Poets CA Conrad and Eileen Myles discuss the past, Myles’s novel Inferno, and Modern Maturity.
There is that scene in the film Henry and June where Henry Miller reaches over to the radio blaring Hitler’s voice, and he snaps it off. He’s been having a beautiful moment with June, and they’re in love. Hitler’s not going away, and they can feel the presence of his very real, dark world-view closing in, but just the same they’re having their beautiful moment together inside the darkness. Eileen Myles is the living embodiment of this very kind of force that transmutes the aura of bondage into standing free, blatantly and beautifully free, from all the evil bastards of the world.
my need to say
that you can
That’s a quote from the brand new Myles poetry collection Snowflake/different streets from Wave Books. “[M]y need”—she says, and she’s not kidding—“to say / that you can.” Infectious, genius exuberance awaits! The poet Frank Sherlock recently showed me a list published in the International Business Times of the top five regrets people have on their deathbeds. Things like “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Eileen Myles is like a study in the emancipation of a life, for instance her reader’s life. Meaning YOU!
Her new poet’s novel Inferno (OR Books) is a map to the discovery of being a poet, like you can feel the discovery in process as if it’s actually happening to YOU as you read. This is a writer who watched dear friends die of AIDS the ’80s and ’90s while they were still young, and found the courage to understand: “I pick up a book and / another book and memory / and separation seem to / be all anyone writes / about.” YES, I said she “found the courage,” as though it’s possible to stand outside culture looking in with anything less than nerve, audacity, in other words, courage. “[M]y need to say / that you can” stand in the middle of chaos and create your own life. You can. You can one day realize as she writes, “Everybody / has one missing piece / and all the beauty’s / about it.” This interview is another gift she gives us. It was my pleasure to have this opportunity with one of the great writers of our time.
CA Conrad When I first read Inferno, I was cat-sitting for you, and I was up all night reading it. Then I went out and walked around your neighborhood in the Lower East Side. I think there are still a lot of pieces of that book around out there, right? But it’s not at all the feeling of your book, those streets as they are now. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But what I thought about a lot, that morning after reading the book all night was, “How did Eileen get back to this information inside her?” I mean was it as simple as recalling events or did you enhance the recall with music of the time or talking with friends from back then? Did certain foods help? What was your process for opening—or reopening—that giant space inside you where your Inferno lives?
Eileen Myles I think what generated the book wasn’t New York at all—it was Boston—but then I had to put an entire novel after that first chapter. By then (2002) I had taken a job in San Diego, which helped. It helped me abstract New York. Dante was banished to Ravenna when he wrote The Inferno. I was a little NY-banished when I wrote most of it. I mean I was in denial that I wasn’t living in NY. People would go, “Are you here?” as we do in NY, and I’d emphatically say “Yes,” but really I was living in San Diego. I just came back a lot. But like you said I had been living in NY for almost thirty years, so the organism is like a camera recording all the time. I probably don’t think about New York so much, but it’s my syntax without thinking.
During my time away from New York, I came back once to be on a search committee at the MLA. It spurred a memory of having been in a New York hotel as a young person “kind of” doing sex work—the search was in that same hotel (now renovated) and 30 years later. That was midtown, uptown. East Village was I guess the ideal neighborhood from the prospect of California. Or it was reality. And I’m sitting in New York once again. Who’s thinking about it? I need distance in writing both in time and in space to render fiction—unlike poetry—which is all here, NY or wherever. You know the blog large-hearted boy—that guy asked me for a playlist for Inferno—songs that would work for locations or moments. “Rainy Night in Georgia” by Gladys Night and the Pips is the only one that jumped right out. That’s 1974. I interviewed people for Cool for You but not Inferno at all. I asked permission once in a while, but that’s different.
CAC You say you need time and space for fiction. I think about our bodies replacing their cells every seven years, and we keep becoming these other people. Or we don’t. We can keep putting the same shit into our bodies, and every seven years it’s kind of the same. But you quit drinking, a long time ago now. I admire how in Inferno you don’t judge that younger you, and you don’t romanticize her either. You say THIS is what we were doing. And the book is brilliant, some of the best writing around, so clearly you’re writing better than ever while sober. You never intend to say drinking equals good writing.
