Maggie Nelson’s ‘Like Love’ Explores the Magic of Paying Attention

The author speaks about the importance of transgression in art and why her latest book is dedicated to the poet Eileen Myles

BY Esmé Hogeveen in Books , Interviews | 28 MAY 24

Maggie Nelson’s recent book of collected writings, Like Love: Essays and Conversations (Graywolf/Fern Press, 2024), is, in many ways, an ode to paying attention. Comprised of reflections on art and literature – including essays on Hilton Als, Sarah Lucas, Fred Moten and Carolee Schneemann – as well as dialogues with contemporary cultural icons, such as Björk, Wayne Koestenbaum and Eileen Myles – the collection is organized chronologically and spans almost 20 years of Nelson’s career as a writer and academic.

Nelson’s rich, intellectually dynamic approach is on full display in the curated texts, which also include exhibition essays. Less expected, but equally compelling, are the insights into Nelson’s personal history and creative practice – Like Love offers glimpses of sustaining intellectual and artistic friendships, including with Koestenbaum and Myles, to whom the book is dedicated.

There are also observations about the challenges of being a public intellectual, including schoolyard conversations with other parents about gender, and reflections on teaching, the pandemic and the form and function of criticism. Citation is key within Nelson’s body of work and Like Love provides space for some of her early ideas and influences, as well more recent musings on beloved artists and texts, to take up their own well-deserved space.

Esmé Hogeveen One of the major themes in the collection is fascination – the way that art or writing can hook you and expose you to ideas or perspectives that may take time to understand. I’m curious whether selecting pieces for this collection sparked any fascination about how your writing practice has evolved?

Maggie Nelson During the pandemic, Tala Madani and I had a conversation for BOMB, in which she said something that I really love. I’d been talking about how her paintings still made me feel like magic was possible and, I’m paraphrasing, but she said something like: ‘It’s not that artists go around in a magic frame of mind. It’s that life is so often not magic that, when magic does appear, you must pay attention.’ What’s exciting is that paying attention can spark more magic.

I believe a lot of writing about the art of criticism engages with this. I’m thinking, for example, about the protagonist in my friend Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station [2011]. A lot of the time things don’t move us even if we’re hoping to be moved. As lovers of art or literature, we sometimes act like we’re always being moved, but I think the feedback loop is much stranger. I think that agreeing to pay attention – for example, by writing an essay about an artist’s work – creates a shift, because you have to feel a spark to begin with. Writing about art involves re-engaging with the artwork, taking notes, following your interest, talking to the artist and looking for the connections. The whole process creates more enlivenment; I find it very life-affirming.

Like Love Maggie Nelson Fern Press book cover
Maggie Nelson, Like Love: Essays and Conversations, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Fern Press

EH I was intrigued by your conversation with your friend, the writer Eileen Myles, in which you discuss letting yourselves play dumb. Can you explain what this entails?

MN I don’t know if it’s playing dumb, exactly, or just letting ourselves be. My point is that you can have a PhD in art history and still wander into a gallery and think: ‘What’s that object doing on the floor?’ I’ve always loved Gertrude Stein’s line: ‘If you enjoy it, you understand it.’ That’s the kind of playing dumb I’m talking about – being open and saying: ‘I don’t get this, but I enjoy it,’ or, ‘I enjoy this and I don’t need to get it.’ In a broader sense, I think playing or being dumb is important for maintaining a Buddhist-like beginner’s mindset.

EH As your profile has expanded, I’m curious how your relationship to your readers has evolved.

MN I don’t think about readers very much because I’m trying to share local acts of paying attention. If those acts are worthwhile, then they’ll bear fruit for someone else; if they aren’t, then they won’t, and that’s fine, too. In my experience, a lot of the discourse has underestimated the reader. I dedicated Like Love to Eileen, who I’ve learned so much from. Eileen talks about how they brought their own audience into being. They didn’t write for a pre-existing audience but by identifying, at that time, as a feminist dyke within an avant-garde realm, they helped create a context. Years later, they were surprised and happy when a new generation of young queers received their work differently than their contemporaries did. I think readership, temporality, being true to your own acts of attention and letting that be contagious is more interesting than writing for a specific audience or thinking about the reader in the same moment that you’re writing.

Maggie Nelson portrait Sarah St Clair Renard
Portrait of Maggie Nelson. Courtesy: Fern Press; photograph: Sarah St Clair Renard

EH In ‘Porousness, Perversity, Pharmacopornographia: On Matthew Barney’s OTTO Trilogy’, you break down the meanings of subversion, transgression and perversion. Does your work draw on one of these tactics more than others, and is there one that you’d like to pursue strategically in future work?

MN That’s a great question. I would guess this is true for Matthew as well, but I don’t think an artist usually plans to be transgressive or perverted. Like many aspects of art and interpretation, that’s usually a post-game rather than a pre-game decision. Perversion involves a certain unconscious labour that I think is literally not plannable.

Subversion is about what somebody else says you’ve done and not what you set out to do. And transgression – which I hope is the theme of the collection – for transgression’s sake is not really the core of my interest, although there are people I’m very interested in who others might regard as transgressive. I get at this in an essay on Hervé Guibert, where I talk about people saying he set out to shock the bourgeoisie. A lot of people find something shocking when it’s a report from a milieu that’s not their own – all they see is an intention to shock because they are shocked. And, of course, there are some people who set out to transgress for transgression’s sake: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t put very much stock in artistic intention.

I’m interested in what comes out. That’s why I wrote about the argument between Schneemann and her friend, the poet Clayton Eshleman, over how they saw her work Up to and Including Her Limits [1973–76]. Carolee imagined the piece – in which she was naked, rope-bound and swung around the space drawing on paper affixed to the gallery walls – as an act of liberation whereas Eshleman could only see a woman in bondage. If you look at the piece, I think both things are true: neither of them is entirely right. That’s probably true of most art, and that’s what makes it interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. It was painful for Carolee: she was furious. But that’s why we have an unconscious and that’s why we make art, because we’re not in control. I think that’s true of every book of mine. You’re in control of everything you can control and then you turn it over to the universe.

Maggie Nelson’s Like Love: Essays and Conversations is published by Fern Press (UK) and Graywolf Press (US)

Main image: Maggie Nelson, Like Love: Essays and Conversations, 2024, book cover (detail). Courtesy: Fern Press 

Esmé Hogeveen is a writer based between Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. Her writing has appeared in Another Gaze: Feminist Film Journal, Artforum, Border Crossings, The Brooklyn Rail, Canadian Art and cléo.