A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit down with Eileen Myles over coffee to talk about poetry, art, presidency, cinema, queerness. Myles was in town for a reading at the Rothermere American Institute, and when I heard they were coming to Oxford, I sent an email asking if they might be interested in a short interview for The Oxonian. I got a reply pretty quickly. The subject line was one word: sure.
Myles, who once ran for president, began their reading at the RAI with a presidential acceptance speech, and ended it with the final chapter of the recently republished Chelsea Girls. It was an extraordinary reading. The next day, I met Myles at the college where they were staying; I showed them a few things in my own college, including the bust of Tolkien that we keep in our chapel – Myles had told us the night before that their one trip to Oxford had been as a young Tolkien obsessive. I was nervous and nerdy and excited; Myles was warm and composed and casual. Then we had coffee, and talked. The full interview is up at The Oxonian Review; here’s an extract:
KG: I was talking to a friend recently, and we both agreed that you write the best sex scenes we’ve ever read—
EM: That’s amazing!
KG: —especially the best lesbian sex, and there’s so much bad sex out there, in novels I mean. I was thinking, then, about your reading yesterday, how we went from that brilliant final part of Chelsea Girls, which is so incredibly intimate—moving between that sphere of Mary and James Schuyler, and you delivered that reading in a way that felt, I think, incredibly intimate to everyone involved; then to shift to this more formal social space of book signings and dinners—how does that feel?
EM: I don’t think I feel much after it but I feel something before it. The thing that’s so funny about reading from these books is that the younger poet, the younger person I’m reading from, is always me. It’s sort of like the gap between the person describing being fucked by a woman for the first time is—well, it’s close to forty years ago. It’s really weird. So the distance is kind of shocking, and a little pornographic. The distance is almost more pornographic to me than the fact of what I’m reading, that I’m not that person. And it’s sort of like there’s a weird thing of people are looking at me, and they’re hearing that dissonance, too: it’s like, experience my ageing, experience my living. And that’s the intimate thing, in a way.
KG: It feels like your work relies so much on intimacy, and is such intimate writing, and is so social—it’s such a social mode, full of friends, communities, all sorts of people.
EM: But it’s bearable. And, well, my least favourite thing about the way my work is talked about is when it gets reduced to “oh, it’s this, like, dyke fiction”, or, “a female Bukowski”.
KG: Wow. Nobody wants that.
EM: No! And it just sort of suggests this blah of experience, and I think a lot of people who have imitated my work do that. When I think about how I came to writing fiction, I had to figure out how to edit. Are you a Bruce Chatwin fan, by any chance? The thing is, his work, like, say, Sebald, is a triumph of editing: from this location to that location, like jumps. They’re poetic. My only really close poet friend, who died of AIDS, Tim Dlugos, he died at the age of 40, and the great compliment he gave me, in his high-pitched rising and falling voice, was like: “Eileen, you’d be considered a great prose stylist!” And I feel that in my private mind I am, but my work always gets described in terms of content, and class, and ‘punk’. And my books take ten fucking years to write! And not because my nose is to the grindstone, but because part of it is seeing how things fit together—it’s really the hard part for me in writing longer works of fiction.
KG: How do you feel about those words that are so often used to describe you—‘punk’, ‘radical’, ‘anarchist’?
EM: Or dyke, or working class. I mean they’re not things I would deny, and yet ‘punk’ always describes both class and sexuality. To say ‘punk poet’ means “this other shit that we totally don’t want to identify.” but all of this describes content, and the thing about content is you want to have it be strewn. It’s sort of what I think of as the imperial lesbian or queer manner: to have it be everywhere and nowhere. In Inferno, I performed sort of a bait-and-switch: if you wanted to read about poetry you got stuck with all this dyke stuff, and if you wanted to read about lesbian stuff, you’re like “why do I have to read about all this poetry?” And I just love bait-and-switch. In the nineties there was just kind of this war: is it a lesbian novel if the content is not lesbian? And I happen to like writing queer shit because it’s not there, and it needs to be there. But again, if you put a little drop of violet ink in a fish tank, it’s all violet, and that’s true for everybody else. With other writers, we quickly gravitate to descriptors of style, and mine is so often reduced. I got a really good review of my selected in The New York Review of Books, and it was such a relief, because so much other stuff was just like: I’ve discovered this lesbian! She’s pretty good! Either somebody was totally fetishizing this material (“this is how I found myself”) or: “I had to be brave enough to read through this stuff, I’m a man reading this dyke shit.” I think that’s just the wagers of difference: we write with this two-sided thing, and people think which side they’re going to see.
It was a brilliant, invigorating conversation. I’ve been reading and rereading Myles since then – and since it’s late at night as I write this, here’s the opening of “And then the Weather Arrives”, for your enjoyment:
I don’t know no one
anymore who’s up all night.
Wouldn’t it be fun
to hear someone
up your stairs
and knock on your door.
and share the rain
with me. You.
Isn’t it wonderful to hear
shudder. How old it all,
How slow it goes, steaming
coffee, marvelous morning,
the tiniest hairs
on the trees’ arms
Oh, and voila, the selfie I mention in the introduction:
Read the interview; read Myles; I hope you enjoy it all.