The Art of Talking: an interview with Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles

by Tom Devaney

It is not for nothing that The New York Times has called Eileen Myles—poet, novelist, critic, editor, former Artistic Director of St. Mark's Poetry Project, and current Director of the Creative Writing Program at UC San Diego—"a cult figure to a generation of post-punk females forming their own literary avant-garde." Thirty years at it, Myles's intimate, intelligent, in-the-know conversational tone has become a palpable influence, asserting itself through sirenic poetry and prose and urgent critical essays. In "Fear of Poetry," a review of Muriel Rukeyser's lost classic The Life of Poetry published in The Nation, Myles gives us insight both into Rukeyser's work as well as her own:

The Life of Poetry—this entirely inappropriate document, this leftist manifesto, this Modernist tract touting poetry as a "theater of total human response"—came out during the McCarthy era (yes, she was investigated). Rukeyser was not of her time, not in the correct way. The book is in part a response to the New Critics of the forties and fifties, who rejected her socialist leanings, her need to write poems "about" crying babies and un-reconstituted nature, and even the occasional remark from God. Yet because of Rukeyser's wily, independent aesthetics, the lefties didn't accept her either. So she created a book that spoke for her.

Likewise, Myles has been working toward an aesthetic which is as wily as it is independent, veraciously creating a body of work that speaks for her. Her three most recent books are Skies (Black Sparrow Press), on my way (Faux Press), and the non-fiction novel Cool for You (Soft Skull Press).

The story of how Cool for You came to be published is telling about Myles's career in general. Before the anarchist indie press Soft Skull published the book, it had been "rejected massively" by almost every major publisher. As it turns out, Soft Skull was the perfect press for Myles, having won notoriety with books such as Fortunate Son, a critical and controversial biography of George W. Bush, and Get Your War On by David Rees. Of the relative success of the novel, Myles says that, "I think for stringing an odd relay of poetics, prose, gender and class in a surprisingly readable package, I made the mainstream shake their heads."

One aspect of Cool for You is Eileen's relationship with her father, who at the end of the novel is dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. Myles describes the book as a "poet's novel" and it is here where her resources as a poet are most tangible; in the novel's final pages, the lyrical and the matter-of-fact are a spliced wire at once conducting and testing the limits of language. With emotional candor and artistic restraint she writes:

I heard my father die. I saw him die, but it was the sound. I know his final notes, not the words, words are nothing. Believe me. Words are empty. It's the squawking of the animal, the wheezing, the desperate wind of a life rattling through the body. I heard him, he was not alone.

It is fitting that after publishing her first novel Myles now says she feels "more clearly a poet than ever." She continues: "a poem is an extravagant grandiose and trembling form, for better or worse always alive; I've brought those weaknesses and virtues into novel writing and I'm dying to do it again." Myles is currently at work on her next book, a novel called The Inferno.

This conversation took place in Philadelphia, after a reading Myles gave at the Kelly Writers House.

TD: What made you decide to write a whole book about skies? Is writing about the sky its own genre?

EM: Absolutely—there's a lot of interest in the sky among painters, photographers, filmmakers. It's the ultimate abstract/figurative project. It's a subject and a space. It's a way for a writer to consider depth. Also I was able to unload a lot of my art writer training there and write a semi-narrative poem and take on subject matter obsessively without being responsible. After all, the sky moves.

TD: The way you register the moods, feelings and atmosphere is distinct in your work. Sometimes it feels like a kind of physical, emotionally meteorology. It's certainly important in Skies; the lines "the pressing / blue / I'm pressing / through" are wonderful. How do you articulate atmosphere?

