‘The Argonauts’: Diary, Theory, Poem, Memoir
Maggie Nelson in Conversation with Adam Fitzgerald
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, the much-anticipated diary-cum-memoir-cum-pick-your-own-category from the celebrated author of The Art of Cruelty, Bluets and other books, is out today from Graywolf Press. Literary Hub contributing editor Adam Fitzgerald had the following wide-ranging conversation with Nelson over the last few months.
Adam Fitzgerald: I wanted to begin by asking you about how one might position The Argonauts as a work against your other published writing and books. Few writers have championed the hybridity of genres as much as you have done—in practice as well as in praise of others. One thinks of the example of Anne Carson, but also many voices that you bring to bear in this new work, including Roland Barthes. Argonauts has flavors in its margins most noticeably of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse famed used of allusion, but also of the concentrated digressions and thread-works that writers like yourself and Wayne Koestenbaum have inherited from him, Sontag, many others—a narrativity that embraces nonlinear interventions yet honors psychic continuity. I’m thinking of Claudia Rankine as well—whose Citizen: An American Lyric is marked “Essays/Poetry” and was nominated in two different categories by the National Book Critics Circle. Have we progressed as readers capable of seeing works in the multiplicity of their intention, modes of arrangement? Do the classical handles “poet” or “essayist” still interest you, or do you prefer “writer” when you think of yourself?
Maggie Nelson: Well you’ve managed to mention a lot of people who are important to me in one paragraph! Certainly Barthes is crucial to this book, and you’re right, I totally stole his mode of allusion (i.e. marginal attributions) in The Argonauts. I did this both in homage to RB, and also as a solution to the ongoing problem of how to dialogue with sources faster, how not to have attribution intrude in unwanted ways into the body of the text. I also think of the names in the margin as another scene of family-making, maybe not entirely unlike what Fred Moten is up to in B Jenkins.
I’m utterly thrilled for Claudia to have recognition in those two categories, and I’m all for multiplicity of intention, arrangement, and/or genre. I’m also interested in the political dimension of it all, which has to do with what the personal or the anecdotal or the lyrical can tell us about social, political, and philosophical questions. At the same time, I feel compelled to perform a by-now somewhat rote disidentification with hybridity qua hybridity. I don’t set out to serve any goal of experimentalism or hybridity when I write; that conversation seems to me best left to others after the fact. I can’t really think or compose with any other focus beyond finding the right tone and shape for the project at hand—the form is an extension of the content, as Creeley et al might have it. That said, if it is indeed true that we’re arriving at a cultural moment, in the United States, in which “hybrid texts” aren’t de facto marginalized (as “falling between the stools,” as one editor said of my book Jane: A Murder, when rejecting it), then that’s terrific.
I don’t think classical handles have ever held much interest for me, though “poet” can be lovely in the widest sense, the sense that someone like Eileen Myles or Alice Notley has insisted upon for it. I guess I feel there’s so much action beyond the genre conversation, often I feel honestly baffled as to why we spend so much time there. Maybe it’s an offshoot problem of MFA culture, I don’t know. My three favorite books of this past year—the undercommons (Moten/Harney), Testo Junkie (Preciado) and The Mausoleum of Lovers (Guibert)—seem to me good examples of where one might get to once one has renounced a certain stuttering on the question of genre.
Fitzgerald: I’m fascinated by how this “certain stuttering” sticks—as you say, perhaps an offshoot of MFA culture. As a teacher, do you find your students think of this as a non-issue, or is it something they cling to? I guess one could also question the market pressures of the publishing industry, as you describe with Jane: a Murder—you’ve talked elsewhere about how important that work was for you and I’m curious how a writer has to prepare themselves for the editorial intervention of categorization as well as commercialization. Or is it better to internalize those concerns as little as possible?
Nelson: I’m lucky enough to teach in an MFA program that was specifically founded on maintaining an inclusive spirit re: criticality, creativity, genre, medium, and even audience/sphere of circulation, so the issues you are talking about really don’t come up very often in my teaching life. I mean, we advertise that that’s what our program is about, so that people know what they’re getting themselves into, but on the ground, we’re just at work. That’s probably why I’m always surprised when I encounter these conversations in full-swing at other places. It probably also matters that for the past ten years I’ve taught in an art context rather than a literary one per se; no one in the art world typically gets too up in arms over who’s using video and who’s drawing and who’s painting and who’s doing performance; it can all be one flow.
