Maggie Nelson and Simone White on Sexual Taboos

Simone White
Maggie Nelson
Photos of Maggie Nelson and Simone White
Graphic by Laura Padilla Castellanos; photo of Maggie Nelson by Harry Dodge; photo of Simone White by Dana Scruggs.

Simone white and maggie nelson write trenchant, inventive books about how contemporary culture shapes subjective experience. Their writing inquires and speculates, cusses and lyricizes, puzzles and quips. Though divergent in style, both writers also use the tools of memoir, poetry, and critical theory to animate a process of thinking through a problem on the page, flouting accepted genres and letting their knotty subjects— including sex, family making, and radical art—dictate the patterns of their language and argumentation.

Both authors’ works are also distinguished by practices of citation and fragmentation, as well as by a deep-rooted suspicion of dogma of all kinds. In each of her four innovative poetry collections, White probes and extends the aesthetic and political traditions of Black radical thought, refusing to cater either to a white imagination or to an often sanctimonious public. Her forthcoming book-length poem, or, on being the other woman (2022), explores Black female otherness through the lenses of trap music, motherhood, and love.

Nelson’s tenth and most recent book, On Freedom (2021), comprises four ranging, rhapsodic chapters, called “songs,” on art, sex, drugs, and the climate crisis, respectively. On Freedom asks what it might mean for people in a society rife with both moral panics and existential threats to grapple with and experience freedom, calling up a variety of texts, pop culture references, and personal anecdotes along the way. Like White’s new book, Nelson’s poses pragmatic questions about how we identify and perform our desires as sexual subjects on a rapidly changing planet.

The two writers spoke on Zoom in late June—White from Brooklyn, Nelson from Los Angeles—just before a historic heat wave swept across both coasts. They discussed each other’s published works, as well as White’s current project, an essay-in-progress which Nelson read before they spoke. Their conversation has been condensed, and deals with sexual transgression, boundary setting, and radical self-determination.
—the editors

simone white Your new book, On Freedom, gathers a constellation of texts that allows you to stage difficult conversations about controversial practices and transgressive behavior, from sex to drugs to art. You draw from conversations and texts—Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls (1994) and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s “Difference Without Separability” (2016) come immediately to mind—to address a public that might not be aware of all these texts, or might not have put them in conversation with each other. Sometimes, a vocabulary will emerge from a reading of a specific text, such as Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons (2013), that then infuses the entire book. I’m thinking of the phrase “riding the blinds” (an expression that crops up periodically in Moten’s work and that serves as the title of the final section of On Freedom) as a kind of key to the method of your new book.

In the chapter on sex, called “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” it seems to me that instead of discovering anything about sex acts or your own sex, what we actually discover is a new way of talking about sexuality. I have been puzzled for a very long time, for example, about how we are supposed to relate to people we love and care about who get into sexual trouble, especially public sexual trouble. There’s an impulse to exile those people from our social lives. But in your book you examine the possibility of turning that impulse back on ourselves—to instead ask, Have I not been the one to say in certain moments, “Thank God nobody’s eyes are on me?” And, What do we do with the person we care about who has sexually transgressed? How do we address that person, or have a restorative conversation with them? And, What do we say about the difference between conflict and abuse?

maggie nelson I really do think we’re starved of gestalts for thinking about what sex means in our lives. Sometimes just hearing simple phrases that challenge certain doxa about sex—such as, to paraphrase Jennifer Doyle, “promiscuity can be a scene of potential learning,” or, to paraphrase Katherine Angel, “sex can be a means of moving toward difficulty and pain”—can make us much more self-forgiving and self-curious. In some ways, that was the point of that chapter. What I want to do most of all is just model the risks and the value of being a sexual subject.

You and I have often gravitated toward the same people, whether da Silva or Gilles Deleuze, and sometimes even toward the same quotes, even though our projects are quite different. As you say, I like to put disparate people in the center of a conversation and just act like they’re supposed to be there, instead of doing any special pleading for them. I like to bring non-mainstream people into mainstream conversations, be they about art or sex or drugs or climate—you know, people who are not pitching articles to The Atlantic, people who are going to bring a certain freshness and weirdness and beveled-ness and more dissonant sounds to the conversation.

I also read and taught your book Dear Angel of Death while I was working on this project. Your work deals in a really unusual way with not just sexual freedom in a definitional sense—“I will now tell you what sexual freedom is and then you will watch me inhabit it”—but more in an affective sense, by providing a seismograph of what it feels like to be a thinking and feeling sexual subject occupying space and experiencing ambivalence, conflict, pleasure, desire, anger. I say this as somebody who’s looked hard—especially while writing this chapter—for first-person accounts of women talking about desire and pleasure and ambivalence and turbulence, and found that they are actually hard to come by. Yet you explore the question of sexual subjecthood so richly, both in Dear Angel of Death and in your new work.

After all, very few intimacies bring us only light and joy—in fact, most tend to activate our biggest unresolved traumas. We are humans with unhealed wounds, and we often seek others who have unhealed wounds that reflect or animate our own.

sw Yes, this is a chief concern in the work I’m currently writing: a long essay that, like my new poem, is trying to take up some of the problems around being the “other woman.” The work addresses questions of sexual freedom and unfreedom—questions that are so difficult to answer because they seem to require us to condemn certain kinds of behaviors, even in ourselves, and to effect a kind of split between experiences of desire and community on the one hand and concepts of desire and community on the other.

I am still trying to understand the nature of this requirement, drawing primarily from experiences and events that led to my interest in this subject (and defy my own language-ing abilities). One of my dearest friends—someone I’ve always thought of as an enlightened figure—called one day to talk to me about my relationship. She said, “You don’t understand. What you’re doing is hurting everyone around you.” And I was like, “Oh, this is an intervention.” It was like I was outside my body. I realized, “This is the moment where I’m supposed to renounce my antisocial behavior so that we can all be healed and be together again.” But it was one of the saddest things that has ever happened to me. I realized that my behavior had gotten itself somehow outside of the circle of communion that I thought I belonged to, as if I had done something sexually that transgressed the bounds of that circle. And it wasn’t the fucking. It wasn’t a kind of sexual licentiousness. It wasn’t whatever words you’d use to address somebody who’s having sex with somebody else’s husband. It was something worse than that.

mn What was it?

sw I don’t want to speak for other people, but for me it felt like an insistence that other people’s desire come first—that the thing animating my search in life should be calibrated to what other people want. Yet something that continually comes up in my writing about being the “other woman” is the clarity of knowing that I was not going to do what anybody said. My actions in this arena would be completely self-determined, and I was not any longer bound by or responsive to certain kinds of sexual discipline. I might not intentionally have stepped outside discipline, but that was where love was, and where I was finding myself. The question became whether I was willing to accept the associated consequences and losses.

I heard Fred Moten give a lecture at Hampshire College in 2017 about David Walker. Moten was describing Walker’s moralistic approach to someone he saw as insufficiently enlightened or radical, and Moten was basically asking the question, “What would it be like not to condemn that person as insufficiently radical?” That’s how I remember it, anyway. It stuck with me, this question of how we love one another despite our divergences. People talk about the tradition of uplift in Black culture, but in historical terms that’s often not what it is. It’s actually—and this is what I’m trying to get at, and what you’re trying to get at, too—that our politics requires a sense of condemnation. It requires, in particular for those of us on the left, that we are grossly opposed to racial capitalism. But then how do we talk about the desire for shiny things, which is actually a core human desire? How do we talk about desire that does not map onto our liberatory schemes? I’m concerned about our inability to think about actual present entanglements, entanglements that public criticism, it seems to me, cannot fully address, precisely because it is hard, especially for Black people, to raise public questions about how liberation is constituted.

mn I relate to that critical impulse. As you’re talking, the scenario that comes most to my mind for some reason has to do with intergenerational relationships, which I’ve seen people invoke in public discourse in a shorthand that presumes that an older person always wields power over a younger one, and that something about the relationship is inherently wrong. I don’t think that’s true, nor does it apply to many couples I know. Nor do I think that a lot of the people invoking this discourse even believe the implications of what they’re saying, especially as it can fail to address, as you say, their own entanglements, or those of people in their lives, in an honest or curious or generous way. I don’t like dogma that prevents us from being able to take new account—socially, sexually, politically— of what’s going on, and instead leads us to simply say, “I know what’s going on; it’s this thing; and I judge it as X.”

Moralism is a hell of a drug. When it comes to sex, the things that you don’t like or wouldn’t want to do sexually don’t just seem uninteresting to you—they tend to seem repugnant or morally reprehensible. They produce a different kind of response from someone wanting to eat mustard when you don’t like to eat mustard. There’s something deeper, like, “Ugh, I would never be into that,” the implication being that it’s disgusting or wrong. These are unintentional forms of cruelty and alienation that we can animate right when we want to call people to communion.

