Who knew that we were going to be arguing so much about things that we thought were settled? We are revisiting whether or not birth control is all right, reconsidering what rape means, and, of course, eternally arguing about whether women are or are not going to have control over their bodies. That’s not even going into the role of institutionalized violence visited on the bodies of women of color, for whom even the right not to be killed is, as ever, up for discussion.
Or: everything new is old again. You can write about your partner’s gender fluidity (and fluids, for that matter) and remake the forms in which a poet-theorist-art critic toils, and it turns out that in this brave new world we’ll find the same old shit to hash through. Plus ça change.
In The Argonauts, the writer Maggie Nelson writes about having been to hear feminist theorist Jane Gallop talk, very personally, about photography and motherhood. “I liked that Gallop was onto something and she was letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry.” Nelson’s own laundry never actually dries: It’s sticky and dripping, even as it swirls around in enough high-end theory to provide a passport through the disciplines. Her dissertation, to the chagrin of her advisor, was on “The Performance of Intimacy.”
Nelson still hasn’t stopped writing about intimacy, even though she sometimes recoils from the word. She’s right there, insisting that we legitimize sex and bodies and emotions. Right now, in fact, she’s working on the groundbreaking artist Carolee Schneeman, whose Interior Scroll performance piece, in which the artist reads from a scroll being pulled out of her vagina, theorizes about the interior production of knowledge.
The thing about motherhood, and sex, and testosterone shots, and breastfeeding, is that they can be as intellectually productive as reading Barthes or delving into Luce Irigaray or analyzing photographs. You can’t read, or do, much of anything feminist and not come up against that idea. And there is just about nothing as analytically challenging and intellectually rigorous as transsexuality. The personal is political is personal is corporeal; our bodies are ourselves, even as we may chafe and change and contain others.
In the period Nelson is exploring, which she’s using to devise, as she says, autotheory, she is swelling up with a baby as her partner is having a double mastectomy, undergoing gender de-assignment, opting into something that really isn’t even an option. It’s terrifying and awesome, what’s happening to their bodies. (Heartbreaking, too: In their motel in Florida, they watch a piece about a woman whose breast cancer has forced her into a double mastectomy, too.) Mostly, though, it’s miraculous, this future made real. Leslie Feinberg, transgender warrior and queer theory pioneer, said that she had learned to love “the pleasure of the weightless state between here and there,” a doublespace , or non-space, that is and isn’t, that is at once liberating and revolutionary.
And here’s something: It’s Maggie Nelson’s moment right now. She’s hot, she’s the next big thing. She’s the now big thing. She’s in the Times, in the New Yorker, she’s the topic of my lunch table at work, where queer and feminist theory doesn’t come up a lot.
But why? Feinberg didn’t have a moment like that, nor did Eve Sedgewick. Harry Dodge, Nelson’s partner, was in the Times (where, Dodge was told, they had to select a gender pronoun, even though Dodge doesn’t choose to be either of the two options the Times offers) but not to the same acclaim. In fact, if you search “Harry Dodge New York Times,” you get a hit for Maggie Nelson. Not so the reverse. Part of me wants to rail at how Dodge’s work is marginalized because of who they are, while Nelson seems safe, or acceptable, or real. And part of me recognizes that by lifting up Nelson, we risk trivializing her work as well, as if her intensely difficult explorations in The Red Parts are so much more reasonable and moderate than, say, Dodge’s movie Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out. Her books ought to make for harder reading; why do they go down so very easily?
Nelson doesn’t worry about that. “I don’t think about readers when I write,” she explains, and also doesn’t much think about whether her students have read her work. That might help when you’re writing about fisting, but it might also be hard to swallow. It’s not that she must be either seeking our regard or fearing our disdain; it’s that she’s heir to a world of writers whose readers take in a text like it will save their lives. Sometimes it does, too: Talk to someone who encountered Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues as a teenager. Or, probably, talk to a kid, a brainy queer misfit, who’s right this minute reading The Argonauts.
