'These Schmucks Were Geniuses!': Poet Eileen Myles Remembers Her New York
We sat down with the writer to talk about her career, how New York has changed, and the problems LGBT people still face.
In her poetry and poetic prose, Eileen Myles has explored the queer, the strange, and the mundane in the East Village for 40 years. Her writing, which includes over 20 volumes of poems, plays, and nonfiction works, is rooted in the many identities she embodies: her femininity and her androgynous queerness; her working-class upbringing; her upbringing in Boston. A writer's writer tied to New York's cult creative class that orbited the Chelsea Hotel decades, Myles has documented the city inside and out, including her collection Chelsea Girls, which writer Raymond Foye described as "the quintessential memoir of the Lower East Side." She spent years living between NYC and California (where she founded UC San Diego's MFA program), but during her time in New York she served as Artistic Director of The Poetry Project, the illustrious for-poets-by-poets institution founded in St. Mark's Church. She later won a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Her writing is magnetic for being intelligent without being pretentious, readable without being simple; her stanzas are often composed into narrow columns that jolt down the pages of her books. Myles's poems often feel like private thoughts or a conversation between old friends, veering from the inconsequential to the critical over the space of just a few lines, as in her poem "Waterfall," which reads in part:
I play a guitar
but music stinks
I sit in nature
typical bahs, neighs
In me speaks
the blood on my hands
Girls Girls Girls!
I came to pray
HarperCollins just published Myles's I Must Be Living Twice, a collection of selected and new poetry that spans her entire career. In honor of that occasion I caught up with her to discuss how this anthology is "truer" than any autobiography she could write, and how New York has changed since the years when it was a reasonable goal to live in the city and pursue a career in poetry.
VICE: How did you come to put together I Must Be Living Twice?
Eileen Myles: In a long, slow way. When I was in San Diego in 2007, somebody asked me for poems for an anthology of American female poets to be published in Italy. It was very easy to think about which poems of mine I would like to see translated into Italian. The kind of vernacular poetry I write, it's like those candies that burst when you put them in your mouth, so I thought about which ones would burst well in Italian.
I put a small collection of my favorite poems together. Then I got ditched from that anthology and they didn't even use me. But that gave me the core of a collection. I wound up publishing a new book of poetry next, and then I wound up publishing another new book next next, and then the collection was out of date because I hadn't selected from these new books, and I had to re-select. So it's been a long road, but a satisfying outcome.
Is this your version of an autobiography?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, it's a truer autobiography or biography or memoir than I will ever write.
When I was much younger in my poetry practice, I remember hanging out with another poet and she showed me this book. I can never remember if it was Li Po or Tu Fu, but it was a Chinese poet. It was a slim volume and it was his childhood poems, his adolescent poems, and his young man poems. That's a form that I think about a lot.
I've been thoroughly moved byTruffaut and his whole Antoine Doinel character [the filmic alter ego of Francois Truffaut]. I love the idea of being an artist who narrates the moments of being alive, all the stuff one takes and takes in. So that's what I wanted to do. Anything that ever happened to me is represented, on some level, in this book.
I associate you so strongly with the East Village and the St. Mark's scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. How has that scene changed over the last 30 years?
The East Village, and even just New York, period, was like a writing factory for me when I arrived. I had to rethink everything. I grew up in Boston, where every cab driver was writing a novel and every waitress was taking dance lessons. Everybody was on the way to something. And when I got to New York what was so exciting was to realize that here they were actually doing it now.
I've watched people come to New York who don't know that, and sometimes even get pretty far in the art world not realizing that the people they actually meet, the people they have sex with, the people they have drinks with—these are the important people, not "those people" over there.
That's a form of change I've seen in New York, that people have increasingly relied on institutions to purify the artist so that the person has been homogenized into something you can trust. What I had to learn was to trust that the people I spent time with were actually the people who would have something to offer to me as an artist as well. It wasn't like these were schmucks and those were geniuses. These schmucks were geniuses!
To me, New York is like my notebook. I have to return to it. And I can't imagine that ever changing, even while New York itself is changing. New York always changes. It's maybe changed faster and more in the last five years that ever before, but that's just what change looks like now. Similar to how social media delivers information so quickly, we're in this inundated place, and so is New York City.
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It's not just the city that's changed, though. Being gay means something very different now then it did when you first started writing poetry. It used to be that queer stories couldn't be conventional, and so to some degree, they had to be told in experimental forms. Now that that's not true anymore, is formal experimentation still as necessary for queer artists?
I still feel like there's lots of problems just being in the world with my queer body. The experience of traveling, which I do a lot, is always an assault on my gender. I'm renovating my website right now and I'm going to have a Tumblr called "Ladylike." The joke is that I really hate the word lady. I just want to put a knife through somebody's heart when they go "Hey lady!" I'm not a lady. I have never been a lady in my life!
I don't think it's that different. For younger queers who are not necessarily in the right class, who didn't go to private colleges, they're still getting shit. Nothing has changed. They might make marriage legal, and they might make the gay pride parade more corporate, but that doesn't affect the regular lives of people moving across the planet in all the routes we take. Homogenizing doesn't go that deep. I look sort of normal in the art world, sort of normal in New York, sort of normal in the poetry scene. I'm just an androgynous dyke who affects a sort of alternative look, and a little preppy. But you get to the airport and I'm a freak.
I think with the queer body, it's like you're always already having to change a lot. It's the same with poetry. I mean there's a way in which I always want to return to an earlier style and use it again, and I do that, but there's another way in which it's like the future is always here. I'm always in some room I never expected to be in, and that room deserves a new poem, you know?
Patti Smith has famously said that young artists should no longer move to New York City, that it's too hard to make it there anymore. As someone who's never left, would you tell a young poet to move here today?
Oh sure! But not because that's what they have to do. When I was in my twenties, Ted Berrigan would say a poet has to move to New York. And I don't know if I would say that, but if you want this experience, it's here. And there's so much in it. It's abundant and confident and challenging and complicated and dirty and fucked up and great.
I Must Be Living Twice is out now via HarperCollins and can be purchased here.
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