An Interview with Maggie Nelson

“Our art knows more than we do.”


An Interview with Maggie Nelson

“Our art knows more than we do.”

An Interview with Maggie Nelson

Ross Simonini
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Over the last decade, Maggie Nelson’s writing has become one of the guiding intellectual lights for artists of all disciplines. Her books on aesthetics, gender, violence, and, most recently, freedom, allow for the kind of open, generative quality of thought that suits the artistic temperament. In this way, she has not established herself with a series of spicy opinions or fixed positions, but through a celebration of the endless challenge of uncertainty.

Nelson began her career writing poetry and published three collections while living in New York City in the ’90s and early aughts. These received little attention at the time of publication but have recently been reissued in response to her growing readership. In the mid-2000s Nelson began focusing on variants of nonfiction that could contain her poetic impulses and document patterns of culture more explicitly.

Each of Nelson’s books seems to consider the relationship between memoir and critical thought through a new set of concerns. In The Argonauts, a deeply personal work about her experience starting a family, Nelson coined the term autotheory as a riff on writer Paul Preciado’s term self-theory. Bluets, one of her early expansions into prose, is a collage of microessays on the color blue and her experiences of melancholia. According to Nelson, her career has been an ongoing vacillation between introspective and critical projects. This is her way of maintaining balance in her life and work.

Her newest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, falls toward the critical end of that spectrum. Like much of her writing, the book is a document of Nelson’s love of reading, and it brims with fascinating morsels of knowledge gathered from across disciplines, especially philosophy and contemporary art. Nelson taught for years at CalArts’ School of Critical Studies, but recently she has begun teaching in the writing program at the University of Southern California, where one of her courses is called Wild Theory. She continues to teach, in part, to avoid relying on the publishing cycle for income, and to remain a sovereign thinker.

I spoke to Nelson in April via video chat, though we quickly realized we live in the same neighborhood and grew up not far from each other. She called from a cottage she rents to maintain a distance from family life while writing. During our conversation, she often responded to my questions in fragments, twisting through quotations and subject matter with the kind of elegant segues that have long characterized her writing. Afterward, she edited her answers twice and recommended a good local acupuncturist. 

— Ross Simonini


THE BELIEVER: Did you feel your childhood was characterized by a lack of agency?

MAGGIE NELSON: It’s funny that I’ve written this book about freedom, because it’s not as if a saga of feeling imprisoned has been the principal drama of my psychic life. I mean, my childhood was marred by traumas of various kinds, and those stand out more as the markers of my psychic life.

BLVR: As a parent, do you think about the agency of your child?

MN: Well, it’s a bad year to talk about freedom, because, as you know, our children have been on house arrest. My son went back to school this week, first time in over a year, and it seems to have awakened something in him. He told me this morning, “I’m in revolt.” And I was like, Oh Lord. But, yes, being a child is a series of injustices based on curtailed liberty. On the other hand, children don’t tend to feel cared for if they have a feeling of boundless freedom. There’s the rub.

BLVR: Do you think about parenting with the kind of critical mind you bring to your writing?

MN: I explicitly didn’t really use parenting as a fulcrum in this book [On Freedom]. But I will say that I teach a lot of autobiography as a professor, and I’ve read tons of autobiographical writing, and it seems very clear to me that no matter what parents do or what kind of childhood one has, the grievances remain. So it helps to remember that there’s something structural about individuation, and hopefully the feeling that your parents did you wrong won’t persist forever. I mean, I’ve yet to meet any student—except for maybe first-generation students who are rehearsing an understandable script of gratitude toward the opportunities they’ve had—who wasn’t sitting atop some avowed or disavowed boiling cauldron of feeling that their parents did them wrong.

BLVR: Right. The larger structures of revolution in society are playing out internally as well, for all of us. Children go through their own personal little revolts, as yours is now. And that’s natural. 

MN: The youth tend to be interested in moments of liberation, and older people tend to be more alert to ongoing practices of freedom. And I do feel that’s clearly true in my own life, in terms of what my attention is called toward. As I say in the book, moments of liberation are utterly crucial, as radical change rarely happens without them. But their aftermath can create a certain amount of suffering. There’s a lot of letdown if and when moments of liberation aren’t followed by ongoing practices of freedom. It can become a source of anger and disappointment for a person growing up to feel that nothing’s changing, that nothing’s going to change. So I do think the message is that the work is ongoing. And it’s never too soon to deliver that message. 

BLVR: You’ve talked about the radical freedom of teaching art at CalArts. And now you’ve moved to USC, which is a more traditional format. Do you find that within the disciplines of art and literature there are different senses of freedom?

