Maggie Nelson at City Arts and Lectures by Solange Baker

The Nourse Theater is huge. It seats 1689 people, plus added seats in the orchestra pit. Opening in 1927, the theater began as a the in-house theater for Commerce High School, later becoming a public performing arts space. A recent addition to the theater’s shows, are the City Arts and Lectures. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, Bluets, and The Art of Cruelty, was this night’s lecture guest. The stage was set with a carpet, two chairs, and a small table with water glasses between Nelson and the interviewer. I had never been to a City Arts and Lecture and did not know what to expect but hoped to leave with insight into the professional world of writing.

Giving an interesting interview is a skill. Being an engaging interviewer is a skill. It became apparent that the woman interviewing Nelson, Julia Bryan-Wilson, had an agenda in mind. She continuously asked Nelson about her love live, changing the topic away from her writing to more personal subjects. “Does having an attraction to butch lesbian woman change the way you write about lust?” Wilson asked in reference to Nelson’s husband. Nelson was clearly uncomfortable. Her spouse is in fact not a “butch lesbian”, but gender fluid (going by “he/him” pronouns). Although their relationship together is central to The Argonauts, Nelson’s most recent release, Wilson seemed to have little interest in the non-romantic content of the book. Despite her visible discomfort, Nelson handled the situation with grace. She told Wilson she didn’t want to talk about the subject and segwayed into discussing the deeper messages in her autobiography. It’s a lesson to be learned for all, whether interviewer or interviewee— don’t press a topic your subject does not want to talk about, and if you are pushed to talk about a topic you don’t want to talk about, politely decline to discuss the subject and offer an alternate topic.

Nelson has identified herself as anti labels both in her love-life and work. Her writing breaks and blurs genre boundaries. It reminds me of an essay we read at the beginning of our speculative fiction unit called “Genre: A Word Only A Frenchman Could Love” by Ursula Le Guin about the boundaries genre creates. While I don’t think genre should be abolished, I do agree that it can be limiting. I’m used to working within limitations, partly because most of my writing is done for school. Something that I’ve found from being at SOTA is that it’s difficult to not slip into feeling like writing is nothing more than another homework assignment. And like Le Guin said, to write outside of genre to create new ideas, Nelson has her own strategies for authors plagued with writer’s block. Nelson talked about switching where she writes to continue the creative flow. She said she lays out her pages to organize them and takes inspiration from her own life. I tend to sit at my desk every time I write and don’t take much inspiration from my own life. If I do so, I find it difficult to remove myself from the piece and I take it more personally when I get edits. But maybe looking at my own life and taking not direct chunks, but inspiration and ideas from my experiences would benefit my writing. I am always open to trying new things to boost my creativity and get myself out of a stupor, and trying out other writer’s strategies is always a good place to start— especially when they’re as well known as Maggie Nelson.

I had not read any of Nelson’s work prior to the lecture except for select excerpts. After hearing her speak and gaining perspective into her character, I am more inclined to read her work. It is inspiring to see a successful author in a day and age in which people say the book industry is dead. Although I do not intend to pursue a career in novels, it did show me that there is still some of that “old world” left.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Maggie Nelson at the Nourse Theater by Ren Weber

On Friday, January 19th, Creative Writing attended a conversation with Maggie Nelson presented by City Arts and Lectures at the Nourse Theater. There, Nelson talked about her books, The Argonauts and Bluets with Julia Bryan-Wilson in a onstage, recorded interview. I enjoyed hearing about how Nelson views labels and titles, particularly surrounding the idea that she is a “genius” due to the award from the MacArthur Foundation. I noticed how she seemed to slightly evade each question about labels directed at her by the interviewer (about being a queer writer, a poet vs. fiction writer, a genius, etc.) which seemed to parallel the way she dislikes the aggressive way our society attempts to classify and categorize people.

One of my favorite parts of the reading was when questions were opened up to the audience. One audience member mentioned Maggie Nelson’s background in dancing, and asked how Nelson physically feels when writing. I had never thought deeply about the connection between physicality and writing until then, because to me it had always seemed that writing must inherently be a very solitary and stagnant act. I thought it was interesting how she tied movement and writing together, creating a link between the two art forms, almost blurring the lines between the two genres. The excerpts I read before the reading from The Argonauts and Bluets eludes and bends genres as well, introducing layers of poetry, memoir, and literary analysis, which makes one question why we are so engrossed with classifying art into categories.

Maggie Nelson talked about how she can only write from experience, which means that her writing is mostly memoir. I find it interesting how writers seem to pick sides on this debate, either unable to write anything from past experiences or are mostly inspired by moments that have occurred within their own lives. However one may label their own writing, I am wholly of the opinion that art usually stems (if only minutely) from a place of personal experiences and feelings. Seeing Maggie Nelson speak through City Arts and Lectures made me question the way I view my own writing, the way we classify art, and the many boundaries we can cross when we don’t confine our work to arbitrary labels.

