Stephen Best: I came out here to work. Oh, thank you for that. Hello. I’m Stephen Best. I’m a professor of English at Berkeley and I’m pleased to be the host–or I’m pleased to host Eileen Myles tonight.
A poet and novelist, playwright and performance artist celebrated by the New York Times as “the poet-muse of ‘Transparent,'” Eileen Myles has produced over 20 books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and travel writing.
The poet Robert Glück once wrote that “to describe how the world is organized may be the same as organizing the world,” and we might attribute precisely this ambition to Myles’s poetry. We celebrate Myles for producing poems that are uncompromisingly descriptive, committed to capturing the happy accidents of day to day moment, and moment to moment existence.
In “Inferno: A Poet’s Novel,” Myles says of poetry that it is, quote, “most of all, a mastery of places, not the whirl, but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back.” Myles’s poems track the movement of this weather across the imagined and fictive boundaries of the self. The poems are a kind of weather report.
It’s also true that Myles’s poems are celebrated as much for what they do, as for what they say or record, for coaxing from out of the shadows an imaginary tribe of queers, of other poets, of women. Her poems are, in the words of Maggie Nelson, “an object lesson in how literature at its best creates its own audience.”
The word Myles often uses to describe poetry’s engendering of audience is “horizontal,” a word meant to stress not institutional authority or generational supercession, but the improvisitory and the mutual.
Ben Lerner described Myles herself as an institution, and I don’t think he meant like stuffy, ossified, professional, in the use of that word. Rather, I take him to be underscoring something close to Myles’s description of her own practice. “Whatever I’m doing with poetry,” they write, “produced this multitude, and I don’t mean purely in numbers, but the community of people, and that’s just a lot like poetry, period. That’s how it goes.”
Tonight’s conversation is part of the City Arts & Lectures On Arts program and proceeds from the event will benefit the 826 Valencia college scholarship program. I assume that there are many young writers from the program and other institutions in the audience, and that some number of you hoping to engender an audience for your art through your art are eager to hear Myles discuss her craft. So please join me in welcoming Eileen Myles to City Arts & Lectures.
Eileen Myles: Hi you guys. Am I gonna read a poem first, or…
Stephen Best: Hi, Eileen. How are you? How are you?
Eileen Myles: Hi Stephen. I’m very good.
Stephen Best: Good. Welcome to San Francisco.
Eileen Myles: Yeah, thank you.
Stephen Best: So, would you like to begin by reading a little something to us?
Eileen Myles: I think I would like to read a little poem.
Stephen Best: Okay.
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Okay. Yay.
Stephen Best: Please.
Eileen Myles: So this is a poem called “A Gift For You.” And I just recently was in South America for the first time. I went to Argentina and I had my poems translated. And they translated this poem, and the poem mentions a poet from Boston named John Wieners, and they thought it was a dick joke. And I was like, no, that’s his name . So I just wanted to set the record straight. They were like, “it’s like Joe Dick.” And I was like, “no, it’s like John Wieners.” It’s like, not John Hotdog.
And at the beginning, I, you know, at my apartment in New York, I do this thing, which is when I intend to read a book, I turn it out like it’s in a bookstore. And then sometimes it sits there for a long time and then I don’t read it. So David Wojnarowicz–there’s a biography of him and it was sitting there for a long time with him smoking a cigarette and he winds up in the poem, but I never read the book.
A Gift For You.
Around five thirty is a peaceful time, you can just hear the dog lapping, David lifts his smoke to his lips forever, dangling chain in the middle of everything, about the top shelf or so. The party at which I said, “that’s my collected works” and everyone stared. My home was so small, is it?
I’m not particularly into the task of humility at the moment, but I’m not against it. It’s like that deflated beach ball on a tiny chair I think of as joking with a larger one on a painting floating in air.
My home is large. Love made it large once, not to get all John Wieners. And believe me, love made it small once, this place only had sex, unlike the house, I love a house. I fear a house. A house never gets laid.
Frankly, who doesn’t like a hotel room? I live in a hotel room, a personal one. A young person, very much like me, was brutal. No personal photographs, please. It was anyone’s home. Perfect for a party. Now I’m going fast.
How the description of a drug enters a room and changes the room thus with going fast. Say thus if you want to go slow.
To drink the wrong thing for a moment, for you to lick my thigh in your honey face. I met a dog named Izzy once. I met a dog named Allen, the calm person writing her calm poems now and then. She shows her sacred heart. She opens her chest and a monkey god is taking a shit swinging on his thing.
You didn’t know I had so much inside me, but buckets of malice, Bibles of peace. I don’t want to go all library on you now, like my mother, the mother of God. Or my brother named Jack who sat in a deck of cards getting hired. When she squeezes in getting cozy I know less what I want to say. I can open an entire room comes out, each moment. That’s what I mean. Not things widen and flow. There’s no purpose to this.
Stephen Best: Thank you.
Eileen Myles: You’re welcome.
Stephen Best: Let’s see. I knew I was going to interview you, and I have lots of friends who are critics of poetry, you know, scholars of poetry…
Eileen Myles: Really. I didn’t even know there were any.
Stephen Best: And so I said, so memorable moments in Eileen Myles for you, you know, in Eileen’s writing. And the moment that frequently comes up is the moment, you describe it in “Inferno,” it’s 1982 Tribeca, and you were at a party, and Robert De Niro is there.
Eileen Myles: Oh yeah.
Stephen Best: And you walk up to Robert De Niro–can I just read this?
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: Okay.
Eileen Myles: This is a true–an actual event.
Stephen Best: Oh yeah. It’s a true, actual event, and this is how you describe it.
You say, “at a giant party in Tribeca, Robert De Niro was there. This is about 1982. He was wearing a beret and a plaid flannel shirt. He looked like all of us, only a little more deliberate. I was tripping my brains out. It was bright. I said, are you Robert De Niro? The actor? He smiled sweetly, waiting. I’m Eileen Myles. The poet. His smile got even better, and about a million women swarmed him.”
So I loved reading that, cause it’s so, okay, so, it’s so literary, because…
Eileen Myles: It’s so literary?
Stephen Best: Literary in the sense that it means two things, you know, like, it means, you want us to see, like, it’s as if you weren’t famous, like Robert De Niro, I’m Eileen Myles, and it’s like the misrecognition. But it’s also as if you were famous. Like, you know, it’s like you are famous, you’re telling him “I’m Eileen Myles.”
And I think like, I sort of thought like fame and celebrity is like this, like undercurrent that runs through a lot of, certainly “Inferno,” like in poetry, like celebrity in the field of poetry. I just wondered if you could talk about like, personalities and your poetry. Like, you know, in “Inferno” it’s about, you talk about the poetry field, but, and in some ways, that’s what the book is about. So I don’t know. I want you to talk about like celebrity in the poetry scene.
Eileen Myles: Right. I mean, I think that if you do anything, you want it to, for it to be truthful and for it to have some space and be real. And I think the choice, the quote, “career choice” of becoming a poet was always something that one always had to defend every step of the way. Certainly to your family. Certainly in New York and parties, somebody would say, “what do you do,” and you’d say, “I’m a poet.”
And depending on what decade it was, you would get something back. You know, like in the 70s, people would say, “so, do you have a band?” You know? In the 80s people were just, like this incredible bored look would come over them, cause they knew they were talking to a poor person.
You know. And yet, I just, you know, and, and even though it was a certain amount of bitterness among older poets when I was in my twenties, cause they would just kind of like you, you know, there was just this sense that you were young and excited and had these expectations that this was going to be a world because it was a world now. And they had felt that, and they didn’t feel that now, they felt something else, you know?
And I think I was always intending on some level to prove them wrong. And I think, you know, around being a poet, but also being around being queer, being a lesbian, being, you know, being female, it’s like, I think my plan was always to act as if the thing was as central as I wanted it to be.
You know, even in the same way, like it’s like, at a certain point in time, it became that poetry–the kind of poetry that I do–was kind of experimental, or avant garde, or fringe or…
Stephen Best: Counter-cultural.
Eileen Myles: Yeah. As if there was some main central poetry that was really what mattered. And of course, you know, we make jokes in my poetry world, like there’s a world of poetry that always gets prizes, and that’s not my world, you know.
But I think that because the poetry world I came into, which was people like Alan Ginsberg and you know, John Ashbery and you know, Alice Notley, you know, there was, there were, you know, like they were our stars, and that was the middle of everything. And that was the middle of the world.
