Interview with Maggie Nelson
This interview was conducted by Molly Rose Quinn for issue 4 of The Atlas Review, which you can buy literally right this moment if you so desired. Today marks the shiny pub date of Maggie Nelson’s much anticipated forthcoming book, The Argonauts, referenced in this interview.
You are the author of four books of poems, two books of criticism, a memoir, and a book-length essay in numbered segments. Your forthcoming book, The Argonauts (Graywolf 2015), is described as a “hybrid account.” Poets and nonfiction writers hope to claim you in equal measure. Does the “topic” of a book mandate its form? What form(s) does the new book take?
Form is a trial and error thing for me. It doesn’t typically come first (unless it does). I often want to write about something, or find myself writing about something, and then have to try out the material in various ways, until the form feels right, takes off. Until the form and content merge, as it were. Sometimes they are already merged upon arrival; sometimes there’s a lot more swinging from vine to vine. The Argonauts, should that stay its name, is, well, I don’t know what it is. It’s in prose, and it has one skin, no breaks, no joints. Actually I guess it has little breaks throughout, white space between paragraphs or sets of paragraphs, the way a snake has a pattern that restarts on its skin. But fundamentally it is all one flow. It’s similar to Bluets in some ways, but the numbers of Bluets agitate against its flow, and Bluets had a faux-formal tone that this book doesn’t have. I imagine some will call the new book a long essay. It’s an experiment with anecdote and lived theory. All that really matters to me is that it eventually found the form the material wanted or needed or could come in.
Are you saying that, as “an experiment with anecdote,” the book’s unbroken flow was suited to its theoretical explorations?
I don’t quite know what I’m saying. It’s all pretty visceral, the actual composing — it’s more like you can look back at a book and say, this was suited to that, but that’s Monday morning quarterbacking, or whatever the expression is. I will say, in the case of my forthcoming book, I was trying to smoosh things together that aren’t always smooshed — namely, a discussion of pregnancy and a discussion of queerness, loosely defined — so that smooshing didn’t seem like it would be very well accomplished with breaks or chapters. The form had to perform a certain insistence: this IS related to that, disparate as these things may seem. Trust me by following me through.
Does this speak to your editing process as well? Bluets pulses forward in an evident collaging of propositions and narrative. Did you rearrange it as you wrote? Would you say the new book is similar?
Both Bluets and this book were rearranged endlessly. Lately this rearranging has been driving me crazy. I feel desperate for the moment when the book’s finally between two covers, at which point it all feels inevitable. Because if almost every paragraph or sentence is a moving piece, the possibilities are really almost endless. My new book is about 30K words longer than Bluets, so the rearranging has been a lot more onerous. But it’s almost done, so I can almost say it’s all as it should be.
I consider The Art of Cruelty to speak back to Jane and The Red Parts. The Art of Cruelty examines violence in art and how it troubles you. Jane and The Red Parts wrangle with your aunt’s murder, and concurrent webs of spectacle. Did the books necessitate each other?
Yes, I think of these three books as an accidental trilogy. Well, The Red Parts felt accidental, as it was spurred by circumstances (i.e. a court case) beyond my control, but by the time I was committing to The Art of Cruelty, I knew this was a trilogy, and I explicitly thought of it as such. All three books take up the problem of violence and its representations, though in Jane and The Red Parts, the representations at stake are of an actual, specific violent deed (i.e. the murder of my aunt), whereas in The Art of Cruelty, much of the art I discuss either depicts or performs cruelties with no previous, “real” referent, and most often without “victims” per se. This latter situation changes the ethics, the possibilities, of the situation a great deal. I wrote The Art of Cruelty after the others because I realized I hadn’t exhausted in the least everything I had to say about art and violence, art and cruelty, the history of aggressive or bellicose avant-garde aesthetics, all of which has long been of great intellectual and artistic interest to me. So it felt natural and fruitful and frankly relieving to spend some real time, in a more scholarly, less autobiographical way, with these issues, and with a cast of characters (Antonin Artaud, the Viennese Actionists, Brian Evenson, Francis Bacon, Sylvia Plath, Ana Mendieta, and so on) whose work I care about. I do think, however, that the trilogy resolved/ concluded my interest in writing about these issues, at least for the time being and foreseeable future.
