Interview with Eileen Myles by Kimberly Lamm (March 21, 2001)

Kimberly: You’ve written frankly about sex, and I think Skies (2001) is interesting because it seems less about sexuality or sex than sensuality, and a sensuality that isn’t tied to a particular person or even act. Is that part of your understanding of Skies?

Eileen: Yea. I often think of sex writing — whatever that is — in relation to something like dance movies, where there is a little plot going on, and then people break into a dance. Later when I saw porn, I thought oh, that’s the same structure.

I think a lot can cover sex. In a way, you can be writing about the sky. When I look at the book later I thought oh my god, this is all about my relationship that I was in then, which I talk about more as the book progresses. There were a number things going on in that book, but one was to have a big project in a space that was all my own. So I think Skies is driven by the same desire as any other project.

Cool for You (2000) doesn’t really have a lot of sex in it. I don’t know if you’ve read that. Chelsea Girls (1997) is of course loaded with sex. One book, Maxfield Parrish (1995), had tons of sex in it. My next book of poems will have quite a lot of sex in it. It isn’t even that the sex comes and goes, but writing about it does. Sometimes it seems like an interesting thing to do, and sometimes it doesn’t even seem to be on the map.

Kimberly: Didn’t you teach a seminar at Pratt that focused on writing about sex? I think you taught the work of Dodie Bellamy and Colette.

Eileen: Whenever I teach fiction or poetry, I always make sex a specific assignment because I think it is the most interesting. As a student, I was never asked to write about sex. And then, to figure out if you should do that or not, because often you could write something and have sex occur outside the room of the story, and still have it be in the story.

Kimberly: I read something in which you discuss sex as an interesting way to tell time.  

Eileen: I think in the early nineties it was the only narrative that anyone I knew believed in. It seemed like it was the last story, and it is a story that could be endlessly interrupted and still told at the time.

And of course, what does sex mean in terms of female time and male time? Are we all having the same sex? Whether we’re having sex with the same sex or the opposite sex, what is going on here? I think that a lot of our sense of what narrative is and what drive is has to do with the male sexual experience.

I think when you look at the work of Virginia Woolf, you ask is this a female sexual drive? That’s why I see The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham as a failure. He was just doing Virginia Woolf, but to no point. I think it was a guy using the greatest woman writer of the twentieth century to describe his own homosexuality, or to make her sex cover his sex, but what she was trying to do with time and language I think probably had its roots in female sexuality. He just imitated it, but it meant nothing. Underneath there was no there there.

Kimberly: Speaking of guys and girls. Alice Notley identified herself as a girl, or at least did in her work. She talked about girl poets and guy poets. When I was studying Skies, your small pieces really reminded me of some of the small, almost epigrammic poems in At Night the States (1976), written after the death of Ted Berrigan. Do you still discover their influence on your work?

Eileen: More than anything they were friends. I was in Alice’s workshop two years after I came to New York. I think Alice taught me how to be a student of writing, but she taught me how to teach more than she taught me how to write. She was a great teacher, and as a teacher, she always made it really clear that she was always a student. She was always setting up situations that would produce writing. Alice was in an endless workshop with herself as a writer. I still find that in her books: she sets up an experiment, and drives it into the ground. Her books are amazing and so excessive. I think she’s a master. I always find plenty that I love, and plenty that I don’t like in everything she does, and yet what I love is that she always has the nerve to create a situation that produces writing.

Kimberly: Like the Robert Mitchum persona in her new book Disobedience (2001)?  

Eileen: Yea. It is often really maddening. She’s unstoppable.

I certainly learned things from Alice, but Alice herself would say that Eileen is not my student per se. I was fairly close to her age, but I was of a different generation, and Alice would lord that over me. But she was trying to get us to do something, and I was trying to do something else, and there was sort of an argument between us that I think to this day would persist with us as writers, and that argument’s formed me, so sure, she’s an influence.

