A Dialogue with Maggie Nelson

Critical Dialogue / Jennifer Hawe Interviews Maggie Nelson

:: A Dialogue with Maggie Nelson ::

Maggie Nelson’s newest book, The Argonauts, has been getting plenty of deserved acclaim since its release. Because so much has been said about the book already, I’ll just add that The Argonauts demonstrates both agility and muscle in its tour through personal narrative, mythology, the human psyche, theory, and contemporary literature and art. It is also a cerebral, soul-deep love letter to Nelson’s partner, Harry Dodge, and a chronicle of their family’s early years. If you have not read it—go remedy that situation, ok?

I was lucky to have been Maggie Nelson’s student at CalArts. She was kind enough to conduct a wide-ranging, long-form interview with me over the summer of 2015. The interview you read here has been edited for clarity and cohesion. 

– Jennifer Hawe


Jennifer Hawe: You write ably in many forms and styles. To my ears, your prose in The Argonauts is leaner than much of your previous work, even as you write about the expanding/expansive body, compose a love letter to Eve Sedgwick’s physical and intellectual corpulence, etc. How do you attend to style in your writing (if at all)? Do you chart your own evolution as a stylist? 

Maggie Nelson: I think style needs to remain a necessary aporia. Like, you figure out how to say what you need to say in the way you need to say it, and leave the question of style to others, after the fact. But given that we absorb style from the things we read, it also seems important to read writers whose style one admires.

JH: I distinctly remember you telling a writing workshop, when it comes to reading: “Crap in, crap out.” Actually, one of the things you had us read was Crack Wars by Avital Ronnel. At the time I thought the book was dangerous and irresponsible (and that these were bad things for it to be). I think in class I argued that Ronnel should not deploy addiction as critical practice because addiction hurts people and it’s serious. You basically said, So what? Why should this make addiction off limits? Also you tried to explain something about what the book had meant to you in grad school, how its wildness and hybridity shone a light for you. Several years later, sort of suffering the slings and arrows of a PhD program myself, feeling much differently about danger and irresponsibility, and thinking much differently about addiction, I came back to the book, and was again terrorized by it—with the difference that it was exhilarating and fruitful. One of those moments when you learn the lesson too late but right on time. Are there books or lessons like that for you—anything that first antagonized and later bloomed? I’m also curious if Crack Wars is still important to you. What is it like for you as a teacher when students are hostile to wonderful things?

MN: O I still love Crack Wars, am actually writing something now that stems directly from it, a kind of twenty years hence conversation with it that I wasn’t able to perform at the time.

What you’re saying here, about Crack Wars, about your experience reading it as a student, is really funny to me—I’m so glad you told this story.

One gets (somewhat) used to students vehemently rejecting what one puts on the syllabus, but I have to admit, no matter how often it occurs, it’s always a bit deflating. One doesn’t typically put something on a syllabus unless one feels confident that there are worthwhile things to take from it, so it’s a bummer when the class slides toward full-scale dismissal. I know a lot of teachers who don’t teach their very favorite works anymore, because those works feel too precious to them to have to suffer through two or three hours of listening to them get torn apart (especially if it’s the “I only read the first ten pages of this and had to put it down” variety!—the new, Amazon-review-type norm). 

But I also understand that there are a lot of dynamics at play here—like, insofar as the student “has” to read the book, that can spark a de facto resistance complex, and some students are at a place in life when they need to consolidate themselves egoically or in comparison to others, which can cause them to do a lot of rejecting or posturing—certainly I did a lot of that in grad school. I’m sure I was a total jerk over half the time, for which I here apologize. In the case of difficult books like Crack Wars, which most people—myself included—typically can understand only a fraction of—it can take some time not to feel threatened. The classic undergrad response to a difficult text is to accuse it of making you feel stupid, like the author’s sole purpose was to insult your intelligence. But that’s usually something we grow out of. 

Anyway, in an ideal world, good teachers need not be seen as the arbiters of what’s wonderful or worthwhile, nor do they need everyone to agree with them, or like what they like—far from it. But hopefully they can offer models of how to stick with things that have officious or difficult or threatening aspects while also recognizing—or even being ravenous for—what’s worthwhile in those texts, too.

