Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
MFA student Randy Brown Winston, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Maggie Nelson about her book The Argonauts, which is the National Book Critics Circle Award criticism winner for 2015.
Randy Brown Winston: In your passage about Judith Butler, you mention that “the simple fact that she’s lesbian” was “so blinding for some.” This led me to think about the responsibilities of a label, whether we identify with one or one's being thrown our way. For example, an artist’s work is discounted because it doesn’t fit a specific label. How do you deal with the responsibilities of labels cast upon you, as well as the ones with which you identify?
Maggie Nelson: Generally speaking, I think it healthy to turn a blind eye to labels, especially those that are cast upon one; personally I haven’t found that feeling responsible to any label is good for the anarchic, unknowable, exploratory tasks of thinking and writing. In my experience, if one’s writing ends up being of service to particular tribes or ideas, it’s due to its fidelity to those aforementioned tasks, not to a predetermined sense of identification or obligation. I know that others work differently. But for me, protecting whatever sense of freedom makes writing possible for me is critical, and that often involves blurring out much of the chatter you describe above.
RBW: One of my best friends is about to be a father. I’m concerned that fatherhood will take away from his creative focus. What have you noticed about your approach to writing now versus your approach before having a child, in terms of creative focus?
MN: It’s wonderful that you’re concerned for your friend’s creative life—I think I’ve only ever heard such concern extended toward women . . . I haven’t noticed anything different, honestly. Obviously there’s less time, and one has to focus more acutely during the time that one has. But a lot of The Argonauts was about making clear the continuum between forms of caretaking and expression throughout a life, rather than treating parenthood as a kind of sacred portal to a new planet. For whatever reason, my planet has stayed the same.
RBW: You wrote about living in that attic in Brooklyn, NY, and how you wrote and read in public a lot because of your living conditions. This made me think about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops, libraries, museums, and the advantages of working in different environments. What do you value most about reading and working in a public space versus working in the comforts of your home (presently)?
MN: I have never worked in a museum, but hopefully I will someday. I don’t work in public spaces all that often anymore—LA is less public than NYC, and I have a more comfortable place to live, so the need to leave it isn’t as pressing. That said, I still love working in quiet places away from home, the more anonymous the better.
RBW: You mention that you didn't want to be that person in high school—the one "who makes everyone else roll their eyes." In reference to writing, what does it take to be an effective observer, and do effective observations make for better writing?
MN: I don’t know what an effective observation is, but I still think the key is to be someone, as Henry James said, upon whom nothing is lost. That doesn’t mean you’re running around with a notebook scribbling down everything you overhear, it just means that you live your life with as much presence and porousness as possible, so that when you go to remember something, you were “there” enough to have let it make an impression. My friend and old writing teacher Annie Dillard taught me (quoting another teacher) not to worry so much, that there will be fish leftover. That seems increasingly true to me.
RBW: I felt a sense of home when I finished your book. It's a weird feeling, and one I have not had in quite a while. The Argonauts brings back memories of my youth and of my mother. Home was not always pretty. We had our hardships, but it was home. I'm more at peace with my childhood now, and your book reinforces those feelings: The care that a parent shows for their child and balancing the need of a child and the need of a parent. I can count on one hand how many times a book has made me sit back and say, "Wow, this means something to me." When was the first time you realized your work meant something to someone other than you?
MN: I’m so pleased you felt that way! I think my early books of poetry had an effect on people, but it wasn’t until my 2005 book Jane: A Murder that I started hearing from people more frequently and more seriously that the book had been important to them. That book was a real learning curve for me, in that it led a lot of people to tell me stories about sexual violence or murder in their families, and sometimes the load felt quite heavy and sad. But I learned over time how better to hold those stories, and I have continued to feel pleased when people let me know that my work has mattered to them, even if—or especially if—it has helped them through, or helped them face, hard times.
Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts, as well as an American poet, art critic, lyric essayist and nonfiction author of books such as The Red Parts: A Memoir, The Art of Cruelty, Bluets, and Jane: A Murder. The Art of Cruelty was a 2011 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction. Jane: A Murder was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir.
Randy Brown Winston is a second-year MFA creative writing student in fiction at The New School. He writes about death, religion, and politics in times unknown, and worlds afar, but much like our own. Randy also hosts the monthly MFA Student Reading series at The New School. Find him on Twitter @RandyBWinston.