EM: When you are figuring out what it is you are writing, you're also figuring out what language is. Did you ever sail? I'm absolutely not a big sailor but I've become fascinated. Since our English comes from England, a big imperialist country that both waged war and expanded its borders by means of the sea, you discover what an implied metaphor sailing is even in our American language. People are always bluffing and coming around and seeing what's on the horizon. You take this tack or that. The more you approach sailing the more you realize the English language was largely born on the water. And propelled by the wind. I mean I didn't start sailing, I started watching it. Sitting on the beach watching the wind blow my hair around, and the flags planted on the beach. You can't escape it, it's a kind of line. The invisible influence of the wind. Writing is like that. The body, the boat, is invisible. Certainly the human carrying language is moving through space, even abstractly. You are navigating something. In some ways performance makes this clearer than writing something. And my writing has been affected by my performance experiences and even the things I've learned observing performance. One of my favorite things is Bhakti yoga. Did you ever hear of that?

TD: No, I don't think so.

EM: The Bhakti yogi is a person who addresses this thing—the Bhav—it literally means the quality of the room. The Bhakti yogi's job is to move the Bhav around; you tell a story, you get people chanting, you do something that will move the Bhav up and down. It's like human weather. Each person has this whole sequence of weatherings going on. Anyone who bothers to write poems, I think, ought to change the Bhav a bit—even be self-conscious in public ways that will do that. And even in terms of your own writing practice, you think of times when you write and times when you don't write, and you realize that writing is like shifting the Bhav, individually. The air kind of shifts and keeps shifting when you work. Gets still when you don't. Anticipating, perhaps.

Jimmy Schuyler, of course, is a great teacher of all that. He shows you how you can write about the invisible. I noticed that a lot in his diaries. A breeze that moved through a house quickly, that's a subject. I suppose that inspired me too, to write this book.

TD: One poem from Skies seems to be referring to 9/11. When did you write "Milk"?

EM: "Milk" has become my World Trade Center allegory:

I flew into New York
and the season
a giant burr
something hot was moving
through the City
that I knew
so well. On the
plane though it was
white and stormy
I saw the sun
& remembered the warning
in the kitchen of all places
in which I was
informed my wax
would melt.

The poem goes on and it has nothing to do with what happened that day, but it sounds like I wrote it the day after, with the plane, the sky burning, New York, the people... It was really written out of a sad personal moment. But there it is.

TD: Talking about 9/11 and poetry, I heard you say that you felt proud to be in the community of poets and writers; I felt something similar I think. What made you feel that way?

EM: Well, I read at St. Mark's in the reading they did right after September 11th, and the community was in need of such an event. I was very proud of poets then because fiction writers, The New Yorker ones in particular, were trotting out their statements, like I remember somebody saying the World Trade Center smelled like mozzarella. And that was a memorable moment. Gross. But the poets were pathetically great. Everyone got up and said I can't write. I've got no poem. One woman got up from her seat and sang walking toward the podium. It was like the old avant-garde—responsive and present even in its inarticulateness. People read prayers, read a Rilke poem. So I had this two-year-old poem that sounded like I had been watching the news and taking notes, but it was coincidental. I managed not to ruin my own secret; I just wisely shut up and let it happen.

TD: At the end of on my way is an essay, "The End of New England," that I keep thinking about; in it you write, "Silence is not allowed on TV or radio it's too expensive." What are some of the ways that you think about silence?

EM: Well, I'm all for honoring the silence—picking up the feeling on the inside of it and sometimes simply letting the sentence fragment be; sometimes a little piece of a situation breeds the rest in the mind of the listener. I feel like silence is where poetry (and everything) gets moral. You make a choice. You have to figure out when to talk and when to write over the holes.

TD: How do you think about silence when you are writing compared to when you are giving a reading?

EM: I realize as a writer—as a reader who performs—or whatever we want to call it, if you really want to give some deep quality to the mundane act of reading you learn how to use the silence. I don't fight it. You have to really be willing to stand in that silence and not feel precious, or shy, because again, it's not mine, it's communal.

TD: Silence and space can be powerful.

EM: For awhile. . . in the late '70s and early '80s, when I couldn't get anything else I use to do telephone sales, because you could just wake up and crawl into the office and go and work. In telephone sales they told me that your most powerful tool is silence. It's crazy because people can just hang up. But in the course of the pitch there are these various points where you can stonewall people and it does work. It's awesome.

TD: Earlier we were talking about phrases and combining music and poetry. How do you think about phrases in your own work?