EM I think I’m writing for somebody—like being the ghostwriter for someone who had a very different life from my life today. Not in every single way. I live in the same apartment she did. I know some of the same people she knew. But there already was a certain pastness about my relationship to her even when the span of time was much smaller than it is now. That sense of pastness always gave me a feeling of being able to write with the self as if she were an other. And writing I think is something that allows us to study that edge and that gap and even spread as much love onto the tear between this moment or that moment or years ago today. To talk about alcohol is to talk about a really good friend who just took my life and shook it for a bunch of years. It’s like weather that’s passed and yet there’s no guarantee that another storm won’t come and blow the house down. Nobody’s impervious to weather, but I do feel like not drinking is the condition I’m writing in today. It gives me a great deal of freedom that being drunk on my ass probably wouldn’t give. I do recall how much I liked that life. So I don’t write with envy about someone who lived like that. I drank as much as she did.
CAC You and that younger you have seen some incredible shifts in the writing world. There’s a new box collection of classic poetry in the bookstores that I’m seeing. Of the ten books there are only two by women: Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. What a different world we have now. Your book Inferno is filled with all kinds of women writers, and it feels right to say that we are living in the transition period. I see younger women poets who don’t even think it’s a big deal that they’re writers and women. The field has been blown open, for good it feels. Something has arrived in that way where you know that this is now the world as we know it. There have never been this many women writing and publishing, and I’m so glad to be HERE, NOW. Whenever I meet someone who says they would rather live in centuries past I think that they must be fucking crazy! Really? You want to GO BACK? And give this up? It’s madness!
EM Is it so great for women now? I’m not convinced. We can disregard the media but nonetheless its propaganda surrounds us. You know, there used to be this magazine called Modern Maturity that the US government forced you to get (if you had an address) once you turned 50. I was so mad when it came into my mailbox. Now it’s called AARP, and on its cover this month is the smiling relaxed face of George Bush. I went to see Marlene McCarty’s show at NYU today, and it was a funny combination of things, but mostly big drawings of people, with an accent on hair, drawings of animals too but all the drawings that had living creatures were arrangement of them, you know three people or two people and two animals and so on. One trio was these hipster sleazebags, three of them, and we were like, “Who is that guy? Where do we know him from?” It was George Bush with long hair and tight bell-bottoms. It was so satisfying to see him appropriated that way. His conversation in AARP was about faith and decision-making and his great success. I mean he has killed so many people. He talked about the women in Afghanistan and his concern for them and then he talked about his “little girls.” He kept talking about them in this diminutive way. Tiny little things. It was like dirty sex talk. He truly was that guy in the picture. When people talk about my work they talk about whether or not it’s memoir. They talk about genre. They don’t even want to talk about my writing. I have lots of good answers, but they just can’t decide what I’m doing. Like I signed up to listen to them muse. It’s so about being female. They just can’t trust that I know what I’m doing. I mean, to be this far in your life and to be in such an arena of specialty and to be endlessly questioned like you’re the secretary. Of course. How would I know what art is? Some guy interviewed me and he clearly hadn’t read my book, and he asked me why I didn’t think it was memoir. I told him in great detail and very carefully and wisely I thought and then he said “Got it.” Like impatiently, like would I please shut up. I mean he hadn’t read it. But he was impatient with me. I think I’m hardly more than a symptom. It’s not so good. I guess I’m wondering why anyone thinks I’m a woman. I think that’s more interesting. I wonder why I should even be interviewed as a woman. If they can decide what my book is why can’t I decide what I am? I mean I know I can in our queer world—that’s a given—but in the literary world . . . . Since a woman is one who “doesn’t know,” why shouldn’t we just refuse our gender? What would be the answer? Rape?
CAC That’s devastating and amazing. Shit. There are women in Inferno, women who I identified with in a very real way, women who—at times—remind me of my mother scraping by when I was a kid, a mother who eventually had no choice but to have us live in a car for half a year. And I think of Maria Raha writing in her amazing book Hellions, about being a young woman on Long Island reading On The Road, excitedly identifying with the men of the story until they drive to wherever they’re driving to, where “the girls” are waiting. When “the girls” arrive in the story Maria is like WAIT A MINUTE THAT’S NOT WHO I WAS IDENTIFYING WITH AT ALL WHAT THE FUCK.
I think I’m trying to say that YOU, Eileen Myles, write about women in the most important ways possible. I don’t know if it irritates you to hear me say that, but I really mean it. I’m so glad you write. Your writing changes my life. It’s changes the lives of many people in ways you may or may not imagine. Not only writing for women, but for queers.
