An Interview with Maggie Nelson
When most people visit Portland, it's a monochrome day. But when I picked up Maggie Nelson for her reading at the Little Church, no clouds grayed the sky. It was all blue. How fitting, being that Nelson's celebrated book, Bluets, pays homage to this color. It was, in fact, Bluets that first brought me to Nelson. The opening line drew me in: "Suppose I were to begin by saying I had fallen in love with a color." What followed was like nothing I had encountered. Bluets read like a philosophical inquiry fused with personal narrative, an ode to a lover lost, a history lesson, and a world bent through blue.
Nelson's oeuvre, which includes four books of poetry and four books of nonfiction, raises questions about hybridity, scholarship, and confession; it muddles genre, pursues obsessions, and leans against the brilliance of past and present scholars while building a brilliance of its own. Whether writing about her aunt's murder, the function of cruelty in art, the power of pigmentation, women of the New York School, or the poetics of the Gowanus Canal, Nelson's words dig against her reader's skin and burrow. More than once, I've had the disorienting, yet delightful, experience of finishing one of Nelson's books in a single sitting.
Each year, the MFA Program at Portland State University partners with Tin House to offer a course on a major contemporary writer. It's no wonder why writer Leni Zumas picked Nelson -- whose accolades include a 2007 Writers Grant from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, and a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry -- and her polyphonic texts as the subject for this spring's graduate seminar. As the culminating aspect of the seminar, the MFA program brought Nelson to Portland, where she read from past and current projects and engaged in a public conversation with Zumas.
I had the pleasure of picking up Nelson for her Little Church appearance. On the drive through east Portland, and over a pre-reading quiche, Nelson proved gracious, engaging, and an excellent conversationalist. Staying true to the itch in her texts, our chats veered seamlessly among subjects as disparate as queer theory, baby diapers, the politics of normativity, DIY zines, new criticism, and ex-girlfriends. What follows is our post-reading interview.
First, I have to ask, what was it like knowing a graduate writing course was being taught on your oeuvre? Did you follow the seminar blog?
It was great. Honoring, happy-making. I wish I'd gotten to speak with the students a bit more so it could have seemed a bit more real, or enmeshed. But it was lovely to know it was happening. I looked at the blog a couple of times, and found it enlightening -- not about me per se, but about the rays of relation that the students sent outward into the world, the cartography they made, from Simone de Beauvoir to Otto Muehl. Amazing.
In her introduction to Touching Feeling, Eve Sedgwick says, "I'm fond of observing how obsession is the most durable form of intellectual capital." You write your obsessions. There's a constant "reexamining" that happens throughout your work. Subjects reoccur. Ideas get turned over, held up to the light, then turned over again. Do you share this notion of obsession as intellectual capital? Do you find there's an eventual exorcism that happens when you write about your obsessions -- whether it's your aunt's murder, a breakup, the color blue, or the concept of cruelty?
I am always surprised at how the same concepts or problems recur throughout my work -- not always happily surprised, I might add; can't I get onto new things already? But perhaps the real surprise is in finding the same issues in such disparate places (color theory, a murder trial, a meditation on cruelty and art, a consideration of the New York School, and so on). Sedgwick herself has written movingly about how knowledge is not something one gains once and then moves on, but rather something one knows and then forgets, and then re-knows differently, and then re-knows or re-forgets again, and so on. The latter process is far more interesting, intellectually and spiritually.
I do find there's an exorcism to the obsessions. Sometimes this is welcome, other times there's a little mourning involved. Like, I miss the blue I loved before I wrote Bluets; blue now is not the same as it was then, when blue was my secret. Eleni Sikelianos once said, about writing The Book of Jon, which reckons with her father, that sometimes she missed the richness of the pain that she held about her father before writing about him. I relate to that. But there are always new pains and new pleasures around the corner, so there's no need to mourn for too long! And sometimes, like with Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts, I'm thrilled to have exorcised the demons that my aunt's murder had engendered. Not that any exorcism is total, but my troubles on that account are infinitely more worked through than they were at the project's start.