EM: When you call something 'phrases' it just sort of shatters your notion of what poetry is. I think that's great. Because the word poetry has so much baggage attached. Maybe we would have an easier time and fewer limitations if we used 'phrases' in regard to what we're allowed to do and have it still be poetry.

TD: The fact that it's metrically weighted language, or language that's in phrases, i.e. what we call poetry.

EM: When you call poetry 'poetry' it's almost like we put an iron mask on it. And now the phrases have to dance in that little space, grand, grand, grand, but what if you take the mask away?

TD: Are there experiences where you've been able to take the mask away?

EM: I feel I do when I call it a novel, and performing still operates with cadence. But I think I'm really talking about working with a force of nature. Like when we were talking about the wind. When I teach I try and get writers to respond to some panicky force—a movie passing, a view, some fleeting language as the source of the poem—so they will get adept at loss and the choices you make in the face of it.

I like to work with music because a poet can't maintain her mask there. Once I was reading on stage with Sonic Youth. Originally I was going to read before them and then Kim's guitar player Ikue Mori suddenly had to go to Japan at the last minute so Kim was sort of at a loss—I mean she had some other musicians, but at the last minute she asked if I would do something with her. Also the show was running long, so I'm sure the idea was to shorten it by compressing acts. So here's another uncanny force to be a poet against, or next to.

TD: Does working in a situation like that change how you think about what your work is?

EM: Yeah, and that's what's great. What's great is the belief that either within my work, or within their work is some kind of furthering impulse that will carry this new third work.

TD: Coming up with a new kind of whole, which changes all of the relationships.

EM: Yes, absolutely. When I first started going to Richard Foreman plays or various slow-mo avant-garde theater in the '70s, I had never seen anything like it. Yet, I started to go crazy. At some point I started to think if what's going on stage is unconventional then the audience doesn't have to do what we normally do either. You have the right to get up and leave the room, smoke a cigarette, not pay attention, write a poem. If the work is going to be against the grain, then you get to be part of that work and fuck with it too.

I'm wanting to write looser pieces so that I can just throw my phrases in rather than thinking that guitar just blew out my hook, maybe a decentered poem... I'm probably reinventing language poetry or something. Who knows? My hero these days is Bjork.

TD: Really. What records? Homogenic?

EM: Yes, absolutely Homogenic. But it's how she drops words in. . . how she lets words drop into music. I feel like she is being mythic; it's not like the singer or the composer is the star. I feel like she's working with a grid. A lot of electronic music is doing that—clearly the voice and the lyrics are just modules in the whole piece. It's easy for me to imagine it as a painting. Which helps. A visual model helps me. Once I was on some record—a poetry thing. I had to go to [producer and musician] Elliott Sharpe's apartment in the East Village. He had tons of computer recording stuff in his crowded apartment, it was great. So I stood at the mike to read my poem, and while I was reading a cat jumped off the shelf and made a racket. I looked at him, like should I stop, but he waved me on to continue. Then afterwards, it was so amazing: he showed me the screen, a bright burbling line that represented me reading and this jagged point on the line which was the cat. Then spiff! He erased it out. Visually he took the sound away.

So I'm considering that approach to poetry, or writing. It's a picture of sound—always was—so it's as moving as a film, as canvasy as a painting. I'm getting kind of manic. What if "Poetry" had patterning pieces that had freestanding implications? I guess I am talking John Cage again.

TD: Maybe Cage melded with Bjork—when you listen to her you feel like you're listening to something first-hand, like Monk picking out a chord high up on the keyboard, or even O'Hara's epic realism in the odes.

EM: Yes, something is happening here. You were talking earlier about a reading you did where people were laughing while you were reading. Immediately that became a sonic event for me. I just thought how fun it would be to go into the studio and record your poems with people laughing occasionally. You could retool your poems with laughter in them. What if the laughter was a line? I never think about composing a poem with real sounds, or actually sampling, but obviously I could.

TD: Once I was writing and getting hungry and thought it would be great if I could get a pizza delivered into my poem. I also remember writing and outside my window I could see someone taking out the trash and I thought what if all these trash bags started getting piled up in my poem? That's not a sonic thing, but it is the kind of thinking that keeps you to open to possibilities.

