I grew up reading books from the beat generation. There’s Jack Kerouac, of course, and Allen Ginsberg. But there are also women, whose works embody, in a style more modern and direct, the renegade spirit. The female writer is an outcast: an outlaw among outsiders. She is kind of Patti Smith, kind of hero of the snowy West, and kind of poet laureate. In essence, she is Eileen Myles. I exchanged emails with Myles about her writerly influences, her time in the academy, and disregarding the conventions of genre.
Whiskey Blue: You’ve written across genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, libretti, plays, and performance pieces — forgive me if I’m forgetting any. What can you tell me about this movement between genres? Was it deliberate? Did it happen based on each story you wanted to tell? Does it even matter?
Eileen Myles: It doesn’t matter. What I’ve done is made up a language that I write in. It’s a kind of patois of working class speech, poet speech, intellectual patter, and whatever sticks. It’s a swift first-thought, best-thought language and I’ve learned over time to churn it out for other jobs, like an art review or an essay about an artist. When I discovered that a story could go someplace and talk about how it feels, and a novel could be lots of other kinds of writing patched together — that you could just say this is a novel and it would be true because the artist is the arbiter, then I could pretty much write my own ticket.
Also, I’ve been needing to make a living all these years — maybe 40 now, and other forms seem to rise to the fore some decades. To write those means your work is more viable, so I’m a bit of a chameleon, but always a poet.
Do you have a preferred genre, one that comes to you most intuitively?
Probably poetry — well actually I write in my journal constantly. That’s probably first.
Do you remember what books you encountered, growing up in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 60s, that might have inspired you to want to become a writer?
The 50s is childhood up to age ten, so myths, sci-fi. Those didn’t make me want to be a writer. They made me want to do drugs or have adventures, travel. Maybe Little Women made me want to be a writer because Jo, the star of it, was a writer. I didn’t understand yet that that was the author. In the 60s I was a teenager. I liked Franny & Zooey, really everything by J.D. Salinger. I realized it was important who was talking. If you could tap into that you could get a flow going. Henry Miller came to me in the 70s. He said I didn’t ask to be born. He wrote in a complaining, American working class speech. He was from Williamsburg. It was ugly. It reminded me of Somerville, where I came from. He made it clear that an unprivileged American could be a writer and could have a lot to talk about. He switched constantly from speech to surrealism. That shift was important to me because an unstable self was what I had to use.
How about female writers?
Violette LeDuc’s La Bâtarde. Lesbian writers? Jill Johnston. Queer writers? John Rechy. Christopher Isherwood.
Did you seek these out?
I didn’t know or let myself know I was queer till the late 70s in my late twenties.
Or let me rephrase: where did you find representation of non-normative identities and stories?
Everywhere. Everything I’ve mentioned so far is non-normative. Also there was music and art films in Harvard Square growing up. Sites of queering and strangeness and assaults on the status quo. Joni Mitchell is a queer voice.
Were there any of these writers whose styles you hoped to emulate?
Henry Miller, Joni Mitchell. But emulation is not what I ever had in mind. They demonstrated that one could change the words, the sentiment, be uncanny in expressing contempt, or make previously unimaginable statements. It meant that as thoughts arose I allowed them. What we understood as art grew wider because of these artists.
What, if anything, changed when your first book came out in 1978? Did you have any expectations of how your life might change? If so, how did the reality of publication measure up to the ideas you may have had about it?
My first book in 1978 was a stapled, mimeographed book of poetry. I felt vindicated. There was an ‘it,’ but I didn’t expect anything to change. I don’t think I really expected anything to change until Chelsea Girls came out in 1994. Even though I ran around performing two stories from it, and it was widely reviewed, not much changed. I was still broke and agents and editors did not come to my door. Since that book was really important to me and the culmination of a lot of effort, I thought a sea change was inevitable. I learned a lot about promoting your own work from that, and have had to work hard ever since. I think reputation is cumulative. One could be young and have a big book from a big press and someone will make a movie from it, but that is not my career. I don’t think it’s because I’m a poet, or even a dyke. I think it’s because I’m an oddball. My work doesn’t fit and doesn’t have permission, even though I have given myself permission. I think the moment we’re in is the best one for me. I can simply be. And write.
How about receiving the Guggenheim in 2012: did this change your life at all?
Not really. I had more money. I had a lump of money. It actually affected my relationship more than my writing. I had two-writer household at the time and wondered how we were going to do this. I think maybe I’m viewed differently now, but getting a Guggenheim only meant I had really arrived, I was really part of the landscape. But the award, besides being very, well, rewarding, was simply something that happened that year that I had to struggle to get in my bio. People kept not including it — or that’s how it felt.
I’m really interested in how a queer woman coming of age in the 1950s and 60s went about locating images in which she could see herself, or which reflected a vision of possibilities she might aspire to. I want to ask who your role models and inspirations were, not only as writers, but also in the sense of queer identity, if this applies.
I think of myself as coming of age in the 70s, when I was in my twenties. The rest was being a child and in high school. Rock ‘n roll was important then. And sure, I loved Grace Slick. I saw her. Janis Joplin. I saw her. I did see them sing, but more I saw them exist. We didn’t have a queer or lesbian identity available then. (And I was surely queer, but not gay then. I liked boys. I liked girls too, but didn’t know what to do with that/those feelings. I was chiefly frightened by them. I thought it meant I was crazy.) I liked so many figures in the culture: Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Jimi Hendrix. I think in terms of role models, and especially of queerness, you don’t need them to be queer to be useful to you in terms of cobbling bravery or vision.
