Look and Listen

Moyra Davey and Maggie Nelson in Conversation, Part Two

Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 41 minutes 15 seconds.

Two years ago, artist Moyra Davey and writer Maggie Nelson were asked to commence a wide-ranging conversation over email for a book project that never came to light. This summer, I invited them to revisit their conversation. What follows is the second of a two-part feature. To read their introductions and part one click here. —Lauren O’Neill-Butler

MAGGIE NELSON: First of all, if we want to talk about things that make us feel ashamed, I’m very ashamed that the above exchange took place in March 2015, and now it’s the end of October 2015. So sorry, and onward!

I haven’t read the Barthes quotation you mention but from what you say here, I am quite interested in it. Not so much in what lies outside language, but rather the idea that “something is fascinating, you want to talk about it, but you can’t, precisely because it’s fascinating.” This seems to me the basic seed to all writing projects—a seed that makes them, perhaps, more paradoxical than photography, because in photography you can follow fascinations without having to talk about them in words.

When you say, fascination as a defining principle of the medium, is it something he locates in the photographer, or in the medium itself?

Moyra Davey: It’s a fascination for actual photographs. The interview predates Camera Lucida by a few years, it was done in 1977. Perhaps Barthes evolved ‘fascination’ into the punctum as a solution to his problem of not being able to articulate the former.

MN: In any case, your desire not to talk about photography in the abstract seems a wise one to me.

I also want to tell you that I’m traveling right now and I brought with me on the plane the package of your books which you sent, including your essay and photograph collection Long Life Cool White, and I read them all happily and hungrily.

MD: Thank you!

MN: Re: the piece you included in the package, “Mothers,” I was happy to be turned on to Mary Gaitskill’s “Gattino.” And I really like the unusual gathering of artists you have here. It makes me want to look anew at Frances Stark, and find the Xavier Dolan film. Mostly though—and maybe here’s my own “make it more personal” request—I couldn’t help but wonder about the maternal transgressions you refer to, re: your parenting of B. You say “I blew it with B., my one and only.” As it seems so clear to me that you didn’t blow it, I can’t help but wonder what you think your transgressions were . . .

MD: I wish I could have been a more patient, calmer, happier person when B. was small. I see women with their tiny babies enveloped in a love cocoon, and I never had that because B. had colic and screamed for three months. It was hair-raising, and kind of set the tone for the next four years. I always think about Margaret Meade’s question, something to the effect of: “Does the sunny, happy baby produce the happy mother, or is it the other way around.” And of course you can substitute happy for ‘cranky’ and ask the question the same way, and that’s where I dwell on my flaws and wonder what I might have done differently. I love the way you write about caring for your kids in The Argonauts, it is so full of tenderness and pleasure. You marvel at the routine tasks, like folding tiny socks.

MN: Yeah, well, maybe my cranky / failed mom memoir is yet to come! (Or maybe I’ll leave it to my kids to dwell on my flaws in public . . . as someone who has repeatedly raked my mom over the coals in print, and as someone who also reads tons of student work of this nature, I now know that this is one of, if not the most common subsets of the autobiographical genre . . . i.e. Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do,” etc.)

I was also interested in your writing about reading, in your essay “Notes on Photography & Accident.” Especially in your description of reading as “a literal ingestion, a bulimic gobbling up of words as if they were fast food.” I feel embarrassed when people treat me like a big reader, as I actually feel ashamed of how little I actually read, or how poorly I read. I don’t know if this is a result of the Internet like everyone says or if it has more to do with this “bulimic gobbling up of words,” the selective gusto of reading as a writer, “looking for what you need.” When I was in PhD school I often imagined there could be a kind of IV drip of books, because I needed to read more than I had time to read—I didn’t know how to, say, ingest all of The Last of the Mohicans in a day, or a week, so I started fantasizing other ways to get it in my head, my body. I forgot, or never realized, how to savor. I just crammed it in.

MD: People think I read a lot too, but it’s getting to be less and less. Recently I had to give a talk and a seminar at Rutgers, so I re-read a bunch of my stuff in preparation, and I watched some of the videos. I’ve grown weary by how much I quote and how much I rely on reading to write. I love how you put it: “looking for what you need,” and the excitement that arises when you find the right thing. But I feel more and more self-conscious. In the thing I’m writing now for my next video, I’m trying to refer, for example, to Godard and Barthes, without using their names. That’s how desperate I am to change things up!

