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. Parts one and two appeared on Tuesday and Wednesday. Further installments will appear this week.
TN: I know this is going to sound like the most ridiculous way to talk about a poem, but . . .
EM: No, go ahead.
TN: Well, in some of the earlier work there is this compression to it, this kind of pinched feel, which is amazing in a certain way, because you get this sense of a self that is extremely concentrated and distilled onto the page, but in this book there is a little bit of a letting off, or a lightness that feels like another kind of opening.
EM: It feels more diffuse to me.
TN: And that’s a very hard thing for poets to be able to pull off, to allow themselves to let that happen, but you’re able to do it with a sustained voice. It doesn’t feel scattered, it just feels opened. One of the poems that does this is “No Rewriting.”
EM: (laughs) That was written totally in New York.
TN: But it feels in some ways like this look back, and also this announcement of forward movement.
EM: Change is change. In one’s life and in one’s writing. It’s like change to me always occurs before the change happens, you know? A lot of it is the preparing for it, and that’s always evident in hindsight.
TN: Do you feel like “No Rewriting” is a bit of the evidence?
EM: Absolutely. I remember writing it and feeling different and being frightened by it. It felt sort of violent to me while I was writing, and yet I was really kind of excited. I just felt like things were being taken away from me sort of excitedly when I was putting the words down.
TN: The book feels formally very radical, and in this poem where you have “the wind was big in this fragmented city” which is announcing there are these fragments and you have this wind giving presence to them, your voice becoming the location for all of these disparate scenes coming together. How did this poem come about?
EM: I was struggling all that spring with whether or not I should take this job out here. I think when I finally made that decision then everything after that felt like leaving New York, so there was no way of that (leaving New York) not becoming a poem.
The question for me is always “Was I writing it in my notebook when I sat on the train, or was I writing it in my apartment at the computer?” The space of the place and the space of the page. And I think I was writing it on the computer, and I think I was writing it sort of fast as hell in gusts and feeling particularly blind when I was writing it. There’s a sensation, a physical sensation when I’m writing a poem, where I’m actually sitting in some physical space and seeing things. I’m thinking about things, sometimes they are the things in the room and sometimes they’re the things in my mind, but still the sensation is of being in darkness and feeling like I’m tightrope walking, just in terms of the tension.
There’s something that I’m just hearing and recording, and it seems very constricted in terms of sound and rhythm. I know that before I write the next word, I’m reaching for a sound, I’m looking for a word that sounds like that. There’s always that sense, that fear that you’re going to lose your footing as you’re going. There’s a way in which some part of me has its eyes closed. It’s weird.
In this novel I’ve been working on I refer to it as “pumping blind.” It was really lavish in that poem.
I was afraid, you know? My life was changing and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, so I was writing it in these fearful excited gusts.
TN: Is the novel The Inferno?
TN: I heard you read from it at the University of Massachusetts and, if I remember right, you said it was about becoming a poet and a whore.
EM: It’s in three sections, like Dante’s, and the first hundred pages is, well, I do this kind of bait and switch, but it is about becoming a poet, or else, becoming a whore. It’s about being female, about how one is going to make money, how one is going to survive, and whether poetry becomes money in some way. I don’t mean makes money, but really is money. Will it be your currency? Or will your body?
TN: When I heard you read from it, I was really struck by this question that I think recurs often in your work, which is: your poetry or your life? You have one line here that says, “language interests me more than life,” and another later where you say “life is a rehearsal for the poem,” and that tension seems very central both in your fiction and in your poetry. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that tension.
TN: Does that question make sense?
EM: Yeah, it’s only the word tension that I don’t really know what to do with. Is it a choice? Or one replacing the other? Or a flickering?
TN: A flickering is great, actually. I mean, there’s so much life in your poems, in terms of the content and also in terms of the speaking voice, so for you to say that language is more interesting than life, it just hit me . . .
EM: But I sort of take it back in the next line. Kind of. Because then, I say, “I just want to see where it goes,” and it’s like which one am I talking about now? Which is what I do all the time. I always try to put something out and then see how I can destabilize that statement, and yet create a thing where the two both go forward at once.
I use the second thing not to stop the first, but to make a movement that’s the two together. It’s like, you know, I really wish I would have played a musical instrument in my life, but I sort of doubt it will happen now.
TN: That’s funny that you say that, because I was thinking as I was coming over here, “I want to ask her if she plays an instrument,” but I had no idea how I could do it.
