The politics of poetry Author Eileen Myles
THE ROLE OF THE POET IS GOING TO BE MORE CRUCIAL THAN EVER. EVERYTHING I’M DOING AND SAYING IS RELATING TO THIS MOMENT. —EILEEN MYLES
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.ticketssantafe.org.