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: I’ve just spent the morning reading back through your work, from the first book you published, The Irony of the Leash up through, Sorry, Tree, your most recent . . .
EM: Oh my God! Really?
TN: . . . yeah, and it’s been great, really fun, actually, a wonderful way to spend the day— you just write such beautiful poems! And to see the breadth and depth of the work over your career is really stunning. To go back and see how the work has connected and corresponded with itself over time is amazing too, and what I would like to do here is to talk about some of these connections and correspondences in the context of this new book, Sorry, Tree, if that’s okay with you.
EM: Oh yeah. That’s totally fine, plus you’re like my ideal reader now. You’re always writing with the sense of everything you ever wrote and having little jokes with yourself about that, so this is great.
TN: It was amazing to see that the first line in your first book is “Oh hello. C’mon in.” It’s the perfect introduction to your career—the seemingly casual voice, the conversational tone. There’s this theme of intimacy and dialogue. But it also brings up one of the essential questions that I have, which is: who are you talking to?
EM: Literally, if I think about that particular poem, I was probably talking to a lover. I think I was probably talking to a poetry workshop I was in. I was probably talking to a poetry teacher. But I definitely had that sense, because it was my first book, that I knew I was opening the door, and that when you open the door you never know. I mean, you know who’s there and what’s there but you never know what’s going to happen.
TN: So are you still talking to the same people?
EM: Well, of course it’s hard to speak for all writers, but I think a lot of us have people that we’re talking to at different points in our writing careers. Sometimes we’re very aware of who they are, and sometimes they’re sort of irrational. I go through seasons where I think, “why am I continually explaining myself to that person?” Or “why have they chosen to become the audience?” And so there’s always this mysterious thing about it. But also in a lot of ways too, I still feel it’s more like listening than talking out in any way. It’s kind of a receiving something. It looks like a message, but sometimes you’re the one who’s getting it.
TN: It feels very much like that in this line. Not only are you going to be speaking and the voice is going to begin here, but it also definitely has that sense that you’re saying, “C’mon in, I’m listening.’ You’re also ready to record the conversation that will happen as faithfully as possible in poetry.
TN: It struck me seeing it too how prescient it was for how your voice then developed through your books, which seems either amazingly lucky or that you knew what your project was.
EM: I think the latter a lot. I think one of the first things I saw fairly early on as a poet was a book by . . . I’m not sure actually . . . I want to say it was Tu Fu, but it was a Chinese poet, and it was like (laughs) Li Po? Tu Fu? I mean I think it was one or the other of those Big Guys. A friend had shared with me this volume, and what it was, was a slim volume but yet this person’s entire life. You know, a young man’s poem, then a slighter older young man’s poem, then a middle aged man’s poem . . . It made me gasp. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t all the poems, but that this one slim volume was somehow how it had come to me, or us, and that seemed to me the most amazing thing, that you could in a sense write your life, that you could in a sense just make these shavings.
TN: And this was before the first book had come out?
EM: I’m not sure, but it was pretty early on, so I remember thinking, “Well, gee, I want to do that.”
TN: That line and also that book introduce the casual tone a lot of your work has, or that a lot of the speakers in your work have, a tone that I think can be deceptive, because it masks the very careful and well-wrought structure of the work—I think especially in Sorry, Tree there are a couple of different poems, like “Each Defeat” for example, that seem so casual at first, but then when I go back and reread them I can see how carefully each syllable is placed. And this made me think, well, do you think poetry should speak to its audience the way people do to one another? Or what’s valuable about having that kind of conversational or casual tone?
EM: Oh, for me I think it’s utterly, utterly important. Because again I think it’s an opening, it’s a common portal, and that’s really important to me to make that. Because, again, it’s work that wouldn’t have intimidated me when I was starting out. It would be complex but seem simple. And it seems to me that you know that’s what’s so great about music, that it can be a little tune and then it changes and it changes and it changes again, but it’s always just a little tune and that seems like a great thing. And also class, you know, because it’s like ‘Who is entitled to be a poet?’
TN: I’m totally fascinated by that question.
EM: Yeah, of course.
TN: I remember listening to this symposium, this recording of something I had found about Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It was after he had died, not too far, a couple years maybe, and this one poet, Joel somebody-or-other, was talking about how his father always told him to go to law school. “Don’t think about poetry, Joel, poetry is for rich kids!,” and this Joel person said “well, yes, that’s true, but Ted’s work helped me see that it doesn’t have to be true all the time.” And I think, looking back from a historical perspective, it did seem like there was an opening there for a different kind of poetry in the seventies and early eighties, for a different class of poet, or for a different kind of content, and I don’t know if it’s still possible now.
EM: Well, certainly there was a very keen opening I think that was . . . (laughs) I was going to say open . . . I mean, in the same way there was so much public funding for the arts. I was part of a gang of people who were educated at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the workshops were free. So you just walk in on Friday night and there’s Alice Notley teaching a workshop, you know?
And it always seems like when you look back to a generation before yours, the room always seems smaller, or there always seems to be fewer people in that room than there are in the room that we’re standing in now, and you know the world is always getting more populated. Overpopulation is the answer to many questions, you know, or the problem! But luckily then there was just a small gang of us. It’s sort of hard to think of now, but only twelve or eighteen people were going to be there every Friday night for that free workshop.
TN: Do you think it was also that you guys knew that Alice Notley was a poet you wanted to learn from, or was it just the place you could go when you were interested in poetry?
EM: I think actually in a way we were a little more interested in Ted. Alice was who we got. Who was she? Was she good too? Was she as good? And I mean, she was thirty-two, so she was being tested, and we were showing up, and the workshop became a sort of an archway for a whole bunch of people. I mean, I met Bob Holman there. A bunch of people.
There were several workshops at that time that were really important for a lot of us. But all at St. Mark’s—at the time it was “my school.” I guess there was Iowa and a few other graduate programs, and eventually a bunch of those people that I hung out with then got MFAs variously at places, but it just wasn’t the way at that moment. And the way things worked with funding, which really was totally influential, there were a lot of pockets of us around the country, I think.