In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book this March, The Summer of Dead Birds,
The first stop on my cross-country pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s house was Los Angeles, to visit 39-year-old writer and thinker Maggie Nelson. She’s the author of four books of poetry and four books of non-fiction. The first time I ever saw Maggie Nelson, she was reading from a series of poems written about The Gowanus Canal called “The Canal Diaries” from her book Something Bright, Then Holes. Later I read her book Jane; then The Red Parts about her aunt’s murder, and most recently, the exquisite Bluets. I interviewed her on the lawn of The Getty museum in the sweltering heat.
ALI LIEBEGOTT: Do you think of yourself as a poet?
MAGGIE NELSON: It’s been a little odd recently because my first four books were poetry and I came into the world as a poet, and then my last four books have all been non-fiction. So I have yet to theorize exactly what shift has occurred, but when I grew up I was just interested in being a writer. The feeling I had reading Rilke in high school was very important to me becoming a poet. And I had a very good friend in high school and a fellow Rilke lover who was probably one of the best people who lived on this planet in my opinion. She died of breast cancer at 37 last year. Her name was Lhasa de Sela, she became a world famous singer, but she and I were poetry friends and she was a Rilke lover, and loved the same line you have tattooed on your arm—you must change your life. It was just a feeling about Rilke, it was a lyric inhale. I’ve taught “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” and had smart people deconstruct these poems in class, but it doesn’t approach what I was feeling. Paul Celan later occupied the place that Rilke occupied, which was whenever I read Paul Celan, I thought being a poet was the right thing and the best thing to be.
AL: I remember reading that it took Rilke ten years to write The Duino Elegies and that he was walking on the cliffs of whatever estate when he got inspiration to finish them, ten years later. What I like so much about him is that when I think about poets in the purest sense, I think of them as being on earth to figure out the experience of it, and that’s a tall order, you know. I wonder if there’s enough “space” to do that today in poetry?
MN: Poetry is such an underdog. When I read Eileen Myles’ The Inferno or when you read these things where you feel infused with the sense of what it means to be a poet, it feels so important you think, Yes, that’s it. You feel like a spokesperson, where it’s the only thing ethically one should be doing. But I don’t want to project what poetry can and can’t do in the world because poetry will keep doing its work and poets will keep doing their work. But personally I do feel a bit in a crisis about exactly this. If the poetic place feels a little closed to me at the moment—and I’m somebody who has angled most of her being at being the person to do that job—then I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if it’s about the world or if it’s about me or about poetry. I’m trying to figure it out. Regrettably, it often gets posed, as with certain spats, as a political question, like, “If the world is ending and going to hell in a hand basket, what can poetry do?” I can’t fully traffic with those conversations because my interest is to the side of that.
AL: To the side of the whole can poetry matter question?
MN: Yeah.I don’t feel like I have any fruitful contribution about whether poetry can save us from global warming. It seems very clearly that it cannot. If you feel so strongly that you should work in certain forms of activism, then work in those forms of activism. Francis Bacon, who I was writing about in my book, The Art of Cruelty, talked a lot about painting from a place of what he called “exhilarated despair,” which I feel is something that’s available right now. Not hope—exhilarated despair. The words “hope” and “despair” are words that are often associated with the poetic enterprise, but I don’t think the hope/despair dichotomy is a fruitful one for me at the moment. The people who I like reading make me feel okay about being in a different spot from that—they make me feel like it’s good to be alive, and to stay committed to charting what comes down the river, and bearing witness to all this, and to imagining other spaces, and finding psychic openings that make life seem bigger than the smallness it can get boiled down into by various forces.
AL: I was surprised when I saw Bluets—that it doesn’t say poetry on it, it says Essay/Literature. Do you consider it poetry?
MN: No, I don’t really, but I just don’t care. There was a long review of Bluets that was all about Is this poetry or prose? A lot of the book came from poems, and I took out the line breaks. At first I wrote a lot of blue poems, but there was something about this collection of blue poems that was really irking me. It was too precious or too weird. When I wrote Jane, it was okay that each individual poem was in a different form, because the story was going to hold it all together. When I wrote Bluets, blue as a concept was not enough to hold all these individually shaped poems. I didn’t like the way it was looking, and it wasn’t interesting. Then when I realized that numbered passages could do the same work that poems could do—with juxtaposition and speed and moving in and out of different kinds of voices, I thought, Oh, wow! And when I took a lot of the line breaks out of a lot of the poems, I didn’t feel like they lost anything. A lot of reviews of the poems I’d written recently were like, Why is this even poetry? She just put line breaks and stuff into what should’ve been prose. I felt like, Fair enough, maybe that’s exactly so. That didn’t cut to my quick or anything.
It sounds kind of dippy, but Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is written in numbers, was the main book I saw my book in conversation with. I love the way he’s writing philosophy, but it also kind of sounds like a sad, confused person just talking to himself. “Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?” and “Why can’t a dog feel pain?” “Can a dog simulate pain?” Just all these questions and people treat it—as they should—very seriously as philosophy. But it’s also a form of madness, and I felt very alone and in a form of madness.