I think Ted’s Sonnets (1967) are the finest poems ever written. It’s just a masterpiece. Alice’s early work, the work she wrote while I was in her workshop, probably influenced me more than any other, a book called Alice Ordered Me to be Made (1976). It used the language of her then baby sons. Talk about time. She used motherhood as a form to blow through as a poet. She occupied the space of motherhood as an avant-garde poet. She did something that men could have done, but wouldn’t or didn’t. I really feel like she made something new in that moment.  

Kimberly: Particularly in the way she focused her attention. There’s the poem in which she lists her son’s comics, and there’s another poem in which she transcribes the language of her son talking to a fork. There’s been so much poetry about women’s experiences as mothers, but I’ve never seen that kind of attention to the oddities of that world.

Eileen: Right, and I think it is because she was there. In this workshop last night, someone wrote a really great poem, and it was a very easy-seeming poem, but of course it was beautiful and complex the more you looked at it, but it made you really notice what an assemblage a poem is, an assemblage of exactly what is there. You’re in this place, and then suddenly things start changing, and you put things together as fast as they are occurring. I feel like that’s the incredible awareness Alice brought to everywhere she’s been, but particularly to motherhood. She was in front of these kids growing in language and she made a poem out of that, which is so much more interesting than say — how boring — all those poets teaching in the schools. They say: here’s a poem my kid in school wrote. Whenever anybody is teaching kids poetry, you always have to listen to those poems. But Alice hit something much more rudimentary, which was to make poetry out of the kids’ speech.

Kimberly: You have this idea of writing as notating your own mortality, which I think connects your work to Notley’s in another way. In both your work and Notley’s there’s this tension between the strength of the writer’s persona and its dissolution. There’s the Notley poem entitled “Poem” (Selected Poems, 23) in which she describes St. Marks Place through the inevitability of her absence and asserts her importance as a poet. I read Skies in a related way, as a notation of mortality.

Eileen: Yea, I think there are a lot of feelings of mortality in that book. I think that is part of what you get when you go into nature. I started to have that experience a few years ago, and started to understand how you could be in it. I guess being in New York is being in it too, but its different when its water and trees instead of concrete, and it lets itself get imprinted on your poem. That’s what I mean about unwriting: letting the details write you in a way, not really thinking about a void you write into with your consciousness, but it is this weird dance of absence and presence. [1] It is more like you are allowing the poem to happen, and nature is incredibly sad in this way, identical to the way a life is sad.

Being of the age when a lot of my friends — a few very close friends — but many friends died of AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. When that stopped happening, some other people just died. Then there was that feeling, when is it going to stop? And then it was like “Oh No!” I was forty and now I’m fifty: this is what happens. You’re like this tree — it’s so corny to say — all the leaves start to fall, and then you fall. This is all part of a thing that I am in, and it never stops. When you’re standing in the middle of an autumnal forest you can’t miss it. It is beautiful to think about — you are those things.

Kimberly: In the interview with Edward Foster, you made a great formulation about men and women and the public/private divide. You said, “Men are distracted and disturbed, too, but there’s something about being female and walking down the street…There’s a privacy in public women do not have, and I think a lot of my desires to be masculine are desires to be…In fact the vast majority of my poetic models are men, and I am really interested in public poetry and a private person’s public nature” (60).

I read Skies as a private text, and a person’s private relation to death, but now that I am listening to you talk, I am reminded how public death is.

Eileen: In a way people keep dying after they die.

Kimberly: In the poem “Inauguration Day” (2001) you write that the snow “gives me time / to think, to vote / for the future of everyone” (lines 61-63). I thought this was a nice way to think about the poet in public world but also in the private lives of people.

Eileen: When one is an individual and starts to make some peace with the notion that you too will die, once that starts to be clear, you realize other people will continue to work.

One of the things that is really important to me, and really disturbing in terms of men and women and poetry is that so often when a guy is remembered on a back of a book, it is always men validate men, and men carry on other men’s work, when in fact I am influenced by that canon and I am carrying on Jimmy Schuyler’s work, and I am carrying on Frank O’Hara’s work, and I am carrying on John Weiner’s work. I am part of that lineage.

