Bookforum talks with Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts BY Maggie Nelson. Graywolf Press. Hardcover, 160 pages. $23.

Maggie Nelson is the only serious and literary person I’ve encountered whose speech is filled with more “you knows” than mine. Unlike mine, perhaps, her verbal tic is not so much a crutch as a helping hand: she’ll be saying something fast, brilliant, and thoughtful, and maybe you don’t totally get it, but when she says “you know,” she allows you to feel as if you do. Likewise, in her writing she seems able to address anyone, speaking to her readers with the same cool fluency and presumption of being understood she shows in conversing with the philosophers, poets, and heroes of nonfiction—Roland Barthes, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Luce Irigaray, Audre Lorde, Ludwig Wittgenstein—who populate her work. Nelson, the poet and author of Bluets (2009) and The Art of Cruelty (2011), explains her presumptuousness in just the opposite way: In her new book, The Argonauts, she describes solitary, “maniacal bouts of writing, learning to address no one.” (Now when I re-read that passage, I hear “maniacal bouts of writing, learning to address no one, you know?”)

The Argonauts begins where Nelson leaves her solitude behind. She falls into monogamy with Harry Dodge—an artist who goes by “he” but identifies as neither male nor female—and soon they’re living together, she and he and his son. He begins injecting himself with testosterone; she begins injecting herself with sperm. Later, she’s having a baby; his mother is dying of breast cancer. To these exacting dyads, add artful and often funny colloquys on marriage, queerness, and radicality, on ass-fucking and birth, on “sodomitical maternity” and A.L. Steiner, and you get a love song that only occasionally sounds like the essay it technically is.

Nelson’s sentences can be heart-stopping in their structural perfection, yet the most incredible thing about The Argonauts isn’t the language but the lack of noise. The work’s elements are so precisely weighted that no part isn’t necessary: You can begin reading anywhere and feel immediately thrown forward. You know that you won’t want to stop.


Okay, we’re recording.

I won’t say anything obnoxious starting now.

That’s something I should tape on my mirror. My first question is stupid, but—how are you so fast on e-mail?

E-mail is the only thing I do online, so it could just be that my entire online ecology involves addressing my inbox.

Someone told me last night that in Europe people treat e-mail more like mail. If it takes four days for a letter to go from France to Spain, then four days is considered a reasonable length of time in which to respond to an e-mail. I thought, That sounds great. Maybe I’ll give myself the European schedule. But I’m kind of an over-functioner, I think. I need to let more things go.

Not letting things go seems like one explanation for something I noticed in The Argonauts, which is that when it comes to your memory you’re very sure. There’s almost none of the meta self-consciousness, or the over-compensatory second-guessing, that tends to haunt memoir.

For a lot of people who write autobiographically, memory becomes the main subject, rather than actions. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. It’s just that memory is not very interesting to me as a subject. I’m interested in performative writing, I guess—I like it to have heat, or to feel like you’re moving with something. I don’t have a lot of time for gauziness. It’s like, let the writing perform that the memory is false, but I don’t need to tell you that in words.

Have you read Yvonne Rainer’s book Feelings Are Facts?

I have read that, actually. I really loved it.

She opens it with Terry Eagleton’s review of something else, where he says that memoirs are basically anti-intellectual. And she’s like, so? I don’t care. To her, memoir is more like reporting—and no one decries reporting as anti-intellectual. Although, I don’t really like the word memoir.

Me neither. I’m still trying to understand why the culture around literature is obsessed with its classification. If you develop an obsession with hybridity, you’re only creating a new norm, and then, whenever there’s a new norm, it’s just like, let’s run for the hills, you know? With each of the books I’ve written, I have tried to find a word that I’ve felt comfortable with. When I wrote Jane: A Murder, I was trying to subtitle it for a long time, and then I came across Brian Evenson’s Dark Property: An Affliction. I realized that you could name a book not with a genre but with a noun or even a verb. That was freeing to me, and so Jane became “a murder,” and The Art of Cruelty became “a reckoning,” and so on. The Argonauts doesn’t have a subtitle, but I don’t mind it being called “autotheory.” I allowed that to go in the jacket copy.