Did the experience of writing The Art of Cruelty, or any conclusions it led you to, alter the way you feel about Jane? It is, after all, a primary text of violence, too.
Interesting question. I don’t think I feel very differently about it now — Jane was really cooked, it took about eight years to amass and write, and during that time I thought pretty carefully about all of its gestures, I guess you could say its violences. And while The Art of Cruelty is impatient with (if not disgusted by) overused/ underthought employments of shock value, that book never argues that violence or shock or intensity can or should be off-limits in art-making, no matter how unsettling the results.
Jane and The Red Parts are both books about your family, yet your research involved digging through old newspapers, consulting the writing of a person deceased before your birth, and calling up strangers — as though it were investigative or scholarly work. Could you talk about your research process, then and now?
Well, I’ve always researched. Before Jane was published I was studying for my Ph.D; I’ve also had various odd jobs since I was 20, researching for others in archives or what not. Likely what’s changed the most is the amount of time I spend in the library. I never go to the library anymore, whereas in New York the circulating library and the reading room in Midtown were mainstays of my intellectual life. I really hope to revisit that mode someday. I guess I’ll have to pick a project that warrants it. But most of the research for writing about art, as with The Art of Cruelty, involves going to see things: museums, galleries, performances, and what not. Often I want to stay home, but almost everything worthwhile I see ends up finding its way into my work, eventually, so I make an effort to go out from time to time!
I first encountered your work when you visited my undergraduate writing workshop taught by Martha Ronk in the spring of 2009. Your writing, your personality, and your multifaceted approach made an impact. I spent the following months immersed in your work, Jane being a kind of guidebook for me on how to make the poems and the scholarship I wanted from the cruelties that so obsessed me. What were the events, texts, and individuals that became your first big tug into being a writer?
As for my moments, here are the first things that occur to me:
Seeing Eileen Myles read in the early 90s when she came to my college on her “presidential tour.” I basically moved to New York City to study with her as soon as I could afterwards.
Having the formidable and exacting Annie Dillard as one of my first writing teachers.
Having the encouragement — albeit as a pen pal — of Robert Creeley, in my early 20s.
Coming of age in the AIDS era, and reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.
Reading Bukowski, Rilke, Celan, and 19th Century Russian novelists in high school.
Winning a poetry contest sponsored by The Cure when I was twelve (when The Cure was my very favorite band).
Your work really mines its influences and related texts, churns them up. Do you ever worry over the right moment to link to another artist? I don’t like any tidy boundary between my text and anyone else’s, but I find it challenging to gracefully write through other voices. Your work executes this well, and often.
O, I’m sure I do too much linking. Friends and editors are often telling me, hey, ease up, what do YOU think? Which is precisely what I say whenever someone comes at me with a text deeply larded up with quotations by others. But eventually, through editing, one finds the right balance. You can always think through others and then remove the scaffolding later.
I’m all for the busting of tidy boundaries, as you say. But I like attribution, both in my work, and in the work of others. There’s an art to attribution, it’s not all scrupulous drudgery. That’s likely why I eschew the footnote, which often seems to announce drudgery (unless it’s being used in a cheeky way, a la David Foster Wallace or Jenny Boully). I’m always experimenting with new ways to attribute, ways that make the text more interesting instead of that slow it down or bloat it up. This new book offers another experiment on this account.
One of the earliest notes in Bluets reads “The most I want to do is show you the end of my index finger. Its muteness.” The Art of Cruelty resides in the theaters of its subject. Many of your books offer a self-conscious telescope of their gestures, often the act of observation is referred to, offering a further specific and further expansion of any subject. Does your new book have a similar lens?
