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Monday, March 14, 2005

conversation with Eileen Myles 

CAConrad
It's rare when a poet's novel doesn't make me angry. Maybe I'm still rather juvenile about NOT mixing my peas with my mashed potatoes, but it does seem involuntary. A few poets do it where poetry, and the innovation not only don't fade, but actually crank up a notch; poets like Hassen, and Magdalena Zurawski. But I have to admit that your Cool for You was the very first time I could swallow the novel from a poet, and see it as an extension, rather than a betrayal of form.

When I was working at Giovanni's Room Bookstore I was working all that out, sometimes by arguing with the young dykes. Over and over I would find two or more pouring over Cool for You, deep in discussion about it. It was hard enough to not irritate them for being the big fag in the lesbian fiction room while they were enthusiastically involved with your novel, but getting them to check out your poems was sometimes impossible, as some of them had the reverse symptoms of my genre-mixing ailment. Once in a while one of them would already know your poems, and would agree with me, and would do all that convincing legwork for me. Other times I would have to admit how much I hate novels but like Cool for You to get them to listen. Your book of poems I'd start off with was Not Me. For some reason Not Me always hooked them, and soon enough they were looking at School of Fish.

Your novel made your poems the best selling poems in the store's history. What a strange way to enter the carnival ride, but then again maybe not. I remember telling you about my problems and fears of poets writing novels, and you said, "I just didn't have the patience to write a novel when I was younger. Now I do." Do you still see it this way, even as you work on your new novel? What does all this mean to you being a poet writing novels?

Eileen Myles
Well, every book is different. This one's taken me twice as long to write the first draft. And now I'm afraid to finish it. I mean edit it and give it a shape. Yeah this one takes something other than patience. I guess I'll know what it took when I finish it. But I know what you mean about the poet novels. But I think lots of people are writing them. All the "new narrative" people. Kevin and Dodie, Dennis Cooper, Bob Gluck. Kathy Acker was. See I think a lot of poets aren't reading novels by people who are doing them, so they aren't seeing how it can be done. I think the poetry world is pretty straight and I always think about how a lot of people took a left at some point, the queer ones and started writing prose. Like just didn't perceive it as a problem. Maybe the only problem then being whether you kept writing poems, once you made that shift. I think poets start (or some people started) writing about poetry. I mean language poetry had a whole industry next to itself about itself. It was smart and it was what they wanted to make, but I'd rather make a novel or a performance rather than an essay about poetry. Or I like getting paid to do it, so I did journalism which surprisingly a lot of people in the poetry world think of as commercial. So then we're talking about class. I mean I already do enough free things without writing about poetry for poetry magazines. But writing poems themselves feels like survival. I'd be really afraid of a world in which I didn't write poems. It'd be like adolescence only being old. Yeah I think I'll stay here which is in between which is writing poetry.


CAConrad
I'm always in debt to Jim Cory, who gave me my first copy of Not Me. We had just formed a small publishing collective called Insight To Riot Press, and had published the first title of poems, A Fucking Brief History of Fucking, by the inimitable Janet (fucking!) Mason! Janet, Jim and I were big fans of your work, and I told them that I wanted you to come read with us in Philly to help promote Janet's book. They laughed at me, and I remember thinking, "Laughing at a Capricorn only encourages him!"

Several days later I took the bus to New York, determined to meet you, and persuade you to come read in Philly. To be honest I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but at the time all I could think about was what a great poet you are, and what a great book Janet had written, and how much everyone would love both if it could all come together in the same room. I was young, and far more immature than my age, which saved me more than once, all that stupidity in the gas tank.

I remember walking into St. Mark's Poetry Project, not knowing anyone there, and asking for your phone number. They all looked at me like I was crazy and said No Way, and I was back on the street with no plan. It was when I was sitting in Tompkins Square Park eating a bagel when it had occurred to me to just call information for your number. I remember walking the streets, looking for a pay phone, imagining you had an unlisted number or something. But you didn't, and you answered the phone on the second ring.

The conversation was very brief. You seemed to like Janet's book title, but at the same time were suspicious of me, and told me you needed several hundred dollars and a train ticket to make it worth your while. Part of me was happy when leaving New York that day, while another part of me was feeling like Dorothy getting to the Emerald City, only to find out she needed to go back out and bring back the witch's broomstick. Several hundred dollars always seemed like a million to me, and it still does to be honest.

