Eileen Myles Has Always Been Cooler Than You
To mark the publication of the writer's new collection of poems, "I Must Be Living Twice," we spoke to Eileen Myles about her decades-long journey from cult writer to feminist icon, sexism in publishing, and when she became cool.
All photos courtesy of Eileen Myles
I can't remember when, exactly, Eileen Myles came into my life, but shorty after I read her for the first time, I obsessively sought out the rest of her work.
I started at the end of her 21-book canon—or what was the end, at the time. While her most beloved books include Cool For You, Not Me, Chelsea Girls, and The Importance of Being Iceland, a collection of her art writing, I formed a bond with her 2012 poetry collection Snowflake/Different Streets. The book, a do-si-do, is bisected into two parts. One half, Different Streets, speaks of her time in New York, and the other, Snowflake, narrates her time in California. Between the two sections is the chasm of a flip—a physical demarcation of the psychological effects of moving your body from one geography to another.
This turned out to be accidentally serendipitous, as I read the poems in Snowflake/Different Streetswhile preparing to move from Virginia to New York after I dropped out of college with the vague notion that I was "going to be a writer." I drove back and forth between the states—looking for jobs, apartments, and moving furniture once the former were secured. On those drives I listened to podcasts just as obsessively as I read Myles. Sometimes the two activities intersected; Eileen Myles gave a reading at Skylight Books in LA over my car speakers as I made my way to New York alone, with my meager belongings filling all the passenger seats of my fucked-up Ford Explorer and the trunk. "The first poem in the book is called 'Transitions,'" she began. "When I was in California I felt like all these things were changing, both in me physically and, like, do I live here, or do I live there? I was just in this deeply transitional phase—and all these people I knew were transitioning gender-wise. The ground felt very unstable in this very interesting way. I was like, I need a tattoo, what could it be, what could it be, and I saw this girl in a café in San Diego. She had all these tattoos and a couple of snowflakes and I was like that is perfectly what I mean because I thought that was kind of a permanent transition. Like, this fragile object."
I'm somewhat embarrassingly inclined to believe that most happenings are more than coincidences, but the sharp congruity of Myles's words and my particular situation was still eerie. Which is to say: Eileen Myles is at once timeless and timely. Since her first book of poetry in the late 70s, she has always appeared to effortlessly get it, both in her work, and—I found when I met up with her at a café in her surrogate hometown, the East Village, to discuss the publication of her new and collected poems, I Must Be Living Twice (Ecco)—her being. When she rode up to Croissanteria—a little late to our meeting, but fashionably—on her expensive-looking bike, wearing a blazer and tailored jeans, she looked even cooler than she seems in her poetry. She went up to the counter and ordered a Pellegrino, and I, already seated with a plastic bottle of Poland Springs, felt regret. Though, ridiculously, I felt comfort in the fact that we both liked water.
For about an hour, I spoke to Eileen Myles about her decades-long journey from cult writer to feminist icon, sexism in publishing, and when she became cool.
Broadly: You look awesome by the way. I saw you ride up on your bike and you looked very cool. [laughs] How long have you lived in the East Village? Forever?
Eileen Myles: 1977. That's probably forever. I mean, I came to New York in '74 and I briefly lived for six months—it's like mythic—on the Upper West Side. And I had this apartment—it was like four bedrooms and it had a window facing the river and an elevator and it was 235 dollars a month and one by one we all left because everybody wanted to live in SoHo at the time, so I moved to Thompson Street and I lived there for two years. Then all the poets were in [the East Village] and the rent was even cheaper, so then I moved here.
When you initially moved to New York from Boston, you knew you wanted to be a poet?
Well, that was, yeah, that's what I thought this was for.
That seems so incredibly ambitious, I think—to move and just believe, "I'm going to be an artist." Do you feel like you've always had this sense of ambition with your work?
