Danielle Zaccagnino Interviews Maggie Nelson
IN THE ARGONAUTS, released in May of 2015, Maggie Nelson writes about the queerness of pregnancy, the ways in which her relationship with artist Harry Dodge evolved during his transition, and whether or not language could ever be good enough to articulate such experiences. In this book, as in the wildly loved Bluets, Nelson is in conversation with several philosophers and activists who she calls, quoting poet Dana Ward, her “many-gendered mothers.”
Front Porch: In Bluets, you said that you carried the topic with you for years, finding blue in the world, meeting people with similar obsessions, and getting “blue reports from the field.” How did the research and planning process differ when writing about topics such as gender, language, and queer family-making?
Maggie Nelson: Well the book and the book’s references tell the story of my last 25 years in conversation and immersion in feminist and queer theory, so there was a lot of thinking and living stored up. I think of all my books as deeply feminist, but this one is perhaps the most explicitly concerned with sexuality and gender. (Even as I say that, I don’t really think it’s true.) This book derived in part from some pieces I’d written on Eve Sedgwick, who was my teacher at CUNY in grad school, and on A. L. Steiner’s art, and so on. But it was similar to Bluets in that I’ve been collecting thoughts on these subjects my entire life. I’m not sure if any book doesn’t have that long an etiology, in some sense or another.
FP: In this book, you speak about some of the repercussions of brutal honesty—for example, the friction that came from writing about Harry’s transition, when he felt “unbeheld—unheld, even,” and the danger that came from writing about your aunt’s death in Jane: A Murder. In light of that, how do you find a space in which you can continue to write honestly?
MN: I don’t consider friction or danger as reasons not to write. They might even point to reasons why one should write. And I can’t think of any reason to write without doing so honestly.
FP: You also talk about the “gendered baggage” of writing and, in quoting Eve Sedgwick, the chorus of voices in our heads that make it difficult for people who are queer, female, poor, or non-white to contend with devaluation. You say that you allow yourself to write with your “tics of uncertainty,” but then “edit [yourself] into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign.” This is a really important idea. Do you have any other insights on this topic you’d like to share with fellow writers?
MN: Just that writing itself can help you become bolder—boldness doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for the activity.
FP: What I appreciate most about Bluets and The Argonauts is that in all their texture and richness—their many themes, their intertextuality, their combination of academic language and storytelling and poetry—they remain uncluttered and retain a sense of ease. How do you find this balance?
MN: I’m glad to hear you thought so! What can I say—what you’re describing is the work of writing. You read it over and over, you move things around, you write into the gaps, you take out the trash.
FP: In parts of The Argonauts, you address Harry in the second person. Aside from these instances, do you typically have a specific reader or certain audience in mind when you write?
MN: No, I never think about audience. It impedes clarity.
FP: You noted that you and Harry discussed and decided against writing a book together, so I was excited by the inclusion of his writing towards the end of The Argonauts. Though much of the book is about his transition, his own writing here relates to the death of his mother. How did this decision come about?
MN: Harry doesn’t spend much time talking about gender, actually. Other people spend a lot of time talking about non-normatively gendered people, which can push gender into someone’s mainframe, but that’s often a reaction and not a self-initiated desire, if you follow me. Anyway, his writing about his mother’s death, which he sent as an email to friends after she passed away, was very moving to me. I knew her death was part of this story and I knew he had told it better than I ever could, not having been there myself, so I included his words.
FP: What are you immersed in now?
Maggie Nelson is the author of four books of poetry and five books of nonfiction, including The Argonauts (2015), Bluets (2009), and The Art of Cruelty (2007). She holds a PhD in English Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Capital. She currently teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.
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