I can’t think of anything right now that once antagonized me but later bloomed, but I can think of a lot of things that are on my “come back to later in life and see what I get” list. Heidegger comes immediately to mind (which brings us back to Crack Wars).

JH: OK, I want to read your Crack Wars project when it comes out! But while we’re on the subject, here’s a question I always like to ask fellow writers: How do things start for you—how do projects catch on? 

MN: For me there’s not a lot of choice—there’s either something that’s dominating my interest or there isn’t. I don’t feel like I choose. I just keep following the trail of what seems hot, and pausing in bafflement when it goes cold.

JH: I’d like to talk a bit about The Argonauts in relation to some of your other work. In The Argonauts, your stepfather tells you:

I think you overestimate the maturity of adults. […] This slice of truth, offered in the final hour, ended up beginning a new chapter of my adulthood, the one in which I realized that age doesn’t necessarily bring anything with it, save itself. The rest is optional. (22)

 Reading this prompted me to excavate a moment in Bluets, where you write:

It is tempting to derive some kind of maturity narrative here: eventually we sober up and grow out of our rash love of intensity (i.e., red); eventually we learn to love more subtle things with more subtlety, etc. etc. But my love for blue has never felt to me like a maturing, or a refinement, or a settling. (61)

I see a resonance between these two moments. Argonauts seems to reaffirm part of the earlier premise from Bluets—that the maturity narrative doesn’t serve. Yet it also undoes the assumption still operating in Bluets, that there is some kind of maturity narrative, albeit one that your persona seemed to be locked out of in Bluets. Now, my mini-reading wants to construct an arc—not necessarily a maturity narrative—in your work. What do you think? Does such an arc exist (and do you care whether it does)? 

MN: This is a great question. As per the quotes you’ve pulled out, I don’t like maturity narratives very much, or at all. They make me feel imprisoned in a rom-com state of mind, you know, “This is forty.” It’s your own fucking forty, I always feel like saying. Perhaps for this reason, I don’t personally think of Bluets and The Argonauts as spoken by the same narrator on a linked chronological continuum, and most certainly not a progression of the same self toward “adulthood.” To me, they are just different performances of different voices, different issues, different mind and body spaces. I don’t think the narrator of Bluets is an idiot who has yet to grow up because she’s lost in unrequited love; for better or worse, the pain of heartbreak is a glowing place available to us for visitation throughout our lives. And while I’ve read some reviews of The Argonauts that imply or flat-out state that its speaker seems grown up in a way that’s tied to “becoming a mother,” I don’t buy it. As Adrienne Rich famously said in Of Woman Born, “I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or morally capable than any other woman.” The tone of The Argonauts is distinct because the content is distinct and the formal experiment is distinct, and so on.

Anyway, whatever biographical arc there is in one’s writing is ultimately determined by one’s death, at which point people can make up whatever stories along whatever arcs they want. But life is full of much more accident and simultaneity than it may outwardly seem. If Plath’s housekeeper had shown up at the appointed time and interrupted her suicide and Hughes hadn’t posthumously re-edited her Ariel into a narrative of self-destruction, we wouldn’t read Ariel that way. It wouldn’t even have been the same Ariel; our Plath wouldn’t be the same Plath. If Herve Guibert had become one of the ones who made it through the AIDS epidemic (as he forecasts at the start of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life), we’d read that book entirely differently. You get my drift.

JH: To this—“I’ve read some reviews of The Argonauts that imply or flat-out state that its speaker seems grown up in a way that’s tied to “becoming a mother”—I say, yikes. Did writing about motherhood bring on any trepidation? For women it seems that motherhood is both an imperative and something they are destined to fuck up. You write, often heroically, against the grain about motherhood. I was actually afraid for you a few times as I read The Argonauts, thinking about how people might savage you for some of what you wrote. Did you ever feel like you were de facto entering a fray you didn’t want to enter, just by virtue of the subject matter? I mean, things will always be misread, but it seems like writing about motherhood, people will really misread it, are even looking to misread, as evidenced by the “maturity narrative” some hapless reviewer saw across Bluets and Argonauts. Did you worry about how you as a mother would be read in your book?

