an Interview with Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books of poetry, autobiography, and criticism including Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, The Red Parts: A Memoir, The Art of Cruelty, Bluets, and most recently, The Argonauts. Recent awards include a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 Innovative Literature grant from Creative Capital. She teaches at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.

Her latest book, The Argonauts (Graywolf Press), centers on falling in love with the artist Harry Dodge and the pregnancy and birth of their son Iggy. The book weaves together high theory and criticism with meditations on sex, motherhood, gender identity, and the challenges of long-term partnership.

Here is a brief excerpt of our recent interview with her…

In The Argonauts you write of Harry’s “art of pure wildness––as [you] labor grimly on [your] sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness…” Could you speak more about this wildness and how prose (or perhaps language in general) constrains it. And if there is a way in which wildness does show up in your work?

There’s been a lot of work on “wildness” as a concept as of late, from José Muñoz to Jack Halbertam to Wu Tsang and much else, and while it interests me some, I personally can’t approach the goal of wildness in my work head-on (maybe you’re catching a theme here, as per my above response about newness or transcendence). One of this book’s inspirations and early readers, the poet Dana Ward, paid me the incredible favor of describing the wildness he felt in this book as based in radical sanity as opposed to insanity, which is the more well-trod trope. I don’t know if I’m warping his comments or if I understood him fully, but I do know his remarks made me very happy.

The Argonauts and Bluets include rich quoted material from many artists, writers, and thinkers. Can you talk about how you approach this material?

Sometimes I start writing with someone else’s words, sometimes I start with my own. Sometimes there are two quotations by others I want to bring into conversation, and I write enough of “my own” words to make a bridge. Sometimes I just write out “my own” stories. It’s really one flow to me, though the method/ratio changes book by book.

While you were working on The Argonauts how did you refer to it in your head or when you were talking about it with other people as an essay? A memoir? (I think you used the term “memoirist in drag.”)

I didn’t refer to it as anything in my head. At some point with a piece of writing, its form becomes clear to me, so in this case, it eventually became clear after a lot of writing that it was going to be a book-length prose piece with one or two spaces between paragraphs as the only formal measure of pacing or separation. So I guess I referred to it as a book-length unbroken prose thing with paragraph breaks of varying size. “Book-length essay” is fine as a descriptor (certainly beats “memoir”). But genre isn’t a major driving force for me.

You can read the full interview in our upcoming journal, Issue 18 on Transcendence. You can pick one up at our book release party at Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, CA on April 28th.

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