Last spring, poet, novelist, librettist and one-time presidential candidate, Eileen Myles chatted with Weird Deer correspondent Travis Nichols about ideal readership, government sponsored revolution, and the big old tomb that is prose. Further installments will appear this week.
TN: There’s a lot of talk about some of the damage that MFA programs can do to kinds of communities now, and also how they can change the conversation because they make it possible to be more professional as a poet, but I don’t know about that. It’s a pretty easy argument. But it does definitely seem like there are more poets.
EM: Yeah, I think that too. I also think there’s more of a discourse about class now. I mean, it was a weird moment back then where the U.S. government was funding the avant garde, or that was the idea—the Russian Revolution did that too for a while—but it really wasn’t very cool to talk about politics then, you know what I mean?
Since that moment, I think people have become more political. I mean there were those of us who ended up caring about politics and putting it in our poetry, but at that time it really wasn’t part of the conversation. Privately people would share their class backgrounds with each other, but there just wasn’t that much of an awareness of that being really very important. And people would say incredibly stupid offensive things about class then!
I mean you quickly did realize that nonetheless most of those people hanging out had gone to really good private colleges. There was that permission still to be a poet from children of the middle class and upper middle class who weren’t as afraid of what their families might think when their college graduate child decides to be a poet.
But then, what could be a greater luxury for a poor kid than a rich kid’s toy?
And you always have a sense as a quote unquote poor kid that you have more capacity to change the playing field than anybody else.
TN: Why is that?
EM: Because you know something else, and the way you move through the world is different. You wouldn’t have used the word “browser” then but that’s what you felt, that you had a radically different browser, and so your poem was going to be shaped differently and you were going to put different things together and you had the capacity to make wilder combinations than the other people did because your mind had not been educated. It hadn’t passed through any kind of homogenizer.
Even before writing programs, there was still the prospect of a good education, and I mean early. I think poetry provided an opportunity to say where you had been in almost a formalist way.
TN: I think it also gives you the freedom too to have a different kind of content.
EM: Exactly. You can’t help it. It’s a freedom to use what you have.
TN: Even at a time when it might not have seemed overtly political, the self-revelation could have seemed political. It can be very political to have a speaker talk about different things in a poem than had traditionally been seen.
EM: “Which self?” becomes a radical question.
TN: And to think of the private as political too. With the New York School—with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and James Schuyler—you have three gay men in the fifties who are talking about their personal lives in this way that isn’t trying to mask anything, but just trying to say what’s going on in this way that makes it seems everyday, because it is, and makes it seem normal, because it is, in a way that hadn’t really been done before.
Now, I think some of the radical nature of that work gets lost a little bit, especially when you have so many people talking about their everyday lives. Do you think there still is, even now, something radical in talking about private everyday things in a more public forum?
EM: Utterly. Of course. I mean those guys were talking about these things, like their sexuality for example, at a time when one couldn’t be out. But, I mean, they weren’t exactly out, because those were sort of coterie poems. I mean, those poems were for the “out” world where everybody knew those guys were fags!
The moment they become not so radical, in a certain way, is when they became widely read. They couldn’t be widely read then, in their own time, because the work was regarded as low art, gay in-talk, you know, a whole number of things, not formalist in a traditional way . . . All the things they weren’t at that time made it so only a certain number of people were going to read them. As the poems worm their way into the larger culture, they become less radical because the larger culture itself has changed.
TN: Do you feel that your work might function in the same way as it gets more widely read?
EM: I guess, to some extent, it has already. It’s always a funny moment when you realize that certain people regard you as the establishment.
TN: Do you think people do?
EM: Oh certainly. Sure. I mean it’s that thing of, “who are you being looked at by?” Even poets of my own generation who are more language school poets, whenever they call me a “New York School poet” I know they’re suggesting that my work is content-y and a little old school, and not as rigorously avant garde as theirs is.
Interestingly, what they’re also talking about, though they would never say it, or even know it, is that it’s gay. And that’s always regarded as content, you know, to be straight is to not have content. Just by revealing personal stuff you’re making an aesthetic statement that’s regarded as slightly conservative in a way that’s not critically interesting. So there’s all that going on, too.
TN: There’s always a certain squeamishness for straight poets looking at gay poets, or even just of majority group poets and critics reading the work of different groups and thinking, ‘Why does it need to have all of this personal stuff? These specifics?”
EM: People don’t know how to name their discomfort, so they always state it as a question. A local San Diego paper wrote a big piece about me like a month ago. I was the cover story, etc. and it’s been like a tempest in a teapot, you know? And what it was, was a former student of mine, it was like her first job writing for a newspaper, so she says, can I interview you, and I was like sure.
So we sat down, and we really had fun bitching about San Diego, because it’s a small town without much of an art scene. You’re not supposed to say that in public, but I was having a private conversation with a former student—and, I mean, I knew it was going to go out into the public, but I thought, “Well, what could be more interesting here than to speak honestly? Why not?” And so I did, and it’s really brought out a variety of things. Mostly, it’s not so bad, but it’s the same stuff that I’ve gotten for thirty years, which is letters to the editor talking about ‘my pathetic sex life,’ or ‘San Diego’s never really going to be the place for a fifty-something lesbian literary type’ and I’m thinking, what do you mean? Why would I be asking for such a different shape of a thing than you know a thirty something straight male? And I didn’t talk about my sex life in this piece, you know! I just said that I was a lesbian!
Years ago, in some review in a San Francisco paper by a gay man who I thought was a friend, he said that in Chelsea Girls, he just couldn’t take that much of my personal life. And I thought, whose personal life could you have taken that much of? Well, a gay man’s, certainly, because then it wouldn’t have been a personal life! It would have been interesting!
TN: It would have been a public life in some ways, or at least a shared life.
EM: Yeah, yeah. Good point. It’s always something where if you do share your lesbian details, what you’re immediately accused of is not sharing, or what the person immediately does is step away, and cut off from you, and point and call it ‘other.’ It’s just such a weird, weird process and it happens in slightly different ways time and time and time and time again.
TN: It’s a strange mental space, especially if you were used to the codes on the East Coast and then to go into San Diego and get this whole new set of codes to deal with.
TN: How long have you been in San Diego?
EM: Well, it was four years last summer, and probably within that, a year or so I haven’t been here, too.
TN: I associate your work, and the speakers in your work, so much with the East Coast, especially with New York City and also with Arlington, Massachusetts, so it’s very interesting to read Sorry, Tree where there is a San Diego landscape and much more of the West Coast. It seems like a big shift.
EM: It feels like a big shift to me, too. I just felt like the work got composed differently. It feels lighter to me. It feels both more and less personal, which I guess means that the column of what is personal has gotten distributed differently. When I move down through the poem, writing it, there’s something different getting negotiated in there.