The author of nine books of poetry, autobiography and criticism, Maggie Nelson defies easy categorization. But across her works, explorations of beauty and pain, eroticism, nuance and poeticism are a given. “I have keenness to the rhythm and sound of language,” she says by phone from her home in California. “I don’t allow prose or critical writing as an excuse for unlovely language.”
Nelson’s multifarious influences and stylistic elasticity are seen in Bluets, a 2009 memoir that grounds reflections about loneliness, loss and beauty in her love for the color blue. Dream-like and nonlinear, Bluets narrates a jilted love and engages with discourses about blue by other thinkers and writers. Goethe associates the color with a fraught life period; William Gass contrasts blue’s idealized beauty with the human body’s imperfections. With characteristic frankness and lyricism, Nelson discards Gass’ romanticized ideal. “This is puritanism,” she writes. “I have no interest in offering you an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light.”
Nelson’s critical works emphasize the individual experience in connecting with art. In The Art of Cruelty, critiquing representations of violence in art, Nelson offers a complex, even paradoxical take on whether violent art makes us more violent, rebuffing idealizations of violence while celebrating their provocations.
Interviewed, she takes a similarly nuanced view toward a New Yorker essay about Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” The song was recorded when Nelson was 10, and its masturbation references incited Tipper Gore’s campaign to censor sexual lyrics. Nelson says that she rejects “deem[ing] all sexual content with one brush”; she adds, “My sister and I were learning to masturbate … on the cover was a woman who knew enough to self-pleasure. Some get empowerment from what others find degrading.”
Nelson also writes about topics related to queerness and feminism. She expresses optimism that “the long-term arc of history bends to justice,” but realism about the fragility of civil-rights progress. Her outlook on gender politics under a Trump presidency is double-edged. “You can’t let certain genies out of the bottle and get them back in without brute repression,” she says. She adds, “The vision for sexual freedom is care for all members of society — bigger civil-rights issues that are not minoritizing.”