This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull Press, 2005).
H.L. Hix: Jane’s diary is an important source throughout the book, but a poem such as “(January 21, 1960)” (55), for example, reminds the reader by its lineation that the diary is not simply re-presented, but that you “have taken the liberty of altering the appearance of Jane’s writing on the page” (5). How does such alteration advance the purposes of the book?
Maggie Nelson: The lineation of Jane’s diaries was somewhat done pretty instinctively. It wasn’t overly thought out. The entries needed some kind of distillation, especially as the book at large was about distillation. I felt each page of her diary had some kind of essence to it, and I tried to draw each one out, as a kind of exercise, and chose from there. Also, her writing on the page isn’t spatially regularized—she doodles, some words appear at angles, there’s a lot of white space, many fragments appear undated, etc. So if I had attempted a “straight” rendition of them, I would have failed anyway.
More poignantly, perhaps, Jane wasn’t a word wizard or a poet—or, at least, I didn’t have access to her more poetic writings. (I actually do now: after her case was reopened, some new diaries emerged in the evidence boxes, and are now in my possession. But that’s a different story.) Some of her thoughts and expressions are hilarious and awesome, but many of them, due to her age and the era, sound just like those of any other young Midwestern white girl listening to Doris Day on a phonograph and writing about what happened that day at school. Some of that everydayness served the book, but too much of it wouldn’t have fit. She did have a kind of Emily Dickinson way with dashes and what not, so I emphasized that.
In short, I wanted Jane’s voice to be in there, as a sign, or a vestige, of the real. But I was also inventing her—that’s explicit throughout the book, especially in poems such as “Figment”—so I didn’t feel it was out of keeping with the book’s ethos to play with her writing, and meld it to my own poetic sensibility, my own ear.
I might add that those reconfigured poems from Jane’s journals were the first pieces of writing I did for this book. Those, and the first dream sequence. For a long time, that was the main action. The rest came later.
HH: To choose again only one example out of many that might illustrate the same issue, “The Funeral” (109) appears to take a source other than Jane’s diary, and re-present it with only altered appearance. Is the documentary impulse also an impulse toward ordinary language?
MN: Yes, I think so. I think of myself as an ordinary language poet, and as a documentary poet, though I’m not entirely sure what those terms entail. But generally speaking, I’m with Wittgenstein: “ordinary language is all right.” (I know I’m warping his context, forgive me.) Generally speaking I am after clarity, which isn’t the same thing as being after truth, though they often get muddled up. I’m not interested, for example, in any notion of truth which could be described as clarity without context. Pursuit of clarity, pursuit of context: these seem to me utterly indispensable to documentary investigation, poetic or otherwise. Put in a different way: I am a writer and a person who thinks the given world is good enough.
HH: A reader might well ask, “Why poetry?” I wonder if I am right to read the lines “So there’s // no plot” (217) as suggesting one answer: that a “normal” prose memoir insists on finding meaning in, or attributing meaning to, events, but events that cannot be made meaningful call for a lyric mindset, in which one has nothing with which to replace simply standing and “listening to the birds.”
MN: Yes and no. I actually wrote a “normal” prose memoir, The Red Parts, as a follow-up to Jane, but I don’t think the memoir, if that’s what it has to be called, attributes meaning to the events it describes any more than Jane does. So I don’t think poetry, or lyricism, as you say, gets to take the whole cake here.
Of course, if you want your prose to do something similar, you can make it work that way—but you have to use different tools, you can’t use line breaks and white space. You can’t rely on lyrical flourish or leaps in logic, or on minimal gestures. You have to get into the art of the sentence. At least, that’s what I’ve found.
On that note, I think there’s a profound difference between prose that people customarily call “poetic” (i.e. image-laden, dreamy, prone to surrealism or stream-of-consciousness), and prose that makes use of less stereotypical poetic principles (meter, intense juxtaposition, internal rhyme, and so on). I tend to be more curious about the latter.
I’ve heard that some people have actually taught both Jane and The Red Parts side by side in English classes, precisely for this reason, i.e. to get students thinking and talking about the formal differences between poetry and prose, what they can each do, and what they cannot—in short, where their limitations and possibilities and overlaps lie. This pleases me.
I am a poet at heart, but I distrust a lot of the special claims that get made for poetry. I think those claims can lead toward the strange predicament that poetry/poets often find themselves in, in which being a poet of anything (i.e. Kurt Cobain as “the poet of grunge”) is more honorable than being a poet of poetry itself.
I think the main reason why Jane needed to be the way it is has less to do with lyricism and more to do with the fragmentary, i.e. what it means to attempt to put together the story of someone’s life and death when you’re left with the bits. Some have talked about the relation between the fragmentary and the traumatic in relation to Jane, which sounds probable, but I’m on less sure footing here. And of course, I could be wrong, which would be fine too.
Maggie Nelson is most recently the author of 4 books of nonfiction, including The Art Of Cruelty (WW Norton, 2011, named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times), Bluets (2009), The Red Parts (2007; named a Notable Book of the Year by the State of Michigan), and Women, The New York School, And Other True Abstractions (2007, winner of the Susanne M. Glasscock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship). She is also the author of four books of poetry, including Something Bright, Then Holes (2007) and Jane: A Murder (2005, finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir). After many years of living and teaching in NYC, she joined the faculty of CalArts in 2005. Recent awards include a Guggenheim in Nonfiction, an NEA in Poetry, and an Arts Writers Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. She currently lives in Los Angeles.