Chelsea Girls was reviewed as a novel in “real-time.” People often describe your work as having this immediacy, or quickness to it. I’ve heard many use the word “organic.”
I wonder if you could talk about the work that goes into “real-time” writing, or “organic” writing, how hard it can maybe be to achieve casualness?
Right, right, right. I would say it’s a core value of my writing. Something I care about the most is a sense of presence and how to achieve that. Honestly, I don’t just mean it in writing, I mean it in life. I don’t mean like, how to make a great impression on people, but how to be here and know that I’m here, and how does that get constructed. There’s a way in which part of it is not being too deliberate or too conscious. Some things that people would describe as slapdash are the heat of, or the science of, authenticity.
You leave a little something outside of the edifice that’s just sitting there, to not write so that everything has a purpose. A lot of it is really trusting your mind. The goal for me, always, is when something comes into my mind, use it. Don’t block it. Just let it come forward. When you’re in a collective, social situation where you’re always trying to imagine how to join into the social situation and then something crosses your mind—it took me years to realize that I should just say that thing. I think writing is so similar. Writing is improvisational. I love social media so much because it’s the place where you get to improvise publicly and instantly. Writing is all these breaks, if you’re doing a long sprint or a short one; you’re just ultimately getting to think in public.
How does revision play a role in writing in real-time or existing in real-time?
Later on, real-time is an artifice. You’re in the real-time of everything then. Especially if you’re working in fiction, you’re working with these big blocks of “spontaneity.” So you really gotta locate the place where you can leak to another time and make it look like a real-time. Every thought tends to get bogged down, you tend to write yourself into the gutter often. It’s like trying to find a fresh wound almost, where you can amputate an action and then leak to another, almost abstract thought. Then you have to figure out some way to make it seem real.
The director Carl Dreyer has some line about using artifice to strip artifice of artifice. There’s some way in which it’s all fakery. Some art critic defined postmodernity as this place in which all styles apply and the only real time is now. I feel like that’s it. It is now. We’re talking now, and later on when you’re editing this piece how will you construct that? What won’t I say? What won’t you say? It’s a new animal you make. The desire is for the thing to breathe, more than anything else.
Does that change the way you feel about some of your past work now?
To some extent. When I was first writing, I was a little more deliberate, a little heavier. I had a greater fear of what I was doing, how fleeting it might be. When I was younger I was a little more thorough, because I wasn’t convinced I was making a mark. Now I feel in part, I don’t give a shit, and another part, I feel confident. I need to keep taking risks, and usually those [risks] are doing less and hopefully achieving more. Making bigger holes and things, being less literal. With these two books I’ve gotten lots of press—reviews and stuff. There have been at least three dudes who talked about how the second half of the book doesn’t really make it, I’m really better in the beginning, that it was pretty obvious. And I’m like, “That’s just because you don’t really like poetry and it’s gotta be all there for you or you don’t get it.” They don’t want to participate. That’s my bias, because I do believe in my own work.
It’s funny, a certain person likes it to be spelled out. I heard the funniest thing about a bunch of British and Irish poets I know who read before the Queen. The Queen decided to have some poetry. She was just sitting there—the Queen—and the poet who I know was sitting behind the Queen. And then another poet who is quite clear, like you couldn’t not know what this person was talking about, was up there reading poetry. Queen Elizabeth was going crazy. Basically turning to Prince Charles and going “What the fuck, what the fuck,” she just didn’t know what was going on. It was so funny. I thought, That’s what it’s like to be the Queen. You don’t have time for anything that isn’t spelled out. You just want to be fed. People have no right to do anything other than to feed you, because you’re the Queen.
Being a poet, sometimes, people have these queenly ideas of the world, especially when you’re doing something as suspect as poetry. How dare you make them think and be in their real lives? Which is exactly the thing you want from the reader and exactly what they’re unable to give you, in a way. That’s the fear of poetry. It’s actually the simplest art form. It’s just that you have to be present. And the Queen won’t do that. You go to some art gallery where they decided to have a reading series, and when the poet steps up you just watch people get really weird and obedient and awkward, they don’t know how to act. That feeling of distrust, that’s what I love about writing. But with poetry in particular, you really have to trust yourself.
That reminds me of something the writer, Clarice Lispector says in her only televised interview. She talks about how this older, male literature professor came to her and said, “I’ve read The Passion According to G. H. about four times and I still can’t understand it,” and then this young 17-year-old girl came and said “The Passion According to G. H. is one of my favorite books, I keep re-reading it.” She says, “I guess the question of understanding isn’t about intelligence, it’s about feeling.”
It’s so weird because someone did just ask me in an interview if I wanted to be understood and I said no, I want to be felt.
Ooooh. That’s really good. Do you think that with poetry, especially when it’s being read out loud, it’s more about feeling it?
Oh, absolutely. And people always think that means, “emo,” and it’s like no, you’re a sentient being, you’re alive. You go from anxiety to thought to interruption to sensation. I mean, these are all feelings, or ways of experiencing language and apprehending it. It’s like a yoga class: You want a piece of writing to put people in different kind of position of being able to hold a feeling, experience a feeling, perceive a feeling.