Stephen Best: That’s what I was wanting you to get at.
Eileen Myles: So I wanted to, so I think it’s sort of like, that was the center. And so for me, I’ve always continued to act like that’s the center. You know, weird is the real thing, you know. It’s like this other stuff is fringey. It’s sort of what the corporation has constructed for us to eat as poetry.
Stephen Best: Yeah, the Poet Laureate of blah, blah, blah.
Eileen Myles: Yeah the Poet Laureate is always a–since when was there an exciting Poet Laureate in America? You know, like Robert Pinsky? It was just, I mean, he’s a nice man, but it’s sort of like he’s not a poet changing anybody’s life. And they never would let Alan Ginsberg be a Poet Laureate, and I think I would never be a Poet Laureate. In fact, I would probably never have a poem on the subway, you know? But that’s–.
Stephen Best: But you’re talking about those in like, the poem of the day. You’re sitting there and you look up and…
Eileen Myles: Yeah, it would be like, they would be like, no, that’s too disturbing. And I was like, but people on the subway need to be disturbed, you know?
So I just, but I feel like, but truly, I mean, in a practical sense, like really my job as a poet has always been to act as if, of course, this is a career, a direction, a practice, a way of life, the real thing, the center of everything. Of course, being queer isn’t like a casual incidental action, you know, on the side, you know, like please, this is a lesbian novel, you know? This is a book about a writer that happens to be queer, you know, or suddenly you’re pitched into this vat of queerness when you thought you were reading about poetry. You know, and that’s good.
Stephen Best: Right. Yeah. So like there’s something in, something that I got from “Inferno,” which was like, this is, I think what I was trying to get at earlier. It’s like, the irreducibly social dimension of like, poetry for you. Right? You, at the end of “Inferno,” you sort of say, “I think a poem is like a party.” What do you mean? You sorta like, the suggestion was like, well, cause parties come to an end and you always have to kind of leave the party at a certain point. But I think I kind of sensed that you also meant a poem is social for you.
Eileen Myles: That it is, that it’s a kind of aliveness. I mean, it was like literally, you know, like at that moment in the book, I was making it be that the poems on the page are like the people at the party, it’s that vivid, it’s that alive. It’s that, you know. But it is, I mean, I wrote this book to say that there was a world. You know, because it’s always like, there isn’t this queer world. There isn’t this poetry world.
These are, I mean, I think when I was writing this book, I remember somebody saying, “well, have you considered”–I was trying to sell the book and of course I tried to sell it to mainstream publishers first and agents and whoever, they were like, “what?” You know, and I remember somebody, a girlfriend, who was also a writer or an aspiring writer, I remember her saying, “well, have you considered the demographic you’re writing for?” And I was like, “what?”
Stephen Best: Does it, poetry–does it get written for demographics?
Eileen Myles: I mean, I think there was an idea that there wasn’t a world of people who wanted to read about poetry, and I was like, nay, of course there is a world that wants to read about poetry. And you find out who they are and where they are by writing about it and putting it out into the world, you know?
And so I think it’s like, I think it’s social because it’s a social practice to write and to anticipate readers. And I think by anticipating you find readers, you know. The thing you asked earlier about celebrity, I think there was a belief that what was different about us in the world I came up in was that we weren’t trying to get people at Columbia to pay attention to us. That wasn’t the world we were aspiring, but we were like excited about musicians reading us, you know?
And even though it didn’t seem–I mean like there was Patti Smith and there was Richard Hell, but it didn’t seem like… You know, we were, poets were in the same neighborhood as bands in the seventies and eighties, so it was like we were going to them, it didn’t seem like they were coming to us, you know? But then, in 10 or 20 years, you discovered that they were reading you, you know, or they were reading you now. That we were all, it’s just like evolution. It’s not even, it’s erratic, you know?
So it’s, at first it seems like the musicians aren’t listening to the poets, and then it seemed like they were always listening a little bit, and now they’re really listening. And then in the same line, like the art world is really listening, but it’s sort of, it doesn’t mean that when you don’t know for a fact that they’re listening or not, whether they’re listening or not, you act as if they’re not, you know, you don’t get small because they may not be into you. You know, you just stay as big as possible so they can find you.
Stephen Best: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You said, yeah. Fantastic. Yeah. There’s a moment, you talk about, I think the essay was called, oh, “My Intergeneration,” and you sort of talk about how, you know, you just produce this poetry, didn’t really– “it was like I had been talking to an imaginary tribe that then appeared, and that weirdly, I even invented.” Like this sense of like, generations of like women poets who picked you up later on, right. And then you described it as like later on, you’re able to have your youth. Because…
Eileen Myles: Exactly. Exactly. Because you know, me now, it’s like the Gertrude Stein, you know, like I can never get the quote, right. The one, “I know I’m an I because my little dog knows me.”
Stephen Best: Huh, okay. I didn’t know that quote.
Eileen Myles: She was like, how do you know yourself? And it was like the dog knowing her and seeing her and, but not to liken an audience to a dog, but why not? I mean…
Stephen Best: But why not?
Eileen Myles: We love dogs.
Stephen Best: Yeah. We love dogs. Actually. That’s so interesting that the ease with which that sort of came out, because of course, “Afterglow” is a memoir of your dog, Rosie.
Eileen Myles: Yes.
Stephen Best: Yes. And there’s lots of, I mean, there’s something queer about writing a memoir about a dog, right? So I totally want to hear both a., How did you describe this project to the Guggenheim Foundation, because they gave you money to write the book, but also just like, there’s a lot of that, like substitution going on in the book. Cause there’s like, there’s a chapter about puppets and dogs. What’s the connection between puppets and dogs?
Eileen Myles: Oh my God. Well, I mean, the thing is that we obviously treat our dogs like puppets. You know?
Stephen Best: I don’t have a dog so.
Eileen Myles: Cat? You might treat your cat like a puppet? You know what I mean? There’s a lot of you know, projecting onto this creature and how they see you and what they see and then talking back to–but with dogs, I mean, because you’re, because it is so active and you’re taking the dog out and, or the dog is like, the dog wants something very specific. I mean, you have, with a cat, you have, you know, as we all know, that the internet has invented cats, you know, and it’s like now they’re like, everybody knows what your cat looks like, but before somebody had to be sleeping with you to know what your cat looked like, you know?
Stephen Best: Who’s that?
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Right. But you’re out in the world with the dog, and the dog has so many feelings about what it’s going to get from you, whether it’s going to get food from you, it’s going to get a walk now.
And there’s just this kind of like, and so a lot of the dog’s anticipation becomes a narration on the part of the writer, or the thinker, or the owner. Yeah. Yeah. And so it’s sort of like, there is this, you know, like the dog can’t speak, and yet you’re always acting as if the dog can speak, you know? And it becomes a kind of a speakiness, you know? So it was very–
Stephen Best: No, keep going.
Eileen Myles: So it was very second nature to make that speech be an entire book that purports to be a memoir. You know? Though, I mean, again, I feel like I’m such a genre, I don’t know what to call it, queer or something. Because it’s like all these books I’ve written are, you know, like “Chelsea Girls” was called a memoir, and this is called a memoir. I was like, I’ve never written a memoir, I would never–I hate the word memoir. I would never write a memoir. But when it came to it–because it’s so sentimental and memory–and then, but when it came to being about a dog, I thought, I do feel sentimental, and it is my memory, you know?
And so I called it a memoir, but then it just wound up being such a trippy, completely fantastic, utterly novelistic book. It is the most novelistic thing I’ve ever written, you know? So I think what’s so great about form is that it always–it’s like the dog, it’s ahead of you and it’s telling you something that you don’t already know. And it’s basically leading you into spaces that you couldn’t have imagined.
Stephen Best: You use the word owner.
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: Yeah.
Eileen Myles: What do you think?
Stephen Best: Well, aren’t we–we’re not supposed to do that, right, so?
Eileen Myles: I mean, yeah…
Stephen Best: But it’s interesting that you did, because it reminds me of the opening of “Afterglow.” Well, do you want to tell us…
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Well.
Stephen Best: Like, the letter.
Eileen Myles: It’s a letter. It’s a letter I received from my dog’s lawyer in which she, in which the writer of the letter basically is informing me that my dog is sueing me for a list of abuses against Dogkind. You know, and later it’s revealed in the book that in fact the dog wrote the letter.
