I’ve known the poet Eileen Myles since the 1990s, when I first moved to New York, and I remember seeing her walking her pitbull Rosie around the East Village. She had these beautiful arms and David Cassidy hair and the sort of swagger so many of the gay boys I knew wished we had. We all had crushes on her.
Looking back, I feel like that sense of her holds up — she’s a little like if David Cassidy had run away and grown up to become a sexy, cool lesbian poet in the East Village. The amazing Mapplethorpe photo of her on the cover of a new edition of her groundbreaking 1994 novel “Chelsea Girls” (Ecco, $16.99 paper) is only one moment of the many she had back then — and in it is a glance at the wild and new kind of beauty that is hers, born of abandoning yourself to being yourself.
The portrait of her on the cover of her new volume of collected poems, “I Must Be Living Twice” (Ecco, $29.99), suggests that cool has evolved into something sublime.
That slipperiness, I think, is where the poetry is— a slipperiness that is her unique quicksilver intelligence and aliveness, something that she brings to her poetry, her prose, her art criticism, and her conversation. Myles has, in her 20 books of poetry, art journalism, fiction and libretti, given so much to us, and if you’re just finding her now, there’s a lot to read.
At her St. Marks Poetry Project launch event for these books two weeks ago, she asked 20 readers to come and choose sections of her two books to read from, and the result was a Myles Extravaganza that she jokingly referred to that night as the sort of funeral for a poet she wanted to have while she was alive. “We always used to do this when someone died,” she said. “Why not do it when they’re alive, so they can hear it?”
I caught up with her on tour and asked her some questions before her Los Angeles event at Skylight Books this Friday at 7:30 p.m.
What is it like having these two books come out together? It seems like it would be strange, having something from a much earlier part of your career arrive alongside something newer, together in the world.
I’m having a retrospective moment. And I think it’s funny they came out during Mercury retrograde. So for astrology people, people would say, you’re now doing really well, because your books from the past are going forward. I’ve gotten attention for a new poetry book and a book from 20 years ago but part of it is something in the stars that meant the past is more now than usual.
I was just reading one of my favorite pieces by you, “Being Female,” which you published on the Awl. Over the years, it keeps coming back to me, that idea of wanting to be the favorite son, not just your family’s, but the country’s favorite son. The ending is so beautiful, the last line of this piece: “But I want to be loved because I am. That’s all.” Do you feel that now? Does anything feel different this time around?
It does. I’m tremendously happy at the warm and thunderous reception my work is getting and yet time is so funny, incremental, it’s like when people act like this big thing is happening, you know, it’s like sex, there’s been lots of little moves over the years, highs and lows, and as the one who has felt it all, in her body, it feels like more of the same but all at once, like Armageddon or something. It’s lots of tiny steps that somehow at this moment are producing this moment — it’s sort of acidy — producing this big splash. But I know all the little ones.
The thing that’s funny about being a poet — or maybe being a woman, or maybe being a queer — is that you have all these small successes, like every time a somewhat rotten or average or OK or a pretty good life yields a really good poem, or one that feels good in the moment, you just have a little ecstasy. There’s lots of success, and the cumulative moment is made up of that... The publication makes a thing out of something that was always true — which is that I like my work, and I know other people did too, but there was no way to prove it before.
It must be wonderful to find the work has its own integrity that way, after all that time. To be like, “That’s what it is.”
Weirdly, the past starts to be about something else. It becomes about style in a way that it wasn’t about, and I don’t mean writing style, but cultural style. I wrote it in my 30s about my 20s, and I published it in my 40s. So there was a passage of time in the production of the book, and now I’m in my 60s. It’s like the poetry book, "I Must Be Living Twice," is as much about "Chelsea Girls" itself.
I think there’s ways in which things that were harsh are left harsh, because, historic poverty, historic kitschy lesbian cultural stuff, historic fashions that in many cases have come back, it’s decades where their surface has a different kind of texture now. ... People back then were like “Aaah, it’s a mess!” But I think we’re much more excited about messiness now. And messiness seems more manageable.
You did just finish a book, yes? Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Sure! It’s a very nice feeling. People will say, are you writing on your tour? And there is a way I just leak verbiage, I’m a poet. But yes, I just finished, in March, a memoir called “Afterglow,” the memoir of a dog. Part of this tour is that it has brought up lots of things from the past, including that I ran for president, and my obvious running mate, which had a lot do with my being a lesbian, was my pitbull, Rosie. Because it was much more acceptable to be running for president with a dog’s face next to yours than another lesbian’s. So she’s who I memorialize in this book.
It’s a fantastic dog memoir. When we have relationships with animals, we often make up who they are. And so there is a lot of thinking about who else she might have been, besides just a pitbull born on a roof in the East Village. And so that’s delivered in fantasy, a little bit.
And yet it’s also [Gertrude] Steinian, too, isn’t it? Like Rosie is your Alice B. Toklas.
Exactly. I get to escape the burden of being Eileen Myles by writing about Rosie Myles. And then I get to write about Eileen from a different vantage point. The dog is suddenly talking me down, telling me what’s wrong with what I’m thinking and doing. If you have a dog, and you’re a person whose moods are constantly changing, there’s a moment when you look at the dog and you feel bad for them because they’re attached to you, and so it’s funny for the dog to vocalize those things in some ways. A new kind of animalized despair.
It sounds like it’s a memoir of your running mate, then. And a little bit about the campaign, too — is that true?
Tiny bit true. Hard thing to know what to do with, the fact of having run for president. But running mate is really true. Dogs are a companion species. It’s about time — you have an animal for about 15, 16 years, a generation. That time holds so much. You might have had five or six relationships with human beings but one dog. It holds things the way only your family might have done previous... When I got Rosie, I remember I thought, Oh my God, I’ll be like 55 when she dies, I couldn’t imagine the person I’d be. And I’m already past being that person. And so now I’m like, Ecch, I’ll be in my 80s when this dog is gone. It’s weird, but they sort of tame the revulsion of time in a way, and make it something you can walk with and live with and watch. Watching Rosie die was a way of managing mortality. I learned so much from it.
You tour a lot. What is it like to be on tour this time, with your retrospective?
I think there’s a very interesting poetry moment going on culturally now. Part of what I’m experiencing with this nice reception of this book is the way being a female poet is a certain version of coming of age — poetry is very diaristic, small pieces, an art form you can realize -- you wrote poems when you were young -- a quick, young, cheap available art form.
I’m getting a sense, because I’m meeting so many young people on this tour and a lot of them are writing poetry and a lot of them are female, and so there’s a way I feel there’ s a revolution going on, like the road saga of the 50s and 60s for boys might be writing poetry for females right now. And I just love how poetry seems to be totally ... the notebook is open — girls, and girlboys, young people and older people and all kinds of people are writing in it. Something special, mortal, cheap and fun, a new way of being smart and fast — it coincides with texting, and social media — it’s a leaky, glittering sort of form. I think it’s really hot right now. I feel like that’s what I’m witnessing right now. And it makes me really happy.
Chee is author of the forthcoming novel “Queen of the Night.”