EM: So the poem could accommodate a pizza or trash, yes! I was at the Northwest Book Fair with the poet Tony Hoagland. It was a weird situation because there were all these readings going on at the same time, and in between each reading there was a big curtain, like a sound stage with something on the other side. Tony got up to read and people on the other side were going crazy and laughing uproariously, and you could distantly hear some other man's voice—turns out it was Dan Savage. But Tony Hoagland is reading these poems that were intimate, touching, felt poems. He was really being disrupted. You could see he was tortured because he would read a sad poem and then laughter; it was hell, hell. And of course I was the lucky one since I went second. It was so fun to get up knowing exactly what was going to happen and reading into it. Also I guess the message was: never be that intimate!

TD: How do you read into it? Acknowledge what's going on?

EM: In a way, yes, you can hear the laughter and not let it stop the poem. If you allow the laughter--whenever it happens—you can weirdly join it. Once you know a crashing sound is coming from upstairs and you're reading downstairs, you can deal with it. It's what's standup comedians know. You can join it so every one hears it together and then you all stop hearing together. You have to create the sheen.

TD: "The working class speech is so embedded in the sound structure of language." Tonight when you were reading I heard your Boston accent so distinctively, and you said it is important for you to say certain words. It has something to do with writing poetry in your own language no matter what that language is. Whether the content of the poetry is personal or not, there is something supremely idiomatic about your work.

EM: I think everyone is writing in their own class. I think a lot of the pleasure we've been talking about in many ways the poetry world discourages; I know if someone called me a performance poet I would just roll my eyes because they are stripping something away by that description. It implies the poem is less. But the poems are good. I am not being a clown to get over some basic weakness in my work. The physical aspect of the poem, i.e., the voice reading, is as important to me as the printed aspect. The poetry world is a middle-class world; there's an almost non-regional, non-visceral language that we're implicitly encouraged to read and write in. It's like we're a bunch of bourgeoisie newscasters. Same with dips in scale. If it's funny, it should stay funny. If you are speaking as a member of this caste, you should stay in this caste. Otherwise it's not exactly a poem, which for all our protestations is still a kind of commodity, a calling card, at least. Here, reach me here in the Language school, the New York school, the gay school, the Iowa school. Most of us are mixed class-wise. I've always contended that George Bush is probably the only guy in America who is always at home. Most of us have to do something, accommodate somehow to be heard. Take a step. He's so at home, he gets down-home to get across, and folks say "he's people." I don't know if he's stupider than his father, or prouder of his stupidity, which explains his great success. And his great success is minor. He's just on top.

TD: You seem to have found a way to be comfortable with yourself and in your work. It's curious to think how many experiences one has to have to be able to speak in a way, or in a voice (if that's what you're after) that is your own—the rigor of comfort.

EM: That's good, the rigor of comfort. My god. When I first came to town, I decided to present myself as working class, as I was, because Bruce Springsteen existed at that moment. There seemed to be a way in the music world to be from a lower-class background and I thought maybe I shouldn't pretend to be like everyone else, because I would be stumbling around anyway—maybe I shouldn't accommodate this thing, whereas I could certainly be a working class Irish female from Boston because that's who I am.

TD: So how did you become yourself?

EM: The world we live in encourages us to become less of ourselves all of the time. I hadn't been in the Boston poetry scene, I hadn't been to private school, I was capable of anything because I hadn't really learned what I was suppose to like.

When I came to New York to become a poet I thought about all this stuff; all through my education and growing up there were many different pronunciations of the same word, what do those pronunciations indicate, what do they say about me, what do they say about what I want to say? My parents had different accents. They dressed their thoughts in different R's. It's interesting to think that every piece of that meant desire. They desired differently.

TD: How is desire connected to dialect, as you describe it?