Personally, I would never dream of talking to a student or fellow writer about preparing for editorial interventions or commercialization etc. before such things had presented themselves as pressing issues. I am a fairly social person but I am a very insular writer, by which I mean I actively avoid thinking about publication, editors, audience, commercialization, or categorization while writing. For the most part, I aim to finish or mostly finish a book in solitude; the world can then take it or leave it, but at least I know that I realized the project on its own terms. I’m not saying this is how everyone works or should work, but personally I can’t imagine getting anything done another way.
Phrases like “cross-over” sound to me like “break-out”—i.e. determined solely by whether a given book somehow captures the cultural capital or capital capital on offer from the mainstream. Such terms have little to do, in my mind, with actual literary achievement. They’re exterior developments, and often very arbitrary ones. (Well, they’re arbitrary mixed in with a certain measure of overdetermination, if you know what I mean.) That said, such developments certainly shape how one encounters a book, so I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter who publishes it or what banner it circulates under.
I very much like the phrase “the driving nature of the writing animal.”
Fitzgerald: Tell me how The Argonauts came about, and what backdrop in your life, creatively or otherwise, you might set it against. You mentioned above, for example, that for the last ten years you’ve been teaching in art rather than literary context. How did the flow of this writing emerge and become a book or project? Book-length works often contain other abandoned or transformed incarnations.
Nelson: This wasn’t a book I was aiming to write. It probably started with a long talk I wrote about Eve Sedgwick (I only used about three pages for the talk, so then I was left with all this bulk). Then I was writing in little fits and starts—three-hour sessions a couple of times a week, to be exact—during the first year of my son’s life, mostly about him; then I found myself writing a short essay for A.L. Steiner’s art show; all the while I was researching a more scholarly book about freedom that I still aim to write someday. Suddenly it seemed clear that all these strands were actually part of one project. I mean, it was a stretch to think so, but the stretch then became the book’s challenge—how to show (insist, really) that these topics were, are, interrelated, especially when the culture, whatever that might mean, labors to keep them partitioned. Once I realized it was probably a book, or at least a long essay-like thing, I felt pretty ambivalent about it, like, this isn’t really a book I want to have written. So it took me some time to stand behind, or beside, what I’d already done. I’ve become accustomed by now to that coming-to-terms as part of the process (like, do I really want to be the person who wrote a book about ‘cruelty’?), but I can’t say it gets easier, or at least it wasn’t in this case. But I’m over that now; here I stand.
Fitzgerald: Can you speak more to the continuing importance of Eve Sedgwick’s work for you? A dedication to her memory is at the back; you quote her throughout. A crucial instance for me: “Sedgwick wanted to make way for ‘queer’ to hold all kinds of resistances… that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation.” The speaker in Argonauts experiences something of queerness’s vertigo with/through their partner’s identity, how that may or may not change/re-situate the self. Did part of that resistance mean that by writing about your family life you weren’t going to simplify the experience of loving someone “fluidly gendered”? Gay people, after all, can be as stubbornly restrictive with labels as straight people. And of course, I’m guilty of this myself; I remember first learning about Sedgwick’s orientation and how that seemed to color her work anew for me, almost offering another context to her studies as well as the intellectual ardor of her advocacy. Maybe the definition/limits of queerness itself—something I find you bravely questioning in The Argonauts.
Nelson: It’s funny because Eve was very open and available to many of my peers in grad school, who socialized with her and/or grew quite close to her, but I was not among them. Likely I was too intimidated; once the elevator at CUNY let out onto the street level, I typically ran back downtown. I did take two classes with her—one of which, “Non-Oedipal Models of Psychology,” is likely overtly and tacitly foundational to The Argonauts—but whatever intimacy I feel about her comes primarily from reading her writing, especially posthumously. Not long after she died I taught an entire seminar dedicated to her work, as well as to other thinkers who were primary to her. That was a really great, expansive time—and reparative, as Eve might say.
Eve’s early writings on the word “queer” arrived and circulated at a very different cultural moment; there are many people now, in academia and outside academia, who rightfully suspect the uncritical, trendy use of the word as just another scrim to obscure nefarious neoliberal crap. I have no doubt that is true, but I’ve never really had a horse in that race.
I am curious as to what you mean when you say that “learning about Sedgwick’s orientation… seemed to color her work anew for me, almost offering another context to her studies as well as the intellectual ardor of her advocacy.”
