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 vis-à-vis 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.