MN: In The Art of Cruelty, I talk about the writer Brian Evenson, who once taught at Brigham Young University, where a student complained that she felt poisoned by reading his violent fiction. I get that. But to me, books provide so much more space in terms of how you can interact with them than other forms of art provide. I have always found movies and live performances, and some forms of visual art, much bossier than reading, because usually when you experience them you are in a venue that is more difficult to get out of. Like, if you’re not in the mood for one second, you’ve got to push past everybody in the dark and it’s a big deal that you left your seat. I feel this a lot when I watch movies with my son, when he tells me he doesn’t want to see anything too scary. Sometimes, even if I’m sitting right by the computer, Voldemort appears too quickly. And without that fucking nose. And I can’t get it off the screen fast enough. And he’s like, “I saw it, I saw it!” But books aren’t like that.

BLVR: Do you think your work is bossy to readers in that way?

MN: I mean, I’ve received some hate mail. But I don’t really want to know how people receive it. I’m on a need-to-know basis with that. 

BLVR: You don’t read reviews? 

MN: It depends. I mean, if you write a poetry book, you might get one review in ten years. So I’ll read that. But with The Argonauts, at some point I stopped reading reviews and didn’t feel like I needed to read any more.

BLVR: Do you ever purposely reach for transgression in your work?

MN: I think a lot of the things people think are transgressive for transgression’s sake are actually just people speaking their truths to people who aren’t familiar with those truths, or with their demographics. I just wrote an introduction to a book I love by Hervé Guibert, and I’ve noticed, reading around, that a lot of people write about Guibert as if he were trying to get a rise out of the bourgeoisie or something. But he was just writing about his sex life. And if it doesn’t resemble something you’ve heard about or lived, then you’re going to be like, This is so shocking! But it’s not shocking to him. I don’t think he is sitting around thinking, How am I going to get a rise out of someone? So I think a lot of transgression just depends on where you’re coming from. 

BLVR: In On Freedom, you discuss artists who feel they should have total freedom to make whatever they like, regardless of how the work may be received. But you seem almost ambivalent to reception. 

MN: I think different people have different ways they try to protect their capacity to create, and for some people that might be ravenously reading all the reviews and then collapsing into self-hatred, then getting over it. For somebody else, it might be a studied avoidance. But I don’t think anybody could participate in the worst elements of contemporary discourse and take on the most draconian ideas of responsibility for the feelings of others and continue to preserve their practice. I just don’t see it. But I think people solve that in different ways.

BLVR: And your way is… 

MN: Well, I guess I don’t really feel like I’m even making art sometimes. So I don’t even know if I put myself in this category. I’m really grateful for coming up in poetry, where audience was just not a big consideration. And I feel like that’s pretty solid within me, you know?

BLVR: Right, and it’s probably related to why you don’t use social media.

MN: I don’t. I live in horror of my first thought being broadcast. Because a lot of thought is tone. Tone is where a symptom occurs, you know? So if your symptom is anger or reactivity, or defensiveness, or repression, that will come out in the tone. So I have to work on a book and hear its tonal issues long enough to see where my symptoms and obstacles are and what I’m struggling with.

BLVR: You’re not a “first thought, best thought” kind of writer.

MN: I came up loving “first thought, best thought” poetry. But I’ve also always been really interested in the illusion of immediacy, the construction of immediacy. I want to have the feeling of immediacy of speech but with thought that I feel like I can stand behind, even if just for the moment, even if I change my mind later.

BLVR: It’s interesting that you make the distinction between art and not-art, because your writing doesn’t seem to make that distinction.

MN: I do think it’s all part of one flow. And to me, how personal it is and what form it takes on the page are just a Bob Creeley, “form follows content” kind of a thing. But at the same time, I’m alert to what different genres can do. And I think if someone calls Bluets a novel, I’m like, OK, that’s fine. To me, it’s within the realm of experimental speculative nonfiction. Someone could say The Art of Cruelty is a series of essays, but it was not conceived as a series of essays. It was conceived as an ongoing thought that had episodic rings of action. On Freedom is weird because it’s four long chapters, which are each, like, seventy-five pages in manuscript. This was not a particularly elegant form to me. There was no real experimenting with the accretion of fragments, like I’ve done before. And then that became a kind of formal question to me, like: How can things this long hang together? I like to come up with subtitles, like “a reckoning” or “a murder” or things that kind of name something about the form. And I always thought of these sections of On Freedom as long songs. That was my idea about them. Songs can be quite long and still hang together, and they are less boring than chapters.


BLVR: Your work always complicates genres and structures, and I feel like this is what you do with subjects as well. The subject appears more complex to me by the end of a book. You dissolve binaries. You make it hard to think easily about something.