I was probably very kinetically unhappy while I was writing Bluets—but I still felt pleased as a writer, because I’ve worked a lot as a scholar, and I like doing research, and I like facts, and I like philosophy. So I felt like I could put everything I knew about rhythm and movement and juxtaposition into this book, but I didn’t have to be precious, like if I was making a poem. I could say, “Here’s what Mallarmé had to say about God,” and I could put in all my facts. I loved this. It’s a good form for me. It’s a kind of poetic prose, but I wouldn’t call it a long poem.
AL: I know Jane and even Bluets are deeply personal, emotional writings. I relate a lot to not wanting to sit down just for the sake of writing a competent poem.
MN: There are three things about being a poet that I do identify with, which I feel will always make me a poet, and which will never change: 1. A dedication to witnessing the world and rendering feeling, landscape, and researched experience into language, in an almost laboratorial way. Which is not, I want to imagine the plot. It’s a metabolic processing. 2. Attention to language. I so can’t handle anything I pick up that has boring sentences. It has to be well-written on a micro level. I’m very interested in grammar and rhythm—I like the teeny elements. 3. The more amorphous thing, which is a do-it-yourself feeling about being a writer, that I think really only poets have, which has to do with dedication to community, and the dedication to making your own chapbooks. I came up in the world in New York City in the 90s as a D.I.Y. writer, where I never thought anyone was going to give a shit—it was all about my life and how I wanted to live it and who I wanted to associate with. I always feel like a poet-hustler at heart.
It may be that poetry is what comes at times of great emotional crisis, like when my partner’s mother died this summer, all my impulses were to commemorate her in poetry. I had no prose instincts whatsoever. But I’m also a thinker person, and I don’t know how to say this, because I really respect a lot of poets who I think are thinking—like George Oppen or Paul Celan or Gertrude Stein—but poetry is the doing and the leaping.
AL: You’re such a thinker, it’s true. I’ve seen you read Roland Barthes on the beach! When did you realize you were a “thinker person”? I guess what I’m getting at is—I go to Rilke at my deepest moments to look for something. What are you looking for when you are looking to your friends Wittgenstein and Barthes—the thinkers. What are you digging for? I know that’s a big part of your work, responding to your friends, “the thinkers.”
MN: When you were asking, “What do you read or look at that makes you feel hope?” the things that came to mind were Deleuze and Guattari, who are French philosopher psychoanalytic nutballs, but the way that they write makes me feel totally heartened about writing and projects and doing things. It’s just wing-nut philosophy that can incorporate all fields under the sun. Reading Roland Barthes, I feel the same way, because it’s a form of gathering. When I was younger, my favorite thing about poetry and I haven’t historically liked the word ‘family’—but I thought about it a lot as making a weird family, where you could put “Nestle’s chocolate milk”, “My grandmother’s heirloom” and “Necrophilia” in a poem that could hold those three things as family. I just love that uncommon gathering.
A lot of the “thinking” people that I read are drawing from biology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, spirituality, New Age, whatever. My favorite poets, George Oppen and Robert Creeley, who was probably the most important to me after Rilke growing up—it felt like they had a fixed set of objects: it was like window, apple… and the philosophy of the poetry was just incredibly plain language, and you’d never lard it up. My poetry sensibility is very not-baroque and not-scintillating worlds next to each other. It’s very bare bones, like, How much feeling can I get marshalling these very simple words around the page? To me they can hold big ideas, but I don’t want them themselves to bear the marks of these ideas.
If I’m known for anything, I think I’m known for being a bleeding heart, confessional, poet, and someone who also writes smarty-critical-thinky things. There are a lot of perils in the former. Sometimes I read reviews, and people say, “This sounds like her diary,” or “She should’ve kept her breakup to herself.” I think, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” But it’s okay with me that I’m working on the edge of being sentimental. I prefer that edge to the larded-up edge. I take heart in thinking I’m the whole of me. I know all these strains co-exist, but I’m not going to bend over backwards to make you think I’m a smart poet.
AL: I get really defensive when women poets are attacked for being “confessional”. When I was reading Bluets, your love of the color blue made me think of my love for caves. After I finished writing a lot about caves, I don’t know if my love for them is the same.
MN: It’s weird right? Writing about something. My blue isn’t my blue after writing about it.
AL: Your blue isn’t your blue anymore?
MN: No, it’s very weird. I’ve had that experience with a few books where I swore all through writing it that writing doesn’t change anything, and then I’ll finish the book and I’ll notice how profoundly different I feel toward it. My two books about my aunt were the most obvious case, because now I don’t think about her at all in the same way.
AL: Well, the whole thing in Bluets where you’re looking for blue things and sometimes you can’t find anything blue except something ugly like the tarps that cover the wood pile or the termite trap… I like to pretend a person can still go somewhere—to a town or roadside attraction or city—to find something, like when all the poets moved to New York in the 70s. But that place isn’t there anymore. So if you were going to tell someone to go looking, where would you tell them to go?
