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Interview with Eileen Myles

I sat across from Eileen Myles at a large empty table in her London publisher’s office a few hours before a sold out reading at the Serpentine Gallery. I ask her about her plans for after our interview, wondering how to begin. She shrugs. ‘More of the same.’

 

Over the last twelve months, following the reissue of her out-of-print 1994 autobiographical novel Chelsea Girls and the collection I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, there has been an almost mythical resurgence in Myles’s popularity. With nineteen books of poetry and prose behind her, she is not exactly news, having been active for forty years and influenced a whole generation of radical writers and activists, but the last year has been something different. From a New York Times profile (illustrated with an Inez and Vinoodh portrait of Myles in a Comme des Garçons jacket) to a television character based on her (played by Cherry Jones on the Amazon show Transparent), it has constituted a kind of initiation into the mainstream, one that Myles perhaps called best in her 1991 poem ‘Peanut Butter’: ‘All / the things I / embrace as new / are in / fact old things, / re-released.’ While forty years seem like a long time even for mainstream culture to catch up with what has been there all along, it is precisely the striking, almost recalcitrant consistency of her author-character persona that resists assimilation. She is the opposite of seasonal.

 

Few artists can communicate in as bright and fluid a shorthand as Myles. There is a perpetual sense of immediacy at play, a nowness maintained by a frequency of jumping between one tense or register and another in a flickering swoop. At core prosodic, her writing is often generated by rhythms and inflections of speech, attesting to Myles’s ear for a particular place and time. It is a poetry of appetites and human needs, of grandiosity and struggle, mediated through the running stream of personal experience. Her language, often simple and prosaic, seems detachable from context while held together in a self-concealing form. Attempting to pin it down is to miss the point; as Myles’s 2001 poem ‘Writing’ begins: ‘I can / connect // any two / things // that’s / god // teeny piece / of bandaid.’

 

Her origin story is by now well-known: growing up in blue-collar Boston, she moved to the East Village of New York in 1974 to be a poet, landing straight into the poetic avant-garde epitomised by the St Mark’s Church contingent and getting by with a string of odd jobs in- cluding taking care of James Schuyler at the end of his life. These early days are recounted in a number of her books, most notably Chelsea Girls and Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), each subsequent rendering continuing Myles’s practice of self-making, often to the effect of film reels overlaid on each other. It is a work of perpetual arrival, one that ‘violates the hermetic nature of my own museum’, as the eponymous poem in her breakthrough volume Not Me goes.

 

Myles takes the antiquated baggage of confessional writing and subverts it with a supreme irreverence. It is not simply about wielding the personal in public; it’s about exploring shame and powerlessness not as implications on the individual but on the culture in which she belongs. It is the inversion of what Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the ‘scolding power’ of the word disgrace in female consciousness: ‘It freezes the radical heart with lashing whispers.’ Myles’s work has always been a means to cut through the whisper, to instantly heat up the room.

Q

The White Review

— What would have been different had we done this interview a year ago? Has your increased visibility changed the way you perceive what you are doing?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I think the challenge is always to talk from where you actually are. It’s always like being in a different culture. My joke has always been that if being an alcoholic didn’t destroy my writing, if being a lesbian didn’t destroy my writing, if being an academic didn’t destroy my writing, why would…

 

Q

The White Review

— Being canonised?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Yes. In a way it’s none of my business and it’s a matter of figuring out how to make what I’m doing be even more intimate than it has been. I started writing in the seventies and it was very quiet and nobody gave a damn that I was writing or that I was me, and there was so much freedom in that. Lately I got an award and rather than making a speech I just read my newest poem. That felt right. That’s what I mean by intimate. So there’s just a way now in which maybe I can relax, and yet you don’t want to relax too much. I want to be precise in this freedom.

 

Q

The White Review

— John Ashbery wrote that some artists, and possibly the best ones, pass from ‘unacceptability to acceptance without an intervening period of appreciation’. Do you feel something similar can be said about the reception of your work? That in a sense, you did time?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Yes, and I mean, not until recently has the press actually gotten really smart. In terms of say, getting reviewed, what often is getting reviewed is the fact that I’ve become famous, and I was still not having the work be written about. The New York Times had some guy who was a cultural critic writing about me, and he talked mostly about my work in my twenties, and that I was, like, badass and punk, and I was just like, ‘How is this relevant to the work I’m doing now?’ But there was an amazing piece in The New York Review of Books that was beautiful and smart. Getting my work actually written about is like being loved or something. I feel like that’s how I want to be seen. Meaning read.