I think I felt like I kept mutating and changing my mind when I was in my twenties. The big revelation really was when I was in Boston. The last job I had in Boston was working at a publishing company, Little Brown. It wasn't a real good publishing job. I was working for a British medical magazine called The Lancet and I was in the correspondents department. It was just like, English majors and wannabe poets, but it was the first place I worked where I just had access to a typewriter all day long. I just realized that what I was really doing during all these shitty jobs I had post-college—and even during college—was writing poems. So I just kind of thought, "This is the thing!" and I knew I couldn't do that in Boston. I didn't know any poets. I was too over-attached to my family and my high school friends and, you know, I really hadn't, like... My head had grown up, but my life hadn't. I needed to relocate to someplace that I wanted to be, and New York seemed to be that place.
It seemed like a lot of being a young writer was finding people to support you.
When did you start getting into the poetry scene in New York?
Pretty quickly, because it was like, well, it was easy. The poetry world was all these different worlds within it. There was no Internet, just the back of the Village Voice with listings of poetry readings. So you would just turn over the newspaper and you would just go where it told you to go. But there were all these oddball scenes, too. St. Mark's was already about eight years old, and it was kind of like a club house for a certain school of poetry. I landed there since they sort of had what I liked. Allen Ginsberg was still alive and all the second generation New York School poets were all teaching workshops there. They became my friends and neighbors. It was a very close world, very intimate.
Do you still go back to California often?
I'm dating someone in Los Angeles, so I was there yesterday. I go there a lot. It's weird. Once you've really lived in a place, to me, it becomes one of my homes, so LA is definitely one of my homes. But I had this residency in Marfa, Texas in the Spring and I liked it so much that I bought a place there. I had taught at San Diego for ten years and the UC system bought me a house there as a professor. When I got rid of it a couple of years ago, I just had a whole storage unit full of furniture, so when I was in Marfa, I was like, "I like it here!" and bought a house there. I mean, have you been there?
No, I've never been to Texas. I feel scared of Texas.
Of course. But this is like the Iowa City of Texas or the Provincetown of Texas so it's like a weird place. Marfa, Texas is very special. It's very art world, very literary, but it really is Texas, too. But it was cheap and I just moved all my San Diego furniture into it. Now it's another one of my new homes.
When I was younger, older people were always handing me their houses to write in and stuff. It seemed like a lot of being a young writer was finding people to support you. I kind of like the idea, to some extent, of being that older poet now.
Are you going to have poets stay in your house?
Yeah, poets are staying in my house right now.
Are you going to have an official residency program or is it very informal?
No, just friends. I like a friend over a mentor program. I like relationships.
It seems like that's the only way to survive as and artist now—to have someone sponsor you or provide come kind of material thing for you in some way.
I think that's how it always was. Though in the 70s it was was more party-giving, in which you could eat and drink. People were very aware of the fact that younger poets would come and be hungry and want to get drunk and they would furnish that, you know.
Were you very poor most of the time as a young poet?
Yeah. When I drank, I often realized, I was ashamed of the fact that I was hungry. I would spend my money on booze, not food. People were always willing to buy me a drink, but they didn't realize that I actually needed dinner—and I often didn't realize it, you know? But this neighborhood was so intimate. There was a butcher across the street from me, and I would get a hamburger on credit. There was a grocery store across from me and I would get milk on credit and beer on credit. There was a bakery and I would get rolls on credit. There was a whole system, and then when I'd get some ol' job I'd go back and pay everybody and do it again.
I don't want to belabor people with my seriousness, but I'm serious.
I've been following you on Twitter for a long time, and I still remember when you retweeted a Rihanna tweet that was like, "I hate broke bitches." I thought that was so funny.
I know! I love retweeting because it's like, what does it become once you've rewrapped it?
Do you use your twitter as another outlet for your poetry?
I've written some poems when, you know, you write a line in this notebook, you write a line in this notebook, and a month later you paste them together and make a poem. I've done that a few times, but I'm not really that poet. Mostly, when I write a line, I can feel it has a whole poem behind it, so there's lots of stray lines. I think the thing that's really fun is emitting those tiny signals because I operate in them. Usually they just go into notebooks, so that's kind of what I love about social media. I know I'm not the only one using it that way.
Yeah, Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez just put out a whole book of selected tweets.
I love that book. It's so amazing.