So often when guys creates lineages it is a guys’ lineage, and I am supposed to carry on Alice’s work, and I am, but I am also carrying on Ted’s. We really need to change our sense of lineage in big ways.

You look at the New York School and its all these guys and a woman, and subsequent generations of men change their mind about who that woman was, no matter who that woman was. An Anthology of New York Poetry (1970) came out and the young guys who edited it didn’t like Barbara Guest’s work, so they took it out and put in Bernadette Mayer. The female place is always disposable. As long as that’s true, there’s no parity between male and female poets. It’s like, women can have their place over here, and even if women are in male poetry establishments, if you keep looking at it, female poets are still getting rewarded by men, not for being the great female poets, but being the female poets who are the most feminine, or the most supportive of men, or women who already have lots of power in the male establishment. You don’t see women being honored for writing work that really changes things for women. I don’t mean that the work has to be full of feminist statements, but just a kind of an edgy reality, which is what it means to be female in the world.

Kimberly: You have said similar things about men and mourning for AIDS: men mourning men, and speaking for men.

Eileen: There’s a moment there when the ranks get very tight, and it is very easy for a female mourner to be out. When Tim Dlugos died, the guys swamped in and wrote all the introductions to the books, and I’m glad David Trinidaid edited Powerless (1996) and Strong Place (1992) but I couldn’t believe the lack of women’s names in the introduction to the life of a guy who had so many female friends. He was one of my best friends, and there’s no evidence that I even knew him. When there was the event for Joe Brainard at PS1, and he had a lot of female friends, and there were a few women there: me, Ann Lauterbach, and not many gay men. A lot happens when a poet dies in terms of how they get re-written.

Kimberly: Thinking about mourning and men and people on the way to dying. I am obsessed with the short story “Chelsea Girls” (1997). I was thinking about this story in terms of your work carrying on his influence. Did Schuyler’s work help make the sexuality of your work possible?

Eileen: Well, he had a great deal of comfort about being an out gay man in his work. He was finishing The Morning of the Poem (1981) when I first started to work with him. His social style was always an enactment of it. I would come tell him about last night, and he would talk about the old days. Poetry is gossip. He really liked that I was a dyke. It was very entertaining for him, and in an odd way he was even proud of it. It was kind of a familial thing.

There was a bratty pleasure when I wrote “Chelsea Girls” because I thought that to write a story, you had to wait a few years, and that had been my pattern with fiction, but I wrote that right after Jimmy died. I made myself do it. I had a feeling that I should get right to it. I set up a whole situation. I used to have a different arm chair in this apartment that was my chair, and I threw a yellow legal pad next to it and I just made a deal with myself because I didn’t have what it usually took to write a story, but I was hell-bent on writing the story, so I decided that I would write it like a poem. I have a much more fragmented sense of how to write a poem, so every time I would come in the door I would sit down and get to the next place in the story. So I wrote it in this raggedy way, and the story immediately allowed for separate rooms. But also, I thought if I’m being his female memoirist, then I am going to get some pussy in there. I am going to put something in here that gay men might not want to hear about — Jimmy would have been fine, he was always saying dirty things to me as part of our joke, “Did you get any pussy last night Eileen?” — but say other members of his generation wouldn’t be that way. I was getting the shape of my own friendship in by making sure that my own lesbian history was neck and neck with my reverence for this man, so I wouldn’t be erasing myself as I was memorializing him.

I love that form can be so practical. That you can decide that there are two prongs of attention, and then aesthetically make that operate and throw things around.

Kimberly: Was Cool for You written before or after Skies?

Eileen: They were written at the same time.  

Kimberly: Skies seems like a compression of your voice and imagery, and Cool for You seems to be an opening out of your persona and your story. Did you find a real distinction between writing prose and poetry?

Eileen: One of the things about writing a book of prose is that you are really in it. It is kind of gross. It is like being buried alive in a way. Once you know you have a book going, you kind of feel like you are never free in a horrible way. So then poetry becomes kind of an escape — you get to go out and breathe.

