It is Idle to Fault a Net For Having Holes: An Interview with Maggie Nelson

Vincent Scarpa

I was crying when I first met Maggie Nelson. I’d spent the night before reading Bluets in one sitting, and then reading it again, and then again, until it was morning and I was out of tears and out of cigarettes and the sun had crawled back up to the sky, a giant bright lid over Portland. This was at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. It was a period in my life characterized by a fair amount of ineffable pain and imprecise longing. I was prone to hysterics and I was unmedicated. I cried a lot. Every day I danced a passive ballet around what I knew was an impending breakdown. I felt consistently unmoored from myself and from others. Then Bluets found me, and at the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, nothing was ever the same. I was simply gutted by Nelson’s prose, the way she’d wrangled her heart and her mind onto the page. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I had never encountered a writer so lionhearted, so exact. Never had my own pain felt so—not necessarily manageable, but located. Not healed, but given language. So, that morning when I saw Maggie in the cafeteria, I approached her with all the charm of a sleepless open wound and said who knows what through my tears. I think she advised me to get some coffee. I know she hugged me. She was so gracious then, and continues to be in the years that have followed.

Her work, for me, has been and will always be a harbor I value more than I could ever say. The Argonauts, her latest, out now from Graywolf, is no exception. Maggie was kind enough to talk with me about it by email.


Vincent Scarpa: Being, as you are, completely disconnected from all things social media, I’m wondering if you had any sense of the feverish anticipation surrounding The Argonauts? It seemed—and for very good reason—that no one had ever been quicker to boast (myself chief among them) about getting their hands on an advanced copy. You say, in the book, “I don’t want to represent anything,” but you must have at least some understanding of just how important your work is to so many writers and readers, and that both it and you do represent something brand-new for so many people: this wonderfully lawless, deeply personal, and ferociously intelligent space for writing which ricochets and reticulates from the heart to the mind; writing which inspires, teaches, indicts, moves.

Maggie Nelson: Wow, I have no idea if any of the things you say are true! Especially because not thinking about audience has been and still is almost a condition of possibility for me to write. But I would be very glad if my writing has been important to writers and readers in the ways you describe. There’s a kind of sacred alchemy around the issue of reception that I sometimes worry will get fucked up if I think too hard about it, or get egoic about it. So I try not to.

But I am always happy to hear that my work gave someone a sense of permission; that seems like an incredibly important, even life-sustaining gift. (As Eve Sedgwick says in Fat Art, Thin Art, “In every language the loveliest question/ is, You can say that?”) Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I say to myself while writing—go ahead and write it, you dont have to publish it, no one besides you ever has to read this—that’s often the stuff that ends up meaning the most to other readers.

Artist Moyra Davey is fond of quoting Fassbinder on this account: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” (That may sound like writing program drivel, but remember, its Fassbinder—and remember also, what “putting yourself honestly into the story”means is completely wide open, and may apply to criticism and fiction as much as to autobiography, etc.)

VS: I think the fandom you inspire probably has a great deal to do with something you spoke about briefly at AWP, where you identified yourself as being “post-shame.”(Of course there’s a great deal of gender-specific politics around what John and Jane Q. Public even identify as something about which to be ashamed in the first place, but that’s another conversation.) Regardless, your writing does not limit or censor the immensity of human experience—pain or pleasure—nor what ways we get there, and I think that’s something that magnetizes a lot of readers. Were/are their writers whose work affects you in the same way?

MN: My first writing teacher Annie Dillard always told her students to leave it all on the floor, every time. Or as she put it: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I believed in this then and I believe in it now, with something akin to religious fervor.


There are so many writers who have given me this same sense of permission, without which no magnetizing or probing writing would be even remotely possible. How could I ever forget my first encounter with the Marquis de Sade in a friend’s bathroom when I was 17? How could I ever forget reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives when I was 19, a book which meant everything to me then and still does? Then there are my literal teachers, Eileen Myles and Wayne Koestenbaum . . . there’s everyone from James Baldwin to Antonin Artaud to Angela Davis . . . I could go on and on. I tried to pay homage to many of these folks in The Argonauts.