I guess I’ll say this, though it’s kind of a shot in the dark to see if I hit something in your question—people like Gayle Salamon (in her great book Assuming a Body) and others have been doing a lot of great recent thinking and writing about trans bodies and subjectivities, in which trans experience becomes a rich and productive lens for thinking about embodiment in general—i.e. EVERYONE’s embodiment, everyone’s complex phenomenological experience of living with/in gender(s)—this as opposed to focusing on the specific Otherness of being trans, which typically then gets positioned as non-normative, pathological, and/or congealed. I find this former line of thinking very enlivening, and I think it’s what Eve was also after, in her work on “queer” some time ago.
Fitzgerald: As a reader, today, one assumes a more generous legibility and legitimacy around many traditional romantic narratives: man and woman (emphasis on a man’s perspective), woman and man, man and man, arguably woman and woman (you write in Argonauts “whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth, whatever ideas spout from her head—certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian”). Yet, in many ways, I feel like as a culture many of us, that includes queers too, are only very recently learning to think, listen, read through trans bodies, trans subjectivities. It seems to me inevitably something so important and timely in this book, though I imagine you may wince or grimace to think your text could be representative, as you write: “What would these ‘enabling representations’ look like? Better parts for women in Hollywood movies? Books like this one? I don’t want to represent anything.”
Your book doesn’t begin or include any categorical identifications, for its speaker or her partner, though it discusses and meditates on the consequences, possibilities, confusions and fluidity of such interpersonal space. It poses the possibility that “trans” may be more useful for some than it is for others. It interrogates the complexity of not just that experience, but of the telling of it, as when Harry reads a draft of the book and he jokes being with you is “like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” I loved this sense of a book interrogating its own right to narrate its subject, its “you,” to simultaneously embrace authorial freedom yet probe that freedom’s practical limits, its “negotiations.”
To return to Sedgwick, finding out she was straight at the same time I was reading her books that had almost invented queer studies as we know them, that was another vertigo, dizziness—it’s not intellectually rational to admit it affected my reading of her, but it would be dishonest or silly to pretend it didn’t. So again, I reflect back on the quote of hers you discuss, how “queer” might just be a larger phenomenon than sexual orientations.
Nelson: You know, it’s weird—you are the second interviewer I’ve spoken with this week who has called Eve “straight”—but I think it’s really important to note that she didn’t use that word herself, for all the important reasons that we’re talking about here. Eve was all about digging underneath the homo/hetero divide, and examining how we got to such a simplistic bifurcation; she was also all about interrogating how we’ve come to think of the gender of our sexual partner(s) as the most salient, defining aspect of our sexuality. Instead she offers lists of other factors that often go unremarked, but are enormously important in the construction of something one could call “a sexuality” (such as preferred sexual acts, most eroticized organs or parts of the body, fantasies, enjoyment or avoidance of power relations, level of interest in alloeroticism vs. autoeroticism, preference for one or multiple partners, generational preferences, the degree to which one’s preferences change over the course of a life, and so on). I’m not denying that it can have a disorienting effect on some to hear Eve describe her own sex life as “vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower, with one person of the so-called opposite sex, to whom I’ve been legally married for almost a quarter of a century,” but when you immerse yourself in her work and understand what she was really getting at, her own preference for “vanilla sex with one person of the so-called opposite sex” begins to seem truly beside the point.
I really like how you put it, when you say my book “simultaneously embrace[s] authorial freedom yet probe[s] that freedom’s practical limits, its ‘negotiations.’” One of these negotiations involves the fact, which probably bears repeating here, even though it’s pretty obvious, that my book speaks for me alone. It offers a portrait of a specific love affair and marriage and family, from my POV; it isn’t a primer on trans/cis relationships, and certainly not on trans people, and certainly not on Harry, who, like many genderqueer people, at times tolerates the labels and characterizations other people hoist upon him, but basically is used to being chronically misunderstood or worse.
That said, I don’t emphasize my speaking for myself or my book’s specificity of experience as a means to shut down the possibility of it speaking to others or opening up conversations which ARE really important, and which are, as you note, finally happening in the culture right now, sometimes in interesting ways, sometimes in debased ways (so it unsurprisingly goes). To the contrary: I believe that offering up a specificity is one strong means of making space for Sedgwick’s great mantra, “People are different from each other.”
