An Interview with Maggie Nelson
Andy Sanchez, Issue 37
Encountering Maggie Nelson’s writing is a bit like finding a silver dollar on a Manhattan sidewalk during rush hour: the loud step of bankers, the flapping of pigeon wings, the scrape of snow shovels on the con-
crete—the strange coin shines and breaks through all the noise. Nelson’s work, amongst the most daring and discussed in recent memory, challenges genre in necessary and urgent ways. She joins Claudia Rankine, Eileen Myles, and others in leading poetry with a strong current of genius.
In line with work such as Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Maggie Nelson seeks an organic form that rouses us from the patriarchy of the straight white male avant-garde. She challenges this history by incisively exploring the female body, the queer family, gender, and sexual fluidity.
In her most recent work, The Argonauts, she writes: “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy . . . ? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild . . . enact the ultimate conformity?” Nelson holds the reader’s attention with a poetic sensibility, and a sharp ability for critical thinking and discussion. She explores motherhood, femininity, and bisexuality full-on, unpacking the risks of writing about being a cis-female partner of a trans-man, exploring her complicated relationship with gendered tags and expectations. Incorporating philosophical works and texts on parenting, Nelson respects both the cerebral and the domestic, challenging our notion of such a distinction. She approaches the complexity and dangers of having a body in the twenty-first century with a refreshing frankness, conjuring a lyrical criticism that has earned a place in the future of literature.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In Bluets, you wrote, “Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober; I could have written half in agonized tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment. But now that they have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river—how could either of us tell the difference?” What was the editing process like for Bluets or The Argonauts? How do you identify your through-lines, or where you need to mention or accentuate certain details? If so much of the work at least appears associative and free flowing (as you mention in that wonderful river metaphor), where do you find the space to rebuild earlier sections? Or is the work more or less written from first page to last?
NELSON: Never first page to last. So much writing needs to be done before one finds one’s truest subjects, or the through-lines, as you say. The hardest part isn’t editing later to accentuate those, it’s letting oneself write out all the possibly unconnected but instinctually related stuff in the first place.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How much of your early writing/subject do you end up keeping? Maybe that’s a bit specific, as each book is definitely its own problem, but how important do you think it is to hold on to those early impulses vs your later improvisations?
NELSON: Totally depends. No regular ratio. Generally speaking, I hold onto everything.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What did the various drafts look like, how gooey and malformed were the books in their early stages? Where do you follow uncertainty and improvisation, and when do you impose planning, structure?
NELSON: I don’t know how anything comes into being, at least for me, without it being gooey and malformed at some point. I don’t feel that structure “comes later” or “comes too soon”—it’s more amorphous than that. It finds its way, of a piece. I doubt that’s very helpful, but I feel superstitious about parsing it more explicitly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: These books have some of the most startling, precise descriptions and word choices I’ve ever seen. Did choosing those words, honing that, feel closer to poetry or essay?
NELSON: I don’t think much about the difference between poetry or essay; genre isn’t a very fruitful category of thought for me. You try to find the right words for what you want to say, that’s it. That said, I came up as a poet, and perhaps because of that I am impatient with lazy formulations, be they my own or those of others. All the words count.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you expand on why genre isn’t fruitful? Especially in the way it situates (correctly or not) the reader or is used in marketing and reviews.
NELSON: I think Eileen Myles put it best: “I think literary categories are false. They belong to the marketplace and the academy. It’s the obedience issue that I’m saying fuck you to, the scholar or the editor trying to trap the writer like a little bug under the cup of ‘poetry’ or ‘prose.’” Probably I don’t feel quite as “fuck you” about it; I employ a more blissful ignorance, a “gentle aversion,” as Barthes might say. But her point here is sound.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Each paragraph/stanza of Bluets is numbered; did that style provide any comfort or forward momentum? Did breaking free from that, into the segmented fragments of The Argonauts, feel liberating, more propulsive, something new?
