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Eileen Myles: "I’m the Weird Poet the Mainstream Is Starting to Accept"

Chris Felver/Getty

Eileen Myles seems to come from a New York that no longer exists. Her first reading took place at CBGBs, she lived four floors below Blondie, and contemporaries with Richard Hell, progenitor of the spiky-haired, torn-suit jacket look.

Myles moved to New York from Boston in 1974 and, now 65, still spends much of her time in the city (courtesy of a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village). She long outlasted any of the other acts that used to perform at CBGBs, not to mention the club itself, but largely kept to the underground scene and its attendant press houses. Until this week.

On Tuesday, a decades spanning collection of her poetry, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, will be released by Ecco.  (Her 1994 novel Chelsea Girls is being re-published by the same press.) I Must Be Living Twice is a hefty 356-page monument to her evolution from hellion of Manhattan to an elder of queer, alternative, transgressive poetry. The poem ranges from early narrative entries like “‘Romantic Pain,’” detailing a grim pre-dawn ride on the Staten Island Ferry, to the more reflective staccato lines of “San Diego Poem”, another urban journey separated by a continent and 25 years.

When I spoke with Myles over the phone she was in the El Paso airport, during an extended snack break before her almost 300 mile trek to Marfa, Texas, where she recently purchased a small house.

Jake Blumgart: How have attitudes towards your work changed since the 1970s and ‘80s? Did you feel like your work was ghettoized, marginalized back then and, if so, has that changed substantially in recent years?

Eileen Myles: There is still a lot of power built up around mainstream poetry. People are afraid to give America anything but comfort. It's like an ad for guilt. Even poetry is supposed to support it. Last year I was a judge on the National Book Award’s poetry panel and I felt there was a weird regard for readability which struck me as a kind of a regard for normality, the regular stuff. And we're living in extraordinary times so our literary culture needs to wake up

The poetry I first encountered was what people often hear first. You might hear Allen Ginsburg, John Ashbery, Gwendolyn Brooks, but what is really being sold by the culture still is this big house mainstream poetry. Even though they are telling these personal stories, post-Sexton and post-Lowell, the language has an apartness, it’s very middle class white language. It doesn’t take any risks, doesn’t have any vernacular. When I first came around and discovered Frank O’Hara and this kind of queeny New York voice, this fast talking vernacular, I was very excited. In the New York School I was very acceptable. But my content was feminist, I was a dyke, I was talking about things that maybe the New York school didn’t even particularly talk about—well, Allen Ginsberg did.

I think we are really in a moment now where we are really talking about code shifting and poetry that’s really made up of fragments, more mosaic-y kind of work. Fred Moten is a poet I really love because he changes who is telling the poem all the time. The poetry world in its rejection of many different things is slowly starting to assemble something that is many different things.

Somehow my poetics seems to be in a very dead center spot, I’m the weird poet the mainstream is starting to accept. I’m the weird poet who has paid her dues in the experimental world for 30 or 40 years. It’s funny that I’m getting a lot of strokes suddenly after doing really the same thing in slightly different ways for 30 or 40 years. I think people are excited about gender too and not frightened by it today.

JB: When did you start to see that shift?

EM: There’s was always a queer, gay poetry world but the rise of transgender issues makes it easier for people to think about gender than homosexuality ever did.

JB: What do you mean?

EM: People start to see the language as mobile, changeable, that we might have a sense of who we are and it might not have to do in particular with how we present. That we have a lot of power over presentation. A lot of that has been coming out of gender theory for 20 years, but suddenly we are confronted with it as a culture. Chelsea Manning! To have somebody who is being called a traitor suddenly be not just a traitor but a transgender person. We’ve just taken an extra step and I feel like that extra step you don’t take that back. We all start to live there.

JB: You also write a lot about the nature of work, the way social class structures it, and the micro economics of your life—in the earlier poems needing money for rent and food.

EM: Money is much dirtier than sex ever was. That’s why I write about it.

JB: Right, there’s a certain shame where people won’t talk about how much they make.

EM: The actual reality of poverty is the worst part of it, but almost as bad is the shame, how it gets inside of you, how it paralyzes you, stops you from writing and saying what you are undergoing.

JB: There’s a degree to which that shame can be exorcised by writing and talking about it.

EM: I’m proud that I’ve never stopped writing about being poor. Just the sense that I was not supposed to say that made me want to say that. The poet John Wieners, from Boston, talked about how you had to write about what embarrassed you. Money always embarrasses us.

JB: There’s a lot of anxiety in some of your work—poems like “Exploding the Spring Mystique”—about the choice to become a poet or, really, to stay a poet after that initial rush of youthful enthusiasm. Did you seriously contemplate trying to do something else?

EM: I was always just too mentally ill and unfit for anything else. The only job that ever really worked for me was teaching because you are your own master once you get into the room. You just have to show up on time and talk about what you care about. I had years of being a bad employee, always getting fired. When I figured out that I could be a poet it reshaped my whole existence because I knew that nothing else could possibly work.

When I taught for five years it was murder. To be part of something that absorbed you, took care of you, and named you. It made me feel like I was dying. People make their peace with these things, but I’m much better at being in a profession like poetry where it would just be with me as I fell or as I rose. Whatever happened I could keep writing poems.

JB: Animals reoccur throughout your work, especially dogs. What role does living with animals have in self-care?

EM: If you put an animal’s needs in the middle of your life, your life gets better.

You really have to figure out how to get out of New York in order to live in New York, part of a pattern has to be leaving, I developed that pattern as a younger person but it wasn’t until I got a dog in my 40s that I really got it together. I needed to get a car so I could take the dog to the country. I needed to rent places for several months at a time so the dog could play on the beach. All these things the dog needed, I needed desperately but I wouldn’t have known to give them to myself. Even now I basically bought a house for the dog. So while I’m on tour the dog lives in this beautiful place with a third of an acre backyard.

Taking care of the dog is good for me. Being regular, taking a walk, being out in the weather, in all kinds of landscapes. And she gave me a different eye, like having a dog narrator suddenly. I don’t mean literally—well, I do mean literally my next book is about a dog, my last pit bull who died. But in my day-to-day life I just see the world from a different point of view and that point of view is something I need to get out of the eye of Eileen.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.