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Sasha Frere-Jones and Maggie Nelson discuss writing and form

Is Maggie Nelson a poet, a critic, or a memoirist? No label is quite right, no category quite enough. Works like “Bluets” and last year’s “The Argonauts” are full of sentences that move from the personal to the critical, take a dip into quoting another writer, corner hard into comic profanity and then come to an emotional stop you couldn’t never have predicted three lines earlier. “The Argonauts” made many top 10 lists of 2015, including ours

Nelson lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Cal Arts in its school of critical studies. In this conversation, conducted by email, we talked about narrative strategies, form, and trying to create something new.

I once scrawled “memoir and crit candybar” in the margin of “Bluets.” I know this phrase is impoverished and unfair to the scope of your work — toss it back at me and expand, if you feel like it.

It is not a particularly odd form in other countries or cultures — hence the homage to Roland Barthes in the book’s title and body. There is a history, a canon, of what Wayne Koestenbaum has called (in relation to Herve Guibert) a “philosophically inclined subset of body-smeared literature,” and I see myself (in this case, anyway; writing something more “purely” critical like “The Art of Cruelty” is a different story) as part of that tradition, not really inventing something new.

“The Red Parts” (about the trial of her aunt’s murderer, being reissued in April) is not nearly as formal unpredictable as “Bluets” and “The Argonauts,” which both needle drop on various theories and narrative strategies. “The Argonauts” even uses a bespoke footnote system (which defeats ebook versions). But maybe there is an experimental aspect to “The Red Parts” that I’m missing?

“The Red Parts” is an experiment with long form narrative-ish prose. Whatever détournements it makes are folded into a very spare, straightforward seeming idiom and form. That was part of its experiment, and part of the reason why Peter Handke’s deceptively simple “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams” was such a model for me.

“The Red Parts” was initially subtitled “A Memoir,” but you changed it to “Autobiography of a Trial.”

Yeah, I’m interested in the kind of life-writing that’s inexhaustible, i.e., that has little to do with the “summing up” typically indicated by the word “memoir.” Also, since the book contains elements of my childhood, I see why it’s “memoiristic,” but since much of it is also a fairly straight-ahead documentary account of a courtroom trial, along with a meditation on criminal justice, misogyny, and more, it’s more of a nonfiction mash-up than any one autobiographical thing. So I thought “autobiography of a trial” seemed a truer description. Plus the latter subtitle pays light homage to Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red,” a brilliant book which has nothing to do with this book on the surface, but she’s in there, that book is in there, nonetheless.

In “The Argonauts,” the unfolding of the story camouflages part of the story itself. You reveal Harry’s relationship to gender in a slow, indirect way. How did you think about that as you wrote it? You could have added a concrete paragraph explaining exactly who Harry was/is/became, but not doing so seems to part of your project.

The narrative unfolding of Harry’s and my romance in “The Argonauts” reflects the fact that, for many people, fixed or knowable gender is not necessarily a prerequisite for sex, love, or understanding. Non-normatively gendered people or situations may make this point more obvious, but in the best of circumstances, I think it can hold true for everyone. Flux is our birthright; it can also be very hot. Thinking that who Harry, or myself, or anyone, “was/is/became” has primarily to do with gender only makes sense in a certain universe, a universe not shared in by everyone in the same way; for these reasons, I would not say the book partakes in any camouflage at all.

“Bluets” and “The Argonauts” seem to form a pair: fragmented, nonlinear language tells a story of the birth of a child, the arc of a sexual relationship. There is a line from “The Red Parts” that seems like a precursor of this more recent mode of writing: “The diaries of the dead do not seem inviolable to me, though those of the living do.” I can imagine that being a single page in “Bluets.”

Not sure I can go with you on the progression you chart here, mostly because if you started out a poet, as I did, then all of these prose projects seem quite braided and accrued and organized to me in a way that I personally wouldn’t call fragmented. I mean, “Bluets” has the most to do with fragmentation, in that it’s explicitly interested in the fragment — both found and made — as a physical phenomenon and conceptual idea. But “The Argonauts” doesn’t share that interest — I think of the latter as more about suspended and continued anecdote than individual entries or propositions, which is the form of “Bluets.” But you’re right that the form of most interest to me while writing “The Red Parts” was that of one rushing flow marshaled into thematic chapters (which is, incidentally, similar to the form of my book “The Art of Cruelty”). That said, the discourse in “The Red Parts” on shards — be they memory shards, ash and bone shards, bullet shards, ripped pieces of clothing, and so on — is very present and important to its ruminations.

In “The Red Parts,” the narrator watches sections of the murder suspect’s “emotional diary” being projected in court. The event creates a slide show of poetic fragments. Your reaction, in the following chapter, is remarkable:

"The poet in me may have loved these little handwriting collages, but the diarist in me was appalled. Having one’s intimate musings seized by the police, chopped up into incriminating bits, then projected onto a screen for all to see and later committed to the public record is nothing short of a Kafkaesque nightmare."

To be clear, the diarist being violated may have killed your aunt, but in this moment, you are simply a writer thinking about another writer. The switches you make between empathy and rage and critical distance in the space of a single sentence is present in so much of your prose. Do you have a way of planning these shifts in tone, these surprises, or are they organic?

They’re organic, for better or worse. I’m trying to dramatize the mind — my mind — in motion more than I am analyzing what that mind’s made of. That’s why writing is so vulnerable-making (and exciting, I suppose) — whatever the content at hand, it’s really the shape and quality and rhythm of one’s attention that is eventually on display. I kind of have to ambush myself into making the work public, by not thinking too much about the nature of my habitual or possible tones.

After reading “The Red Parts” and “The Argonauts,” which I initially thought were unconnected, I went back to “Jane,” which uses parts of your aunt's diaries. There is a discussion in “The Red Parts” of reading your late father’s legal pads. Then I remembered back you self-identifying as a “diarist.” Is there any way in which your books are less memoirs and more diaries distributed among different characters? The idea of the diary makes the collage effect in “Bluets” feel more familiar: quotes of Goethe segues into a moment where you wonder how to pronounce a word, then you remember a walk, and so on.

At the risk of seeming recalcitrant, I would probably resist the diary model as well, mostly because diaries are written in real time, whereas these books combine research, recollection, argument, and the performed present in a way that I don’t associate with diary writing, or at least not with my diary writing. “Bluets” is the only book of mine that self-consciously plays with the idea of a scrapbook, I think. I’ve heard people call some of my books “stream of consciousness,” which often strikes me as very funny, insofar as that phrase has come to be shorthand for “letting it all rush out” in a “first word = best word”-type style. Nothing could be further from my process, I assure you!!! But insofar as that phrase developed in relation to astonishing writers like Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, i.e., meticulous writers who aimed to provide a written experience of certain forms of consciousness, or William James, who was interested in how the mind forms habits which can be notably disrupted, I don’t mind the phrase.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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