Relearning Everything: Jay Aquinas Thompson with Maggie Nelson on The Argonauts

Jay Aquinas Thompson and Maggie Nelson
Jay Aquinas Thompson and Maggie Nelson

When M. got to Seattle, the first place she wanted to go was the bookstore: “There’s this new book I have to buy you,” she said. “Couldn’t I just buy it myself?” I asked. She shook her head: “No. I have to be the one to give it to you. You’ll see what I mean.” So it was M.’s $25.18 that put the book in my hands.

The book was The Argonauts (2015, Graywolf Press), poet and memoirist and critical theorist Maggie Nelson’s new work of “autotheory”: a reflection on queer family and sexuality, art-making and self-revelation, privilege and oppression, performance and identity, healing and the ghosts of old scars. The book opens with the twinned somatic, prickling pressures of sexual desire and the Santa Ana wind, and ends with the braided stories of the birth of Nelson’s child and the death of her partner Harry Dodge’s mother. In between, Nelson’s scrupulous candor and synthesizing intellectual energy takes in teachers (her “many-gendered mothers of my heart”) and loved ones, and offers back sparkling assertions as well as aching, unanswerable questions. I read The Argonauts, scribbling notes, in three days, and immediately gave my copy to my wife and—like M. before me—took another friend out for coffee and bought it for her.

What about The Argonauts demands such a personal response? A book I expected to examine and reflect on instead itself became a lens, through which I saw other things—art-making, queerness, oppression, parenting—in a completely new light. “There are things in The Argonauts I never knew I’d always thought,” M. told me, and after reading the book I agreed. I reached out to Nelson this fall and we conducted this interview over e-mail.

Jay Aquinas Thompson: Near the end of The Argonauts—after writing about fake totem animals, Barthes’s concept of the Neutral, and the limitations of evasiveness—you write of, and seem to defend,

the pleasure of abiding… of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.

J’Lyn Chapman with Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson

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 with H.L. Hix

Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson

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 Americafrom 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.