 

Q

The White Review

— How is it that you would like to be seen now? What is different about your work now, and how do you feel about your older work?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I’m saying I’d enjoy being viewed and written about as a writer rather than as a cultural phenomenon. I think it’s more sexism – to see my work being read as this raw sexual thing – which only makes editors want more of that, rather than my next book. I think being a female or a queer writer is uniquely strange because you still are all those things before the word ‘writer’, when in all the years you were writing that wasn’t necessarily what was in the room with you. I was in my body writing. So is a man. So is anyone. So please tell me about the effect of the work, what’s in it, and I don’t mean content. What’s the experience of reading it? That’s how I write about books.

 

Q

The White Review

— In Inferno you write that ‘an artist’s responsibility for a very long time is to get collected, socially’. Do you feel that to be the case for younger poets now?

 

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I don’t think I can honestly say how it is for younger poets now. I mean, their rent is higher. A younger poet more likely meets older poets in graduate programmes rather than at parties. It’s a safer world in many ways, but also more economically driven, more inside, I believe.

 

Q

The White Review

— When you moved to New York, did you feel you were entering a certain tradition?

 

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Yes, very much. St Mark’s Church was an academy of sorts. It was the academy that thought of itself as connected to the art world and performance art and the history of art in America, of avant-garde art in America, and thought of itself as not academic. As soon as I got to New York, I think I had read one or two poems of Frank O’Hara’s, and I remember standing in a bookstore, Corinth Books, and picking Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems out of a pile and reading it. And I thought he sounded just like the city. It was this kind of gay man talking immediately, and I wanted to be in that.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel the spoken word has always been the driving agent behind your work, that you have always been sound-led? I know you did a John Wieners project at Harvard in April on the poetic applications of the Boston sound.

 

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I think encountering O’Hara was like permission; if that’s what he sounded like, I was about finding out what I sound like or what this sounds like, this conversation, anything – and trying to figure out how to use that. I had gone to graduate school very briefly and taken a linguistics class, where there was so much talk about black English. I was just starting to realise that language is multiple, and that whatever English I speak is both acquired and received. There were people from many different classes in my neighbourhood when I was growing up, and then arriving in New York meant encountering a whole other variety, so it has always been a cobbling together of sounds. The guy I’m reading with tonight, Fred Moten, is a scholar and a black American who writes in a vernacular too, and I think that our avant-gardism is really a pastiche of different kinds of speech. Even the O’Hara thing, that kind of unitary self, is less what all of us are doing and more like a piece of what we’re doing.

 

Q

The White Review

— I was struck by how different the experience of hearing you read your own poetry was in comparison to reading it on the page. As someone who experiments with the idea of the self as a performance, how did it feel to see someone else perform you on Transparent?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I feel like I’m the perfect poet to have that experience because I grew up in the fifties and the sixties as a kid with early television, which was right out of radio and vaudeville, and it was kind of this moving smorgasbord, nobody knew what it was yet. So many shows started with someone sitting down with their chin on their hand telling you what you’re about to hear, sort of like Hitchcock, there was just like an emceeing of culture, and I feel like in my poems I’m doing that emceeing. And so it’s so funny to look at Transparent and see me being emceed. I feel what’s fun is that this character who is not me but is me could potentially be introducing people to poetry, and I love that.

 

Q

The White Review

— How does one navigate that space, of being at the centre of one’s work but not making it about oneself? I remember you recently mentioning Frederick Seidel as a negative example of this.

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Well, we always do that. We use what touches us, our times, our environment, and we show an actor, ourselves, moving through that space. If you write with a desire to use someone very much like your- self but not yourself, you show how every self is a chameleon. The most recent problem with Seidel is why did The Paris Review choose to have his poem published in response to Ferguson? That was a great time to publish an astonishing, complicated poem by a black poet. It felt like this spot requires this form of address not that form of address, and the thing that was so strange was that The Paris Review didn’t seem to understand that. Instead, people felt like we had a white newscaster, Seidel, give a few thoughts. Wow. Yawn. Why? At this moment, we don’t need to hear another white guy’s speech.

 

 

Q

The White Review

— I’ve been thinking about your writing on James Schuyler as well as your infamous Robert Lowell poem. Have you felt it a necessity to extinguish certain male idols, to de-mythologise one’s work in a way?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Well, Schuyler and Lowell are two different things. Schuyler is a great poet. No one cares about Robert Lowell any more. I wrote about Lowell in the mid-seventies, when I really was seeing the brouhaha about a poet dying for the first time. It was so corny. Let him go!