I think we should be inventing ways for all people, in any consensual relations, with any identity or expression under the sun, to have all of what they need and 93 percent of what they want.
Fitzgerald: One of the motifs in your text concerns the rise of homonormativity—you discuss reading the FAQ on a web page for a college’s queer underground community to include statements about how sinful premarital sex is and outside of God’s plan (you ask, “What kind of ‘queer’ is this?”); you discuss a Vice magazine interview with Catherine Opie where she states “basically, becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me,” to which you comment, “Funny to her, maybe, but to those who are freaked out about the rise of homonormativity and its threat to queerness, not so much.”
Nelson: The book labors to lay out arguments/concerns about homonormativity from a number of perspectives, but it’s not really a book along the lines of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimiliation (much as I love that book!). It’s less of a polemic in favor of one mode of living and more of an attempt to recognize the diverse, sometimes contradictory urges that animate most people and kinship arrangements. Because a lot of people, when pressed to name what should be resisted, as far as queer assimilation goes, will readily put childrearing/childbearing and monogamy and so on at the top of the list—with good historical reasons (if sometimes closetly misogynist ones), but also, I mean, come on. It takes all kinds.
I do think it’s worthwhile to pay close attention, however, to the seductions of normalcy—it can feel so good to be included into the fabric of something that’s been excluding you! It can feel so good to exchange stories about your kids with someone whom you suspect would otherwise find you disgusting! But you’ve got to watch it.
A politics in which we clamor our way into an unjust club that keeps lopping off others and leaving them by the side of the road is not for me. That’s partly why the T part of the GLBT thing is a big deal—gay rights are not necessarily trans rights. (I think it was Dean Spade who coined the phrase, “GLB-fake T.”) But nor am I saying that I’d be all that interested in drawing up definitions of something called a trans person and then enumerating what that person’s rights should be. I think we should be inventing ways for all people, in any consensual relations, with any identity or expression under the sun, to have all of what they need and 93 percent of what they want, to paraphrase Fred Moten in the undercommons, just by virtue of being alive.
Fitzgerald: Here’s a better stab at it: I think as queer people advance and secure recognition within civic space, as with other minority disempowered communities, historically, there’s always these potential/real trade-offs to go along with undeniable gains. Gay marriage is the easy obvious target. I’m more interested in the persistent, sometimes pernicious ways of how acceptance in a mass-media culture quickly causes individuals to internalize some of the values attached to the bargain (as in, the loudening solidarity around monogamy from within LGBT). A counterpoint might be evidenced through Tim Deen’s very smart, in-depth Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, a book that studies with a kind of radical neutrality the practices of gay men deliberately abandoning condoms and years of safe-sex campaigning in the wake of a government-backed, internationally fueled HIV/AIDS awareness.
At least part of queerness must be about feeling set apart, irreversibly set to the side, at times underground, not-public, an alliance of privacy, code, the pride (arrogance too) and blindness that goes along with feeling clandestine, as in a world of heightened gestural nuance of Proustian signs, a la Ashbery’s speaker in “Some Trees.”
In a broader sense, I wonder if you think your writing is affected by its environment in the act of its physical writing?
So I’ve been rereading Barthes’ autofiction Roland Barthes, where the title of your book draws its inspiration from. Barthes: “Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.” Roland Barthes is his most autobiographical text, The Argonauts—more so than Bluets?—is yours. Can you talk to me about Barthes as an influence, about what draws you to this mode of writing? Your new book is conspicuously not figurative in the poetic style of Bluets. While it is self-aware and meditative about many practices both poetical and aesthetic, it is also not as structurally punctuated as either Barthes’ or some of your earlier work—there’s at once a greater cerebriality and casualness to the writing, it flows and digresses and flows again. Are you a writer who discovers and/or imposes form?
Nelson: I hear you, about the trade-offs. I’m going to look at that Tim Deen book now.
What you’re saying about “feeling set apart, irreversibly set to the side, at times underground, not-public, an alliance of privacy, code, the pride (arrogance too) and blindness that goes along with feeling clandestine” obviously has a rich aesthetic as well as political history—for queers, of course, but if we’re talking about fugitivity in general, the question expands to all those who have been subject to the political imperative to “hold something in reserve, to keep a secret,” as Moten has it (sorry, I’ve been teaching and talking Moten all week, so I’m totally immersed).
