Eileen Myles is a poet, writer, and performer who traverses geography and genre on a regular basis. Her most recent book, Snowflake / different streets, is housed in the dos-à-dos book form which allows two volumes of poetry—one based in New York City, the other in Southern California—to coexist and collide into each other from either ends of the book. While Myles’s roots lie in poetry—she got her start at the St. Marks Poetry Project in the 1970s, which she later became the director of—she has never located herself solely in the poetry world. Myles has written a poet’s novel Inferno, a libretto, journalism and essays, short story collections, and multiple volumes of poetry—in addition to touring globally as a performer. With her post-punk sensibility, her downright coolness, and her ongoing involvement with projects like a Zen homeless retreat, Myles keeps us following her next move. If that’s not enough, she also received a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship for nonfiction.
After our in-person interview in New York was bolloxed by Hurricane Sandy, Myles and I spoke over Skype in mid-December.
K. BRADFORD: Language is so loaded. Histories of domination and current realities shape the language we use. Language can be both rich and troublesome especially in terms of identity and culture. How do you see yourself working with that complicated terrain of language—pushing against it, resisting it, or creating new possibilities?
EILEEN MYLES: Everything’s about class in some way, in the same way that everything about sex is about class. Everything about language is about class. You’re always giving a huge amount of information, and you’re always speaking as a member of a certain group in a way. It’s never without context. I’m very aware of that. When I first started writing poetry—especially because I was young and I had no idea who I was or who or what was speaking or who or what was making these poems—I made up a bit of a character who was quite a lot like me and decided that they were writing my poems. I exteriorized some of the things that actually made up my own identity. And I thought of all of the different ways of speaking I heard when I was growing up and what I liked and didn’t like. I’ve always been obsessed with the sonorous qualities of speech and with what figures of speech can most appropriately be said in conversation as opposed to in a poem. I realized one of the tests of a figure of speech is whether one can actually hear it in the world as opposed to seeing it only in a poem.
It’s weird because it’s a lot like how I felt about gender when I was younger. When I was a child I felt I was male or ought to be male and wondered why I was female. And then it became that I was simply female, and I couldn’t see how I was going to get out of this. I spent years walking a funny line where when I thought about clothes, if I could see something being worn by both genders I wanted it. If I saw a piece of men’s clothes and I wanted to wear it, I had to wait until I saw another female wear it so that I wouldn’t be playing my cards too strongly.
I’m really obsessed with the language of my poems being language that is in the world. I’m not having to give birth to new language—I’m using the language that is already there. I’m putting it next to language that might be surprising. Like when you look at a film and see how a film is edited—there are visual puns and auditory puns and there’s repetition and a pan and it’s just an inventory. There are so many different devices which we use in poetry and writing too. I’m interested in recombining different kinds of moments that can be grasped in language and putting them next to each other.
I don’t like the word accessible so much, but early on I thought that though my mother would not read my poems, I wanted her to be able to. There’s a way that no matter how abstract my work might get for a moment I like to save it with something vernacular in the next moment. So it would be, “oh that’s Eileen,” or that’s something that you could just hear anywhere. There’s a kind of anywhere-ness and an anyone-ness that’s really exciting and important to me in language—that language not be of a particular privileged class.
All class is a privilege, even the lowliest have a vernacular that is all their own that they use to keep people in and keep people out. I like to use a lot of vernaculars next to each other in awkward ways because we all deal with the filters of the larger culture which is always trying to decide if you know what you’re doing. And if you break enough rules the assumption will be that you don’t know what you’re doing. So I like to play it really close to that and take risks with writing in a way that seems inarticulate and inconsequential and using exactly those possibilities to say exactly what I want to say.
KB: In terms of gender and queerness do you feel that there’s a way that you can have a certain mobility around femininity or masculinity as you maneuver between gendered languages?
EM: That would be the goal I think—to express that. The thing that’s great about being a writer is that we are in a utopian sphere. We are operating in a place where we get to call the shots. We get to make the order. We get to put things in and take things out. It’s my institution. That’s where my gender has complete fluidity. That’s part of the pleasure and the purpose of writing I think.
KB: Have there been times when you’ve pushed up against the way language wants to trap us around gender?
EM: Oh sure. Even with changing pronouns in a given piece and realizing you have that option, not just to be writing Orlando, for example, but because there are moments when you would use “he” culturally. And sometimes I want to use “he.” The kind of common the-human-is-male “he.” And sometimes that seems right, and that’s fun. I don’t always want to make a feminist moment out of a moment where I would actually just rather have it slip by and have gender not be the point.
KB: One of the things I love about your work is the bluntness and directness to your speech. Even though there’s lots of complexity there’s no BS—
EM: I don’t know what BS means in that sentence…
KB: I mean, being a straight-shooter. Like pushing against the grain even if that grain is a preciousness of poetics. Or that choice between saying something that’s more out there, or what’s on top of your head. I was wondering about that directness of daily speech in your work. Where does that come from for you?
