Eileen Myles, Punk Poet, on Trump, Capitalism, Art, Poetry - Rolling Stone
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Punk Poet Eileen Myles on Combating Trump, Capitalism With Art

With a new generation of fans from Twitter and ‘Transparent,’ the legendary artist is basking in latest literary renaissance

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Poet and writer Eileen Myles calls Trump's assembled henchmen "a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who's against education, an attorney general who's a Klansman."

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Eileen Myles sits at a small café in the East Village, near the apartment they have called home for 40 years. Myles, who now prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns, explains that they know people who have been in the apartment building even longer. “There were people who came in in the Sixties, kids who moved to the city when they were 18 and are still living here now.”

When asked about the neighborhood’s creeping gentrification, Myles seems unwilling to pick up the line of conversation. “People talk about the city not being the place it was, and I think that’s not true. That’s a very service-y take on New York,” Myles says. “Everything changing is the nature of its sameness. Sure, the corporate thing is quicker and bigger, but that’s more global now; that’s everywhere. It’s not about New York.” It’s the first important Myles lesson during our chat: The world is changing, and New York is part of the world, but these changes can’t be pinned to this city. “I think if you decide, ‘this change I cannot take,’ that’s just the shape of your exit or your bitterness,” they continue.

Myles’ particular success – two books out in a single calendar year, one a reissue of first novel, Cool for You, this past spring from Soft Skull Press, and another, Afterglow, a fantastical memoir about Myles’ pitbull, Rosie, coming out from Grove in September – in some ways owes a debt to New York itself. Myles is first and foremost a New York poet, having come up in the 1970s and Eighties Downtown poetry scenes, and having gotten an early start as a poet and artist from the great New York poetry legend himself, Allen Ginsberg. Myles has published over 20 books of poetry, prose and fiction, as well as journalism, art criticism, manifestos and performance pieces, but although Myles has been writing and publishing since the 1970s, they are enjoying a current surge in popularity in which their early work is being exhumed and republished.

Myles’ work has typically been well-received: When Cool for You was first published, in 2000, the novel was favorably reviewed in The New York Times – anointing Myles as an “honored elder to a new generation of lesbian poets who relate Myles’ candid style to contemporary punk and gay culture.” Myles has received grants from the NEA, the Guggenheim, LAMBDA and many others, and taught at NYU, Bard, Columbia and UCSD. In 1992 Myles ran for President of the United States as an “openly female candidate.” Numerous artists and writers across multiple generations cite Myles as a formative influence. In a talk from 2014, Maggie Nelson said, “After you hear certain voices, the direction of your life is changed, and there’s no going back. That’s what hearing the voice of Eileen Myles was like for me.” The writer Chris Kraus, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of Cool for You, describes Myles’ influence on her work as “enormous.” 

Myles was certainly neither an unknown nor an unsuccessful figure before, but in the last few years, they have become the kind of artist-celebrity that poets simply don’t become anymore – Myles’ persona and myth is so recognizable that it is possible to know who they are without having read a word of what Myles has written. One explanation for this new explosion of interest in Myles’ work has to do with a current vogue for New York’s “bad old days.” Over just the last three years, there have been at least four different new major television shows set in New York in the 1970s or 1980s, each feverishly eager to depict the squalor and grit and violence and cool clothes, a theme-park-ride version of a not-so-long ago city. A number of blockbuster novels – such as Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire – have chronicled New York in those same decades, a hotbed of crime and an imperfect but fertile artistic haven. Myles, with a longer perspective, explains that the city isn’t changing, but young people recently arrived here seem to be reaching back to another New York, one that perhaps they came here looking for only to find that they had missed.

Myles calls Trump’s henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.”

“So there’s a big circus tent around the Seventies and Eighties right now,” Myles says. “It’s very fashionable. Everybody is desiring to re-enter that time which is past. I’m with them, you know, I was there, but I’m also there in the copy.” Then again, Myles mentions, this is just another way in which New York never changes. Nostalgia for a bygone city is a constant by which it’s defined. “I mean, that’s been going on always,” Myles says wryly. “When I got here, it was like the Fifties, everything was better in the Fifties, that’s when it was really authentic.”

