Written in water (PoemTalk #138)

Maggie Nelson, 'Bluets'

From left: Jennifer Firestone, Adrienne Raphel, and Julia Bloch.


Al Filreis gathered with Adrienne Raphel, Jennifer Firestone, and Julia Bloch to talk about Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. This book of 240 numbered prose-poem propositions was published by Wave Books in 2009. The group focuses on eleven sections, those numbered 222–232; these appear on pages 8993 in the Wave edition. Maggie Nelson’s PennSound page includes several recordings of readings in which she performs this work. The recording we play at the start of this episode is from a reading she gave at Boise State University in Idaho on April 26, 2013. 

Not surprisingly, the discussion of this work causes us to riff on the many senses of blue that engaged Nelson as she wrote one mostly non-sequitur poetic proposition after another. Sky, flower, pigment, celestiality, impression(ism), heartedness, atmospherics, sexuality, and (of course) depression. The book-length project of crafting poetic statements became Nelson’s “way of making my life feel ‘in progress,’” and the form and structure of numbered propositions — on the model, partly, of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus —help connect abstract personal development to philosophical rumination and modern variationist improvisation.

PoemTalk, now 138 months old, has all along been a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, PennSound, the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (all housed at the University of Pennsylvania), and the Poetry Foundation. We are grateful to Nathan and Elizabeth Leight for this ongoing support of PoemTalk and other digital outreach projects based at the Writers House. Our editor is Zach Carduner.