The jacket copy on the galley also calls it “an intrepid voyage.” “A voyage” is a nice subtitle.

The reason I’m fine with “autotheory” rather than “memoir” is that it directs me to talking about Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie, which you mentioned in your email. I love the opening where she says: “This book is not a memoir. This book is a testosterone-based, voluntary intoxication protocol, which concerns the bodies and affects of BP. A body-essay.” She says that “if things must be pushed to the extreme, this is the somato-political fiction, a theory of the self or self theory.”

I didn’t come to Preciado and Testo Junkie until my book was almost done. It gave me a certain audacious push in the final hour that I felt like I needed. It’s funny—there’s a lot of people I know who love the theory in Testo Junkie, and they were like, “Oh, I couldn’t even read the autobiographical pieces of—”

I love the autobiographical parts!

I love them too! There hadn’t been very much sex I’d read about in recent years that felt recognizable, familiar to me, and so reading Testo Junkie made me feel very relaxed, and I thought, I can just write in this way. Also, in mainstream narratives about this moment, too many people are pitting books like Preciado’s against feminisms of the kind that, say, Virginie Despentes gives voice to in King Kong Theory. So I really loved how Testo Junkie shows BP and VD as writing these books side by side. It’s not as if people are always shouting at each other across a picket line. The reality is much more complex and irreverent.

I loved the scene when BP goes to the salon, and her nails are painted red, and she’s horrified at first, and then she gets it. It’s so fucking funny, this big revelation about women set in this, like, melodramatic scene of domestic horror.

Right, and the revelation is that all this so-called “self-care” that is going on among women is erotic. I think that's also the part of the book where Virginie is typing out King Kong Theory while Beatriz is doing T and angling toward writing Testo Junkie. They're both doing totally different, but totally related, work. That relationship felt very familiar to me, in terms of how things are in my own household. I thought that was cool.

I’m curious about the other titles you had in mind for the book.

A lot of the titles I had in mind were things that paid attention to a kind of inside, or interpenetration—a movement inward. For a while I was calling it “involution.” When I read Peter Sloterdijk's Bubbles, I got obsessed with his thing of being inside or outside the bubble. Bubbles is kind of like Testo Junkie in that the writing is really, really weird. I like to call it “wild theory,” by which I mean writing that is within a particular, often academic, discipline, but also belongs to something else by virtue of its creativity and recklessness. Sloterdijk will make a comment, and you’re like, “Wow, this is actually like the work of a madman.”

Eileen Myles got me into Bubbles, which I think she read while writing an essay on foam, which is terrific, and I was inspired by that. She’s also just finished an amazing book about her dog. It’s pretty wild. I don’t know if you know Eileen Myles, but—

I read her, of course. I’m actually terrified of her. Nobody intimidates me except for serious art-world lesbians. I’m like, “Oh, they all think I’m stupid.” Or maybe, “They all think I got here by fucking some man, and they all think fucking men is boring.” Which is partly why I love The Argonauts. You really take to task the idea of queerness being necessarily progressive, or, conversely, the idea that non-queer sex or family-making is boring. I’m grateful, because I think those ideas are bad, in that they don’t permit further thought. Radicals who say that heterosexuality or monogamy is “boring” align themselves with conservatives who say that queerness and sluttiness are “sinful.” There’s no difference in seriousness between those two kinds of thinking. The Argonauts doesn’t set out to be radical, but to take everything it talks about seriously, and to be kind of self-critical. I think that’s what memoir should be. Self-criticism. Not self-congratulation. Not like, “Look at my brave new family.”

Oh, no. Oh God, no. The idea that queer sexuality and non-binary gender identity are guarantors of the progressive, or the radical, is understandable, but ultimately untenable; so is the assumption that heterosexual relations are a guarantor of the conservative. As I say in the book, quoting Leo Bersani, “you can be victimized and in no way be radical; it happens very often among homosexuals as with every other oppressed minority.”

