Eileen Myles

Interview by
Brontez Purnell
Photography by
Jack Pierson

New York Poet Kicks Ass

The legendary downtown dyke and former US presidential candidate Eileen Myles takes a quick break from their book tour to chat with sex-happy writer Brontez Purnell. The two get off discussing their favorite thing – poetry – and the sleeping around that goes with it.

Brontez: I just realized I shut my eyes…
Eileen: …and all the world drops dead.
It’s from ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’.
It’s so, like, wow! That’s Sylvia Plath. She’s amazing.
Her shit is lit. She’s, like, the first poet I fell in love with in sixth grade because I’m a faggot… (laughs) I’m so nervous!
I’m happy to be talking to you!
I’ve been writing all day. Now, I just want to, like, sit down and talk and ask you about really dumb rudimentary shit.
That sounds great.
Okay, um, we have about half an hour. What’s the first poem you memorized? Wait, no, actually, no! What’s your sign? That’s what I usually ask to clear the air.
I like that question. I’m a Sag. My birthday’s in December. I’m a poet, and I write fiction, and I do journalism. I feel like those are very Sag things to do.
I’m a Cancer, but I’m a double Sagittarius. I’m a Sagittarius moon and rising.
Oh, amazing! I’m not surprised. I feel like your consciousness moves in a way that I feel so comfortable with. I have Leo moon and Pisces rising.
Oh, cool… I have to think for a second… All that I know about astrology is from Instagram. I follow an account that gives me the bullet points, so I’m a little better versed in it. Um, so, okay… Now with that out of the way, do you remember the first poem you memorized?
(sighs) I do remember actually. It’s really funny. It was in Mad Magazine… Do you know a poem called ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer?
No, but I will now.
It’s really corny. My generation was forced to memorize it in grade school, and it goes, ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.’ And blah blah blah blah blah. I had to memorize poems in school all the time. But that’s not the real answer to the question. The poem that I memorized was Mad Magazine’s version of it. ‘I think I shall never hear a poem lovelier than beer.’ And this was when I was a kid, before I ever drank. I got so many points with the older kids, like, I would recite it on the bus. And it was amazing that this little girl, this tomboy person, was reciting this beer poem.
Whoa. Were your parents writers?
No, but they were readers. Definitely readers. I think my dad aspired to be a writer, but he was a mailman, and the only thing I ever saw of his writing was pretty bad. Very sentimental. He dreamed of being a writer.
Do you ever feel like you’re fulfilling some type of…?
I’m totally a monster of their creation.

I liked poetry in the first place because it was a little secretive.

So, I don’t even know how to say this, when you started “getting serious”, did they support you? Or did they see you as a weird artist?
My dad died when I was a kid. If he was alive, he would’ve supported me. He always said I was like an artist. When I was a kid, I was all about drawing and painting, and many other obsessions, and he was completely supportive. He’d always bring me home art supplies. But my mother…I don’t know. She was the weird kind of triangulating parent. She’d say good things about me behind my back, but was never supportive to my face.
I totally get that. It’s almost like my parents and grandparents were raising child soldiers, or like, making us so resilient to the point where we didn’t even recognize pain anymore. I don’t remember getting compliments from my parents, or if I was in trouble at school, they’d always agree with the principal. They thought I was a really rotten kid. I think that’s really important to my writing and shit. Can I tell you something? I never really had a strong poetry education or whatever. Like, I was just taught confessional poetry… It’s something I’ve always struggled with, like, how to do it and how to give myself permission to do it.
Are you talking about poetry specifically?
I liked poetry in the first place because it was a little secretive. When I first started to write, I was a little shy and a little ashamed of my feelings. The scale of poetry felt like something I could do at the same time as my waitressing job, or, you know, I could do it in a sneaky way. That was good for me. It was like one shot – I could write a poem and be done with it. I really wanted to write novels, but I just thought novels were too much.
When did you start referring to yourself as a poet? Or was there a threshold? Were you like, ‘Oh, I can actually say this.’ I still don’t call myself an artist.
What do you call yourself?
I call myself a “college loan defaulter”. (both laugh)
You have an intelligent way of saying you’re a bum.
And to skirt all responsibility. Like, just leave me alone, I’m poor.
When I first got to New York, parties were very challenging because people would ask, ‘What do you do?’ Nobody in Boston asked that. It was a question of whether I had the courage to say I was a poet, you know, but then once I started hanging out with poets all the time, it just seemed normal. We were all poets. We lived in such a society of poets.
How long did it take you to build that community?
Within the first two years. At first, I went around to every single loser poetry reading in New York. I’d just go anywhere and hang out with anyone and read at any open reading. I just had no idea. Then I got shepherded over to St. Mark’s Church and they had free writing workshops. It was like being washed right into a culture. I grew up in a very small society, went to Catholic school and I had big dreams, but I couldn’t get out of that local thing. By the time I found St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, I’d found my local thing, so I could do what I wanted, but in a local way.
In art communities, there are weird things that seem to break them apart, like people’s relation to how successful you should be or what your success should look like. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
The poetry world is weird. It’s almost like the more you’re known the more they don’t like you. Poets are the ones to say ‘Well, they’re not really a poet.’ It’s sort of like writing novels means you’re not a poet anymore, or getting attention means you’re not a poet, or making money from writing means you’re not a poet. There are parts of the poetry world that just don’t think of me as a poet. 2016 was a year when suddenly I got all this attention. My selected poems, ‘I Must Be Living Twice’ came out, ‘Chelsea Girls’ had a big reprint. Then I was on a TV show, and it was just like, ‘What the fuck?’ I’d go to readings, and people would just kind of say, ‘So what’s it like?’ Fame was like this animal that was in the room with me. I asked for this shit, but it changed things for me. Like, I don’t belong in my little society in the same way anymore.
Okay, wait, did you do journalism, novel writing or poetry first? Or did it all just happen at once?
Poetry, then journalism, and then novel writing.
How did economics play into that? Or whatever. I sometimes say that no one wanted to listen to any of my poetry until I wrote X number of books.
The thing about those early wanderings around New York is that I love to read my stuff out loud. I didn’t know how to get published. The fact that I could stand up in front of people at the microphone and read my poem seemed like the first step. Reading connected me to a society of people that were listening. Reading was our currency. You’d be fucking these people, you’d be drinking with these people, you’d be reading each other’s poems, you’d be putting each other’s poems in your magazine. Poetry was the first thing and I was good at it. I kind of belonged. Well, until I came out. That actually disrupted that feeling. I was in the poetry scene for about three years and then I started being a dyke. And that really kind of fucked things up. I wasn’t one of the boys anymore, even though I’d been fucking them all.

