Loneliness on My Hands: A Conversation with Maggie Nelson

Inspired in part by her mentor Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it also delights in sitting and observing the world moving by — a dog that can’t make up its mind, a sky “full of blurry swans,” or a chaotic vegetable garden that “could break / a hard-won sobriety / just by looking at it.”
With its clear, cool, fluid voice and interrogation of desire, Something Bright in many ways anticipates Nelson’s work to come, though it is her last true book of poetry. It’s a shit-show beyond belief. In the first line of the collection you say, “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this // the selves I no longer am / nor understand.” Does Something Bright feel like a kind of document of a past self? I’m writing a book about freedom, which has everything to do with this moment, so when it’s done, it will say a lot more than I have time for here. Eden has always already been lost, is the point. I’ve always loved that phrase. I sat there either in the morning or evening for about 40 days, and wrote that section during that time. Annie is deeply important to me. Each of your books takes on a different form, but at times they all circle similar questions, building on one another, looping back, picking up where the other left off. She pays as much attention to pleasure and the body as she does to the academic: taking her formal training and putting it in bed with the messiness of life — and all the enormous desire of it. In “The Canal Diaries,” the first section of this book, you sit by a toxic canal in Brooklyn while you struggle with the dissolution of a relationship. Any which way, I’m thrilled for it. The goodness of Soft Skull’s heart? What brought you back over and over again? Do you feel that they’re companions? Can you reaccess the person you were writing it? What is it about this specific phrase that stayed with you? Oh yes, it’s definitely a document of a past self. It sounds cheesy but things just find the form they want to come in, sometimes from the start, sometimes via a lot of trial and error. I’ve always felt this to be true. — in the expressed” (from Wittgenstein). In it, Nelson gains and slowly loses a lover. The title Something Bright, Then Holes comes from Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which I also love and return to often. Yes, they are definitely companions. But beyond that, I don’t really know. Why did the canal become the backdrop for these? Nelson talked with me about Something Bright from her home in Los Angeles. She unravels this narrative in poetry over three disjointed places and states: a beautiful (but toxic) canal in Brooklyn, a paralyzed friend’s hospital bed, and a more interior struggle with accepting her own freedom. It was an astonishingly strange chapter in my NYC life, in that it was actually quite bucolic, with wild animals and flowers and a moon reflected in the water, et cetera, all taking place around a body of water so lavender and frothy you couldn’t touch it for fear of being poisoned. Did you feel this way when you were writing Something Bright, Then Holes, or did you come to this over time? She is best known for her critically acclaimed The Argonauts (2015) and Bluets (2009), but no matter where you pick up, Nelson’s language is heady and visceral. MAGGIE NELSON: It’s been 10 years, incredibly, and also there’s been more interest in my earlier books after the visibility of The Argonauts. It reminds me of Dillard sitting by Tinker Creek, though your questions are more interior — questions of the heart. ¤
Clare Shearer is a California-based writer and editor specializing in music, film, style, art, and culture. (She was once my teacher, and she always encouraged her students to go out and sit in new places and write all they could see.) It’s important to remember that Dillard’s Tinker Creek was also belated — it had trash in the bushes, and so on; people actually think Thoreau’s Walden was belated in its way, too. ¤
CLARE SHEARER: Could you tell me a bit about the occasion for the reissue of Something Bright, Then Holes? From poem to poem, the mood swings easily from expansiveness (“Living as if every moment announced a beloved / and it does”) to soft smallness (“Live with your puny, vulnerable self / Live with her”). The prose books are totally different animals. Now I’m suddenly surrounded // by green, green gagging me / pleasurably.” Two years later, you published Bluets, which follows many of the same themes — your friend’s paralysis, your own heartbreak, loneliness — through a lens of your love for the color blue. Mostly, Nelson’s writing resists categorization — her nine books span poetry, criticism, autobiography, theory, and the hybrid spaces in between. The books are also very different, in that Something Bright was kind of my last “I do this, I do that” New York School type of book; Bluets was a product of moving to a quiet place with a lot more time and loneliness on my hands, so rather than just scribing what I saw, I was thinking, constructing. I don’t really think much about the solidity of past selves, though — recently I heard Laurie Anderson say that when she looks in the mirror, she thinks: “Not bad. But not me.” I feel the same way about these poems, I guess. So the phrase seemed right. How do you find the form of each new project? Do you approach a book of poetry differently from a book of prose? JULY 9, 2018

IN Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson quotes a friend: “You say I don’t have to be ashamed of my desire / Not for sex, not for language.” This call for abundance infuses the book, which buzzes with a heartbroken sort of longing. Yes, that was the idea. I’ve never set out to write a book of poems — poems just come or they don’t come, and then they accrue. “It’s a book full of intensity, strobing, a certain manic energy edged with grief and loss,” she tells me over email. Are you engaging with it in your writing? I found it a fascinating place to sit each day. What are some of your thoughts, if you want to share any, on this strange and unsettling time in politics? It’s also a phrase very much about presence and absence, and Something Bright is about that — it’s a book full of intensity, strobing, a certain manic energy edged with grief and loss. Poems haven’t come to me for a while, but you never know. It’s from a girl who has been been blind her whole life, and it’s how she describes her hand when she can first see. Following up on the last question, by the time you come to The Argonauts, you have a strong feeling that “the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! In this collection you say, “All last year // I planned to write a book about / the color blue. Bluets was the book I wrote directly after I removed myself from all the situations described in Something Bright, whereas in Something Bright I was still deep in the mix. But so is every book. A place of contrasts, to be sure. I love the defamiliarized version of the body that she’s offering, as if she’s an emissary from one system of perception to another. Something Bright is Nelson’s fifth book, first published in 2007 and now reissued by Soft Skull Press with a new, startling yellow cover. The Gowanus is (was?) a notoriously polluted site, with a lot of nefarious and interesting things happening in and around it. How did writing this book of poetry make way for Bluets? So, as Thoreau once said, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.