“HOW CAN A BOOK be both a free expression and a negotiation?” Maggie Nelson writes early on in The Argonauts. The answer to this question is the book itself, in which she not only navigates her way through new motherhood and a genderqueer partnership, but expresses and negotiates the space within and around the “gendered bodies” conversation. Moreover, she manages to engage with other voices — from D. W. Winnicott to Audre Lorde to Paul Preciado — without allowing them to drown out the sound of her own, clearing the way for the most necessary parts of the dialogue.
As Nelson puts it in The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W.W. Norton, 2012), she has “often wondered whether there exists a greater pleasure than the feeling — however brief or illusory — that by writing, one is in fact incinerating layers of crap rather than tossing more of it onto the landfill. This can be a difficult feeling to achieve when the medium is language.” Nonetheless she has achieved something very much like it again and again in her work — in poetry, memoir, and theory.
The Argonatus is Nelson’s fifth book of nonfiction. Having long admired her composure on the page, as well as her ability to straddle the line between the personal and the political, I was eager to talk to her about beauty and risk in both criticism and autobiographical writing, both of which she covers in her latest book. Because I live in Ohio and Nelson is in Los Angeles, we conducted our conversation over email.
MICAH MCCRARY: I want to start with the word “autotheory,” which you introduce to us early on in The Argonauts. How do you hope your readers will interpret this concept?
MAGGIE NELSON: I flat out stole this term from Paul Preciado’s amazing Testo Junkie. I don’t know of another place where it’s been used. I’m always looking for terms that are not “memoir” to describe autobiographical writing that exceeds the boundaries of the “personal,” and since this book has more theory in it than other books of mine, it seemed an apt description, even if its form, or its particular investment in theory, is quite distinct from Preciado’s experiment. I was moved and felt a tremendous kinship with the opening lines of Testo Junkie, which read:
This book is not a memoir. This book is a testosterone-based, voluntary intoxication protocol, which concerns the body and affects of BP. A body-essay. […] If things must be pushed to the extreme, this is a somato-political fiction, a theory of the self, a self-theory.
I felt The Argonauts to be a similar project, not in terms of its being a T-based protocol, but vis-à-vis its charting the vectors and vicissitudes of my own body: its angling in the direction of my beloved Harry, its experience of bearing and caring for a child, and so on.
You’re currently a professor at CalArts. How do your ideas about genre affect your teaching? And how do they seat you specifically within the School of Critical Studies?
I’m very lucky to be housed in a school and a program where I can teach most anything in the humanities I want; further, our MFA program was specifically founded on its lack of partition between so-called “critical” and “creative” writing, so it’s a natural home for me. While writing this book I taught a course called “Wild Theory” for my grad students, focused on theoretical writing that falls out of boundaries or disciplines, or even sense-making — that was a lot of fun, and nourishing for this project.
Do your students ask about how to insert themselves into critical conversation? What advice do you give them?
You know, they don’t often ask. They’re already out there doing it. We stress a certain cross-medium, DIY approach at CalArts — our students and alums are very busy starting presses and reading series and gallery spaces and so on. And since it’s an art-oriented environment rather than a strictly literary one, many of them naturally fall into the roles of both artist and critic. They’re often invited (or drafted, as the case may be) into writing on behalf of the visual and performing artists in our midst (some of whom may also be ourselves).
How much of writing is a surrender for you? Or do you feel you’re in total control?
Control and surrender wouldn’t be the poles I would choose. Doggedly following one’s interests without fixating on their outcome would be a more accurate description. You know: “riding the blinds.”
When it came to writing The Argonauts, what was step one? It seems it could’ve started off as a diaristic project of sorts.
It started with a talk I gave about Eve Sedgwick — her influence on me — and then I wrote a long review of her posthumously published work, The Weather in Proust, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Another early piece of the book was an essay I wrote on A.L. Steiner’s “Puppies and Babies” show, about sodomitical maternity. Whatever diaristic writing I’d done about giving birth or my son’s early days and months was not writing I thought likely for publication. But, for better or worse, here I am. Here it is.
As a work of autotheory, was there one voice you found yourself gravitating toward most? Winnicott? Krauss? Sedgwick?
Preciado, as per above, even though I only discovered Testo Junkie late in the game. Very little about Sedgwick’s style is in my wheelhouse, as they say, but sticking with her elaborate sentences and astonishing diction has been very inspiring to me. But maybe Winnicott most of all, having to do with his deceptive and often beautiful simplicity. Although The Argonauts doesn’t have nearly as much equanimity as his writing does.
That’s interesting. For me, The Argonauts comes off as calm — even calculated. Could you talk about your pre-writing process for this book? About how you maintained the self-assured tone of this writing?
That’s nice to hear. (The calm part — maybe not the calculated!) But what is pre-writing? I didn’t plan anything, I just wrote. Tone is hard: often outside readers (by which I mean smart friends) help me with tone after I’ve written something that might be called a draft. Usually every couple of paragraphs I will go a sentence or two too far into pique, or obvious critique, or theoretical slog, or cheesiness; another party can feel that excess more than I can, and make the right slash-throughs in the final hour.
In The Argonauts you talk about “potentially fraught identities,” which makes me wonder how your persona in this book might be different from the Maggie Nelson who wrote Bluets, or The Art of Cruelty.