In some ways this brings us back to the Wittgenstein quotation at the start of my book, re: whether one could or should try to utter the unutterable, or just rest assured that the unutterable will be—unutterably!—contained in what gets expressed. The aesthetic question then becomes: do you make a poetry (or any art) that aims to give a felt sense of this fugitivity, this [open] secret, or do you go in for a very direct idiom, presuming that since you can’t utter the unutterable anyway, something will ALWAYS be held in reserve, no matter how much you lay it on the line. Obviously in this instance, and probably just about everywhere else, I choose the latter approach, though I respect the former, and I’d be very glad for someone to tell me that I’m not all directness all the time.
RB by RB is one of, if not the, principal “ghost texts” of The Argonauts. (For many months the book had a big fat epigraph from RB by RB standing at its front door, until I realized, via the help of a smart friend, that it was kind of overkill.) What can I say—I feel in almost every moment of reading Barthes a profound sense of kinship and inspiration. I am always sad and baffled when students tell me they find his writing clinical, as it is and always has been so profoundly emotional for me. Barthes also has a special relationship to time, in that I’ve read RB by RB so many times—my copy is so overwrought with marginal scrawlings and underlines and stars—and yet every time I read it again, I see new things/ understand different things that I totally missed before. Some of this has to do with the density of his layering; some of it has to do with one’s own education, like, you may not have known a certain concept or writer the last time you read it, but this time you do, and so a new portal opens. I hope this process goes on for me with him for the rest of my life.
You’re right, though—RB by RB has a certain aleatory rhythm that’s created by the distinct entries, and a certain figurativeness that stems from Barthes’ talking about himself in the third person for much of the text, neither of which The Argonauts has. In some ways the numbered sections of Bluets and the subjunctive, speculative nature of the speaker there have more in common with RB by RB than The Argonauts does. But my experiment in The Argonauts was this: rather than playing with the interacting forces of philosophy and personal testimony, I became interested in the interacting forces of what might be called “theory” (largely psychoanalytical + feminist & queer) and “anecdote.” I think that’s what you’re noting when you say “cerebriality and casualness.” The theory stuff is in some ways more cerebral, the anecdotal stuff more casual, than I’ve tried out in other places. It’s always an experiment, the contours of which come clear as one comes to terms with the content at hand.
I don’t think there’s anything superfluous about where we write at all—nor what we write on (don’t get me started about how I fell out of writing poetry just as I stopped using a typewriter)—but the truth is this book was written in so many different places. Its primal scene of writing is a little Tuff Shed in my backyard, where my rice cooker-like breast pump lived, etc., but once I get writing, I take pages everywhere and anywhere. Also, I never lounged in bed in NYC; I was out on the street all day, and just went back to my apartment to crash for seven hours or so before going out and street walking all over again. I WISH I had been a lounger there, or anywhere. I think it would be better for my health.
Fitzgerald: Following on your apt description of theory + anecdote, I wonder if you could expand on your tastes and interests in both. (We have/use the label “theorist” enough, why don’t we use “anecdotist” as in the great anecdotists of the 20th century.) The high theory of the 80s and 90s, if this is not a meaningless phrase, seems to have given way to more intimate, embodied, porous texts. Yet as I say this, I’m thinking that Judith Butler—no less relevant now, and crucial in your work—never forgets the body; she’s also as lexically dense as it gets. Also, Roland Barthes, whose first publications predate many of the poststructuralists, is nothing if not the most sensuous and writerly of thinkers. (Is their queerness relevant, here, I wonder?) Yet, to broaden the focus a bit, your work participates to me in a contemporary shift toward autobiographical criticism, towards greater exposure and vulnerability of/from the thinking subject, their anatomy, gender, class, race and so forth. I’m thinking, again, of Claudia Rankine, but also Kate Zambreno, Eileen Myles, Maureen McLane, Roxane Gay, Ariana Reines, Wayne Koestenbaum. Today’s cultural and political imaginations are also compelling memoirists, diarists, risking a certain intellectual exhibitionism, a personalism, a performativity.
I wonder if this is part of what drew you to Paul B. Preciado’s amazing Testo Junkie (which I read thanks to Eileen). It seems to me if it were published even ten years ago, some editor or friend would have said, Oh this is two books—your reflections on injecting T, on the one hand; a larger analysis of postwar pornography and pharmaceutics on the other. And yet the book reads precisely so prescient, exciting, as writing, because it is marvelously synthesized. Multitudinous. What are your thoughts on the great energy emerging in autobiographical criticism and embodied theory?