BUTT - 20161106_highline_i_want_a_president_a_0298
I want a dyke for president! In 1992, Eileen ran a protest campaign for US president. Here in 2016, Eileen gives a mock acceptance speech for a victory that should have been. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Oh, my God. Forgive me for being this basic, but when I think of the New York poetry scene, I automatically think of misogyny. I just think of a bunch of drunk dudes telling everyone they suck. Or am I horribly off-base?
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It was very male driven. And it was weird because the famous poets were all fags, but it was like the fame made them not gay to these younger straight guys.
Oh, shit!
With women there wasn’t a model. For the feminists and the lesbians, like Adrienne Rich, it was an academic poetry world. The scene I was part of was very straight, but the stars were gay men. And there were individual women who were married, like Alice Notley. And Bernadette Mayer was kind of bisexual, pretty much, but they all had children. They were like “real women”. The gender thing was very complicated.
I love Bernadette.
It’s so funny – we had this affair.
Oh, my God!
Did you ever read ‘Chelsea Girls’?
No, not yet! It’s in the pile, but I’m like…
Just go read the chapter called ‘My Couple’. It’s about my three-way with Bernadette and her husband.
No way! (laughs)
It was so funny. So, me and Bernie, I knew her work, but we weren’t friends. And then I had the affair. And then we weren’t friends afterwards. I love Bernadette, but we never talked again for the rest of our lives. And this was in the 80s when I was 31 and she was 36.
Oh, my God! I don’t really want to go down that rabbit hole… Um, I kind of want to switch gears.
Let’s switch gears.
You said earlier that a lot of your poetry is linked to performing. Do you think your love of the stage is linked to how you write? When you write do you automatically think it needs to be spoken?
No, I hear it while I’m writing. It feels a little bit like listening. Like, I don’t know about you, but I’m talking to myself all day long. When I become obsessed with people, I have conversations with them in my head. I’m telling them why they should love me, how they should love me, the things I’d do to delight them. I go through periods of mental crushes on people, and I’m performing for them and stuff. Writing is an exercise of putting that insanity into focus. I just let it rip. I do feel like writing is a performance, but I don’t think it’s a performance outside of the writing.
This is like one of those weird internet coffee table facts that I heard – it’s said that actually only 10% of human beings have a running inner dialogue. Do you believe this?
I’m inclined to not believe it. It’s selling people short. I think people have a lot more going on in their heads than we give them credit for. I’d give anything to know what was going on in my mother’s head all day long. Something was going on in there, I have no fucking idea what it was, but that was a real place. I can’t help thinking that people think a lot, but I might be deluded. People from all sorts of claims of existence have little things going on in their head, but it’s a question of whether the culture makes room for them to use it.
It’s like if you or I were asked to write 2500 words about why a painting is blue, we could do that pretty easy, right? But for people who can’t, is that what they mean about not thinking? Is that where this theory comes from?
Well, I know that something turned the switch for me. I’ve kept a journal since age 10. As soon as there was writing, I was doing it. There are certain ways to flip the switch and certain ways that the switch gets stuck. I figured out the way to keep writing is to not get hung up on having to be a poet, or having to be a novelist, or having to be a journalist. Just do something. Keep finding other forms.

I wasn't one of the boys anymore, even though I'd been fucking them all.