NELSON: I don’t conceive of The Argonauts as leaving anything behind from Bluets; those books had many years in between them, and a whole lot of writing in between them, including The Art of Cruelty, a book of a totally different sort. Each book presents its own formal questions demanding unique solutions. I think of each book as an individual problem, not so much as nodes on a continuum. Any form that works feels freeing to me. The numbers of Bluets came to me as a liberation, not a constraint.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you think of the work of classically confessional poetry: Lowell, Sexton, Plath, etc.? What do you think of the term navel gazing? How much weight or permission do you feel operating near the confessional, the personal?
NELSON: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the notion of the confessional in poetry, and on Sexton and Plath in particular, so at some point in the early nineties I had a lot to say about confessionalism, which I then analyzed (of course) through a Foucauldian lens. I still love Sexton and Plath; I never had any big moments with Lowell. I love Roethke. I don’t care much about the term “navel gazing” or discussions about the supposed narcissism of so-called personal writing; generally speaking, I think such conversations are red herrings, cul-de-sacs, distractions from the question of what makes something interesting literature or not. In other words, if something’s bad, it’s not bad simply because it’s “personal” (or because it’s not).
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you consider yourself within the lineage of these writers?
NELSON: I do feel a lot of kinship with any tradition of audacious, brazen truth-tellers, which could include Sexton and Plath, as well as also Baldwin, Le Duc, Wojnarowicz, Guibert, Myles, Shonagon, and others far afield from the New England-1950s-confessional circuit.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I love the difference in naming between Bluets and The Argonauts. How tied to the self and solitude and loneliness Bluets is, and how it chooses not to name the “you.” Whereas The Argonauts is very concerned with a sense of home or family, or as you’ve mentioned in another interview, care, and it chooses to name the real people it references. What do you think of the complicated relationship writers have with the real world, their lived experiences, and the other people who might get tangled or represented in the work? Does this give the writing a sense of energy or does it provide a choking pressure?
NELSON: I can’t think one thing about the complicated relationship between living people and representations because each representation presents its own series of difficulties, challenges, and/or excitements. I know that one can’t write about the self without writing about others; I know that that entanglement is ontologically a given, but pragmatically problematic; I know that the problem has no solution, but requires endless negotiation and attention, as most ethical challenges do. I don’t know what readers can tell about “truth,” because unless we’re told we’ve been duped, we generally have no idea! But most of the literature, even autobiographical literature, that I love, doesn’t typically circulate around the question of “real life” versus fictionalization. I mean, does it matter if Anne Carson “really” saw her Nudes in “The Glass Essay”? Does it matter that she transposed the English moors of Bronte to her mother’s home in Canada (if, in fact, that’s what she did)? What matters is that she invented those images and told us about them in perfect language.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Does nonfiction then necessitate a certain level of reverence? It’s another question of genre. Not innately—you’ve already stated what little genre gives you—but again in expectation. In reading, do we ask something classified as nonfiction to have a level of respect for its subjects that we wouldn’t in, say, fiction?
NELSON: Irreverence is always a possibility, often a necessity, no matter what the pressure otherwise.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In The Argonauts, you wrote, “I have never really thought of myself as a ‘creative person’—writing is my only talent, and writing has always felt more clarifying than creative to me.” Can you elaborate on this perceived binary? Or if aspects or moments feel more creative than simply clarifying? What’s the energy feel like in either of those two modes?
NELSON: The love I have for Wittgenstein stems in part from the way that he feels himself to be performing clarifications in the field of philosophy in order to steer the field away from dilating on undue confusions or unfruitful problems (aka “getting the fly out of the fly bottle”) rather than creating new systems, a la Kant, or Heidegger, etc. But the irony or beauty is that of course Wittgenstein created—you can create out of clarifying. If I think I’m creating something, I feel stuck, maybe even operating in bad faith (i.e. there’s enough shit in the world already, etc.) If I think I am clarifying, I feel like I’m cleaning house, lightening the load (a feeling I like).
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That makes so much sense. You’ve also said, “Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea.” Can you elaborate on that?
NELSON: Most of the action for me as a writer, and I presume for many others, lies in having the courage to pursue instincts and ideas that on their face might seem sophomoric, easy to get wrong, sentimental, offensive, you name it. I’m not sure if one ever gets used to this feeling, but I’ve at least come to recognize it when it comes around.