Stephen Best: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Substitutions are totally…
Eileen Myles: Yeah, but I mean it was the problem with the book, cause I was like, what am I going to do with this fucking letter? You know? I mean the letter–I wrote the letter in like, you know, in 1990 something or other, and I thought, look at this funny letter I’ve written, and I showed it to people, and people were like, “it’s great!” You know, but I knew I wasn’t that person that could write that book.
So I really tucked the letter away for like 10 years until the dog was dying. And then I thought, I know that letter goes into this book. And it was like the fly in the ointment. It was the suffering of the whole 10 years of writing a book, like where does the letter go? You know? And finally it was like, it goes at the front of the book, you know. If you don’t know where to put it, put it in the beginning.
Stephen Best: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. This is going to get all, I’m going to get all professorial for a second, but like the putting the stuff at the beginning, right, of “Afterglow.” The letter is at the beginning of “Afterglow,” but also, Rosie’s death is at the beginning.
I read it and I sort of thought, “Oh, that was such a Hitchcockian move.” You know, it’s a little bit like at the beginning of “Rope” when, you know–have you seen “Rope?” It’s about the murder, the two guys who murder their friend. And ok, so they murder their friend–.
Eileen Myles: I was so drunk so many times when I saw Hitchcock.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Well, anyway you can imagine, they, you know, we see the murder at the beginning, and they put the body into a chest. And so all the viewers of the movie know that the body’s there in the chest. And, but anyway, like it, Rosie. So, yeah, we, it’s like we’re not waiting for Rosie to die. Like Rosie dies early in the book. So the book becomes, I don’t know what like, it is elegiac. It’s like…
Eileen Myles: Yeah. And it also became, I mean, I’ve been obsessed with this thing lately, which is writing that lets you watch it become. You know, I mean, it’s not a new idea. It’s kind of process, but it’s sort of like, I know at certain points I thought, well, they know that this is not true. This is like an invented thing. This is like, and then yet, and then it would start to move and go ahead and stuff. And I realized that just the act of composition and the act of invention—part of the pleasure in making it and of doing it was performing that in front of the reader and watching the reader…
Cause it was like there was a dog and the dog was dying, and I knew what I was doing when the dog was dying, which was just basically being their scribe, you know? But then when the dog was dead and I was like, how do I keep the book going? You know? And it was sort of like, I felt like I was inviting the reader to watch that act of invention, you know?
And that was–and I’m interested in that in all things. It’s sort of like you’re allow–whoever or whatever, allowing us to look over the shoulder and not act like this is, you know, some kind of seamless, you know imaginary thing that you’re supposed to put faith in. You know, it’s sort of like what you put faith in is the act of making art.
Stephen Best: Yeah. And the–tell me if I’m wrong. It’s like you’re processing the fragments of Rosie’s life. Yeah. Like…
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: Describe that, like the pro–there are photographs of Rosie, or?
Eileen Myles: There was photographs and there were stuff. There was like her old dog, her dog bowl, her leash. You know, so there was like a chapter that was like relics…
Stephen Best: Right, relics. That’s the word I was struggling for.
Eileen Myles: Yeah. And even the, I mean, even the puppet chapter, it was like–that happened because, when we were talking about my intergeneration, I mean that was so much about somebody who I met here, Michelle Tea, who was just like, you know, is such a great writer and such a great friend.
And was the writer, the younger writer who saw me. And I think I made her work possible in some way. And then she made my work possible by bringing it to a generation of readers and so on. But one of the amazing things Michelle did when she was here, and I think it still exists, is created a foundation called Radar.
And they did many things, including creating a residency in Mexico. And so they had a couple of apartments on the beach, basically. And, but what was weird about this residency is like, I’ve been to MacDowell, I’ve been to very Tony residencies where you get like a lovely studio in the woods, and a sweet little bedroom, and this, you know, Airbnb type room, and, you know, and, but in Mexico, we–there were too many of us. We shared bedrooms, we shared beds, and we had didn’t have private writing spaces. And so what we created that was so interesting was writing time.
And so we would write from nine to twelve and then we would all have lunch for two hours, and then we would write from two to four, which meant that you had to be silent. And so is it as if you and I determined that instead of talking on stage, we determined we would sit here and work, we would write. And I was like, can I do that around other people?
And it was just–and so I had an idea, I think when I was at MacDowell, people were like, I read some of the book and it was pretty fantastic. And they were like, “well, does Rosie speak?” And I was like, “that’s so MacDowell, does Rosie speak,” you know? And then–this is how everything always happens with me–I was like, “okay, well, under what conditions would she speak?” You know, I was like, “what would it take to make Rosie speak?” And I have these puppets, which weirdly are going to be in a movie soon, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Stephen Best: Yeah, can we bracket that for a second?
Eileen Myles: Yes. Yes. And so I have these puppets that I made when I was a child. I was, you know, I had like a, you know, I was in an alcoholic family. I mean, I wasn’t drunk, but my dad was. And it was like afterschool I took all these classes. And I took a puppet making class and I made these puppets, you know?
And so I thought if the puppets had a talk show and invited Rosie on to be the guests, like me at this moment, surely she would speak. You know. And so it’s sort of like, so the puppets were like in her interlocutor and she was the guest and she, you know, and that’s kind of how that happened. And, but it was like the puppets were waiting for a gig, you know, in my imagination, you know?
Stephen Best: Yeah. Like a companion consciousness that they could speak.
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: So tell us about this movie that the puppet’s going to end…
Eileen Myles: Well, it’s just like, I know, I live some of the time in Marfa and I have a friend who’s a filmmaker, and he was, we did something together, not too long ago, that didn’t work out. And he was like, “we should make a movie.” And I was like, “yeah, let’s make a movie.” And then I, you know, it’s like, okay, that’s like one of those millions of things you say yes to, you know? And then I was like, “what could”–. It’s so great that, because we were talking about Marfa backstage and there’s an amazing–like there’s Marfa and then 25 miles away, there’s another town called Alpine. And the drive to Alpine is so gorgeous cause it’s just like mountains, blue mountains on both sides of the road. And you just can’t believe that this is just what you get to do when you go into the hardware store, you know?
And so I thought, what if the puppets went on that trip? You know? And so that’s basically, we’re gonna, it’s gonna be me and my current dog Honey in the front seat, and the puppets are going to be in the back and they’re going to be yakking away. And we’re gonna like, and then we’ll dub in later the conversation, you know, and see what the puppets have to say.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “Pull my Daisy,” which was the movie about the beat poets, and Kerouac dubbed in the conversation, you know, and so it’s basically a kind of a Kerouacian dubbing job.
Stephen Best: Right, right, right. Could we–since we kind of bounced back and forth between “Afterglow” and “Inferno,”–can we talk about New Narrative?
Eileen Myles: Yeah, why not.
Stephen Best: Right. So like, this is going on the radio. I love radio. Radio’s…
Eileen Myles: Where is the radio? Oh that’s…
Stephen Best: See it says “on air.” And , we’re not on the radio now, but we will be on the radio.
Eileen Myles: So that somebody can tick away things, bad things we said.
Stephen Best: Exactly, the bad things that we say. And, what was I gonna say? So, so the main reason I mentioned radio. Okay, I love radio. You know, someone working in a diner in Sioux Falls, Iowa might be listening to the show. What’s New Narrative?
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: Like I want them to know what that is. Cause it’s very, it’s alive as a…
Eileen Myles: Well, I think New Narrative is absolutely the secret most influential kind of writing in America today. You know, I think…
Stephen Best: Share the secret.
Eileen Myles: Share the secret?
Stephen Best: Yeah.
Eileen Myles: Well, I mean, I think that, I think there were poets, mostly here.
Stephen Best: Mostly in San Francisco.
Eileen Myles: Yeah, mostly in San Francisco. And I think there was kind of a moment where just like, you know, theory was huge in the 80s, and so I think that theory was affecting the poetry world. And so there was starting to be–you know, so there was kind of a more, I mean, like, language poetry came up then and it was more theorized approach to…
And it was, it was, you know, there was some great poetry that came out of that. And it produced a lot of work and a lot of theory and a lot of discourse. But I think there wasn’t a big–I mean, I’ve gotten in trouble for this before, so I may as well get in trouble again–but there wasn’t a whole lot of sex and performance in it, you know, there wasn’t a lot of sex in it, I think.