MN: Henry James has this phrase that I love about how his novels have to have the right degree of bewilderment. There’s a broad degree of bewilderment where you just feel like someone’s led you further into murk and you don’t feel any enjoyment; you don’t feel any clarity. So I think I aim for a kind of complexity that feels clarifying. I have these weird images about writing. I don’t know if they make any sense to anybody else, but for me it’s a complexity that has shine. It’s not murkier.

BLVR: For a lot of nonfiction, I think people pick up a book on a subject and hope that what starts as a broad survey ends up as a focused and clear resolution. Then they can walk away feeling certain. But your work seems to open up so many forking paths. And at the end of On Freedom you say you have a new relationship with anxiety after writing the book. Is that related to this opening up? 

MN: I don’t say that I had anxiety after writing the book; I say that a reckoning with freedom brought me into a reckoning with anxiety. You know, if you’re open to indeterminacy and all of what we don’t know—we know we were born and that we’ll die, but that’s about it—that’s a very anxious situation. And if you’re not gonna try and end indeterminacy, which is of course a fool’s errand, then you have to find another way. 

I think this brings us back to the “art versus non-art” thing. Some books pose questions that have answers. If I wrote those kinds of books, you might ask of, say, The Art of Cruelty: Does seeing violent works of art make us crueler? Open this book and you’ll find out! For On Freedom, it could be: Should we keep the concept of freedom central to our hearts and politics, or has it in some ways run its course? I mean, there are plenty of books out there like that, which offer strong theories about those kinds of things, and I’ve read many of them. And if you publish more mainstream books, then you hit more mainstream expectations. But I’m not doing that. On the other hand, just saying, “Whoa, man, life’s complicated”—that’s not rigorous.

BLVR: There’s an undercurrent of Buddhist ideas in On Freedom, which feels like a good expression of how to live with the complexity we are talking about.

MN: I think it’s kind of an inevitable body of knowledge that you have to touch if you’re interested in these ways of nonbinary thinking.

BLVR: Right. And you are also willing to talk about the “magic” of art, which is a hairy word for many people.

MN: I definitely don’t think of myself as very witchy, but that paragraph about art and magic was one of the last things I wrote, and I think it felt like a limb I could finally stand on.

BLVR: Because of the mountain of research behind it?

MN: I spend a lot of time with artists. I love artists. I love teaching artists. And I do think that a lot of the way certain people’s brains work makes mainstream discourse and expectations just deadening to them. There are people who want to go arrange twigs on a riverbank for thirty years, and there’s not a Twitter discourse about how to deal with that. I got a chance to spend some time with Carolee Schneemann before she died. I wrote a profile of her and I titled it “The Reenchantment of Carolee Schneemann.” And enchantment can be kind of a bad word in certain circles. But it was a word she used in talking about how to keep falling in love with life and art over and over again, and it moved me.

BLVR: I think enchantment is a very necessary counterpart to criticism. Otherwise, it doesn’t really seem to invoke the nature of art.

MN: I mean, I know this’ll sound tendentious to some, but in a recent statement about Scaffold that Sam Durant put out, he talks about a moment when someone shouted at him during a lecture, “You should have known!” Without contesting the heckler, Durant also reminds us that artists “are not all-seeing, all-knowing beings with the capacity to grasp all ramifications of their work.” Now, I’m not saying anything about what he should or shouldn’t have known about Scaffold, or that the costs of this particular not-knowing weren’t extremely high, or that his not-knowing here wasn’t related to his whiteness in disturbing and predictable ways. I’m just saying I’m interested in his reminder, as it asks us to remember that which we literally cannot remember, a.k.a. the unconscious.

BLVR: The unconscious is real.

MN: Yeah. And our art knows more than we do. It does different things than we do, or that we can bear admitting to. And sometimes that will come out and be amazing, and sometimes it will come out and people will be like, How on earth…? But to me, the fact that we don’t know everything about ourselves or our expression is great news. It doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable or positive. It’s just part of what makes being alive fascinating.


BLVR: In On Freedom, you write about Helen Molesworth, who says that the avant-garde is moving away from the sensationalism and shock of the past—Artaud, for example—and more toward “caring.” 

MN: Right. So professional curators and critics are kind of tasked with articulating, or prognosticating, trends. I don’t say this in a good or bad way. But I don’t see myself in that business. And so I think in some ways Molesworth is not just noticing something but calling it into further being by noticing it. You want to call attention to certain artists and to curate shows that say, This is what’s happening now. And then that makes it happen now, even more so. And then we look back in history and we say, Oh, that was the era of caring or whatever. I’m interested in all that, but I’m also interested in the fact that there’s so much art happening at any given time, and a lot of artists are being subsumed under certain headings that they don’t necessarily want to be subsumed under, and yet they also don’t want to not be in a show, right? So there are all the people who want to say what’s happening now and what this art means, and then there are all the weirdos making stuff who are saying, Well, if you’ve got to put that in the press release, I guess I could say that’s what it’s all about. I want to pay homage to the latter as much as to the former.

