What follows is a dialogue written on assignment; the prompt was given to us by the editors of an anthology-to-be titled Between Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry. The topic was gender and poetic friendship, a nexus investigated critically and historically in Maggie's book Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. Since Between Friends was about current configurations of friendships in poetry, it seemed fitting to us to submit a conversation in lieu of an essay, so that our decade-long relationship might itself be a co-author. The editors agreed, and thus we embarked upon a year-long correspondence, during which time Brian was living in Missoula, Montana, and Maggie in Los Angeles and briefly in Mexico, where she was finishing the manuscript that became The Art of Cruelty (Norton, 2011). After we submitted the conversation to the anthology, nameless forces felt that the dialogue was too much an outlier in an academic book, and it was pulled from the collection. There is no kill fee in poetics, but there is a second life. With thanks to Josh and everyone at Evening Will Come for their interest, here is our conversation, largely unreconstructed from its February 2011 version.
Brian Blanchfield: It feels appropriate to treat this topic (a rich one for both of us) in a written dialogue, since the taproot of our friendship was an exchange of letters, a blind correspondence—between Manhattan and Brooklyn, in early 2001. Right?
Maggie Nelson: Yes—we met because I had sent my manuscript Jane: A Murder to Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, where you were then working. At the time it felt like a big, weird, gutsy move for me—I mean, who was I, a young poet writing in her little Brooklyn room, suddenly convinced her book should have a more formidable home? Nonetheless, I sent it to FSG, as well as to other houses. The book was roundly rejected, but you subsequently wrote me—off the record—a fan letter, saying it was one of the best manuscripts you’d read in your time at FSG.
Not knowing, as I do now, that NYC publishing is full of women, and that the whole business has an increasingly “precariat” vibe, I then imagined every publishing house as being The Man, run by white men in suits, chucking around their immense cultural power. (This may have been an impression garnered after working at age nineteen, for a single day, for Gordon Lish; shortly thereafter I sequestered myself in New York bars and basements and Kinko’s backrooms, with a more punk, DIY crowd.)
At any rate, the point is that when I received your letter, I felt sure it came from a bastion of power, and that you, “Mr. Blanchfield,” were its emissary. (The patrician vibe of your name worked into this fantasy quite well!) And it was meaningful to me, because Jane was a story about girlhood, about being female, about proposing femaleness as the center of a human story. And my letter from Mr. Blanchfield of FSG said to me that all this was worthwhile, that it was good, and that it had almost made it through, even in its freaky form.
BB: I can remember well reading Jane in manuscript at FSG. I knew who you were because we already had a friend or two in common, but I wasn’t prepared for the transformative reading experience there in my cramped little Union Square office. A clear-eyed and structurally innovative book that sought to be a new sort of—a subversion of—investigation into sexually violent crime, objectively dismissive of criminal psychology, riveting in the way rivet removal might be, Jane turns out to have as its central subject girlhood. It became clear in the book’s uniqueness just how rare that is or was in literature. I had never read anything like it before, certainly not in my capacity at FSG. I still have an almost diagrammatic understanding of its relations: symmetrical pairs of girls and women—Maggie and her sister, their mother who was Jane’s sister, and even their dolls Stacey and Tracey—tightly wound in their relationality, where the dark companion of bright ambition was recrimination, often self-punitive, and where open generosity was shadowed by privation. The horrible murder and vanished life of one in the configuration had made all the mirrorings skew and distort and glare and ricochet. What a prism.
I think I was bold enough to write some of that to you, then; I remember troubling over whether to use the FSG letterhead. Jonathan Galassi’s letter had gone out to you already (I had written it), conceding its brilliance and concluding, if I recall, that the company did not have experience publishing and promoting so peculiar a book. A line. It was one of the several times I couldn’t let my dissenting opinion rest. I was the office I held, I decided, and sort of trusted that you might want to hear a fellow writer’s high opinion of you. To sidestep the imprimatur, always a good idea, if you want to be real. There was sort of a delicious freedom in that.
MN: What a surprise it was, then, to meet you at a party in Carroll Gardens a few months later, and to find that you were young, almost exactly my age (b. 1973), dating a writer whom I knew (Douglas A. Martin), queer, brilliant, interested in all kinds of on the grid and off the grid literature, a true intellectual, an omnivorous roamer, a Southerner, son of a truck driver and a Primitive Baptist, a gentle giant, and a fascinating, terrific poet who wanted to be my friend, too.