And so I think that the poets of that time, who are some of my friends who live in this town, were like, “then how do we get to write about sex?” And they were like, “we’ll just leave poetry and write prose.” And so it became a whole kind of gang of post-poets who started writing fiction.
And they’re, you know, people probably who are sitting–Bob Glück, Camille Roy, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy. There was a Canadian writer, Lawrence Brathwaite. Who else? Sam D’Allesandro, who died of AIDS. And then it was just like, I think Kathy Acker was part of that gang. I mean, I consider myself…
Stephen Best: You were part of that gang.
Eileen Myles: A friend of that…
Stephen Best: I mean, Maggie Nelson?
Eileen Myles: Maggie influenced by, but see that’s…
Stephen Best: That’s what I mean, is like…
Eileen Myles: That’s where it goes. With somebody like Ben Lerner, Chris Kraus–if not part of, influenced by, and I think part of–the most beautiful idea of it was, and I think it was prose influenced by theory, but theory, like Bataille, you know, and film…
And I think, but I think part of the idea was to make writing that was continuous when, if you were writing a novel, it wasn’t like separate from the world. It was continuous. And so the character in my novel would be Eileen Myles, which for a whole part of the literary world would mean then that’s a memoir. And it was like, no, it isn’t.
It’s sort of like, but the gesture of saying that the main character in this book has the name of the author means that the book and the world are continuous. The book is not separate from the world, the book is in the world. And so some of these things have happened, some of these things could happen, you know. And so it kind of, and I think that blurring started earlier too, with like New Journalism and a kind of a hyper–Joan Didion and you know, Tom…
Stephen Best: Wolfe?
Eileen Myles: Wolfe. Yeah. I mean like Hunter Thompson was just kind of a excited kind of prose, you know? And those guys weren’t poets. So I think there was kind of more beauty, perhaps, brought into it, you know, when Bob and Dodie and all these people were doing it. But I think Kathy Acker too, just like kind of, you know, like pastiche–doing things that poet– but Burroughs was a huge influence to all these people too.
So I think when you’ve got people like Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti, or people who are getting much more mainstream, or what’s his name, Knausgaard, who I’ve yet to read. I was like, how is Knausgaard not New Narrative? It’s like, you know, like what an amazing idea. “My Struggle.”
Stephen Best: “My Struggle.” Yeah.
Eileen Myles: But I think it, but it is telling the story of a human life in all directions with lots of aesthetic realizations along the way, and lots of sex.
Stephen Best: And lots of sex.
Eileen Myles: And lots of sex.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Queer sex.
Eileen Myles: Queer sex.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Speaking of, no, no, no, no. I want you to read…
Eileen Myles: That was a [UI] to queer sex. It was like a cul de sac. It was like, there they are, having sex.
Stephen Best: Would you mind sharing some of “Inferno” with us?
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Is there a, I think you have a piece?
Stephen Best: I do. I mean, so it’s–“Inferno” is a very, it refers, you know, let’s just say, Comey is in “Inferno,” right? James Comey, our former…
Eileen Myles: Oh, no, he’s in “Evolution.”
Stephen Best: Oh, sorry. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
Eileen Myles: He’s hopping around.
Stephen Best: He’s hopping around. Yeah.
Eileen Myles: You know, and can I just say, the reason I wrote this book was because I had written–every time I write a book, I would try and sell it, you know, try to get it, you know? And there would always be some new reason why they would, this is a nah, you know? And so I think the book before this, they were like, “yeah, but who is Eileen Myles? Why would I want to read a whole book about this same thing?” It’s like the obscenity of using your own name, you know, is really problematic for parts of publishing.
So it was like, who is Eileen Myles? And so I thought, well, what if I write a book–well, they’re the poet Eileen Myles. What if I write a book that explains who the poet is, then that will be, that would justify why I was using the poet’s name, you know? And then, you know, by the time I was coming along, trying to publish the book, they were like, “who wants a book about poets?” So there’s always like a new problem, but it doesn’t stop you from writing the book, it just is just, you know, kind of crap in the gate, you know, that flapping in the wind.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Getting in your way.
Eileen Myles: Yeah, but so what should I read? I love this. I’m so sick of not–I now, it’s so great that I don’t have to think about what to read. You’ll tell me what to read.
Stephen Best: Well, there’s great–so I’m worried. Okay. I had a little worry. You know, I love “An American Poem.”
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: I don’t know if you would ever be into reading that.
Eileen Myles: I could read it. You know. But, yeah. You’re thinking, yeah.
Stephen Best: No, I’m not really thinking. I just don’t want to make you, you know…
Eileen Myles: Have a horrible experience.
Stephen Best: Yeah. I don’t, I mean, you know, like, I mean, we brought your books. I, when, when I walked out, I sort of had the pile and I said to them, I came to work. Like, you know, we can talk about all of, but we could–you could read from “Inferno,” or it’s true, there is your acceptance speech in “Evolution.” Do you want to explain the–.
Eileen Myles: Okay. Yeah. So that’s–I think that is where the Kennedy poem comes in, in a way, because it…
Stephen Best: Yes, exactly. They’re connected. Right.
Eileen Myles: Yeah. So there’s a poem I wrote in which I claim to be a Kennedy.
Stephen Best: Yeah, maybe just explain.
Eileen Myles: Yeah, yeah. And it’s, and it really just happened because–well, there’s a thing when you’re a kid and you’re hitchhiking and you put on like funny accents and you lie about who you are because you’re hitchhiking and you’re just, you know, it’s sort of like, this prepares us for a life in writing. Just this is just like, you’re just making stuff up cause you’re going somewhere.
And so I think I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Holly Hughes, a performance artist. And I don’t know what we were talking about. And suddenly I started to do the hitchhiking thing. I was like, “well, you know, as a matter of fact, I actually came from a rich family.” She was like, “really?” And I said, “yes, I know it’s like sort of embarrassing, but I went to really good prep schools and just, and my family had a lot of money and I didn’t see how I could be a poet if I was that person, so I sort of…”
You know, and we’re just like, and as I’m telling her the story, she’s getting very excited and I was like, “oh my God.” And at someplace in there I thought, “what if I pretend to be a Kennedy who was coming out of the closet,: like I just, it was like, a Kennedy couldn’t have a career as a poet, so they had to pretend not to be a Kennedy and they suppressed the Kennedy thing, and now because of political circumstances, and it was like, and it was homelessness…
Stephen Best: And duty calls.
Eileen Myles: Yeah, the Kennedy must step up and say “I’m a Kennedy, and here’s what’s going on, America,” you know? And it was just like, and so it was, I wrote this poem in the ’80s, and my friend Tim Dlugos, who subsequently died of AIDS, I remember him saying, “Eileen, this is going to be your big poem,” you know? And it kind of, until I, you know, it, for a while it was my big poem and I performed it and it had all these different lives.
But the thing that’s really funny is that it spurred Zoe Leonard to writing–oh, so, so, okay, so I had, so I wrote this poem and it gave me access to the political, and I recited the poem and I would be giving a speech to the audience, and I’d feel really great. And I was like, “wow, that’s like,” I mean, I think I didn’t know how to let politics bleed into my poetry before that.
And so the feeling was great. It felt great. And so I was like, how can I feel that again? So in 1991-92 when George Bush was making statements about the real danger to freedom of speech in America is the politically correct, and it was that moment when they took that phrase, the politically correct, and moved it over to the right, you know, or moved it as a description of the left. And we were all the politically correct.
Cause the politically correct used to be the most controlling lesbians in the lesbian community, right. The person who was with that person with the perfume, please get out of [ui] you know? And we were always laughing at the politically correct dykes, and suddenly we were all politically correct dykes. You know?
And it was like anybody who was an activist, anybody who was queer, anybody who was a person of color, who had something to say about what it felt like to be a person of color in America–all these people were the problem. You know, and at the end of this article in the New York Times, they said that this was about freedom of speech, which will be a big issue in the ’91 or the ’92 campaign.
And it was so funny to think about the difference between now and the nineties, because then you would have to read in the paper that this is what the campaign was going to be, as opposed to the campaign never ending. And we’re always, every time somebody does something great, they were like “2020 material,” you know?
And so when I read that, I thought–I was 39 years old and starting to feel old. And I was like, I remembered when I was a kid and when Kennedy was president, I remember people saying, “he’s so young.” And I thought, “he’s an old man.” And so I realized that, but he was, you could be a president at 39. You had to be 39 to be the president. And I thought, “Oh, so if I ran for president instead of being an old poet or an old performance artist…”
Stephen Best: I’d be a young president.