I didn’t think I was writing poems when I started Skies. I just saw the glorious sky in P-town, and I was thinking I would write another collection of short stories called Skies. The only thing that would make the stories linked was that I would write all the sky stuff in between. I would figure out some architecture to make that work. So that was the idea and I just started writing the skies…

Kimberly: The architecture became the plane in the poems.

Eileen: Yea, that’s interesting, because a lot of things happen in them. Yeah, the planes link it; it’s true. I just never wrote the stories. So I got deeper into Cool for You, but once I realized what I was doing, that I was writing poems, I could really say the poems are this, and the novel is this, and they really were in separate places. But also when you are writing a lot of fiction, or something that has narrative, then poetry doesn’t have to do that.

Towards the end of Skies, it seemed like it was time to put the people back, because I felt I had gone so far out in writing there weren’t people in my poems. In the new poems that I’m writing now seem much more narrative and human; there’s much more of a connection between people in them, which is a different relationship. Skies is a relationship — about a poet and nature, and the other is a relation between people.

Kimberly: It seems that your work as a poet helped you know where and when to begin and end a narrative. I am always surprised how your stories open and close, and I thought that perhaps this is the case because you were a poet first.

Eileen: The gap between chapters and paragraphs is so interesting. As poets we know it so well for a lot of reasons, but one of them is giving poetry readings. You’ve got a half an hour to fill. I remember Larry Fagin saying a million years ago — was it him? — you should be going in with humor and going out with beauty. People do stuff like that, you really have to open the audience up and make people feel comfortable to go through all these rises and falls, but you’re really aware of structuring some time publicly when you’re assembling a poetry reading. You read a poem, and now the room feels this way. So what can I put into that space that will keep the energy going? I really felt like I used those kind of principals when I was arranging the book.

Kimberly: Can you read an audience as well as you think you can when you are standing right there in front of them?

Eileen: There’s always paranoia. There are so many different kinds of quiet: the quiet attentive, the quiet bored, the quiet dissatisfied, the quiet in awe. Patter helps. I’ve gotten better at doing that because I read a lot. You can tell who they are by what they respond to when you speak almost more than when you read the poem. Pretending they’re there when I’m writing keeps my fingers moving. They are me, of course. When you’re writing the audience is just paranoia.

Kimberly: In a talk which you gave at St. Marks in 1994 entitled “The Lesbian Poet,” and reprinted in School of Fish (1997), you say: “I think we write all our poems with our metabolism, our sexuality, for me a poem has always been an imagined body of a sort, getting that down in time, it moves this way and that, it is full of its own sense of possibility” (124). I think you’ve already answered this, but I am curious what the imagined body of prose writing is? Is it your own corpse, being buried alive?

Eileen: No, well, in a way, I think the body vanishes in prose, and I’ve always felt this as both as a reader and a writer. As a prose writer, you sit down at the computer or whatever and you start to go and you create a situation. At a certain point, you evacuate, and when you’re lost in prose, you’re gone. It’s a virtual leap into this other world that truly exists. Same as a reader, you get lost in a book.

I think poetry isn’t about getting lost. It is much more about scoring the plane of existence that you’re dwelling in. I often think — and I have been drawing away from this a little bit — that poetry is a human form; I really want the body to be there in the real time of the writing.

Kimberly: In “The Lesbian Poet” (School of Fish, 1994), you describe coming out as a dyke and a poet during your first poetry reading. Could you talk more about sexuality and textuality (or even performativity) becoming synonymous or coincident for you?

Eileen: I think it is about energy. When I had a card I hadn’t played as a person, so there was something I wanted to do that I hadn’t done yet — once I started to think that I would do it, or was doing it, or this was a possibility. Then I began to realize in a very profound way, one could be wedded to movement. Also, I operated in a very conservative way. I came to New York and thought I would do something I hadn’t done in Boston, without even knowing what that was.