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Yeah, they're great. I've noticed that you've been reading a lot with Mira. Are you a friend of hers? Is it important to you to reach out to younger female poets?
Yeah! I'm excited by their existence. When I first saw Mira's work, I think Sheila Heti turned me on to it, there was a thread discussing it on Facebook. Somebody was talking about her book, and I forget exactly how they were describing it, but they were being a little scornful of it. They were very uncomfortable with this "tossed-off" poetics, this "whateverness." But then when they used Mira as an example I thought, "[Her poetry] is not whatever," that's the performance. These are such crafted lines. I thought, This is a serious poet and I thought that's exactly what I'm about too. I don't want to belabor people with my seriousness, but I'm serious.
Yeah, for sure. I love the performance aspect of your poems. One of my favorite books by you is Not Me. I'm sure that's like everyone's favorite because it's iconic, but your poem "Promotional Materials" contains these lines that I love: There aren't as many rich and famous women or female artists because their work isn't good enough. And then you continue: It takes one to know one, bitch. A whiny, complaining female artist, oh wow, thank God, I'm too successful to talk about that. I'm one of the few women who are taken seriously. And I just love it, because its such a like performance of this like, bravado and arrogance, but it's also like you really are feeling that frustration of being a female queer artist.
Right, and that was like in the 90s. I think I was extremely broke at that moment, but I also felt like I was good. My work is good. I never doubted my work, but it's always that feeling of, "how do you feel about it?" You know other people like your work, but it's like, whatever it is that makes your life more viable... We all want more all the time. In that poem I was like, crowing in the middle of my pain.
That's part of why, when I see a younger female writer who I like, I just want to get right over there. I'm also excited by the newness—whenever I love work it's because they're doing something that I sort of thought about but I'm not doing, or didn't know how to do it, so I feel a connection.
When you were kind of coming up as a poet, were you experiencing sexism when you in writing and publishing?
Oh my God, it was so bad. I mean, in the 70s you would come onto the scene and you would see all this work by people that you like and a lot of it was by men. So you had your poems and you walk into the room and you discover that all the men thought you walked into a different room than the one you thought walked into. You walked in and became a girl, and I thought I walked in and became a poet. The access men had with each other was absolutely different.
I learned to teach through these independent workshops. Like, I would just put up an ad and all these people would sign up—people who became like, Maggie Nelson. But through my students, who were mostly women, I would just get all these stories about how, as undergraduates, their professors were just hitting on them. That it was impossible. It was really bad because there were no controls at the time and the understanding was that if you were a man teaching writing, these girls were there for the grabbing. So that means that that female can't have access to what a man has access to.
Look at David Foster Wallace. It's like what woman would be allowed to publish [Infinite Jest]?
This is totally a tangent, but I was gchatting with one of my friends, who also writes poetry, late at night. I think she was actually high on MDMA or something, and she was just going on this rant about being a female artist. She was like, "I'm not the girlfriend of an artist. I'm the artist!" She was so tired of men seeing her as just being there for them, as opposed to seeing her as an artist in her own right."
I remember when a man said that to me! I had this boyfriend who was five years older than me when I was in my 20s and he was already on the scene. I did a workshop reading at St. Mark's, which was sort of like my first reading at that place and, one of his friends was there. He came up to me and said, "Oh my God, you're really good! I just thought of you as X's girlfriend."
Oh my God.
Like, he didn't even know not to say it. He didn't even care about saying it.
He probably didn't even think there was anything wrong with it.
No! He was complimenting me.
That's so fucked. Men don't get it.
Yeah, and it continues. Like, enough of the feminism already, you know?
Speaking of just like this kind of moment for feminism or just like, enough feminism, it seems like you're also kind at a breaking point, in terms of becoming very well known. Did that coincide with your decision to do this book of collected poems?
It's very weird. I've had this experience of seeing a lot of ships come in at the same time, seemingly unrelated. Whenever I've had books come out, it always seems funny—like the tour is already assembling and it just hasn't told me yet. Then the book is coming out and I'm like, "Well, why can't this be the tour?" It was like that Lily Tomlin movie [Grandma]—
I know, I was just going to bring that up!