I dreamed of being a boy, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for a girl to show me the way. When I read On the Road I was the guy, not the driver. I was the Catholic passenger Jack Kerouac, dreaming out the window and streaming a dialogue about all of this. In fact he was using his more masculine friend Neal Cassady’s verbal splurge as a way to write — “bop prosody” he called it. All those men gave me permission too. I liked Dylan more than Joan Baez. I liked Henry Miller more than Anaïs Nin, who all the girls were reading. I liked feminism but it was depressing because I wanted to just get to it. I didn’t want to burn my bra, and besides those were rich girls who went to private colleges.
In terms of a queer culture being more available, I don’t think it means one can find role models any easier, truly. I think we have to feel a self and reach for what stirs us. I do think my queer role model is myself, and I’ll tell you what I mean. There wasn’t anyone except maybe Jill [Johnston] and Valerie Solanas and Violette Leduc writing anything I needed to read who were gendered like me. So I really quite consciously thought, “I am going to write about a lesbian life that’s as rough and tough as the boys. I am going to make the excessive statement, my life will be poetry.” I think so many artists invent themselves and are their own role model. I am writing things I want to read and living a life (to the extent that I can) that I want to be out there as a queer female existence. It’s a synthetic performance in a way, being something that isn’t.
When you first moved to New York in the 1970s to become a poet, how would you describe the literary scene you walked into? How do you remember it?
I wrote a book about this, Inferno. It was open, it was sexist, it was stimulating. It was changing. It got queerer as it went along.
Did you arrive in the city with any ideals or lofty expectations?
Of course. I planned to become a famous poet. I wanted to have one of those literary lives. I wanted to be part of the story.
Did you have to search to find literary community? Did you stumble into it? How did you forge a place for yourself in the city’s literary scene?
The short answer is I gravitated to the scene that appealed to me most because the writing was new and experimental. I went to all the readings. I met people. I drank with people. I did drugs with people and had sex with people. I started a literary magazine. I published my friends. They published me. We had older statesmen of our world: Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and people closer to my age but still older and more or less straight: Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer.
Do you remember your first interaction with or exposure to the St. Mark’s Poetry Project?
It’s all in Inferno. I went to a reading and people were giggling and hanging out in the pews like they were in church. The reading was interesting but it was also clear that some people thought this place was theirs and I wanted to be them.
In 2002 you began teaching at the University of California, San Diego. From what I understand, you taught there for five years and then founded their MFA program. I’m curious about the differences you encountered as a writer in an academic context rather than one in, say, the New York literary community. Do writing and teaching compliment each other? In your experience, is academia an environment that lends itself to creativity?
When I got that job I thought, “well, being a dyke hasn’t ruined my work, being an alcoholic hasn’t, and being poor hasn’t. Will this?” I sat in my office I felt like a preserved fish — the climate control, the income, the health insurance. There were people there I loved, but I found that since I wasn’t born of the academy I didn’t understand its ways and wasted a lot of energy, since they in the department meetings already knew what they had decided. I kind of hate the academy as an institution. But you bring the outside in. I loved the adjuncts I hired, so many of my friends. I made an almost entirely lesbian writing program. People didn’t know what to do, but it was legal. And I was very instrumental in hiring two people for tenure-track positions who I really believed in — Rae Armantrout and Anna Joy Springer. Anna’s queer and so’s Rae. So I changed the place.
But I live off academic institutions. I read in them, I teach in them. I teach at NYU and Columbia these days as an adjunct and that’s perfect for me. The academy supports writers, plain and simple. You can write a poem there just as well as in any other context of employment. It’s the belief that that’s where we belong that is wrong. I don’t think writers belong anywhere. Speaking for myself, I write out of not belonging, or feeling I belong to this moment.
There’s been a lot of buzz following Chad Harbach’s book MFA vs. NYC, which sets up what some call a false dichotomy between mutually exclusive concepts of the (Brooklyn, mostly) New York literary scene, and the pursuit of an MFA. Do you have any thoughts about the interplay between academia and the creative enterprise?
I hear I am even alluded to in this book. I didn’t go to grad school, but I teach in a grad program. So I don’t have a problem balancing the two.
In your eyes, have there been any particular ideas or themes driving you to make work? Some guiding principle or consistent vision that you write towards?
No. I just need to make things that explain time travel. I’m overwhelmed by the present. I’m moved by it. But I’ve been all these other places and I need to weave these times in a way that shows how consciousness wriggles and leaps and creates new spaces. I write things I want to be in.
Suspending disbelief for a moment, is there some grand opus or impossible feat you’ve always dreamed of creating or embarking upon, that you would pursue if the constraints of time and money could magically be lifted?
I do intend to write films, make films. That’s somebody else’s money and my time.
Whiskey Blue is a writer of fine smut. Whiskey wanders from Brooklyn to Brussels in search of the best fucks and most memorable heartbreaks. She holds erotica in the highest regard. You can find her at @topshelferotica