MN: I say all this in confusion, because I’ve also spent a lot of time reading poetry, which is supposed to be read “slowly,” so I presume somewhere I know how to read in a different fashion. But I worry. I wonder whether your reading style has changed over time, the physical phenomenology of it.

MD: It has changed. For one thing, I read too much on screens, and it kills my eyes. I’m a bit stuck at the moment with this new project—it’s for Norway, so I re-read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian letters, and that was pure pleasure for the way she writes about the natural world. She was in a terrible state of depression, and the landscape rescued her, at least for a time. But I am also writing about my son, and I find that SO difficult and uncomfortable, writing about missing him. I feel like I don’t have the right to write about the privileged ritual of a young adult leaving home for college, when some people have permanently lost their children. I could read Winnicott, but some part of me is in rebellion. My friend, Jennifer Montgomery said: look and listen instead. So I’ve been listening to Chantal Akerman, and I can’t get enough of her. I am utterly smitten. You can watch a ton of interviews, panels, artist talks, and she is warm, flirtatious—she has that raspy, smoker’s voice—she is also tough, fearless, honest. Talk about bulimia and rabbit holes, I will lose myself to her for hours. She is my greatest inspiration at the moment.

MN: I guess I’m partly interested in this because I’m fascinated by how your work seems very of the present, very in the present, while also performing a dedication to slowness, an attention to dust, to B sides, to physicality, to acts of physical lost-and-found ness, to archives, etc., which some people don’t associate with the so-called digital age, something hot, rushing, dematerialized, sleek (though the abjection of precarity and the reminder of the intense physical costs of the so-called virtual are, I think, gaining in attention as of late, as in, for example, some bad & weird weather). But I don’t feel nostalgia in your work, I feel presence. I also feel recognition: I know those rooms, those book backs, those dust bunnies, that fridge. (I really, really like your writing about the fridge!)

MD: You also write about the domestic and the mundane, and there is such a quality of lightness and a gentle, cajoling humor to the way you do it. It’s a poetic voice embedded in a prose writing style. We can feel you taking real pleasure in the rituals of food, drink, hanging out with little kids, being with Harry, and then pleasure again as you shape the experiences into writing.

MN: Speaking of those spaces, I had a dream last night, here in an oppressive conference center in Flagstaff, Arizona, that I was back in a perfect East Village apartment which I’d lived in my whole life: a diminutive studio, arched tin ceilings painted light turquoise, bathtub in kitchen covered by a board, Patti Smith had lived there once, there were scrawlings all over the ceiling, some of which were mine. It was all part-Nan Goldin, part-Larry Clark, part-Moyra Davey. And I realize now I invented this dreamspace after immersing myself in your books all day. And it feels so strange to me, to know this space as foundational, a kind of recurring foundation in my unconscious, but to live now in Los Angeles, with nothing resembling it whatsoever. As if one’s foundation were a dream. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful that my formative years were all lived without the internet.

MD: I was just reading something by Joan Didion, about the utter confusion of what is home: the West Coast, where she grew up, or New York where she ended up. Your dream apartment sounds pretty appealing. Early Goldin, Clark, and Patti Smith are still touchstones for me. Maybe part of the fatigue (and potential bulimia) of the internet comes from knowing that everything is available to us at the touch of a finger. It’s all there to read instantaneously, or it can be on your doorstep in two days.

MN: Speaking of Patti Smith, I’m on a plane to NYC right now, and I just finished her new book M Train, have you read it? I adored Just Kids, but I have to admit, about this next one, I’m kind of baffled by it—baffled by her profoundly non-twenty-first century psychology, her true capacity to drift in what seems to be a magic, or at least talismanic space, created in part by a deep romantic attachment to objects and writers. I mean, the whole book is kind of structured around her need to bring these stones from a prison that Genet hoped to be imprisoned at (but never was) to his grave. There are a lot of other pilgrimages in the pages as well. But she even makes taking the train to Rockaway or going to a 7-11 to get a large coffee and a donut sound infused with magic. I guess I thought of you because of your own connection to Genet, and to a kind of slowed-down, object-oriented, somewhat romantic relation to other writers, but also because of Patti Smith’s strong relationship to photography. The book contains her photographs, mostly taken of these talismanic objects or places; besides her obsession with coffee, the book seems to be working out an obsession with taking photos. I have to confess to you, the whole thing left me kind of cold, which made me wonder whether I was in some ways depressed, or deadened. I mean, I used to be very romantically attached to certain objects and figures; my book Bluets was an homage to that modality. It is a means of feeling very alive, a means of feeling as though the world is interesting enough to photograph. I don’t feel able to access that space right now. I’m not sure if it’s because of the digital age, my more or less completely American existence, my totally ungenerous suspicion of the politics of Smith’s infatuations, or what. At the very least it made me question how far I’ve come from certain magical states of mind, and wonder if I’m missing anything right now, and if so, what. Because I don’t really miss my more adolescent infatuations with writers or objects; in some ways I feel kind of Zen about the fleetingness of time these days, like I’m just watching my life (by which I might mean, my son’s childhood) go by, and along for that ride, without needing to pick up any stones or document it all in too mannered a fashion. Anyway, curious to know it you’ve looked at the book, what you think.