Soon enough though I discovered all was well. I had a meeting with the owner of the North Star Bar (Charlie, very generous man), who provided the space and fronted the cash. With the help of Jim and Janet we sold tickets and packed the place. And I still remember the surprise in your voice when I called the week after I had gone to New York to find you. All was set to go, and you were going to read from your new book Chelsea Girls.

Hanging out with you after the event, I remember asking you what was something you really wanted to do with your writing. You had said you wanted to collaborate on something big, but didn't know what. Ten years later and you have collaborated on the opera "Hell" with composer Michael Webster. What was it like writing the libretto? What was the process, especially in the collaborative sense of the process?

Eileen Myles
We walked and talked for about a year and a half. (Hits head. As in duh.) I forgot, that is why this novel is taking so long. I did that in the middle of it. But we discussed goals – who the opera was for, what we wanted to do in a social, abstract, communal way. We had a lot of ideas and I don't know how they would have been addressed when the world trade center happened. That really triggered "Hell" into existence. I went to P-town in the January after it and I wrote for a couple of weeks. Kevin Killian was doing a poet's theater in SF and had asked me for something, anything. So I used that to write the first ten minutes. I had a picture in my head of a guy coming out of the smokey hole that the world trade center left and naturally he'd be on a cellphone. Every few years we all get bumped up, technologically. I remember when no one had cellphones and then everyone did. You were forced by the new relay of messages. You were some asshole if you refused to get an answering machine. How could people prove they called! So then cellphones had become that and in New York everyone was walking down the street talking on the phone and my happiest thought kept being that they were on the same call. So cellphones were always in the mix of "Hell." I started collecting things after the first ten minutes. I mean, I didn't write again for almost a year, but I'd think yeah, frogs Do something about frogs when I heard frogs were all dying. So I researched frogs. Michael kept feeding me music since he had some musical ideas so I had to hear the kind of opera he was interested in. That stuff went right in. He proposed in the first place that I write the libretto and he compose to the beats of the speech of it. So that was always the plan. Once we were through talking, I got writing and he just waited. I got really stuck in the writing again, when I began the next year, but then I saw the movie Adaptation and I loved that way they kept replacing the reality of the film with the script's reality and vice versa. I mean I thought if the mainstream can be that avant garde why can't I. I kept getting little pushes from the oddest places. Then Michael started composing, which was another year. I was down here (San Diego) and Michael lives in LA so I'd drive up and hear some songs. Mostly I'd say that something sounded too high if it did. You know gender and singing are really interesting questions. He'd ask me to change a few words or add some if the music wasn't feeling right. Not much re-writing there.

Then we began working with directors which was another whole saga. In the flow of a collaboration with a lot of people, I love it. It's like having the most wonderful temporary family. I love singers. But afterwards you have the worst hangover. It's like shame. I think though I'm used to performing, I'm really pretty solitary about work and being in that kind of group is incredibly fucking taxing. We’re gearing up for another run and my teeth are shaking, but once it's started I know I'll be drunk with joy. Opera is an amazing form and I feel very evangelical about its properties.


CAConrad
You have taught plenty of workshops in New York, but what's it like teaching at a university out there in San Diego? Do you enjoy it? What's a day like for you?

Eileen Myles
It's strange. It's like not having a face, but having a body and it's buttressed by an institution. I feel stronger, but more anonymous. I feel adult, but not alone. The students make it real. They don't know where I used to be and that is actually a good thing. I have to be present with them. Meanwhile I've got to say I was feeling like a really shitty teacher this quarter, but maybe it recouped itself last night in a really great show that students did incredible work for. I taught "libretti" to graduate students this quarter. I mean I can teach whatever I want and that's incredible. I mean I'm just learning to "use" the university. You have so much at your disposal here and it's like driving a humvee. I have to overcome my fear of access. I do enjoy it. When I take part in where I am, rather than feeling alienated which is always easy. It's comparing it to something else, someone else. Something brought me here. It's complicated but I want to figure it out from here. Today for instance let's see a guy came out to talk about my house because all the rain caused flooding so he has to pump out the basement. I went running in the park after that. Then I read emails and the newspaper and made phonecalls mostly about hell and also some piece I'm going to write about an artist when I'm in New York next week. Then I went up to school and had coffee with the guy who wrote Sideways who went to UCSD. He was a real industry guy and kind of twittering with that energy of one who's having everything thrown at him at once and has a lot of gravity about himself and his story. He was like someone who's just had a novel come out, but it's a movie so his head is in the sky. He didn't even think we were writers and artists, those of us sitting there. But it didn't matter, since we were anyhow. It was interesting. Tonight I went to see a great movie, Days of Being Wild. Wong Kar Wai. I'd seen it before. I love this movie. Shot to shot and when the music starts and stops. It tears me apart, this film. A movie full of posturing and youthful excess. You probably wanted to hear me talk about teaching. I go up to school two or three days a week. Otherwise I'm home working in some fashion. Today I was writing the beginning of a poem in my notebook while I was driving up to school. It's sitting in the car.


