This summer, my car was broken into the one night I left my backpack in the passenger seat. I wasn’t upset about my laptop, the intimate mementos of a senior recital, a poem remembered, a notebook of observations–at least not immediately. Instead, I was in despair over the loss of a signed copy of a book wherein I had marked my growth for two years: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A copy of a book that, coincidentally, came out a week after I came out to my parents. A copy of a book I carried with me nearly everywhere I went to for the comfort of its ideas and the knowledge that both Nelson’s and my handwriting shared a space there.
I write the above to show how deeply vulnerable I feel in any kind of exchange with this writer’s mind and heart. And so, reader, please forgive me for being reluctant to share the result of a few brief email exchanges with MN. Her answers to a few questions typed to me in blue and saved under the name “Coito.queries” have left me undone in the best way, and I’ve wanted to cherish them on my own for as long as possible. However, given the painful residue of the election and the myriad personal tragedies that we may be holding in its wake, I find that her responses are important for us to think about together.
Maggie Nelson is certainly an accomplished scribe. Her oeuvre includes The Red Parts: A Memoir, Bluets, The Art of Cruelty, and, as aforementioned, The Argonauts, all of which are difficult to categorize as singly non-fiction. Of course, this is a part of their charm to an undergraduate student, like myself, who often finds that the critical writings we labor over need to accommodate the occasional poetic-personal interlude. Additionally, she received the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Non-Fiction and, most recently, was one of the recipients of a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship.
Onward, then, to the interview. She is brief–as is her style–and, yet, her brevity holds an urgency and calls for a slow processing that I hope will reward you and move you to read her works.
C: On July 17, 2015, you gave a lecture at Reed College about the body in time. In it, you cited David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and your experience reading it for the first time. I remember you describing the change in your reading experience after you found out, halfway through the book, that Wojnarowicz had just died of AIDS. Given your transformation of experience with Close to the Knives and the proliferation of body-in-time-moments in your own work, how would you say thinking about the body in time shapes your daily thought process and the moments from your life that you choose to highlight in works like Bluets and The Red Parts?
MN: I think I use the body in time more as a structuring principle in editing than I do in daily writing. It’s there in daily writing whether you like it or not—that’s clear to any writer who opens up the file from yesterday in a new day, over and over again.
C: In Wounds of Passion bell hooks writes, “To feel deeply we cannot avoid pain.” I feel as though your work is smeared with the truth of this statement, especially when you are writing about moments of care. The Argonauts, for example, contains a phrase I think of when I consider hooks’ statement alongside your writing: “ablaze with our care.” In your opinion, what are the ways in which care wounds us? What does it mean, for you, to be “ablaze” with care, with devotion?
MN: Care is absolutely pharmakon, i.e. healing and wounding. It wounds us to care because caring reveals how much we have invested in one another, and how painful it is that we are impermanent beings, destined to leave each other and this earth. It’s painful that we can’t alleviate more of each other’s suffering while we’re here. It’s painful when you realize you aren’t even close to offering good enough care, just as it’s painful to provide your best. It’s also an extremely worthy way to spend our time here; pain isn’t always an indication that anything’s gone wrong.
C: Something really beautiful I enjoy learning and relearning from Bluets and The Argonauts are your conversations with your collected teachers, theorists, artists, and activists—the “many-gendered mothers of your heart.” Is there a particular many-gendered mother who has been on your mind as of late or a story of how you came to discover a many-gendered mother that you’d be willing to share?
MN: Many-gendered mothers of the heart are everywhere, and they are especially raining down in my inbox since the election of Trump. One I’d point to, which Harry sent me the other day, is the video footage of Sylvia Rivera speaking in 1973 at a Gay Rights’ March. Google it tonight; I dare you to stay dry-eyed and uninspired.
C: Both Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts use the objects left behind by your aunt to help lend insight into her life and her death. Additionally, in Bluets you write that you cannot remember where you found many of your blue objects, but you “love them nonetheless.” What role do you think objects play in holding or eroding at memory? What is the purpose of collecting anything, in your view?
MN: Objects are also pharmakon—they hold and erode memory. But you know, so do words, so do pictures. So does writing, and perhaps so does memory itself. It takes a lot to remember something new and not just encrust up one’s own memories. Writing can be good for remembering a new thing, or remembering something differently, but then you have to watch out for how the writing will subsequently encrust it. It’s an endless process. I don’t collect as much as I used to, but I encourage my son to collect; I think there’s profound magic in accretion, especially in childhood. Right now he’s collecting chunks of moss.
Here’s to the many-gendered mothers of our hearts who so generously allow us to engage in conversation with them, whether on pages we can revisit or in conversations that, fleeting as they may be, are often imprinted on our memories in a way that feels nothing short of permanent. May we continue to learn and re-learn how to care for each other in this changing world with their help.
The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.–Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts