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Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Maggie Nelson . She is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, including The Argonauts, for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, The Red Parts, and Jane: A Murder. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction and in 2016 was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Most recently, her poetry collection Something Bright, Then Holes, has been re-issued by Soft Skull Press.
This is Maggie’s second time on the program. She first appeared in Episode 185 on June 23, 2013.
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What is it with you and the dreams?
That’s a pertinent question. That shows me you actually read my poem. Or wrote it. Either way, thank you.
The dreams have been a muse for a long time; maybe even forever, hence the poem’s title. The dream described in the poem is literally my earliest memory: all my toys dancing in a ring of light around my crib to the tune of It’s A Small World After All.
Your earliest memory, from the cot dreams
toys hoofing in a ring of light, to the tune
it’s a small world, after all that is poetry in itself
apropos of such unfolding, in nonage, in infancy
marriage at twenty-five, offspring by thirty
was never yours, nor office administration
not even the longest term mortgage, to settle you
into the long haul, the long yards,
the back yards, and cats and dogs
none of them yours. It was written in a villanelle
it was ordained by Auden, it killed your chances
you slid by the cornfields, under Van Gough’s sill
you fell into a lustful fate, a pond of muddy water
you swam with the eels, your electric adult
on the blink, powering down and dreamless.
The title of your new collection is Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives. Where does it come from and is this a book about feminists?
I used the title of one of my favorite poems in the manuscript, which is a parody of Philip Levine’s poem, “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” which was published in the 1960’s. Levine’s speaker is a pig being taken to market to be sold for meat. The pig can sense his fate and speaks with a dignity we wouldn’t expect from any being under those circumstances.
With what’s been happening in the lives of American women, whose health care rights are under threat, who are still not paid equally for our work, and who are being targeted by extremist groups in the “manosphere,” I sometimes feel like that pig, properly fattened on title 9, on access to safe healthcare and a good education, now being guided into a future that looks a lot like the past. It’s a cautionary. It’s also an accounting of growing old.
after Philip Levine
It’s wonderful how they jog
in two-toned gel soled racing shoes
their yoga butts barely jiggling
in rosy spandex leggings.
I was there once. I felt
the brash I’ve got it all, I had
the uncomplicated beauty of the young
before the years peeled it from me
like flimsy wallpaper. In my memories
women’s work was pin money
to pay for ballet lessons, summer camp;
suffering children, suffering filing jobs
Poetry or Making Love?
That’s a tough call and I might have to dodge the question by insisting they’re the same thing. I’ve always said the connection between a writer and a reader is like a settled relationship – one in which you take your time, learn about each other, go back and start again when needed. The connection between a speaker and an audience on the other hand is like a wild one night stand.
I expected them to tell me that my bacon
had come from a happy pig, one that had had a full life,
was corn fed and had free range, did yoga in the mornings,
played the cello, spoke Latin and learned
to salsa dance while visiting relatives in Cuba.
I thought maybe there would have been a photo album
to accompany the sacrifice, documenting its first birthday,
first snow and first of everything else,
here an oink, there an oink.
What is it about poetry as opposed to other genres?
I guess it’s the wordplay; the truly infinite number of ways that exist for using language and syntax in poetry that other genres don’t allow. Poetry by its own nature adheres to something ineffable and far more embracing than the Chicago Style Manuel. Restrictions that hinder creativity annoy me anyway. Poetry, on the other hand, is viscerally and emotionally freeing.
As a long time choreographer and teacher of improvised performance arts, I learned from the very beginning that any individual’s freely flowing and naturally occurring continuum of creative thought and action is hindered only by their own private wounds and learned or imposed behaviors. Most teaching of improvisation actually involves unlearning habitual patterns. And all writing at its inception is improvised. For me writing poetry is remedial work for the creative spirit. I love that work. The need for it, is at the core of my driving interest in writing poetry for the last 20 years.
Parachutes have risen
and structures of fashion
have shifted in the foyer.
Prestigious and versatile,
the concierge collects
luxury gifts. She drinks
the beverage before her,
sucks air too loudly to sigh.
A carnage of orchids
dries on Spanish tile. A red
pepper turns in the bowl.
You are about to release your third book, prey. Tell us everything.
prey is a themed full-length poetry collection centered around navigating a culture of predation. It details various predatory relationships from childhood onward, drawing parallels between human and nonhuman predators. The book seeks to expose the depth of trauma caused by physical, psychological, and sexual abuse—exploring what it is to become prey.
She sits quiet, drunk on her own anger
again & his despicable
drips down each fang just like
the bourbon from out his pores—
don’t misunderstand, she’s seasoned, racked up
husbands & guzzlers, & all she learned
from Mother who was no princess &
all the grandmothers dating back
to the Revolution & perhaps even back
to Babylon, too, the kind of ladies
June 04, 2018
How’s the erotic poetry business?
Funny you should ask. JUNKIE WIFE, my erotic chapbook chronicling my first, dysfunctional, drug-fueled marriage, has just been published by Moon Tide Press, with a foreword by the great Bill Mohr. I’m reading all over town. (Details on my website.)
June 04, 2018
when I see I’ve overwatered it again, I jab
the turkey baster into the rust-colored runoff
before the water spills over,
onto the hardwood floor.
in our mid-town apartment,
the harsh light sears the spiky leaves.
it reminds me of summer,
when you left me here on Beachwood Dr.
and I shot Demerol
my rust-colored blood backing up in the syringe,
the same pierce of yellow light,
the sharp spike breaking my skin.
Let’s start with that cover – it is both lovely and bizarre. Where did it come from?
Isn’t it? It’s an illustration from an early 17th-century anatomy textbook on fetal formation by Adriaan van Spiegel and Giulio Casseri I came across in the process of researching historical medical texts. The governing idea of this manuscript was the concept of maternal imagination – that a mother’s thoughts and experiences, especially traumatic ones, affect fetal formation and can be responsible for monstrous births. This illustration seemed to embody both of those – specific anatomical detail of pregnancy combined with that imaginative presentation of the baby blooming from the mother’s abdomen. And I love how the book designer curled the mother’s hand around the C.