Author and teacher Maggie Nelson talks about why research is "like throwing crap in a cauldron" (in a good way), and how she handles those tricky times in between.
Can you describe your creative process?
I have few to no patterns, and even less dogma about how to write, or how I write. Poetry tends to come to me naturally or not at all. I spent years trying out different exercises and forms like most everyone, but the truth is that I don't do that anymore. It may sound mystical or retro or simply depressing, but I increasingly feel myself to be a hostage to poetic impulse. I usually have to wait until a poem comes along, or until I see what's there to be written, as Robert Creeley once put it. For me a poem often begins as a constellation of words coursing through my head like little electric shocks. This often happens when I'm in great pain or pleasure, doing laps in a pool, or in the bardo between sleeping and waking. I don't know why. The words feel like irritants in the soft lap of an oyster, as Henry James had it. Then the pearl -- if one could call it that with a straight face -- starts to congeal around the irritant. A snowball in the muck.
As for non-poetry projects, that's a different story. Usually I do a lot of reading or research until something takes possession of me. I think of research like throwing lots of crap in a cauldron -- bones, feathers, blood, everything -- and turning up the heat: eventually it has to come to a boil. (Whether you make something edible is a different question.) Or, let me put it this way: Often a baby in a subway station will scream back at a loud train hurtling through. If you send a train of information hurtling through your brain often and fast enough, and if the train screeches loudly enough, you may eventually find yourself yelling back.
Are there any techniques that you use to spark new poems or gather up ideas?
I don't use any techniques per se...but I take a lot of notes, wandering around in the world. I used to keep diaries, then legal pads; now I don't know what I keep. Scraps, I guess. I tend to write a poetry based on fact and feeling, or the fact of feeling, or the feeling of fact, etc., which mostly means I write down "facts" -- observed things that interest me in the world -- and, alongside, my feelings (loosely defined). Painter Joan Mitchell once described her gargantuan abstract paintings as "remembered landscapes which involve my feelings"; I think of my poems similarly, though I usually try to write from within the landscape rather than from my memory of it -- to avoid nostalgia, or bad faith. Two sections of my next book of poems, Something Bright, Then Holes, bear this out literally: The first section, "The Canal Diaries," was written in a single notebook at the shore of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; the second, "The Hospital for Special Care," was written at a friend's bedside in a hospital by that name. I like site-specific projects. Maybe because if I plunk myself down in a place with a pen, I rarely find myself bored.
Often a baby in a subway station will scream back at a loud train hurtling through. If you send a train of information hurtling through your brain often and fast enough, and if the train screeches loudly enough, you may eventually find yourself yelling back.
Maggie Nelson is the author of The Red Parts (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2007), a nonfiction book about her family and criminal justice, and a critical study, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, Fall 2007), as well as four books of poetry: Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, Fall 2007), Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001; finalist, the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award). She's taught literature and writing at the Graduate Writing Program of the New School, Pratt Institute of Art, and Wesleyan University, and is currently on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.
Maggie Nelson on the Web: Amazon.com, Simon & Schuster, Soft Skull, CalArts
What do you do to keep your work fresh from year to year?
Shifting genres has been helpful; so has asking the question, "Can I do X?" For example, I wrote little lyric poems for many years, then, when approaching my book Jane: A Murder, I started asking: Can a collection of little lyric poems tell, or at least contain, the complicated story of an awful murder in my family? It seemed impossible, so I set out to try it. After that, in working on this follow-up to Jane, The Red Parts, I started asking: Can I tell the second half of this awful story in a stripped-down prose that somehow resists the telling of a story? Can I import what I know about poetry into prose, and vice versa?
In the book I've been working on lately, Bluets, the starting question was, can I contain all the information and feeling I have collected over the years about the color blue (my favorite color) and marry it to the form of Wittgensteinian propositions? A weirder question, perhaps, but an equally urgent one for me. Miraculously, the graft seemed to take. But there's no guarantee. The writing of Jane, for instance, was a much more torturous affair. "Like trying to nail Jello to the wall," as Bill Clinton once said in a very different context.
So I guess a short answer to your question might be that provocations keep me fresh. In an essay on Antonin Artaud, Susan Sontag wrote, "there is no applying Artaud." So my next project has to do with applying him. I like provocations.
What's the most helpful creativity technique you know?
I know there are many who believe in the Trollope school of thought, that one should wax one's ass to the chair and spit out novels or sestinas or whatever without waiting around for that elusive, romantic, ghost-in-machine, inspiration. But for me the work of being a writer is the easy part. I like being at work. What I like less are the soggy, ill-defined but probably necessary periods between monsoon and drought. The periods of silence, inactivity, and aimlessness that inevitably punctuate a life. Being possessed is pleasurable -- it feels good to lose control of the car while also somehow staying behind the wheel. But abiding with a dead or resting or paused brain, or numbness, or ordinariness, or sanity -- that's harder for me. So the best trick I know has less to do with tapping into creativity and more to do with cultivating the capacity to live without it. To let it go, and not feel as if the plug has been pulled on life. This abiding demands a certain kind of acceptance: If it is better that I write something again, let me write something again. If it is better that I never write again, let me never write again. (The prayer I'm cribbing from actually requires a more radical acceptance: If it is better for me to be dead, let me be dead.) I wouldn't call this a trick, exactly; it's more of a renunciation.
Poet Anthony McCann didn't teach this to me, but he smartly reiterated it to me the other day. We were talking about these periods, and he just said something simple like, the hard part is learning how to bear them. Just knowing that someone else is up against a similar problem is often enough to help me in a profound way. More profound, probably, than any nugget of advice. Neither he nor I, as relative newcomers to Los Angeles, has yet figured out how to write about the city, so we keep taking long hikes at dusk, looking for coyotes, and, at the summit, staring in awe at the ridiculous expanse of the city below. Waiting for the lights to come on, I guess. There is no guarantee that they will, but every time I've been up there, they have.