An Interview with Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson visits with MFA candidate Ryan Spooner

It’s difficult to come up with a biography or introduction to Maggie Nelson that surpasses Jenny Boully’s. In fact, we won’t even try. Instead we’ll say we’re graciously honored to have Maggie visit us recently, and even more appreciative of the time she took to meet and greet with students who’ve had all types of questions. Maggie Nelson is the author of multiple collections of poetry and nonfiction, most recently Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Something Right, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007) and The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007), which chronicles the reopening of a murder case in which Nelson’s aunt, Jane Mixer, was the victim. We are humbled to have had Nelson visit Columbia. The following interview is only the tip of the brilliant, sincere, and welcoming presence that is Maggie Nelson: How long did it take you to collect your "Bluets"? I collected them my whole life—the blue anecdotes or memories or factoids in the book come from my childhood, from my teenage years, and from my early adulthood. But it was between 2003 and 2006 that I collected, and then wrote, most fiercely. What was the process of assembling each of your threads throughout the book? For instance, did you collect tangible items, or bits and pieces of text? As essayists we’re all very interested in process, as it seems that different layers and stories throughout the text are seamlessly interwoven. The process was something like building a blue bower. I collected all my pieces—some in the form of objects; some in the form of ideas; some in the form of mental images; some in the form of sentences or phrases—and literally surrounded my work space with them. I had a blue altar by my side, with all my blue objects laid out, and I made a kind of wallpaper out of index cards, each of which had a quote, image, or locution of potential use, and I hung it around my desk. The writing was basically a process of translating these objects, thoughts, facts, and memories into a web made of words.

Has there been any notable response or feedback to the moments in the book in which you describe sex? These moments are adroitly interwoven, and it'd be interesting to know how you knew when to implement them. The book doesn’t actually describe sex in the way that, say, Catherine Millet describes it in her wonderful The Sexual Life of Catherine M., or Eileen Myles does in her brilliant Inferno. Instead, Bluets makes use of certain placeholder words (like “fucking”) that recur, sparking the text at certain moments and intervals. Sometimes the words feel empty, sometimes full. Mostly I wanted to dramatize the conjoined rhythms of thought, language, and body. You know, you’re trying to think something out very assiduously, like what the word “pharmakon” might mean, what the nature of divine darkness might be, and suddenly your body is sparked by a certain twinge, drive, memory, or flood. The writing body is many things. It isn’t that the body interferes with or interrupts the mind—not at all. I’m actually more interested in the reverse: how thought itself is a physical sensation, how ideas are felt “on the pulses,” as Keats had it. Would this book have been any different, or the same, if you had chosen another color? Colors have their cultural and psychological associations, so do you think that this project would have been any more poignant had it been about, say, red or yellow or green? I suppose someone else could have written a poignant book about any of those colors—think of Anne Carson’s Autobigraphy of Red, for instance—but I couldn’t have. I mean, brilliant and moving books can be written about anything under the sun. But a writer can’t feign the drive, interest, or passion required to power a whole book, and I would have been faking it had I tried to write about a color other than blue. You’ve got to go where it’s hot, I think, or at least I do. Otherwise I’m lost. In an interview with, you mention "shifting genres" as a way to keep a freshness to your work. It seems you have an openness regarding form, but at the same time work best when given a set of constraints—for instance, you call Bluets a series of "Wittgensteinian propositions." Can you talk a bit about the ability of formal constraints to spur creativity? Which comes first: form or topic? I don’t think it matters which comes first. Sometimes you have the subject, which aches to find a form; sometimes you have a compelling formal idea which propels you forward. I’ve worked both ways, though more often I’ve started with content. “Form is never more than an extension of content,” as Robert Creeley always used to say. I never used to understand what he was getting at, but I think now I do. I am exceedingly interested in form, but I have to admit that the word itself kind of annoys me. Often I prefer the word “shape,” as it makes me imagine a book as a wild and wily animal rather than as a kind of static sculpture. I first got onto the “shape” idea back in college, when I read this Archie Ammons poem, the one that goes: “I look for . . . the shape/things will take to come forth in.” Later in the poem he says he’s actually “not so much looking for the shape/as being available/to any shape that may be.” This seems about right to me.

How might you respond to Bluets being called "melancholic" or "depressive?" Is this accurate? Is it even a negative criticism? Those are wonderful words, not a criticism at all! If that were true, it would join a worthy pantheon of melancholic or depressive literature. Bluets actually talks a bit about self-help books for depression, which is a subtle hint that the book is my kind of self-help—my loose imitation of, or homage to, the kinds of books—literary and otherwise—that have helped me when I have been truly low. However, if one were to be more clinically accurate, it’s probably more of a hypomanic book—that is, evidencing a kind of “bipolar lite,” in which there are euphoric, productive highs and terrifying, sorrowful lows, but—by the grace of God—no real psychosis.

Interview-Maggie Nelson.pdf

interest, or passion required to power a whole book, and I would have been faking it had I tried. to write about a color other than blue. You've got to go where it's ...

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