In Jane, there's a scene with Phil, your aunt's serious boyfriend at the time she was killed, where he asks why you're so passionate about Jane's murder. He wants to know, as you say, "why I would I want to take private things and put them into the world." Why do you?
There are all kinds of political reasons stemming from feminism or other liberation and social justice movements, but the most basic truth is that I do so because it's the most natural way for me to make art. I think of Anne Carson's discussion of being a "whacher" (a word she derives from Emily Bronte's misspelling of "watcher") in her great "Glass Essay" in Glass, Irony and God: the speaker's shrink repeatedly asks her, "Why keep watching?" To which Carson responds, "Some people watch, that's all I can say."
I've always liked the formulation set forth by Chris Kraus in her review of Eileen Myles's Cool for You: "Like [Kathy] Acker, Myles values the most intimate and 'shameful' details of her life not for what they tell her about herself but for what they tell us about the culture." I hope to think something of the same is true for my work. The question of where culture begins and individual humans end is very interesting to me, especially as (human) culture is made of human beings. But really I just do what I feel I need to do and I try to do it well. The rest is out of my control.
Any one thing bores me, even within the same piece, so I tend to swerve between personal and autobiographical writing and other kinds of writing. I also have a capacious sense of the personal: I think showing your hand vis-à-vis your scholarly or philosophical interests is very personal; likewise, I think the so-called personal touches the deepest ontological, political, and spiritual questions. It's like Barthes says -- your tastes are far more revealing than your perversities. I really believe that. Imagine someone really heavy into the leather scene has you over for dinner and has all Ikea tableware -- which fact tells you more?
What book was hardest for you to write -- whether it had to do with content, research, or emotion? If it seems hard, does it intrigue you to write more?
The Red Parts was emotionally hard. It sounds cheesy but writing it often set me to weeping, or I wrote while weeping. The women and the New York School book likely took the most sheer labor, as more academic projects will tend to do (obtaining permissions, tracking down footnotes).
I don't prefer that writing be hard, so I'm not particularly intrigued by difficulty. Suffering need not be the mark of value. True to the pleasure principle, I prefer it when books slide from my side with a degree of ease (which they never do in entirety, but some, like Bluets, slide out a lot more easily than others). When they slide, you feel like you're in the vein, and therefore more affectively convinced that the writing, or the project as a whole, is good. When you struggle, you have to spend more time not knowing, which can lead to hating the project, or at least distrusting it. But since one's feelings about one's writing may not have any actual bearing on its quality (you may love something that sucks, or hate something really good), ultimately the relative ease or difficulty of the process doesn't matter too much. That's part of the beauty of books: they shimmer up out of all the mess and uncertainty and make their way in the world without your emotions attached to them (which makes space for others to have their own emotions about them).
The Tin House seminar spoke at length about your use of ghost books, specifically the way you leaned against Wittgenstein's work in Bluets. What about a ghost book, a leaning against another text, is productive to production?
Do you know the seventeenth-century writer Sir Thomas Browne? He's so great. He was intrigued by metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, and once wrote: "Men are lived over again; the world is now as it was in ages past. There was none then but there hath been someone since that parallels him, and is, as it were, his revived self." I am intrigued and moved by this idea -- not on a literal level of reincarnation, but in its proposal of deep relation between the past and the present, between one soul or one mind and another.
All of which is to say: leaning against other texts, thinking with other minds, letting another person's writing (or art, or being) haunt you, inhabit you, inspire you, bother you, quite thoroughly, isn't just a means of spurring one to produce thoughts or books. It's also a wager about how deeply intertwined our consciousnesses may be. It is to wonder (as Henry James did, in his late novels), whether consciousness exists between us, in the air, rather than within individual minds. The wild and productive gambit of "leaning against" is that we're not really leaning against others, but against a great throbbing consciousness, a soup of soul and mind in which we all share, even if that sharing is characterized by dissensus or a mirage of separateness rather than a blurry unity.