 

Q

The White Review

— You wrote about Maggie Nelson and Dana Ward that ‘part of the method of their madness is security’, which struck me as something very telling about your own writing. There is a very strong sense of both vulnerability and certainty, of confidence and chance.

 

A

Eileen Myles

— One thing that’s so great is that it’s art, not life. And so if you’re going to be sure someplace, why not do it in art? It’s sort of like an amulet. Art is mythic, whereas this gestures around the room] isn’t, you know? Though it seems that this is the source. When I moved to New York at 24 I felt I had grown up with all my ambitions and desires – what am I going to do and who am I going to be. And so the first realisation was that I’m going to be a poet: that’s what I’m going to do. And that was a huge relief – there were so many things that I didn’t have to worry about any more. I’d travelled a bunch when I was younger and it just didn’t take. I’d go to San Francisco and then I’d go back to Boston, or I went to Europe and hitchhiked around for six months and then it was groan, go back to Boston. And finally going back to Boston that last time made me realise that I had truly left. After that, going to New York was like the afterlife. Once I was done leaving, I had to start going. So I went to New York and like it or not, I was at the end of the line and I had to begin. When I first got there, I remember having this dream, one of those dreams where you were awake in your dream, realising you were dreaming. And I remember thinking that about my life, that if this is a dream, let me be brave in it. I feel like that’s never changed.

 

Q

The White Review

— Of course I can’t help but ask about your stance on the Hillary Clinton nomination.

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I knew we were both on that question before we even got to it.

 

Q

The White Review

— I read your piece on BuzzFeed but then I remember you tweeting that your vote is shaken after her AIPAC speech, which was, well, pretty definitive. I know that absolute endorsements are fictions but: what do you think now?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I think she has been blamed for being a woman who has had to decide at various points. Not all her decisions or my decisions are good decisions. It reminds me of something that James Schuyler once said. There’s a story about him where they’re looking at a painting and then somebody goes, ‘It’s the wrong pink’, and he turns to them and says, ‘Did you have some other pink in mind?’ With Hillary, they’re always saying, ‘I’m for a woman being president but she’s the wrong woman.’ She is the woman we have right now. She is the only viable candidate. Of these three people that America has given us to choose from, she’s the only one who actually could do it. Bernie is kind of a joke even when what he says is true or important – for me he just doesn’t say it so well, and I’m kind of stunned that people have been so excited about the performance.

 

Part of it is that I know that it’s a performance. I ran for president. I know what it’s like to make speeches and to be thrilled by people. I’m a performer, I know what it’s like to be thrilled by standing in a room and feeling the room be affected by you and feeling the room cheer for you, and it’s great. Who wants to let go of that? But I keep having to say the same thing again: he’s going to walk into Congress and say, ‘Break up the banks,’ and they’re not going to do anything. It’s just like, stop playing to the peanut gallery. I think he never stopped.

 

Q

The White Review

— What about the accusation of ‘corporate feminism’, which arguably wouldn’t lead to structural change?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I think that 93 per cent of the time Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton voted the same in Congress, and that 7 per cent isn’t necessarily about leftie things that he did. Some of that 7 per cent is him supporting the gun lobby and so tell me about her corporate feminism, and tell me about his. Whatever you want to call it, I like the thing that wants gun laws and I don’t like the thing that doesn’t. Also, Hillary did go to Palestine and she got so much shit for it, but she went. Of course, she changed her tune after that, but the fact that she went meant that she felt something different at that time, and I feel like she could feel that again if she had power.

 

Q

The White Review

— I am curious about your own presidential campaign. When did you decide to do it? It wasn’t a performative gesture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A

Eileen Myles

— It came from a very passionate place, from feeling that people like me were not represented in the campaign or the government or the future or America. Also at that time I had been doing work that was improvisational, performance pieces and speeches and talking and wanting to be more politicised, and then I suddenly realised that it was an election year, there was a campaign going on, and if I entered it as a candidate, I could talk about the things that I cared about and alter the campaign. Which to some extent I’m sure I did. How exactly I’ll never know, but it was an amazing opportunity because what it produced was me becoming a repository of information for a lot of people. It was before the internet and so people were just giving me pamphlets, people would take me places, people would invite me places and show me things. It changed my perspective on what the situation in America was and what mattered. One of the things that’s funny about right now is that if my life resembles any other period of time in my own past, it’s when I ran for president, when suddenly I was bigger than my own boundaries and I had to figure out how to be there.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think the wider recognition of the likes of Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker and Maggie Nelson signals a new cultural moment?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— We have begun to colonise the mainstream. At a certain point things reverse and it stops being about people colonising us and we start to colonise you. Part of it is that the media is this way now. I think we need new forms of literature that acknowledge that free-flowing sphere of knowledge and sexuality. Art has to finally be the place where something gives and the form is forever different. I think the people you’ve mentioned – and my work too – describe this new world that we’re living in now, where this isn’t discrete anymore.

 

 

Q

The White Review

— Who interests you right now in terms of other writers?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— What Maggie Nelson’s doing is really exciting. Also Chris Kraus. Laurie Weeks. R. Erica Doyle. She has a book from Belladonna called Proxy. C. A. Conrad, who wrote The Book of Frank, his work is really important to me. Then there’s also Ariana Reines, of course. Dodie Bellamy. Kevin Killian. The first people who come to mind are people who are beginning to be known, who no-one knew last year. And then some of the people I’m excited about aren’t even alive anymore, you know, like Bruno Schulz.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you have a preferred writing ritual or method?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I like legal pads a lot. If I’m at home, I’ll write on a legal pad. If I was anywhere, I would just grab a piece of paper. But mostly, if I was on a train, I would write in a diary. The thing I like about writing on paper as opposed to writing on the computer is that you’re in the room. That seems so important. When you’re on the computer, you’re in the computer, sort of. I love Instagram, I love taking pictures, but when I’m in my notebook, I’m actually on the train, you know? I’m in my body and I feel like I’m even learning something, though I don’t know what it is that I’m learning. It reminds me of being a child. There was something about the burden of time and space when I was young that was so overwhelming and made me so twitchy that I just kept drawing.

 

Q

The White Review

— What about form? There is a line in Cool For You where you say that the form of the novel gives dignity to shame.

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Yes, and I’m definitely thinking that that’s a impulse that unifies many of the writers I care about. You start with a sense of abjection in living, either because of your caste or because of your lived experience. Then you write yourself out of that space, by giving it form.

 

Q

The White Review

— What do you feel about this gendered discourse of intent that somehow interprets first-person confessional writing as ‘secreted’, ‘flowing out’, not written, revised, thought about?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— I would say secreted or leaked or splashed or barfed out, except that as it gets out the distance from here to there is aestheticised and filtered. I think about John Ashbery talking about poetry; he describes it less as a transcription of the thoughts you’re having all day long, less as an experience than the experience of experience. I don’t know why, I always find this really difficult to say — managed chance. You learn the art of management through a million small poems and assignments and performances and stuff, and then the larger question of your own existence comes up in big gulps and you have the chops. I think about these writers who we’re talking about or other writers I might care about, and I think it’s about bringing small skills to large endeavours. It’s not Moby Dick, it’s I Love Dick, you know? This is not history, it’s something else. I think poverty. I think purity. It bumps against pornography. There’s no right name for it. But in a way it is more of a craft than a calling. And it’s homely, in all the ways of using that word. Domestic.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you feel the increased visibility of feminine abjection, in literature, television etc., is part of that?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Humans are abject. We are. I think it might be about the humanising of women. We are entering the species through the media and books. It’s shocking that it took so long, but we had men writing for us so we didn’t get to speak until recently. Earlier feminism required women to win and be superheroes. Our right to be losers has come slow.

 

Q

The White Review

— I remember last time we spoke you mentioned you are working on a new novel. A dog memoir?

 

A

Eileen Myles

— Yes. It’s finished and now at the editing stage. I’m calling it memoir and the funny part is that it’s actually quite fictional, probably more than any other book I’ve ever written. It starts with an account of a dog dying. I had a very strong sense, when I looked into her eyes, that this was my father. My father died when I was 11 and we were very close, and when I got the dog I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if my father came back as my dog?’ He totally would do that. He would want to be with me a little longer and I would want him to be with me a little more. And so I ran with that as a prompt. There’s also a book called All My Loves and I think the idea is to just swoop in on moments in various kinds of love relationships, bits and pieces of them, and let that be one long book.

 

Q

The White Review

— May I ask what your tattoo says?
A

Eileen Myles

— This is ‘poeta che mi guidi’, which is from the second canto in the Inferno. It’s when Dante met Virgil and he basically wanted to know if he would be able to walk through hell, and so he said, ‘Poet, take my measure’, you know, ‘I think I can do it.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Maria Dimitrova is a writer based in London.

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