Eileen Myles: A young presidential candidate, you know.
Stephen Best: And that was the year you ran.
Eileen Myles: Huh?
Stephen Best: That was the year. Wasn’t that the year? ’92, that you ran?
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Yeah. And so I ran, I ran. And it just was, it was an amazing year and a half of–and it really, I became very known. I read in 28 states and six countries, and it was this amazing experience. But Zoe Leonard and–but that was years ago.
But Zoe Leonard, at the time, wrote her piece, “I want a dyke poet. I want a dyke president. I want a dyke…” You know, and it was like all the kinds of–“I want a president with AIDS. I want a president that”–you know. And that piece just won’t go–I mean, I don’t mean as a problem, but that piece won’t go away. It’s so funny. And Zoe didn’t write it as a poem. She wrote it as a statement, and it was for a queer magazine, and it didn’t even run, but it’s just one of those pieces that keeps having a life. And I think it really exploded around the 2016 election.
And then Zoe–then it was a big piece on the Highline. And I think a few days before the election, we had an event, and Zoe invited a whole bunch of us to come and do things, you know, to basically dance around her piece in a way. And, you know, myself and Justin Vivian Bond, and Layli Longsoldier. It was just like an amazing array of people.
And so she asked me to update my presidential campaign and I thought, what could that mean? And I thought, I’ll just accept the presidency. So that’s what, let me read my acceptance.
Stephen Best: Thank you for that.
Eileen Myles: Okay. Okay.
First I want to say this feels incredible. To be female, to run and run and run and to not see any end in sight, but maybe have a feeling that there’s no outside to this endeavor, this beautiful thing.
You know, we don’t have a single female on any of our bills. And what about two women, two women loving, or even more, a lot of women, a lot of money?
Is there a message that I failed to receive that the face of woman cannot be on our money? And what about that house I just won, that white one? When I sit there, and if I sit there, and I gotta to tell you, I’m not sure I want to sit there.
Some of you might remember my first campaign. Yes, that was back in 1992. Few men have run for 24 years. 25 by the time I stand and take the oath in January to serve my country. I did not quit. I stand here with you on this beautiful rapturous day, sunny day in New York, to turn around to look back and look at all that we’ve won.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to that house, that white house. We often hear these words even as an explanation of what metonym means. Are you familiar with this term? Yes, I promise you a poetic presidency. The White House speaks is a metonym. Certainly the White House we speak of is not the whole government. Like Fred Moten says, it is incomplete. But it has come to be a symbol of it.
And I think two things. I think whiteness, I think of the whiteness of the house, and I think of houseness. It houses the government. Now that I have won, it offers to house me. Now, I now officially make that White House a homeless shelter. Yes. It is a complete–thank you.
It’s a complete disgrace that we have people without homes living on the streets of America. I’ve lived with them. Not for long periods of time, but in the same way that I am the first president who knows what women feel, because I am a woman, I am one, I have also eaten chicken with the homeless. I ate at the Bowery mission. Very rubbery, very chewy chicken. Those chicken were not happy when they lived, and they’re no happier being chewed on dead at the Bowery mission.
And the chewers are not happy either, no. So here’s the good future, good food at the White House for all the homeless in America.
You know who the homeless are? They are the military and men and women who have fought our pointless wars, who came home after each greedy stupid war we have waged, and they got less.
Is there a GI bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Can they buy a house? Who can buy a house? Under Myles, they have bought the White House. That is my gift. The White House will house the mentally ill outpatiented during the great president Reagan, meaning, he threw them out of the house, the mentally ill, thrown out of the American house, and the alcoholics, who do not have free and abundant and available treatment–cause this country breaks our hearts–we will habit them too.
We will occupy all government buildings and memorials, housing, and holding and loving the homeless and the sick and the starving. We’ll do what the statute says, you know, Liberty. We’ll take buildings and we will build buildings in our culture. Our new America will begin to live.
Our government needs to be in the business of living, not dying. What else is a government for? The government will become more departmental and take you in. You and your wonderful needs. We’ll start with the department of women. Obviously to say women matter and do matter so much and a lot, we need a distinct place in the government to specifically focus on female concerns, which is parity mainly, reform in Congress, so that if America is increasingly diverse in a number of, a multitude of ways, our Congress must represent those groups percentage-wise. That’s smart, don’t you think?
So if most of the people in America are female, so should be our government, right?
America is not a department store. We want to do more in our country than shop online and at the mall. Let’s face it. Everyone is home shopping and yelling at each other on their computers. The malls are falling apart. The malls are pretty much gone. Let them go. We want to make real departments for who we really are. Not shopping.
We will be stalwart. We will be strong. Let’s go. Let’s go out. We are out there now. We are on the Highline. Yes. That’s the way it works under Myles.
Early on, I described the department of culture. We will have that. We’ll have Art in America, not just a magazine, just for starters. We will multiply the budget of the NEA by tenfold. We will bring back SITA. That was like an art workers program we had in the ’80s, but we will call it, see the, see the.
I dunno. See the, I don’t know what, I just got elected. I haven’t worked everything out. But just think of the possibilities. See the sky, see the river over there. See the Whitney. A lot of people’ll be walking around appreciating. We will pay them.
There will also be a hear the program, a smell the program. That’s probably what you’re going to do early on with all those, you know, recovering veterans who don’t have to live on the streets. Get them in on the see the, smell the, hear the programs.
We’re going to massively fund libraries open 24 hours. They will not be filled with homeless people because they will have homes. So the libraries will be filled with people reading and watching movies and going into the conversation rooms and having conversations and so on.
All education will be free. Trains will be free. Cars eventually it will be banned. Cars are stupid. Cars are stupid. No more pumping oil, no more fracking. Everything will be driven by the sun or else be plugged in electrically. Electric something.
There’ll be a lot of free food, a lot of archery. Everyone will be a really good shot. We’ll get good at aiming intentions, not killing. Oh yeah and we’ll send a lot of masseuses to Israel and Palestine. Everyone needs a good rub.
No more pesticides here anywhere. Lots of small farmers, an amazing number of standup comedians, and lots of rehearsal spaces and available musical instruments and learning centers of people like myself who would like to play something, perhaps a guitar.
Nobody would be unemployed. Everyone will be learning Spanish or going to the sex center for a while, having ejaculation contests. Or just looking at porn for a while and going out into the yard and helping the farmers improve the crops. Just gardening, helping the flowers, distributing the flowers, see the flowers.
When in doubt, always just being a see the person for a while. Be a whole lot of people encouraging people to see the. We want the see the to thoroughly come back.
There’ll be an increase in public computers like water, like air. Have we stopped the oil and the fracking early enough to protect the water and air? We hope so. But there’ll be a decrease in private computers within an enhanced desire to be here, exactly here, where we are, which some would argue is there on the computer, which of course would be allowed. But being here would be cool. Some people meditating, other people just walking around, smiling, feeling good about themselves, living shamelessly and glad.
Guns would be buried. Guns would be in museums, and people would increasingly not want to go there. Gun museums would die. What was that all about? Money would become rare. I would have a radio show as your president. Also, I might be on television. Also I might want to talk to you in the tradition of American presidents like Fiorello LaGuardia, the little flower.
I would be president Edward Myles, the woman, changing my name very often would probably be good, I would like that, and I would write a new poem for you each week. I might just walk around saying it and eventually you would forget I was the president.
I would go to the gym. There are people who like to manage things, there are people who like to play cards, and the managers would change often enough, and they would keep the parks clean. America increasingly turned into one big park. One big festival of existence with unmarked toilets and nightly daily events and free surfing lessons and free boards, just put it back when you’re done.
And a good bed for everyone. I just slept in the best bed last night. This is true, and I slept on the plane. Sleep is great. Nobody will be short of sleep. Everybody would be well slept, chaotic and loving-hearted, and have all the time in the world to not kill, to love and be president. Everyone take your turn and dance. Dance now. I love my fellow citizens. It’s good to win. Thank you.
I feel like I had a bad dream last night. Like the head of the FBI decided to steal the election by making shit up about me because I’m female, but that wasn’t true. We are really here undiluted, unmucked up and wide awake in America for once. See the, see the, see all of you and your fabulous beauty and your power and your hope. Thank you for your vote and I love you so much. Thanks.