Cool for You spends some time in that “circus-tent” era in New York, but it’s more focused on an earlier era and another milieu – the author’s working-class childhood in Boston, surrounded by women trapped within the rigid gender roles of the American 1950s. Myles wrote Cool for You at the end of the Nineties, looking back on the Fifties and Sixties. The book focuses in particular on the women in Myles’ family, and the ways in which a society traps women in small spaces. This is both figurative, in the case of Myles’ mother’s role in life, and literal, in the case of the scenes in the nursing home where the character works and visits her grandmother. Cool for You is the story of its protagonist’s desire to break free of those small spaces, to carve out a larger freedom for herself, from both the containments of gender and of genre. Calling Cool for You a “nonfiction novel,” Myles explains: “It’s a representation of the story, it’s not the story.” Genre, Myles further explains, is far more blurry, far more nebulous, than conventions of either reading or publishing want it to be. “How do we draw a line between a poem and a novel and a memoir? The imagining mind does not respect these boundaries. My own publishing history illustrates what I mean, which is that both gender and genre are endlessly blurry.” The reissue, after 17 years, creates a strange sort of time vortex, a double-lens of perspective, in which Myles is looking back on the self that wrote the book, who is in turn looking back on the self in the story.

“Books become true, you know?” Myles explains about the new resonances in the re-publication. “Like, the last line of is ‘my mother is still alive,’ and my mother died on April 3rd. It almost dovetailed perfectly. Part of the fullness of the story when I was writing it was this kind of female universe, you know, with my grandmother in the center, and my living mother, and her sister who had just died – I thought of it as all of these things turning around each other, and now some of those things have stopped turning.”

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That kind of doubled perspective also relates to the sudden interest in past eras. “I almost think the most dated thing is virtual reality,” Myles explains. “Now with our phones, everybody is in virtual reality.” 

Part of the renewal around Myles’ work is of course due to the Internet, the proliferation of material available, the way that work can now so much more easily reach a larger audience, and the way that Internet technology has telescoped time, made it malleable and porous. Myles has taken naturally to Internet culture. They maintain a robust and outspoken Twitter presence. Myles compares social media today to the open mics of the poetry scene in the Seventies and Eighties. “As a poet, you right away had all these opportunities to stand up and read your new poem, and now that exists on a fragmented level. You get to take a piece of your language mind and share it with, you know, close to 20,000 people,” Myles says. “But the other part that’s so amazing is that I’m also living in my archive. Every day, some new piece of my work gets found by somebody, and they make a copy, and they put it up on Twitter or YouTube. So, if somebody’s just read one of my books and decided I’m interesting, suddenly all of my career is available to them. Now, at the age of 67, I could not write another word again, and just have a shit-ton of work from 40 years that would keep anybody busy.”

When asked what the experience on Twitter has been like, Myles naturally has an unusual anecdote as analogy.

“I remember when the [Berlin] Wall went down, and I went to an art community in East Berlin and the Stasi were opening the files. And suddenly you would realize that all your friends were writing about you. Everybody could read their own file, now, and you’d read your file to find out what your friends had said about you, to find out how you had been recorded. Everybody wondered whether they would spend the rest of their life reading about the other half, the part that had already happened. The Internet is surveillance, it’s a Stasi file, and it’s a celebration, too.” 

According to Myles, “There’s no way to separate negative and positive” on social media. “It sort of slows me down a bit, but then again, maybe I would be slowed down anyhow. When I got sober in the Eighties, I told myself, ‘OK, if being an alcoholic and a drug addict didn’t destroy my writing, why would being sober destroy my writing? If being a lesbian didn’t destroy my writing, why would being an academic?’ And now it’s like, to be a writer who’s more known and also has all this history, if all these other things haven’t destroyed me, why would the Internet destroy me? But, you only say that with the sense of an avalanche coming at you, when you might be destroyed.”

In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work – such as the seminal “An American Poem” – has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election – like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”

“Poetry will always be anti-capitalist because it’s waste, and that’s what we love about it. It’s about looking for things that don’t have to have a direct use.”

But Myles sees art as more than just a political bludgeon. “I think [this political moment] makes the work more of an oasis. We’re suddenly in a government that doesn’t value female reality, queer reality, art reality, anything that isn’t sheer mega-capitalism. And the question is, do we just assume that we’re contained by mega-capitalism? I think not. Poetry will always be anti-capitalist because it’s waste, and that’s what we love about it. It’s about looking for things that don’t have to have a direct use. To write stories and make art that have things that aren’t all arrows pointing to the narrative.”

Although Cool for You seems in some ways like a straightforward memoir, it resists both the patriarchal narrative conventions, both in form and in content. “When I was trying to get the book published in the first place,” Myles explains, “I remember people saying that the beginning is so unpleasant, because we start in this dank place, saying these potentially offensive things about the lives of disabled people. But that’s what it was like in those stinky institutions. The beginning of a book is supposed to have this sense of all the wonderful possibilities, but that’s not the case in life.” 

When queried about Cool for You, Chris Kraus tells Rolling Stone that this subversive approach to narrative is much of what makes Myles’ work so urgent. “Readers of literary fiction expect novels to move in very conventional ways. Myles’ work is narratively accessible, but they never seduces you into believing Myle’s particular story is the whole point. And working class experience is even farther outside the cultural mainstream than it was two decades ago. There are very few representations of it in high-culture, literary fiction, and [their] book does that.”