Isn’t that the bell hooks line? Like, “Don’t you think the biggest lie of our contemporary liberation movements is that who you fuck radicalizes you?” I love the two ways you can take that. One, she was saying that being a lesbian doesn’t automatically make you radical. Two, you can hear it as, like, radicality isn’t sexually transmitted. Screw whoever you want, but you can’t catch a politics.

I’ve been reading a lot of Ellen Willis, and she’s just so astute about heterosexuality and the potential radicality in it.

When Foucault was asked about his sexuality, he always said, “I identify as a reader.” Which I think is a very lovely thing to say. As with all my books, I worried about having to identify with this one too much, the same way that when I was writing about cruelty, or about my aunt’s murder, I was thinking, “Do I want to be the go-to person for cruelty? Do I want to be the go-to person for murder?” So while I wanted to write about mothering and gender and sexuality because they were on my mind, I really didn’t want to re-inscribe—or be re-inscribed by—any boring ways of thinking about those issues. But that isn’t really within one’s control. Only the writing is within one’s control (and even that is debatable). So there was a part of me that was like, Okay, you can write this, but do. not. publish it.

Because writing is elimination. You write this thing, and then you eliminate it. Publishing is like eating it again. You publish a book, and then you eat your own placenta for a year!

Yes. For a year, God.

I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but generally speaking I think that you’re not taking a risk in writing unless at some moments you worry that it’s a potentially bad thing to write. Like I say in my book, it’s hard to be the judge sometimes of which things that make you feel nervous are making you feel nervous for the right reasons; it’s hard to know what the “right reasons” even are. All I know is that I have written a lot of things that I was worried about, and I haven’t regretted any of them yet.

There’s so much ambivalence in The Argonauts—you even use the plural, “ambivalences.” I love that word. I think ambivalence can mean caring and not caring, rather than love and hate. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I’m probably marking myself as a narcissist now, because I’m going to quote from my own book, but when I wrote about women and the New York School, I was really interested in how certain women poets in the 1970s had heavy interests and heavy shit going on, so they couldn’t perform the same kind of ease, or irreverence, as was being praised in the work of the New York School writers like Frank O’Hara, for example. They weren’t like, “What an adventure, I just love taking care of my three kids by myself.” But at the same time, a lot of the poets I was writing about, like Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, were also turning away from some of the more explicitly “serious” female writers of the time, and looking for new ways of performing “not caring.” Because, in a way, not giving a shit about patriarchy, about getting into its clubs, is also a very profound form of not caring. I think that there’s a kind of feminist not caring which is a little different from a campy not caring which is different from a nihilistic not caring. With The Argonauts, it’s like, yeah, I do care about the assimilation/revolution debate. I do care about homo- or heteronormativity. But on the other hand, I really don’t care, if caring means that you have to buy into the terms of the dichotomy that has been presented to you.

I think I just interpreted what you said as: you want to give a shit about things, and you don’t want to take a lot of shit for things, at the same time. Which is a way of having it both ways.

Right, right, right. [Laughs.] It is and it isn’t, because to me it’s like, if people are talking shit about my writing, I’m not interested, but if readers care a lot about what I’m writing about, and they want to have a conversation, or even a debate, I’m always down for that. I think people who care a lot about literature or sex or theory, they find each other, and in some ways, they don’t let go, because a certain kind of dedication to these things is rare. The kind of caring that turns into policing or shaming is far less interesting to me.

The way radicals police people is oxymoronic to me, and kind of funny.

Does that happen to you, with Adult magazine?