Nelson: I’m naturally very excited about autobiographical criticism and embodied theory, but perhaps not as inclined to note it as something new. The entire history of feminist criticism and theory for the past 50 years has been deeply invested in this project, as an almost foundational matter, re: redressing the body/mind split, the (male) presumption of objectivity, universality, abstract/conceptual thinking, etc. Think Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights, think This Bridge Called My Back, think Audre Lorde, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Angela Davis, Leslie Feinberg, Amber Hollibaugh, Eve Sedgwick, Gayle Rubin, not to mention James Baldwin, Barthes, Derrida, Woolf, Fanon, and on and on. Maybe it’s more that the generation that was so hysterical about theory—either for or against—has finally passed, and now we can just get back to thinking and writing, taking from whatever source we please. I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve always thought it was a generational anxiety, probably having to do with certain zero sum fears about academic resources and also culture wars which were inevitably proxies for uglier financial agendas (see Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality to see how this works).
Anyway, even Judith Butler has that great part at the start of Bodies That Matter where she rues the fact that her great efforts to theorize materiality from “the ruins of Logos” often invites the question, “What about the materiality of the body?” She goes on: “Actually, in the recent past, the question was repeatedly formulated to me this way: ‘What about the materiality of the body, Judy?’ I took it that the addition of ‘Judy’ was an effort to dislodge me from the formal ‘Judith’ and to recall me to a bodily life that could not be theorized away.” I totally get Butler’s annoyance at being interpellated as “Judy with a body.” There’s no need for anyone to go all “Judy with a body” when that isn’t his or her project.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t bristle when people talk to me about “exposing my private life” as if I’m engaged in some kind of exposure/hiding paradigm (epistemology of the closet, anyone?) which really doesn’t hold much interest for me (hence my leaving of the aesthetics of fugitivity to others). If my work feels like a frightening exposure to you, that’s probably because you aren’t in the sport. Which is cool—no sport is for everyone—but you don’t need to shame those who choose to engage in it. Besides, in my experience, if a work is bad, it’s bad because it’s bad, not because it was “overly personal.”
Preciado’s Testo Junkie blew in when I was about half way through writing The Argonauts, and I felt so relieved for it, felt a lot of pleasure and license. I thought its mixture of theory and body writing, as you say, was fantastic. (I think someone DID make that suggestion to Preciado, about dividing it into two books, incidentally, but I don’t have the hard facts.) There is also the alignment/dissensus throughout the book of Preciado’s writing with that of Guillaume Dustan—a thorny connection I relate to, and think a lot about. (Not about Dustan, per se, but about the overlaps and chasms between lesbian/feminist/FTM sex-positive writers with the so-called enfant terrible gay boys of French letters etc.) I mean, it’s some kind of primal scene moment, at least for me, when BP and GD face-off as follows: “You [GD] say, ‘I mean, shit, what could you [BP] have to say about this queer stuff?’ You say you thought I wasn’t like the other chicks, and that for me it was all about fucking, but now you realize I’m like the other lesbians, ready to be the political nurse for anyone I meet.” Ouch, and also, fuck you.
Fitzgerald: About halfway through your book there is an extended meditation on the experience of seeing A.L. Steiner’s Puppies and Babies—a queer installation that tears away at some set assumptions about subject and genre, homosexuality and normalization, pregnancy and masturbatory fantasies. I’m wondering how queer contemporary artists have shaped and affected your writing, not just for their themes and affinities, but as you say above, someone who has felt a closer connection to the professional art rather than literary world. Who are they, and do you see any as formal influences on Argonauts, or on your sense of the writing in general?
