This interview with Maggie Nelson is the fourth installment in a series about queerness, genre, and essays. Nelson is the author of a number of nonfiction and poetry books, including Bluets (Wave), The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press), and Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa). Below, we talk about her latest book, The Argonauts (Graywolf).
Check out the previous interviews in this series with Jackie Wang, Ching-In Chen, and Douglas A. Martin.
T Clutch Fleischmann: As with the other interviews, I’d like to open by asking about your relationship to categories of genre and of gender/sexuality. So, first off, your work has engaged with a number of genres, although arguably has veered more toward essay in recent years. Do you think of yourself as an essayist? As a multi-genre writer? When you set out to begin a project, does categorization of genre enter your mind?
Maggie Nelson: You know, I’ve never made any substantive claim on the word essay. I don’t think all essays are domesticated, but for some reason that’s the connotation the word has for me. For that reason it often feels too genteel a word to describe some of the work that most compels me. I mean, is David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives a book of “essays”? I wouldn’t, couldn’t, say so.
I don’t think about genre very much, though I get it that a lot of people are these days. I think that, if I ever have the suspicion that a particular conversation might inhibit or delimit my writing, I self-protectively steer away from it, which is what I’ve ended up doing on this account.
I want to reference something Jackie Wang said in this series when I talked to her about traditions of genre: “Whatever protocols I’m adhering to while writing are unbeknownst to me though I don’t doubt they are operating on me on an unconscious level. With academic writing it’s a little clearer to me—especially as I try to transition into becoming a ‘historian.’ When I sit down to write a paper I have a much clearer sense of what I’m doing. With creative writing the structure or genre either emerges in the process of writing, or is specific to the occasion for writing itself.” I’m curious if this resonates with you, also. In particular, the way you bring other writers and traditions of thinking into The Argonauts leaves an opportunity to also invite in the protocols attendant to those writers, even if the text itself is not working in a strictly academic or critical mode.
Yes, I understand what Jackie is saying, and she says it quite well. I agree—the structure or genre always emerges in the act of writing, or at least that’s always how it has been for me. I guess where I might differ is that I will likely never again sit down to write an academic paper or work in any genre whose conventions I’m bound in any way to respect. Also, I feel the same process of discovery of structure and genre when I’m writing “critically” or “creatively”—there’s no difference for me anymore, if there ever was one.
In terms of gender and sexuality, do you think of yourself as a queer writer, or of your work as somehow queer? I’ve always read your work as being engaged in a variety of queer modalities, yet The Argonauts is the most explicitly queer in terms of content.
Your question makes me think about this bit about Sedgwick in The Argonauts, where I write: “Sedgwick once proposed that ‘what it takes—all it takes—to make the description “queer” a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person,’ and that ‘anyone’s use of “queer” about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else.’” What’s funny to me is that even though I completely agree with her, she’s obviously (here) most interested in self-identification, whereas to me the word “queer” often seems more useful or compelling when untethered to first person usage. Maybe it follows that I’m very invested in queer literary genealogy/ genealogies, which I would be very happy for my work to be seen as a part of, more so than I care about the (self)-designation “queer writer,” as the latter seems to beg biographical questions and introduce codified notions of what qualifies as queer to which I’ve always felt allergic.
Is it fair to assume that the queer literary genealogies you mention are similar to the listing of the many-gendered mothers of your heart? The sappy crones? Is there anyone in addition to the ones mentioned in the text directly (Barthes, Sprinkle, Schuyler, Ginsberg, Clifton, Sedgwick, etc.) that should have special attention drawn to them? I'm also interested in queer as being, as you say, untethered from first person usage, as an action or a thinking rather than an identity category. Instead of identity categories, then, could you speak to some of the qualities of action/thought in these figures and their genealogies that connect to your own work? What makes Barthes queer, for instance, if queer isn't an identity category?
