Maggie Nelson in italics
1. This is a song in praise of Maggie Nelson. This is my letter to you.
2. You’ve come here to speak. I bought tickets as soon as I heard. I want to be in proximity with you. To hear what you might say. I want to hear anything you say. When I get to the hall, I realize I haven’t brought a notebook, but I do have a pencil, and a copy of your book, The Argonauts. So I take notes.
3. Your feelings about the writing make no difference to the writing itself, you begin, quoting a wise friend, and speaking generously of your own questions about your writing practice. This is a line I can’t forget or fully understand. It’s like a koan. Your feelings about the writing make no difference to the writing itself.
4. Imagine a world where this is the case. “If you can’t believe in your poems/leave them at home until you/learn to deserve them”—CA Conrad
5. I first read your work during a week in April at a friend’s cottage. I was feeling strange that spring, and vulnerable. The night we arrived my friend and I partied and danced in the kitchen. Then, we walked down to the dock as light was falling, and I slipped on a patch of wet wood and landed, implausibly, on my side, on my ribs.
6. At first I felt sure I’d injured my heart. It was hard to breathe. My friend held me. “Don’t move,” she said, and I looked up at the sky. It was white. Opaque. The wet dock beneath me. “It’s not your fault,” she comforted me. And I was relieved that nothing was broken.
7. The injury was a gift. I set up in front of the wood stove for a week.
8. The Argonauts was the book I’d brought with me. I read it quickly, feverishly, pinched between my thumbs, with my mouth open—like I was sharing the breath of it. I marked it and stained it to make it mine.
9. At the talk you tell us that it was Wittgenstein who showed you that a self-excoriating compulsion could be a style. How you learned from the equivocating apparatus of his text. The self-excoriating elocutions.
10. How you showed me how to do this.
11. It’s holding things in tension that matters. Not letting it collapse one way or another. That words—these words—are good enough to hold a place for what I need to say. But not good enough.
12. I can’t tell you how much your book means to me. Which is to say simply, thank you. Which is to say, I can’t pin down how it affected me, because as I read it, I felt a shift in that place where the meanings are. Which is to point, instead, and to say, “Look at the stars!”
13. Sitting in front of the fire that spring: holding my ribs, knowing that I am queer. I am queer. I am queer. That I can say this aloud.
14. That I can straddle identities and still have some kind of coherent shape. That I am sixty years old. That I’ve loved women and men and those gorgeous gender traitors who resist the binary. That I might be with a straight old man now. And still be queer.
15. This cottage is my ex-girlfriend’s cottage. We still love each other. But not like that anymore. I adore how she wears her gender.
16. I’ve always been a femme. Even when I dress like a boy. Even when I look down and find my hands crimped with wrinkles and variegated with sunspots.
17. “Listen to this line!” I say to my friend, Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.
18. “Yes!” She says. “Context is everything!”
19. I have long known about madmen and kings; I have long known about feeling real. I have long been lucky enough to feel real, no matter what diminishments or depressions have come my way.
20. Reading The Argonauts in front of that sometimes too hot fire, I feel real for the first time in a long time. Mother, sister, daughter, grandmother, a femme who’s glad her lover has a big dick, high-school teacher, a playwright whose last play set some critics off in a delirium of denigration.
21. That I might start again. That I might keep going.
22. Your project with The Argonauts: What meeting normativity feels like. Interest in structures and premises. Narrating the inside from the inside.
23. Anti-generalization. You are a deeply ethical thinker. A deeply ethical horny thinker. Yes. You can be a good enough mother and still write about the pleasures of arse-fucking.
24. Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched?
25. “Keep it perverse!” a friend salutes me one day. This is, for us, an ethical aim.
26. This is part of what I love so much about your writing, although in your talk you point out that it’s a mistake to ask that a work of art be ethical.
27. Art may not perform that duty.
28. But I trust you. The way I trust my dearest, most grounding, friends.
29. After that week away, I read all of your work. I feel both irrevocably changed and more solidly present as a result of my encounter with the way you stitch your words together.
30. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.
31. On this night, I want to stand up and tell you. But in this space—this art house forum—I just can’t heave my heart into my mouth.
32. Near the end you speak to why we make art. And talk about the idea that some people are compelled to art-making simply because they have particularly egregious demons.
33. I honour those demons, now, and even feel ecstatic in their needling presence.
34. You are not comfortable with the word, “honour.” You prefer “honesty” as an antidote to shame.
35. Art can have things in it that the world also has.
36. This is a song in praise of Maggie Nelson. This is my letter to you.
37. Sincerely, R. Cullis.
Rose Cullis writes plays, essays, stories, texts for dance, and sometimes poems. Most recently, a short film based on one of her short stories, The Year I Did Acid, premiered in the Open Art Short Film Festival in Dusseldorf, Germany. A number of her plays have been produced. Her last play, The Happy Woman, was produced by Nightwood Theatre and shortlisted for the Carol Bolt award. She’s had short stories, plays and monologues published in a variety of anthologies including Two Hands Clapping, Outspoken, You’re Making a Scene, Red Light: Saints, Sluts and Superheroes and Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws.