When I had just started college and was getting interested in contemporary poetry, I emailed my favorite poetry professor for a list of recommendations. He sent back a bunch of names, and Eileen Myles was at the top of the list, distinguished from the others by an exclamation mark following her name. Several books later, I wrote back to thank him for the list and said, “Yes! Eileen Myles! I see why she was distinguished with an exclamation mark now!”
The exclamation mark, as punctuation, is an explosion in your brain and heart that inflects whatever is attached to it. That’s what Eileen Myles’s poetry is like: a burst that can be felt and performed, but is impossible to box away or neatly categorize. Her work is so funny, so witty, so punch-you-in-the-stomach sad, so past-midnight love-y, so late-summer-afternoon sexy.
I spoke with Myles while she was “prancing around in a suit” and getting ready to go to the White House, but she took the time to talk about her two new releases: the reissue of her 1994 novel, Chelsea Girls, and her fabulous collection of poems, both old and new, titled, I Must Be Living Twice: The New and Selected Works of Eileen Myles.
I want to start by asking you about the relationship between these two books and your other books. And when I ask this question, I’m thinking of how French or Spanish words enter the English language as “loan words,” but they retain their history while taking on new meaning. I’m wondering how a poem like “Peanut Butter” or “An American Poem” is different when it’s in a collection like Not Me  and then how it might change when it enters I Must Be Living Twice?
It’s in a bigger river that I’m getting carried by at this time. The conclusions of the poems seem different. I don’t read that poem [“An American Poem”] much at all, or haven’t, up until recently, because it’s so much like my calling card. A lot of people know me through that poem. I’ve been on this tour and of course I wind up in Dallas, and I’m like, do I read it in Dallas? And also, what does Kennedy mean to a new generation? Kennedy meant something so specific to people in the ’80s and ’90s, people who came up in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s like, does it even have the same punch? One of the things about having a new collection is that it gets mixed in with all the other days and months and years of poems and times, and you basically get to check what it’s flowing against in the world right now. Does it work? And I’m finding it does, but I think it works differently. Everything does. “Peanut Butter” was always one of my favorite poems but nobody made much of it. Suddenly it’s a coping poem, and I guess because of social media. People post it on social media and a lot of people who don’t know [my] work at all know that one poem. And then it becomes, do I read that? I know people really like this poem.
I think the whole cloud of this book is maybe figuring out how to be a poet differently. I’ve never been obscure. I’ve always been known in the poetry world and known in the queer world, but we all live in these different containers of community. Suddenly, I’m sort of thrown into this wider one. As a poet, you don’t think of yourself as having standards, like, “sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’!” It’s funny to be that person. I get to play with my own oeuvre, so to speak, read it when I’m in the mood, be a little draggy. I’ve had much more of an experience of myself as a performer with this book. Because I do need to read the older work, and I love reading the older work, but it’s a different performance.
Do you think it’s a different poem each time you perform it?
Oh yeah. Because I wrote [“An American Poem”] in the ’80s, and it didn’t come out until the early ’90s, so yeah absolutely. It’s absolutely different.
You straddle so many genres in your work, and you do it very gracefully, often creating new ones at times, such as “a poet’s novel.” Chelsea Girls calls itself a “novel,” and I’m wondering what the term novel means to you, and how it’s different from “a poet’s novel,” or the genre of poetry?
With this publication of Chelsea Girls, to say “a novel” is just a bigger grab. A few years ago, I remember being with a friend—I can’t remember what book of mine we were talking about, but I was with a guy and a woman—and at some point she said, “Why do you call it a novel?” I was thinking, What should I say?, and my friend leaned forward and said, “Because she says so!” And it’s just that. As an artist you get to determine. I get to wield genre as a way to control [the audience’s] apprehension of my work. But I also love fiction, I love novels, I’ve read more novels than nonfiction. In a way, the act of saying a book is a novel instead of a memoir is also saying, “This is writing, this is art. I want to be perceived that way,” as opposed to someone saying, “Did that really happen to you?” I don’t want that conversation.
Totally. That makes me think of what gets to be considered writing. There are so many platforms now, but only some forms become “writing.” I think about this with emails all the time, because I spend so much of my day writing emails. So I got some of my friends together and we did a poetry reading series where we all just read our emails.
Oh, how great! I love that.
It was really fun! But also cool to see how an email sounds like a poem when it’s read in the context of a reading series. And you’ll often hear, “young people don’t write, young people don’t care about poetry!” But you can see writing and poetry all over Tumblr and Twitter.
