Eileen Myles: On Her Own Terms

Poet. Professor. Thought-provoker.

Don’t call Eileen Myles’ new novel, Inferno, a memoir. Although, Myles’ main character is an aspiring poet named Eileen Myles who leaves Boston for a mythical downtown Manhattan in the 70’s to become a poet-cum-rock-star, any verisimilitude is at once intentional and a contradiction in terms.

Like her protagonist Myles went to school in Boston, she moved to New York in 1974, and she befriended some of the era’s most influential minds amidst the squalor and splendor of the East Village. Her novel is an epic poem—as self-referential and paradoxical as Cervantes’ Quixote, or Fellini’s or Dante’s Divine Comedy, for that matter.

In the end, Inferno is fiction, because Myles says so. And that’s why Eileen Myles is the the bona fide rock star she set out to become.

AG: You describe your novel Inferno as a Künstlerroman. Can you describe what a koonst-lehr-oman is? And if I’m saying it right?

EM:  Sure, it’s a ridiculous German word that I thought was funny and pretentious but also sort of traditional in the, it’s like a—kind of artist’s coming-of-age book.

It seemed like it was a word that didn’t get applied often to female coming-of-age stories, so that’s why I wanted to claim it. And books that we know of, like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—that’s a typical Künstlerroman.

AG: It’s such a pretty word. Our reviewer, Julie Enszer, has just submitted her review of Inferno and she makes a lot of interesting points. I want to read some of it now.

She writes: “Inferno is a mash-up of fiction, memoir, social/economic and cultural commentary, ars poetica, history and satire.”

In what ways is Inferno a memoir and in what ways is it a novel?

EM:  In no way is it a memoir. I can understand why people like to say that, but I don’t say that ever. ‘Cause if it was a memoir, I would think that the thing that was valuable was that I was remembered and that there was a “me” that I wanted to point the memoir towards, or a particular event or something that was precious, and I’m really very against that entire notion.

Inferno (a poet’s novel) by Eileen Myles
Read our review

I’m interested in a kind of recording. Like a documentary is interesting, you know, in a way I feel like I’ve turned a camera towards a history, that I’ve definitely walked through; but I think that nobody suggests that a video recording is sentimental. Memoir is a French word. We started off the conversation with a German word, so I guess somehow or other some romantic words are OK for me, but memoir just has a kind of preciousness that I want to avoid.

AG: Got it.

EM: So it’s not a memoir at all. It’s a novel. It’s totally a novel, and when I say “novel,” I think it’s just a way it’s put together. I’m inspired by novels that I read and liked and also, I think, finally a thing about a book or a piece of art is that finally I feel like it’s a novel ‘cause I say so.

These genres aren’t like big rules or laws or whatever. I think they get used in the world of marketing and they get used in the world of the academy, but I think when an artist uses a form, she gets to make up what it is and what it means and nobody knew what a novel was in the first place, so I think we’re still there.

AG: One of the interesting things that I found out when reading Julie’s review is that she compares Inferno to Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation. As you know, Johnston passed away earlier this year.

Enszer writes: “Myles’s discursive strategy in Inferno is similar to Johnston’s in Lesbian Nation in eerie and palpable ways.”

And I’m curious to know what you think about that comparison between both of your books?

EM: Well, I love Jill Johnston. I was definitely part of the generation of women who read Jill Johnston’s columns from The Village Voice and all are kind of our towns all over America and in many ways, came to New York ‘cause Jill described this life that seemed possible in New York at a certain time. And also what preceded Lesbian Nation was her being a dancer, then a dance critic, then an art critic, then a reporter on the art scene—she just really caught a really wide sway in New York in terms of who she was and what she thought, and that was exciting and enviable.

I loved the book Lesbian Nation and I think Gertrude Stein is a big influence for Jill Johnston, as she is for me. I knew Jill pretty well—we were fairly close at certain points in time, though maybe not in the few years before she died—so I got to know her too and I wrote about her so it’s an apt comparison.

AG: I want to read one short little passage. In one passage in Inferno you’re speaking of feminists and feminism and you write:

“The feminists seemed so serious, even when it was about sex. They taught in college and seemed rich, they just weren’t hip.”

And so, I’m just wondering, do you have an ambivalent relationship to feminism? Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

EM: Oh, I do. And I don’t really have an ambivalent relationship to feminism, but I think it’s like the novel. I mean, I think genre and gender are both terms that morph according to how we use them and I think feminism just… when I first experienced it as a person in her 20s coming to New York, feminism just seemed like a very kind of…I don’t know, kind of a little staid, you know?

I arrived here at the moment of punk and was living in a kind of messy, lesbian, young artist’s way in the East Village and I didn’t get that vibe from the feminist scene. It seemed like there was a great reverence for our foremothers, and classical references, and wanting to align oneself with Greek statues.

And, I don’t know, it just has a heavy quality. Even thinking of reading styles—a lot of the prominent feminist poets that I encountered when I first started writing poetry, with certain exceptions like Judy Grahn, who was and is a huge hero of mine— a lot of the work, it came from more of an academic mode and was more work and didn’t have a quality of experimental-ness to it.

So I tended more towards works of gay men like John Ashbery and John Weiners and James Schuyler and it was a kind of experimental workings that I found more in gay males poets at that time than the lesbians. So I went that way.