Ren Weber, class of 2021

Maggie Nelson at City Arts & Lectures by Nina Berggren

On Friday, January 19th, the SOTA Creative Writing department attended an interview with author Maggie Nelson at the Nourse Theater. The conversation began at 7:30pm, when the interviewer, Julia Bryan Wilson, introduced herself and Nelson. The two women sat comfortably in a makeshift living room center stage, with two sofas, a carpet, and a coffee table, all of which provided a sense of intimacy in the grand theater. First, Wilson praised Nelson for her carefully crafted novels. She reflected upon Nelson’s recent literary achievements, and the success of her most recent book The Argonauts.

Wilson first mentioned the autobiographical aspects of Nelson’s writing, and how her sentences are almost poetic in their fluidity. Nelson responded by discussing labels. How she feels drawn to both “memoirist” and “poet.” How she wishes society could reject labels altogether, as her genderfluid partner already has. She shared that she had to let her guard down while writing The Argonauts. She became vulnerable as she exposed her hardships and deepest emotions. The book focuses on sexuality, violence, identity and gender. She analyzed and questioned her past in creating the text. Nelson’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, played an influential role in inspiring her words. As Wilson interrogated Nelson with questions, audience members gained insight into Nelson’s life. I learned that her partner underwent a double mastectomy as Nelson was pregnant. She learned so much from living with her partner as he changed alongside her.

Wilson then asked Nelson what her writing process looked like. This intrigued me as I enjoy discovering how successful authors manage their time, meet their deadlines, and the conditions under which they write. Nelson shared that she used different structures and schedules for each of her books. She takes more pleasure out of putting together what she has already written, than writing it. She enjoys condensing her books, laying out each chapter visually, and using index cards to organize and mix up various chapters until they work together. Nelson stressed that she dislikes when people refer to her work as collages. This dislike stems from her logic that juxtaposition is a powerful tool. By putting the pieces of her stories together, she is doing so with much thought and deliberation. To her, the word collage seems to suggest a carelessly combined collection of work.

Another point Nelson made that stuck out to me, was how she has been “dismantling the word genius for twenty-five years,” but she “also wants to accept the word” because people refer to her as a genius and she is beginning to believe them. She wants to dismantle the word for men and build it up for women, as it is uncommon, in the world’s current unequal state of affairs, for women to be called geniuses.

Nina Berggren, class of 2021

Reflection on Marina Abramović by Julieta Roll

Marina Abramović is a Serbian performance artist born in Yugoslavia. In her nearly five decade career she has preformed radical and questionable feats pushing and defying the limit for
what art can be and what performance art can be. I went to see her talk with City Arts and Lectures, a privilege I had been given through the Creative Writing Department. It was at the Nourse Theatre with interviewer and mediator Maria Popova. I was completely blown away by this women. I was seated in in the balcony, straining to see the large yellow-lighted stage where the two women sat facing the audience in large upholstered chairs. They seemed so far away but when Marina Abramović spoke her voice echoed powerfully and filled the theatre space making her seem close, nearly touchable.

Some of Abramović’s most significant work includes “The Artist is Present” and “Rhythm 5” among others. “The Artist is Present” (2010) was shown in the New York’s MoMa where Abramović sat unmoving in a chair, a table and another chair opposite her. Visitors were welcomed to sit across from Abramović where she would simply maintain stable eye contact with the guest until they left. The piece lasted 750 hours, stretching over several months and thousands of people waited in line to sit across from the famous performance artist.

In “Rhythm 5” (1974) Abramović constructed a wooden star in which she soaked in petroleum, sprawled in the center of, and set on fire. The piece was brought out of Abramović’s thoughts on the strict Communist government that Yugoslavia lived under. In the interview she talked about how the Communist star was everywhere growing up: on buildings, in her house, on her birth certificate, and how she wanted to get rid of it, how she wanted to “burn it” so it was no longer apart of her. She also discussed while performing “Rhythm 5” she fell unconscious due to

the lack of oxygen in the burning star and how this frustrated her. She felt she had lost control and was angry at the fact that the body had limitations. I thought Abramović’s work raised the question “What is art?” and “Why is this art?” as her pieces were so unfocused from the traditional lense of the fine arts and even modern arts.

“I learned very early if you want to be an artist, not to compromise….I make my work without any compromise” said Abramović as she discussed the struggles she faced trying to become successful through her performance art. “The plumber had more money than the performance artists” she remarked. This inspired me greatly, to see a women who had come from so little and had made her way to place where she could talk freely about her ideas and create what she wanted. She spoke with such wisdom and gracefulness her words kept the audience at an attentive silence. I was extremely engaged the entirety of the talk, Abramović charismatic personality wrapping me and afterwards leaving me with more questions than I began with. Although this wasn’t a usual reading I did not exit any less inspired.

Julieta Roll, class of 2019