Stephen Best: I love that. Oh my God. Our president.
Audience Member 1: Four more years.
Eileen Myles: Right? That’s what I say.
Stephen Best: Totally. Yeah.
Eileen Myles: Is it time–it’s like is it almost time to start…
Stephen Best: Yeah, we can do, you can do questions. We can do questions and answers now.
Eileen Myles: Should we?
Stephen Best: Yeah, absolutely.
Eileen Myles: Do we–a final thought. do we have anything?
Stephen Best: We can see what Q and A brings and then we can…
Eileen Myles: Ok. What do you guys think?
Stephen Best: I like how the political gets into the work.
Eileen Myles: Yeah.
Stephen Best: That’s fun.
Eileen Myles: Where else would it go?
Stephen Best: Yeah.
Eileen Myles: Now, here’s the embarrassing moment for you guys.
Stephen Best: We can barely see you.
City Arts & Lectures: Okay. There’s a question over here, to your right.
Eileen Myles: Our right. Oh, okay. Thank you, there’s the little waving hand. Okay.
Audience Member 2: Never has it been easier to ask a question–that’s what I guess poetry does. But, so my question is about Gertrude Stein after reading “Afterglow.” And, I’m a recovering academic, and so we talked about Gertrude Stein and it was all very neat, but it wasn’t clear what it actually was in Gertrude Stein. And it seems to me like you might have some ideas about that because it seemed like you were doing similar things, but actually going somewhere with them. So I wonder if you could just talk about her.
Eileen Myles: Talk about her, period. Oh, I mean, I think, I mean, next to New Narrative, I mean, I think she’s the secret greatest influence on American literature. You know, and I think the thing that’s so beautiful is the 20th century began with people laughing at her. And I think the 20th century ended with everybody understanding–everybody that knew anything–understanding that she is the most important writer that we had, you know. And so, I mean, so many ways, because I think that she heard. She heard how people were speaking and how she was speaking and really was, you know, that idea of thinking and speaking at the same time, you know.
And really, her whole thing of–I mean, like nobody talks in complete sentences. Everybody interrupts themselves and says things over and over again. And that’s kind of part of how the kind of the recording of speech is. It’s sort of like you’re speaking and you’re listening and you’re thinking and you’re like, “eh, let me say that again.” You know, and you’re correcting and you’re–and I think she used all of that, as her poetry and as her presentation, it’s like she really understood the American language in all its, you know, awkwardness and all its improvisational quality, you know.
I mean, of course she used so many kinds of speeches and so many kinds of Englishes too. But I think that like–you know, and I mean, like the, one of the most beautiful, I mean, like my favorite Gertrude Stein book is “Lectures in America.” And it’s so great because it was the 19th century thing of like, it still was if you were famous, you would just come and give talks all over America, you know? And she was of that–and she had already performed, I mean, she was like writing for years and trying to get published and nobody ever wanted her work. And then I think she got famous in her sixties for “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” because she did the Warholian thing of understanding that to really write about herself, she would have to become somebody else and then write about what a genius she was.
And so she wrote this very straight up text about Gertrude Stein, through the eyes of her partner, you know, and it was like, at last, she wrote a book that people could get, and in it she established herself as this amazing character. And with that she had a hit book. And then she got to tour America.
And what she’d do with that tour was explain, essentially, female genius to people, you know? And it was like, and everybody went and heard her talk. Hart Crane heard her talk when he was in high school. And I mean, she just did the thing, you know?
And I think, but it was all, I mean, like when you read these talks, it’s like, it’s a recording, you know, it’s a recording of a voice hearing itself, and kind of explaining language to, you know–explaining the American language to America.
You know, and it just, it, I think it changed everything. And it’s like, you know, it’s a truism that people know and forget all the time, because nobody, I mean, nobody really cares about Ernest Hemingway much today, but he was so much more famous than her. And he learned to write from her. Because she wrote in such simple words and used such simple terms. And, the movement of those terms. It’s all about, you know, it’s all about movement and flow and rhythm in Stein. And it’s just, you know, it’s such a beautiful thing.
And I think all of us, you know, all of us have just inhaled that. And she’s the soul of what I prefer not to call experimental poetry, you know. But real writing, she’s it, I think.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front to your left.
Eileen Myles: I love being directed.
Audience Member 3: Hi, I just want to say I love “Chelsea Girls,” it’s a book that I just read and reread and reread and…
Eileen Myles: Thank you.
Audience Member 3: And I want you just to talk about a little bit, maybe your relationship to it. It’s not autobiography. I get that. It’s not memoir. But I wonder, you know, why the title? And do you have a favorite piece from “Chelsea Girls?” And maybe what were you doing with your autobiography, engaging with it in that piece, particularly your family, your background?
Eileen Myles: Huh.
Audience Member 3: The sixties, the seventies, the eighties.
Eileen Myles: I mean, I guess it’s, I guess it was just like, I, you know, at that time–maybe more than now–I came from a feeling of being endangered and feeling like the life that I lived in, the places I had been… I mean, I think a lot of people feel that at certain points, you just think, nobody knows where I’ve been. You know, and it’s just like, you’re here and you’re astonished by your life and your existence, you know?
And there was a way that I wanted to tell that and to show that, you know, and part of it, about being working class, about being queer, about being female, about being a writer, about, you know, like, I mean, I wrote it like, I am an alcoholic and an addict, and I had…It was interesting that I wrote it when I stopped drinking and taking drugs, but I wanted to not write an apology recovery book, but a book about the kind of glory and the excess of living in a certain way–female and queer, you know–and really occupy. I had never seen it, you know. And also I just, I was very interested in autobiography as a practice.
And I love films, and so I had no idea how to write stories or narrative or plot and had no interest in them either. But I love film and I loved how film would start in a place, and it seemed like it would just start to pan and occupy the space and show you what was there. And the story would come out of the positionality of where the person was.
And I love, you know, and I was just, I think the first art that I really experienced, besides, you know, ’60s, ’50s and ’60s television, which was so important to me and my whole generation, and–because it came straight out of vaudeville. So it’s, in a way, it’s like everything keeps replacing itself or everything is always, you know, it’s like in the same way the dinosaurs became birds, vaudeville and radio became television, and then television became performance art.
But I think, but art films–you know, I grew up in Boston near Cambridge. I mean, I read at the Brattle Theater last week in Cambridge, which was so exciting to me, because that was like the church in Harvard square of art films, you know.
And in Central Square, there was some place called the Orson Welles. And it was just like where I was exposed to like international art films. And you know, Truffaut was part of who you would see. And he was doing this biography of like, of a boy, and it was Antoine Doinel, and he was, you know, it was “400 Blows” and then he was a teenager and then he was a young man and it was a male life, you know, and it was like he kept making these little movies.
And so when I wrote the stories or the chapters in “Chelsea Girls,” I just wanted it to be all these little movies about a female life. Cause I had not–I wanted there to be a female Antoine Doinel.
But at the same time, you know, I mean, like I met these guys that describe themselves or came to be known as New Narrative, you know, like years later. But I had that same impulse, which was to, I thought, “I’ve got a name. Why should I invent a name? You know, I’ve got a character, I’ve got a pile of experience. Why not use that?” But my contention is as soon as the pen touches the paper, or as soon as the, you know, like you start producing a text–you start lying, inventing, fantasizing, rearranging, and so it struck me that it was fiction.
But I really wanted to show those places and to make those films, those little films that, you know. And you know, even, I mean, there’s a chapter, it’s not my favorite. I don’t know if I have a–I love the… I mean, in a way I… The title… The title was just, you know, again, it was… I think my girlfriend’s mother–the story was called “Chelsea Girls.” And I think my girlfriend’s mother said “that’s the title of the book.” And I was like…
Cause I was going to call it “Bread and Water,” you know? And it was like, cause there’s a chapter called “Bread and Water,” that was the first chapter in the book that I wrote. And it was really like, I was living in this desperate way with my girlfriend. And I just, and we wanted to make films. That was our fantasy, was we wanted, and everybody, like it was like, you know, Jim Jarmusch and Scott and Beth B, all these people on the ’70s were making indie films and we wanted to make them.
But we were so fucked up. We were such desperate alcoholics and we were just selling my books for beer. We weren’t even junkies, but we were living this very heroine kind of life, you know, because it was like, I was the poorest person in the world, and I had a girlfriend who was even poorer. She was living off the poorest person in the world, you know?
