A Conversation with Maggie Nelson

I fell under the spell of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (the way just about everyone does) after reading it for Matthea Harvey’s poetry workshop. I admired so much about the book: its depth of meaning, the intersection of the emotional with intellectual argument. So, I decided to email Maggie Nelson and tell her—and added that I would also love to discuss her forthcoming book in an interview—what did I have to lose? What follows is our “conversation” over her brilliant new book The Argonauts including her thoughts on public writing which covers the very personal, what language can in fact “hold” and how writing is an endurance sport rather than a sprint.

Adrianna Robertson, Poetry Staff

Lumina: In your newest book, The Argonauts (due out in May from Graywolf) you accomplish some of these same things though it seems the volume on personal gets turned up about ten decimals. This time you are letting readers into your relationship with Harry (who is fluidly gendered), your experience getting pregnant, becoming a mother–and finally the complexities faced in (queer) family-making.  Can you talk specifically about what the experience of writing this book was like? Does it come easily to you to write so personally?

MN:I didn’t know that I was writing a book for quite some time. Maybe I was in denial. The book took form in earnest when I realized there was a relationship between some occasional writing I’d been doing and some more “diaristic” writing I’d done during the first year of my son’s life. So I set out to braid them. And yes, it does come easily to me to write personally, though it is but one of my modes. This book was a bit harder to write for the reasons you mention; Harry and I needed to do a fair amount of negotiating. Hard as that was, in the end I realized that it was somewhat inevitable and perhaps even desirable, albeit in some fucked up way, in a book that is so intently about relation and interrelation.

Lumina: And, the challenge of the personal becomes heightened here as well because this story is not yours alone. You discuss Harry’s need for privacy…Harry has said being married to you is “like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” Would you explain a little about how the writing of this book may have impacted your relationship?

MN: We’ll see how it goes, and I can really only speak for myself here, but I would venture to say that the book has had a positive impact, both on us as a couple and on us individually. (At least that’s my hope — it’s not out yet!) But in a way it doesn’t really matter what happens next, as Harry and I already went through the challenges posed by its creation. And while it’s a personal book, its politics include the addition of a different kind of queer family to the public mix, which we both think is worthwhile, whatever its attendant risks.

Lumina: I’m glad you mentioned the politics of the book because I want to touch upon that in just a bit. But first would you talk about Wittgenstein’s idea “the inexpressible is contained–inexpressibly!–in the expressed.” You say that it is the reason why you write. Yet, you also describe Harry’s opposite belief that words are not good enough—not only not good enough, but corrosive to all good. He feels “once we name something, we can never see it the same way again”. This idea of the potential of language to fail, for naming to forever alter, really struck me. Can you discuss how you hoped this book would challenge the reader to reconsider language, or consider the ways that it may continually fail us or even hurt us?

MN: I don’t know about failing or hurting us, though certainly language does that too.

(I’d refer the interested reader to Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech and/or Giving an Account of Oneself.) But my larger hope here is that people come away from the book with a visceral sense of what language CAN do–for example, people often say that birth and death experiences exist outside of language, so I thought, OK, but why not try to represent them anyway? Literature is made up of such fool’s errands.

Lumina: You rise to that challenge—perhaps not only by letting words represent these experiences but by their placement as well. You describe your experience becoming pregnant and giving birth to Iggy, alongside Harry’s description of witnessing his mother’s death. Then, your description of yours and Harry’s changing bodies (yours from pregnancy; Harry’s from T and top surgery). In both instances, the juxtaposition allows the differences to also highlight the similarities, highlighting the idea that language can make these life experiences clearer for us in some way. And, raise new questions. There are a lot of your own questions in the book. But, are you also hoping the reader will question her/himself? Would you describe your writing (and its politics) as being intended for social change?

MN: I’m all for social change, but I don’t write with any designs on changing a reader via my words. If a reader wants to undergo the same kind of self-examinations that plague and enliven me, I think that’s great. But that’s her decision. I do like to imagine myself as providing an experience of a certain kind of thinking, however, one that roams around an issue and considers it in any number of lights, sometimes coming down hard, sometimes staying adrift. I feature my body alongside this thinking because last time I checked, we all think in and through our bodies, and any politics that leaves bodies behind doesn’t hold much interest for me.

Lumina: Yes, I believe that your writing, rather than dictate anything, promotes a deep consideration of our reasons for and ways of thinking. And because you mentioned the mind in/with the body, I’m going to move us in the direction of the body of the book for a moment.  I see the form of The Argonauts as being similar to Bluets in that the “narrative” is told via these prose fragments which are like short diary entries and/or philosophical proofs; therefore, an embodiment (so to speak) of the writing itself. However, in The Argonauts I’m also really interested in the way you use point of view. You address Harry as “you” at times and then Harry speaks in first person in a very moving description of his mother’s death; not to mention all of the quotes by theorists, philosophers, artists etc. I saw these as deliberate choices perhaps to make some point about the closeness of all our human experience.

MN: It’s hard to describe the choices between “you” and “Harry” in any programmatic way—they’re so integral to the book’s thematic, re: being inside an experience vs. being outside of one. You know, “bubbles.” Sometimes I’m inside something with him, and talking to him; sometimes I need to narrate from a distance. Any time you’re part of a subculture (in this case it’s a queer one, but it could be any number of things) that has an inside and an outside, you become really aware of code-switching. So there’s some of that here. Harry and I joked a lot about one question of the book being Gayatri Spivak’s famous, “Can the subaltern speak?” The passages he writes about his mother’s death are deadly serious, but they also speak to this inside joke we have going re: Spivak.

Lumina: It’s so cool how there is this text within text (all throughout) and though you want to give voice to the underlying text or the underrepresented, there is this question about how in doing so, we might end up right back where we started. There is this motion of circling back that happens in philosophy and the book is its own collection of philosophies. It makes me think of your idea of holding and/or what language can hold which comes up often. You admit, “I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Can you explain your meaning here a bit more?

MN: It’s related to the Winnicott discourse animating a lot of the book, about holding, about good enough holding. Is a book a good enough container for love? For happiness? For grief? For bodily experience? Hell if I know. I’m just in it for the questions.

Lumina: And, speaking of questions, would you answer a few more general questions for all of us aspiring writers? How do you manage to find the time to write between teaching and family life?

MN: I really don’t know. Ask me on a different week–this week I’ve had just about zero time to do anything “for myself,” whatever that means. My smart poet friend Anthony McCann once said something so wise–he said (and I paraphrase), as one gets older, the problem isn’t, “will / how I will be a writer?” but rather, “how will I get through the inevitable periods of time when, for whatever reason, I’m not able to write?” I like the latter question a lot, as it presumes that one will write, eventually; you just have to be patient, stay committed. Turn it into an endurance sport rather than a sprint. Awhile back I wrote a shitload of books–I published three in one year, in 2007–but that was because I lived alone and had basically no human obligations, so I just worked like a lonely dog. But it wasn’t really a happy time, to say the least; I try to remember that whenever I feel nostalgic for “when I had more time to write.”

Lumina: What are you reading now?

MN: My favorite books of the past year are Testo Junkie (Beatriz Preciado), the undercommons (Fred Moten/ Stefano Harney), In the Break (Moten), and The Mausoleum of Lovers (Herve Guibert). I’ve also recently read a number of stunningly good books by friends, which are about to come out or are just out, including After Great Pain by Christina Crosby, Repetition by Rebecca Reilly, and Onesheets by Brian Blanchfield.

Lumina: What are you working on now?

MN: Too superstitious to say. Something more scholarly, about freedom. I’ll keep you posted

Lumina: Thanks so much, Maggie.