MN: Whenever I get a little despondent about What am I going to write next?—which doesn’t happen that often, but I’m in that spot right now—I just have to remember that I’ve never been inspired to do anything without going out and hunting around. You have to go hunting around. That’s kind of what Bluets is about. You know the color blue, but it really starts when you start going around looking into things and looking up things. You don’t generate interest sitting alone in your room; you generate interest by having an interaction. I think the thing for me about reading and writing criticism and non-fiction is that if I read enough books about things that are interesting to me, eventually I’ll start to have an idea or a desire. So I’d tell people you have to read the books, but I don’t know where the place is. LA is baffling in that regard.
AL: Oh, I should ask you before I forget: you get to make out with Rilke or Emily Dickinson. Who do you choose?
MN: Oh, Emily Dickinson.
MN: Oh, absolutely.
AL: Do you want to elaborate?
MN: She was, like, sitting on an explosive bomb, which reoccurs as an image throughout many of her poems, but the bomb of her desires in her Master Letters and the question about whether or not she ever had any sexuality outlet is totally out there.
AL: You won a Guggenheim! You were America’s Next Top Poet! Is that the highlight of your career so far?
MN: I don’t think so.
AL: Really??? It gets better than that? I always think of any kind of grant or outside pat on the shoulder as desperately needed. It’s such a solitary thing. The writer brain is so crazy.
MN: It WAS really great, but for personal reasons. Like, the time at which it came was just after a time of a lot of turmoil and costs. It kind of had this feeling of—if you just try hard enough and trust, then the wheel will keep turning. But then, there are a lot of people who apply for those grants for many, many years and never get them. At the same time, I did feel like I had done a lot of good work in recent years as a writer. I’m not downplaying the happiness about the Guggenheim, but the best thing about it was that it allowed me to keep living the life I want to be living, which is what makes me happiest as a writer and a person. Like when I wrote the book about the women poets and painters of the New York school… I organized this night in New York as a party for it and made my wish list of people to perform at it, and they all said yes. Kim Gordon, Carolee Schneemann, and Yvonne Rainer—they all just said yes! Can you imagine? That was a super highlight. By my own labor I’d become someone who could be in conversation with people who were most meaningful to me. Awards are really gratifying, but most gratifying in some ways would be if you were at some really great party where all the smart people were and you were all talking.
AL: I really wish I could talk to Adrienne Rich, because she was such a profound impact on me. The whole Dream of a Common Language—trying to find models not just for the form, but the emotional content… I think, Who do I want to be as a writer? That’s the kind of emotional excavating I want to do.
MN: I relate to that impulse in your writing, a lot. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on confessional writing—Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Instead of rejecting confessionalism as a mode, I came up raring to go.
AL: Who do you admire?
MN: I admire Anne Carson a lot. She has been around for long enough and has written enough good books—and there have been a few waves of adoration/backlash/adoration/backlash, and I think the backlash that gets generated is, “Wow, she’s really churning them out.” Or, “Is this really as good?” I kind of like that, because I think there are so many guys where any piece of trash they put out people are ready to take really seriously, and she has strangely occupied this place of getting a foothold in the publishing world where she actually can do that, and it allows us to see this person’s whole career and thinking.
I have a lot of mentors who are feminist and some who are actively, avowedly, not feminist, like Annie Dillard, who I was just visiting. Anne Carson has somehow been able to stand in between, where it’s not the biggest thing she talks about, but she does puts female experience at the center, boldly and without apology, and I think that goes a long way. She’s someone who has said very provocative and interesting things, like, “Since Homer and Sappho there haven’t been any poets.” Not any good poets. Just that poetry qua poetry hasn’t been what’s happening. To me, I get what she’s onto, which is, “I’m thinking and I’m doing and I’m making, and this is what the mess came out to look like—will you publish it?” To me, that’s just how you make a book. I get very irritated these days with the “hipness” of hybridity and cross-genre. Genre’s not that important at the end of the day! Who cares about genre? If you don’t have a reason you’re making this mess, than I don’t care about it. But if this is the only way this shit could come out…
I’m always searching for the right form. I’m always desperate to find what something is supposed to look like. When I see Anne Carson’s stuff, I see that she’s been looking, too, and then you finally land on it and it comes into being. I used to think you would sell out or not sell out based on how much towards poetry a project would go, but now with the last few things that I’ve done, I think of it like a Rubix Cube; it’s sorting itself out, and at the end of the day, you have to go along with it. At the end of the day, if it’s not marketable, then that was that project and you move on to the next! I can’t imagine marshalling the thing along to be more marketable.
AL: It’s weird. In a world where there’s so much evolution in other ways, there’s this stronghold in keeping this genre this genre, and that genre that genre.
MN: To me, the publishing world seems really lost. The assumption that worth comes from how many people did it move?—that makes no sense to me whatsoever. I think in terms of the right people moved, or the people who found the thing and it spoke to them—but even that is far less important than resolving the project. It has to be perfect. And then whatever happens to it, happens to it.