EM: I really believe in being meta. I feel like whatever we’re talking about, there’s a point at which you think, what are we talking about? I want the piece to ask that question inevitably—who this conversation is between, what the subject is, what the limits of the situation are. There’s a way in which a piece of writing isn’t that different from a panel discussion. You start to watch where it’s going, and you think weirdly we haven’t mentioned this. And I feel compelled for whatever reason to be the person that says that. That’s one of the reasons I chose to become a writer, because you can stop in the middle of the proceedings and say, “Wait!” You can’t always do that in life. One of the benefits of language, whether public or private, is there is a chance to interrogate it.
I mean, it’s weird, I asked you about BS because I find myself getting described by such words as “badass” and I think I don’t even know what that means. And I think part of that is about being female. I can think of about ten names for what you would call a man who does that, you know what I mean. We don’t expect much of women. But we do expect women to go along with the show, to go along with the party. Every woman in any public space knows that her spot is contested, and she could always be replaced with another woman. Rather than ever being people who are very specific, we are always reminded, if not in the public context than in the private one, of how general we are. You’re always talked to as “any woman that age” or “any woman of that gender” or “people like you.” It’s extraordinary how the female person is not regarded as a person who has specific rights—only kind of general applications.
KB: The idea of badass is often used when we feminists and queers recognize that we are doing something bold. Sometimes it is about women stepping into the world in more masculine ways, but there is still the terrible assumption that women aren’t going to act boldly. With three or four decades of feminism and queer rights underway, what progress do you see?
EM: It’s great, but in some ways I think it’s as segregated and as non-fluid as ever.
I think part of that is the internet. Part of that is how publishing is changing. The public space is changing. You can say anything you want anywhere you want, in a way. But in terms of what will get reported or who will get quoted I think it’s an even smaller whole.
It’s weird I got a Guggenheim last year. And it was sort of terrific because it was almost like, did somebody decide to give a lot of queers Guggenheims? I’m really curious to see who gets them next year, because it seems like there was a wave. It was very funny: we were very delighted. There was a group picture, and the joke was, “It’s the Gay-genheim.” We all got together and had a group picture. It was funny because there were a few straight people who didn’t understand what the nature of the picture was, so they got in the picture too, and understood later that they were standing in the queer picture. It was really terrific.
As serious as we take “queer” as an academic and cultural description, it’s still regarded in certain settings as an insult or entertainment group or a private club.
It’s both great and more fluid and in a certain way even more codified than ever before because I think it’s much easier for people to decide to not deal with us at all.
To think of that as a particular flavor and not a more general flavor. It still is seen as undermining the strength of any situation to bring in queer as a question. I think it’s still actually quite suspect and quite all its own planet in a lot of ways.
I mean every time I get called badass I think, they didn’t want to say queer. Or they didn’t want to say feminist—or say a whole lot of words that would have been more interesting and better to use. But we have these labels that I think are weirdly censoring in a way.
KB: So are you into post-identity? Do you want that for yourself or the world?
EM: What do you mean?
KB: America is very boxed in—identities are broken down into binaries of male and female, black and white, etc. Many of us are trying to push past that and evoke a fluidity. I connect to that in your work—your queerness is there and your gender variance (or whatever you like to call it) is there, but it’s a piece. It’s not just fluid, it’s like there are gears that are a part of something moving.
EM: When we talk about literature, there are tweets and there are three-volume novels. And, selected poems and collected poems and a poem. There are so many different packages for the same energy to travel through. I think post-identity is sort of a zen concept. You know like, “Wake up!” (Smacks hands with a sharp clap). What’s the identity of that moment? What’s the gender of that moment? There are spots where there is no identity whatsoever.
But by the nature of who I am or who any of us are we will need to be in groups that resemble us. It’s so crucial to have those identity groups where you gather and are reinforced by your conversations. And don’t live there. Something I’m really interested in is how queer identity is like an immigrant group. We need to find each other at various points to say, “God—Iceland!” But we don’t live in Iceland. I think “post” is a desire to have a little space, but I don’t think it’s a place where you get to stay.
KB: I wrote a review of the new Sister Spit anthology for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The book shows us the inner sanctum of the touring van hurtling through America. This amazing queer crew—and if you want to say badass writers—spills out of the van onto the stages of America. There was a culture and world happening inside the van that radiated out into communities. What was your experience touring with Sister Spit?
EM: Weirdly, I don’t have a copy of the book yet. Sister Spit was so great for all of us at different points. Some people had been in bands, some people had not been in bands—but everybody had that desire to be on the road, to be a touring artist. That thing we are talking about, to not only be in that identity group but to move with it. You think about a moment in time where there’s lesbian separatist land like Michigan Women’s Festival. To counter it with Sister Spit which is really mobile. It started in the twentieth century but it’s very post-twentieth century. It’s not a static community structure in any way. Even to the point where it’s not all lesbians. It’s not all queer. It’s not all women. It’s this new thing. And the fact that the make up of the personalities was not constant either is great. I was honored and delighted to be a part of it. It could not have been more wonderful.