Eileen I think this world is so horrible, but it is very much worth losing sleep over. I believe Mina Loy’s Feminist Manifesto is correct when she looks at the women around her wanting the jobs that men have and she says REALLY, YOU WANT THAT? Loy says the only answer is to tear it to the ground and start over. To NOT want what men have. She literally wrote that a century ago, and we’re now killing three children a day in Afghanistan with women and gays in the military and George Bush is STILL lying saying we’re HELPING Afghanistan.
Roberto Rossellini said, “People today only know how to live in society, not in community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love.” He’s generalizing of course, but in a grand, brave way, which is what I admire in his work. The communities of the various queer world I’ve known are being absorbed by the larger machine now, the machine with the teeth to take on entire nations, kill their people, starve them, make them obey. Even Saint Francis wanted community over the societal structures he was born into. There’s so much community in your Inferno. It’s where I linger over the sentences the most, like the writing about WRITING together, taking drugs, writing, showing one another what you wrote. Sister Spit is a community you have inhabited. What is community for you as a writer, how has it shaped you as a writer?
EM I love that Rossellini quote. I think every piece of writing is an expression of your true community. A piece of writing is one thing after another, and you are moving associatively in time, putting moments next to each other, passages that you think are in real congress. It’s your club. Every piece of writing is a club, and it attracts another club to you. It’s sticky.
I think a lot of the apparent resistance to women’s writing or queer writing and definitely writing that doesn’t conform to desires for its genre to be clearly this thing or that—or even look like “hybridity”—what does that look like—is just a fearful projection of some imaginary reader’s horror at being dropped into a vat of female thoughts and sensations that they would naturally recoil from. I think experimentation is okay and valuable as long as it isn’t too female or queer or wrongly classed—I mean not if it’s American. You could do some of those things if you were French or South American or, you know, from Glasgow. You could go right down the toilet then, and it’d be art. But an American female or queer writer can never be allowed, say, to irresponsibly suggest to the reader for even a moment that she doesn’t know where she’s going. I’m thinking about a trembling or waylaid narrative.
I mean the reader doesn’t like to feel that way, not even for a second. People are getting bred to be that reader. The reader’s like the new child. And it’s so dumb, that fear, because getting lost is heroic. That’s what the hero does. She or he falls off the road, gets seduced, hurt, confused. Something happens. Not just in the story but in the writing. And the writing is the story. That’s why I like narrative. It’s a kind of knowing. But it’s a lot of not knowing too. Many editors I think want to protect people from that scary feeling, but that’s life. Too bad. We don’t know! A good friend described my work to me as avant garde lately. I don’t think that’s what I am. I mean I’m often writing texts that I think, God this is so open, so ready to be read by everyone, for all the people in some way (you know, the crazy glee you feel sometimes). I need that high while I’m writing, and I’m a generous person. I’d like my work to be for everyone. But probably I just need to be high some of the time, I mean high on the writing, so that I will keep going.
It’s like believing you will get the award you applied for. It’s like the survival of the race, but it has nothing to do with writing or winning. It’s the thrill of movement because writing is a vehicle and happily we go, we know not where. Which could be inspiring. I like that thought. Because when you admit the presence of a choosing, intervening mind in your writing, if the writing itself lurches a little, stops and starts at irregular intervals, and if in that same time you also look at something ugly or sad for too long—be it femaleness or queerness or age, or poverty—well, people will very likely have to put your book down and you with it. That was something a lot of people embraced when they started out—the looming possibility of disaster or obscurity. Your bike crashed on the side of the road. It’s not the worst.
Our world has come to have its own set of limits—isn’t it like another kind of etiquette club, a nice society of women and men carefully not poisoning the mainstream but saving themselves in some fashion other whether by tenure or a giant award, or a big book? Or having your papers sitting at the right temperature. I mean these are not bad things. Being a big key-note. Ta dum. I just saw my face in the AWP catalogue, and I thought, “uh oh.” I picked up the magazine, and I was about to sneer and there I was. My face. In our avant garde world everyone, I think, wants to be the one weirdo that passes through the shimmering keyhole into the bigger world. I didn’t really want this, they say as they are stepping onto the boat. That would be the dream I guess—to maintain your irregularity, scratching and hooting, and go through intact. Is there any such thing? With so many more writers that passageway to prominence has only gotten tinier. Or I guess there’s a bunch of them. Tunnels to greatness. I tend to find myself in some slum of ambition, which is to not so much what I want but more of a compulsion. I always find myself writing something that instinctively mucks up its own plan—hopefully in an interesting way. I am working on a dog book now, but it is going to be such a strange one. My dog was strange. She didn’t seem like a dog. Writing is like presenting yourself with a dare. But it could be a tiny one. Slow and small. It’s for you. All the time writing I’m chuckling. I’m entertaining myself. I am all for reading pleasure. But not, you know, for reading books you’ve read before. But I like the drug of the book you can’t put down, that stole your time. Men don’t read women because they don’t want to know what we know—about them about the world. If it’s not about men, it’s critical. Evidently that’s how it feels to be a man. My community is those who do—male or female, who want to know everything you can possibly know. A novel is a big pileup of knowing.