But maybe that’s about process, and Nelson may value the process of her writing as something like a shield. “I’m shy,” she says, “and greatly prefer all requests and submissions to stay on the page.” Frisky kids and fired-up activists, though, want to get off the page and occupy the park. They want to have a theorist explain to them what they’re thinking and draw them a road map of possibility. Nelson knows that; if you ask her whether she wants the impossible, she’ll tell you, “I’m more into what is. A lot of what people say is impossible is already happening.”
Now Nelson hopes that we’ll take at least some of our pent-up radicalism out in the climate wars.
“We’re not going to have any place to debate or express our gloriously complex genders and sexualities without a sustainable planet, so that’s where I’m most concerned these days,” she notes.
Nelson says she’s not giving it all away. “I’m not sure…that all love should be subsumed into work. I mean, I’ve written a lot about love, about loving people, but whatever tribute I manage to pay to that love in writing is really just that. It’s writing; daily, lived love goes on elsewhere.”
Maggie Nelson will be in Buffalo this Friday, April 29, as befits a woman who worked with Robert Creeley. She’ll be reading with the complicated and wonderful Buffalo poet Edric Mesmer at 8pm at Karpeles Manuscript Museum, 453 Porter Avenue.
There will be an companion showing of Community Action Center at 8pm Thursday, April 28, at Dreamland, 387 Franklin Street.
Q&A: MAGGIE NELSON
Thanks so much for agreeing to this. There’s a bunch of starting points here; please feel free to answer whichever of them you like, and to leave others. A couple of them are from the delightful Edric Mesmer, who’ll be reading before you; a couple of others were solicited from folks who’ve been reading your work and arguing about it at dinner parties.
Do you think of yourself as asking for the impossible? Or illuminating the possible?
I’m more into what is. A lot of what people say is impossible is already happening. See David Graeber’s Possibilities.
[Edric] was struck by how accurately you described a current question in the broadly-defined queer community: now that gay marriage has allowed an aspect of queerness to become more visible, will queerness no longer align with other radical politics? And if so/not, where do you see radical politics going?
A longer response is due to this, but for the moment, I’ll say that I hope it’s going toward combating climate change. We’re not going to have any place to debate or express our gloriously complex genders and sexualities without a sustainable planet, so that’s where I’m most concerned these days, if I had to choose (and since all injustices are connected, I likely don’t really have to).
Could you talk more about teaching, and especially about a couple of things: teaching students who have read Argonauts, and teaching queer/gender/feminist theory in 2016 as opposed to, say, a decade ago?
I would never know if I’m teaching anyone who’s read my book(s)! A necessary aporia. Sadly I haven’t noticed a lot of change in teaching 10 years of feminist and queer theory. Seems like people still keep coming out of high school fairly brutalized by the same norms. It’s super cheesy to say, but as I get older, I find that while I want to discuss current issues, I also feel more and more of a charge to give a sense of history. My students now often don’t know what the AIDS epidemic was (is), for example, and that’s extremely recent history. So there’s a lot of work to do.
And also talk about what you feel about your readers? Who do you imagine you’re writing for?
I don’t think about readers when I write.
There’s an Eve Sedgewick website whose cover page says that what she’s proudest of is “having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart.” Does it scare you to write about love, about “this love going on”? Or is that the project?
Work and love as one flow, interesting. I feel that, insofar as I love writing and reading, but I’m not sure by that measure that all love should be subsumed into work. I mean, I’ve written a lot about love, about loving people, but whatever tribute I manage to pay to that love in writing is really just that. It’s writing; daily, lived love goes on elsewhere. So in some sense the page is more of a relic, or at least a secondary, or distinct, phenomenon.
And then: In many ways you name The Argonauts a book of love—that repeated rebuilding of a life together, one we have to remake each day…it is also a tribute book to your partner, your children, your father’s memory, and your many “mothers.” Could you talk specifically about how the book is a tribute to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, how her ideas shaped this book, and your thinking?