Part of why it’s so difficult to talk about these subjects is that we’re so haunted by the idea of people—women, namely—“asking for it.” There’s this pervasive idea of people getting punished for the bad behavior of others because they dared to be sexual selves, as if they went into these experiences seeking appalling behavior (or being unforgivably naive if they didn’t see it coming) and then had only themselves to blame when they encountered it. We’re so pummeled by that narrative that I think it can become really difficult, for women especially, to understand and to be curious about why they (or we) sometimes seek relationships that bring pain, or that bring pain along with “pleasure” or whatever you want to call it. I’m not necessarily talking about partners who are abusive; I’m talking about partnerships that we pursue in order to experience things beyond or beside light and joy. After all, very few intimacies bring us only light and joy—in fact, most tend to activate our biggest unresolved traumas. We are humans with unhealed wounds, and we often seek others who have unhealed wounds that reflect or animate our own. There is a kind of self-knowledge about what’s broken in you that you find, maybe, by seeking out other broken things. I did a lot of that, and it has not always been fun. Sometimes you learn that you have healing to do, and sometimes that healing can pitch you toward different, perhaps better, entanglements. But the difficulties never evaporate entirely. Likewise, if you’re confronting, say, the subject of addiction, then it helps to be able to engage in an honest, fearless reckoning with yourself, in which you become curious about and take responsibility for your choices.

But again, we’re so haunted and punished by these shaming, moralistic narratives of culpability, there’s almost nowhere— beyond music and poetry—to discuss our complex and ambivalent and turbulent desires around things like sex and drugs. That seems like a real shame.

sw It is a real shame. As you point out in your work, no person who has thought herself a free woman has ever not been punished for promiscuity, although promiscuity is not the only example of what sexual freedom might be. Trying to understand your own mind, and struggling with the problem that your own desires might lead you into a dark place rather than a place of “liberation”—and that the dark place isn’t necessarily one to be condemned, but a place where your actual desire meets itself, is given substance—that’s fascinating and incredibly difficult to talk about.

Maybe I value my complicated relationship and desire to get high because they are not leading to an even plane of experience where everything is deemed settled for me in the world. That kind of settlement is not in the nature of my own closely held fantasy of freedom and independence—which has to do, of course, with not being reliant on any kind of domestic heterosexual relationship— which I suffer greatly from. Happiness doesn’t seem like the point to me. The point is not to achieve some kind of “normal” thing that would lead to something called happiness.

mn That reminds me of the long passage on trap music in your in-progress essay wherein you write, “[Trap] music has been for several years an informative area of ecstatic activity; it resonates with my own rageful, productive and unrelenting unhappiness.”

In the George Oppen poem “Leviathan” that I use as the epigraph to my new book, the last lines read: “Fear / is fear. But we abandon one another.” I’m kind of obsessed with how he doesn’t say, “And that’s terrible.” Or, “And we won’t anymore.” He just states it as fact. But because the poem, like a lot of poetry, calls you into the space of communion, it also offers a way to be here together and just say, “Hey, we abandon one another.” This relates to da Silva’s estrangement/entanglement dichotomy that you and I are both so interested in. I hear Oppen saying that one of the ways in which we are entangled is that we abandon—that that’s one of the things we do with our entanglement. And yes, it can put you on the outside of a relation, but you’re still in a relation.

Half my life is spent, as I’m sure everyone’s is, making boundaries and deciding what’s okay for me and putting people who treat me unacceptably outside those boundaries. So the question of how not to abandon one another while also making and upholding boundaries that protect us—it’s not something you solve. It’s something you do.

sw I think about this all the time. I want for us, particularly as Black people, to be able to do a better job of holding people within our ranks who might not act right—to hold open the possibility of communicating with those people. Some of the only places that I see that dilemma acknowledged is in poetry by other Black women. In Sonia Sanchez’s work, in Nikki Giovanni’s work, in Audre Lorde’s work. They articulate something like, “It is impossible for me to abandon you. I can’t do it. And yet, we have work to do here.” Trap music also speaks to this in a way that many people can’t tolerate because it’s an airing of dirty laundry, to some degree, about the incredible level of conflict and fear that is endemic to Black love of all kinds.

