The pol­i­tics of poetry Au­thor Eileen Myles

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin


Eileen Myles, who was on a book tour in Europe when Don­ald Trump was in­au­gu­rated as pres­i­dent of the United States, watched the events from afar and then at­tended the Women’s March in Lon­don the fol­low­ing day. “Amer­ica’s po­si­tion in global pol­i­tics en­sures that when we do some­thing as stupid as elect a fas­cist, the rest of the world is as fright­ened as we are,” Myles, who prefers to be re­ferred to by the gen­der-neu­tral pro­noun “they,” told “Peo­ple are now call­ing it a coup d’état, but I think that started be­fore the elec­tion. We are in a lot of trou­ble, and be­sides want­ing to take ac­tion, I feel in­clined to pray be­cause I’ve never seen any­thing like this in my life.”


Myles is the au­thor of more than a dozen vol­umes of poetry, fic­tion, and non­fic­tion, in­clud­ing Snowflake/

dif­fer­ent streets (Wave Books, 2012), Cool for You (Soft Skull Press, 2008), The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Ice­land: Travel Es­says in Art (Semio­text(e), 2009), and In­ferno: A Poet’s Novel (OR Books/Coun­ter­point Press, 2010). Myles reads from their work at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, Feb. 15, as part of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion’s Read­ings and Con­ver­sa­tions se­ries. They are joined by Dan Chi­as­son, a poetry critic for The New Yorker and the au­thor of five books, in­clud­ing Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon (Knopf, 2010), and Bi­cen­ten­nial (Knopf, 2014).

Myles has al­ways been po­lit­i­cal, both in the sense of who is run­ning the coun­try and in the more per­sonal con­text of their own life. The writer moved to New York City from Mas­sachusetts in the early 1970s and set about de­fy­ing social con­ven­tions as a mem­ber of the un­der­ground art world, ex­per­i­ment­ing with and sell­ing drugs as well as sleep­ing with women (and a fair num­ber of men) — and writ­ing about it quite graph­i­cally long be­fore even the most pro­gres­sive of the big pub­lish­ing houses would have been open to re­leas­ing these kinds of po­ems and sto­ries. They pub­lished their first books, The Irony of the Leash (1978) and A Fresh Young Voice From the Plains (1981), with small presses and have largely stuck to that model. In their younger days, Myles turned away from academia in fa­vor of the grit­ti­ness of poetry writ­ten in the ver­nac­u­lar, in par­tic­u­lar to avoid writ­ing or read­ing in what they call “poetry voice” — the way that some po­ets, when read­ing aloud, tend to em­pha­size each word and line break very care­fully. Pre­sent­ing poetry that way “sug­gests that we’re be­ing asked to go to some other kind of ex­pe­ri­ence that doesn’t have to do with how we talk, or how we lis­ten, or how we con­sume any­thing in our lives, ex­cept for maybe a bad ver­sion of school,” they said.

“We’re all kind of like her­metic mu­se­ums in terms of our thoughts and our ref­er­ences and our dreams. I think of the poem as an oc­ca­sion of the mo­ment that holds as much as a mo­ment can hold. It’s a unit of at­ten­tion. If any­thing, I want to say ‘look here now, where you are, how it is.’ ”

On the page, the shape of Myles’ po­ems tend to­ward the long and skinny. The po­ems shy away from noth­ing — love, sex, sex­ual fan­tasy, child­hood, pol­i­tics, and vi­o­lence are re­cur­ring themes. Of­ten there is a nar­ra­tive through-line that makes even their most frag­mented pieces gras­pable. The works are filled with emo­tion or even sen­ti­men­tal­ity, which suf­fuses them with warmth. Myles writes in the tra­di­tion of the Beats and the New York School po­ets, with an eye to­ward the mun­dane and a de­cep­tive light­heart­ed­ness that gives way sud­denly, plung­ing the reader into darker mo­ments of clar­ity or in­sight.

Chelsea Girls, an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel first pub­lished in 1994, may be Myles’ best-known book, chart­ing the au­thor’s course through their dru­gand-sex fu­eled twen­ties and thir­ties, and re­flect­ing on their hard-bit­ten child­hood with an al­co­holic fa­ther. The novel’s stream-of-con­scious­ness-style prose is mu­si­cal and po­etic, pri­or­i­tiz­ing lan­guage and mood over lin­ear time and a clear sense of what is hap­pen­ing at any given mo­ment. Chelsea Girls was reis­sued by Ecco, an im­print of HarperCollins, in 2015, along with I Must Be Liv­ing Twice: New and Se­lected Po­ems 1974-2014. Myles told Pasatiempo that Ama­zon has op­tioned the movie rights for Chelsea Girls, and Myles is cur­rently work­ing on the screen­play. Though they are in their six­ties now, they said they still feel con­nected to the young woman, and the writer, they used to be. “I’m sort of in awe of what she was up to. She gave birth to me, in a way.”

Myles’ po­ems are used in the Ama­zon orig­i­nal se­ries Trans­par­ent, wherein they are at­trib­uted to a poet named Les­lie, played by Cherry Jones, an aca­demic whose life does not closely re­sem­ble Myles’. Though Trans­par­ent cer­tainly drew ad­di­tional at­ten­tion to Myles’ work, the reis­sue of Chelsea Girls and the pub­li­ca­tion of their new and se­lected po­ems had al­ready bumped up their pro­file — which was not ex­actly low to be­gin with. (I Must Be Liv­ing Twice is blurbed by mil­len­nial It Girl Lena Dun­ham and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning poet John Ash­bery.) But the me­dia seized on what it per­ceived to be Myles’ newfound pop-cul­ture rel­e­vance and fo­cused a num­ber of pro­files on Myles’ (for­mer) ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with Jill Soloway, the cre­ator of Trans­par­ent.

“I want to chal­lenge that con­cept — the resur­gence of my work with Trans­par­ent. It’s just not true,” they said. “I think there’s a no­tion in the me­dia that if a poetry ca­reer ex­ists any place out­side of the main­stream and on tele­vi­sion, you’re ob­scure, as if a writ­ing ca­reer only ex­ists in the at­ten­tion of mass me­dia. That’s crazy. Our writ­ing com­mu­ni­ties are thriv­ing and abun­dant. I’ve had a re­ally good poetry ca­reer since the 1970s, and I’ve been mak­ing a liv­ing at it since the 1990s. The idea that I re­cently came out of the dark­ness is just a lot of crap.”

Re­turn­ing to the topic of pol­i­tics, Myles brought up the mur­der of Jo Cox, a Bri­tish politi­cian killed in June 2016 in the town of Birstall, in north­ern Eng­land. Cox was staunchly against Bri­tain leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, and it is said that her at­tacker shot and stabbed her while yelling, “Put Bri­tain first!” In his in­au­gu­ral speech, Pres­i­dent Trump re­peated the phrase “Amer­ica first” too many times for Myles’ com­fort. “I feel like that’s a re­ally fright­en­ing al­liance of global fas­cism and the English lan­guage. This is all hap­pen­ing in lan­guage. I think the value of be­ing a poet at this mo­ment is that this is what we do, this is what we pay at­ten­tion to. The role of the poet is go­ing to be more cru­cial than ever. Ev­ery­thing I’m do­ing and say­ing is re­lat­ing to this mo­ment. There is no sep­a­rate place. When we talk about pol­i­tics, we’re not not talk­ing about poetry. This is the con­di­tion.”


Eileen Myles with Dan Chi­as­son, a Lan­nan Foun­da­tion event 7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Feb. 15 Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, 211 W. San Fran­cisco St. $3& $6; 505-988-1234, www.tick­

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