In a rare reading for the established poet and essayist, Maggie Nelson chose to share an unfinished piece of writing with the audience gathered in Frick Fine Arts Auditorium Thursday night.
The nameless piece revolved broadly around freedom and touched on politics, identity and race — but largely discluded all of Nelson’s familiar poetic and autobiographical touches, focusing more on incorporating quotes from other writers, philosophers and critics.
“I really don’t want to bore you,” Nelson said in between reading “The Argonauts” and the new work, which drew laughs from the audience.
The assembled students, faculty and members of the Pittsburgh community filled the house, seeming anything but bored as they listened to the award-winning poet and nonfiction author read as part of this year’s Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series.
The series brings notable writers to Pitt’s main campus every year. George Saunders, Gay Talese, Richard Ford and John Edgar Wideman have all passed through the program to give readings.
This year’s lineup includes poet Ada Limón, novelist Amy Bloom, journalist and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and author Edwidge Danticat.
In an assured, breathy tone, she began the reading with a section from “The Argonauts,” a 2015 memoir outlining her and partner artist Harry Dodge’s attempts to start a family. The passage focused on the couple’s changing bodies: hers due to imminent pregnancy and Dodge’s to top surgery and testosterone.
Nelson often interjects her narrative with shockingly frank, often sexual, scenes.
“Different things are exposing for different people,” she said in response to whether she feels “naked” in front of an audience that’s read about her sex life. She doesn’t see her openness as shameful but said “the culture has let [her] know that people feel differently.”
Dawn Lundy Martin, a professor of English at Pitt and co-director of the Center of African American Poetry and Poetics, brought up the current importance of “The Argonauts,” considering the Trump Administration’s recent reversal on transgender protections under Title IX. Nelson’s partner, Dodge, is female-to-male trans, and the novella explores queer parenting and gender identity.
“‘The Argonauts’ is a crucial part of our current political moment,” Lundy-Martin said when introducing Nelson before she took the stage.
“The Argonauts” won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was New York Times bestseller. Nelson also authored “The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial,” “The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning,” “Bluets” and “Jane: A Murder” — all of which were provided by the University Store on Fifth and were on sale Thursday at Frick.
Before the reading, Nelson hosted a question and answer session in room 501 of the Cathedral of Learning at 4 p.m., which also featured a book signing. She offered more time for questions following the evening reading in Frick for those who could not attend the afternoon session.
Many of the students in the audience, including senior Daniel Lampmann, attended the Nelson reading as part of class. Lampmann, a communication major and creative writing minor, went to the event as part of his Readings in Contemporary Nonfiction class.
Although he’s attended other PCWS readings in the past, he was set on attending Nelson’s in particular to see how the lyric prose translated from page to real life.
“We’re required to go to a reading, and I had read the book class and wanted to hear how it was intended to be read,” he said.
Brittany Whoric, 25 and from East Liberty, graduated in 2013 but first read “Bluets” — a poetic work that centers on all the possible meanings and feelings associated with the color blue — when she was a student in Jeff Oaks’ “Autobiography and Creative Impulse” class.
Whoric was interested in Nelson’s concentration on gender and violence, prevalent in many of her novels, and decided to come back to hear Nelson read.
“When you write things down, it can make the feeling more real,” Nelson said when asked about grappling with historical violence.
Whoric echoed Lundy Martin’s earlier sentiment that Nelson is a writer like no other.
“She defies a genre and is an author who writes in her own voice,” Whoric said.
Whoric, who has attended PCWS readings in the past, said this year’s lineup is particularly impressive and reflects the changing atmosphere of writing in Pittsburgh and at the University itself.
“Roxane Gay is coming [on March 6], and I think that, on top of everyone who is coming to town, these events show that Pittsburgh is becoming more of a writer’s city,” she said.
The next PCWS event, which is on March 20, will feature Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me” and a national correspondent to the Atlantic, who will speak in the Assembly Room at 7 p.m.
A previous version of this story said one the the passages Maggie Nelson read from “The Argonauts” was about an in vitro fertilization procedure — this is not the method of assisted reproduction Nelson describes in her book. Additionally, Harry Dodge is not a female to male trans person, as previously reported, and does not refer to to his surgery as gender reassignment. These changes have been made to the online version of the story. The Pitt News regrets these errors.