Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts, Bluets, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, and several other books of poetry and non-fiction. The Argonauts won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was a New York Times bestseller. Nelson has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Fellowship in Poetry.
Colter Ruland: I first read your work in an undergraduate poetry workshop where we were assigned Bluets. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the reading list. It demonstrated how one can write about complicated ideas and be vulnerable concerning one’s personal narrative. Is writing from the personal a way for you to then engage with broader ideas, or is it the other way around?
Maggie Nelson: Thank you, and I’m glad you read Bluets as an undergrad! You know I don’t think of the personal and “bigger ideas” as opposite or even separate spheres of inquiry, per se. I often conceive of myself as doing the non-genius version of what Wittgenstein was doing when he would ask questions like, Can my right hand give my left hand money? It’s your body and it’s also a complex idea at the same time. As it should be.
CR: In many ways you’re breaking down hierarchies of language and subject matter, eliminating the sort of stuffy question of what can and cannot be put into conversation with one another. In The Argonauts, you write about your pregnancy and your partner Harry Dodge taking T, and it can occupy the same space as your and Harry’s (hilarious, insightful) interpretations of X-Men: First Class.
MN: Yes, I guess so—though to me I just do what’s natural, I’m not thinking, “this is high,” “this is low,” “let’s combine them.” Often I don’t know that something wasn’t “supposed” to be in conversation with something else until someone else reads it that way and tells me so; to me it’s just one flow.
CR: Given that your work blends poetry, essay, memoir, and critical theory, I’ve wondered about your thoughts on fiction. In The Red Parts, you question the capacity to create tidy, meaningful narratives out of life-altering events. Then, in The Argonauts, you push this a bit further by laying out your personal beef with fiction: “it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.” What purpose does fiction serve for you, and what would it need to do in order to let you “get out”?
MN: This is a very well-put question. I don’t read tons of fiction but certain novels have of course been extremely important to me; many of them are mentioned in The Argonauts itself (cf. the reference to Beckett in the first paragraph). I guess I tend to like fiction that some might call conceptual, though that’s not really the right word. Like, Ivy Compton-Burnett, or Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Brian Evenson. Fiction that I love shows me how profound world-making through sentences can be—a true and complex miracle. I guess I feel “let out” when the world created feels like it amplifies or invents or articulates ways of thinking or being that were heretofore not sensible to me, i.e. what Ranciere describes as the “distribution of the sensible.”
CR: Is there a particular sentence (or passage) that has stayed with you?
MN: From what? Fiction?
CR: Yes, from fiction.
MN: The opening of Ellen Miller’s Like Being Killed:
We crowded around the rickety kitchen table, predicting how each of us would die.
Six of us sat under a naked lightbulb that hung like an interrogation lamp from a thin wire over Margarita’s chipped wooden table. We squinted and leaned phototropically into the empty center, noses almost touching, eyelashes fluttering against the force of the light like the wings of hovering moths. We were checking the count, raising each small, translucent envelope up to the stark whiteness of the blank bulb. Everything else disappeared. The count was good. The count was the only thing in the world. It was lonely. It was scary. It was fun. It was what I did now, without Susannah.
CR: Is there an author or book you wish you read earlier in life?
MN: I don’t have any regrets about the order of things. There’s a lot I wish I’d already read. Sometimes I wish I’d been a philosophy major so that I had a lot of that under my belt already. But mostly, no regrets.
CR: There’s a moment in The Argonauts when you discuss Sedgwick’s flexible definition of queer and explain “that is what reclaimed terms do—they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.” I find this alluring, as someone who’d rather refer to myself as a fag than as a gay man in some instances. Can a “sense of the fugitive,” of subversion, coexist with an LGBTQ rights movement that aims, in many respects, to claim normalcy?
MN: That’s interesting, what you say about preferring fag to gay man—I ran into a lot of nomenclature issues when I was writing this book, I’d have friends read drafts and some would be totally comfortable with my language choices and some definitively not. It really underscored to me the idiosyncrasy of our individual and communal relationships with reclamation.
Anyway, to your greater point. I know what you mean, about the claim for normalcy—certainly that was at the core of the some of the DOMA arguments (i.e. “everything should be the same, even if Theo is Thea”). But I think it’s important to be nuanced when you get into “normalcy” discussions. On the one hand, some gay folks really do desire and embrace certain norms that we’ve associated heretofore with heterosexual culture (monogamy, marriage, etc.), and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It’s not so much certain activities that seem to me the problem; the problem comes when people are disciplined, often violently, to conform to specific norms, and punished when they don’t. It’s important to start there, I think. I probably doubt that the fugitive or subversive dimensions you’re talking about can merge with a mainstream LGBTQ rights movement, but is that really a problem?
CR: I guess what I mean by that is I’m OK with reclaimed terms that others might find offensive as a way to be in-your-face queer in certain contexts. Maybe that’s just a byproduct of having grown up in a very religious and conservative environment, and wanting to make people uncomfortable and therefore aware.
One of the things The Argonauts really got me thinking about was how, for a community that espouses inclusion, there is also the risk that it can mirror patriarchy at large. There are many examples, but right now I’m thinking of the whole “No Fats, No Fems” attitude amongst a portion of app-cruising gay men who effectively punish others by shaming their bodies or behavior. Does this lead to the kind of self-policing that Foucault was talking about? I’d like to know your thoughts on homonormativity as it relates to our bodies, and how we might be able to get out of that system.
MN: While queer folks have produced amazing subcultures, I don’t see any wisdom in treating any one group of people or subculture as having a monopoly on ethics. That’s why I quote Bersani in The Argonauts, from his classic, controversial essay in which he talks about gay slum lords: “you can be victimized and in no way be radical; it happens very often among homosexuals as with every other oppressed minority.” Bersani has long been dismissive, for example, of any rhetoric coming out of queer theory that argues that gay male subcultures (such as the bathhouses of old) are lodestars of Whitmanic democracy and inclusion; he sees them as chock full of hierarchy and humiliation. Probably there’s some truth in both visions; there’s no need to pick just one. And Foucault’s ideas about self-surveillance don’t stop at any border—his theory would hold that every body is subject to such, by virtue of being a subject. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t come up with less shaming modes of behavior!
CR: It sounds like you’re talking about being willing to grapple with these concepts without landing on any singular opinion. Like negative capability, perhaps. Do you think there is something to be said about unpacking and wrestling with complex ideas rather than seeking answers? Especially in writing, where one school of thought is that narrative is often used to provide clarity and meaning.
MN: An answer is just a pause on a branch before taking new flight. Just so with clarity—I strive for maximum clarity, but once something has been made clear, you just move unraveling the next knot of bewilderment—it’s never-ending.
Colter Ruland is a MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Persona Magazine, Danse Macabre, Switchback, and The Thought Erotic. Follow him at @colter_geist.