In March 2013, Jack Kerouac School MFA students in my Documentary Poetry course read Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder. They then discussed the book with her via email. In addition to describing how she dealt with primary source materials in the writing of Jane, such as her aunt’s adolescent diaries, Nelson also discussed somatic writing, the brutality of fact, and aporia.
Participants: Jaclyn Hawkins, Caitlan Mitchell, JH Phrydas, June Lucarotti, Ashley Waterman, Shitu Rajbhandari, Katherine Kauffman and Janelle Fine.
The Class: It seems like Jane became a haunting experience for you—Jane’s presence in your life, her presence in your dreams, etc. Did you feel closure upon your project’s completion? Have you returned to her (her murder) post-publication?
Maggie Nelson: This is a long story. I would have to refer you to my book The Red Parts, which picks up where Jane leaves off. Jane was meant to provide a certain closure, but in reality it ripped the lid off many things: Jane’s case was re-opened; there was a trial; all of it was re-lived again, in Technicolor, in 21st-century time. After writing The Red Parts (and then, maybe after writing The Art of Cruelty—I’ve come to think of the three as a trilogy of sorts), I do have to say I felt really done with the subject, as much as one ever gets done with the subject of violence and cruelty. I don’t feel haunted by Jane now, the way I did in my 20s. I feel steadily enraged that women are abused and blown away by strangers and loved ones, but I feel I’ve faced down some of that fear by articulating it. It was a little tiring to go around for so many years as the representative of her murder. It didn’t always attract desirable energy. There are a lot of weirdos out there, and I generally aim to avoid them; writing a book, or books, about murder isn’t a good recipe for that. I don’t think I’ll revisit anything quite of this nature again, but, if I hadn’t grappled with it so thoroughly, I think I’d still be paralyzed by the subject and its various psychological vectors.
TC: Could Jane be read as a political work? A work of feminism? How so?
MN: I hope so, without any of the didacticism that sometimes attends such things. Jane’s death was “random,” but there are patterns to seemingly random violence. There are certain victims and perpetrators that recur: Her murder was an act of sexual violence at the hands of a man with a gun. Enough said. Given how much attention tends to shift to the perpetrator in sensational cases, I feel it was political and feminist to stick with Jane herself, her life, her particularity. Also, in a concrete, old-school way, exploring lineages of sisterhood, aunthood and mother-daughter relations is a quintessentially feminist occupation. But hopefully the book’s feminism and politics exceed the concrete and seep into questions of tone, form, approach.
TC: In the Jack Kerouac School, we’ve been discussing non-verbal factors in writing (syntax, tone, cadence) and how they inflect the line with a type of affective/somatic communication. What are your thoughts on the potential of these factors in your own writing practice?
MN: I never really think of things like syntax or tone as non-verbal, nor as distinct from the body. Writing is all about what sounds right to my ear, what pleases my body. This is inscrutable, and has to do with a developed field of tastes over a lifetime, as well as the particularities of a singular human. Syntax is the ordering of rhythm, of what order the sounds and meaning should come in. Language is bivalent, being both sound and meaning, so you’re juggling both at once—a pickle, and a pleasure. My rhythms usually run pretty fast. But I hesitate too, pivot, keep scanning the room for obstacles or opportunities, so there is shifting. I think that being an improvisational dancer in a previous life, and a waitress and bartender for about 15 years, has also influenced the somatics of my writing. You’re trying to be efficient in a whirlwind, to keep your hands full, have no wasted movement, get things to the table, not crash into anyone, negotiate the variables. You need to imagine moves your body could make seconds before you make them, and then GO. Last night a student at Reed, where I read, described my writing style as conversational and didactic. I think that’s kind of true. I move between the colloquial and the strident, the endlessly unsure and the hectoring. (That sounds unpleasant but I don’t think it’s always unpleasant in the writing!) The body seems to me to be everything. But mind is also body, and so.
TC: Could you describe your writing process?
MN: It really differs per book. Lyric poems tend to come out in a quick jumble, then get re-worked. Critical prose is an endless process of collecting, thinking, reading, arguing with myself and rassling with sentences. Works that fall in-between offer a challenging process of finding the form the piece wants to come in, and deciding who should be invited to its party—and what skin, or overall family of tones, the piece should have, as uniting principle.
