“We Also Get to Be Big”: An Interview with Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles

photo by Catherine Opie

I can’t remember the first time I heard of Eileen Myles, but I remember singing along to Le Tigre’s feminist anthem “Hot Topic,” in which they list feminist, LGBTQ, and progressive artists. Myles is one of them. When Inferno came out, I saw the reviews on my Facebook feed, and knew I had to read this book, subtitled “a poet’s novel.” The writing felt like Myles was talking right to me.

Myles taught a class in my graduate writing program, and I immediately signed up. We studied all kinds of works, in all genres, and she challenged us to read and write things that pushed up against the boundaries we had set for ourselves—and the boundaries that were set for us. That’s when I first read Chelsea Girls.

Chelsea Girls has recently been reissued, along with a collection of Myles’ old and new poems, I Must be Living Twice. Myles took time out of her book tour to answer a few questions.

I know you’ve been with smaller publishing houses before, but Ecco and HarperCollins are pretty big. What prompted the switch. Do you think this has any bigger implications for poetry?

InfernoI think I always wanted to do my selected, and even the re-edition of Chelsea Girls with a bigger publisher. I’d written poems for years. It just seemed I should get the word out, and I felt a bigger publisher would do that for me. Bigger implications for poetry? I think publishers are there for our use and I’d always advise poets to be selfish, if that’s what you mean. I think independent publishers are the life of poetry. But readers outside of our worlds don’t always get the new work, so I think we’re not obliged to be loyal to indies. We also get to be big.

What was the impetus for the re-release of Chelsea Girls?

A writer needs her work in print. I was waiting for the right opportunity for Chelsea Girls, and I found it.

How do you think poetry, or the poetry community, has changed in the past few decades? Or has it? Are there some things (like race, class, gender) that are still huge barriers?

It’s less sexist; I don’t know if I feel free to say the poetry world is less racist, but I think people in general are more conscious both of how exclusive the poetry world has been and that there’s some movement against that exclusivity. Poets of color I think are going where it’s warm, and that can mean a variety of places. For LGBT writers, there are presses that seem almost exclusively avant garde and queer and trans. That was always true in some ways, but it’s more visible now, more ardent, I believe.

Chelsea GirlsChelsea Girls is a “novel,” but it has autobiographical elements. The main character is Eileen Myles, for instance. Many writers, like Lidia Yuknavitch, are melding fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry—I’m thinking of our genre class at Columbia, actually. In I Must Be Living Twice, you write, “It’s not what you’re doing, it’s who you think you are when you’re doing what you’re doing.” Can you speak to the synthesizing of genres, or the flouting of genre lines?

I don’t know why you put quotes around novel. What does that mean? That you have a formula for novel that insists something else? Forms are how we use them, that’s all. That’s what it means to be an artist, I think.

These forms were not hardened when they were first emerging, and there’s no reason to think they have arrived at some fast, and I mean gelled, place. I’m part of the history, is all.

Who and what inspires you?

The latest thing I’m reading. Today it is Soap by Francis Ponge, written in 1942 during World War II when there wasn’t much. Yesterday I finished reading Andrea Lawlor’s not-yet-published novel that is entirely about a character whose gender is in flux throughout. It’s great.

I Must Be Living TwiceMany people bring up Ginsberg when they talk about you, but not as many people bring up Kathy Acker. How do you see women/queer/POC writers changing the landscape of poetry?

Kathy was a contemporary, and though there’s probably more resemblance between our work than I’d know, we didn’t affiliate. She liked to put a line in the sand between herself and other female writers, particularly of her generation, and particularly between herself and poets.

Allen and I were friends. His friendship meant a lot to me. Gender doesn’t mean you have anything in common at all. Women are brought up in many ways to be antagonistic to each other.

What would your ideal syllabus look like? Who are your must-reads?

I really respond to who a writer is, rather than what they must read. It’s very unique, right? A person needs to feed themselves, to find their way.

Just the word syllabus makes me quake. Yeah, a book at a time for me.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.

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