VS: Tell me a bit about how you landed on the term “autotheory.”What do you see it as signifying, beyond it being a way to shirk the inherently limiting and reductive categories of so-called genre? How does a piece of autotheory function? At AWP, you described it as “the self as guinea pig for trying out thought”—is that about the size of it? Is it a concept you came to while writing the book or a way to speak of it after it was completed?

MN: Autotheory is just lifted from Beatriz, now Paul, Preciado’s Testo Junkie. So is the guinea pig line: “As a body—and this is the only important thing about being a subject-body, a techno-living system—I’m the platform that makes possible the materialization of political imagination. I am my own guinea pig for an experiment on the effects of intentionally increasing the level of testosterone in the body of a bio-female.” This sentiment resonates with Herve Guibert’s amazing line (which Preciado actually uses as an epigraph): “I am, as always in writing, both the scientist and the rat split open for his research.”

I think what I was getting at, on that panel, was that instead of the boring exposure/concealment spectrum, what if we talked instead about the relation between being a subject-body and the materialization of political imagination; what if we talked about ourselves as scientists and slit rats. Maybe I’ve already lost you. But this genealogy feels more native to me.

VS: I’d love to know what your research-gathering process is like. The Argonauts is textured with so many different voices, from so many different spaces—from Judith Butler to X-Men: First Class and so much in between. I have the suspicion that there’s probably nothing you in your mastery could not bend to fit into the book perfectly, so how do you go about deciding what feels most essential, most resonant to include? How much of the research surrounding the project was left on the cutting room floor? Can we get a deleted scene?

MN: Deleted scenes! I just rolled through my “Argonauts Rejects”file—every book I write ends up having one of these—and found the most salient rejections to include: an anecdote about having dinner with Gayatri Spivak at a deserted California Pizza Kitchen; a story about my experience with some Namyohrengekyo people in LA, which I compared to my experience working for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, both when I was 15; an account of an airplane conversation I had on my way to Houston with a Tea Partier who was reading The Obama Diaries by Laura Ingraham and trying to convince me that it was nonfiction; and a lot of anecdotes that ended up seeming too personal, petty, or pointed.

VS: I’ve read your essay “‘A Sort Of Leaning Against’: Writing With, From, and For Others,”which appears in Tin House’s The Writers Notebook II, more times than I can count at this point. I admire it for many reasons, but primarily for the clarity with which you discuss dependence—both in writing and in life. This is a subject Argonauts orbits in a number of ways as well. You quote that great line of Butler’s: that we are “for another or by virtue of another, not in a single instance, but from the start and always.”And in the Tin House essay, you quote Adam Phillips dismantling the notion that dependence is at odds with self-reliance, “rather than the only thing that makes it possible.” This was especially interesting for me to consider toward the end of Argonauts, when Harry’s voice shows up on the page. You mention earlier in the text that you once thought of writing a book together, but that such a merger eventually proved anxiety-inducing. How did it come about then, for Harry’s voice to enter the room, as it were, alongside all the other disparate thinkers you invite in? Harry’s sections—which recount the death of his mother—are just so lovely and moving and terribly sad.

MN: It was just an idea I had one day—I knew I had to write something about his mother’s death, as her illness was already a part of the book. I had felt some grief that she would never know a grandchild that Harry and I produced together, so there was something about Iggy’s birth and her death that had always felt connected to me, but I had yet to express the link. Anyway, I knew Harry had sent out that beautiful email to friends to describe her passing, and since I had it in my own email inbox, one day while working on the book I just tried cutting and pasting it directly, moving it around, and I liked it. I didn’t know if Harry would go for it, but he did, for which I was very grateful.

VS: While we’re on the topic, how did you land on the formal decision—which I’d never seen before—to do these side-margin citations alongside text that you’re quoting? It definitely frees up the prose itself from too often having to give reference props mid-stream; there’s no unnecessary disruption of rhythm, of poetic tumbling. How will/has it affected your experience of reading from the book for an audience?

MN: I stole that directly from Barthes. I think I may have even stolen the typeface. It’s hard to read aloud from for that reason, but not impossible. What bothers me is that the citation style can’t be reproduced in e-book; yet another reason to buy books you can hold in your hand.