Do you still journal?
Oh, yeah. I love it.
Like routinely?
I mean, I can go a few days and not write anything. But then I’ll get a strong feeling that I need to write about what I did yesterday. I don’t know why, like, I need to do it. I just love journals.
Oh, cool.
It’s kind of a secret writing. It has nothing to do with economy or selling or, you know, I feel like I got this little cachet of a writing world that’s mine.
Um, why were you never in a band?
Oh, God… I always wanted to be in one so badly. Since childhood, I wanted to play something, wanted to be in the marching band. I think I would’ve been really good, but I didn’t know how to play anything. So, I would’ve had to have been the singer. It just didn’t happen. I bought a bass guitar once and I started to learn a little bit, but I was such a drunk that I sold it to buy beer. (laughs) I sort of played it like I was in a band, except it was just me at the mic. Being a poet is like being in a band.
We’re running out of time, but I have like two more questions. If you’ll humor me. What was your IQ for curating the anthology, ‘Pathetic Literature’?
When you say “IQ”, what does that mean?
Oh! It’s like your appetite for what you wanted to see, how you went about picking the people that were going to be in it.
Right, right, right. I think I was very just excited to make something sort of shocking and wonderful. I taught a seminar called Pathetic Literature and it included writers like Samuel R. Delany and Valerie Solanas. Right away I knew who was pathetic. There was a term in the art world, “pathetic masculinity”. And I was like, there’s got to be pathetic literature.
I’ve never heard of pathetic masculinity.
It’s good! It was like Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler and Paul McCarthy. They were just like big messes and being needy and feminist. Very cerebral and analytical. I just thought there was some list of writers like that too. I knew there were and just a lot of people writing about abject gay sex lives that were messy and not hot, not, like, mainstream commodified gay sex lives. My writing is like that and John Wieners is that sad, pathetic gay guy.
When people ask me what I write, the word I use is “anti-erotica”.
Oh! But you also include sex a lot. So, what’s that about?

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'3' by Eileen Myles, published in Mal Journal, Issue 1, 2018. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Um, well, I feel like I’m writing about the parts of sex that you’re not going to jerk off to. I don’t know, the poop that I didn’t feel like rinsing off, or actually not caring how big someone’s dick is as long as they show up on time.
I totally, totally relate to that. I think it’s very similar.
Okay. One last question. Um, what’s your next novel going to be about?
Oh, the next novel… It’s about love, but it’s very hard to explain. It started being very domestic, like, I’ve lived with all these different people that have all these little rules and habits. I always think of these girlfriends as being like eras, like Elizabethan and Victorian, these times in my life when my girlfriend was running my existence. If I lived with her, she was running the kitchen, how we ate, all these habits. My mother didn’t teach me how to cook, or how to be in the kitchen or any of these domestic ways. So, I’ve had girlfriends who have really taught me about domestic life. Like how to buy pots and pans – they taught me the rules of existence. So, I started writing about that. Then it got more global. Also, I wrote a novel in the 90s that I never published. It was about a breakup and it was such a horrible breakup that writing a novel about it was even more terrible. So, I suppressed it for almost 30 years. I’m putting that entire novel into this new one. I’m writing a really giant, giant novel, like 1000 pages. It’s called ‘All My Loves’.
That’s a heavy book, literally heavy. 1000 pages!
Yeah, a really heavy book.
Is there anything else you’d like to add to this? Like? I’ve had a great time and also can I take a picture?
Oh, yeah! I look horrible. See, I think maybe if I hang my head this way I look better.
(shoots) Done. So, I’m doing a new podcast about gay serial killers, gay and lesbian serial killers.
Oh, my God. Yeah. Are there many?
There’s a fucking lot of them.
Oh, good! I couldn’t get it together to do that.
I could kill somebody as a crime of passion, but like, being coordinated enough to kill several people, I could never do that. I don’t know if I really understand serial killers, like, they’re methodical. I don’t understand not fucking up.
There are probably things that you do compulsively that are just so signature in your existence, right? Whether it’s writing or, you know, different kinds of sex. What’s so interesting is that serial killers are just like us, except they must kill. Like, wow! How did they get there?
I guess if you grew up on a farm then, like, you learn to kill one thing, and because humans seem like the next logical step…
There’s a big break between animal and human, or so we think. And obviously, when people are hungry enough they always eat humans.
We’re a little bit like pigs in terms of taste, so they say.
Oh, God. I feel like I’d rather just die. Right? If there was a zombie apocalypse, would you fight for your life? Or would you join the zombies? I’d immediately want to join the zombies.
I think it’s my alcoholic IQ being like, ‘Oh, that sounds like an epic blackout that I’ll will never have to be accountable for. Just go for it.’ I’d be running through the streets eating human flesh.
I would fight for my life. I’d rather die that way.
See, that’s cool. I’ll die with you in the zombie apocalypse. Okay, I’m gonna skedaddle because I could talk all night. Thank you for doing this.
Yeah, no problem.
Okay, cool. This is awesome. I’m the king of long goodbyes. I love you very much. I’m gonna go.
Okay, bye.

Originally published in BUTT 32