CAC Recently I took another look at your short video celebrating Allen Ginsberg’s birthday, and at one point you say, “We’re all wondering who has come forward to fill his shoes.” I’m just going to say it: NO ONE poet that I know of comes closer to doing that than you. We’re living in this surreal moment when lesbian and gay American culture is preoccupied with supporting a multi-billion dollar military industrial complex that is making life a living hell for women and gay men in the Middle East. And of course gay marriage, which is fine except for the fact that it further de-radicalizes the activist components of being queer, an activism the world needs more than ever. You’re the voice that never hesitates to say the truth. You speak openly on all fronts, like Ginsberg. And I’ve always admired that whenever there was a reading put together celebrating Ginsberg’s legacy, you choose to read his poem “Please Master.” Can you tell me why you make that choice?
EM Well he was so scary or confusing when I came to town. Not him, but him as he publicly presented himself. His work was really kind of lewd or upsetting power structures. It seemed the great man that was Allen was so often publicly humiliating himself. Since he was Allen, people, at least in our community, would just sort of smile and take it. But he was upsetting them. He couldn’t be filtered away. But after his death we heard less about that side of him. His interest in boys had to be carefully parsed. Which boys? No underage boys surely! I mean I kind of don’t think Allen was after underage boys but even on that count he wouldn’t have made it be safe for you. He joined NAMBLA. I think because they were the untouchables of gay culture. So reading that poem, choosing it was to take the mantle on of the undesirable, the odd, the bottom, the slave. Which was a political act and a sexual one. I was honoring him, how he truly was. I’m so proud to have lived in Allen’s time. What a great neighbor to have!
CAC You were recently living out on the street for three days with Buddhist monks. Please tell us about that.
EM It was something I wanted to do for a long time. I had heard about these street retreats where groups of people, Buddhists, would live on the streets for periods of time. This fall I could do it. We were the “Buddhist monks”—I think maybe three out of eight of us were serious practicing Buddhists, one person was no kind of Buddhist, and the rest of us were involved in some way with Buddhism. People worked in social services, had worked with the homeless, we each had our own reasons. I’ve always felt kind of obsessed with the homeless, felt I was one of them only I have an apartment. I have both a romantic feeling and a horror for the reality of living on the street. It was all that and more. We gathered cardboard and looked for places to stay downtown but we were followed by the cops and finally when we wound up at the occupied site the cops told us we’d get arrested if we didn’t sleep there so we did. We walked and walked all over Manhattan. We begged one afternoon. You had to look people in the eye, you had to ask everyone, no choosing. We came with no money, our IDs only, no books to read, no cellphones. We ate at the missions. Homeless people have to listen to a lot of preaching to get fed, though the Catholic Worker was an exception. There the soup was good, with and without meat, the coffee was strong, and there was Martin Luther King, and Ghandi and Dorothy Day on the wall. It was respectful. Mostly our time out there was “waiting.” It rained and luckily we brought ponchos. We brought ponchos and blankets. That was our basic equipment. It poured. We meditated outside. We sat under the over-hanging roof of St. Marks, and it poured. We meditated there. We used the bathrooms at Whole Foods all the time. The idea was to talk to the people we were among, not our group but the people who were living on the street. And that was hard. I felt imposing, unwanted, and even violating. But some people were really sweet and great. People asked us what we were doing, who we were. Sometimes they laughed at us, but mostly it was fine. The intimacy among us, the retreaters, was astonishing. We wound up talking about very painful things because finally it was a kind of meditation and a retreat and you thought about “your stuff” over and over again, and you felt very pained by what you saw, inside and outside. It was an unforgettable experience. It put a hole in my world that I’m still sort of living in. Now when I sit, I’m there, I’m a part of that again. And now of course I see the lines of people around the city waiting for food. That’s what they’re doing, walking and waiting.