is totally fine, but it’s not a panacea for the woes of either genre. Personally, I’m most interested in compelling ideas and compelling writing, wherever either might be found.

I thought of translation as I read the early passages of The Argonauts on expressibility and language. “It is idle to fault a net for having holes”; this struck me as the ideal response to those who deride literature in translation for having lost something of the original. The Argo could also be a metaphor for translation: the whole that retains its original name and identity despite the transformation or replacement of its individual parts. As a writer you’re often trafficking between the space of academic theory and the broader world, introducing terms like Susan Fraiman’s “sodomitical maternity,” for example, to a readership that isn’t always deeply versed in feminist and queer theory. Do you ever feel like you’re translating in that sense? 

Yes, sometimes, though I don’t usually imagine any readership on the other end receiving the translation. I feel like I’m mostly just making things clearer for myself, which sometimes happens by dragging ideas or formulations between realms.

It’s very moving to read about the debates you and Harry have about language, narrative, and art. I’m thinking of the early passages in The Argonauts about the limits of expression, of course, but also the X-Men assimilation vs. revolution argument, and this excerpt from another interview I read recently: “Harry and I are always having this debate in our house: should the work rehearse the problem, or should it try to leap over it? He’s a natural leaper; I can be a natural rehearser. But that’s why Roland Barthes’s comment in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes about active/reactive writing has been so liberating to me: ‘In what he writes, there are two texts. Text I is reactive, moved by indignations, fears, unspoken rejoinders, minor paranoias, defenses, scenes. Text II is active, moved by pleasure.’ The Argonauts is a book with these two texts running through it; it doesn’t put pressure on itself to choose.” How has the “infinite conversation, the endless becoming” that you have with Harry most changed your approach to writing? 

It hasn’t changed my writing life per se, but it has changed his—I think he got tired of me taking up all the book space so he up and wrote his own! It’s called My Meteorite, (or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing), and will be out with Penguin Press next year. It’s completely brilliant, in my unbiased opinion.

I am still always trying to figure out how to leap and not rehearse, which is hard when one is writing critical/analytical prose, as opposed to, say, making poems or abstract sculptures. (“Any work of art that can be understood is the product of journalism,” says Tristan Tzara.) But you still have to try, because writing that doesn’t enact something and just discursively blah blah blahs bores me to tears. The struggle is real!

I’m always edified by talking with Harry, even if the problems which plague each of us (plague in a good way—like, drive us) aren’t synonymous. It’s often interesting to be driven mad by a problem which it’s clear the other person does not experience as a big deal, maybe even not as a problem. Sometimes I feel a hair ashamed, the way you feel when you have some giant revelation about something and the other person is like, what else is new? You know, they’re already there, and you’re dithering on your island over here. But then I remember that the birth of art and thought has to do with different minds thinking about overlapping or intersecting things distinctly. That’s how we live, and I’m very grateful for it.

Elsewhere you’ve mentioned that you’re at work on a book about freedom. Can you tell us a little bit about that project? 

No, because I’m too deep into it, but hopefully soon.

On the subject of freedom, and in light of current politics, do you feel about ready for California secession? 

Well, secession was a more exciting idea before we learned that Russian trolls were pushing it! Certainly I value California and know it could soar ahead if not tethered in many ways to the rest of the country. But it also doesn’t feel like a great time to get amped up about making new boundaries or nationalisms, so for now it’s just stay and fight. You know the drill.