Three Questions with Maggie Nelson
I suspect if we handed Maggie Nelson a pinch of dirt, in return she’d hand us an exploration of why we must one day return to it. And this same exploration would pry into our conflicted desire to return that dirt. And this same desire would eventually unhatch our bewilderment that we have the privilege of returning to dirt in the first place. A fleck of lapis lazuli, a book about the history of cod, or a subject as immense as cruelty—nothing, it seems, falls outside the reach of Maggie’s hunting and gathering. As a poet and a thinker, she’s a magpie of the highest order. But it’d be wrong to suggest that Maggie is foraging in order to build her own nest. How we live with a world in which we must live with ourselves is her enduring conflict, and her work stands as both a provocation and answer to this question.
Danniel Schoonebeek: If there’s one thing poets love, it’s telling other people what poetry is and how it works. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden wrote. Or here’s Charles Simic: “Poetry is an orphan of silence.” How do you know when you’re reading a poem you love? And just what in the world is this thing we call poetry anyway?
Maggie Nelson: If we’re in the business of quoting others, I have always loved this anti-definition, by the late British poet Douglas Oliver: “Each narrowing of what contemporary poetry is supposed to do bears with it an equivalent narrowing in the definition of a human being.” I stand in fervent opposition to such narrowing. For related reasons, I am not someone who enjoys telling others what poetry is and how it works—though I don’t mind hearing others pontificate on the matter, be it for comic relief, literary history, or simply the joy of rhetorical vaulting.
DS: When it comes to free expression, Americans have a hard time remembering the constitutional privilege out of which they’re permitted to speak. And meanwhile we receive reports every day of writers in China or Ethiopia being jailed for writing about their governments. Is there a responsibility, as an American writer, to challenge our privilege and our sensibility? And is there a responsibility, as an editor, to bring these otherwise silenced voices to the forefront of literature?
MN: I think it is terrific and laudable when writers and editors undertake such tasks, and certainly writing that does not challenge its privilege and sensibility will likely be dull or wither. But personally I hope that what we are working for, when we work for freedom of expression, is the right of writers and editors to be irresponsible in language without threat or actuality of punishment. By irresponsible, I don’t mean free to incite violence or what not. I just mean free to express oneself in the manner one feels most compelled to, even, or especially, if it risks transgression, offense, or unscrupulousness. For some, this may mean bringing silenced voices to the fore or interrogating privilege. For others, it may not. It takes all kinds; I see it as one flow.
DS: About your most recent book, The Art of Cruelty, Laura Kipnis wrote: “the dance of indictment is entwined with large doses of appreciation, not to say fascination, with the art of cruelty.” In a world where torture has arguably become engrained into our everyday lives, how does one reconcile—with language, poetry, with art—our inextricable sense of horror, injustice, and fascination with torture?
MN: One doesn’t reconcile, I don’t think. The horror and the fascination will vibrate alongside each other, uneasily, perhaps unforgivably. Really I don’t see why our worst fears wouldn’t produce a form of fascination, or how they couldn’t. But that doesn’t let us off the hook of deciding what to do with our fascination—what to create, what to ingest, what to turn toward or away from. It’s sophistry, I think, to say a movie like Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t glorify torture. Putting something on a big screen in a Hollywood movie is in itself an act of glamorization, no matter how “bare” or unpleasant the viewing experience may be. Addressing the same material in experimental poetry, say, will likely produce a different effect, but ethical quandaries don’t simply vanish by shifting genre, medium, or audience. At the same time, acknowledging that human beings, Americans among them, have had a long history of fascination with torture, be it in actuality or in representation, doesn’t really have any bearing on the question of whether torture should be acceptable policy. One can grant and contemplate the former while utterly renouncing the latter.