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.