TC: How has writing Jane changed you?
MN: Alice Notley once said Descent of Alette changed everything for her. I feel similarly about Jane. By picking a long, complex, narrative subject, I started to cusp in and out of poetry, and into more ambitious containers. I haven’t gone back, really, to the kind of lyric poetry I’d been publishing prior.
Personally, it changed me because I was afraid, prior to writing it, to be as ambitious as I wanted to be in my work. I was afraid I’d be punished in some way for it. That was the tension of Jane. Once I undid that knot, I felt a rush of more freedom and space and boldness than I’d let myself have before, which has since carried me through, in writing as in life.
TC: Did you feel any healing or release after writing Jane? Did your family? Or was your response different from your family’s?
MN: Again, at the risk of seeming evasive, I have to refer you to The Red Parts, which takes all these issues up quite directly. Jane began a release, which turned into a kind of circus of catharsis and chaos with the ensuing trial, which then produced The Red Parts, Jane’s sequel. I don’t know that there was healing per se throughout any of this, but there was a certain kind of confrontation that hadn’t yet occurred in my or my family’s life. In one of the last chapters of The Red Parts, my mother says to me, after a day of looking at autopsy photos that she’d basically spent about 40 years avoiding, that it was good to see her sister again—good to see, at long last, what was done. This isn’t healing; it’s just the brutality of fact. But fact is powerful in other ways.
TC: When including Jane’s diary entries, what drove your decision to format them in the form of a poem?
MN: It was partly because she often wrote all over the page, so I was trying to mimic that. But those were some of the first pieces I wrote—I found her diaries, as described in the book, in our basement, and then years later, after a long time of working as a poet, I naturally found myself trying to do erasures or rearrangements of them, to isolate something, approach her via her own words. I brought those and other teeny poems, like “Skin,” to my writing group, which was a group of three good friends. I guess I was asking them for permission, and asking if they thought there was anything to these little pieces. They all said: Keep going, write as many short pieces about as many aspects of Jane’s story as you can. Through this piecemeal approach, the whole of Jane was formed.
TC: Do you think you did Jane’s life justice?
MN: No, not really. I didn’t know her, and my knowledge of her remains very small. I never saw her in motion, never heard her voice, never got to ask her what she thought about anything. I did my best to touch pieces of her life that were important and personal—her relation with Phil, with her own mother, with her sister, with her intellect, with her own words written to herself. But I don’t think there’s any real way of doing justice to a life, in all its particulars and embodied experiences and miraculous singularity. I don’t think I did her an injustice, at any rate, which seemed the greater imperative.
TC: In our documentary poetics, we have taken some inspiration from Donald Rumsfeld’s known-knowns, known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns. That is: Our methodology includes knowing our subject from every existing angle, until all we have left is the unknown-unknown, the aporia. Could you speak to your methodology, perhaps not only in writing Jane, but also in the investigations of Bluets? How do you get to know your subject?
MN: How to get to know a subject… I feel that both Jane and Bluets dramatize how I got to know their subjects, so the answers are probably embedded in the work. I read a lot and widely, try to have no experience be lost on me, as Henry James would say, and, when writing, try to isolate where I’m most bewildered or troubled, figure out what would feel the hardest to articulate, and focus my attentions on those spots. The aporia of which you speak is something I’m always in conversation with, circling around, but I never want to make the unknowable a fetish. All writing has its unconscious, its aporias: Those are beyond your control. My experience is that you, as a writer, try to control most everything else, and then let the chips fall where they may.
Maggie Nelson is the author of four books of nonfiction, including: The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times); a meditation on the color blue, Bluets; The Red Parts: A Memoir (named a Notable Book of the Year by the State of Michigan) and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (winner of the Susanne Glasscock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship). She is also the author of four books of poetry, including: Something Bright, Then Holes; Jane: A Murder (finalist for the PEN Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir); The Latest Winter and Shiner (finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s First Book Award). Her next book will be a work of autobiography and theory provisionally titled The Argonauts, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim in Nonfiction, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, an Arts Writers grant from the Warhol Foundation and, most recently, an Innovative Literature grant from Creative Capital. She teaches on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles.