Author Maggie Nelson on fielding nosy questions about queer families: "You have to be tough and foxy”

Nelson talks to Salon about her genre-bending memoir "The Argonauts," on her marriage to artist Harry Dodge

Published May 8, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Maggie Nelson      (Harry Dodge)
Maggie Nelson (Harry Dodge)

Doing this interview had its challenges. Before I got in touch with Maggie Nelson, I was without my copy of "The Argonauts," because I had already mailed it around to friends all over the country after finishing it a few months ago. It’s the kind of book you feel desperate to share. You want them to love it as much as you do, but you also feel an urgent need to talk about it with others. I don’t envy many writers, but Maggie Nelson is my exception, and I’m okay with that.

Nelson’s seventh book is a meditation on her relationship with her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. In the book, Nelson writes about becoming a stepmother to Harry's son and of conceiving the child she and Dodge are raising together. But the book also lives in a gorgeous gray area that explores language, lust, loss, the ebb and flow of bodies, and limitations on identity and labels. The personal narrative is threaded with theory and criticism, employing a collage technique that Nelson has mastered and made her own. Though Nelson writes, I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding, this book has the capacity to hold your whole brain and heart. When you finish it, you’ll want to open another of Nelson’s books, immediately.  It’s an important and impassioned  book, one you will be better for having read.

Nelson talked to Salon about writing the book, her public and private lives, and the joys of avoiding social media.

When I was halfway through "The Argonauts" a friend came to visit me. I was flipping out over the book and knew she would too, because she's a nonfiction writer and she's dated trans men. It wasn't long before she realized that Harry Dodge had made her a tuna melt at Red Dora in San Francisco back in 1998 or so. We became so fascinated by your book and Harry, that we bought his film "By Hook or By Crook" on Amazon Prime and watched it over coffee.

Harry and Silas Howard were making art about gender fluidity so many years before there was a trans man on the cover of Men's Health, and so I’m wondering how you feel about the fact that trans men are so sexy right now?

I think Harry made a lot of people tuna melts back in the day, or at least we run into a lot of people who seem to remember their orders pretty specifically. I’m not sure that categorical idealization of any sort is good for anyone; it feels better, no doubt, but at the end of the day, it’s the flip-side of devaluation, so the same coin. I do think that "By Hook or By Crook" was ahead of its time many, many ways. And for better or worse, I think the secret of Harry’s hotness has long been out; I consider myself very lucky.

In one passage you describe going to a dinner party together. Harry goes to the bathroom and a woman at the table asks if you've been with other women or if Harry is your first. “Straight ladies are always hot for Harry,” she says. And you think to yourself: 

Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I’d had with “other women” have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about other “straight ladies” who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I’d fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, whom I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?

I think it's interesting because you are coping with this woman's nosy questions while internalizing them at the same time. It's almost as though your book was a response to the type of rude questions that come up in such situations. Is being in the present moment and processing such experiences difficult for you? Do you write in your head?

Well, I’m writing that passage years after it happened, so there’s no guarantee that those were my exact thoughts at the moment (though they were probably pretty close). People’s questions can tell you a lot about where they’re coming from; the more onto the game you are, the less internalizing of other people’s remarks you will likely do. But it’s not a linear process; other people’s voices always mix in with our own, sometimes when we least expect it. Which is why in "The Argonauts" I quote Sedgwick’s remark about how overt and subtle forms of devaluation can become a kind of chorus of voices in our heads, standing by to inhibit us when we might most need our full capacities. So, one needs to find ways to defuse the power of the chorus, since it’s not going to stop singing.

But to be clear — I’m not for any chilling effect on people’s speech. There’s a lot to be said for improper communication, for impropriety. And it’s important to remember that it works both ways — however self-righteous you may feel after some interaction -- i.e., “can you believe this person said X to me?” -- you likely dish it out in ways you’re not even conscious of. So basically, when you’re on the receiving end of something that feels intrusive or fucked up, you have to be tough and foxy; when you’ve said something that someone else thinks is fucked up, being curious rather than defensive [and/or] narcissistically wounded (a la Paula Deen) seems to me like a good start.

Book tours can be hard for writers after writing in solitude for years and then going public with their projects. Do you enjoy public reading or would you rather not have to do it? 

