A Conversation with Maggie Nelson About The Argonauts, Motherhood, Love


Maggie Nelson writes like no one else on the planet. Her work dives—headlong, yet gracefully—into the ugly, messy, or simply complicated; she treats our bodies’ instincts, whether fear, desire, or violence, with the same erudite analysis more often accorded to art and literature, the offspring of those instincts. She buttresses her own sharp sentences with the words of philosophers and other writers, and part of the fun is seeing where she waves those words along and where she checks them—taking issue with the masters (Carson, Didion) whose lineage she is sprung from, and admiring of, and may have already surpassed. The result is frank, smart, and remarkably sensuous; Nelson’s latest work, The Argonauts, begins with the author facing off against two undeniable physical forces: the Santa Ana winds and sex with someone new: “What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.” Pleasure—sexual, intellectual, artistic, and maternal—seeps through the following pages.

Nelson has called the book a piece of autotheory (as distinct from autobiography); Terry Castle writes that, in the seventeenth century, The Argonauts “might have been called an anatomy, by which I mean it’s a learned, quirky, openhearted, often beautiful naming-of-parts.” Prominent among those parts are Nelson’s romance with her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, and the birth of their child; around this central thread, Nelson weaves larger, ongoing questions about queerness, maternity, family, and art.

Below such a complex song of topics thrums the bass note of The Argonauts: its language, both allowance and obstruction. All at once, the book is an argument, a testimony, a love letter. After a period of solitude spent “learning to address no one,” Nelson speaks directly to Dodge throughout most of the book. Because Dodge is genderqueer, this “you” allows Nelson’s readers to live, as the author did, in a space without the problem of pronouns.

Those liminal spaces are where The Argonauts takes place; the book is full of transition that never seems transitory. Moments continually shift and rub up against each other: Nelson gives birth between pages dedicated—heartbreakingly—to the death of Dodge’s mother; Dodge goes on T and has top surgery while Nelson is pregnant. “On the surface,” she writes, “it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”

In the end, The Argonauts always returns to pleasure, the pleasure of these transformative acts—writing, loving—in which the joy is in the doing rather than the having done. “I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure,” Nelson writes. “The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Nelson and I spoke by email last week.

“I love language,” you told Guernica. “It doesn’t bother me that its effects are partial.” Can you talk a little more about how your relationship to the medium has changed, if it has, since you started publishing?

To the medium of language? I love it as much as I ever have, though increasingly I feel myself squeezed in some kind of strange paradox, of feeling more and more circumscribed in my efforts (i.e. not feeling like I can do just anything, and more certain that I can do only the one pressing thing in front of me), and more interested in challenging myself, both.

What might those challenges be? If you know.

New objects or spheres of inquiry; new modes of address; new avenues or methods of research; new genres; and so on.

You call The Red Parts “an unintended sequel” to Jane: A Murder. Is The Argonauts a sequel, intended or not, to Bluets?

Honestly they felt like very different projects to me—the ongoingness of The Argonauts felt quite distinct from the numbered, more aphoristic form of Bluets. Bluets was also an experiment with a certain kind of voice, a faux-scientized voice, something more clinical, in imitation of philosophy, a kind of hystericized philosophy. In The Argonauts I’m more of a storyteller, no allegory, real names, and so on.

Do you expect to write poetry again? How does prose better suit the questions that are interesting you these days?

Prose is mostly where I’m at right now. My thinking just got discursive enough that it would weigh poetry down, too heavy a rock for that stream. I don’t have a master plan here. I just write what I feel I need to write next.

You quote Eileen Myles—“My dirty secret has been that it’s of course all about me”—in The Argonauts. I’m wondering how you think Myles’s next sentence also applies to your process or thinking about your work, if it does: “But I have been educated to believe I’m no one so there’s a different self operating and I’m desperate to unburden my self of my self so I’m coming from nowhere and returning.”

I think Eileen had a very different, less privileged upbringing than my own—as she has written elsewhere, she was always being told “don’t think you’re anything special,” so she was just happy to see her name in the phone book. Whereas I was fully encouraged to think of myself as worthwhile and fully expected by competitive parents to “achieve,” etc. But that aside, her comment here means everything to me, because within this “coming from nowhere and returning” is probably the key, to put it bluntly, to how we’re going to get ourselves and each other out of the disaster we’ve made on this planet. I can explain this further but I think I’ll let it stay vague for the moment. But I know exactly what she means, and it’s key.

Near the end of The Argonauts, you talk about the attempt to preempt fear (or the cause of that fear) by thinking or writing about it. I loved your statement that, thanks to the writing of those you admired, you “gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.” Would you mind talking more about this? Or about how this might connect to motherhood and the fact that the potential for pain and sorrow enters a mother’s life in the same proportion, necessarily, as love?

I think a lot of writers fear that writing about something will make something worse, and maybe in some ways it does, in terms of stirring shit up. But it has been personally very liberating to me to think that my fears and various feelings about my writing may actually have nothing to do with its effects in the world. One motherhood connection I can think of is that it was very liberating to me, while pregnant, to have a friend remind me that whatever I thought or hoped or feared about the baby’s well-being was not going to have any literal impact on the baby, so to just let that go. Now I know one could easily counter this with a bunch of talk about stress levels and cortisol surges etc., but I’m talking about something else—I’m talking about letting go of our delusional belief in our capacity to manage phenomena such as birth or death. I’m talking about going to pieces, as my book says, quoting Winnicott, in ways that may be either horrifying or pleasurable or ecstatic or any combination thereof, but in any case are essentially much larger than our wills or desires.

Between The Argonauts and Eula Biss’s On Immunity, it’s been a great year for books about (among other things) motherhood. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill opens with the premise that illness has not been written about nearly enough, despite its overwhelming role in our lives; I feel strongly and similarly about the act(s) of having kids. Are there investigations of motherhood that didn’t fit into the frame of The Argonauts, which you might wrestle with later?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that “motherhood,” whatever that entails, is a hackneyed topic, but I actually think we’re just about to hear a lot of news we haven’t ever heard before, and I’m super excited for it. I’m also still personally up for wrestling with the ways in which the life-destroying neoliberal love affair with “austerity” is tied to a misogynistic distaste for a culture or economy or psychology that values caretaking and nourishing over the “tough love” of IMF style impoverishment and privatization. So, if I find the right idiom to launch into that, more to come!

Mairead Small Staid (@maireadsmst) is a poet and essayist living in Michigan.

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