It just kind of happened. I think later this fall I'm going to be in an episode of Transparent and they're using poems of mine. Who knows what all this is. I've seen it happen in other people's lives, so I guess I'm just having a big-ass Fall.
Did the director of Grandma contact you about using your quote in the film?
Oh yeah. I think it was last Summer. When they told me it was starring Lily Tomlin I got very excited, but a film called Grandma, ehh. I was like, am going to be some old Lesbian sitting on the porch scratching her balls? And they were like, "No, no, no. It's going to be very respectful. We love your work."
I thought that movie was awesome. I was at a screener for it and I knew nothing about the film. So when your quote popped up after the opening credits I was so shocked! Your words on the big screen seemed so incongruous to me, just because your books always felt like this secret club for poetry fans, female writers especially who are just like, "Oh my God, Eileen Myles just gets it." It really felt like no one else really knew who you are, but I guess they do, or they're really starting to.
Yeah—and with the help of men! You know, like Nick Flynn is my friend and he turned Paul Weitz onto my work. And Paul Weitz, being a filmmaker, was like I want to work with Lily Tomlin and Eileen Myles's poetry is great. But that's how it should be. It's not like men did it—I did it! Lily Tomlin did it. We're all in a network.
Have you noticed that a lot of younger women are rediscovering and picking up your books? Maybe you've always been really cool, but you're kind of really cool right now [laughs].
My first experience of being cool was in the 90s when I met Michelle Tea. She reached out to me and then I saw what she was doing and I really liked it. Then she invited me to read at this open mic in San Francisco, Sister Spit, and I met this whole generation of female writers. It was so great. When I read in front of this crowd, who she had turned on to my work, I was just like, "Oh my God! I've met my audience!"
Chelsea Girls has been out of print for a while. Ecco just republished it along with your collection of new and selected poems. How did that come about?
It came out in 1994 and its publisher Black Sparrow ceased to exist in 2006, I believe. So, it's been out of print for nine years. Other publishers were willing to republish it, but I let it go out of print. I wanted it to be with a publisher that I was excited about. Black Sparrow was great, and I didn't want it to be with someone I was less happy with. It kept being paired with my next book, but it just didn't work out until now.
It seems like all your books are published by different presses. Why don't you stick with one press?
Well, every press is great and every press has a limitation. It's like dating or relationships. It's like, "Well, that was great for four years." The reasons vary—wanting to survive, wanting money.
With each book of prose I've certainly expected some large publisher to snap it up. I've thought, "This is an amazing book!" But when Cool For You came out publishers kept saying, "It's just not like Chelsea Girls." Then when Inferno came out they said, "It's just not like Cool For You." It's always like—I think Maggie Nelson has this same problem—the last book always becomes a book that people love, but right away publishers are like, "What is this?"
That's so weird. Both you and Maggie are both, proven amazing artists. You'd think publishers would just trust that you know what you're doing.
I think that when women are ahead of the curve, people don't feel as excited as when a young guy is doing it. Look at David Foster Wallace. It's like what woman would be allowed to publish that book; It's just like, "What the fuck? We don't want to listen to her go on for 900 pages about her female life."
For all that, you do seem very confident. Do you think your confidence evolved out of the need to be assertive as a woman in the industry or is that just your personality?
Well, I was lucky. My dad was very encouraging. He was kind of a wreck personally, but a very sweet man. I had very good parenting. My mother is the model for survival. She's alive today and in her 90s. But my dad was the one who was all about making your dreams become reality. I was good at art when I was a kid, and I was a class clown. I had a way of getting attention as a child. I could always write and I never thought about. I didn't think about it as something one could do, I just thought it was a part of life. It wasn't until college that I understood that it was a gift. I was saying "What can I do?" and not realizing that the journal I was keeping, in which I was writing "What can I do?" is what I'd do.
I did always want to be an astronaut. When I was a child I would write to NASA. It always was the fantasy, but at a certain point I realized it was too right-brained for me.
I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 and Chelsea Girls are out today via Ecco/Harper Collins.