What can the true social life be for Black people who are unwilling to toe the line of respectability? That’s what Saidiya Hartman takes up in Wayward Lives (2019), accounting for the inventions of Black women whose pain and fulfillment could not be addressed by the order of the world. But I think the idea of waywardness is a way of understanding and relating to politics—it is not exactly a politics itself, and it doesn’t grant people any peace. There is no work more important to me than Hartman’s. But I’m freaked out by the idea that Black people who do nothing but think about what Black freedom might look like, including me, return to imagining internal retreat and jumping off the earth. The phrase “loophole of retreat,” which comes from the title of a chapter of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), scares me to death. The animating philosophical problem for me is how to stay on the planet we’re on and not seek this moment of so-called flight where you think, “I can get out of this.”

How do we talk about desire that does not map onto our liberatory schemes?

mn It’s the oldest storyline in the book, from bondage to freedom, as you’ve written so much about. In an interview in The Los Angeles Review of Books, you say you’re curious about “how Black writers operate as artists in a context that makes it very, very difficult for anybody, especially Black people, to shake free of certain ideological or linguistic fetters.” Which reminds me of that Oscar Zeta Acosta quote that Moten reanimates in Stolen Life, about “all the fighters who have been forced to carry on, chained to a war for Freedom just like a slave is chained to his master.” You’ve written so eloquently about this problem, as when you write in your essay, “Even as Black metaphysics causes us to think freedom is chimeric, we cling to the dream of liberation. It is too much to ask, to give it up.”

To me your work is about constantly facing this dilemma, about trying to be in and with the impossible murk of “this freedom dream is chimeric” on the one hand and “it is too much to ask, to give it up,” on the other. Instead of treating this as a deadly impasse, you meet it with a questing spirit. As you say in Dear Angel of Death, in one of my all-time favorite lines of yours, “I just want to know what else might be available.”

sw The impossible murk of being in a situation where the choices you made in order to live are not supported by any-fucking-body. What does care look like for that person?

This brings me to a question about the word care itself, a word I’m sort of baffled by, because I’m never quite sure what we mean when we say it. Can you say something about how you understand the word care, since it plays an important role in your new work?

mn The Wittgensteinian principle that a word’s meaning is its use applies here. I see the word care everywhere these days, and it’s always valenced positively, like it’s the answer, like to be against care or to question the word’s use would be crazy and inhumane. Yet its very ubiquity has made me feel curious and maybe a little disobedient about it, as I am with anything that is presented as a new piety.

I don’t have a singular definition of care. The first chapter of my new book, called “Art Song,” was meant to offer a light genealogy of the phrase, to chart how and where the concepts of “care” and “the reparative” have cropped up over the past fifty years in relation to art and aesthetics. As with a lot of things in the art world, both quickly became buzzwords and then suddenly appeared everywhere—in museum wall text, panel invitations, artist statements, reviews in 4Columns and Triple Canopy and Artforum, etc. I don’t see myself as an arbiter of what the trend should be; I see myself as somebody who tries to take a step away to say, “Before we all drink this Kool-Aid, let’s examine what’s going on here.” I’m not against care; probably nearly everything I would vote for or agitate for in the streets could fall under a “politics of care.” But as we’ve seen during the pandemic, there’s this popular idea that the left cares about other people and the right only cares about themselves; that there’s good care over here and bad freedom over there; that we value care because we’re good, and the people who resist its call are monsters. And I feel that the more we repeat that dichotomy, the worse things get, and the more baffled we remain as to why. So I wanted to disrupt some of this “good dog/bad dog rhetoric of puppy obedience school” (as Eve Sedgwick put it), and inquire, as you do, what else might be available.

Also, a lot of the language we’re using these days borrows from restorative justice without actually reflecting its basic principles. I think that’s a problem. One of the reasons that the prison abolition movement is so inspiring to me is that it doesn’t do this. It’s one of the few places where these principles really are put into practice, in a way that’s missing in many other places. It’s missing because it’s hard—much harder than condemnation and shunning.

What do you think about the word care?

sw It’s so hard for me, Maggie, to imagine that the care that I take among my friends and family will ever be replicated in the public sphere, because we live in a world that is so shot through with misogyny and racism. Therefore the word is very difficult for me to accept when we talk about public standards, and seems misplaced to a certain degree. I think I’m agreeing with you.

But if we think about art as a kind of “reparative” practice that might intervene in a deeply hostile and violent public, maybe one thing we’re working through implicitly is how to form communities of mutual regard and share in practices that do not reinstitute vulnerabilities that we claim to reject, as well as those we embed in the groundwork of our “freedom dreams.” If we believe that the state is not going serve us, let’s think about what it would be like to begin by trying to make connections at these incredibly small levels. Your writing about teaching helps me think about how to make these connections. You describe routinely having to negotiate questions with students and faculty of whether people’s ideas cause harm. You talk about discussing these ideas as a pedagogue, but then once you walk out of the classroom, and your pedagogue hat comes off, who are you to adjudicate these questions of harm? Do you think about how to bring this kind of openness—the openness one must bring to one’s work as a teacher—to other roles?