MN: Well, it helps to know that visàvis motherhood, the actual mother will never be able to do anything right (that’s part of maternal finitude), so it’s a lost cause from the start. And yes, I had/ have my own matrophobia, which rears its head from time to time, especially when I’m asked to do something mother-centric in the literary world, but I would never have let any worries on that account keep me from saying whatever I needed to say. Life’s too short; the task too urgent.

JH: You also reveal in The Argonauts that “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed […] is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” But have you ever felt unable to write? 

MN: I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt unable to write. I’ve never, like, “tried to write” and failed. But sometimes I don’t try to write. Sometimes writing doesn’t feel like the right avenue of response to life. Sometimes there’s no time to write; sometimes one hasn’t put enough in to get something good out, so one has to wait. I guess I’ve written enough at this point to trust that, if past experience is a good indicator of future, writing will always be something that I do. If not, I’ll do something else.

JH: You also mention in the book that most of your writing gets done in public. Why do you like to write in public? Where do you like to work?

MN: Like a lot of New Yorkers, when I lived in the city I preferred to write in cafés or libraries because such spaces offered more comforts and/or privacy than my living spaces. The same is true in some sense now, in LA, but I have noticed that as I get older, I can’t compose new material in public; I can only read and edit there.

JH: Why do you suppose that is? I’m much the same, and for me it has to do with being an introvert and always feeling like I’m performing when I’m in public—and I can’t perform and compose at the same time.

MN: I’m always too paranoid that someone’s looking at my computer screen. As if anyone cared that much. But the words have to remain private while they’re coming out.

JH: You also say in The Argonauts that writing does not feel particularly creative, more clarifying. Are there practices that feel more creative? Did dance feel creative? And could you draw out that distinction a bit, between creative and clarifying?

MN: I don’t think I can, because I still don’t know what creativity is. Maybe producing clarity is a creative act, I don’t know. Dance felt more expressive to me than creative, though via improvisation I learned a lot about composing on the spot. But I think it likely I just need a tutorial in the word “creative” to know what people mean when they say it. Unless I’m misremembering, I think my friend, the great poet Dottie Lasky, did her dissertation on “creativity.” So I should go ask her. Dottie, can you hear me?

JH: I’m so glad to hear you say you don’t know what creativity is. I was surprised by something you wrote in The Argonauts, that secretly it’s always been you in your writing, on the page. This runs counter to the notion of the constructed speaker separate from the self and dovetails with the enduring trope of the lyric speaker who confesses his/her innermost whatever in an unguarded moment and therefore transfers some authentic/essential self onto the page (canvas, musical instrument, what have you). I confess my own agnosticism here because of course the speaker is a construction, but if it wasn’t me on the page, then why would I write? I don’t want to go down the Foucault/Derrida/Barthes rabbit hole here, but from a practitioner’s perspective I wonder: can’t we have it both ways? Can’t the speaker be a construction and at least a partial artifact of the writer’s true self? Can’t the writer disappear into the work and emerge clarified?

MN: I think you have it exactly right. We not only have it both ways, but it couldn’t be otherwise. It MUST be a construction or representation, because it is WRITING. On the other hand, it’s silly to say the writing is not an artifact of the writer’s “true self,” even if I wouldn’t necessarily use those words. I remember very clearly being scolded as an undergrad by a visiting writer who, after reading my Foucault/Derrida/Barthesian thesis (which was part creative, part critical), asked me, ok, so, if the author is dead, are you dead? I just thought, twenty-one-year-old  that I was, what a literal-minded fool.

JH: I have another question about teaching. What do you make of the practice and paradigm of the MFA, or your position as a teacher of fledgling writers? As much as it’s been talked to death, I still think most of us secretly walk around in a state of grand confusion about whether writing/art-making can be taught, or if the task of art instruction is just to hold the door open for interested parties. And of course many fledging writers will never really fledge. Is that ever on your mind as a teacher?  