The new work definitively dramatizes the act of writing autobiographically. It takes up very directly the problem of writing about others–and while I’m partly talking about a literal, pragmatic thing, like, others might get mad at you for your representations of them, I’m also talking about the problem of representing any Other in text (perhaps including oneself). Which leads into larger questions about representation in general–what is gained or sacrificed in the attempt to make something legible. (This is a subject of great concern to my partner, who lives in a non-binary gender space.) I’m also interested in the difficulties of addressing others in writing, and always have been. So there’s a theater in this book about that too, a kind of tension around using the “you,” along with pronouns in general. The book’s provoking question was, what’s good enough holding, in language and in life. I started off with the idea of marrying Wittgenstein’s thoughts about ordinary language being “good enough” with D. W. Winnicott’s notion of the good enough mother, or a good enough holding environment, and it took off from there. Is writing a good enough holding environment for love? Or does it perform inevitable distortions, misrepresentations? If so, how can we live with those, make the best use of them?
And I think some of the book is written in the second person, but not all of it? Was that decision a part of this same questioning?
I’m sorting out the second person issues right now. But yes, generally speaking, much of the book addresses a “you,” but not always, and not programmatically. The trick is how to give yourself the freedom to slip around while not inducing unintentional bewilderment in the reader, which just clogs up the joint.
These difficulties in addressing and representing others are made all the more specific in the relationship a parent has to a child. You’ve written about family before, but did you find it to be new territory to write about your child, and yourself as a parent?
It’s new territory in that I didn’t have a baby or a stepson to write about before, but it doesn’t feel of a completely different order. For better or for worse, I am the same person. It’s likely no accident however that I’m not quite as hard on my mother or stepfather as I have been in the past, now that I know what it is to hold those positions. I guess you could call this growing up.
Much of your work includes narrative accounts of personal events, and your forthcoming book is about your family life. Do you find that your readers feel invited into your private life, and is this something you ever find irresponsible on their part? Do you think that artists have an inclination to open their private lives to their audience? A mandate? Or the opposite: is the act of production ultimately a veil, a wall?
I don’t think artists have an inclination or a mandate to open their private lives up to an audience, not at all. Many artists spend their whole careers on the run from or recoiling in horror from such things. On the other hand, anytime you’re putting your deepest interests out there, it seems to me very personal. It doesn’t matter if your thing is abstract morphology or chance operations or a fantasy fiction landscape. The artist is basically saying, here’s what I’m most concerned with right now, and here’s the most interesting treatment of it I’ve managed to offer. That’s personal!
Honestly words like personal, private, intimate, don’t have an enormous amount of meaning to me right now. This isn’t because we live in an age of “no privacy,” or diminishing privacy, or some such. It’s because I’ve always written what I need and want to write, without thinking all that much about whether it’s personal or scholarly or esoteric or provocative or prose or poetry or whatever. And I don’t valorize the personal over the impersonal or the theoretical, nor do I experience such realms to be in necessary opposition to each other. I hear people describe things as “too personal,” or “brave in its personal details,” or “deeply intimate,” and so on, but these terms don’t mean much to me, as aesthetic or moral markers. When someone critiques something as “too personal,” I just figure, either the person speaking has a blinding, knee-jerk problem with whatever he/she has determined is “personal” subject matter, or (more likely) the writing has another problem, going undiagnosed.
I guess I write about things that are typically coded as personal–the experience of having a body; of having sex, of having feelings, including ugly ones; anecdotes from my daily life; details about people I know and often love; and so on. But I don’t think of any of this as “an invitation into my private life.” My private life, whatever that is, remains private to me. By that I don’t mean to indicate there’s some sacrosanct sphere that I won’t touch in my writing, or that I’m not into violating my own privacy in public, as Eileen Myles has called it. All I mean is, I don’t publish things that I’m not OK with other people reading. And I don’t mind if people who read me feel that they know me, in part because I know that they don’t, and in part because the feeling of having been brought into another’s mind or skin is precious and profound, and if I offer anyone that, I’m very happy for it. I’m into the complexities of the traffic between the individual and the group, into thinking about what Fred Moten means when he, after Glissant, talks about “consenting not to be a single being.” This conversation is far more intriguing and urgent to me than any rehashing of the binary of the private and the public (a conversation in which women and people of color and transgender folk and so on don’t usually fare very well, as their bodies tend to disrupt/ be excluded from a particular conceptualization of the “public,” so the dice are loaded before the roll). Maybe in my more autobiographical writing, especially in the new book, I’m trying to dramatize these issues, inhabit and perform a certain kind of traffic, a certain kind of flow.
