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 through three appeared earlier in the week and can be accessed through the archives. This is the fourth and final installment of the conversation.
EM: I want to return to something you said earlier . . .
EM: Well, I find that increasingly, the more you write prose, the more you realize the words are so unimportant. It really is this larger movement that you want to portray. It’s almost god awful, it’s so funny, it’s that you’re really just being carried by this river of language.
TN: Are you saying that you have more of a structure in mind, like a superstructure or scaffolding to hang the words on?
EM: Well, you do designate it in certain ways. It really is that thing that Ashbery talks about, which is “managed chance.” You design this thing and then you set it adrift and you just let it happen. I mean this is my sense of it, anyway, that it really does then just flow through you, and it’s minimal words and a larger structure and so you’re just much more subsumed in it, or by it.
You evacuate your existence in a way you never do in poetry. Poetry really is a hymn to life. I believe that, and I don’t think prose is that at all. It’s a big old tomb.
TN: But it seems like more people can engage with prose than they can with poetry.
EM: Well, I think it’s a bigger sacrifice but a bigger reward, or that’s the idea.
TN: In Sorry, Tree I feel a great connection between human bodies and architectural bodies, about bodily existence for people, but then this architectural life of cities, then also there’s this pre-occupation with waste and what it means to be an American poet. I know that’s a lot, but I was wondering, specifically, what connection you see between the body and the city? Or waste and the American Poet?
EM: Okay (laughs). Well, there was some way in which I started conceiving of myself as a citizen in this book—and maybe part of it was being less of a New Yorker and an occupier of a certain cultural territory that really had defined me repeatedly, that always reminded of who I was—and starting to look differently, both moving from place to place, moving from New York to California, and living in another city in which I don’t feel as seen. I’m not so reminded of who I am anymore.
Also, you know, certain historical events happened in this country in the time of the writing of this book, and so I was carried by those events, almost in the way of what we were just talking about with prose or fiction.
It definitely seems to me that there is a public architecture of a country, of citizenship, and I felt more moved by those things than I did feel as moved by a specific art culture, or feel as enclosed, as I had in the past. I really became aware of myself as something coming and going between buildings and places, looking out more. It really did become more of like a different ride with history feeling like part of that ride. It felt like I was being carried in a way that a lot of people were being carried, so the “me” became a little more of a “we.”
In a lot of ways it’s a book about separation, about being separated from a very familiar home and being let loose in a very unfamiliar country. I think the country changed for all of us in those few years, you know? And having left a very specific identity and having been released into that more general one, I felt like I had a stronger way to see it. It seemed like I was narrating that change. It seemed like all these things were related, you know, the landscape and different trees and maybe an intimate relationship that opened up and let me out, or let itself out of the building of it, the country that was changing . . .
And, I mean, California just recognizes you differently. When I think about being here, in San Diego, I think about driving in my truck on the freeway up to school. And about being embedded in a University system after for so long being a freelance me, and now really being in an institution and suddenly realizing, “Oh, my health insurance, i.e. my body is attached to this institution, my partner’s body is attached to this institution, my house is attached to this institution.” I felt like some sort of illustration of the human body with all of its organs attached to this other thing. And then, who am I now in this new way of being?
TN: That makes me think of in Not Me when you say you’re a ward of the state, a ward of the state of beauty and now . . .
EM: Right (laughs) I’m a ward of the state of California! Absolutely, but I mean I’m starting to feel a little bit more opened and a little bit more exited about the idea of being a Californian. I was forced to get a California license recently by the DMV, and it was very, very hard to let go of my New York driver’s license. Yet, somehow, you know, I’m kind of delighted by this new one.
TN: It’s always fascinating when you move and all of the sudden you get this new documentation stating you’re this new kind of citizen.
EM: When I first saw myself being this person in this life driving the truck on the freeway to school and thinking how weird, I realized I guess I had been kind of depressed for a year or two. I just hadn’t noticed what I was feeling. I mean, I didn’t know what I was feeling! It reminded me of being in Russia and meeting people after perestroika. I remember this guy throwing his arms out and saying, “We have lost our bodies!” The communism that used to tell them who they were, all of the sudden, didn’t exist! But they weren’t given a new body after that, they were just left in this vacuum. And you know I’d be driving on the freeway thinking, “Oh I’m not getting enough face!”
I had been this person who was endlessly talking to people, you know, face to face all the time, and talking to people who knew me as me. It was like that Gertrude Stein thing, “I know I am me because my little dog knows me” or however that line goes, and as a poet for twenty or thirty years I just knew I’m “Eileen Myles,” that’s who I am, and if I walk out the door and I don’t remember, someone will remind me. But here, nobody will remind me! It’s just a lot of fucking palm leaves! And beautiful sunshine! How do you navigate that? Who writes those songs? It did make me understand, though, like, Rae Armantrout’s poems a lot more.