KB: There is a loose coolness to the way your poems travel on the page, you do this associative leaping where you travel through images and moments quickly, easily. This comes across when you read as well. There’s a cool, relaxed cadence that fits the structuring of your poems. Can you talk about this?
EM: It’s so amazing that we have these pulsing, rich, imaginary spaces. The thing that always seemed exciting to me about being a poet is you get to show how that space operates. I’m sort of offended by the term “stream of consciousness,” but indeed every consciousness is alive. One moves through thoughts and moves through the world and the day by sailing from one thought to the next. You know, in the same way that you don’t want to stand at a party and be trapped in a corner by somebody who wants to tell you everything that they’re thinking about you or about them. It’s like you want people to make selections. So learning to make those selections and to hopefully create a sense of moving through a lot of territory, slightly nimbly, is a real desire of mine for why I want to write.
I’ve given myself more permission and different kinds of permission over the years as I’ve become a more experienced reader in letting it sound more like how I might want it to sound. I don’t know what it sounded like when I first began writing poems. It’s changed. And I’ve gotten more permission to have more latitude in performing, and that’s been fun too. And to consciously even perform. In the same way that you might know that there’s silence between this stanza and that one. There’s silence between these two words. This is a fast poem, this is a slow poem. And to give myself permission to have that in front of people. Miming some appropriate way that people in my scene read poems. To start to realize I am my scene.
KB: Why is it important for the text to live off the page?
EM: It’s not that a text isn’t living and that books we read and the way we respond to them and walk down the street with them and think about them aren’t living, but as a maker of new texts I want them to be returned to the world in this way. And that’s what excites me. Like giving poetry to the wrong people.
I made these puppets when I was in grade school. These puppets are among my favorite possessions. There’s an alligator, a ghost, two guys, and a woman. For a few years I’ve been thinking, “What am I going to do with the puppets?” Recently someone asked me to be in a film about gender, and I said yes. I thought about gender as a topic. I was like, “I don’t know, what what? What is it about gender?” So then they asked, “Where do you want to be shot?” I figured out in the eleventh hour that this was the opportunity to use the puppets. Yes puppets! And then we had to figure out where. There’s a pizza shop a block away with good light, nice booths. It was really crazy, it was like writing a tiny script for the puppets the night before and then going to the pizza shop and delivering a little playlet on gender at Two Boots. It was so fun. And now I’m obsessed. I started tweeting—and my joke is, I announced I was going to record every poem I ever wrote in a performance by a puppet. I’ve done two so far. And they’re shitty! They’re not good!
Last weekend there was a group reading of Charles Dickens at Housing Works, and I brought a puppet, Marley’s ghost. Part of it is to relieve the boredom of being me and to serve as some texture. Sometimes it’s about showing up differently instead of a larger goal to distribute the work more widely. I’m pleased with the life I’ve lived—how things can fit back in later. The puppets are now poets.
KB: In Snowflake / different streets with the dos-à-dos book form, there is a collision that happens between these two worlds, almost a physics of images and scenes that push up against each other. Now that the book is made how do you see that poetics of collision?
EM: Well the funniest thing is when somebody asks me how many books I have now, and I don’t know whether to say eighteen or nineteen. And I tend to say eighteen. Because it seems to be ripping them apart to say nineteen. You know? And that’s really funny. The dos-à-dos was the perfect solution aesthetically for how two bodies of work that are related but separate could be together. I kind of hate those little poetic dividers. I’m like no, it’s still in the same book. To literally turn the book around and go the other direction—when I think about it we could have even gone further with the design, to make the dead center of the book be something that went both ways.
KB: What risks at this point in your career are you most excited to take in writing?
EM: To write things that seem impossible to me. The book that I’m currently working on purports to be a dog memoir but it also goes to fantastic places. I have a lot of fantasy about what the nature of reality is, but I haven’t done extensive forays into fantasy. And that’s what I want to let this book be: a shuttling between a real heartfelt dog memoir and some really made up shit. And what’s the poetry of that.
I always feel like there are things I assign myself that will be in a book and once I get to that place it’s like, “Oh, god.” And yet that’s the challenge—to stretch yourself. I have some ideas in poetry that I’m excited about working on that I don’t know if I can do, but it seems much more interesting than doing what I know I can do.
KB: So, if you had a tail what kind of tail would you have?
EM: I would prefer to have a nice bushy tail.
KB: Do you relate to the idea of being a trickster? The way humor plays a role in your work, how you’ve used Eileen Myles as a character—invoking the question “Who is Eileen Myles?”—in many moments, as well as the turns you make in your poems, the trickster seems at work.
EM: When I first heard that word I felt really excited, and I want to dedicate my life and my work to it, in quiet ways as well as large ways. So the short answer is yes. It’s a little magical. Part of it is the body. In some ways things are so obvious, and then you want to blink and that not be true. For there to be a bait and switch where you thought you’re going one way and suddenly it’s something else entirely. So we should have that in literature too.