Sometimes I’ll be reading poetry and I’ll suddenly feel something that I didn’t know I could feel or that I didn’t know existed. Do you think poetry gives people permission to feel these new things?
I think it gives you access. I can’t imagine having a feeling that wasn’t in me already in some way, I just didn’t know how to experience it or articulate it. The reason I’ve fallen for writers is they’ve just been ahead of me in something I’m already doing or wanting to do. I can’t articulate it, and they did. And then I think, “Oh, that’s where I am, that’s what I want.” Yeah, I do think there’s a kind of permission there.
I love the way you bring up clothing and style in your works, as a class signifier or indication. How is clothing important for you in your writing?
It’s so heroic in a way, clothing. Even when you’re a child you have such strong feelings about what you want to wear and what you don’t want to wear. Gender, obviously, was a huge force in that, whether I was forced to be a little girl or a boy. In writing, it does so many things: it marks the time, it shows desire. Clothes are such uniforms. It so indicates where you want to go, or where you think you belong, what you want to attract. It’s so organic. Most people’s clothes just fill the screen in a certain way. Before you even know what you want to say about that person you know you want to say how they look.
You also talk about uniforms. At some point, Eileen of Chelsea Girls is admiring a cop’s uniform and says, “As you might have noticed we were a uniform-oriented culture.” Can you touch on these ideas uniform as the attempt to reconcile form and content both inside and outside of your writing?
I think the biggest problem everywhere is consistency. How does today connect to yesterday? How does [the past] 10 minutes connect to now? How do we get to this point in the conversation? How is it not all these broken pieces just jutting up making everything painful and confused? We do these things that make consistency. It’s such a class thing. I mean, I grew up in a uniform culture. I went to Catholic schools [and] I had a very limited number of choices at school in terms of what to wear. To be in your set was to make a limited number of choices. It made you feel like an actor in a way, like your actions had meaning because you were somewhat composed.
In a way it’s like putting a seeming order around something that’s deeply chaotic. When I think about why you would put children in uniforms at school, you know why—to create order out of the disorder of childhood. There were just so many ways in which we were a really controlled culture. Yet when I think about my mental state in those years it’s just so teenage: wild, untouched mind in a uniform.
How do you think about sexuality in your books, especially those that talk about navigating sexuality, crushing on that girl in summer camp in Cool For You, for example?
I suppose, in my life I was sort of assaulted by sex. The message I got so intensely was just repression, repression, repression, and of course that doesn’t work. It’s the perfect subject. Because it’s not there, and you write about everything but it and then it comes up like a wallop in these really weird ways. What could be more naïve than an all-girls camp? Nothing’s going to happen there. And then you think, Oh, that’s the place that changed my life. To write about that frame is really exciting.
I’m just very aware of the fact that to write about any moment that resembles my life is so much the work of waiting. I know the container, I know the space where it happens, I know what was in there, but I’m not ready. Sometimes I have to wait for years and I don’t know which book something goes in, and then I’ll see an opening and go, Oh, I can drop that in here, and let it rip. So it seems that even the way of choosing feels sexual. Always filling a hole, always something becoming wet, and open, and then you think, Aha! So much about arrangement. Sex and writing is a formalist problem, in a way. It’s so not there and then it’s so suddenly there that somehow you have to design a kind of writing that formally allows things to come in, if you want it to have the full clout of the effect of sex. Unless what you’re doing is writing pornography, and I’m not.
It’s so interesting for me to think about mediums. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately. Porn artists or porn writers have to write for a purpose and all the rest of us don’t—I mean a purpose in a single way. Like, you want to make us cum, or you want to make us laugh, and that’s what you’re doing. It’s such a funny job. We’re in an interesting moment when comedy is neck and neck—whether TV series or comedy is the great art form right now. You don’t expect comedians to be political or to be wise, you don’t expect TV to be smart, and suddenly both those things are happening. It’s a real coming-out-from-behind kind of thing. Part of it is that we have these assumptions [and] they’re undoing those assumptions. Sex in any piece of writing is like that: You have to let it come in the way it comes in. Why do you find this person hot? It’s so weird, and that’s part of it—sex always comes in the wrong container.
Have you been thinking about yourself as a poet or a writer in relation to what you described? In terms of the purpose of the pornographer is to make people cum—how do you fit into that sphere?
Yeah, but I don’t want to say purpose per se, because it’s such a hard word to use when you’re talking about poetry or art.
In some way, I want my writing to take care of me. I want to live in my world. I want to carry my world with me like a shell. I want a home. It’s always been like a dream, in the way that everyone says, “Ooh, I wish I was a writer, I really have stories.” They just imagine you sitting in some place all the time having this incredible life. We have such messy lives, writers, and it’s so unstable, but I think we do it because we want to create a reality on some level. At some point, the more it grows you realize this has made me comfortable, this has given me a self, this has given me a place in the world, this has given me esteem and respect and money, if you’re lucky. It is my home, it is my place. It even makes me comfortable. The things that I might have wanted to do anyway, I now have a reason or an excuse or a way of doing that. You just evolve a style of being a writer that makes it possible to say the things you need to say in the way you need to say them. Suddenly you’ve managed to live in your time.