You said Bluets became the kind of self-help book you needed to read. I think it's the kind of self-help book a lot of people needed to read. Can you talk more about this idea -- writing the thing you need to read?
A lot of writers have said this, but when you write, you become a reader via rewriting and editing. I probably spend a lot more time reading my sentences than I do composing them. So you are your own first reader, trying hard to please yourself -- to think your best thought in the best words in the best order. As far as self-help goes, I don't try to write anything "uplifting" per se -- pep talks are not always very helpful, either in art or in life. I have come to trust that articulating and airing out the hard or hot parts of my psyche will help me, in the long run, so I persevere. And if the language pleases me, and if I feel I've pushed my thought to the most interesting place I can before it's taken out of my hands and published, then I feel helped.
Your writing relies heavily on quotations of others. It works like a kind of scaffolding; the quotes become the thing you build from. This reliance places you in conversation with great thinkers; it allows you into their discourse. You've called this collaging of quotes canon-making. Who is in your canon? Is it important for writers to construct their own canons?
All writers have their own canons; some just show their hand more than others. A lot of writing I love -- Paul Celan, for example -- doesn't appear to wear its canon on its sleeve. It sounds like deeply weird, idiosyncratic language boomed up from a dark inner cavern. But once you look a little closer, it does invoke a canon: vocabulary can be a canon, recurring images can be a canon, favored linguistic registers can be a canon, even favorite sounds can constitute a canon, and so on. Anyhow it feels a bit redundant to name names, as my work is filled with them, but some figures that I've noticed recurring across my books are Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Cage, Eileen Myles, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Roland Barthes, Sylvia Plath, Friedrich Nietzsche, André Breton, and Chögyam Trungpa. In what I'm working on now, the main correspondents are D. W. Winnicott, Eve Sedgwick, George and Mary Oppen, Sara Ahmed, and a few others.
In a KCRW's Bookworm interview, you say you were in the middle of educating yourself at an institution and someone, a girlfriend, encouraged you to "just move" to New York so you could study with Eileen Myles. To just go. I suppose this is what you did? You've taken many informal workshops with her. In an essay you wrote about the metabolic work of Myles (which appears in your book Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions) you refer to her workshops as a place where one could make casual affidamentos. You explain this as, quoting Myles, "a term Italian feminists use to describe a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires." What have your various affidamentos taught you? How important do you think cultivating that kind of relationship is to artmaking? To thought production? To life?
My affidamentos have taught me everything. I have had many extremely important male mentors -- Wayne Koestenbaum and Robert Creeley most immediately come to mind -- but to engage in affidamento is radical because it insists that the transmission of (knowledge, experience, wisdom, power) between women matters -- and not in some kind of back-alley, segregated prayer space kind of a way, but in a central way.
That said, mentorship is more important for some people than others. Some people really don't have mentors, and they do just fine. So I wouldn't claim it to be something crucial for thought production or life. I have worked well in scholastic settings; I have enjoyed having teachers; I enjoy being a teacher. My mind often bears fruit when engaged in an assistance-and-inspiration, disobedience-and-dissent dialectic. But there are other ways.
How has veering between the conversational and the academic allowed space for you to engage with theory, with social and political mores?
I need to talk back, or talk with, theorists and philosophers in ordinary language, to dramatize how much their ideas matter to me in my everyday life. I can't really partake in straightforward academic writing because its language too often obscures this relation, or it relies on a logic of paranoia: pointing out the blind spots in someone else's thinking and going in for the kill. I can do that -- my father was a lawyer, and a certain legalistic bloodlust runs hot in me -- but I don't think it's my best mode. I'm riveted by the combination of the conversation and the academic -- by what Eileen Myles has called "vernacular scholarship" -- but I'm not someone who is down on jargon per se. I don't feel alienated or insulted by texts written in argots that are difficult for me, or even "Greek to me," as they say. I like sliding through a text that is beyond me. I mean, you could read Deleuze and Guattari your entire lifetime, and depending on your knowledge bank, get something different out of it each time. Ditto Barthes. That kind of depth of field is fascinating to me, and it often derives from a writer drawing upon many registers at once (psychoanalytic, scientific, mathematical, literary, and so on). Not many people are going to have mastery of all these fields -- you just have to get used to swimming in waters that are way, way over your head, to enjoying the unfathomable deeps.