The act of writing does that to a certain extent – “consenting not to be a single being.” Maybe words like intimacy and personal have more to do with the reader than the artist. The act of tucking someone else’s writing into your mind. I mean, on one hand, what you’re talking about is empathy? Or its vacancy.
I like that too–reformulating intimacy as the thing a reader feels, rather than any particular set of subject matter. I guess I am talking about empathy, but I’m wary, as most of us probably are, of a notion of empathy that presumes a melding, especially a melding that the other party might not feel (i.e. “I wrote this to see /show what it’s like to stand in your shoes,” to which someone might fairly reply, “Good for you, but you still don’t know jack.”) A certain kind of distance is fine with me–the kind that allows you to behold what it’s like to be somebody else, or to be in their mind or body, without insisting that you ARE in it, that you DO know. That said, as I write I am fresh off a reading by Karen Green, whose Bough Down is one of my favorite books ever. And I do feel as though she tucked us into her mind for a spell, with immense grace and generosity. It was transformative, rare and lovely. Her book does the same thing.
What do you mean by, its vacancy? I’m intrigued.
I mean vacancy like emptiness that indicates its availability to be filled. I’m interested in empathy because I read my heartache and my encounters with violence into your work. I think writing that compels me is perhaps an act of empathy’s vacancy, where the author carves out a space for the reader to occupy. Therein I enter it more freely, more hotly, than work that insists, guns blazing, that it’s high emotion. This is something I’m anxious about with my poems, I often worry: Is this some kind of gift, lending you the definitions of my pain? Or am I just screwing with your attention?
I like the idea of space, of making space. Of course it reminds me of John Cage’s love = space around loved one. But, as Cage also said, there is no such thing as empty space. What you’re providing for the reader is a sense of space.
The only other thing I’d say here is, even if you are just screwing with someone to get their attention, a poem seems a better place for that than some other options I can imagine.
My understanding of the quotation you mentioned earlier, from Edouard Glissant, is a desire to hover in opacity, a pleasure in the weakness of any articulation or concreteness. I feel drawn to poetry for its overthrowing in this way. Is there democracy in the abstract?
I like what you say about taking pleasure in the weakness of articulation. We don’t talk about the pleasures of weakness enough! I suspect Moten would call it the fugitive, rather than the abstract, though. And I’m not ready to sign up for a democracy based in the abstract. In fact, my new book’s mantra is “pluralize and specify,” which derives from Eve Sedgwick, perhaps after Barthes’s “pluralize and refine.” Articulation may not be able to paper over holes; indeed, it may create new ones. But I would never want to come out on the side of silence because of that. As I say in my new book, quoting my poetics encyclopedia, “It is idle to fault a net for having holes.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about technology and its permanent altering of the divide between public and private discourse. You are not personally a user of social media. How would you describe your relationship to the internet?
O, the internet. I utilize email and am as obsessed and distracted by it as everyone else. But you’re right, I’ve never interacted with Facebook, or Twitter, and so on. I still have the same AOL address I signed up for in, what, 1998? I don’t even know how social media works, though CA Conrad patiently described to me what a “like” on Facebook is the other day. This is all self-protective, not moralistic. It’s really a matter of time. There are so many things I’d like to be doing, and adding more screen time to my life is not on that list. Also, I like to cook my thoughts — I usually have to burn through a lot of layers in my writing before I get to the thing I really want to say, so I don’t see what value there would be for myself or for others were I to post all my wayward, often juvenile attempts to move toward more compelling formulations. (It occurs to me now: maybe this is my truest private life, my drafts.) I don’t have any strict rules like, “all writers must disable their wireless systems to be serious writers” or whatever. I just white-knuckle along, trying not to check my email for at least a few hours at a time while writing. Somehow I don’t go down the Google hole as much as I used to. It’s a cliche, but when you’re literally paying for time to write — as I do now, with a babysitter for my 2 year old — I know I don’t have time to beef up my Amazon wishlist when I want to be writing a book, if I want to write the book.
