On Thursday, Nov. 8, acclaimed writer and poet Maggie Nelson delivered the annual Gifford Lecture. Nelson was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2016 and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for poetry in 2011. The author of more than nine books, spanning autobiography, poetry and theory, Nelson explores a variety of themes such as art, queerness, feminism, sexual violence and nontraditional families.
What is most remarkable about Nelson’s writing is its fluidity between genres. Each of Nelson’s nine books stands as a testament to this breadth: Nelson has written “Bluets,” a philosophical and poetic narrative on the color blue; two books chronicling the murder and subsequent murder trial of her aunt, “Jane: A Murder” and “The Red Parts,” respectively; and an art theory book titled “The Art of Cruelty.”
Nelson’s 2015 book, “The Argonauts,” a New York Times Notable Book that earned her a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, details her experience with queer parentage and bodies in transition. First-year Victor Hom, who read “The Argonauts,” said he appreciated Nelson’s candor.
Hom reflected on Nelson’s topical range: “It was interesting because the way she writes, it doesn’t feel like she’s hiding anything—she’ll talk about sex and everything freely.”
“The Argonauts” is the book that launched Nelson into stardom. The memoir follows Nelson’s partner’s gender transition, which coincided with Nelson’s pregnancy. As First-year student David Petersen reflected, “[‘The Argonauts’ provides an] interesting flash perspective on different things.”
“It’s a very in-your-face book—the first paragraph talks about anal sex,” Petersen elaborated. “It’s very open and it is self-reflexive. At one point Harry, Nelson’s partner, critiques the original version of ‘The Argonauts,’ as Maggie Nelson interprets their trans experience.”
Hom also noted the unique writing style Nelson employes in “The Argonauts”: “I’ve never met an author before, and it definitely feels like her personality had a lot to do with her work, so it was interesting to hear her talk about her life.”
Through this nontraditional form, Nelson analyzes what it means to not conform—neither to societal standards nor the rules of writing.
In considering Nelson’s body of work, and specifically her writing in “The Argonauts,” Professor of English Amitava Kumar stated, “Endlessly self-reflexive, Nelson returns the reader again and again to the scene of writing, and in doing this, she achieves a hybrid form that makes nearly transparent how language and mind and bodies, not to mention bodies in transition, are linked.”
Kumar introduced Nelson before her lecture on Thursday, and quoted from his response, “A Model for the Future,” to The Chronicle Review’s inquiry into the most meaningful book of the last 20 years.
“‘The Argonauts’ is going to be a model for a lot of writing we will see in literary studies, feminist studies, queer studies, and allied fields,” Kumar read. “I have singled Nelson out, but if one thinks of other writers, like Claudia Rankine and Fred Moten, it becomes clear that we are talking here of a collective shift, something like a revolution.”
At the lecture, Nelson read an excerpt from “The Argonauts” and previewed her next work, which is about the art world. Nelson also discussed how her writing process has changed over the years: She spoke of writing on subways, envelopes and while drunk in her 20s in New York City; now, she said, she must write in silence.
Throughout her reading and in her answers to the questions that followed, Nelson carried with her a sense of perspective on life and art.
“Art is not the place to take cover,” Nelson asserted. “Art is like having a nail file and being in jail and trying to get out.”
As Kumar stated, Nelson’s writing holds in it the future. He elaborated, “I think academic writing, in the future, cannot continue to be [a] dull, solemn exercise in providing footnotes. Academic writing will have to be inventive, engage a wider public, and it can also be pleasurable, which is all that her writing teaches us.”
Kumar continued, “Any piece of writing, even when she’s telling the story of her aunt’s murder, is also an exercise in the art of form.”
The experimental and boundary-pushing blurring of genres is thus a phenomenon to which Nelson has contributed significantly.
“Well, any writer introduces students to art, to writing, but Maggie is special because she’s blurring the line always in my mind between criticism and creative writing,” Kumar said.
Kumar spoke of the two books Nelson wrote about her aunt, who, as a student at the University of Michigan, was abducted and killed in the late 1960s. Nelson’s “Jane: A Murder” is an investigation into the killing. While Nelson was writing “Jane,” new evidence reopened the investigation, prompting “The Red Parts,” a memoir reporting on the trial.
“There’s a general inventiveness in how one reports on this, in how I said, memoir, poetry and investigation into a homicide,” Kumar said. “That mixing is what I think is very exciting about her work.”
Held in Taylor Hall 102, this year’s Gifford Lecture drew a nearly full audience, with dozens also lining up after Nelson’s speech for a book signing. The Gifford Lecture is held annually as part of the William Gifford Fund for Visiting Writers. Former students and friends established the fund to honor Gifford’s career at Vassar, where he was a professor of English. The fund brings distinguished writers to campus in order to ensure that future generations of Vassar students experience Gifford’s commitment to the English Department and the craft of writing.
In this way, the wide scope of Nelson’s commitment to the many facets of her craft fit the goal of the Gifford Fund well. Her demonstrated reflections on the roles of art and her perspective on personal intimacy and formal experimentation provided a relevant model to interested students and attendees of a creative approach to writing, and even an intimation, as Kumar reflected, of where it is headed. To this end, Nelson offered her one piece of advice for aspiring writers, urging, “Stay very close to everything that makes you feel very curious.”