I don’t know if you go through periods when you find it difficult to write, or maybe produce less than you normally do. But if you do go through those periods, when much of your identity depends on being a writer and being able to produce work, does that maybe threaten your sense of identity? And how do you maintain a sense of identity when that happens?
I can get really distracted. Too busy and too focused on other people and what they need and what they want for me. I love to go out, and I meet too many people and go look at too much art. Unless I’m really consciously working on something, I let it rip, and then I feel kind of jarred, and then I’m like, What am I doing with my life? and I feel lost.
I have this awareness that when I’m not writing in a real, consistent way I get a little crazy. Recently, I feel like, what is this time in my life about? Especially as I get older, if I’m not writing now, when am I writing? What is the point of this existence at this point in time? I don’t mean writing all day long, I’m a sprinter, a few hours are good and then I stop. Maybe [continue writing] a few hours later or something. It’s like depression. When you get depressed do you interrupt it? Go to the gym, go to the therapist, do the other things you might do to keep yourself get better? Or do you just let it—really wallow in it? Not writing, or not being productive is a little like that. Sometimes I’m just a little ornery and I don’t want to be good Eileen or Eileen demonstrating what an amazing productive writer I am.
But I am a really productive writer because I tend to write in other genres. If I’m not writing or working on a novel I’m writing a poem, or something someone’s commissioned from me. There’s usually something I can crabwalk to away from the thing I should be writing. I get around to everything eventually. But there’s definitely a lot of procrastination and a lot of letting myself get all jangled and nervous. Until I do the great performance. I like a little drama. It’s like being a college student, getting close to the deadline, getting really close to the deadline, What if I don’t pull it off this time, what if I don’t? I like to scare myself a little bit.
Whenever someone who doesn’t identify as male writes poetry that draws from their own experience, they always seem to get branded with the word “confessional.”
I even saw this review of your work that used the word, and I felt so thrown off by that, because I the word is so gendered. Do you think of your work as confessional?
Only in the sense that I’m an ex-Catholic! I did like confession. I like getting things off my chest in some way. I think the term doesn’t really function, because it suggests, you know […] It almost gives the culture too much credit for being able to keep a woman quiet.
One last question: can you talk about the time you ran for president?
It came out of being slightly dissatisfied with writing around the time I stopped drinking. I was suddenly in front of an audience and there was this enormous political opportunity in facing a room full of people. I just had more energy. I started to memorize my work for a while, and it was in the ’80s and it was performance. But I didn’t have the body language—I would just stand really still because I was trying to remember the words. So then I started to do improvisational stuff, with talking. That was better if I could use my body and move my hands when I talk.
I was doing these improvisational performances and then the ’91, ’92 campaign came up. George Bush gave a speech about the politically correct—he appropriated that word from the left for the first time—and said that the real danger for freedom of speech in America was the politically correct. Feminists, people of color, and activists, anybody who felt like they needed to complain in America, in America we have freedom of speech, meaning don’t abuse it, don’t bother me. He gave this speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was so different then, 25 years ago, that the New York Times reported “This might be the beginning of the ’92 campaign trail.” [Now] nobody would be guessing if the campaign was beginning. And they said obviously a big issue in this campaign will be freedom of speech.
When I read that I had this flash, because I remembered I was in grade school when John F. Kennedy was president. I remember people making a big deal about the fact that he was so young because he was 40 or 44, and that just seemed so old to me. I was 40 at the time when I heard about [George Bush’s] speech. I thought, Oh, rather than being a 40-year-old person, I could be a young presidential candidate. If I ran for president I could just make speeches and it would be so great. I would do what I’m doing now but it would be political. One thing led to another and it just grew into this thing that I did from April ’91 until November of ’92. It was almost like an endurance performance piece, where I just thought, Any public invitation I receive, I’m going to call a presidential campaign opportunity. This was pre-internet and I realized I was always announcing it, so I thought, Well, I got to get the word out. I had this mailing list with 400 people at that time, and I sent them all letters explaining my campaign. Then I started to be written about, then I was on MTV, and then I got invitations to like, 28 states. Suddenly I was touring and people kept asking me, “What’s your platform?” So I got a platform. What’s your economic plan? So I got an economic plan. It was a really incredible experience, and very strange afterward, because it was like, well what do I do now? It’s weird because Chelsea Girls, though I had been working on that book for years, that’s when I finally got it together to write that book. Because there was just a big void after the campaign, I was like, who am I? I felt all stretched out and out of size, I didn’t know where to be or how to be. I went to Eastern Europe, I went to Russia, I had this disastrous trip—long story. Finally I arrived back home and I thought, Just finish that book. And that got me through.
And now we can all read it!
Yeah! It got born again. Now I’m back to the “What do I do next?” phase, which should be interesting. ♦