An Interview With Maggie Nelson
The Harvard Advocate Staff
Maggie Nelson is a poet, a scholar, and a writer of non-fiction. Her work is known for bending genres, refusing to sequester academic rigor from lived experiences of intimacy. She is perhaps best known for her 2015 book of memoir and analysis, The Argonauts, as well as Bluets, a 2009 prose meditation on loss and the color blue. She has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, CUNY and is currently a Professor of English at USC. Harvard Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis corresponded with Nelson by email over the course of a month.
Let's start on a style note. You've described your ideal prose as hot, as writing that "puts the needle right into the vein." What does good prose feel like, for you? How about bad? Is it easy to tell the difference? How do you calibrate your mental prose-barometer?
You mean, my own prose, or that of others? Other people’s writing is infinitely easier to judge, because while reading it I’m not struggling to get any thoughts out. As for my writing, I generally ignore questions of style while I’m writing, & go back in with an eye to sound later. Poetry is a little different, as there I’m not trying to get at an idea that could be separated from its inaugural sound.
In Bluets and elsewhere you talk about how your writing is often comported towards a "you." Your work often makes me think of Lauren Berlant's discussion of apostrophe, which builds off Barbara Johnson's ideas. She talks about how in writing we conjure up other subjectivities, phantasmagoric spectres who are really parts of our selves that have broken off so that we have someone to talk to, to address. Elsewhere Berlant writes:"To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures... but intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others."
Here I think she's getting at the same tension you address when you talk about wanting "the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person need never apply." Do you feel like writing about intimacy while, as you've put it, serving two gods––the "you" that you love, and the deity on the page––is like writing a letter that's meant to be intercepted? Or is it the work of translating private shorthand into plaintext?
This is lovely—I will look up the exchange of ideas between Berlant and Johnson, both of whom are important to me. I have often used the need to address someone in language as a spur to write, but the more I write of a given project, the more it’s quite clear that I’m not actually addressing that person any more, even though I might have been in the moment of composition. In that sense I never really think, by the time of publication, that I’m writing an intimate letter, or that there’s any doubling of purpose—I’ve been around the block too many times to delude myself on that account. I mean, it can feel great to be addressed in someone’s poem, to be the beloved memorialized in print, to sit in the audience feeling important, but even then both parties know that it’s one-sided literature and not the full relation, so that can feel lousy and cause pain. Exulting in being someone’s muse and feeling used are closely related, always have been. It’s a pharmakon.
Reading your review of Fred Moten's new book, Black and Blur, I was admiring how conscientiously you commit to writing plainly about language you describe as "a field defined by incessant motion, escape." For me, the sheer firepower of Moten's prose together with his tendency to defer satisfying our desire to "figure out" what's being said makes the inability to cleanly parse his sentences is a pleasurable kind of pain. I'm curious how you would situate yourself on the imaginary spectrum between writers religiously dedicated to transparency and those inclined towards more viscous or opaque prose. What do you think these different modes have to offer, especially in the context of the project of consenting not to be a single being?
That’s well put, about parsing sentences being a pleasurable kind of pain. I relate to that, re: some of my favorite writers. Moten himself has said some very smart things about plainness, & about precision. I won’t try to reproduce what he’s said here but I will say that the conversation has been fruitful to me, challenging, important. Generally speaking I kind of doubt that writers really choose their idiom—I think people have a way of thinking and talking and addressing, and then usually find an explanation, political or spiritual or what have you, after the fact, that gives their approach a certain kind of meaning. Which is fine, you just have to watch out that you’re not valorizing what you do as a privileged aesthetic just because that’s the way you happen to express yourself. I mean, even if I wanted to write in a very viscous or opaque way, I likely just don’t have it in me (which is why it kind of delights me when someone thinks I’ve been unclear or baroque, even if they’re saying it as an insult). I don’t think writing should be any one way or another, or that any one style is better suited to the project of consenting not to be a single being. Really the opposite—we need everything, everybody, all sounds. Because part of that consent, so far as I understand it, is endlessly recognizing our difference, while also understanding that difference as part of the world as a plenum, as da Silva has put it. If there were only one way forward, then only one single being would make it.
You wrote about your mentor Christina Crosby in The Argonauts. You've also written poetry about visiting her in the hospital in Something Bright, Then Holes. Reciprocally, she wrote about these poems and your relationship more broadly in her book, A Body, Undone. How do you feel about relationships of mutual literary use, mutual museship? Do they offer new possibilities for intimacy, or are they doubly precarious?
Each situation is distinct, and demands its own negotiation, comes with its own set of possibilities and challenges. In the case of Christina, our enmeshment in person and on the page has brought me much happiness & satisfaction, probably more than any other instance of writing about someone/ being written about that I’ve had. In my experience, being written about doesn’t usually bring the subject very much pleasure. So the fact that Christina valued my being there to bear witness, in writing, some of her most difficult, indeed catastrophic moments, and that she said so in her own book – that meant a lot to me. A LOT.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said:
People often say they feel like they know me, but I know they don’t—they’re just responding to an effect created by artifice. Which isn’t to say there isn’t real intimacy created—there is. It just means that they’re responding to a sort of “use artifice to strip artifice of artifice” loop.
What has it been like to meet your own page-dwelling mentors, your "many-gendered mothers of the heart"? Do these encounters change their work for you? Do you feel like matching up voices with real embodied people is anticlimactic, or conducive to more meaningful relationships on or off the page?
I think I’ve been around long enough to no longer ever feel “disappointed” or some such by meeting anyone I admire in person. I usually feel just fascinated and grateful. I’ve noticed that my students often report feelings of anticlimax on this account, maybe because they still expect a certain one-to-one relation between the written word / art practice and the human being. I don’t expect that. I can remember a whole class of poetry students being so disappointed after we read John Ashbery and then I took them to an Ashbery reading – they were like, “he’s not a good reader of his own work!” I was like, there is no good or bad reading of his own work; this isn’t a theater audition. It’s JOHN ASHBERY!!
You told Poetry Foundation that you're (understandably) getting tired of the phrase "personal writing." Any thoughts on how we could recontextualize or change how we talk about the genre it refers to?
Not really. I don’t think personal writing refers to a genre. I’d like it if people gave up this fetish of “she seems to be speaking just for herself, but the miracle is that it ends up a universal truth!” – on the one hand, good writing always does that, and on the other, trying to get to some universal transcendent shared experience or feeling is part of the problem anyway.
As a college lit mag, much of what we publish is juvenilia our writers may eventually disown. How much of yourself do you recognize in work from, say, your early twenties? Do you feel a sense of contiguity with your younger voice? Or is the "I" in those pieces a discrete individual, distinct from your present "I"?
O I recognize all of it. My ‘I’ has always been the same ‘I.’ Mostly I’m amazed that I had the chutzpah to think that my innermost musings and language experiments were worth publishing as soon as I’d written them. But I’m glad I did – because without that kind of chutzpah, you probably won’t go very far as a writer.
Can young writers (or older writers!) have too much chutzpah? Moreover, I have the sense that eventually we all start to develop grumpy language-foreclosing super-egos. Do you have one? If so, how do you negotiate with it?
I’m not concerned about too much chutzpah. If you’re a self-important jerk or your politics are rotten, all that will come out in your writing and personhood eventually, so if you care about that, you should engage in some good old-fashioned self-examination and transformation. And you’ve got to do your work – just because you wrote some cute tweets doesn’t mean you should or will sail into a fat book contract. But chutzpah is necessary for writing, and I don’t worry too much about grumpy language-foreclosing super egos. Just make sure you give yourself the time and space somewhere to express yourself without fear of what readers will think. You can worry about that later.