Maggie Nelson: ‘I ride on the shoulders of the much wilder and brave’

Nelson’s empathy and the beauty of her unpredictable, compelling writing is a salve

Maggie Nelson: The fact that so many writers cite her as an eye-opening inspiration pleases her greatly

When Maggie Nelson was a child, she was chided for talking too much. One of the most “shameful moments” of her life, she says, was when some friends of her family took care of her for a week, and when they brought her back home, the father said, “She was great, but does her mouth have an off button?” The answer then was “no”, “and so it remains,” Nelson says, answering questions over email for this interview.

Nelson is a nonfiction writer, poet, thinker, scholar and, yes, talker. On July 10th, her first Irish public speaking engagement will be in conversation with Sineád Gleeson at the Cairde Sligo Arts Festival. Her books straddle poetry (Something Bright, Then Holes was recently republished), memoirs-of-sorts (The Argonauts, The Red Parts), and perhaps her best known work, the modern classic, Bluets, ostensibly about the colour blue, but really about, well, life.

She has become smart-famous for short books bursting with gargantuan intellect, books that contain mind-blowing writing and the sort of flow that insists upon reflection and then sharing. Her writing is often peppered with nuggets of references, quotes and artworks, laying a trail demanding further exploration and education. Like any great artist, her work is probably better consumed than described.

Nelson is also a liberator, particularly of form. Her approach, which often defies categorisation to the point that her name has become a descriptor, has enraptured writers and readers, leading her to become a port of influence within which many contemporary writers dock, particularly those in the realms of nonfiction, memoir and essay writing.


“Uttering the name Maggie Nelson in a room of literary-minded people is like giving the password at a secret club,” Jessica Ferri wrote for Bustle in 2015. “You know by mentioning her work you’re bound to find kindred spirits.”

Authors flock to the watering hole Nelson has provided in recent years, drawing from it inspiration and a sort of radical literary rebirth. The fact that so many writers cite Nelson as an eye-opening inspiration pleases her greatly, she says, “so much of my writing has been about trying to pay homage to those who have given me space, permission and creative liberation (as well as other kinds of liberation). I always feel that I ride on the shoulders of the much wilder and braver, so if one day I am that for someone else, that is incredibly gratifying.”

Nelson’s 2005 book, Jane: A Murder, combines poetry, the diary notes of the real person at the centre of it all (Nelson’s aunt, who was murdered in 1969), retellings of dreams, letters, and other writing and sources. Two years later, The Red Parts was published, a memoir of the murder trial, a cold case reopened decades later. The idea that life is experienced in fragments, a series of interruptions, unexpected turns and continuations, permeates Nelson’s work.

One aspect of Nelson’s writing is her ability to find universal meanings by homing in on specifics. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the acclaimed Bluets, a meditation that connects dots in a hypnotic, revelatory fashion.

“I think that’s a given in writing, re: the specific,” Nelson says, “But I also read a lot of philosophy, which doesn’t deal in specific details or instances at all, so I think that comes into the writing as well. In a variety of forums, I’ve long been preoccupied by the traffic between the detail and the blur, the so-called universal and particular, both of which might be more productively seen as a matter of scale rather than ontology.”

Nelson cites a quote from Aimé Césaire that she’s been thinking about a lot recently: “I’m not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism. But I don’t intend either to become lost in a disembodied universalism… I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.”

These multiple, meandering perspectives in her work see her unpick things from several directions. A lot of Nelson’s writing exists in a nuanced space, favouring multiple ways in, before snapping into focus. “The key is to entertain nuance without it collapsing into annoying, hedging writing afraid to assert anything – or into some kind of politically nefarious ‘both-sides-ism’,” she says. “I enjoy revolving thoughts around for a long time, as if through a kaleidoscope, then dramatising that process. But I don’t aim to leave a muddle. Assertion is built into language, as Barthes said. You can’t escape it, but you can know you’re performing it rather than believing in it too thoroughly.”

It does feel as though writing by female writers, queer writers, trans writers, and writers of colour is piercing through like never before, cutting slices out of a new world and presenting new ideas. This carving out of new spaces feels exhilarating, and it does feel – while a generalisation – something that Nelson is part of. Putting that to Nelson, she says, “I think I would just add that there is tons of literature not written by white, cis, male voices throughout history (though obviously not in equal parts, due to discrimination in publishing and living, etc.), so I don’t tend to think of such voices as ‘new.’ I think of them as lineage.

“It’s also the case that some white cis guys have written some of my very favourite works of literature. So I guess I’d resist too many demographic generalisations. That said, I’m always excited by work of maximum excitement, resistance, and innovation. There are so many things we’ve yet to hear and absorb (which doesn’t mean, however, that the voices some haven’t heard haven’t long been talking).”

As readers have been gravitating towards voices that have been traditionally marginalised, initiatives to bolster literature beyond the dominance of white men have become part of the publishing landscape. When Penguin Random House last year said that new authors should reflect the UK population, for example, and “not be driven only by people who come from a narrow section of society”, Lionel Shriver launched into a rather depressing resistance of such initiatives or intentions in a piece for the Spectator.

“I don’t know what it means to be ‘skeptical of diversity’ in publishing,” Nelson says, “unless that’s a euphemism for being racist / sexist / transphobic etc. I suppose such fears reflect the feeling that literature (among other places) is a scarcity, zero-sum model, whereby there will be no place for some if there’s a place for others. Welcome to the world in plenum, I would say, and time to start imagining forms of freedom and justice and expression in which one’s group’s enactment of them doesn’t depend on the suppression of others. Those forms of freedom and equity exist and we can live them.”

From forms of freedom, to freedom of form, Nelson is creating a legacy in real time. At night, she is kept up by “the classics – mortality and suffering, both my own and that of those I love. Global warming, which involves the mortality and suffering of us all, as well all the species we’re taking down with us. Kids crying in cages in US custody. The usual nightmares.”

At a time of almost impossible cruelty in America and elsewhere, Nelson's empathy and the beauty she conjures with her unpredictable, compelling writing is, at least, a salve.
Maggie Nelson is in conversation with Sineád Gleeson at the Hawk's Well Theatre in Sligo as part of the Cairde Sligo Arts Festival takes place on July 10th at 8pm. Tickets are €15. For more information and to book tickets go to