And so it’s just like, there was this impossible life. We were never–cause we were always getting drunk and talking about our movies. And so the story, the chapter “Bread and Water,” I just thought, okay, I’m just going to, you know, my manual typewriter was just in the middle of the world, in the middle of the apartment, in the middle of the room. And I just thought, “I’m just going to write about our life as if it’s a film. And just copy every sound from the radiator, everything that happened, everybody that I owe money to, everything,” I just thought, you know. And it was a poet impulse to just kind of do notation, to just kind of like inventory where you were.
And so that was the first story. And after that–so that was the only story I wrote while I was still drinking. And then later on I started to… I had the amazing, like the first chapter in the book is I think called “Bath, Maine.” And it was really kind of at the end, it’s the worst thing that happened when I was drinking, which was that I, you know, I–the same girlfriend, you know, we had this terrible violent episode in the apartment, which is not in the book. And then she left and I–as soon as, and I was on crutches. And as soon as I could walk, I followed her to Maine and she was there with somebody else.
And we wound up, you know, drunk and everybody having sex with everybody else. And then, you know, and then there was a night one night and we had a fight and cops got involved and I jumped on the cop and tried– I mean, it was just a nightmare. We wound up in jail. It was like the worst, one of the worst nights of my life. And I thought, “when will I ever write about this, these events?”
You know, and I think I was in Mexico, in 1985 or something, and I was in some great little cafe on the beach, and it was very, it was still very cheap. It was on the Caribbean. And I realized that I could write stories if I pretended they were postcards to myself from other times in my life. You know, like, I would think of a place like Maine, where all these awful things happened, as a postcard, you know, of a horrible living postcard. And I would just narrate it and tell Eileen about what it was.
And so I wrote a bunch of stories–I started to have a way of narrating the events of my life, you know? And, but it was always just following the visuals, following the way it looks. Cause I thought if I thought about what it was about, I would get confused and I would not know how to go. But if I just kept thinking it was a picture, it was a story that was just happening right in front of me, I could do it, you know?
And so, “Chelsea Girls,” I mean, the title story, though, is probably my most… Cause I did things that are really meant, like there was these two things. It was like, I was having sex with a woman in a room in the Chelsea Hotel, but I was also working for the poet James Schuyler, and so running between rooms. And I knew it was a very theatrical Jacobian theater device, but it was also what you do on a movie, which is you just kind of put this room next to that room with parataxis and stuff. And so I was very excited about, I mean, every time I would figure out how to do something in prose, I would be very, you know, thrilled with myself, you know? And so I felt that way.
But you know, like increasingly there’s a story, a chapter called “Popponesset,” which is about getting gang raped and being 18. And it just like, I wrote it for the book because I thought, “I’m not going to write a book about a female life and have had this experience happen to me and not put that in the book. I have to say this happened.”
And you know, I think the recent events with, you know, like our horrible Supreme Court judge and all the accounts we have now of women and men being raped and, has been really traumatic and really hard. Because it’s sort of like, there’s a distinction between writing about something and having lived it, you know? And they’re two different things, and writing doesn’t help you deal with still being the person who lived it, you know? So it’s like there’s always more work to be done.
But I, you know, I made a place for myself in that book, and then I, and then once I wrote–it took me 14 years. Once I wrote that book, I thought, “now I can write a book.” And so then like the next book, “Cool For You,” took five years, you know, it’s, once you’ve written a book, you can write a book, and now I write a book, you know.
Stephen Best: It’s a small observation, but I can see when you describe, what you, like the frame you needed to construct in order to–like writing postcards to yourself from Maine–when you construct. I can now see why you’re saying it’s not memoir, it’s not confessional. It’s not me, you know, telling my story. It’s, you’re just describing something to yourself. Yeah.
Eileen Myles: And it’s this picture being transported and that’s a fictive action, I think.
Stephen Best: Yeah, that’s interesting.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center of the orchestra toward the back.
Eileen Myles: This is so magical.
Audience Member 4: Hello.
Eileen Myles: Hey.
Audience Member 4: I’m over here. I actually just graduated from SFSU. Over here.
Stephen Best: Just to the right, Eileen, in the very back.
Audience Member 4: And I had Dodie Bellamy as a professor there. And tonight I’m here with a creative writing class from the school of arts high school. And today we were talking about–we were looking at one of your interviews where you responded to being called a badass, which I would call both you and Dodie. And I really enjoyed your response to being called a badass and a rock star. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Eileen Myles: Well, I can’t remember what I said. So I don’t know if I can be responsible for…
Audience Member 4: It’s sexist.
Eileen Myles: Huh! Thank you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I think, yeah, exactly. There’s like a whole legacy. There’s so much work written by men that doesn’t get described in those kind of, it’s sort of like, yeah, it’s sort of describing, amazingly, this badass woman, as opposed to a person who is simply living their life and experiencing experience. And, yeah, I mean, I almost don’t know how to say it in an interesting way that… It just is about–those terms strike me as, like, they say, cordon off what female experience is supposed to be. And if you’re out here, you’re a bad ass, you know? And I find that, yeah, I find that offensive.
Rockstar, I don’t know, is, yeah. It’s kind of, I mean, like, you know, yeah, again, why not just a great writer, you know? Instead of a rockstar. I was like, you know. It’s like women have to migrate to be great. You know? Did you want to say more? I think, no.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center.
Eileen Myles: Right?
Audience Member 5: I think I’m going to embarrass myself here.
Eileen Myles: Let’s do it.
Audience Member 5: I think probably artists have to grow to continue to reach people. Maybe even being ahead of a curve in general. And right now I’m finding you incisive, insightful, delightful. I saw you roughly 12 years ago in a small venue here, and I just was like, “gross, I don’t like her at all.” So…
Eileen Myles: Thank you. Huh. Okay.
Audience Member 5: So have I grown up? Have you grown up? Why are you reaching more people?
Eileen Myles: You’re asking me?
Audience Member 5: Yeah.
Eileen Myles: Not sure I’m responsible for that thing. I mean, I just, I honestly, the only thing that I think that I did different was I had, I published my selected poems with Harper Collins, you know, and I think it meant that this mangy poet from the East Village was suddenly like legit. And it gave the New York Times something to talk about. Though interestingly, they haven’t written about my new book of poems, so it’s like, now that I’m legit, I could just be some poet again.
But, and I don’t know, you know what I mean, like this, the whole, you know, like I was involved with Jill Soloway and I was on “Transparent” and stuff, so I’ll never know for sure what meant why I got like reviewed for–I mean, like there were four pieces about me in the New York Times, it was like a joke in New York. People were like, “what, do you just have a job there?” Every week, there was like a Sunday thing, like, “what did they do on Sunday?” You know? And it was like, “I don’t know, I go to an AA meeting and jerk off.”
I was just like, it was sorta fun to be like so wrong. Be the wrong person. So I thought, “I’ll just say the wrong things,” you know? And it was just like, it was great, you know? So, but it just kept happening, you know? And I don’t know what caused that. You know, there was like a–cause I had a very bad relationship with the publisher at one point, and so I actually got a publicist, you know, somebody I knew who, you know, and so she might’ve helped. But then sometimes I think I was dating Jill and I think she wanted to help me, so she might’ve helped. I have no idea, you know?
But the thing is like, you know, it’s like when we were talking about fame and stuff like that. Certainly, I mean, like Kathy Acker’s said it, it’s like, poets, people like us don’t survive unless we become famous. You know? And it’s sort of like, quote, fame, is a kind of a reproduction of, you know, what you do, or who you are is a kind of legacy or a kind of opportunity or a way of being, not vital, but, what does it mean to, you know, to survive, you know?
And so I think I always kind of imagined that I would be known in some way. And I always wrote as if I would be known. And so then weirdly, the ways in which I’ve become more known, I think, “well, of course,” you know, but, one, you know, like, I’m off–I think I was very lucky too. But my work is really good. You know, what the hell, you know?
But, there still is, culturally, there still is not necessarily room for a queer female writing from an underclass position in a quote experimental mode. And now I’m in my–you know, it’s like somebody said someplace in print that I was pushing 70, which isn’t, I had to– it’s true, you know, I mean, like, I’ll be 69 at my next birthday. So then it’s like, then you’re up against the issue of age. It’s like, how do you get written about or talked about when you’re like all those things and older too, you know?
