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.
I say new poem, as if there are a heap of old poems. A poem of mine recently won the Jon Stallworthy Poetry prize. It’s online at the Oxford English Faculty’s website; you can see it here. At some stage the good folks at Hurst Street Press will be putting out a small print run of this and the shortlisted poems. Let me know what you think, if you like.
I’ve been busy and neglectful of this here corner of the internet of late, but you can see a little bit of what I’ve been writing in a recent post over at The Oxonian Review on the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Or, lately my time has been spent watching nature documentaries and occasionally thinking seriously about them. I’ve also been reading a lot of non-thesis related things (more anon) and this week I read one of my own poems in public, aloud, for the first time, without spontaneously combusting or fainting or anything (!). More on that later.
I’m not sure I entirely got the tone right in the Attenborough piece; nature writing isn’t my usual gig. Still, for all the valid criticism, I loved (loved!) the show, which feels even more urgent since Friday’s inauguration of a climate change denying cantaloupe and the White House site’s quick erasure of its climate change page. Below is an excerpt from the article – let me know what you think, and what you thought of the show.
The show received, initially, an ecstatic reaction; that it was more popular than The X-Factor in the 16–34 age bracket was taken to signify less that young people simply enjoy spectacular television than that the planet may yet be saved by generations to come. But recently some critics have argued that the show’s appeal is due more to its soothing escapism than its political urgency or ability to be directly helpful. Martin Hughes-Games, a presenter of BBC’s Springwatch, dubbed it a “disaster” for wildlife. Attenborough himself has described Planet Earth 2 as a form of therapy, a description against which we might validly bristle. There is some truth to Hughes-Games’ critique. Throughout the series, while climate change looms large, there are very few visual examples of its effects; few scenes of sweeping and real devastation; few dead, hunted, or harvested animals; little evidence of the disfiguring effects of chemicals or other pollutants. There is less animal-on-animal violence than we might expect: strikingly, few of the predators’ hunts are successful. There are few torn and dismembered carcasses (rare for a wildlife show); most of the animals that are successfully predated upon are fish or insects, which are invested with less emotional weight than birds or mammals. This is a show where the good guy, for the most part, overcomes. The BBC refused to show dead penguins, fearing that the birds too closely resembled ‘little men in dinner jackets’. Such a decision is telling, as are the BBC’s assurances that every baby turtle or hatchling in the final episode, confused by the bright city lights, was picked up and returned to the sea. The BBC, a critical reading might say, wants to coddle its viewers, to provide us with emotional experiences that include awe, gentle fear, admiration, relief, sympathy, perhaps even sadness, but it refuses to leave us devastated, even as the show’s main subject is, inevitably, devastation.
A more generous reading, and one I find more convincing, might suggest that Attenborough and the BBC want to instill and conjure hope, to rest us in the shade of Singapore’s supertrees for a while—which might be possible, if only the rest of the world would follow suit. And, perhaps, they simply want to remind us that life is, after all, still there, still unimaginably glorious; and that nothing (nothing!) that humans have made measures or will ever measure up to it; and that this life deserves our care, our attention, our rage, our resources, our energy. A call to action, after all, can also take the form of a reminder of all that we have to lose.
Thanks to Rey Conquer for editing the piece (and for letting me use the word ‘cockblocked’ in a review). And here are some flamingoes, to remind you that there are orangey-pink things in the world that are not Donald Trump’s head. All images are the BBC’s, of course.
I’ve emerged from a busy month of finishing off my third chapter on Gertrude Stein. The chapter simmered away over the past six months or so, and only in the last few weeks did it all come together, in a burst of frenzy and obsessive work. I’d wanted to write on Stein for years, and it felt good, and cathartic, to get her out of my system – at least for now.
Part of my work for this chapter involved combing through the notes and photographs that I took in the Beinecke Library at Yale University at the end of the summer. Of my month in New Haven, I spent just over a week with the Stein papers, but I could easily have devoted all my time to her archive. Stein’s archive was weird, and often surprising, but also exactly what you might expect: the accumulated material of a fully felt and utterly unique life.
In amongst the pictures of Stein’s dogs, the notes and sketches from Picasso and Matisse, and the love letters to Alice B. Toklas, were two folders that struck and confused me. The first was an undated folder labeled “Fortune Readings”, which contained the notes from Stein and Toklas’s visits to a fortuneteller. Most of this was touchingly bathetic: you have been a bit frightened recently about something very important, reads the first line of the report of Stein’s visit, labeled ‘Gertrude’. You have had an annoyance recently and will have another in a few days. You will lose something: a friend will go away. I love the image of Stein and Toklas visiting a fortuneteller and hearing the same predictions of perfectly regular fortunes and misfortunes that any horoscope website might have to tell.
The second was an undated folder labeled “Prophecies”. This felt to me like the evil twin of the notes from the fortuneteller: instead of personal predictions, the prophecies were world-historical; instead of banal, they were devastating. The first paper was a typescript attributed to ‘Sainte Godefroy’, which claims to have been published in April 1853 in Le Moniteur and reprinted in 1919 in Revue Mondiale. The first prediction was that in the ninth month of 1939, Germany will be attacked by the French and the English; the typescript then runs through a list of predictions about the Second World War. The page ends by claiming that in 1980, the ‘time of the Antichrist’ will begin, and will last for sixty years (some of us might say that l’ère de l’Antechrist actually started with the election of Donald J. Trump, but that’s a post for another day).
I tried to track down this Sainte Godefroy. There was almost no trace on the Internet and nothing in Butler’s Lives of the Saints; I looked through books on nineteenth-century French necromancy, but nothing. Who was Godefroy, and why did Stein read him?
After the pages on Godefroy, there were several pages in Toklas’s hand on the Antichrist, likely taken from (or attributed to) Sainte-Odile, the patron saint of Alsace, who also (apparently) predicted the war and the Antichrist. In 1942 Stein sent some of Toklas’s transcribed pages of Odile’s prophecies to Carl Van Vechten, and described Odile as “the only one who has not deceived us, She was an Alsatian saint, and there is something about her blood flaming when France is in danger”. Stein returns to Odile in Wars I Have Seen, published in 1945: “today they are fighting in the streets of Paris, dear Paris and dear dear Paris, but Saint Odile did say it would be alright.” And later: “Saint Odile said the world would go on”.
It turns out (after a little more digging) that the prophecies were something of a viral hoax avant la lettre: the ‘prophecies’ of Godefroy and Odile, all of which predicted that the Nazis would be vanquished, were circulated during the Second World War to give a frightened population hope and comfort. For Stein, at least, it seems to have worked.
That letter to Van Vechten and Odile’s prophecies remind me of a passage early on in Everybody’s Autobiography:
When I was young the most awful moment of my life was when I really realized the stars are worlds and when I really realized that there were civilizations that had completely disappeared from this earth. And now it happens again.
That was published in 1937. Stein reflects on her own unimportance, on civilizations here on earth that have been wiped out completely, and on the threat of her own erasure. Of course she can’t, or won’t, maintain that level of personal exposure for very long, and that paragraph ends with something much safer, and much more mundane: “Now I am still out walking. I like walking.” I think the prophecies can tell us something about Stein’s desire to find something telling and meaningful in the past, and in literature: something that reminds us that violence and horrors are – hopefully – impermanent. We don’t often associate Stein (with all her self-conscious bravado) with fear, and doubt, and uncertainty. And while I have no particular interest in arguing against her posturing or self-presentation, I find it useful, and comforting, to think of her as also seeking comfort: even if just in the knowledge that the world would go on.
I’ve just returned to Oxford after a nearly month-long archival trip in the United States. Most of my time was spent rifling through the archives in the Beinecke library at Yale University – but more on that later.