CAConrad
What is something going on in poetry today that is new? Something you didn't see ten, twenty years ago?

Eileen Myles
It seems more continuous. In the same way that young people don't seem straight or gay, poets now don't seem especially connected to this culture or that ie being hippies, or media type people, having jobs or not. It all seems possible. And schools seem like an old idea. When Bruce and Charles started doing language magazine I remember it seemed so serious. Like they were grim young Marxists or something. But they were the last people who really pulled off starting a school. They really did it since the New York Times can't stop bashing language poetry every time they get a chance. It's so assimilated now, but its still enough of a faction to be identifiable. Otherwise all the schools have blurred, though I think there is a distinction between P & A (prizes and awards) ie Official poetry, and us who are the unofficial. And the unofficial is all named language now to the official. It's pretty weird. I learned that in Russia – that there’s government approved art, and then samizdat. That's exactly how it wound up here, after the fall of the Berlin wall and all the rest. We're just post everything, and that's new and maybe it'll hold.


CAConrad
You were good friends with poet Tim Dlugos. I remember reading that extraordinary poem you wrote for his memorial, saying how you always appreciated how you were both careful to sidestep any talk on abortion in order to preserve the friendship. His poems are so fantastic, and there is that book Powerless that's still available, but much of his work is out of print, which makes me sad. But what can you tell us about knowing Dlugos as a poet and as a friend, and how his work and friendship are still with you today?

Eileen Myles
His beautiful laugh, his love for taking the high road, not having the fight, but circumventing it. Doing things for people – he was an incredible generous man, over-extended always but full of good ideas. For you, about you. Who you should meet. He was really remarkable. Very visionary in his conservative way. There are people I love just because we both knew Tim. I know when we see each other that's what we're smiling at. Tim connected people, so many of those people are still in my life because he introduced us. He was unashamed of his love for god. I have that, not the same god, but a sense of how sexy the love of god can be. I think it animated his poems and I accept that gift. Tim made god hot.


CAConrad
There must be other poets whose work you admire whose work is either out of print or difficult to find. Can you share some names or titles, and what this work means to you?

Eileen Myles
Susie Timmons. Always Susie. Locked from Inside. Yellow Press of Chicago did it. She is my generation of poets who came up in the east village in the 70s and 80s. Very fast, very conceptual, funny and magical. Nobody like her. I loved her work then and now. Joe Ceravolo. Wonderful, also kind of religious-tinged work. Loose but sinewy. Spring in this world of poor mutts is a title. A guy completely unheard of is Richard Bandanza. He was in workshops with me in the 70s. He published one book under a pseudonym, Richard Nassau. It was called I Like You. He married a doctor and he lives in Connecticut. I bet he’s still writing.


CAConrad
You've always been very vocal about being a lesbian, and about understanding how this is part of who you are as a writer. What in particular do you have to say to the world today as a lesbian writer, given the grim political climate of openly anti-queer sentiment and legislation?

Eileen Myles
Oh, nothing. It's great to be hated. I hope I don't get shot.


CAConrad
You co-edited The New Fuck You with Liz Kotz some years ago. What was that collaborative editing relationship like? And do you have any plans for an anthology in the future, something you'd like to see put out there?

Eileen Myles
It was a dream. We knew the book needed to exist because it was some kind of lesbian moment and each lesbian anthology was wrong in a new way. We weren't competing. Liz is a critic, I was a poet, and we generally agreed on who we wanted. It was so easy. She was great to work with. And Semiotexte let us do exactly the book we wanted. Yeah I'd love to do a poetry anthology. Totally Great Poetry would be its title. That's Ted Berrigan. He always said "totally great."


CAConrad
What's the one thing you most consistently find yourself telling young writers in workshops and in the classroom?

Eileen Myles
Find ways to write that are easy, not hard. Call what you're thinking poetry and find a form for it that holds the way you think. Make writing habits that look like your life. Take trains and planes.

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