An interview with Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is a poet and a novelist whose work manages to be both political and sexy, creating the kind of bridge between activism and art that predates the work of contemporary queer writers who are still attempting to perfect the form. Since her first book of poetry published in 1978, Myles has continued to write poetry about being a woman, a writer, a lesbian, a New Yorker, a lover, and an artist, among other things.

At the beginning of her career, her peers were Patti Smith and the Beats. She worked to establish herself as a poet, when being young and broke in New York City would eventually become a scene for several artists. But when Myles came out, she wasn’t only a woman poet, she was a gay woman poet, and that forced her into a small category of women she didn’t quite fit in with.

It’s Myles’ nature to rebel against these categories, which has given way to her prolific career as both a poet and a novelist, and one reason she has grown to be an icon for queer women growing up in the 90s and today. Michelle Tea often cites Myles’ Chelsea Girls as one of her biggest inspirations as a writer, and she’s cited in the Le Tigre song "Hot Topic" as a person — a woman — of great influence.

Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel is her twelfth book. And while it’s called a "novel," it follows her own life very closely, with some names changed to protect the not-so-innocent. (It is a Myles’ novel, after all.)

 

Inferno opens with the description of a sexy teacher, one that had Eileen very interested in her studies. She was asked by her professor to read Dante’s famous poem, "Inferno," and she obliged. This sets the tone for novel.

"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.

So in 1977, already having started writing and performing her poetry around New York City, Myles began to be more suggestive in her poetry.

"It was the combination of amphetamines and the woman," Myles said. "I was young, I wanted to make a connection into the poetry world and my sense was this is so male-driven, so heterosexual. It’s not really true, but my thinking was that I wanted to get my reputation down as a poet first before I was a lesbian. I thought that was going to ruin everything. But it was a combination of speed and Rose."

Rose lives in Florida now, but her name isn’t really Rose. Myles said she’s read the book. "I’m sure she remembers things entirely differently, but was definitely the tormented coming out experience that most of us have had."

After coming out, Myles began to meet more out women in poetry and literary presses. She began to have more sex, and began to write about more sex.

"I mean for it to be a handbook; I mean for it to be an adventure story; I mean for it to be inspirational — all those things," Myles said of the book. "I’ll go on and keep writing books but there was just a moment I thought — each time, I try to sell a book, it’s a challenge. Like ‘who the f–k are you? Why should we buy this book and publish it?’ I kind of wanted to say ‘Well here’s who I am.’ I literally want to say ‘This is the poet Eileen Myles.’ Not that I’m such a grand, but to say f–k you, in a way. This is what a poet’s life looks like, this is what a female’s life looks like. I just wanted to show the world I was moving through, that there were lots of people like me."

Some of the more well-known people like Myles were Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, both of whom are mentioned in Inferno. But the difference between Myles and Smith, for instance, is that Patti’s own memoir moved from her being a poet in the small New York writer’s circle to becoming a rock star.

"I’ve talked with a lot of female writer friends. A lot of started off alone with romantic ideas and a little manual typewriter, my generation, no community, isolated," Myles said. "Patti went from there to rockstardom, so there’s a gap — there’s no meeting the other poets, it’s a really weird story."

During the late 70s and 80s, Myles felt more of a kinship to male poets than she did to her lesbian contemporaries. But as the director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church, she felt resistance when it came to be included outside of the "lesbian poet" community.

"I was the first lesbian — the first queer — that ever ran it and I got a lot of s–t, because I kept having too many women read, too many lesbians, too many people of color. I was really pushing those boundaries. There’s still this way men hold a lot of power."

"I think between marketing as a butch, marketing as not being in my twenties and writing in a quasi-experimental way put me on a certain shelf," Myles said. "Which didn’t hinder me from being known or having a career, but it made it very much a lesbian career, in certain ways. And yet, at that time too, I think there was specifically a lesbian poetry scene that Adrienne Rich was part of, June Jordan and a whole specific world that I’ve never really been a part of because I think I write very differently. I’m more interested in work by guys like John Ashbery and the world of mostly queer men. That was part of it, too. It wasn’t about closeting, it was more about aesthetics."

Which is likely why Inferno and Myles’ other recent work has become of interest to readers 20 to 30 years younger than the writer. It’s partly because of other writers like Michelle Tea, who invited Myles on her Sister Spit tour a few years ago. Inferno is dedicated to Tea.

"I meant the book, in so many ways, to be a book about coming into your writing — being a female, being queer and being a poet female or whatever," Myles said. "So Michelle — we met when she was in her twenties and I was in my forties and that was our relationship. I knew I was an important writer for her. What was kind of uncanny was that when I met Michelle, it was the first time I had an experience of having a wide lesbian readership because Michelle was reading me, and her friends were reading me, and they’d heard of me and I was their older lesbian writer, not Adrienne Rich. So it was this moment I felt I’d connected to my audience and they happened to be 20 years younger than me. Michelle and I were connecting each other to things."

Myles continues to be a literary rebel in every sense of the word, including publishing her work with small presses, like Inferno publisher OR Books, which is exclusively publishing the novel on their website — meaning you won’t find it in bookstores or on Amazon.com. I wondered if Myles thought her success in the publishing world ever felt limited because she is a lesbian, therefore a "lesbian" poet.

"Then and now, I think it kind of segues you into a certain world. In the writing world, if you say ‘lesbian,’ they’re like ‘Over there!’" Myles said. "When I first went online and went to a chat room — this is like AOL in the 90s — and seeing there was a writer’s chat room, I remember going to it and being struck by how incredibly heterosexual it was. I said "Any queers here?" and I remember all the voices coming forward and going ‘Wrong room.’"

"I think it’s really true in publishing. I started publishing fiction in my forties, and already, there was probably an opportunity like this," she uses her fingers to indicate a pinch of very small space, "for young lesbians but, already, I wasn’t a young lesbian. So I published my first novel with independent press, and I’ve published my fiction with independent presses ever since."

And we’re better off for it, because Eileen Myles has always done things her own way, and lived to tell the tale in work like Inferno.

Inferno is available at ORbooks.com.