TN: So do you think you’ll stay?
EM: Well, I know I’ll stay for another year, you know. I know I’ll stay until next January, but that’s about all I could know.
TN: Can you tell me about this title, Sorry, Tree?
EM: Yeah, well I’m particularly proud of the title. I was literally in my house the day that the woman I moved out here with moved all of her stuff out, and I was thinking, “Wow, I have a house! What am I going to do with this house?” So I walked out of the house and I was in the backyard and I thought, “Wow, I have a yard! What do I do now? Well, I’ll mow the lawn!” Which was just not something that I did, or ever did. I mean, I think I had bought a lawnmower and it just sat there with cobwebs on it.
So I started mowing the lawn and I somehow backed up into this little tree and in that instant I suddenly felt like a cartoon character you know, and I thought “Whoops! Sorry, Tree!” It just suddenly seemed to sum everything up, you know, like America! California! Development! San Diego! Love! What we do! Why we do it! It was like a comic book, and in some way, you know, I feel like it’s a funny book.
TN: It is a funny book. It has, in the best possible way, this cartoonish aspect to it. Just so I have the picture clear in my mind, though, were you on a riding lawn mower?
EM: No, no, no. Manual.
TN: Okay, I had a very different image there for a second.
EM: No, it was that moment you know where you push the lawnmower up and then pull it back and suddenly you step on a little tree.
TN: How did it feel to mow the lawn?
EM: Great! You know, it felt great and I never did it again.
TN: Can you talk a little about how your work “records,” or “documents” life?
EM: Well, “recording,” is really important to me. I feel like ever since I’ve been writing, I’ve been writing in a context of recording.
The 20th century was the first recorded century. I mean, we really got it down. We have a copy of almost everything, or very much of it, and certainly the work, the access, this sense that everything is copied or recorded, really changes our sense of the language and what it’s doing.
I mean this is perfect, right? We’re not writing. We’re talking about writing and meanwhile this little electronic creature is making a copy of this in the moment, and so the moment itself is just a little bit false. I don’t mean, you know, our moment (laughs), it’s there but it’s not alone, you know? It’s half of a double, and it’s the other half that survives, and there’s something a little funny about that. I think I’ve always been very aware of writing in relationship to that, and it makes me think that I’m not literary, that writing will never be literary ever again. Because I think there’s no need to do that or be that, because we’re really just writing in relation to all these other forms of transcription.
TN: It is all a part of visual art and performance art in ways that are so evident but can be lost. It’s one of the most important things to realize about writing, that it’s part of this very complicated recording process.
EM: And we don’t talk about it.
TN: Which we?
EM: Poets! Because if we do, then I think people will feel like then we’re really letting go of the literary. And I have to say, in my heart, I feel like I start there.
TN: In the letting go of literature?
EM: Yeah, that’s where I began. Even before I started writing I was fooling around with tape recorders I was the sad kid at the party in Boston who didn’t have any friends who were artists, so I remember drunkenly trolling in with my big fat tape recorder and taping people and then going into my bedroom and saying some things, putting something together, and it was just embarrassing drunkenness.
TN: But the idea is very important as a one of those first steps.
EM: Yeah, to capture language that way, it seemed interesting to me before I wrote a poem, and you know I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think my poems are that kind of recording.
TN: It is this dangerous territory for people to let go, because then all of the sudden you’re in a different competition, because then poetry isn’t as precious as you might hope it could be. It also has to do with the momentary, because we have all of these ways of recording but then there’s the question of how you use the technology? I mean, as a writer you still have to use your technology right.
EM: That’s the real question, is it technology or is it inspiration? I think it’s technology. And maybe it always was.
In a way that’s more of a question than “who is I?” or who am I writing for. If the portal of communication is made, well is it perfect. Is it torn around edges, is it frayed. In that early poem I know I was thinking of film. A film that begins with a person talking–I guess you could call that autobiography, but why not film. A flick? I’m just framing an apparition. It’s poor film. Poetry is.
And, I mean, I’ve been very willing to grab any new way to keep doing the same thing that I was always planning to do anyhow. I always think about that Frank O’Hara line about style, where he said you just want to wear your pants tight enough so everybody will want to have sex with you. It’s continually like trying to find some way to continue this project. But this flicker is almost kind of guilty thing, or a material thing, I almost want to realize something in a very material way in the writing and then I want to kind of tip it so, no, it’s abstract, and you don’t know for sure which thing I’m really talking about, so it’s like revealing the body and erasing the body, revealing the body and erasing the body.