It is weird to say but I felt like I needed to earn my poetry cards first. I hung around for a couple years, and was part of the gang and stuff. I think by the time I was part of the St. Marks scene and I got my first Wednesday night reading there, in the fall of ’77, I was in love with a girl for the first time and willing to say so and willing to write about it, and it just seemed like some wonderful new operation started to occur in my poems at that time too. There was a limitation of energy that I didn’t have to work with anymore. I felt I had a much more expansive frame to move with.

Kimberly: There are many great moments in Cool for You, but one I found particularly touching came about early in the book, when Eileen is chosen to be Mrs. Lesters’ teacher’s helper at the Fidelity house, where she has been taking and excelling at her art lessons, particularly drawing. Eileen decides not to become the teachers’ assistant because her father has died, and she wants to get a job and be responsible for her mom. You write: “I remember the day I told Mrs. Lester. I was really afraid. I thought she would be mad, and miss me. She looked at me nervously. Okay Dear if that’s what you want to do. I walked down the street crying, walking home. I wondered what being her helper would have been like. I swung my bag. Let the babies help themselves. Art is for kids” (33). There are so many complicated feelings compressed into this perfectly discrete narrative moment. I also like the fact that the writing was thoroughly invested in and absorbed in the emotions of that moment, for that girl who just lost her dad. It was filtered through the adult narrator’s memory, but not explicitly.

Eileen: I have started to notice when I read memoirs and first-person narratives that when the writer goes into the narration they stop being the kid and they become the adult. I just feel there is something inauthentic about that. Shouldn’t the kid be doing all the jobs? And aren’t you pushed more, language wise, to figure out how the kid really sees her reality? To not drop the mask of the kid ever, but to stay in there, and try and figure out how she puts a bookcase together or a room together, how the kid goes out the door, and what eating is, make all the details of the reality seen through the kid’s eyes. [2]

In Susan Minot’s new book Rapture (2002), there’s a moment where two lovers are walking into a hotel room and she knows he has a girlfriend back in New York, and as they are walking into the hotel room, the phone rings, and she urges him to pick it up, and he picks it up, and says “Honey” and the narrator’s heart drops. It’s that cold-blooded ability to change selves. We’ve all seen that moment in different ways, and a person’s ability to change sides is a little too creepy.

And I feel this in fiction, and I think this could be in some way posturing. I like the myth of the true self, which is being constructed throughout the book, in all places, and it’s a construction of course, but I just feel there’s something loyal and good and true when a writer make the one perspective do all the work, rather than watch that bourgeois accommodation occur: the always returning to that conscious control, the middle. I hate that.

Kimberly: It is interesting that you mentioned “cards” in your discussion of sexuality and poetry, and in Cool for You, you are very attentive to the details of the card from the Fidelity House. It’s plum colored, and you even describe the sound of it as it fell on the ground. [3]

Eileen: I think it was the first card I ever had. I just loved that card. It’s a genital.

Kimberly: The other thing I liked about Cool for You and you go with your neighbours, the Delays, to fish for turtles and you write….

Eileen: that it’s “so Huck.”

Kimberly: I am curious about how you see your work within the tradition of American literature, particularly since you grew up from Massachusetts…

Eileen: There’s this whole thing of “Massachusetts” in Massachusetts. It’s kind of gross because in a way it is no place because it is so hung up on its past, despite the fact that Massachusetts is working class, i.e. pretty recent immigrants are living there who have nothing to do with that past — the people who came to the country and still own it, and then of course there’s the black community was brought there in chains. Yet there are all these old houses and there is that strange aura about all that old American history, and growing up around it that and you can’t help measuring yourself against it. That’s part of the monstrousness of Massachusetts. There’s that creepy detail I know I used in the book. It’s so weird to realize that the people who were forced out of Ireland by starvation were in fact forced by ancestors of the same people they would come and be servants to.

But I love the idea, and I’m very wedded to the idea of being an American poet.