EM: Literally which language you pick is where you'll go. As soon as you open your mouth people decide where to put you. Growing up of course we were pushed to speak better English, and yet the people living next door to me seemed to live more excitingly than us, so I began to aspire to speak worse. Language brings you someplace. There's this little desiring thing in between, an aesthetic survival. Bjork pushing the buttons.

TD: It totally informs your language, but don't you think about your writing as something larger than that too?

EM: Larger than which? I'm interested in breaking it down even further. Every kind of new monster you create in a poem makes your writing more privately yours and more publicly anonymous. The pleasure is to keep changing the locks—which is easy because I'm not constant—some other word node always comes down and you start importing that body of information from some whole other place. The pleasure of being.

TD: As you say in "The End of New England," who you are is coming in and going out in different directions.

EM: The work is something bigger, but I feel passionately about continuing to make a stance in this class, or I would say that the bowl that holds everything else is working class, which means I can also be comfortable wherever I go. George Bush isn't the only one who has the perfect language. I have it too, every time I make a poem.

TD: Part of what we've been talking about seems related to what you've called "tone moments." How is that connected to our conversation?

EM: There are all these Zen moments in language. You know the Zen master wants to make some point and they thump the table hard or they hit the floor with a stick and—POW—all moments collapse—it makes you pay attention. Likewise, as you go along writing a poem or reading a poem.

There are readings of vowels that just have different emotional meanings. In his diaries Jimmy [Schuyler] talks about emphasis in poetry and it made me crazy because his poems are so full of that.

TD: Are "tone moments" the moments when the poetry happens?

EM: Nobody talks in that reassuring newscaster tone or even in the latest poetry tone: "The night / it was / impor-tant," or all the very precious ways we have of talking or making poetry, which has no sound. It puts you to sleep. The English language—American language—when I think about America I think about violence. One reason we need to write fragmented poems is because we are in a dangerous violent country; we always have been and here we are again. If we heard our president's actual speeches we would know what he meant. They are hiding the violence. In fact if we listen to anybody talk—all those weird pauses and staccato moments and flurries—poetry is like a sound check. The technician needs to know how high you go, how low. Then they can accommodate the speaker and the audience. But the poet's doing that naked and alone.

TD: You have a distinctive tone and attitude that comes through in the work on the page and when you read, but are there things that you still continue to learn from poets like Schuyler?

EM: Every time I do a two or three-beat stop at the end of a poem I think of Jimmy. In the poem "This Dark Apartment" he does this two-beat thing, "They were / not my lovers, though. / You were. You said so." That ending is so complete: da da da—"You said so." But it's more than that too, when you look at the way the meaning moves: "They / were not / my lovers / you were"; push "you said so." Suddenly the reader becomes the lover and takes the brunt of those three beats: "You said so." The direction of the poem absolutely flips right there. Who can not feel that as an emotional moment? It's made emotional by the beats. He does that shit all the time, he'll just turn it short.

TD: You didn't do that exact cadence, but you did something similar tonight in a poem.

EM: Yes, "Scribner's"—it goes:

Rosie just
wants to
put her belly
on some cool
cement. Does.

I do this.
Appear to
be a bum
in my hiking
boots & hairy
legs I'm no
longer a dyke
just a man.

hello little

The thing that sets it up is the "Does" —that's a real Jimmy moment here. But I think Ashbery does that too. I was riding in a car with Ashbery and Creeley after Creeley's 50th birthday party in Buffalo, and Ashbery and Creeley were talking about all the people they went to college with at Harvard, and Creeley says to Ashbery, "And what of old Applebee who was lately dying?" And Ashbery goes: "Did."

It's also very upper class.

TD: But that exchange also sounds self-consciously, or knowingly so. There's a line from "The End of New England" where you write, "Class is utterly without content"—but then go on to give content.

EM: Class is more the elimination of content. That act. Again and again. The cliché is working-class people drinking the beer, eating the starches, burping and fucking and just kind of "making our country work." Or sentimentally so. But it's much more gestural than that. It's not a commodity culture, it's a doing culture.

TD: There's certainly a lot to say about gesture and non-verbal articulation in connection to content.

EM: It's a whole web of things said and unsaid, more unsaid, really. I think it's a working-class condition to be proudly redundant.

