At Wonderland we might not feature poets often, but then it’s not often that a writer embodies the kind of trailblazing, unapologetic realness and talent that American poet Eileen Myles does. I found her work at eighteen; Myles was a queer, working class woman, who from the offset offered the same kind of allure and life-affirming honesty that fused my love of Patti Smith and Frank O’Hara. Her broken and fragmented poetry lines allowed me space to find nuggets of myself in her words, they also introduced me to the possibilities of a world I never knew I could inhabit.
This week sees the release of Myles’ selected works I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, as well as the reissue of her work Chelsea Girls: A Novel, a book that on all accounts redefined the queer novel. I met Myles on a sweltering hot July afternoon ahead of her poetry reading at the Serpentine Gallery, she was frank, open and we talked well over our allotted time. I picked her brain on poetry and the self, being a woman in a male-dominated field and the poetry that can be found in a simple tweet. We hope her work excites you as much as it does us.
How did you first get into poetry?
Growing up I would draw a lot but I didn’t go to art school I went to college. I think out of defiance because my brother was regarded as the smart one and I was the creative one, so I think I went to college to prove that I was smart and I wound up, instead of drawing all day long, starting to write poems in class just as sort of a spaced out thing.
I just sort of got poetry in some way, I just kind of liked its economy. I just got to it quickly and the size of it made me know that I could do it, as opposed to like how [in the past] I would have preferred to have been a novelist or a story writer. It was sort of like songs and I liked the idea of being in a band so you know it was a lot of things at once.
After college I went travelling, I came to Europe like backpacking and stuff like that but nothing was really taking and nothing was changing me. Then I came back to Boston (where I come from) and I would have all these crappy jobs that were just like the jobs I had in high school and college. What was happening was when I was at my register at work or waitressing I would be writing poems. At some point I realised that what I was actually doing was writing poems, not working with retarded people or being a hostess or teacher. I was actually in my own little poetry world. So with that I started to think more about becoming a poet and I think eventually I wrote a poem that I thought was really good and it really felt like the poem was the real thing and the job isn’t, so with that I decided to follow it.
Lots of people write but don’t necessarily call themselves writers. It’s important to be like “I write poems so I am a poet”…it’s cool to make that definition.
There was definitely a difficult period where people would say “what do you do?” and I would say “I’m a poet”, but it was scary because I wasn’t ready to be challenged. So saying it was hard.
Were there any people whose poems really inspired you?
There were people like Dylan Thomas who I thought was great because I love nature. There was something rapturous about him and he referred to youth in some way that I could really identify with.
Then I started finding more female poets, so it was just like the more I got into the world [the more I knew]. Right away there was Frank O’Hara, and I thought, “Oh! That’s exciting” and another poet James Schuyler who hung out with him, I thought “that’s great work too”. Then it became living poets that I knew.
So when did you move from Boston? What was that like?
I moved to New York in 1974 when I was 24 years old. It was amazing. The first year I was sort of confused, I was just living in a big apartment with friends that I had known from Cambridge and didn’t even have a bedroom. I was sort of camping out on the living room floor. But there was a lot going on in New York. There were a lot of ‘scenes’ and places to go. It seemed like a weirdo scene but I was so determined that I thought that even if poets are a bunch of jerks I’m going to hang out with them. I’m going to be in their world because this is my profession.
At the time there were lots of ads for various kinds of poetry groups and apartments and clubs, so I had my poems and I would trudge along to these places. And mostly they were jerky scenes, spending time with really terrible guys. My friends were over here and my poetry world was over here, and it took a couple of years. Like everything, when you make some kind of change, it’s hard to find people that are like you. So I assumed that there weren’t. But eventually I found people who were funny and cool and smart and attractive, people I wanted to be with and shared my ambition. That was great and it took a couple of years.
How do you feel like that scene compares to the poetry scene now? Especially now that you are so prolific, how do those two worlds compare for you?
I think that the world period is different. It’s [now] less dreamy and porous and private and small, you know? What people of my age always say to people of your age, rents were cheap and you didn’t have to work too hard? In a way the world was kind of a large workshop for experiences like that. So that was different. There’s much more of a sense that you need to be in a programme now. You know, it’s more professional.
What relevance do you think poetry has now especially?
I think it’s huge. One being social media is very fragmentary, so I think that we write a line of poetry or a tweet very similarly. Those of us who love poetry can find social media to be really easy and really attractive and an interesting way to lean into a poem over time. You can kind of leak a line, and then another, and then they can all come together or just give you the pleasure of writing lines publicly. It’s exposing a lot of people – both poets and those who aren’t – to a kind of ‘knowing fragmentation’ and that’s pretty cool.