Sedgwick’s writing is truly the gift that keeps on giving. She was onto so many things, her tentacles so wide and far-reaching. Touching Feeling especially shows that. The Argonauts derived much of its text from a tribute talk I gave about Eve at CUNY and also a review I wrote of her posthumous book, The Weather in Proust, for the LARB. I also taught a mono-subject class on Sedgwick while I was pregnant, which was great.
You’ve said that you were perhaps trying to bring together things that aren’t often discussed in the same place, like queerness and pregnancy—but it doesn’t seem entirely new, yes? Isn’t that the conversation that feminism prepared us for? Prepares us for?
Yes and no. First off, queerness isn’t any one thing, so you’d first have to define what you’re looking for. There are some great classic texts, by Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, and others, who’ve written about feminism and queer maternity. But there’s also a lot of queer theory which has explicitly cordoned pregnancy off, as well as straight feminism which hasn’t paid adequate attention to queer maternity or kinship. Feminism isn’t any one thing either, so it’s hard to talk about what it’s prepared us for…
Do you ever think about Carolee Schneemann’s idea of the vagina as the site of interior knowledge? Or, what the heck, anal epistemology? Is that ghastly? Is it an old-fashioned idea?
YES! I just wrote a whole long piece about Schneemann and her vulvas, partly in an attempt to see what her work had to say in light of current gender emergencies. It will be published as part of the great Artist’s Institute in NYC, a catalogue in the spring. Stay tuned!
Also from Edric: The salute while pregnant! Talk more about the seduction of normalcy you describe in The Argonauts…how does it relate to privilege?
The non-poor, white maternal body has historically been treated in this country as a (the?) form of maternity to respect, encourage, and “protect,” whereby other forms of maternity have been derided and castigated in a variety of subtle to explicitly brutal ways. Though I have no proof that the soldier wouldn’t have saluted any pregnant woman looking for her gate, I took his salute as a confirmation of this racist and destructive history. In that sense, it was appalling. It was also his way of trying to communicate some kind of respect or acknowledgment to me, based on the value systems by which he had come into being; That’s one of the problems with the “seductions of normalcy”—they often double as the decent ways we should all treat each other (not that everyone should salute pregnant women, God forbid. I’m thinking about other things.) So the question of privilege, with which I’m saturated, becomes how and when to refuse or call out these so-called decencies when one knows that they depend on the indecent subjugation, humiliation, or blindness to others.
I once took some students—14 year old boys—to see the movie Precious. Amazingly, they managed to watch almost the whole film (the violence, the incest, the television flying down the stairwell) seriously—until the scene where Precious is breastfeeding her new baby in the hospital. That was a bridge too far, it seems. Can you talk about the panic that seems to engender? Where it comes from?
Yeah, I remember a scene of some movie when I was a teenager in which Patricia Arquette revealed armpit hair, and the whole audience (mostly boys) booed murderously. It was chilling, and likely related. Um, horror at the reality of a female body, where should I start? How much time do you have?
You’re coming to Buffalo: anything you’d like to say about: Leslie Feinberg? Robert Creeley?
Leslie I didn’t know, but obviously is a great hero; Bob Creeley I knew a little bit, and he meant everything to me, was so generous to me, when I was coming up as a poet. RIP to both and a blessing to your city for its relation to them.
Did you really win a poetry contest by the Cure? Do bands really have poetry contests? Do you call radio stations, too?
I did, I swear! I’ll pay a reader $50 if they can come up with the pamphlet in which those winning poems were published, it had black pages with white Cure writing, Head on the Door tour. I’ve never called a radio station. I am actually pretty shy, and greatly prefer all submissions and requests to stay on the page.
JUST BUFFALO PRESENTS:
MAGGIE NELSON & EDRIC MESMER
Friday, April 29, 8pm
Karpeles Manuscript Museum, 453 Porter Avenue
REEL QUEER SCREENING:
COMMUNITY ACTION CENTER
Thursday, April 28, 8pm
Dreamland, 387 Franklin Street