The whole Donald Allen mid-twentieth-century poetry movement was the first wave of the inheritors of William Carlos Williams’ idea that this was an American language and that they were writing in it. It has a variable foot, and it’s erratic.

It is my own belief that this is a violent country, and it’s a violent language that we write and speak in and to pretend to that it’s otherwise…That’s why I am not interested in writing a literary language and I’m a little bit adamant about that. I want to be broken and I am broken.

Class is so fluid. We were working-class, or lower-middle class, but my mother wanted us to speak better, and she was a child of immigrants. Polish was her first language. She really wanted us to speak correctly, and yet there was so much more adventure available with the kids next door who spoke pretty bad English. We wanted to speak like them, because speaking like them meant you could move like them and go where they went. I think there’s a way in which the only people who don’t put their past behind them are ruling class white men who happen to speak the language of power, and all the rest of us are supposed to hide that for them, or hide behind that with them.

There’s accommodation for Black English, because we — the liberal white culture — want to make sure Black people can become literate and that means allowing them speak the way they speak and calling that a language too, but to not to extend that same openness to other Englishes seems weird and even telling — that the whole thing’s the fraud.

Part of the message I got from the New York School and from the people of that poetry generation was to exist in the American English that I know.

By now, what the hell is that? I am half bourgeois, formally working class, sometimes poor, art-writing ruling-class flipping poet. What does my English look like?

What could be more American?

Kimberly: I wanted to talk about institutions. One of the most important threads in Cool for You is the character’s…should I call her Eileen?

Eileen: Sure.

Kimberly: One of the most important threads in Cool for You is Eileen’s investigation into her grandmother’s life, a life that is defined most by her seventeen year stay in an institution, Westborough State Hospital. There are ways in which Eileen’s life in and with institutions connects to her grandmother’s life: Catholic school, the American family, her job at the Fernald School (a state school for the mentally retarded) and her job at a nursing home. Were you pursuing these parallels? Particularly the way institutions will mistakenly or detrimentally define people as problems? [4]

Eileen: The thing that wound up being really strange and interesting was that I in fact learned a lot from the state. I had to go to volunteer lawyers from the arts to figure out how to get my records from the state of Massachusetts and then my brother, because he lived in the state of Massachusetts, had to sign the papers. It was interesting. It was though I wasn’t enough of a Myles to get Nellie’s papers, I had to get my brother Terry Myles in there.

But what I learned from those records is that the state had, in a certain way, preserved the history of my family more than anything we have. I just got a photograph of my dad that I had never seen. I never thought of my brother as this twenty-three year old unemployed guy living at home. So, there’s this weird way in which the state preserves too.

Kimberly: An archive in a way.

Eileen: Like a messy and bad archive. You know how it is, when you learn how to read, every wrong detail started to become telling. So there was something also beautiful about it too. And I started to realize that it was the place we went to the most, and there were more pictures of us with her at the Westborough State Hospital than there is of us anywhere else. I used the solar system as a metaphor in Cool for You a lot and Nellie was the sun, and remained the sun, and when she died, my dad died four years after she did. It was so weird that she managed to keep him alive.

Kimberly: New York is so important in your poetry. I recently read “Romantic Pain” (Maxfield Parrish, 1995), and the essay “How I Wrote a Certain of My Poems” (Not Me, 1991), which describes the inspiration and the making of “Romantic Pain.” You mentioned the World Trade Towers in “Romantic Pain.” You write that they are “immensely quiet and barely / lit” (lines 26-27). How has the focus you have brought to New York changed? What interests you about writing about New York since September 11th?

Eileen: I have totally mixed feelings. I get mad at projects that are about our response to September 11th. There’s something strange about anything or anybody trying to coordinate our responses. I still feel like…God, where were you that day?

Kimberly: I was in bed, and my mom, who lives on the West coast, saw it on the news before I did and she called me.

