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WR 507: Tin House Seminar: Maggie Nelson
Portland State University
Spring 2013
Thu 2-5:30pm

Leni Zumas
Office: NH 451-T
Office hrs: By appointment

Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication.  What I am looking for … is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance.  Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me.
—Roland Barthes, The Neutral

This book does not shrink from expressing strong opinions, from “taking sides,” when it feels the need to do so.  But at the end of the day, its greater aspiration is Barthes’s: to live according to nuance.  By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like.  It can only be an experiment.
—Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty

Maggie Nelson’s virtuosic body of work is splendidly difficult to categorize.  It includes a study of cruelty in art and culture, a memoir about her aunt’s murder, a critical monograph on the New York School poets, a lyric meditation on the color blue, and several books of poetry.  In this seminar we’ll read as much of her writing as a 10-week term allows, as well as interviews, reviews, and affiliated texts.  Nelson’s oeuvre raises rich questions about genre, cross-pollination, intertextuality, experiment, research, and literary hybridity, and these questions will animate our work together.  Writing assignments will be based on the gambits, pursuits, formations, and deformations we find in her texts.

Nelson will visit Portland on May 31 for a public reading and Q&A, co-hosted by our seminar and Tin House.

Course Requirements
4 writing exercises (1-3 pages each)
Final project (10-12 pages, creative or critical)
Facilitate discussion on one book (includes contribution to seminar website)
Devise a question each week, to build an array for the staged Q&A
Help orchestrate May 31 event

Texts (available at PSU Bookstore and elsewhere)
Jane: A Murder
Something Bright, Then Holes
The Art of Cruelty
The Latest Winter
The Red Parts: A Memoir
Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions

Most of the supplementary materials—reviews, interviews, essays, audio clips, etc.—can be accessed on the seminar website.  This site is a work in progress that you, the course members, will help to create.  Each week’s facilitators will add content to the site, such as links, images, PDFs, and/or posts related to that week’s text(s).  By June, we will have a robust digital index of Nelson’s work and various responses to it.  For the duration of the class, the Tin House blog will feature a weekly post connecting its readers to our site; these readers—and whoever else stumbles upon it—may build the site further with their comments.


April 4   Maggie Nelson, “A Sort of Leaning Against,” from The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House, 2012

Bring in a sentence or two from possible “ghost book” text from The Public Domain Review


April 11   Bluets

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Preface and pp. 2-21

William Gass, selection from On Being Blue

“The Fragment as a Unit of Prose Composition,” interview with Maggie Nelson and Evan Lavender-Smith in Continent magazine


April 18   Bluets cont’d

“Proust questionnaire” (with Eileen Myles)

Questionnaire at

Thomas Larson, “Now, Where Was I?: On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets” in TriQuarterly

Ray McDaniel, review of Bluets in The Constant Critic

Rob Schlegel, “Either dissolve a genre or invent one: a review of Bluets” in Jacket 2

Writing exercise #1:  Ghost book narrative

Visit from Heidi Broadhead, Managing Editor of Wave Books


April 25   Jane: A Murder

Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire” in Jacket 2

Christopher Dreher, “Crime beat: A poet reinvents the true-crime potboiler — and finds
herself featured on ’48 Hours’” in the Boston Globe


May 2   The Red Parts: A Memoir

Kimberly Young, “Interview with Maggie Nelson,” Chapparal Review

Wayne Koestenbaum and Maggie Nelson in The Poetry Project Newsletter

Eve Conant, “A Death in the Family,” The New York Times Book Review

Writing exercise #2:  Documentary piece


May 9   Something Bright, Then Holes


May 16   The Latest Winter + Shiner

Jordan Davis, review of The Latest Winter in The Constant Critic

David Gunton, review of Shiner in Jacket #19

Writing exercise #3:  Poem(s)


May 23   Selections from The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning:  “Styles of Imprisonment” (3-14), “Everything Is Nice” (66-90), “Inflicted” (205-226), “Rarer and Better Things” (262-269)

Laura Kipnis, “Pushing the Limits,” front cover review of The Art of Cruelty, Sunday New York Times Book Review

Parul Sehgal, “Beautiful Monsters,” Bookforum

Jenny Schuessler, “Maggie Nelson on the Limitations of Shock,” The New York Times

Maggie Nelson interviewed by Anthony McCann at The Poetry Society of America

[ Audio ] “Bookworm,” KCRW/National Public Radio, hosted by Michael Silverblatt, September 22, 2011


May 30   Selections from Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions: “Tales in andout of School: An Introduction” (xiii-xxvii), “Abstract Practices: The Art of Joan Mitchell, Barbara Guest, and Their Others” (3-48); “Afterword” (209-221)

Marjorie Welish, review of Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions in Bookforum

Andrew Epstein, “The Academy of the Future is Opening Its Doors: Women Poets and the New York School,” Jacket #35

Writing exercise #4:  TBA


May 31   Maggie Nelson gives a reading and Q&A at The Little Church in Portland, 6:30 p.m.


June 6   Not Sisters + The Scratch-Scratch Diaries


June 13   Final projects due in Leni’s department mailbox by 12 p.m.


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