TD: Using the same words to say many different things?

EM: Exactly.

TD: Or the multiple things silence says and doesn't say—which seems to get more complicated in relation to class.

EM: It's a relationship to power because you are so often not controlling the situation, but are commenting on it, or furthering it. Facilitating it. So your relationship to language is different—you don't bother to create the whole room because the room is not yours.

TD: I think you negotiate some of the complexities we've been talking about in the way you write—especially your essay style, which tends to be an accumulation of thoughts that helps to put across some larger ideas.

EM: Often what's tricky is that the one sentence by itself is more like a traffic signal. You can pay attention to it, but the traffic signal is not about the traffic signal; it's about the traffic. So a sentence that sounds like it's about to say so much is really marking a place where so much has already been said that it has to stop. A lot of what I do in prose is to try to keep a sea of things moving. Sometimes I feel that's the point.

TD: It's like a great conversation. Sometimes what I am responding to in your work is the immediacy of talking to a great friend. It's a give and a take, and you may lose some logical connectors from idea to idea, but what you get is immediacy, a sense of how things really go.

I gave a reading at a high school and one of the students asked me, "Who is your audience? and I said, "You are my audience!" They laughed, but really it's a good question. I know Stein said, "Everybody's a real one to me, everybody's like someone else too to I write for myself and strangers." The perceptive thing about that is the problem of how familiar you can be naming things or people, given who you think your audience might be.

EM: It's so weird. When you name things specifically you can do it for a number of different reasons—it could be for a historic sense. The thing that makes it work or not is whether you do it in an intimate way or a felt way—or else what does it mean? It's got to be that—that would be the name that you would call your dog. A familiar world is filled with specifics. If they're delivered with some consciousness of the intimacy and distance that make communication—then you wind up with something more inviting than off-putting.

TD: When you think about how and what you write, do you think it has changed drastically over the years?

EM: There might be sea changes in people's lives or writing lives where suddenly everything gets thrown out and everything that comes in is new. But I feel like you have one good idea and you have another idea and then you add it on. When I think about the stuff I've written since the '70s I feel like that's kept happening—I've started with certain things and I've never seemed to abandon them, and one is to write in a very personal style because I am really comfortable doing that. When I started I wanted to turn the tap on and give myself permission to write in a way that would keep me writing. I wanted to get playing.

TD: Did you also get that permission from other writers?

EM: I knew when I read Henry Miller, this kind of American guy complaining, or when I read the New York School poets, I knew that the door was open for me and I could do that. Many things have changed since then, but I've never lost the desire to write autobiographically. It's interesting to me. You can do so much with it. You drop so much and you can hold so much and you can say so much.

TD: I feel artists and writers have magnets in them, or at least I hone in on certain concerns repeatedly. Are there things that you've noticed yourself attracted to over time?

EM: No, what I really think... I think I'm probably not supposed to say. I am a female obsessed with the death of the father, completely obsessed about it. Around the time I published my novel I thought, are you just going to write about this forever? Yes, sure, absolutely. In some ways it's all I am ever going to write about. I think of language as something that comes out of some condition of loss. In my case, I can name mine: it's about being a child who lost a beloved parent, and it was the male parent, the dad. I keep thinking about that in different ways. And I suspect this story covers something else, but that's not my job to figure out. I just mark the spot.

TD: How do you see the absence of your father in relation to other male figures in your life?

EM: My teachers for the most part were men. And they are not going to replace my father or be my father; I also keep looking at myself as a female writer in a line of male writers. Though I'd like to talk to women about that. It's what we're all doing.

TD: I love the ending of Cool for You. It's so deliberate—so lyrically unstable—it feels honest. I follow the lines wherever you go because you put them across. In a way you can feel your lineage, but you can also see that you are not your lineage. For one thing, as you say, your lineage hasn't had a female life.

EM: I feel like I'm a female writing man. Where does that put me? In a week I'm on a panel at Poets House about feminism—with me and all these women, because they think I am a woman, but I am a woman! That's my mystery—that's my work.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003