Interview with Maggie Nelson

In June 2013, Maggie Nelson was interviewed by Dara Wier for the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and Workshops; this interview is based on that conversation. Thanks to Duffie Taylor for careful transcription of our audio tape and to the Juniper Institute for letting us broadcast it there.

Maggie Nelson's books include Shiner; The Latest Winter; Jane: A Murder; Something Bright, Then Holes; Women, the New York School and Other True Abstractions; Bluets, and The Art of Cruelty. She teaches for the CalArts MFA Writing Program. In 2011, she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for poetry, and in 2007, her work received an Arts Writers grant from the Creative Capial/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Here's what PEN America writer Danniel Schoonebeek has to say: "Nothing, it seems, falls outside the reach of Maggie's hunting and gathering. As a poet and thinker, she's a magpie of the highest order . . . [h]ow we live with a world in which we must live with ourselves is her enduring conflict." In the same piece I just quoted, you quote from a late British poet Douglas Oliver: "Each narrowing of what contemporary poetry is supposed to do bears with it an equivalent narrowing in the definition of a human being." You go on to say, "I stand in fervent opposition to such narrowing."

I think that's a pretty great place for us to start—so—can you say something?

Well, gosh, yes, I just love that Douglas Oliver quote. I think I said that in response to being asked to say something about what poetry is or what poetry should do. And it just feels like that's the response to give, right? That kind of expansiveness that Oliver is speaking in favor of just seems, you know—I mean, I love talking about poetry; I love talking about genre or craft or all kinds of things we can talk about today, but I'm glad you read that because I think that my whole writing life and other lives have been more about what Eve Sedgwick asked, which is, "You can say that?"

You've said that almost everything you compose you compose as a letter.

I said that in Bluets.

Even if you're no longer doing this, can you say some things about what composing in an epistolary manner might contribute to your writing?

Well, I think, I was just talking about this to someone today. I lived in New York for a long time and I was very—you know I didn't get an MFA. When I was coming up, you were just supposed to move to New York, and I didn't even know what you were supposed to do really. You know it was just like, go to New York, go to the St. Mark's Poetry Project, go to the church of poetry. And so I became very quickly smitten with the New York School and Frank O'Hara and others, and Eileen Myles, who was then just teaching workshops out of her apartment or whoever had the best loft. So I took a bunch of those, but I think that whole kind of poetry which is very much about immediacy and the occasion and direct address, like O'Hara said, When you can't just pick up the phone, write the poem. And then that has a lot of conviviality and joie de vivre, but there's also a— whether it's Paul Celan or Emily Dickinson or Robert Creeley or other poets that have been important to me, they have that form of direct address at their core but in a much more somber if not grim tonality, so I think that I've for a long time kind of ricocheted between those two kinds of poles, which probably reflects my temperament in general.

I wrote Bluets when I moved from New York City to Los Angeles, and I was very much out of a community I had built for fifteen years, and I felt very alone, and the joke of that book was that people like Nietzche or Wittgenstein or other philosophers, especially the aphoristic ones, often they sound a lot like they're talking in a hall of mirrors—"Ah, but now you're saying this, when before you were saying that"— and I thought that was a really funny mode to get into when you felt really alone. Which is why I talk about Newton in that book, and his assistant who helped him discover the spectrum, and how some people say, actually, he didn't have an assistant, it was just, you know, a figment of his imagination or something to make him sound less lonely. I think when I wrote Bluets I was like, wow, I don't have any addressee, and I'm very alone here, so that book in some way puts to the test what speaking to a "you" may or may not be.

I do do other kinds of writings, beyond those with a direct address. But usually I do try to keep it hot, and I don't mean like sexy, well maybe that [laughter], but I don't think of criticism or scholary-ish writing as a place to kind of dump your boringness. I think of it as a place to stay really engaged and stay hot in that way, so even if there's not a direct address of a "you," I typically write with a pretty hot "I" that is narrating encounters, whether they be intimate or whether they be with cultural artifacts of some kind.

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