An interview with Eileen Myles


"There’s millions of translations of Dante, I think it kind of indicates the end of the world or something that everybody’s so interested in a medieval poem about Hell," Myles told me during a visit in Chicago. "There’s so many different versions in a way it was putting my stamp on it and saying this was mine."

And calling it a "poet’s novel" certainly gives it a distinction, which Myles said is because she wanted that to be clear.

"I wanted to tell them it was a novel," Myles said. "And I wanted to tell them it was kind of a funky novel, which would be indicated by ‘a poet’s novel’."

As for the inspiration for the beginning scene, Myles said she has reconnected with her hot professor, called Eva Nelson in the book.

"That’s not her name, but we’re friends now, through [somebody else] I met at an event," Myles said. "And wonderfully, it was good for her because it reflected well on that time for her in a way. In a complicated personal way that made it a real payoff for somebody to have seen her then and remind her how beautiful she was. It was really great. So we’re still in pretty close touch."

Myles uses her own name and her own experiences in the book, despite calling it a novel, largely because she hates the word “memoir.”

"The word always seemed sort of cheesy to me," Myles said. "It’s like ‘here’s this precious memory of my experience’ and I wasn’t really interested in that."

What she was interested in was sharing stories of her own life, but how she sees them.

"I feel like writing is making s–t up, basically, and so I think I have access to all my own memories and I know about the life of Eileen Myles. I feel like once I sat down and tried to make a story out of it, I know I’m exaggerating and embellishing. Anybody who’s been present at any of these events would have a very different version. And also I felt free to change them," Myles said.

The stories range from Myles attending college in Boston to her working on a musical based on the life of Joan of Arc after moving to NYC. There are stories of her meeting and falling in love with women, deciding to come out and be out in her poetry, and figuring out how to make a living as a writer. Because her poet’s novel is very autobiographical, it was inevitable she’d have to feel out some approval from those she featured in it.

"There was one person that I felt — because I’ve known how she is, so I showed it to her. Weirdly, the incident that was kind of sexual she was fine with, though she didn’t remember it or even believe it — she didn’t mind that," Myles said. "It was the biographical details about her life that she said were wrong. I was like ‘It’s not a memoir, it’s a novel.’ She seemed touchy enough that I just changed her name, which I suspect she’s not going to like either.

One woman who factored heavily into Eileen’s life was Rose from Chicago. Eileen writes of her:

Is she beautiful. Well, she’s kind of awkward. She does look like she’s in another world, half the time.

It was Rose that slowly pulled Eileen out of the closet, as Eileen fell for her, and ended up embracing her sexuality.

We’re talking about writing before Stonewall. I graduated high school in ’67 so what there was for outness and queer culture in the late 60s and college — there was a gay and lesbian club on campus and it was, as far as I can see, one woman. I mean, I definitely had gay contacts and networks and even, from college actually, I worked in Harvard Square in Cambridge, and there was a gay who worked across the way who sold ties, and he just had a friendly vibe. He wound up at some party at the professor’s house in college in Beacon Hill. And he and some other guy took me out to the gay bars my first night in Boston, queer bars. It was just an amazing opening to this great secret world.

I still didn’t come out for another close to 10 years. It was kind of like an introduction to this amazing underground, which actually would have been so trippy to take part in at that time because it was very kind of hippie, trans wonderful gay world which I have a mental picture world of now. If you’ve ever seen underground gay men’s porn that shows those guys making love and stuff. I just got a whiff.

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