No, it’s more in communities I’m adjacent to, not among my intimates. Everyone that I’m intimates with is obsessed with Bluets, and I’m sure you hear about this, because the book has acquired an objecthood. A culty… a cultliness, maybe. It’s become a marker of solidarity among certain kinds of emotional people. Like, my friend Fiona gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago. The following year, I went back to the bookstore where Fiona works, and I bought it and gave it to my husband on the night we got engaged. We’d been sleeping together for less than a month, and I asked him what his favorite color was, and he said blue, and I said, “That’s lucky”—it would have been more accurate to say, “That’s common,” but, you know, it felt lucky—and I gave him Bluets. Then we got engaged, which is unrelated, but not totally unrelated.

Aw. That’s so nice! I usually only hear of break-up stories around Bluets, not getting-together stories.

I was talking to a friend who was reading Bluets the other week and she was like, “I want to love this book, but I’m in a happy relationship.”

That’s really funny. Well, it’s always out there!

I noticed that in The Argonauts, which is about motherhood and sometimes about being a writer, the idea of being “selfish” or “not selfish” never occurs, as it does in seemingly every piece of writing on these themes. Nor is there even an attempt to reclaim selfishness as “self-care,” to couch a basic trait in therapeutic or niche-feminist terms. There’s just no consideration of selfishness at all. I like that you basically replaced “selfishness” with auto-eroticism in the book.

I’m familiar with the kinds of writing you’re talking about, but I’m not familiar with the feeling of being selfish for choosing one thing or another. Conversations about the “selfishness” of mothers (or non-mothers) reek to me of policing, of disallowing women their human condition. I mean, to have a self-satisfied notion that you’ve now become an essentially non-selfish being because you are suddenly strenuously caring about your own child seems to me about as preposterous as the idea that you’re selfish by choosing not to have a child. I have a lot of issues, as they say, but the concept of “selfish,” especially in regard to caring for children, isn’t high on my list. What about you?

Well, I don’t know. I’m fucked up about kids. I’m the first one of five, and my mom, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a good time to read to you from this book, Woman to Woman. It’s Marguerite Duras talking to this journalist, Xavière Gauthier, about women and class and money and masculine criticism and everything, and I want to read you this part about babies, if it isn’t annoying.

No, it’s great. I’m going to order this book right now.

They’re talking about Nathalie Granger and women’s time and “the problem of the child.” She says: “What should be done with the child? What should be done with the child in view of society? These are both intolerable, you see, the intolerableness of the child and of society. What do you do with a child once you’ve created it?” And she decides, basically, that it’s like a car. You have a car, but you don’t know where to put it. You have a child, but you don’t know where to put it. Which is a hilarious way to conceive of having a child. A car!

That is really funny. It reminds me of when we were about to have the baby and people would say, “If you don’t have room for the baby, put it in the sock drawer!” But I think, and how I interpret this is, that what Marguerite Duras is saying about where to put the baby depends on the space she’s in, and that the question of what to do with the baby always depends on the space or context you’re in. I was just talking about this in the class about autobiography that I teach. For example, for white women, liberation is often figured as a flight away from family, whereas for women of color, narratives of liberation often include a flight toward making family, which has everything to do with the pressures the state has historically put on women, and families, of color. Lisa Duggan's amazing piece, "Escape Velocity, or, There Must Be 50 Ways to Queer 'The Family,'" is very instructive, in that Duggan offers up her own family history in order to show how "dissident gender and sexual practices and modes of living emerge in specific contexts, there is no way to generalize, to abstract any ‘cause’ beyond local conditions and meanings." All of which is to say: how I feel about family or having a family is totally dependent on my class experience, my race, my own particular upbringing, all these different things. That’s partly why I have such a severe allergy to generalizing.