You know I don’t really go on book tours per se. I do public events that seem potentially meaningful. I really like doing conversations with others whom I respect — I did some onstage things with Jack Halberstam and Claudia Rankine and Robin Coste Lewis and others this past spring that were meaningful to me, for example. And I always try to arrange book events that feel in keeping with a project’s spirit rather than find myself standing alone in an empty aisle of Barnes and Noble (which I’ve also done; a little of that goes a long way). One of the best nights of my entire life was the event I did for my book "Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions," at which Kim Gordon, Carolee Schneemann, Bernadette Mayer, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eileen Myles, and Yvonne Rainer performed. I mean, kill me now, I thought afterwards. There’s always the weird night when the alchemy is off or the questions make you want to head straight for the hotel bathtub or whatever — I’ve written in both "The Red Parts" and now in "The Argonauts" about public events that sent me over the edge in some way — but in general I am very fond of forms of sociality which offer the opportunity to think spontaneously and aloud among others.

That makes me remember the scene in Eileen Myles’s "Chelsea Girls" where she throws her book party in her apartment and at one point someone is surprised she has her own cocaine. “Of course I have my own cocaine, it’s my book party,” she says. Speaking of Eileen Myles, it seems you have a really special relationship. You’ve said your private classes with Eileen were like getting your MFA. Can you talk more about that and about what your relationship has been like?

That piece about the book party in "Chelsea Girls" is a total classic. "Chelsea Girls" itself is a total classic, and is being reissued this coming fall, to appear alongside Eileen’s "Selected" — it’s going to be an awesome season. Studying with Eileen was, I think, better than getting an MFA. I don’t want to repeat myself too much on this account, as I just wrote a piece about Eileen for the Poetry Society of America, and I also wrote a lot about both her and studying with her in my women & the New York School book, so I’ll just say here that Eileen has meant everything to me for over 20 years now. I’m also her literary executor; we made it official by signing a napkin while walking down Second Avenue together.

On a live Joni Mitchell CD, before she plays "The Circle Game," she muses, "It's funny, painters never get requests or demands like, 'Paint Starry Night!' Once they've painted it, it's finished. But musicians get requests.”

This made me think of your book "Bluets," which has become an object of cultish devotion. It makes me laugh to imagine crowds of men and women around you chanting, "Read from 'Bluets'!" Do you receive many emails from fans? Do you think people "feel like they know you" because you've written about your grief and joy so nakedly?

The fact that "Bluets" has been important to more people than I ever imagined is a source of only joy and solace to me. That book is a souvenir from a very dark time — a time that was not without its beauty, in a strobing, soul-touching kind of a way, but nonetheless, pretty fucking dark. That the book emerged from that place and found so many readers has never ceased to feel miraculous and gratifying to me. I do get emails from people about that book and others, but I never worry about anyone feeling like they know me, because I know that they don’t. I don’t mean that to sound glib; it’s just literally true.

Does it matter to you how your audience reads the book? "Bluets" is the type of book you can read in a day, but then feel compelled to go back to and take your time with. "The Argonauts" makes a similar impact. Do you worry about a style that might encourage this fast reading (David Shields uses the complimentary word "velocity")?

I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. If I write something with velocity that’s 50,000 words or under, I would think it would be a little weird if someone needed all summer to get through it. It’s not "In Search of Lost Time" or "War and Peace" or something. In fact, with books like "The Argonauts" or "Bluets," the structure is probably going to be clearer to you if you can take it in all at once. But whatever floats your boat, you know — I’m not into being bossy with readers.

Some of my favorite lines in "The Argonauts" describe you playing a game called Fallen Soldier with Harry's son, and folding his laundry. I’m obsessed with what he later says to his classmates in the playground, talking about his little brother. “Who wants to touch a really soft head?” Do you use a notebook or phone to jot down phrases you hear or things you see during the day?

No notebook, definitely no phone. Mostly backs of receipts or wrappers, these days.

What’s the last book you read for pleasure?

I don’t really have pleasure and non-pleasure categories of books, but I will say that when I read novels I don’t read with a pencil in hand, so maybe that says something. The book on my nightstand that falls into that category right now is "The Sellout" by Paul Beatty.

You’re very visceral when talking about your body. Birth, death and fucking. You seem super connected to your body and I remember hearing that you were a dancer. Do you still dance and do movement and exercise?

