By Meaghan Menzel
Tues. Oct. 21 marked the first event in the “Poets Writing the Lyrical Essay” series at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. Director Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, said that it “was created in support of the English department. One of the English department’s most beloved classes, ‘Living Writers,’ gives students the opportunity to study work by contemporary authors and brings many of these authors to campus for readings and class visits.” For this event, Maggie Nelson was invited to read from her work, answer questions, and sign copies of her books as well as broadsides.
Nelson is the author of four nonfiction books including “The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning” and “Bluets,” and she is the author of four poetry books. She has an upcoming biography coming out titled “The Argonauts,” and has received awards such as the Guggenheim in Nonfiction, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, an Arts Writers grant from the Warhol Foundation, and an Innovative Literature grant from Creative Capital.
Nelson first read from “Bluets.” Dubrow said, “I first came to Maggie Nelson’s work through ‘Bluets,’ a book of 240 prose sections that reflect on the color blue…The book is a love letter… [and it] is about obsession, what happens when we try to know something fully, how allusive does the loved thing, the loved person, become the closer we approach it.”
At the end of the event, Alumnus Doug Carter said he first came across “Bluets” when he read it for a course Dubrow taught. He appreciates the book for its use of vignette style. He received a postcard from Dubrow and Assistant Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Lindsay Lusby about the list of upcoming Lit House events, and he said, “I was like, ‘oh man, I’ve got to make it to this reading. I’ve been waiting to pick her brain.’”
One of the things Nelson talked about in “Bluets” was her friend who had been in a motorcycle accident. She said this friend had been her undergraduate advisor. The accident left her friend paralyzed, and Nelson was one of her many caretakers.
“She taught me so many things in her hour of need,” Nelson said. “Like, she taught me that you need to ask for what you need. She didn’t have time for tomfoolery.”
Nelson said that she also mentions this friend in “The Argonauts.” She said she wrote “about her blushing. She was just super tough and cool. She’d come up to class on her motorcycle and take her helmet off, but then she also blushed… and it was my indication that she was human.”
Nelson then read the first few pages from “The Argonauts” which will come out in May from the publisher Graywolf. According to Creative Captial’s website, this book “combines autobiography and theoretical inquiry to address the issues of gender, queerness, family-making, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of language… ‘The Argonauts’ is essentially a long essay, which contains within it the story of the author’s pregnancy, running alongside that of her partner’s gender transition.”
Associate Professor James Hall said, “I found [Nelson’s reading] mesmerizing to see the lyric expanded in such a way as to include queer theory, personal experience, high color theory, art history, and philosophical inquiry.”
At the beginning of the event, Dubrow said, “What sets Nelson apart from a scholarly figure… is the way in which we see these questions of violence, cruelty, and representation explored not only in her critical prose but also in her work as an artist.”
Dubrow talked about a few of Nelson’s other literary works such as “The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning” and “Jane: A Murder.”
“In books such as ‘The Art of Cruelty,’ Nelson examines representations of cruelty and violence in art, reckoning with figures as diverse as Stephen King, Sylvia Platt, and Francis Bacon,” Dubrow said. “Published six years before ‘The Art of Cruelty,’ Nelson’s remarkable hybrid text ‘Jane: A Murder,’ uses poetry, prose, and documentation to examine the case of her aunt’s murder in the 1960s.”
“One of the things that is so satisfying about Maggie Nelson’s work is the interconnectivity of her work,” Dubrow said. “How in her poems, essays, and memoirs, she always returns to the same question using the formal constraints and opportunities of each genre to teach how to piece out new discoveries about subject such as desire or cruelty.”
“As someone who’s teaching Dr. Nelson’s book in my ENG 353: Living Writers course that focuses on lyric nonfiction, I can say that teaching her book was a rewarding and inspiring experience,” Hall said.