MN: I think a heck of a lot more about the ethics of higher education and student debt than I worry about whether people can be taught to write well or make good art. I think taking time to focus on writing or art-making is nearly always a very good pastime in a world in which there are so many more nefarious options, so whether or not someone’s going to be “successful” in the field doesn’t bother me. People find their way. Figuring out how to make such forms of study available to people without ensnaring them in financial systems which aim to exploit them seems more pressing to me.

JH: Thank you! That was the subtext of my question and you went right to it. To stay with this for a moment: “Figuring out how to make such forms of study available to people without ensnaring them in financial systems which aim to exploit them seems more pressing to me.” What do you suppose this would this look like, Maggie? Although so much rhetoric around creative and/or liberal education positions it as a tool of economic and social mobility, in reality such an education often serves to bind students into lifetimes of debt peonage. Rather than combat wealth stratification and promote socioeconomic mobility, institutions of higher ed often end up serving as the handmaidens of privilege and inequality. I am struggling to complete a dissertation that examines how this particular trap works, and I keep hitting a wall because so often in this context it feels wrong to me to participate in institutional forms of intellectual engagement and art-making. How can I seek the stamp of approval for my work from an institution that feasts on debt and exploitative labor practices, and if I’m persuaded by my own arguments, why would I want to? But I remain attached to the project because, as you say, the task is urgent and I would like to make my contribution nonetheless. 

MN: Well, I hear you. But the question you ask about whether or not—or how—to be a part of institutions that feast on debt and exploitative labor practices could be asked of nearly every aspect of our daily lives. So while I’m very concerned with casting a keen and trenchant and sober eye on the neoliberalization of education, I’m not personally in the business of giving up on education (wrong word; maybe better to use Moten’s “study”). Because hopefully you’re doing more than “seeking the stamp of approval”—you’ve lived in some of the ways you’ve wanted to live, you’ve angled yourself in directions that you want to travel, you’ve met fellow travelers, you’ve devoted yourself to thoughts and conversations that feel meaningful to you, and so on. Those are not negligible things. I don’t have an answer. But there is no tool without blood on it, as they say, so I personally am not searching for an answer that demands purity.  

JH: I like what you say here very much. Thank you. You and Harry nurture in your family two children and two art practices. What is that like? 

MN: O, you know, it’s good and it’s hard. Harry can make sculpture in the yard as a social activity—he doesn’t seem to mind if our three-year-old is clambering around at his heels playing “I’m an artist too.” But since that’s not always safe, especially if Harry’s pouring toxic plastic or moving heavy things, it can’t double as “caretaking.” Writing, on the other hand, is entirely solitary. I can’t really write anything if anyone I know is in the same house with me, much less in the same room. I’ve made do at times, but ideally I like to be alone, or alone in public. But I can also move in and out of writing over the course of a day or week with a bit more ease. Like, I really look forward to the part of the day when I’m not sitting at this stupid Mac, and I can return to the social fold. Sitting on your ass is pretty physically monotonous. Whereas sometimes I think Harry would be happiest, when he’s making art, to make it for like four weeks straight, without sleeping, even. Like, when art is ON for him, then it’s the only thing on until art is OFF. So, you know, we have to work things out.

JH: This reminds me of something Joni Mitchell said about her relationship with Stephen Stills: that they competed to see who could get to the piano first, and of course that helped blow up the relationship. This doesn’t seem to be your family’s struggle. Do you think it’s partly because you and Harry work mostly in different media? If you were both writers or both visual artists, would there be more conflict, or not so much?

MN: I really like that quote from Joni Mitchell! I’ll remember it forever, I think. Harry doesn’t work autobiographically, like, at all. So there’s no issue there. It is surely tremendously helpful that we don’t have the same venues/avenues for our work. I mean, the art world and the literary world are connected sometimes, but tenuously; they basically have completely different currents and conundrums. I don’t really do anything literary in LA; for me, everything here is art (or at least it is a lot of the time). Which suits me fine. We’re really, really different artists. I’m much more psychological and direct; he’s fascinated by materials and indirect analogy. But we have a lot in common, too. It’s fun.

JH: One of my favorite moments in The Argonauts is the section where Harry writes about his mother’s death. Could you talk a bit about that part of the book? Do you consider it collaborative? How involved was Harry in constructing that part?

MN: I don’t consider it collaborative—he wrote that account as an email to a few friends after his mom died, and then one day many years later, while working on my book, I looked it up and tried pasting it into my draft. When it seemed like it was going to work, I asked him for permission, and he agreed.

JH: One thing I love about that section is the inter-splicing of birth and death narratives (Harry’s mother, Iggy). I read there a profound resonance. It’s such a thin membrane between birth and death. How strong do you feel the relationship between dying/being born or giving birth/helping someone die really is? The book positions your labor with Iggy and Harry’s labor with his mother as parallel and intertwined, and it seems like Harry’s labor in letting his mother go becomes an act of mothering. Can you talk more about why you chose to put those two labors together in the book?  

MN: I don’t know. It was a cheesy idea in many ways but it also felt right. I didn’t overthink it too much; I just tried it and liked it. I don’t know how strong the relationship is between shepherding someone through death and shepherding someone through labor, because Harry’s the person in those subject positions here, not me. And while in some ways I do pair labor with the experience of dying, I remain a speaking and remembering and living person, whereas Harry’s mom remains utterly silent, and now she’s gone. We have no idea what that passage is like for the person who’s on the way out. It’s scandalous. I’ve always been very moved by the idea that reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the dying person is actually a ritual for the living under the guise of being for the dying, so maybe there’s an element of that here. I don’t know.

JH: In The Argonauts you write about George and Mary Oppen “baffling the paradigm, with ardor.” This attempting to baffle the paradigm with ardor seems a core stratagem of the book, and indeed much of your writing. Both style and content seek to baffle with ardor—the way you contend with the nuptial, the family, the state, sex, language, motherhood, queerness. You also talk about queerness and “reclaimed terms” operating as “a means of asserting while also giving the slip” (29). I see the two—baffling with ardor and asserting while giving the slip—as closely linked within the book and also emblematic of your writing. (Feinting to tell the truth, like the moment in The Argonauts of choosing the otter as your spirit animal.) There’s a willingness to let the slippery things slip, and sometimes to let readers choose between having it both ways, or none, because the inexpressible and the expressed are both available. There’s no big question, but I’m curious what you think of my take, and whether/how you think about or deploy baffling/the slip.

MN: I don’t have much to say here save that if all you said above were true, I would be very happy. I think about baffling with ardor and giving the slip all the time. These modalities seem to me much more enthralling than any well-behaved, pragmatic notion of “compromise” so often proffered as the only viable outlet for resistance. 

JH: So would it be a stretch to say that “baffling with ardor” and “giving the slip” can be queer modalities or open up a queer space? I’m seeing a resonance between what you say here about compromise with your discussion in The Argonauts of gay marriage—not exactly versus a queer nuptial, but the ambivalence toward the well-behaved and pragmatic aspects of the gay marriage movement, especially insofar as it becomes a stand-in for queer rights generally. I am curious if you consider baffling/slippage queer practice.

MN: I generally leave questions about queer practice to others; it may sound strange, but I don’t think much about opening up queer spaces or “queering” anything. I mean, you could call it that and that would be cool; you could also align it with the kind of fugitivity that Fred Moten and others talk about. There are a lot of options. Best to keep it broad, I think.

JH: You write about, as a stepparent, being structurally vulnerable to hatred and resentment. Stepparenting is a sort of contaminated position. But of course if you are many things—queer, non-white, a woman, a mother—you are also structurally vulnerable to hatred and resentment. I think immediately of Halberstam’s contention in The Queer Art of Failure that capitalism requires losers in order to have winners.

MN: I think I see what you’re saying, but generally speaking I think my whiteness and my class (and especially them together) position me and others like me as “winners” no matter what we do, because the culture never treats non-poor white people as de facto “trash bodies,” which is the ongoing ethical horror addressed implicitly by the Black Lives Matter slogan. But I think it’s worthwhile, from within this privilege, to notice the structures, be they that of stepparenthood, queerness, femaleness, maternity, etc., that have structural vulnerability or precarity or contamination at their core, so that one can build bridges of understanding without insisting on an equivalence of suffering or subjugation, if you follow me.