BB: Over books and manuscript pages: that’s certainly one setting of our friendship. But when I flash on our formative times together, I often think of us in driver and passenger seats, really all over the country. Do you? Driving out of New York, while it was quite literally still burning, in your rental car, to Eileen Myles’s Scout festival in Buffalo, October 2001, a profound and anxiously giddy (and somewhat perilous) epic drive with Douglas and with Bruce Benderson. Also, driving a Ryder truck of your furniture to a storage place in Connecticut when you were living in grey, cold Middletown, Connecticut, with its piped-in Vivaldi parking structures. A ludicrously expensive minor accident in an otherwise innocuous-seeming wooded parking lot somewhere on Cape Cod visiting your friend, the inimical Annie Dillard. Reading Peter Handke’s remorseless prose to you in a traffic jam on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, to make you forget there would be no restroom for miles. Crossing a perplexing and legitimate wrinkle in the time-space continuum involving a giant roadside turkey buzzard, my keys on the car roof, and a narrow causeway in south Florida. Numerous wending trips on the Pacific Coast Highway, when we were both living in Los Angeles, on days off from CalArts, looking for the biker clam bar or a reading cove, depending on our mood.
You became, rather soon after I met you, the person in my life who was patient, empathic, sound and even sage, in a very difficult stretch for me. Loss and grief were catching up with me, not to mention anger and some re-lived trauma, and I had been the sort of bottled-up one imagines at the time as self-possessed. Whenever I consider the sort of friend I relish being, I think of you: a deeply understanding, permissive, even fiery advocate with advanced capacity to listen, whose intellect is a joy, who can surrender happily to the absurd, and who can share the playground of language.
MN: And you, to me, quickly became an inspiration, a brother, a support in times of seriously dark waters, an editor, a lender of excellent and pivotal books, a cheerleader, a colleague, a couch sleeper (and couch mover), a fellow swimmer, an excellent and well-dressed date, a road tripper, a canal sitter, a reference, a beneficiary, a comrade in the world of modern dance, a corrupting gambler, (queer) family.
BB: Well, so, Agent Nelson, about gender and friendship and poetry, I have a couple of questions I have wanted to ask, both related to Jane, and to much of the rest of your work. Relationships among girls and women are central to Jane, and when I think of your aunt’s excerpted journal entries in the book, I think of her poignant accounts of feeling shame at having appeared selfish in her friendships. In essence she was an adolescent who used the diary’s meditative space to encourage herself to be more self-effacing, more qualified in her ambition, and more generous with her sister and friends. Her struggle for what was appropriate in self-expression, and her temperance, are, it seems to me, gendered. I wonder if you would speak a bit about the relationship between gender and pleasing others.
MN: Whoa, this is a big one. Because in writing, one is usually attempting to please someone—one’s own ear, of course, but also a listener, or an addressee, and often a specific one. Of course, one is also attempting to speak things one needs to say, however abstract, however ugly, however frightening—the results of which aren’t always pleasing, either to oneself or others. I’ve found this difficult territory to negotiate: How to violate the gendered taboos which have made it so difficult for women to speak things the culture would rather not hear (a la Adrienne Rich’s “On Women and Lying,”) but how to understand, simultaneously, that one’s bravery or audacity doesn’t come without consequences. That people react, and you have to abide the reactions. Somehow it never seems to get any easier.
Jane’s worries about appearing selfish, as expressed in her diary entries, are a good example of the bind. In some ways, they make me think that if one is worrying over appearing selfish, one might already be heading down the wrong path altogether, insofar as for women—not exclusively, but perhaps especially—setting boundaries around what one can and cannot give to others has always been a difficult point, a subject of much internal consternation. I have become an avid reader in the occasionally linked spheres of Buddhism and feminism, and one subject that appears often in this overlap is how women need to be especially cautious in avoiding “idiot generosity,” i.e. giving that which will make you resentful or depleted, while also pursuing the kind of radical generosity that Buddhism encourages. But this generosity has to be commensurate with your capacities—you can’t just become a doormat, which doesn’t help anyone. But nor does being paranoid about becoming one. It’s a bit of a pickle.
As far as pleasing others goes, at least I don’t care half as much as I used to about reviews and what not; after my book The Red Parts was called “meretricious” by Kirkus or Publishers’ Weekly or some such, I really stepped off that flag. I remember that there was a word you also hated, once applied to your work—what was it?
BB: How interesting that your word was meretricious. I’d forgotten. Mine was importunate. I remember we both admitted to looking the word up, after reading our reviews. Which I have done again. They are interestingly similar and interestingly gendered. Both words can mean distasteful, and both in all of their usages bespeak the greater (literary) cultural value of caution or moderation or, certainly, humility. It is sloppy and clambering for me, a man, to ask or attract attention to a need, and it is vulgar or speciously insincere for you, a woman, to do so. Isn’t there a way, if you were really going to investigate the inferential semantics here, that in my poems I was said to behave and comport my speech too little “like a man” and you in your account did not show the gentility or earnestness “befitting a woman”? Mine came at the tag end of a diminishing comparison: I think it was “But Ashbery would never have been as importunate.” “You’re embarrassing yourself” does seem to be one of the twenty irrepressible outcomes in the average critic’s eightball. Which is why John Ashbery (the one who loves Marianne Moore) might write a poem so titled. My sources say no.