Maggie Nelson bw_600

VS: What struck me the first time I heard you read from Argonauts a few years ago, and what continues to strike me now as I return and return and return to the text, is the clarity of your lyric, even when it’s got these heady, cerebral theoretical perspectives in its teeth. [Never has Slotderjik seemed so lush, so accessible!] There’s also an undeniable rhythm to the construction of each section, a sonic pleasure in the phrasing of each conclusion, inconclusion, or proposition. Your background is in poetry and I can imagine that’s at work here, but I wonder if you think there’s some inherent music to be excavated from clinical/rhetorical/theoretical language, all those -ogicals and -ologies?

So much of Wittgenstein’s writing, for example, as well as the Winnicott you include, feel tremendously poetic to me, though not in a way I could verbalize beyond saying, you know, they just sound right. And yet I’m also taken by the section in which you discuss Snediker’s argument regarding lyrical waxing, that it “often signals (or occasions) an infatuation with overarching concepts or figures that can run roughshod over the specificities of the situation at hand.”How does the writer navigate that dichotomy? [I wrote once, without really knowing what I meant, that lyricism was fundamentally at odds with truth-telling, and my exceptionally wise thesis advisor Lisa Olstein wrote in the margins, “invites much quibble.”]

MN: That is an amazing story, re: Lisa Olstein! Let’s quibble!

I do think we can seduce ourselves with good-sounding language. I mean, I’ve already heard about someone who found the closing couplet of The Argonauts to be fatuous. I don’t agree, though maybe I will someday—but I’m also not foolish enough to not understand where they’re coming from. I wrote about this phenomenon in The Art of Cruelty, quoting Brecht: “Through artistic suggestion, which it knows how to exercise, [aesthetic logic] invests the most absurd assertions concerning human relations with the appearance of truth. The more powerful it is, the more unverifiable its productions.”He doesn’t here go so far as to say that lyricism and truth-telling are fundamentally at odds—that would be a cruel world, I think—but just that aesthetic logic is “unverifiable.” If we were to bring to this discussion the Buddhist slogan, “Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one,”with the writer being the principal witness and the reader being the secondary one, the onus falls on the writer to verify how much self-seduction has taken place, and to figure out whether this seduction has been at the expense of something you might call “truth,” for lack of a better word. But don’t get me wrong—I’m not a moralist who thinks there’s no place for unverifiable aesthetic logic in this world, whose purpose is to seduce either the self or another or many others, etc. But I do think, if one is hoping to think seriously and offer one’s best thought in the best language for it, you do have to get in the habit of shining some bright light on your favorite flourishes, and making sure they’re doing the work you want, not just creating puffy figures whose unconscious purpose is to evade.

VS: As a writer (primarily) of fiction, I’d love to hear you discuss further something you mention in passing in the book. What you hate about fiction, “or at least crappy fiction,” you say, is that “it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”

I can almost get my arms around what you’re after there, and I feel somehow both in agreement and a little defensive. Please unpack? Is there contemporary fiction that you’ve come across which you felt was operating outside of this ideological predetermination? Can I send you a Joy Williams novel?

MN: I love Joy Williams. I love a lot of fiction. And you are not the first fiction writer to mention this passage to me with the same frisson. I probably should’ve just said “crappy fiction”and left it at that. I mean, the text at issue there is X-Men: First Class, not The Golden Bowl. Fiction that depends heavily on overdetermined options as plot points does bug me, especially if those options reinscribe brutal norms that don’t need any more reinforcing. I mean, since I usually traffic only with “fact,”I’m amazed by the way that in fiction, the writer can literally make anything happen, can create any world she wants. So why not make something different happen, why use fiction as a place to foreclose options? Probably for this reason I tend to like fiction that offers something more conceptual, i.e. a way of thinking or talking or being—Woolf, Beckett, Henry James, Brian Evenson, Lucy Corin, the Marquis de Sade, etc.


VS: For me, one of the great pleasures of The Argonauts is your interest in redefining “radicality.” You make a phenomenal point about the “unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement, which has spent fine coin begging entrance into two historically repressive structures: marriage and the military,” and a similar point about a lesbian woman being denied a position as a Den Mother in the Boy Scouts. “If we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us,” you say. I was thinking about all of this as, this week, I came across thinkpiece after thinkpiece about Aydian Dowling, who is in the running to possibly be the first trans man to be an “Ultimate Guy”cover star on Mens Health magazine. “I want to break the stereotype of what a man should or shouldn’t be,”he told People. “I think it would blow minds.”