I had five glorious days in New York before heading to Connecticut to begin archiving in earnest. It was my first visit to the East Coast, and I spent most of my time there walking endlessly, eating broccoli pizza, spending my stipend on Lorrie Moore and Evie Shockley at the Strand, and having long conversations with old and new friends. On my first morning I woke up at 5am (blessed jet lag) and had my Hart Crane moment walking over the Brooklyn Bridge (How many dawns!).
I did get time for a quick stint in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, where I looked through some of the material related to Lorine Niedecker. Soon I’m going to start writing the fourth chapter of my thesis, on the Objectivist poets, and most of it will be about Niedecker. I wrote the bulk of my MA thesis on her – in fact, she was the writer who first started me thinking about poetry and labour, mostly because of her most famous poem, ‘Poet’s Work’:
She’s still shamefully under-read and under-studied. She was rarely published in her lifetime. She was close friends with Louis Zukofsky and they wrote weekly letters for much of their lives. She lived most of her life in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, away from the metropolitan avant-garde centres. She worked as a proofreader, a researcher for the WPA Guide to Wisconsin, and for many years as a hospital cleaner. Her life was utterly divergent from everything we associate with serious experimental poetry – it was quiet, isolated, often lonely, and not at all productive (she wrote comparatively few poems, and very slowly). But she wrote hard, small, crisp poems, many of which are extraordinarily beautiful. I return to her constantly.
The Berg Collection is a stunning room in the NYPL’s flagship branch on 42nd street; standing in a corner of the room is Charles Dickens’ desk (it looks rather like any other – rather small – desk). The collection contains the letters sent between Niedecker and the poet and translator Cid Corman. Most of these letters have been published but there were a couple of things I wanted to see in the flesh. One of these was her book of ‘Homemade Poems’. Apparently it was turned into a facsimile book a couple of years ago.
Niedecker made this little book of poems as a present for Corman – who was living in Japan – in October, 1964. The book itself is a cheap sketch pad, which Niedecker covered with gold wrapping paper. Inside, she wrote thirty poems by hand (including some of her best, like the astonishing ‘Laundromat’, which ends: “after all, ecstasy / can’t be constant”). On the first page she included a lovely watercolour of her home, surrounded by trees, with a path leading from the house down to the water and to her boat. “I even braved school kids’ paints to show you where we live,” she wrote to Corman.
Critics have tended to read this as a pointed remark to Corman about her difficulty with publishing; Niedecker’s feminist readers have interpreted the book as an effort to take matters into her own hands, to create her own economy of production and exchange. I also see it as part of a lifelong practice of making and giving gifts, which was central to Niedecker’s writing process. Decades before the book of poems, she sent Zukofsky a calendar that she had altered to contain a small, often baffling poem for each month:
Over the next few months, I’ll be spending a lot of time thinking through Niedecker’s relationship with craft and labour. Stay tuned!
Some of Niedecker’s letters are very beautiful. In a letter to Corman from January 13, 1963, she worries about balancing ‘art’ and ‘folk’: “isn’t it closer to art when it’s still enough (deep enough) to become ice? … I’m a little worried – not really, tho about my own folk impulse lost – lost? – on the way to ice.” I’m still trying to work out what it means to think of art as somehow drawing closer to ‘ice’.
One of her best pieces is the late poem she wrote about William Morris, ‘His Carpets Flowered’. These are a few lines:
This, I think, is one of her most sophisticated meditations on art and craft – on folk and ‘ice’, on poetry as craft, and the legacy of the arts and crafts movement. Sadly I couldn’t take photos in the Berg collection. But I’ve got a stack of handwritten notes to work through and to weave into the thesis. One day I’d like to go to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to visit the place where Niedecker lived, to see the wet and marshy land she wrote about.
This is my first blog post! I started this after feeling increasingly frustrated over the past few months: lately, all of my intellectual energy has gone into my thesis, and I needed to write something other than the pages I pump out for my supervisor. Next time I’ll tell you about what I found in the Beinecke: letters from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein’s vests, and Ezra Pound’s teeth.
Thanks to the staff at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library for being so helpful.