Review-Interview by Clara B. Jones
In her 1983 book, Writing Like A Woman, Alicia Ostriker described contemporary female writers as “unorthodox,” “path-breaking,” “rule-breaking,” and “exciting.” Ostriker’s essays investigated the psyches and writing of five female poets, two of whom, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, committed suicide, and, one, Adrienne Rich, who became the foremost feminist poet of her generation. These women wrote at a time when American females were emerging from the constraints of hetero-normative roles. Plath, Sexton, and Rich were mothers and wives who rebelled against traditional roles to develop their talents and to define liberation on their own terms. Some critics have suggested that the current generation of educated women take freedom of choice for granted, struggling with “work-life” balance rather than the social stigma accompanying the dubious fame of sexual pioneers. In her new book, poet Maggie Nelson records the continuing struggles of women mapping identities in uncharted territory, with choices now socially-sanctioned but no less challenging than those faced by their predecessors.
In The Argonauts, Nelson writes of the specific and the general, personal events as well as societal ones. A central experience driving Nelson’s volume is her relationship with the artist, Harry Dodge, and their complex, multi-dimensional, relationship that includes parenthood and Dodge’s transition from female to male, what one critic has called, “male-passing.” The Argonauts does not disappoint as an intense and riveting record of one woman’s love for her partner and her role as mother and of a scholar-poet’s rich intellectual life through which experiences are filtered. After reading the book, I found myself focused on one sentence, “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.”, an interest leading me to contact Nelson, a professor in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts, requesting a brief interview that was graciously granted.
I have been influenced for some time by “queer theory,” especially, as developed by the Post-structuralists, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. In brief, Post-structuralists conceptualize human behavior as “construction” and “performance” rather than “essential.” For example, Butler suggests that gender is “performed” and, thus, is continuously changing (constructed), rejecting essentialist (inherent) treatments of gender based upon the Male : Female dichotomy or “binary.” Gender, then, is continually being practiced and is not a stable construct. Similar to these views, Foucault presents the idea that gender is “discursive”, something negotiated between and among individuals, not necessarily imposed by authorities (e.g., the law, parents, the government, the police).
Nelson has been called a “political queer,” and I asked her to respond to this description. She communicated (via e-mail) that she would not use the term as a “self-identifier” and that The Argonauts “makes clear” that she wouldn’t use many adjectives or phrases to describe herself (or, I would guess, Dodge). She goes on to say that, “the terms ‘political’ and ‘queer’ are quite contested right now, and often mean something quite different depending on who is speaking them.” This comment clarified the sentence from her book upon which I had been fixated, suggesting a Post-structural perspective that language is in a continual state of flux. Wisely, and, cogently, Nelson continued, “Part of writing books entails allowing others to talk about you in discursive terms that one wouldn’t use oneself, so, so be it!” This same reflection and self-awareness permeates The Argonauts, currently a well-deserved best-seller.
In a future review I will return to the topic of Post-structuralism and poetry by American females, sharing more of my interview with Nelson at that time. Readers of this blogpost are strongly encouraged to read this book by a leading voice of contemporary radical feminism expressed in another quote from our correspondence: “I would, of course, be inclined to think that we all have much to gain by turning away from gender normativity, be it in art, life, or any other sphere.” Like the poets about whom Ostriker wrote more than thirty years ago, Nelson is a “path-breaking” and “exciting” writer whose themes deserve a broad and serious audience.
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many venues, and Clara’s collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition, available at amazon.com.