Moralism is a hell of a drug.

mn I really value the experience of being a pedagogue. Everyone is bringing into the room a different thing. As a student, you may want to watch your teacher shame people who you think say dumb things; this desire can be quite intense. (I know it was for me!) But the reason that it remains such a fantasy is that it never happens, and for a reason. And that reason is that it’s not what the teacher should be doing. I take really seriously this feeling that no one in my classroom is disposable. Not that you don’t sometimes cut your losses, but the general idea is that we’ve got to all stay on the ship, and we’ve got to figure out how this ship can float such that no one’s not feeling okay about being part of this community. It’s hard work.

sw It is hard work. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how to balance my real communication style and who I feel myself to be outside the seminar with the space and encouragement I want to give as a teacher. I don’t want to perform absolute acceptance or give the impression that the work we are doing in the classroom requires me to evacuate myself. I guess part of what I’m thinking about is the difference between pedagogical nurturing and mothering. But my motherhood involves similar principles of truthfulness! I totally yell when warranted and cry in front of my kid and stuff.

We haven’t really talked about the deeply humbling experience of motherhood. After my son was born, I realized I no longer had total control over the things that were keeping me in a state of equilibrium. I couldn’t sleep anymore. I couldn’t—I lost the ability. Sometimes I couldn’t eat. I just kind of lost my ability to regulate my own person. My relationship with drinking got really tense, too. As an extremely anxious person who is also a lover of partying, I’ve become so wary about drinking—fearful—in a way I was not before. This is partly because of my family history of alcoholism, but I think I am objectively spread thinner, physically and psychically, than I could ever have previously imagined. I feel more resourceful and stronger in some ways but also more fragile; that sense of fragility has softened my approach to relating to everybody, I think. I wonder if your experience of motherhood has also changed your mode of address as a writer—if there’s a sense that you’ve been humbled by this experience to the point where you can no longer speak from the soapbox.

mn You can know theoretically that shame doesn’t change people for the better. But when you’re parenting and you see what the ongoing shaming of a child does to them, you may begin to see that you are developing a psychic structure in your child (and in you) that is not what you want. So you may begin to seek out other ways. (I am not saying it is easy to stop employing shame—in fact, I probably think about this so much precisely because it comes so naturally to me, as it’s what was taught to me, as it was taught to my mother by her mother, and so on.)

Maybe this goes back to the story about your friend trying to perform a kind of intervention with you about your relationship. There’s this idea that if we could just understand how much our compulsions and addictions hurt others, we would just snap to it. But my experience in twelve-step and elsewhere has taught me that that is how everybody outside addiction wants it to work, and how everybody inside knows it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that other people’s pain doesn’t matter, or that it shouldn’t be voiced—not at all. It matters a lot. It’s just that it doesn’t work as a magic bullet, because (at the risk of sounding platitudinous) people have to make changes for themselves; if they are changing for others, the changes won’t stick. I also think here of Al-Anon, in that people often come to Al-Anon in pain from an alcoholic in their life, and one of the first questions they often have is a kind of should-I-stay-or-should-I-go question. And they’re immediately told, “The program will never tell you what you should do. The program will tell you to focus on yourself. And our credo is that if you do enough program and focus on yourself enough, you will be able to answer your own questions in your own due time.” That’s always rearranging for people who want to go and feel like they’re finally going to get told what to do. But it’s a program that empowers people. It works in a way that other things don’t work, because when people make decisions in this way, they trust that they made that decision—that they gave themselves the time to know themselves and didn’t do it to please somebody else or because somebody thought what they were doing was wrong. Shaming people in hit-and-run encounters—say, on Twitter or whatever—will not make the value of this approach clear to you. But if you have some humbling form of practice in your life, of parenting or recovery or whatever, that requires you to pay attention to certain habits of mind, and to take account of the effects they produce in and around you over time, I do think it changes who you are. And if you don’t like what you see, you might get inspired to ask what else is available— even, maybe, as a critic or a poet.

Simone White is a poet and critic. She is the author of or, on being the other woman, Dear Angel of Death, Of Being Dispersed, and House Envy of All the World. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in New York.
Maggie Nelson is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry and prose, including On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. In 2016 she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021


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