Yeah, a lot of that genealogy is just laid out all over the pages, so it seems a little redundant to go over it again. One thing I adore about that Dana Ward poem (“A Kentucky of Mothers”) is that it’s his claiming of these people as his many-gendered mothers that makes them so, not any preexisting identity on their part (this is obviously related to queerness as an action or free-floating attribute rather than an identity). In that sense, it’s fun to think about Emerson or Frederick Douglass or Nietzsche etc. as many-gendered mothers of my heart. Which is kind of like that amazing William Pope.L line I discuss in The Art of Cruelty: “I think one must say in all honesty, ‘Boy, that Martin Luther King Jr. sure had a big vagina.’ This, I think, says something. It gives the legacy of King’s body as a (w)hole worth having. It digs him up from the catacombs of celebration and presence and places him in the lived moment of contraries where we all have to deal.” I like this game. It’s fun to think of certain people as one’s fathers, too (Gertrude Stein comes to mind, of course.)
Who else would you put in the fathers category? Gertrude Stein feels like a perfect one to me too—so many of the associations I put with fatherhood (positive and not) apply to her.
Bob Creeley first comes to mind. I’ll keep thinking.
Among the many-gendered mothers/fathers/aunts/etc., who are the sex writers and pornographers that stand out? I remember you liked Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers, which Douglas A. Martin also talked about and which is likewise filled with great sex writing.
Yes, Guibert is a favorite for all time. At the risk of repeating myself, I will reproduce a list I recently made in conversation with my friend Darcey Steinke: Georges Bataille, Eileen Myles, Bruce Benderson, Paul Preciado, Catherine Millet, Harriet Daimler, Pat Califia, Violette LeDuc. Surely there are many more, but that’s a start. You? I’d love some suggestions.
The people who jump to mind are Kathy Acker, Samuel R. Delany (if I ever meet him I need to chew up my nails first), Bruce Hainley, Jenny Zhang. I’m in the process of moving and all my books are in boxes around me so I can’t look at them, which feels erotic now.
Do you think that engaging in more explicitly queer content in The Argonauts affected your approach to other aspects of the text--to its structure, for instance, or its genre, or the way you construct the self on the page?
No, I don’t really think so. Honestly I don’t think of this book as “queerer” than anything else I’ve written. I can see how some people might think so, due to the book’s more explicit reckoning with gender and sexuality, homo/heteronormativity, transfeminism, etc., not to mention its inclusion of the accusation from my partner, who says to me at one point, “You’ve written about all parts of your life except this, except the queer part.” But even though in the book I have myself snapping back, “Give me a break—I haven’t written about it yet,” in some ways I think that was an untruth produced under the pressure of an argument. Because I know I’ve been writing about the same issues, albeit in different forms, from different angles, my whole life. What I was really saying to him was, Give me a break—I haven’t written about us yet.
Also, just to throw in a completely contradictory sentiment, I’ve also always felt a lot of kinship with Willem de Kooning’s comment, highlighted by Sontag in Against Interpretation, that “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny—very tiny, content.”
Back to Sedgwick, I was excited that you talk in Argonauts about Sedgwick's description of her own sex life, as being vanilla and freshly-cleaned and with a cis man, etc. (the things that make people describe Sedgwick as straight sometimes). When I talked to Douglas, he said something that echoed her-- "'I don't care, we can just have vanilla boyscout sex forever,' that’s one of the sexiest things ever said to me." He also kind of nonchalantly announces, of queer, "If someone wants to call me one, call it because they see it that way, I'm cool with that. Yeah. I don't feel like I own my interpretation." Do you think that kind of nonchalance, that disowning of interpretation, can offer any sort of rebuttal to conversations that might otherwise dismiss or restrict?
Yes, I agree that nonchalance and a practiced disowning of interpretation can go a very long way. I feel very simpatico with Douglas here (and elsewhere) in many respects: never underestimate the value of the shrug. But of course it’s all contextual—I mean, if there’s an instance at which it’s going to change someone’s life to hear you identify publically as queer, or something else contested or reviled (high school auditoriums come immediately to mind . . .), then that nonchalance might want to give way to a strategic and unapologetic declaration.
You mention that for a while you were "learning to address no one," and that this impulse ended when you started seeing (loving?) Harry. I'm curious first about what lead you to want to address no one-- both why that impulse might have arisen, and how you might attempt to do that? And then, if you could talk more about that turn back to addressing someone-- in this book, addressing at some points Harry, at some points the reader, and at some points maybe a blurry ground where both exist in one (multiplying and specifying). You say that you can address Harry because you feel that "I can give you everything without giving myself away," but I assume that's not how you feel about the reader, also?