Eileen: I was in bed in too. I still feel like the pieces are still coming back together. In some weird way…I don’t love that it happened, it’s a tragedy…but I love that it makes me know how connected I am to the place where I live. It’s like we’ve all returned in a certain way, but not the same way; we’ll never return in the same way. What’s possible for life in New York is forever altered. That little thought and feeling comes to all of us at different times.

I love going through the winter and the spring with my friends and the people I barely know and reminding myself how weirdly we needed each other and kept coming into contact. It just made me more aware than ever of what a human city New York is. I feel oddly patriotic about the glob of humanness that we are all. I love being a part of that and thinking that it’s the language that I speak.

I think I have written one poem officially about it. I was going out with Jordana, to have dinner with friends in Brooklyn and we were driving and we were stopping off at delis, buying water and flowers. You know how it is at night, the flowers in delis are all lit, and they start to get wilder and wilder looking, and the flowers change throughout the year. It’s so funny that we know what season it is by the flowers being sold in New York. I was aware of all that, and I just felt sad that people wouldn’t see this happen. The poem ended with “We miss you.” So it was a buried mourning poem. The people seemed like the flowers — not to beat the metaphor — but it expressed a particular kind of sadness for the people who wouldn’t make it home.

Kimberly: The other thing about “’Romantic Pain’” I am interested in: that great moment in which you’re smoking a cigarette — I think it is in the Staten Island Ferry bathroom — there are two other women there, and you see the three of you from above, looking at yourselves in the mirror: “I can see us from overhead / and call the configuration ‘Feminism’” (lines 69-70) Do you see feminism differently now? Particularly since you went on tour with Sister Spit? [5]

Eileen: I know some people who were deeply into the second wave of feminism as writers and artists, and maybe I was too young or not in the right class. I didn’t really play in that field of feminism. There never seemed to be a culture of feminism. It may have been there but it didn’t have an impact on me. I wasn’t affected by the art of feminism. I wasn’t affected by the poetry of feminism.  I didn’t think it even created new styles. But what I am really aware that there’s just this fucking incredible young female culture in visual art, music, writing, and dance, that seems to be the strongest culture that I know of — male or female. I saw Le Tigre in Portland last week. The new record, Feminist Sweepstakes, has really great lyrics. I just had someone burn me a copy, but I think I am going to buy it so I can read the lyrics. It’s wonderful poetry, and its very Ra-ra feminism. They have videos and movies behind them when they perform, and so they were projecting the lyrics to the songs onto the screen too. And Kathleen Hanna would say, “we’re doing radical feminist karaoke,” and getting the audience to scream back the lines, and the lines were really bold great female poetry — just fun and cool. I just saw that as something I had never really seen before. It was politics and aesthetics. Who could be more rock-n-roll than Kathleen Hanna? This was not girl’s rock. It just wasn’t a separate category.

Kimberly: I began with frankness, so I think I’ll end there. You are frank about the relationship between class and language. Holland Cotter quotes you saying, “You know so much about people from the second they open their mouths. Right away you might know that you might want to keep them out. So when I write, I want to keep changing the locks, saying the ‘wrong’ thing when I’m doing the right thing.” [6] I am intrigued by this intersection of “right” and “wrong” in the poem. Can a poem bring the voice into the cultural hierarchy that poetry often signifies and also maintain an explicit resistance to that hierarchy?

Eileen: Is there one implicit hierarchy or is there a series of them? I feel like part of what a poem is doing is jumbling codes. What we were talking about in terms of the jumps fiction or poetry readings can make, poems make those jumps line to line. You don’t want to do it so much that nobody can follow you, but it is interesting just when you have created a certain kind of gestalt to slide into another one. Or, just when you think you’ve written a New Yorker poem, put some pussy in. Sexual language keeps being attractive because it changes the register so radically. It has so much power — obviously — to open the doors to one room, and close the doors to another. It is a living architecture of consciousness.

I want to be challenged as a human being in terms of how many kinds people I can be, how many ways I can be open, how many adjustments I can make. You have to, just to exist in the day. Everyday is this crazy little jungle gym of adjustments just to keep your sanity and keep functioning, and keep receiving messages and sending messages. I love the idea that a poem can do that. So it’s a little map of consciousness that says: this is what it is like to be alive.