But I also think it comes round. So like, in the 70s, poetry was very fashionable. It was like ‘poetry and rock and roll’ and then it wasn’t in the 80s or the 90s. There were gangs of poets all of that time but it wasn’t in the eye of the culture. I just think that the past ten years it’s been increasingly coming to the foreground. It might be the social media or it may be that it hasn’t been looked at.
There are all sorts of people in the art world now that are there because there’s no place else for them to be. Scholars who are doing funny kind of work that wouldn’t quite fit in the academy but they want to do research and so they’re making these large displays.
Being a poet is like that. I am a conceptual artist. I decided in my twenties to live a certain way and make it be about this distillation of experience into these words. Having done that for like 40 years I think I’m interesting to certain people. Younger people, having made that same ‘vow’ even, are interesting to a world that is looking for different kinds of projects. So I think we’re becoming one and the same with the art world at this time.
There’s a unique mode of recognition that poetry evokes… it’s like something clicks and you feel “I’m inside this now”. As if there’s a nugget of yourself in that poem, but you’re also inside someone else’s experience…
That’s really great. It’s exactly it. It’s about a moment. Because it almost invites in attention in a way, you’re sitting in a room and a person is reading and you’re like “what did they just say?” you know? And you were enveloped, you just heard it, like you say, you just stepped into their room or they stepped into yours. And that’s what language can do that other media can’t do. It’s immediately portable.
Which poets excite you at the moment?
Well, you know, Mira Gonzalez is somebody. CA Conrad, R. Erica Doyle, she’s got a book called Proxy. Fred Moten who I’m reading with tonight who’s huge. Ariana Reines. These are some of the big names and there are lots of quieter, lesser-known poets.
Tell us a bit about Chelsea Girls?
I saw these movies, like in a way the first real art I ever saw was art films, experimental films when I was in high school and college. And there was a whole series of films by Truffaut and they were about a guy named Antoine Doinel. They started with The 400 Blows where he’s like a little boy, and then he was a teenager, and then a young man and I just remember thinking, “why isn’t there a female Antoine Doinel?” We just don’t have that. And then I thought, if I were to make those movies, what if she had my name? Why do I have to change the name? Why can’t I write those stories about my own existence?
I had that idea in my head for a while, that I wanted to make those movies, and then by the time I was living in New York and I was being a poet, I just saw this life that I had where it’s female, it’s about being a poet, nobody knows what this looks like. This is a very private reality we’re living in. I felt like the life of a poet was not entirely safe, and I though what I really want to do it sort of protect it in prose.
Like, make a fictional place where you can see what it is and how she lived and what she felt and how she spoke and the dreams that she had and the cadence of them. So it’s really like doing flash backs and going into the childhood of that person. Starting with this really crazy experience in Maine where she has a girlfriend and the girlfriend leaves and goes to another state and hooks up with somebody else. Then she has a book come out and those people come to the book party and say come to Maine and visit us, and even though it’s a really stupid idea she does it and all hell breaks loose. That’s the first chapter in the book.
It’s almost like wet leaves hitting a window during a storm. It’s kind of a film but it’s told in novel form.
Can you talk to me a bit about your writing process? Is it spontaneous or do you set aside time to write?
If we’re just talking about poems then I don’t. I really feel like, last week I felt something, I could hear the first line kind of crumbling and I just went into my back yard (I was in Martha) and just started writing. It was just like ‘boom’ you know, and it’s often like that. Like when I’m travelling and I start writing in my notebook.
It’s like other kinds of writing like prose; I have to make dates for it and with it. But poetry seems to just come
How do you feel like you’ve navigated the literary world be it so dominated both past and present by men?
I think it’s caused me to both be very supportive of female writers when I meet them and when I teach… and then maybe to write a literature for her. I feel like I’m writing the work that I want to be there to receive me when I come. So it’s both for me, and for people who have gotten it and feel like this is theirs. I feel like I’ve been inventing the world for my own writing.
I have often felt you just write for me!
Yes, I do!
Do you have any advice for young writers and creatives?
Just don’t quit! Absolutely do not quit. Don’t let the circumstances in front of you convince you that this is your limitation. I mean I think that the expansion is the work. You just have to keep doing the work and keep writing and keep reading a lot. If you aren’t excited by this book then toss it aside and read something you are excited by. It’s like trusting yourself. But keep making the work.
Even like self-consciousness itself is writing, you know what I mean? Not to delude oneself that you’re writing when you’re not writing or whatever, but it’s sort of like you’re recording. You know like, every single moment of this matters. It’s rich and diverse and full of things. Know that this is your saga. Even if the point is to get out of here, the way out is through this.
I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 is published by Tuskar Rock, £14.99 Hardback
Chelsea Girls is published by Serpent’s Tail, £8.99 Paperback