AG: You know, there are moments in your works and in your public life where you come off as provocative, and I want to read a short except from Inferno:

The theme of race definitely permeates my inferno. For instance for years I had an ongoing fight with Amiri Baraka who was outraged at the spectacle of a white lesbian writing about sex which was me. He and I were at this poetry conference and after I spoke he proclaimed that lesbian poetry and feminist poetry were pornographic and not revolutionary.

I talked back which I guess I was not supposed to do. That’s class a real white person would know to endure. I don’t know that. I felt my dignity was at stake. I was supposed to just be quiet but you know I was the dyke in the community.

There was nobody else. So then there was this buzz which became more complicated. Some people were clapping me on the back and other people (mostly black poets) were uncomfortable––not about what I said, but about all the back-clapping and celebration. I just always spoke up.  That was me. And I’m trying to say that in the poetry world there was one kind of acceptable white speech and white poetry and I knew I was always occupying another.

I find that a very, very powerful passage from your book. So I’m curious because you talk about being provocative in relationship to the poem about Robert Lowell and in the novel, you write about the conflict with Amiri Baraka on race and sexuality. Can you talk about these incidences?

EM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, actually I know they’re two very different poles but the obvious thing is that they’re both men and much more established men in their time. I mean, Lowell, I had less of a fight with. His work didn’t interest me much, but what I was noticing was the way the poetry community just sort of fluttered around a dead poet kind of wanting, I don’t know, memorize, sentimentalize—just kind of get down with the great man in this way that seems in conflict with my sense of what poetry could do and how alive poetry was and how powerful it was, like, today, now.

And it just seems like Lowell was such a beautiful symbol [of] the past, poetry at its best, the past-ness. Like poetry by a wonderful ruling-class man from a great old historic family…like he just was such a page out of poetry history.

And with Baraka I felt like we came from very similar class backgrounds, in a way; and I think there was something that was coming up as an artist that I kept noticing as a person from a working class background. Very often I had more in common with people, and I say this in the book, with people of color than I did with the kind of white middle-class poets that I was associating with in the poetry world.

The poetry world was to some extent mixed racially but it was basically a white team and a white guy’s team, and so I think one of the ironies was Baraka was coming right out of his own very conventional, kind of, sort of Marxist, Trotsky—I mean, I’m not a big politico, but there was a real kind of anti-gay thing in that whole world of politics and history and Baraka was just coming right out of that, plus you know whatever his own shit was about sexuality.

I found myself at a crux, and yet there’s always irony about that; exactly the one where we don’t stay in touch but we’re quite friendly today, and I think it’s one of those things you look back at and laugh at.

So I’ve often found in the art world as a white working-class lesbian, I would often find myself in a position of complicated power relations, in part because I wasn’t polite enough, I hadn’t learned how to polite my way through. I think etiquette gets people through a lot of stuff, and etiquette comes from a ruling class education.

AG: Right, right. I want to talk a little bit about being a young poet today and the struggles and challenges of that. You know, you came to New York in 1974 to become a poet. And this is around the same time as sort of like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe era of New York, downtown art scene—

EM: A little later I think, actually. Patti had sort of… her moments had come. So, in New York, 5 years is a generation in a way.

AG: So maybe Debbie Harry, then?

EM: That’s what was happening, it’s just like those were the people who were already known, but it was that world.

AG: You know, Patti Smith went on the record recently, I think in a New York Times article, and she said that New York is now too expensive for young artists and poets, and I’m wondering do you think it’s still possible for young poets to come to New York or what has changed? What’s different?

EM: Well, I think we all know—I mean, it’s true, except that the young poets are still coming here. So it’s like, it’s true, but so what?

I think one of the things about New York when I was here in the 70s, everybody who was older than me was saying ”Hey, you should’ve been here 10 years ago.” Like, you could get an apartment for 40 bucks. Nobody thought twice about moving in and moving out because the 70s were different.

So I think there’s always a story like that, but there’s been a huge leap in the 20-30 years I’ve been in New York in terms of the economy, and I think we all know that. It might be if you wanted a sense of endless time and space, Portland might be easier, you know? It’s sort like my friends in Portland say “we’re all broke but we eat well,” and I don’t think anybody in New York says that and I don’t think anybody in New York lives like that.

People in New York aren’t getting food stamps, we did in the 70s—we got food stamps, that was possible.

I also think there was also a lot of funding for arts and there wasn’t an abundance of writing programs. It was, in a sense that way was to get mentored.

The word mentor sort of makes me kind of recoil, because it’s such a professionalized relationship when it seemed like the thing when I came around was to hang out and get yourself invited to parties and it’s sort of like you just sort of read your work and hope that the energy would come your way, and as a young person, I met Allen Ginsberg and I met John Ashbery and Jill Johnston.

So I think you can still do it, but you do it differently, it’s an internalized culture; it doesn’t seem open.

AG: So you mention Allen Ginsberg and how you met him and you knew him. Did you get to see the film “Howl” with James Franco? And did you—

EM: Oh, I loved it, yeah.

AG: Terrific!

EM: Yeah, really good. And exciting, this idea that’s out there now that poetry could be an appropriate subject for a film, you know?

AG: I am so excited about Inferno. We listed it as one of our most anticipated books for the year, so there’s a lot of great buzz and I’m so happy to read about it.

EM: Let it be known that although the pub date is November 30, you can get it now. You can buy it on the website and it’s even in certain bookstores, so I encourage people to just go to the website to go get it.

AG: OK, OK, great. Thank you for your time, I sincerely appreciate it.

EM: Thank you so much, this has been terrific.

Photo: Leopoldine Core