Kimberly: I wanted to finish with the essay “The End of New England,” in on my way. You focus on the way your sister leaves out the “p” of napkin, and you express longing for what your sister left out: “My sister said ‘nakin’ she adamantly dropped the p, I miss her, I miss my family, it was another way to say us. Nakin” (69). Do you see language as home?

Eileen: Oh yeah. Absolutely, completely and utterly. I took a trip to Russia in 1995, and I swear I almost had a nervous breakdown because I couldn’t be received in the way that I always had been. It was such an identity loss, and I so wanted to come home. And really, I wanted to be home in my language.

Works Cited

Berrigan, Ted. The Sonnets. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1998.

Dlugos, Tim. Powerless: Selected Poems, 1973-1990. Ed. David Trinidad. Intro. Dennis Cooper. New York: High Risk Books, 1996.

_____. Strong Place: Poems. Intro. David Trinidad. New York: Amethyst Press,1992.

Myles, Eileen. Cool for You. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2000.  

_____. Interview with Edward Foster. Poetry and Poetics in a New Millennium. Ed. Edward Foster. New Jersey: Talisman Press, 2000. 50-63.

_____. Not Me. New York: Semiotext(e) Press, 1991, 199-202.

_____. Maxfield Parrish: Early and New Poems. Santa Rosa, CA: Santa Rosa Press, 1995.

_____. on my way. Cambridge, Mass: Faux Press, 2001. 

_____. School of Fish. Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1997. 

_____. Skies. Santa Rosa, California: Black Sparrow Press, 2001.

Notley, Alice. Alice Ordered Me to Be Made: Poems 1975. Chicago: Yellow Press, 1976.

_____. Disobedience. New York: Penguin, 2001.

_____. Selected Poems. Hoboken, NJ: Talisman Press, 1993.

Padgett, Ron and David Shapiro, eds. An Anthology of New York Poets. New York: Random House, 1970.

Schuyler, James. The Morning of the Poem. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Bio: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. She currently teaches English at Pratt Institute and Women’s Studies at Long Island University.

Bio: Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, MA in 1949. In 1974, she moved to New York where she studied poetry with Paul Violi, Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan. She edited the magazine, Dodgems, from 1977 to 1979 and directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1984 to 1986. She also co-edited The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading (Semiotext(e), 1995) with Liz Kotz. Her books include Chelsea Girls (Black Sparrow, 1994), School of Fish (Black Sparrow, 1997), Not Me (Semiotext(e), 1999) and On My Way (Faux Press, 2001).


[1] Myles discusses “unwriting” in her essay “The Lesbian Poet” (School of Fish). In a footnote she states, “We’re shedding thinking. More men ought to start unwriting themselves. Soon”(129).

[2] See Eileen Myles, “Blew Notes.” Rev. of Rapture, by Susan Minot. Bookforum (Spring 2002): 17.

[3] In Cool for You Myles writes: “I used to go to this place called Fidelity House. I was a member, I had a card. My membership was hard plastic, with rounded edges. Clack, if I dropped it. It was ruby-colored with a matte finish. It had my name on it. With this card I took all the classes I liked: ceramics, Miss Ursula’s puppet-making class, clay, and of course drawing” (33).

[4] Myles writes about her father’s alcoholism in Cool for You, stating, “It’s definitely why I was able to work in one shitty institution after another. It didn’t matter where I was. The world was a little like home. I was educated in these places too. In my childhood I often got the message that I was a worthless little animal” (31).

[5] In 1995, Myles took part in Sister Spit’s Rambling Road Show, a lesbian spoken word tour. Myles writes about Sister Spit, and her experience with them in a Village Voice article titled “My Intergeneration.” Village Voice (21-27 June, 1995): 68, 71.

[6] Cotter, Holland. “Poetry Soaked in the Personal and the Political.” New York Times (30 May 2001, late ed.): E1+.

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