A New Form of Ruination: A Q&A with Eileen Myles

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

Eileen Myles’ I MUST BE LIVING TWICE opens with seven new poems. The reader won’t know it until she burrows into the subsequent 313 pages of poetry—a robust selection of poems spanning ten collections—that the commencing poems are a prolepsis, a provisional destination for the poet’s iconoclastic craft. In “Prophecy,” the speaker says, “I’m playing with the devil’s cock…I’m writing a poem with it.” Compared to a fat burnt crayon, this baleful instrument is at once innocuous and iniquitous. Be it from 1981’s A FRESH YOUNG VOICE FROM THE PLAINS or 2012’s SNOWFLAKE/DIFFERENT STREETS, it’s evident that Myles has been steadily composing from the same cult inkwell.

In the epilogue’s “Twice (essay),” Myles guides her readers with a docent’s swagger, providing savory blips of context for two poems that were composed over three decades apart. “If there’s a gland,” she writes, “I’ve only used it twice to produce a poem.” While she isn’t certain they’re the same poem, she acknowledges it’s the same life, a life that’s on rigorous display throughout these crayon-scribed pages.

In “Unnamed New York,” Myles’ speaker says, “The new book / was composed by picking shit / out of a wave.” I spoke with Myles by telephone just hours before her book launch at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery to discuss this elegant scavenging, her career’s broad wave.

Brazos Bookstore: This book distills thirty-nine, almost forty years of poetry. What is it like to sit down with so much of your life’s work, to release something so time-spanning?

Eileen Myles: If I was a visual artist, I would have a retrospective at some point in my career. So, this is the equivalent of that as a poet. It’s a little bit like a greatest hits, but it’s also like “Well, what did you mean?” It’s something you imagine happening some day and this is that day. It was the editor’s idea to put new poems in, too, and it just gave it a whole different slant. I included work I felt close to, and there was a lot of it.

BB: By including some of the early poems about poetry—I’m thinking of “An Attitude About Poetry” and “On the Death of Robert Lowell”—do you ever encounter a speaker who has wildly different ideas about poetry than you do now?

EM: No, because for one thing, I know exactly what she meant. I’m not as broke as I was when I was twenty-something, when I wrote it, but so much of the story of being a poet is the economic story. How do you put that together? Is your secret that you’re rich? How are you reinventing what a poet is so that you can survive in this world? We all like plays, we know what art museums are, but it always seems with these other art forms, it’s about materiality. And people don’t really get the materiality of language. It just ends up being this mundane thing, which is the poet’s life. It makes people feel like they’re just supporting a beggar, so it’s very interesting to figure out how to stem that and give it the full excitement, dignity, and adventure you feel about your art form. So those questions from my twenties are real questions today—for the politics of poetry, too.

So much of the story of being a poet is the economic story.

As for the Robert Lowell poem, there’s a reading tonight, a launch for my book at St. Mark’s Church, and part of the point is “I’m alive.” The joke of the night will be how so many people have said to me how great it is that I’m not dead. The Robert Lowell poem is about how when Robert Lowell died, people said all these kiss-ass things about him. I just felt that we should praise poets when they live. If there’s a punk way to say that, I have done it with the Robert Lowell poem. Maybe the only punk thing I ever did was that poem.

BB: It reminds me of the lines from “Peanut Butter”: “…I / write because / I would like / to be used for / years after / my death.” It’s like some kind of cerebral compositing, a gift that keeps on giving, to be cliché. This book gives second life to your poetry—hence, I MUST BE LIVING TWICE. Is this release more significant? And does the poetry become new to you again?

EM: It’s a bigger release. Every time a book comes out, in some way, you create the future and you put that period of time behind you. The thing that’s really fun about doing this is that, in a way, I put my whole career behind me and step out into some space that feels completely different.

The first time I got a tattoo, I was forty. I was talking to some young guy about it, and he was saying the only reason not to get a tattoo is because you don’t know how you’ll feel about it when you’re forty, but he said: you are forty. It was just such a fun place to stand in relation to my body and time, and this is kind of like that. I am the person who wrote all these poems. It’s beautiful. It’s a new form of ruination. I stand on this giant pile of crap, which is my whole writing life, and I also step off of it, and I get to make new work and move into the future. It’s very freeing in this way. I can just kind of point and say “I did that.”

One of my favorite books in the world is Thoreau’s CAPE COD. It’s about Provincetown, which is one of my favorite places in the world. He goes: “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” This is the reason poets love to use the word “America”—because they can step off it a little bit.

BB: Just as you use New York. It’s your landscape. The other day, a student pointed out how in “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion enters a revolving door in New York and exits to a transformed city. How often does this happen to you in New York—as a poet, as a resident?

EM: I went to Marfa, Texas for a month, and when I came back, my gym had gone. My gym had closed. There’s a way in which New York in some ways is deaccessioning its own life. We sort of live with our fingers crossed that we won’t lose the whole thing. As long as it’s an island and people are here, though, we’re going to need cobblers and a gym.

BB: I wonder if they closed because of your absence.

EM: Exactly.

BB: Your speaker reminds the reader you don’t get to choose your spiritual experience or your orgasm or your lover. How about the poem? Can you choose your experience of the poem as you write it? Is that experience more of a spiritual experience or an orgasm?

EM: I couldn’t separate those two. I think you sort of allow the poem. If you decide to be a poet, you give up a lot. You’re falling asleep, and you think of a good line. And you think, “Am I going to turn on a light, possibly ruin my night’s sleep trying to get the line down?” When you do it, though, you don’t feel so bad because you’ve kind of done your duty. The practice becomes one of allowing this thing to happen and come through you. I chose the books I read, but I didn’t choose the people who told me to read them.

BB: I wonder, with the proliferation of the MFA and PhD in Creative Writing, the rise and rise of academic poetry: is it still possible today to denounce the idea of the great poem (e.g., “There is an argument / for poetry being deep but I am not that argument.”)?

EM: It’s probably even more important. I think we just need to smash the idea of greatness and break it down to tinier pieces that we can live with. I don’t believe in the great novel. I believe in the novel I can write. I don’t believe in the great poem. I believe in the poem I’m writing right now, the poem I’m living in.

BB: Has a poem ever insisted on being great regardless?'

EM: Better to let somebody else decide it’s great. I come from a moment when Ted Berrigan— who was a great friend of mine, like an older brother poet—had this whole thing: “Everything is totally great.” And Andy Warhol, too: “Everything is great. I love her. She’s great.” Great is kind of like this worn out coin that might get fresh in somebody else’s hand.

BB: Finally, can you talk about the reprint of CHELSEA GIRLS? What’s new there?

EM: Well, we get to say it’s a novel. Harper Collins asked, “It’s a novel, right?” And we said, “Yeah, it’s a novel.” It felt like a novel the first time, but I was so desperate to get it published the first time that when John Martin said “I’ll publish it. It’s stories, right?”, I was like “Yeah, it’s stories.”

I think the fact that it’s had two lives in two different genres is a real “fuck you” to the notion of genre, which is something that’s really important to me.

Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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