BLVR: And once someone says that art is part of a movement, it’s also stamping an expiration date on it.

MN: Yeah, or you’re also doing reclamatory work of some kind, and privileging certain terms. You go back and you say, Actually, this painter from the twenties was doing a form of this thing that we’re valuing now. And that’s fine. And that can be really interesting, but they’re all just lenses that you put on people’s work. They’re not the truth about what that work was. I don’t really traffic in the truth of what the work was. I’m more interested in—as I think my books make clear—how art changes in meaning over time. So it’s never ontologically fixed.

BLVR: The kaleidoscopic quality of your writing feels that way, and you use so many quotes and points of reference to achieve this. While I’m reading your books, I’m often wondering if you have some kind of reading practice, some way of culling all this information.

MN: Reading is such a raw topic these days because the pandemic has just—especially for people with children—it’s just demolished the time to read. So it’s a little painful to talk about reading. On the other hand, I often have this ideal of reading for pleasure that’s never been a reality for me. Like I think, One day I’ll finally read in this way that everybody describes. I’ll read a beach book, you know? And the fact of the matter is, I’m a writer who typically gets hot on an idea and then follows it. I track down names that were mentioned, hunt for sources. I read with a pen in my hand. And so it’s a kind of carnivorous reading that’s never really in line with this ideal I have of reading as recreation.

We have all our cheap paperbacks right by the door; it’s like a very thin shelf with Silas Marner and other pocket paperbacks on it. In the Before Times, when I would be leaving for the airport—remember the airport?—sometimes I’d just grab a paperback on the way out. And that was, like, the only time when I would be like, Oh, shit, I forgot a book. I guess I’ll just bring Mrs. Dalloway. That would be the only random reading I would ever do. But also, I mean, we read all day on our phones. I feel like I just spent a year standing in the kitchen, homeschooling, just scrolling through the bad news. But was I really reading?

BLVR: You write about the inherent limits of imagination. We assume imagination to be a space of total freedom, but it’s limited by our experiences, just like everything else. Do you attempt to push against these constraints of your own imagination in your work?

MN: I would have thought that as I got older, and less concerned about worldly things, I would feel freer, but writing actually feels more constricted. This isn’t to say it feels less possible or anything. I think I just have higher standards now than, say, writing a good sonnet. So in my twenties I might’ve been like, Wow, that’s a really refreshing turn of phrase. I bet nobody’s ever put those two words together before. I should try and get it published! Whereas now I’m onto other things.

I think I’m a little recalcitrant about my mind, and it’s probably worked for me so far, but I actually turn down a lot of projects with the idea that that’s not how my mind works.Collaborative projects, namely. Anything that involves speaking to other people in a room. There is a lot of this in LA. I don’t do that. But, I don’t know, maybe I’m selling my brain short. I’m not sure. I think probably some of that protectiveness I’m talking about around art is my own. I’m just describing my own protectiveness.

But neurodiversity in terms of our imaginative life is profoundly real. I mean, my partner’s a sculptor, and he sees sculpture in his head. I’ll be talking and I will ask, “Are you listening to me?” And he’ll be like, “I’m sorry, I’m just seeing a sculpture.” My mind doesn’t work like that. And this is part of the degree-of-bewilderment thing I mentioned before. There should be a real respect of heterogeneity. So when we talk about what art is, where or what the imagination is, or what its limits are, we should also remember that everybody has a different relationship to these things and to their brain, and that brains don’t all work the same way. Like, at all. So if someone is paranoically insistent on preserving a sense of imaginative largesse, this might be because otherwise they’d fall into a puddle of hell.

BLVR: Right. And in that way, thinking about audience could be more dangerous for some than others.

MN: I mean, my experience of writing—which is not the same as a lot of other people’s—is that I’ve always written the book first and then tried to find a publisher for it later. Because I don’t want anybody to expect anything about what the book is going to be. People who need to live on advances don’t live that way, but, you know, that’s why I have a day job. And also, the world’s a mysterious place. I’m thinking about a book like Bluets, which was rejected by everybody and then published very small-ly and greatly by Wave Books. But now, thanks to the success of The Argonauts, I just did a whole week of press for the French version of Bluets, and it’s like this literary event, almost twenty years after it was written. So, I mean, you have no idea what a book’s second or third lives may be. Or if it’ll ever have even one life. Or it may have a life a hundred years after you die. So it’s all about accepting that indeterminacy. And, given all that, trying to make the book that you want would seem to be the only thing to strive for. I mean, that’s all we’ve got.

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