I find myself both a little moved and a little disheartened—moved, because there’s no denying that it’d be something historic, should Dowling win the contest, for a transgender man to be on the cover of Mens Health, and disheartened, because…Mens Health? [A publication whose website, at the time of this writing, features prominently an article entitled, “How to Make Your Skinny Arms Look Their Best.”]

I worry that often we are eager to translate something historic as something significant, something radical. To me, The Argonauts is asking that we ask for more, and I guess my question is, simply, what does the “work cut out for us” look like in your eyes?

MN: I hear you. The machinery of normalization and binary thinking employed in and by the mainstream is profound, and steamrolls almost anyone and anything that gets in its way. It’s hard when people are putting their bodies on the line for visibility and recognition and acceptance in ways that are undoubtedly courageous and quite possibly socially transformative, but that don’t always, or often, seem in keeping with certain radical goals. But I try not to be in the business of shaming others for their desires or identifications, even if they aren’t ones I share or would prioritize. I prefer to take a step back, and get structural.

For example, Gayle Salamon has a must-read chapter in her book Assuming a Body called “Transfeminism and the Future of Gender”in which she maps out why feminism needs trans studies, and why trans studies needs feminism. In her words: “Until women’s studies demonstrates a more serious engagement with trans studies, it cannot hope to fully assess the present state of gender as it is lived, not will it be able to imagine many of its possible futures. It is also true that trans studies needs feminism. Trans studies in its current, nascent state is often dominated by a liberal individualist notion of subjectivity, in which a postgender subject possesses absolute agency and is able to craft hir gender with perfect felicity. Without the systemic understanding that women’s studies provides of the structures of gender—and the relations of power that underlie those structures—trans studies is unable to understand gender as a historical category and cannot provide an account of how the present state of gender emerged.”vThis is the POV I try to keep in mind when assessing the so-called “transgender tipping point”moment.

The work cut out for us? For lack of a better term, I guess I’d say it’s (still) the revolution, man—the total rearrangement of society, economy, and mind. The other night I went to this conversation between Fred Moten and Pat Thomas, about Charles Gaines and Stokely Carmichael, and at one point, after Moten had laid down some heavy thinking about the dissolution of sovereignty and self-determination as the precondition for any revolution that hopes to avoid the worst features that have attended the genre, Thomas kind of tried to imply that if Stokely Carmichael were there, he would have thought Fred’s speech was intellectual hooey. But Moten wouldn’t have it, and said something like, So far as I know, while preparing for the revolution, one should also be giving it a lot of thought. (He also pointed out that Carmichael had once given a speech in which he deconstructed the ontological status of the podium where he was standing, via Hegel, which seemed to Moten pretty thinky).

This isn’t a particularly helpful answer, I know. But the point is, even though I feel as desperate and useless as everyone else in the face of the ongoing and accelerating ecological and social catastrophe of our world, I haven’t yet been able to buy the idea that thinking and writing are just garbage activities standing in the way of “real action.” In that sense, I guess I am an optimist.

VS: This is maybe an annoying question to ask, as The Argonauts has just entered the world, but inquiring minds (i.e. your fervent fan club; T-shirts soon to be made) want to know what you’re tackling next, creatively. You say that much if not all of your writing is the product of irritation, so maybe the better question is: what’s pissing you off these days?

MN: I love this question. What’s not pissing me off? The state of the world is outrageous. In my mind I see a graphic with one cloud puff symbolizing police/economic/criminal justice system brutality against people of color on one end, and a puff symbolizing our appalling inaction in the face of global warming on the other; whatever bridge you want to draw between them would be populated by stations of the cross of other grievous, enraging behaviors. That said, I’ll probably work on something more “scholarly”for a moment, since I’ve kind of shot my autobiographical wad for the time being, or so I feel today. I’ll keep you posted.


Maggie Nelson is an American poet, art critic, lyric essayist and nonfiction author.

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and managing editor of The Austin Review.