Myles’ newest book, Afterglow, is a wrenching memoir about the death of their dog. “I think there’s a real doorway between these two books,” Myles explains. A chapter in Afterglow is about the solar system, which calls back to the childhood fascination with space that appears in Cool for You. “I wanted to give all that hallucinogenic information the kid had about space a real place in the book. And that stuff is the tunnel between these books.” In Afterglow, that same science-fiction obsession becomes a way to process grief. 

“When the dog was dying, I was teaching in San Diego and one day I went to the library and they were getting rid of all their old paperbacks. So I just bought a whole trove of sci-fi books, which I hadn’t read since I was a kid,” Myles explains. “And so the dog’s dying and I’m reading sci-fi, and so one part of the book became me telling the story of the books I was reading when my dog was dying, except I’m not good at remembering, so I just started to make shit up, so it became the first sci-fi I’ve ever written.” 

Early in our conversation, Myles tells a story about an old friend from a Hollywood family, an actor whose family were all also actors. “When he was at the end of doing a lot of drugs and alcohol, he would come home and he would watch his family play a family on late night TV. I remembered thinking how weird that must be, but now we’re all doing that, and that’s been true for a while.” This anecdote also seems particularly relevant since another aspect of the current renaissance of Myles’ work can be attributed to the “fame” from Transparent, Jill Soloway’s semi-autobiographical Amazon streaming series. 

For its second season, Soloway wrote a radical lesbian poet character as a central figure in the plot. Myles was recommended as a reference for this character, and, Soloway not only created a character based on Myles, but fell in love with the poet in the process. They began a romantic relationship, one that became public around the same time the world – or at least people who watched Transparent – were introduced to the charismatic poet character played by actor Cherry Jones (also a prominent lesbian). Myles and Soloway briefly became a power couple celebrated by a certain niche demographic on social media. The two have since split – although they remain close – but much of Myles’ recent notoriety is undoubtedly due to the show, since many people know the writer as a fictional character. After 40 years of publishing, working and gaining recognition on Myles’ own terms, it must be a surreal left turn into this sort of celebrity.

“Everybody wants to know what it’s like,” Myles says, when the Transparent topic finally comes up. “You have this life as an original and then there’s all this media of a copy of you, and then that becomes fictionalized. It’s a copy of a copy, and in a way, it’s another way of being generative. But it’s also liberating because it’s not me. What was really fun about watching it is that – and I don’t mean this in a negative sense – it’s so wrong. They would ask me. ‘Would you wear this?’ And I would say no, so then they would have her wear it.” Myles also had several tongue-in-cheek cameos in the show, which became a treasure trove of Easter eggs for people who had already admired their work or who had followed the trajectory of Myles’ and Soloway’s relationship. “It’s a bit embarrassing, like I could have said this or I could have said that – it’s silly. But on the other hand, there’s an archive of not-quite-me out there for which I get residuals.”

It may seem too easy to attribute Myles’ renaissance to the mildly surreal happenstance of being referenced on a popular series. But perhaps it’s deeper than that. In some ways, Myles’ work has surfed a wave of nostalgia – young queer art-party-kids working backward to find origin stories – searching for someone who came before that can be linked to current narratives. If some of Myles’ recognition comes from kids who first learned about Myles’ work on Transparent then, that, too, Myles points out, is part of a longer tradition of inheritance, of the way things get passed down from one generation to another, much as they began when Myles came to New York four decades ago. 

Myles says the fact that people first discovered their work on Transparent isn’t a problem. “It’s the best thing. I learned about the existence of Allen Ginsberg indirectly through watching a TV show that had a beatnik character,” they explain. “When I was a kid, we were all being beatniks for Halloween. And then I grew up and became one of them, and then when I moved to New York, Ginsberg was one of my first friends. He got me published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was 25, and he let me know that I was welcome, I mean, to the point that he wanted me to date his boyfriend. He made me feel that I was in the family.” 

This sense of community is the thing that Myles believes persists in the literary scene in New York today, and what they would hope young people might still find here. “What’s unique about this community then and now is that it’s very porous – all you need to do is hang out. You come to the reading, and you come to the reading, and you come to the reading, and everybody starts to know who’s at the reading.” 

During our interview, Myles saw Justin Vivian Bond, an old friend, a few tables over, and they blew kisses across the café. Myles explained how they’d seen each other the night before at an awards show and run into other friends there; how everyone had piled into a restaurant afterward, yearning to catch up with each other. 

Talking about the poetry scene 40 years ago as much as the one today, Myles concludes: “You don’t have to be alone.”

In This Article: Book, Books, Poetry


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