JH: I do follow. Thank you. This is making me think of a section in the book where you describe travelling in the world where Harry is assumed to be a straight white man and what that’s like. It seems like, when people assume straight-white-male-ness, there is a world of codes and even privileges that opens its door, but at the same time there is the undercurrent of the fear of violence you describe. It strikes me that what you’re talking about with “trash bodies” is applicable because queer bodies and lives are vulnerable to being trashed and bashed because they are not white male bodies. I’m not asking you to answer anything about Harry’s identity. I’m more wondering about your perspective on the duality, and the fact that this all takes place around bodies. If someone treats Harry (or any transman) in a fashion consistent with forms of male privilege, it’s partly because there are assumptions being made about his body. If Harry (or any transperson) is vulnerable or subject to violence, including forms of othering, that also is partly about the body—about hysteria and fear of queer bodies. 

MN: I don’t know what the question is here, but I like listening to you think!

JH: Evidently I’ve mastered the art of pretending to ask a question when really I’m just talking. In Argonauts you also write about reverberations from Jane, and how that work or its repercussions still haunt you (stalk you), your fear that you may still have to pay for that work. In your body of work, is this true just for Jane, or are there other works that have this kind of pull/power? This also seems emblematic of being an artist, of making things that go live in the world. For you it also seems hooked specifically into Jane.  

MN: Yeah, I’m pretty much over that, for the time being anyway. There are always a few moments, usually right after I’ve heard from someone freaky or hateful, when I think I must be completely insane for doing what I do. Then I realize that the freaky haters are partly why I do what I do, and I keep on.

JH: Do you associate any music in particular with the writing of Argonauts?

MN: Not really, save the Janelle Monáe song referenced in the book’s final paragraph. I’ve been very moved by Sufjan Stevens’s record for his mother, Carrie & Lowell, that came out right around when The Argonauts did, so I will likely always think of it as linked to my book, though his lyrics are way sadder.

JH: Yes, yes, that is such a beautiful album. Returning to the topic of mothering, has your relationship to your own mother changed now that you have children? I’m curious what your mother thinks of the way your relationship with her, and her relationship to your family, is figured in The Argonauts

MN: My mother has been astoundingly silent about this book, except to be completely supportive. It’s amazing, and I’m grateful. She is also a superb and inspiring grandmother, so that’s wonderful to see.

JH: I think the section in The Argonauts on the birthing experience is very powerful. What reactions have people shared with you about that section? I have no designs on having children myself, and your description of childbirth brought up intense bodily fear and for some reason anger at the prospect that my body could, in theory, endure such a thing. It’s weird because in many ways my reaction seems an inappropriate response to the sacredness that shines through in The Argonauts; but then again your writing also invites the reader right into the terror of childbirth, so readerly horror seems like it’s on the menu. What is that? Is it matriphobia—am I a matriphobe? 

MN: O sure, I’ve never met someone who isn’t, in some ways! As to your question about response—I thought I had a most excellent birth experience—no complications, no epidural, no disgusting doctors, no surprise C section—so I guess I’ve been a bit surprised to have the account reflected back to me so often as something horrible (this has indeed been the most common response). I mean, everyone knows it hurts, right? Anyway, my only goal in that section was to write down as much as I could remember about the experience—I think I wrote it about 3 days after coming home from the hospital. I wasn’t trying to convey anything to anyone at the time; it was just something I wrote down for myself, as a document. Then, of course, being who I am, I ended up repurposing it.

JH: The saying “Use what you’ve got” seems apropos. And on that note, Maggie, thank you. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you about The Argonauts, teaching, and writing.  


Maggie Nelson is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, including New York Times bestseller The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011), Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007; reissued by Graywolf, 2016), and Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005). She is Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles.


Jennifer Hawe lives, writes, and sings in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has appeared in [out of nothing] and Subsystence. She is a graduate of the CalArts MFA program in Writing and Critical Studies. Her recent work on the writer as a figure for contemporary entrepreneurship was presented at the 2015 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture.