BY: Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Juniper
Maggie Nelson’s writing resists reification. She attends to what she calls the “multitude of possible uses, possible contexts” of words, creates shifting frames of reference, and defies genre with works that are part poetry and autobiography, theory and criticism. Readers are drawn to the suspended quality of Nelson’s writing, to the agency it provides the reader to question meaning.
Nelson has published nine books, offering intimate narrations of the personal that uncover questions of theory. Jane, The Red Parts, and The Art of Cruelty make up a three-book meditation on violence that opens with her aunt’s murder. Her cult favorite Bluets consists of 240 numbered prose poems that tell a non-linear narrative of recovery from romantic loss while caring for a friend made quadriplegic in an accident. Throughout, she muses on the color blue to reveal the inextricability of heartbreak and desire, love and grief, and the role of art in mediating dualisms. Most recent is Nelson’s The Argonauts, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, her story of becoming a mother with a trans partner. The book challenges normative notions of the family while refusing to trap queerness under a banner of knowability.
Nelson has earned numerous accolades, including a MacArthur Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Nonfiction. She works as a professor of English at the University of Southern California. The Coachella Review had the great privilege of interviewing Nelson on the craft of writing discourse that is multivalent, in which unknowing is beautiful, for in it there is “infinite conversation, an endless becoming.”
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: “My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” Can you describe how you edit yourself into boldness? What does this feel like in your body?
MAGGIE NELSON: It feels like sitting in a chair and running down a sharp pencil! The beauty of writing is that you don’t have to take something like boldness head on. You just keep making better sentences, eliminating dross and cant, and you get there.
TCR: That’s interesting, because our next question may be related, conceptually, for you. We were thinking of the way José Muñoz imagines queer utopia, à la Bloch, as an astonishment at the mundane and wondered whether your preoccupation with the color blue in Bluets works, in part, as a practice in astonishment? Or is astonishment only something that can result sentence by sentence, like boldness?
MN: Right, I don’t think astonishment is something you can hunt down directly. As Bluets says, such demands are murderous to beauty. If you practice the art of paying close attention, astonishment can be a side effect. But it’s the attention that matters, and that comes first.
TCR: If the stanzas in Bluets were rearranged, would the narrative remain equally true?
MN: Well, it’s not a collage. It builds. I don’t write for truth per se—I don’t know what true means exactly—but certainly it wouldn’t be the same book, in which case whatever truth value or truth effects it achieves right now would be lost or changed.
TCR: “‘I’m not on my way anywhere,’” Harry sometimes tells inquirers. “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?” What is at stake in going nowhere or writing against or without teleology—without a need to accomplish, complete, or even move forward under a logic of progress? Have you gone up against any strictures around time in the publishing industry? Without being on the way anywhere, how does a writer know when a project is finished?
MN: I don’t think there really are big strictures around time from the literary publishing industry, not such as there are for journalists writing for deadline. In my experience, most everyone bragging about having missed a deadline and being in trouble with their publisher etc. is stretching the truth a bit, in an effort to make their work sound more desperately needed and awaited than it is. Perhaps that fantasy is what keeps them working. Baldwin had it otherwise, conjecturing that “it is only because the world looks on [the artist’s] talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.” That’s more my POV. Also, one can move forward without teleology—arguably that’s how the entirety of the universe, including life on earth, evolves. You can evolve without teleology; even Darwin said so. That said, every artist usually feels the need to “resolve” a piece—you want to make it better, as best as it can be, until it’s time to finish or abandon it. This, in my experience, is a very nose to the grindstone activity, not really hospitable to disruption by more macro concerns. It takes the time it takes.
TCR: You’ve said, “I have never really thought of myself as a ‘creative person’—writing is my only talent, and writing has always felt more clarifying than creative to me.” Do you consider this “clarifying,” in part, as a form of archiving queer culture or is your intention limited to the personal?
MN: I’m realizing that I’m not really addressing some of the nuances here about queer culture, and that’s because the word “queer” isn’t one I myself use very much, at least not in the way you’re using it here. I’m not against using it this way, but it’s just not native to me. I prefer a relationship to it that’s more skeptical and flickering than clarifying, ever unsure about what it means, rather than using it as if it’s a knowable adjective, noun, or verb. This is especially so these days, as the word’s connotation has changed quite a bit from when “queer theory” first ascended, with all its confidence about queering everything it touched, and knowing what that would mean.
TCR: You used to live in New York City and now live and teach in Los Angeles. New Yorkers and Angelenos notoriously love to compare the two cities. Does the feeling of a place—L.A., New York—animate your writing process?
MN: I left New York when I was 33, so it’s hard to know now what about my writing process there had to do with youth and what had to do with New York. Certainly in L.A. I’ve had the time and space to spread out, and I’ve moved primarily into longform nonfiction since I’ve lived here, and away from poetry. Poetry was the social and linguistic glue of my life in New York. I don’t have that here, but I have other things. Big sprawling thoughts and reams of sentences. I like it okay.
TCR: You take the title, The Argonauts, from a Roland Barthes’ passage: “‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’” In the final acknowledgement addressed to Harry you say: “Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be—an infinite conversation, an endless becoming.” In your exploration of the boundaries of literature, what is the role of renewal and how do we create literature and theory that acts as dialogue rather than declaration? How can memoir explore the boundaries between people?
MN: I tend to think that all literature is dialogue, even that which announces itself as declaration. I also believe in being an emancipated reader, who doesn’t feel overly interpellated or bossed around by any particular book, who knows she can always take it or leave it. We dialogue with the dead by reading, and we dialogue with ourselves.
TCR: You’ve referenced Octavia Butler as a writer of speculative fiction whose work is critical to imagining freedom. Is your project on freedom influenced by speculative fiction?
MN: I like a lot of speculative fiction and think it delivers all kinds of innovations in thought and vision, but honestly it hasn’t been the deepest source for me, and I don’t lean on it much in my new project. I remain most riveted by the kind of speculation and imagining and enlivening that comes from drilling down into the what is, asking if we really know what is as well as we presume we do. Sometimes the idea that we need speculative fiction to alter that relationship strikes me as, I don’t know, too literal or something. I mean, one can engage in world-building by breathing differently or changing one’s mind as much as by imagining a mutant race living in a parallel galaxy. But I like it all, and I’m glad that world-building and world-changing come in many forms.
TCR: There’s a scene after Harry’s read a draft of The Argonauts where you sense Harry’s initial, unspoken reaction “as quiet ire.” The next day you have lunch together and go through the draft page by page. The passage ends with Harry asking, “Whatever—why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me, to us, to our happiness?” The narrator’s interiority responds, “Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Do you feel you are closer to understanding this relationship now?
MN: Nah, I think it’s not really answerable. I mean, Harry’s question was, even at the time, kind of a rhetorical one—the reason why I couldn’t do what he was asking is that no writing can bear adequate witness to relationship. A book is an aesthetic event with its own needs and forms of logic. Those will inevitably deform the largesse of life and love, even if that deformation is in service of holding something, or seeing a few things clearly. You can intimate that largesse, you can mark down a few things from the flow. But life escapes, as it should.
Aimee Carrillo Rowe is a memoirist, theorist, and culture critic. She is a professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge and the author of Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (Duke University Press, 2008), Answer the Call: Virtual Migration in Indian Call Centers (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and a study of healing, sovereignty, and indigeneity in performance communities, entitled Queer Xicana: Performing the Sacred (under review). She is an MFA student at UCR, Palm Desert, where she’s writing a memoir about queer single motherhood entitled, After Birth: Memoir of a Queer Family.
Juniper (@june_moon) lives and writes queer futurism in Brooklyn. They are working on a collection of birthday stories as well as an essay entitled “Pseudo-Art in the Springtime” on the creation of self.