Actually, with this book, the fraught parts had (or have) less to do with the writing than with interfacing with the world, with others — i.e., making sure Harry was comfortable with the writing, steeling myself for the possibility of questions about identity or queerness or maternity whose terms or presumptions irked me, and so on.
Speaking of steeling yourself: what has your experience been with social media? Is “instantaneous, noncalibrated, digital self-revelation” (as you say in the book) still one of your nightmares?
Yeah, probably even more so now, as it all looks so increasingly curdled, at least from afar. Even an email interview like this one can make me tense; because you know whatever you say might live forever in the ether, rather than just getting thrown out with the week’s recycling. What can you do? Practice gentle aversion, as Barthes might say.
But, in spite of your own resistance, do you think the internet helps writers enter this public conversation? I’m referring to your thoughts on social media in contrast to writer-bloggers like Kate Zambreno or, as you mention, Jackie Wang, and their influence on the larger conversation surrounding gender, sexuality, the body, etc.
I think the internet absolutely allows the people you’ve mentioned and many others not just to participate, but to create the conversation — to set its terms — and in the process to find and build communities that sustain and inspire them. I think that’s totally great. When I was writing The Argonauts I’d sometimes visit my friend Michelle Tea’s blog, “Getting Pregnant at 40 with Michelle Tea,” and feel lifted by her frankness and humor, by the novel and good-spirited connections she was so obviously making there. But due to temperament and self-protectiveness, I need to remain mostly a tourist in this realm, and often an abstainer. I feel 110 percent sure I already spend too much time looking at a screen, so I’m loath to add anything to my life that would increase that quotient.
With many writers it seems that there’s an impetus to move on to the next project. But I’m wondering how you feel when people bring up the older work — like Jane: A Murder or Something Bright, Then Holes?
I do feel always a strong need to move on, to get to the next thing, but I don’t have trouble standing by my previous books. I may not love every word, but I respect them, which may be another way of saying that I respect the person who wrote them. As Joan Didion says, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us …” Case in point: The Red Parts is being reissued by Graywolf in spring 2016, which I’m totally thrilled about; I’m really enjoying revisiting that project right now in preparation for its re-release, especially because the book was painful for me to write and in some ways to publish, so it wasn’t able to grant me the same pleasure I’m getting from its repackaging/reissuing now.
You wrote, of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” in The Art of Cruelty, that it’s “giving us as poetic adage what any number of other fields give us as statistic.” I want to say the same thing about The Argonauts, in that it highlights the genderqueer relationship in a way that’s uniquely poetic compared to the ways this kind of relationship has been previously written about (in columns, op-eds, blogs, etc.). How did it feel to write about your own relationship in long form?
It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, but the way you put it seems just exactly right. There is so much that literature or art can do that columns, blogs, op-eds, mainstream nonfiction, simply cannot. For example, it’s easy to talk, content-wise, about indeterminacy, about ambivalent desires, and so on and so forth, but a different thing altogether to try to create a literary environment in which those things might be experienced by reader or writer. That’s the trouble with so much mainstream or even academic writing, to me — it might talk about things I’m interested in, but it can’t generate an experience of them, bound, as they are, by genre, and by the credo of instrumental communication.
Would you say that you try to bridge the gap between mainstream and academic writing? Autotheory or not, your work (like Koestenbaum’s, Biss’s, Als’s, Jamison’s) seems to reach out to a demographic that’s neither strictly mainstream nor academic. Who do you feel you write for?
I don’t aim to bridge any gap, but if the writing does so, that’s cool. I write in the idioms that are most native and compelling to me. Probably my writing is too mainstream for some and too academic for others; that doesn’t bother me. I would be more bothered if I thought I fell prey to the most deadening aspects of either or both. I’ve always admired Eileen Myles’s faith that she’s created, over the past 40 years, her own demographic — invented an audience to receive her that didn’t necessarily exist when she started out. I love that idea.
And if you could create your own audience? Or if The Argonauts could help give a voice to anyone other than Maggie Nelson, who do you imagine or hope that might be?
I feel very resolute about the fact that my writing speaks only for me. That’s the only ethical stance that feels right to me. But if it inspires other people to raise their own voices, I’m completely and totally all for it.
Which brings us back to the subject of autobiographical writing. How do you personally know what to aim for when writing about the self, as opposed to writing in order to react to what you’ve read or seen?
I don’t make a big distinction between writing about “myself” and writing about “larger issues.” (Maybe I’m Emersonian in that way, or just feminist.) I guess I treat myself as a sort of mystery or microcosm or materialized fulcrum for the larger issues in a project, be they justice, fear, spectacle, voyeurism, heartbreak, sadism, masochism, happiness, perception, pain, privilege, injustice, etc. I focus on aesthetic problems as I work, rather than on psychological ones. Because in my experience, if you resolve the aesthetic issues in any given piece, you’ve also worked out the psychological ones, albeit through the back door. For some reason I keep thinking of the great ending of Fred Moten’s poetry collection The Feel Trio: “when the water come I come to the unprotected surge / and division in my old-new sound booth. I am fmoten.” The use of his name makes a claim on the political and has also become pure music. This kind of autobiography, I like.