EM: It would be the most important thing in the world to me, but I don’t at all. I can only say that if I think about whatever part of my childhood seems sad, it’s that I never got to do that. I’m so immensely affected by music—its abstract capabilities are incredible, and how it changes spaces. It does something that I really aspire to do in writing. There’s also a quality of music that I really think is in poetry, too, that is like math.
When I was a kid there were parts of math that I felt really excited by, and because, you know, I didn’t go to a good enough school, I never really went further with it, but it was some part of algebra that was just these equations. It might have been calculus. They were teaching modern math when I was in junior high, but it was sort of about logic and line and how it just goes on.
I think music is structured that way. That people are actually using calculations of a sort that are then set into motion. I think poetry always feels that way to me, too, that I feel like I’m sort of making something that’s measured, that balances itself out.
TN: I was really taken with this refusal and also affirmation of a lot of assumptions. I can feel this play with the reader, and I guess that’s what I was thinking about with the word tension, but you’ve said it much better with that word “flicker.” There is this flickering, where you’ll give and you’ll take away. But the speakers take on certain ideas, or certain stereotypes and prejudices—of artists, of women, of lesbians, of the working class—things that are taken on and then moved a little bit in this way that creates complicated voices with nuanced character that feel so real compared to someone who is just refusing or just play-acting.
You seem to value this middle space, and it seems like the doubt inherent in this middle space is really generative for you. I wonder if you’re still able to find this middle space, or if you feel yourself moving out of it at all as your career progresses?
EM: I don’t even know what this means exactly, but I almost think at this point in time I’d like to be writing about the middle space, you know?
TN: Instead of being in it?
EM: To not have to work out the contradiction directly in the work, to have the work have figured something out and have picked an object that literally is the contradiction and write about that.
I wonder if I should talk about this or not . . . there’s a book I’m thinking about writing which is . . . no, I better not. It would be unlucky to talk about. But I am interested in intermediate objects and talking fully about them and maybe trying to create some kind of balance that way.
I mean prose is really, really interesting in that way too because it’s a whole different way of describing movement. Poetry seems like it has to happen on the page, and prose is even more abstract. It’s really exciting for that reason. At this point in time, I feel more in touch than ever with why John Ashbery wrote Three Poems in prose. It is my favorite book of his.
TN: Usually you get the reverse, you know, with people saying poetry is much more abstract than prose.
EM: No, I think it’s very material.
TN: That makes me think of Alice Notley’s line about wanting to create poetry as real as rocks. I’ve always thought this line has some of Marianne Moore’s idea about poetry in it, that poetry should create imaginary gardens with real toads in them, where poetry does somehow, strangely, give you real objects, that it conjures or performs this kind of incantatory magic, whereas prose has this connective tissue that makes it a little less magical. It doesn’t conjure real objects as much.
EM: See, I don’t think poetry, for me—I mean, I have a million things I disagree with Alice about—but I think, finally, I do kind of side with the language poets in that all poetry is made out of is language. I don’t think the rocks ever get real. But the thing was, in the moment, in the writing, the rocks were real, and you were there, but there’s no way to prove that except somehow the way you leave language on the page. The language seems like the foam after the performance, and the performance occurs in a reality, you know?
I mean, we’re really here, and that’s the most important thing, not the poetry, but we feel so passionate about this presence that we have in life and there’s no way to express that.
I kind of think of poets as people who nonetheless need this little souvenir, this trace that represents in some kind of way—I was going to say some abstract way—how we moved and what we moved through.
TN: I think that’s true, and I think that with your work, it is experience and emotion recollected, but it has this duration to it where it gives the impression of re-creating an experience well enough so that the poem in and of itself leaves traces. So you’re reminded, in the end, of being alive.
EM: That’s such a great thing to say. It’s so heartbreaking.
TN: Maybe poets need that reminder more than other people, maybe we’re flawed in that way. With James Schuyler’s poems I really feel this too, that nothing is as real as it is in the poem. I would rather stay inside and read about him being outside, than going outside myself.
EM: And he would too! I saw him write sometimes, sitting there, and he was just like the most un-present, abstracted being. He just looked like a toad ready to blow up and then you’d look at this poem and it would be this very articulate thing and you’d be like, “man!” It was some kind of idealization, because it wasn’t the man sitting there at all, you know. It’s kind of astonishing.