Do you think of yourself more as a poet or an essayist? Do you even think in those terms?
I don't really think in those terms. I do often think, once a poet, always a poet, but "essayist" is a term I have no identification with. I don't think I've ever written an essay as an adult writer. I hope to, but I haven't yet. That said, I don't care if someone calls something like Bluets an essay. But the classification game isn't for me.
In an interview, someone asked you about success. I don't recall the exact question. But you responded by saying you didn't worry about success in an obvious way. You said people generating work that matters, that behaves in exciting ways, is always found -- that it gets read by people that need it. Can you expand on this idea?
I did a recent interview in which someone asked me if I envied other writers' successes, and I said this:
"I am envious of certain people's intelligence, education, and imagination. I envy Carson's knowledge of classics, for example, or the immensely wild and learned career of Gilles Deleuze. Even though I had a very good education, which continues, I don't feel it was, is, nearly enough. My blind spots glare at me daily. But 'success,' not so much. I know it's naïve, politically nefarious, and/or patently untrue to say that 'the cream rises to the top' or whatever; obviously there are plenty of underrecognized geniuses and, conversely, many writers who are way overrated by the mainstream (this may even be a good working definition of the mainstream: that which habitually overrates the mediocre, the Doxa). But for whatever reason -- wishful thinking maybe -- I tend to think that the truly important, original, and strange work does get recognized, does get found, by those who need to recognize it and find it. That doesn't mean prizes and advances and real estate in The New York Times and so on. But it may mean the right readership. Though it may take time -- a lot of time -- and time can bury people, too."
I don't know what else to say -- it feels good to be read, to be engaged with, and it feels better when people don't say too many bad things about you over the course of that engagement. But it strikes me as very normal and understandable that everything I write isn't going to be pleasing to wide swathes of this nation's reading public, which some people think of as "success." That's fine with me. I don't have complaints about my own ride in the literary universe -- to the contrary, I have a lot of gratitude for whatever support or attention I've garnered -- but I do occasionally laugh in despair at the bestseller lists. My special favorite for some time was that book Heaven Is for Real, about a four-year-old's account of meeting Jesus during a surgery. I mean, who can compete with that? Who would want to?
In Portland, in addition to reading excerpts from Bluets and Jane, you read from a work in progress. The subject of your current manuscript deals with queer family making. How is it different to write about someone or something alive and intimately a part of your present?
You know, it started off easy -- just really necessary, natural writing -- then it got a little rough, when I realized I was likely writing a book, and would therefore have to reckon at some point with the living people involved (some of whom can't speak for themselves, like my infant son: a whole new ballgame!). My partner, Harry Dodge, is a brilliant performer and artist known to many, but he is also an intensely private person, in his way -- so the fact that he ended up with someone who exposes her intimate life almost compulsively is kind of a tragicomedy for us both. But we're moving through the looking glass on this account, and I have faith that it's all going to go really well. I'm struggling a little more than usual with wanting to do justice to those I love and live with, as I love them so very much. As usual, since I'm unable to make this struggle go away, I've had to make it part of the writing.
Is it important to risk sentimentality?
Some writing doesn't brush up against sentimentality as often as other writing. But whatever "bad" edge your writing brushes up against, I think it's important to touch it. You can always pull back from it, but at least you know where it is. It's like when I was a dancer, we were always encouraged to fall in rehearsal, so that you could know what the tipping point of any given movement was. That way, when you did it on the stage, you could be sure you were taking it to the edge without falling on your face. It sounds like a cliché, but really it's just physics -- if you don't touch the fulcrum, you'll never gain a felt sense of it, and your movement will be impoverished for it.