MD: I’ve not yet read M Train. I was tempted to pick it up recently, but I’m trying to stay on track with reading related to a new video I’ve been writing and now shooting. From a superficial take, M Train feels decidedly old school in its approach. I will definitely look closer as I know it relates to my conundrum with contemporary photography.

“Feeling as though the world is interesting enough to photograph” as you put it, is at the heart of things. Looking at contemporary work by artists who are one, two generations younger than me, I have the sense that many have given up on the ‘world’ and the practice of rendering it via an image. Why bother, it’s all been done to death. Many are opting to make images of images in another round of ‘pictures generation’ appropriation, minus the political critique (in many cases). I can totally relate to an ennui of images, given that we are inundated by them at every turn. It is a real dilemma because I am baffled/perplexed/bored by the highly abstract, photo-shopped appropriations, yet I know the alternative, the romantic, unfettered approach is just as untenable. Photography for its own sake is tough. When it gets linked to writing, performance, even other objects, is when it becomes more viable and interesting to me. Re the ‘magical state of mind’ in relation to reading and writing: in my opinion it grows out of pain, fear, anxiety. A few years back I wrote a text called “Index Cards.” I was in physical pain, weird stuff was happening to my body, I had just moved to Paris for a year with my son and was witnessing his trajectory through the rigid, unforgiving French school system and reliving bad memories of my own French elementary school. “Index Cards” rounds up Benjamin on Hashish, Jane Bowles’s letters, Kafka’s notebooks and diaries and I forget what else, but it was almost as though I was constructing a talismanic cocoon to stave off fear. When I read that text now it brings back the anxiety of the moment, but also the intense investment I had in these writers, and probably the “magical” belief that I’d be saved by them.

Moyra Davey, Fifty Minutes, 2006, video, color, sound, 50 minutes.

MN: That’s really interesting, to think of that magical state of mind as coming out of pain, whereas I was assuming that depression might bar one access to it. I think I’ve always understood turning to texts with the hope that they would save me; it’s objects and landscape I’ve had more trouble with (which makes sense, I guess, for a writer). That difference was something I was trying to work out in Bluets. I guess it’s why I still think of it as a book about beauty.

I was really interested to hear your thoughts on psychoanalysis, in the video transcript “Fifty Minutes,” where you’re looking in on your analysis from the outside, as it were—like, you tell us of your fidelity to the rule of having to speak unspeakable things, but for the most part you don’t tell us what those unspeakable things were. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of “free association” in this moment, which some think of as decidedly “post-psychoanalysis”—I just saw my friend Wayne Koestenbaum do an amazing piano performance the other day, which seemed a kind of retro, or very of the present, I don’t know, homage to free association. It seemed no accident that a lot of what he riffed on while playing had to do with the twentieth century, its history of horrors.

MD: There are so many unspeakable things that will probably remain so. Part of the reason I think so much about getting them out, is that the writers I admire are the ones who find a way to do it, to take something taboo or shameful and “make a thing out of it” as Tilda Swinton said apropos of Derek Jarman when he embraced his illness and mortality and made Blue. I have the impression you yourself can write about anything. I think it has to do with really knowing yourself, and not being rancorous. Again, Chantal Akerman comes to mind: she was warm and generous, but she would also speak her mind on a dime if the situation called for it. When you have generosity towards others self-love is possible, or is it vice-versa?