You also state that part of the project of writing for you is to find "my own me," and that this impulse (a thing you can only do in writing) made you ultimately turn away from collaborating with Harry. So I'm wondering if you could also speak more to the difference between collaboration and address-- what each offers you in terms of possibilities, of risks, etc.
I’ve never done much collaboration, save for another life in dance, so I can’t really speak to that. I think what I was getting at, re: address, is that I came up in love with a certain poetic tradition which performs address very explicitly, be it Frank O’Hara’s Personism or Paul Celan’s intimate I/you universe or Sylvia Plath’s hot accusations and so on, and there’s something about this intimacy or heat that I’ve tried to take to every kind of writing I do, more or less. But of course there are going to be moments in writing when you’re not talking to an other, when you’re talking to yourself, or to the universe, or whatever, and it’s an ongoing interest of mine to figure out how to keep these forms of declaration or interrogation feeling alive and driven when their addressee is diffuse.
I'm also a big fan of A. L. Steiner's work, especially in collaboration with Zachary Drucker. Are you familiar with "Before/After, 2009-present?" I'm curious if you have any thoughts on this piece in regards to embodiment, how embodiment(s) can form meaning in text or image, etc. I ask because it strikes me as having similar modes to Argonauts, with the true or false statements recalling the male playwright who mentions your pregnancy during a question and answer session, calling you back to your body in a way that can be read as problematic, even as the book itself celebrates embodied thought.
I love this piece and I love Steiner and Drucker’s work. I’m excited to be screening a fantastic film by them (and others) at Lincoln Center Film Society next week, called You Will Never Be a Woman. You Must Live The Rest of your Days Entirely As a Man and You Will Only Grow More Masculine With Every Passing Year. There is No Way Out (A.L. Steiner and Zackary Drucker, with Van Barnes and Mariah Garnett, 2008). Both this film and “Before/After” do similar work, in terms of pairing bodies with text in order to call attention to the disciplinary/ brutal aspects of gendered language, but both are ultimately in service of reclamation, via irreverence, wit, and play. Meanwhile, the “actual” body, in all its anarchic beauty, mystery, and specificity, runs alongside the language, providing this other opportunity for meditation. And you’re right—being called back to one’s body, when the call is made by another (as in the playwright episode), is rarely experienced as liberatory, whereas sticking with one’s own complex embodied experience and articulating it can be tremendously so. The problem is that you can’t neatly partition off one experience from another; that’s not how selves are made, or how bodies circulate. Judith Butler is extremely helpful here, in her work on how becoming a subject necessarily involves a certain subjugation, a formation by powers that precede our existence and can be experienced as dominating—pulverizing, even. But since we can’t just wish this dependency or subjugation away, precisely, we’re left with figuring out how to undo its most terrorizing and unjust aspects, and how to amplify the reparative, sustaining ones. I think Steiner and Drucker are onto this paradox in their use of body and language; it’s a paradox I like to imagine animating The Argonauts as well.
That final scene, the dance party in the home with the children and Harry, is probably my favorite moment of the book. It reminds me of the Barthes idea that the utopian is marked by the quotidian, and in particular the way Muñoz makes use of that idea in Cruising Utopia to talk about “signaling a queerness to come, a way of being in the world that is glimpsed through reveries in a quotidian life that challenges the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiousness and fear.” I’m curious how you see your work relating to Muñoz, then, as I read it as having a lot of similarities but also a lot of differences. Maybe another way to ask this question is just, what does happiness have to offer the present?
I’m kind of obsessed with this sentence from Barney Frank’s recent memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.” I laughed out loud when I read this, since for so many people— Muñoz likely among them—honing in on when we feel inspired and in solidarity and communion with others is, like, the whole game. The idea that such feelings signal a wrong turn couldn’t be more antithetical to, say, the type of experiential politics of Occupy, or a certain kind of feminist/queer/antiracist subculture which deeply values its own knowledges, its own pleasures, its own humor, even its own undoing. Anyway, in case it’s not obvious, I’m with Muñoz and others who think that if we ignore such information, we’re lost. We waste our present lives and quite possibly our future. I love Muñoz but I do struggle a bit with his interest in futurity and utopia. It speaks to me if I turn it a certain way in the light.