Exercise... ah, I remember that. I don’t have any thoughts on exercise, really. And I’m not a dancer anymore, I’m sorry to say. But I do think dancing and writing are very connected. I have followed the careers of a lot of the people I used to know in the dance world in NYC, and I feel a lot of kinship with their ongoing work, even if I no longer participate in it/rarely get to see it live. I’m thinking first and foremost of my brilliant friend Adrienne Truscott, a choreographer, circus acrobat, dancer, writer and comedian who is currently touring her amazing and important show, “Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!” And there are a lot of people from back in the day whose work I have always admired, such as David Neumann, Sarah Michelson, Miguel Gutierrez, KJ Holmes, John Jasperse, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Deborah Hay and many others. I learned as much from some of these folks about how to compose, improvise and perform myself in spacetime as I learned from my writing teachers.

When I have time to exercise, I swim. I’ve been doing so for almost 20 years, after teaching myself the art of lap swimming at the Asher Levy pool near Sty Town. I could say a lot about swimming and its relation to writing: the near total immersion, the way you can’t see or hear anyone else, the altered visual field of staring at the bottom of a pool, the way the whole body is engaged rather than just individual parts, and so on. And there are a lot of writers who love to swim, from Anne Carson to Wayne Koestenbaum to Lidia Yuknavitch.

I’d noticed years ago that you don’t seem to participate in social media. In the book you say, I feel quite certain that my character is too weak to withstand the temptations and pressures that would come with hoisting it onto the stage of Facebook, and truly amazed by the fact that so many others — or all others, so it sometimes seems — bear it so easily.

I can’t be on Facebook because of my desire to humiliate myself. Were you ever on Myspace or Facebook or Twitter? Or did you never go there?

I love that you own the desire to humiliate yourself, even if you eventually had to back away from it. You know I never did those things that you mention, those online things, nor have I ever been tempted to, not even for a nanosecond. These days it seems like one is making a big statement by saying that, but since I barely know what they are or how they work — they’ve just kind of passed me by — it isn’t something I think about very often. And since there’s so much built-in obsolescence, I often feel like it all comes out in the wash — i.e., I never knew what Myspace was, and now it seems no one else knows either.

On The Rumpus podcast when asked what your plan was when you were young, you said, “Get to New York City. And find the smart people. And mingle with the cool people.” Listening to you talk about your shitty waitress jobs and drinking at Max Fish gave me a pang in my chest for my early twenties in New York. Do you miss living there?

I love New York and always will. It is the only American city that has ever felt like home to me, in any deep sense. So yes, I do miss it. I lived in Brooklyn for my last several years in NYC, but it never really “took”; the New York I miss is the Lower East Side, which is where I first lived, and which I still dream about all the time. Going to the actual Lower East Side now helps, as it makes me realize I am missing something [and] dreaming about something that isn’t really there anymore, or which has been, at the very least, obscured.

There are some rich juxtapositions in "The Argonauts" that make the book unique. For example, in one passage you talk about Alice Munro’s “Wild Swans,” in which a girl is jerked off and orgasms on a train, but then quickly transition to, “When Iggy was five years old, we took him to a burlesque show.” Is this something that comes sort of naturally, or is there effort put into it?

There’s a lot of effort. In some ways juxtaposition is the whole game; that’s something poets know well.

Stephen Elliott says that being written about is like failing a test you never knew you were taking, which feels similar to when Harry reads a draft of "The Argonauts" and tells you that he felt “unbeheld -- unheld, even.”

What was it like to write about someone you were living with at the time? Did you have to actively compartmentalize your roles as partner and writer? Was it hard to leave the day's work behind when you had to go make dinner?

It was a little weird, I will admit. I doubt I’ll be rushing to do something similar anytime soon. (Famous last words...) Sometimes if, for whatever reason, Harry and I were having a bad day, going up to my writing hut to write about how much I loved him could feel a little odd. But really, it’s never a bad idea to spend time thinking about how much you love someone and why. And since that’s what the book is about, in many ways, for me, it always felt worthwhile. And whatever conflicts I describe between us in the book are all part of that love, they make up its rich fabric, its complexity.

Generally speaking I have a lot of flow in my life; i.e., I don't experience big partitions between being a writer or a person or a dinner-maker or a partner or a parent or a teacher or a reader and so on. So I guess I feel that I wear one hat, it's just capacious.

By Chloe Caldwell

Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella "Women" (SF/LD). Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, VICE, Nylon, and Men’s Health.

MORE FROM Chloe Caldwell

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Books Lgbt Maggie Nelson Memoir The Argonauts Transgender