So it’s just like, I feel like I’ve just been an interesting–I remember there was a poet, art critic, Warhol star, Rene Ricard, who died a few years ago. And he always liked my work and we were friends. And I remember him being in my apartment and looking at things, and he would, you know, he would come over and he would borrow money and move your paintings around. He was this kind of amazing guy. And then take you to a party.
And I remember him saying, “you’re going to become famous when you’re really old. Like 50.” You know? And I was like, “no, it was worse. It was 60.” You know. And, you know, but it’s just like, cause all I ever wanted when I was young, I was like, “I want to be famous when I’m young.” You know? So you can enjoy it. Like you had lost the capacity to enjoy after, you know, 30 or something. But it’s not true.
Stephen Best: But then the thing you don’t want to become, if that’s your desire, is a writer. Because writers, you need to create the work.
Eileen Myles: If you become famous when you’re young. Is that what–what do you mean?
Stephen Best: If you want to, if your desire is to become famous when you’re young, then don’t become a writer, like…
Eileen Myles: Oh yeah, yeah.
Stephen Best: It takes too long.
Eileen Myles: Right, right. And I think it is that way. Who would have a sophomore slump if you’d already been writing for 30 or 40 years? Like sophomore what, you know? Whereas if you became very successful when you were young, you would–then, what are you going to do for your next book? You know.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center, slightly to your right.
Stephen Best: Okay.
Audience Member 6: Hey, Eileen. Thank you for your continued artistic genius and sharing of your world with all of us. I guess I have one question. As a young woman living in New York City back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, how have you continued to find sources of inspiration, whether through literature or your relationships with other artists? And if you could just kind of tell us about how that’s changed over the years, that would be very interesting to me.
Eileen Myles: Hmm. God, I don’t have sources of inspiration–I mean, I guess I feel like that–what do I think? I mean, I think life is interesting, right? And I mean, like literature is great. There’s so many amazing books to read and so much art to see, and so many films to see, so that it’s like, I feel like I’m turned on by other people’s work and my friend’s work and so it just, it’s, you know.
And also each book you write always has a hole, there’s always some piece that you couldn’t do. This always some part of it that didn’t quite… And so then that thing winds up being like a yearning. And so you’ve got to, you’re always trying to kind of complete the last thing with some new way to, you know, it’s like all my failures produce the next thing in a way, you know?
So I think it’s–inspiration, it’s more like, you know, agitation with getting something done, but not quite entirely, you know. Like, it’s always incomplete, you know? And also, I mean, I’m very uncomfortable and restless and it’s, I’m a huge procrastinator, so if I’m working on one thing, I escape it by working on something else. So then I’ve got like three or four things going. So there’s sort of like there’s an endless, I dunno if it’s inspiration as much as like a mess that I’m always trying to clean up by, like, “Oh, I guess I’ll go over here now.” You know? And so it’s just like, there’s always things to do, you know, it’s sort of like if I’m working on a novel, then I’m always writing poems and eventually those poems will become a book.
And I mean, it’s kind of weird now. It’s sort of like I have the problem of books that I’m supposed to write. Like I got a grant, there’s a book I’m supposed to write, and I have a contract. There’s these two books that I’m supposed to write and if I’m supposed to write something… I mean, I suppose defiance is still inspiration because I feel, cause I’m used to people not wanting what I’ve got. You know what I mean?
Like, I’ve always, you know, like it’s like trying to get agents, I have a wonderful agent now, but it’s like trying to get a good agent for years, trying to get publishers to be interested in my work, you know, and stuff. And there was always this kind of aspirational thing and being frustrated, and you know. And it’s sort of like, now I have the kind of the opposite problem, which is that people are waiting for this or that, you know, and stuff.
And so, but the part of me that’s gnarly and only knows how to work coming out from behind has to make up projects that nobody wants that. That then I want to write. Then I’m excited cause I’m being bad and I’m writing something that has no hope, you know? And so I’m currently working on something like that now. Yeah, it’s bound to fail. If I ever wrote a memoir, that might be the title, you know.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center.
Audience Member 7: Hello. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about revision and editing. I feel like it’s kind of a dry, unsexy question, but I think, cause there’s usually this distinction between like writing and then those things, but it’s also this kind of murky continuous thing. So I think where you see that kind of like backtracking and going forward and changing things, both within a larger context of writing, but also your own process.
Eileen Myles: Yeah. Well, I think the thing is you want people to read your work, you know? And so it’s kind of like when you’re reading a, you know, if you’ve got a manuscript and you sit down…
I mean, like, I have such a memory of like with this dog book, I was, I did a residency in Marfa, which is how I wound up living there, at the Lannan Foundation. And I really had written the book and then was this orange, weirdly, there was this orange chair, there’s always this orange chair in my life, you know. But there was this orange chair in this house, where I was living and working. And I just basically sat down that month and just read the damn book. And every time I hit a snag, I would fix the snag, you know? And it was just like, cause the goal was to write a book that people could read, keep reading, you know.
And it’s like, and that means many different things, you know? Cause I think of books as like a yoga class, which I mean, I don’t really go to yoga classes. But how each position reverses it. You know, it’s sort of like if you do the downward dog, you got to do the other one afterwards to bend those back and it’s always–the only kind of form I understand is like a poetry reading where you put something out and then based on the kind of the vibey feeling that is in the room after that poem, you enter that, you know, you follow that with something else that’ll use that energy and change it up a little bit.
So I feel like so much of editing for me is about figuring out the real arrangement, you know, that makes it both energetically readable, but also something that makes you want to keep, you know, makes you want to keep going.
You know, not, it’s not a narrative as much as it’s a succession of energies, you know. I mean, I’ve sort of come to that as the–it’s like I don’t want to, and in a poem I don’t want to stop people. It’s like you don’t want things to get too weird and too dense and too cluttered at the beginning of the poem because you want it to keep, you know, just moving forward.
You know, so there’s a lot of, you know, I mean, that’s not so much consumerist as… I do want to be read, you know? And so somehow making it both, having people both able to see how you are writing and construct–like if you put this piece next to that piece, I don’t want it to be seamless, I want there to be a little bump, so they’ll know that somebody made that, you know? And it’s almost like a quilt, like the stitching. There’s something funky about how these two pieces connect. But I still want it to be, you could lead from here to there, you know? And it’s sort of like, and it always is for me, the only thing I think is people should know where they are. And so it’s like you can almost go anywhere in the universe as long as it’s a clear landing, you know?
Stephen Best: Hm. Maybe we have time for one more.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from your left toward the back.
Audience Member 8: Hi. I wanted to know if there are some newer women writers who you’ve grown to like, or enjoyed reading?
Eileen Myles: Huh. You know, I’m reading a book right now called “Call Me Zebra,” by Azareen Van der–I actually wrote her name down because it’s so long and complicated. But she’s an Iranian American fiction writer. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. And it’s really great. It’s really, it’s kind of epic and it’s grandiose and it’s complex. And she was a student at UCSD when I went there, when I was teaching there. And I couldn’t quite connect to her work. I didn’t quite get it. It was too rich for me. And she even asked me to blurb her book and I was like, I was sort of busy at the time, but I also thought this is a hard read.
And, you know, I saw her recently and just enjoyed her personally so much, and I thought, I’m going to go back and look at that book and suddenly it just rocks. And it’s really, it’s really fantastic. So that’s something, you know, that she’s somebody that… I love Andrea Lawlor’s book, Paul, who would take–“Paul, Who Takes the Body of a Mortal Girl” is, that’s an amazing book. Not so much trans as changeling, you know. Very magical, really great. And you know, we were talking–Renee Gladman, she’s been around, she’s not like new, she’s probably in her forties, but I think she’s, if anybody doesn’t know her work, she should be reading it. She’s really remarkable. But Azareen is the person who I’m really excited about today.
Stephen Best: Well.
Eileen Myles: Are we there?
Stephen Best: Well, unless there’s–I can barely, like I said, I can barely see you.
Eileen Myles: Just the subtle applause has begun.
Stephen Best: Well. Eileen. Thank you.
Eileen Myles: Stephen, thank you.
Stephen Best: I know. Thank you for your art.
Eileen Myles: Cool.
Stephen Best: And Eileen, you will sign books in the lobby for a bit?
Eileen Myles: I will sign books in the lobby.
Stephen Best: Okay, fantastic. So we’ll meet you in the lobby in a few minutes. Thank you, Eileen. Thank you for your work.