We live in an incredible day of language. I write about art as well as fiction and poetry, so I was writing this essay about a visual artist. I was at this [visual artist’s] performance and suddenly my girlfriend texted me. Then suddenly, this guy texted me about coming to some other event, and I just thought it was so apropos in my essay for a catalogue to include the texts exactly as is. They’re sort of performed as poems inside of the essay because of the way they were a smaller window in a larger spread of language. They took us out of a space and returned us back to the space, which is what texts do all the time, or what a tweet does. You know, you’re walking along and you get a text from your friend that’s so funny. We keep being changed by language in such radical ways that I think the possibility of poetry is totally enhanced by that. So is it a tweet, or is it a poem? We don’t know. We only know by what we get to say and where we choose to present it and how we choose to present it. It’s so much about performance.
A lot of people who have more fixed ideas about genre find that so upsetting. And that’s great, too. Because all those walls really need to be taken down. The notion of what’s literary is the least interesting notion I can think of. Social media, film, television, music, everything that’s just streaming and pouring is the world we live in. The language that can be part of that is the language that’s going to survive in our time. The term “literary” doesn’t work for those of us who still want to use forms like poem and novel and nonfiction. It might be great to call everything nonfiction except for poems and novels. It would be great to put social media in nonfiction.
That calls to mind, for me, the question of all the “selves” you play with in your writing. I see a tripartite Eileen—
[Laughs] Thank you.
And because Chelsea Girls is a novel, and it’s not nonfiction, we have to assume that the Eileen of Chelsea Girls is not the Eileen that I’m talking to right now.
She’s a fictional character; I refer to her as the Eileen Myles character a lot.
What is the relationship between the character Eileen of the books, Eileen the poet or the performer, and then the Eileen that eats, and wears sweaters?
Well that’s a question of how we present ourselves privately and publicly and socially.
One of the most depressing things my mother ever said was, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in front of your mother.” I was like, “Well, that certainly limits my existence.” Just to be a self, I must do things I wouldn’t do in front of my mother. All of life is like that. There’s certainly an intimate Eileen for the people I’m really close to, and the people I love, and my lovers, and my family. And then the one who teaches, and the one who rides the subway. There’s the anonymous Eileen, of course, they’re just citizens.
It’s funny, right now I’m in D.C, not so much under my own steam but because my girlfriend created Transparent, so we’re here for Trans Day at the White House. I’m here as a date, going on a press junket. I’m different! It’s like a whole other performance. What you’re describing is something we all normally do; I’m just asserting it in an extra way by putting my name in my work.
I still think the transformative powers of language are such that me in an employment line as Eileen Myles and me in a poem are not the same Eileen Myles. Language is magic and transforming; language does replace a certain kind of loss. The real space you’re standing in doesn’t exist in the same way when you say your name. You’re in some room, and we’re going around the room all saying our names, and suddenly it’s that moment when you have to say your name. It’s awkward, and uncomfortable. It’s not the same once you bust that barrier of the self.
Does this idea of names as context-specific with changing meanings have anything to do with gender?
It does, and it’s really interesting, I was just thinking as I was speaking that a name functions as a pronoun, and a shifting pronoun. Do we call you “he” or “she” or “they”? I know that my own escape hatch, lately, has been, “I think I’m the gender of Eileen.” It’s sort of evasive, but it’s very particular. The collectivity of the single me would be the most apt pronoun in a way, for who any of us might be.
I’m fascinated by the different images of you on the covers of your various books. In this interview with Vulture, you talk about Chelsea Girls as an exorcism, which seems very Picture of Dorian Gray to me. The idea that your photo, or whatever you’re putting between the pages, has your soul, and one thing is preserved while something else deteriorates or changes. What is exorcised during the process of writing, and what happens to the self when it is written and published?
God, I think, in a way, it’s a bit of a sacrifice. It’s a little bit like giving something to the gods and losing a little bit as a human—certainly if you write about an existence that resembles your own, and you tell that story repeatedly and people consume that story. Then when you as a human need to tell someone about when your father died, they have that glazed-over look, and you feel like you’re repeating yourself. You realize you become redundant, because the original has now become the work. There is a self-thievery accomplished by this act of publicly sharing intimate stories of your existence. It becomes everybody’s existence and in some way not yours.
How does one practice self-care when using the self as a subject?
I think you keep writing. Or [do] all the things one does to take care of the self. You meditate. You do things in which you ask whole other questions that have nothing to do with writing, like, “What am I?” Not, “Who am I?” but “What am I?” Something that’s just breathing and it’s alive and it’s sometimes male and sometimes female and sometimes sleeping. Being an artist and a writer, at a certain point in time you feel, Well, what about me? because the care of the self has not been a priority. I mean, that’s a real struggle and it’s something that I continue to have to turn around. Maybe in the last 10 years I thought, Oh, you have to take care of yourself, and figuring out what constitutes that. I bought a house in Texas so I can have a place to go to, and now the big problem is, when do I go there? Each solution is like a new puzzle.