Nelson: Wow, there are so many! Before offering a list, I should say that something I appreciate about visual art as opposed to literary art is that the former can often be more abstract, so there can be queer/freaky/liberatory/abject/hilarious/revolutionary/grim experiments, unsettlings, and pleasures that don’t depend on or refer to the artist’s “sexuality,” whatever that might mean. Of course, that can be true in literature as well—I was just teaching Autoportrait by Edouard Leve this week alongside Koestenbaum’s Bookforum essay on Leve, “The Prince of Parataxis,” which together offer an instance of exception—but there’s always that blasted issue of CONTENT in writing, be it fiction or nonfiction (poetry has traditionally been more of a lab for the abstract). All that said, here is an incomplete, off-the-top-of-my-head list of some artists from the present or recent past whose work has been inspiring to me, in no particular order: Peggy Ahwesh, David Wojnarowicz, A.L. Steiner, Mariah Garnett, Ryan Trecartin, Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, Carolee Schneemann, Forest Bess, Rosemarie Trockel, Tala Madani, Aimee Goguen, Sadie Benning, Nayland Blake, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Jack Smith, Sterling Ruby, Adrian Piper, Sigmar Polke, William Pope.L, Louise Bourgeois, Charles Gaines, Wu Tsang, Lynda Benglis, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens, Kalup Linzy, Adrienne Truscott, Ana Mendieta, Mary Kelly, Dorothea Tanning, Sarah Lucas, Kara Walker, Joan Mitchell, and (of course) Harry Dodge.
Fitzgerald: This is a beautiful list of names, and has many I have yet to discover happily. Two things I wonder. One, does your interest in artists in other media or genre ever have direct technical application? Do any examples come to mind?
The second thought I had was your comment/question on “that blasted issue of CONTENT in writing,” where you (rightfully) uphold poetry as a lab for the abstract. I think as a formalist, hopefully an undogmatic and transgressive one, I too have spent most of my life abhorring the pressures/expectations of content or thetic claims made about art or writing, especially in poetry. Yet poets today are making me think the ‘freedom from content’ has become something of a stuffed piety. Cathy Park Hong’s recent essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” as well as the great battering success of Claudia’s Citizen make me trouble my simple categories. Perhaps there can be such a thing as avant-garde or radical content—a poetry that engages with rhetorics, thematics, ideology, to do something new, emerging, transgressive.
Nelson: All very well-put!!!!
I’ve never had an internalized problem with content. There’s too much other stuff to do, and I’m kind of a straight talker, essentially; the poetry is as well (more and less). Or, rather, I’ve always been an ordinary language talker. But then, so was Niedecker, so was Stein, so was Oppen, so was Creeley, so was Clifton, so, in some ways, was Baraka—and look at the complexity, the multifacetedness, the depth, the challenge of their writing!
I’ve written a lot (in my book on women and the New York School) about problems of abstraction in writing, and the ways in which our understanding/apprehension/veneration of abstraction—whatever that might mean—is always already a politicized, charged endeavor. This has to do with the historical, often racist/sexist/imperialist linkage of abstraction with transcendence and universality, on the one hand, and “detail” or specificity, with materiality, embodiment, identity, the feminized, the nonwhite, and so on, on the other. (Naomi Schor is very helpful here.) Anyway, these are deep waters, but I’m totally down with Cathy’s critique—she’s unquestionably right, it seems to me, and I’ve always thought it a complete canard that “freedom from content” is the most avant-garde position, especially when “content” is not apprehended equally (i.e. one person hears no content in a poet’s naming of roast beef, whereas the same person may hear a lot of content if that person cites rice and beans, if you see what I mean).
Personally I can’t see how content in any way threatens formal ingenuity. I mean—what is content, anyway? Everything has content, so maybe we are just talking about levels of intelligibility? And who cares what the most “avant-garde” position is, since the history of the avant-garde is as bellicose and horrifying and politically appalling as it is ecstatic and necessary and inspiring? My book The Art of Cruelty was about this paradox—it was kind of an extended love/hate letter to avant-garde rhetoric and conviction, among other things. I think it’s somewhat inevitable, as a feminist, or an antiracist, to ask whether, say, a “feminist avant-garde,” or a “black avant-garde,” is an oxymoron, a given, or whether we should just blow this popsicle stand and get a change of scenery.
As for stealing technical ideas from other media, Oh yes, this happens with me all the time. In fact it happens a lot more for me with art than with literature, probably because when stealing from art, there’s no anxiety about a too-direct theft. (Which makes me think my thefts from literary sources are perhaps just enjoyably repressed.) Sometimes it’s a very tangible relation, like, I can remember leaving a screening of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart with an entirely new structural idea for the book I was then working on, applying it that very night, and it totally worked—but most often it’s a softer bleed. Like, wow, that piece I just saw by Maria Lassnig had exactly the tone I’m trying to achieve in this piece of writing, something cartoony but serious, something morphologically expansive, attentive to line but poofy with color—how can I get that? And then you stab around in the dark, your way lit by the excitement or impossibility of the analogue, until you find the way.