MN: You know, not to repeat myself, but I find myself not thinking very much about taboo or shame these days. If I do, I’m a little more prone to thinking about the relationship of white people to abjection—like, what forms of abjection does whiteness create and depend upon for power; how does a white obsession with abjection serve as a means for white folks to access the abjection that is forced upon other bodies, namely brown bodies, poor bodies. There are parts of this bridge-making that seem worthwhile and powerful to me, and parts that seem really loaded and ugly and damaging. I think all this is partly why I have a harder time getting TOO excited about the notion of Knausgaard writing about his shit in the New York Times as a big transgression (though I may like it for other reasons). The shit of the lauded white guy isn’t the same as other people’s shit. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, like I say, for other reasons (I grew up loving Bukowski’s beer shits, too). But it’s important to remember that these gestures circulate in a context. Maybe this brings me back to Patti Smith—whom I adore, of course—and her beloved Beats, and Artaud, and Paul Bowles, and Rimbaud, and Genet, to some extent—all these white guys who were looking for some kind of magic or freedom or gravity or eros or danger in non-Western cultures, thinking European or American culture having foreclosed certain possibilities. I was transfixed by many of these figures in my youth—a lot of it THROUGH figures like Smith, who led me to many of them—but having grown up, it just doesn’t play for me anymore in any simple fashion.

MD: I’m not a-political, but when I read, I don’t make political choices. I follow my nose, I read what interests me, what will feed me, I “read to write,” as per Barthes, mostly. So that can take me anywhere. I’m very seduced by happenstance and dérive as a way to not feel totally overwhelmed by choice, more so now than ever as my reading has, by necessity, slowed down. I of course take your point about the shame of white privilege. I feel it. If they were not already, our eyes are being opened daily to institutionalized racism. It’s a fast and furious outpouring, and the rage is palpable. In terms of literature everyone has their threshold—my sister in law, a very smart, principled, feminist abstract painter has been reading Céline her whole life, because it feeds her in some elemental way. But to me he’s repugnant and I’ll probably never read his books.

Below is a passage from one of the Knausgaard novels that sums up what I’m looking for when I read: “The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”

He could easily be referring to one of your books . . .

Those are some morning thoughts! I know we’ve got to get back to photography soon. But to break my long silence, here you go.

MN: “What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person.” This is complicated, as it posits the author as the gazer, rather than the viewer. I’ll think on this.



Hey Maggie, I finished M Train a couple of days ago, I too read it in the skies on my way to and from Montreal. I wasn’t expecting to like it, from some reviews I’d read, and from your perplexed account, I imagined it would be abstract and in the ‘babble’ mode of some of her earlier poetry. It definitely has a magical, through-the-looking-glass quality. The idea of the portal-transport to other worlds and spaces is a big fixture of the narrative, and the whole episode about the explorer-club, I totally didn’t get. I pretty much glided over those chapters. But what I did appreciate, and frankly found seductive, were the mundane details of her life, and the portrait she draws of simplicity and being unfettered by the usual baggage we all carry, her ability to pick up and leave with nothing but a few t-shirts and a notebook; her addiction to ritual; her addiction to coffee (not at all snobby, she’ll drink anything, even the most rot-gut), and finally, the way she writes about losing things, all the objects that seem to slip through her grip. She does a very Hervé Guibert thing in that she compensates for the loss by recreating the object through writing, a process I find profoundly comforting.

Even though I’m sure she’s giving us a very edited version of what must be a complicated life, I—being someone who can’t leave the house without a minimum 24-hours rounding up of pills and potions and soul-searching over which camera to bring—was awed by the sense of freedom she conveys in relation to her movements and displacements over continents.

I had to remind myself several times that I was reading the same Patti Smith who did Horses, an album I’ve listened to countless times over many years and connects me to an utterly formative moment in my life. To this day that music gives me chills, and maybe because of it I’m willing to give Patti Smith a pass on many things I might otherwise have less patience for. As for her use of photographs in the book, they have a vaguely Sebaldian quality. None of them feel particularly iconic, but are there in the service of the narrative. They are unpretentious, like the 7-11 coffee.

Ever since I read these words of yours a few weeks ago: “I’m just watching my life (by which I might mean, my son’s childhood) go by, and along for that ride, without needing to pick up any stones or document it all in too mannered a fashion,” I’ve not been able to get them out of my head. You conjure such an image of pure ‘being,’ a state, an idea that continues to fascinate and elude me (‘Being’ and ‘non-being’ as per Woolf, from her essay “A Sketch Of The Past”). I’ve been writing about this idea again for the new video, this time in relation to Chantal Akerman…

Those are my thoughts for now, Maggie, all over the map, I know, and most unfinished.

To be continued…as usual.