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“I’ve seen you read Roland Barthes on the beach!” Ali Liebegott Talks to Maggie Nelson for The Believer
AL: Do you think of yourself as a poet?
MN: It’s been a little odd recently because my first four books were poetry and I came into the world as a poet, and then my last four books have all been non-fiction. So I have yet to theorize exactly what shift has occurred, but when I grew up I was just interested in being a writer….
Poetry is such an underdog. When I read Eileen Myles’ The Inferno or when you read these things where you feel infused with the sense of what it means to be a poet, it feels so important you think, Yes, that’s it. You feel like a spokesperson, where it’s the only thing ethically one should be doing. But I don’t want to project what poetry can and can’t do in the world because poetry will keep doing its work and poets will keep doing their work. But personally I do feel a bit in a crisis about exactly this. If the poetic place feels a little closed to me at the moment—and I’m somebody who has angled most of her being at being the person to do that job—then I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if it’s about the world or if it’s about me or about poetry. I’m trying to figure it out. Regrettably, it often gets posed, as with certain spats, as a political question, like, “If the world is ending and going to hell in a hand basket, what can poetry do?” I can’t fully traffic with those conversations because my interest is to the side of that.
Liebegott notes that Bluets “doesn’t say poetry on it, it says Essay/Literature.” Nelson responds:
MN: …When I wrote Bluets, blue as a concept was not enough to hold all these individually shaped poems. I didn’t like the way it was looking, and it wasn’t interesting. Then when I realized that numbered passages could do the same work that poems could do—with juxtaposition and speed and moving in and out of different kinds of voices, I thought, Oh, wow! And when I took a lot of the line breaks out of a lot of the poems, I didn’t feel like they lost anything. A lot of reviews of the poems I’d written recently were like, Why is this even poetry? She just put line breaks and stuff into what should’ve been prose. I felt like, Fair enough, maybe that’s exactly so. That didn’t cut to my quick or anything.
It sounds kind of dippy, but Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is written in numbers, was the main book I saw my book in conversation with. I love the way he’s writing philosophy, but it also kind of sounds like a sad, confused person just talking to himself. “Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?” and “Why can’t a dog feel pain?” “Can a dog simulate pain?” Just all these questions and people treat it—as they should—very seriously as philosophy. But it’s also a form of madness, and I felt very alone and in a form of madness…
AL: I know Jane and even Bluets are deeply personal, emotional writings. I relate a lot to not wanting to sit down just for the sake of writing a competent poem.
MN: There are three things about being a poet that I do identify with, which I feel will always make me a poet, and which will never change: 1. A dedication to witnessing the world and rendering feeling, landscape, and researched experience into language, in an almost laboratorial way. Which is not, I want to imagine the plot. It’s a metabolic processing. 2. Attention to language. I so can’t handle anything I pick up that has boring sentences. It has to be well-written on a micro level. I’m very interested in grammar and rhythm—I like the teeny elements. 3. The more amorphous thing, which is a do-it-yourself feeling about being a writer, that I think really only poets have, which has to do with dedication to community, and the dedication to making your own chapbooks. I came up in the world in New York City in the 90s as a D.I.Y. writer, where I never thought anyone was going to give a shit—it was all about my life and how I wanted to live it and who I wanted to associate with. I always feel like a poet-hustler at heart.
Read the full interview here. Photo courtesy Wave Books.