It seems to me that a lot of queer theory and even some good feminist thinking shows a healthy irritation toward the idea of reproduction or the caretaking of children as the source of what makes life valuable, and although I’m very sympathetic to that irritation, I also think that there’s a real danger in getting too glib with that way of thinking, in that you don’t have to love children or personally want to have them to recognize a certain social obligation we all share, which is to take care of all things that are alive and have needs. There’s static sometimes between an understandable feminist/queer distaste for childbearing or childrearing as activities that all people should engage with, and a politics that says (indeed insists!) that we make sure that everyone—and I mean everyone—gets the fundaments of a livable life. I mean, I know no one likes a crying baby on an airplane, but all that sniveling so many people do at the very fact of children in public often underlines to me how our culture is dedicated to venerating The Child while making no provisions for actual children in any meaningful way. We just keep telling people who have children (or who are ill, who are poor, who are disabled, who need clean air and water, etc. etc.), “It’s your problem, it’s your problem.” That’s the whole point of privatization: to transform any sense of obligation to each other into “personal problems” that one must pay one’s way out of (or hope for a few drops of religious charity).

Anyway, I was not a baby person before having a baby, and I don’t think the world needs to be full of baby people, but I do think we should ask hard questions of the flippant distaste we have for babies and “baby people,” both.

Where does the idea that you have to be a “baby person” to have a baby come from? I married a man, but I’m not sure I would call myself a “men person.”

No, exactly. When I was trying to have a baby, at first I assumed that it would work right away, because no way was I going to be this woman in her late thirties becoming more and more anxious and desperate. Then it didn’t work right away, and that was difficult but also great—in part because the baby did eventually take, but also because while I was trying, all my prejudices about not wanting to be someone “trying to have a baby” came tumbling down, and I began to see how I had internalized the culture’s disgust for women who pursue assisted reproduction in their “later years.” As it is with joining most groups that one had been previously phobic about joining, it was actually fantastic to enter this new community. Now, if anyone wants to talk to me about insemination or related things, I’m so excited to be able to share whatever I might have learned. It’s another sphere of knowledge-giving that we need to be in without shame. Michelle Tea’s fantastic blog, Getting Pregnant at 40 with Michelle Tea, gave me one crystalline and hilarious example of what such sharing might look and feel like.

That reminds me of On Immunity. Eula Biss describes a similar process—in her footnotes she says that much of the book came from conversations with women about vaccines and viruses. She also quotes her sister with as much gravity as she quotes a philosopher. I thought that was cool.

When I got her book in the mail, I wrote her and said, “I’m so into the fact that you had blurbs by all women on the back.” Because it felt to me like a tacit way of saying, “I know I am a heavyweight, I know I am a serious nonfiction writer, I don’t need to prove it to you by having a lot of heavyweight men blurb a book whose subject could be culturally construed as ‘feminine’.” That’s how change happens.


What is the meaningful difference—in writing, even in life—between 1990s-style identity politics and the specificity of expression you’ve talked about, i.e. the context provided and subjecthood defined by race, class experience, and so on?

I guess I would first paraphrase something I recently heard Fred Moten say, which I very much agree with: “identity politics” is not something that women, queers, and people of color invented in the ’90s. It’s a very old thing—i.e. ancient Greek old. As per usual, when certain bodies started espousing it, it developed an incredibly bad rap. Secondly, I’m not sure I entirely understand the distinction you’re making above. I don’t personally feel any conflict between examining how one has been marked (and how one has marked others) by race, class experience, and so on, and overturning something that might be called “identity politics.” In fact they seem part and parcel of each other to me, insofar as if one wants a new way of thinking, living, writing, etc. that isn’t founded on the exclusion or exploitation of others, one has to understand how the system comes to be, how it works, how one has been worked over by it, and how one has worked it.

Which part of this book were you most surprised to find yourself writing?

I wasn’t thinking I’d spend so much time rereading Freud’s Wolf Man case, which was a lot of fun.

The part about our being “made of star stuff,” when I was reading it the second time, made me think of a line from a Cassavetes film. The line is—and so, I want to ask you—Do you believe that love is a continuous stream?

That’s so weird—Harry almost titled his recent show at Wallspace in NYC “Love Streams.” I’ll have to ask him what he was thinking. (He chose “The Cybernetic Fold” instead.) I guess the parser in me would have to ask, what do you mean by “love,” and what do you mean by “stream”? But another part of me says, right off the bat, absolutely.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor-in-chief of Adult magazine.