Tracing your projects from Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions to Bluets to The Art of Cruelty, what is clear is a kind of nonfiction prose that braces against THE ESSAY as we might have learned it. Would you say that your agitation of form follows some ideological probing?
I have to admit, I often think that hybridity is the historical literary norm, and that any rigid idea of genre, or the impulse to staple a writer into any one form, is the true anomaly. Perhaps for this reason, I can’t really answer the chicken/egg part of your question. But I can say that whoever I am as a writer is just an extension of who I am as a person more generally, and generally speaking I am a person impatient with obedience or stodginess.
I’m asking this to lead into the claim that many have made and are making that form is or can be linked to gender: that the personal is female, the confessional is girly, and that experiential, untidy work is more feminine, and a similar mechanism has been applied to writing that’s called queer. Such declarations have been embraced and resisted by writers and critics, at turns, and sometimes simultaneously, and I wonder if you could speak a little about this.
I support and have in fact performed reclamations of the so-called girl or girly as fundamental to human experience (especially in Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions). But as the “true abstraction” wager of that book title suggests, I’m not really interested in making any generalizations about women or girls and their art. My partner Harry Dodge has taught me an enormous amount in this area. We disagree, or at least come at each other with conflicting ideas, all the time on this account, but I think both of us agree with the genius Denise Riley, who writes that “while it’s impossible to thoroughly be a woman, it’s also impossible to never be one. On such shifting sands feminism must stand and sway.” That’s the motion I want to get at, that standing and swaying.
I agree with you. Still, in an excerpt from your new book published in Tin House you write: “I am annoyed with myself for consulting a seven-hundred page treatise by a male heavyweight to tell me something revelatory about the bubble of mother-child in which I am currently ensconced. I have no desire to extricate myself from this bubble. But literally, physically, I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.” Some binary is radiating at you, even when you don’t desire to entertain it?
O yes! Binaries are riveting, and they are everywhere. In and of themselves, they aren’t the enemy; it’s more that they break down under scrutiny, so you’ve got to take that time. And sometimes the way to destabilize one is to pay attention to the intensity of its lock on you. Also, there’s a difference between moments in a work and what the work at large is doing–that is to say, individual moments can give voice to knots, binaries, really ugly feelings, what have you, whereas the work as a whole might offer something really different. Maybe it offers a way out. (This is likely true in both literature and life.)
Incidentally, most of the above passage has since been cut–likely in an attempt to go a tad easier on this binary between the mother who holds vs. the mother who thinks/writes. One aim in my new book is to recast this binary in more productive, maybe more unusual terms, one of which involves interior vs. exterior spaces of the body, and the Mobius strip which the phenomenological body creates. (Which is why Bubbles was an important book for me while I was writing, as it aims to spatialize rather than temporalize certain philosophical problems.)
Ok, we must end somewhere. To conclude: what are you reading, seeing, and writing now?
I’m gearing up to write a catalogue essay on four artists for a museum show, and heading to New York City soon to see some of their work, as well as Maria Lassnig’s show at MoMA PS1. I’ve been reading Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons for months now, and David Graeber’s Debt, and Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie. I’m collaborating with Harry on a short essay about the turn to the body in contemporary video art–a turn productively contaminated by a new body–the virtual body–which didn’t exist in the 1970s. All the while I’m plotting a return to a book of essays on freedom and dependency, loosely defined, which I off-roaded from to write The Argonauts.