The Rumpus Interview with Poetry Rock Star Eileen Myles

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“Waste is good, important. Especially in art. It’s not the perfectly placed and chosen object that rules. It’s a pile of things and one might catch your eye but its always in context. We need too much. As long as we have hands and bodies.”

Eileen Myles has been called “the rock star of modern poetry” by BUST Magazine and “a cult figure to a generation of post-punk female writer-performers,” by Holland Cotter of the New York Times. She has been a vital part of the downtown New York writing scene since the 70s and has traveled the globe performing and writing on various topics in multiple genres. Needless to say when you read her you know you’re in for a good time.

Her latest book, The Importance of Being Iceland (Semiotext(e) 2009), is no exception. Iceland is a 360-page beast that compiles Myles’ essays on everything from art criticism to poetry to travel to menopause. Thankfully, her down-to-earth, conversational writing style gives a personal feel and charm to her essays about even the most obscure artists and topics.

Myles was born in Cambridge, Mass. in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from U. Mass. (Boston) in 1971 and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB’s, and then gravitated to St. Mark’s church where she studied with Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley and Bill Zavatsky. She’s published more than 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, articles, plays and libretti including: Hell (an opera with composer Michael Weber). Her books include Sorry, Tree (Wave Books 2007), Cool for You (Soft Skull Press 2000), and Chelsea Girls (Black Sparrow Press1994). In 1995, with Liz Kotz, she edited The New Fuck You/Adventures in Lesbian Reading (Semiotext(e)).

From 1984 through 1986 Myles was Artistic Director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project. She conducted an “openly female” write-in candidacy for President in 1992. She’s appeared in numerous independent films by Cecilia Dougherty, Nam June Paik, Leslie Singer, Julie Zando, and Jennifer Montgomery and has made a few films of her own:  22, Bread & WaterDumb Whore Palm, and Lemon Tree. A virtuoso performer of her work, Myles has read and performed at colleges, performance spaces, and bookstores across North America as well as in Europe, Iceland, Ireland and Russia. In ’97 and again in 2007 she toured with Sister Spit, the post-punk female performance troupe. She contributes to a wide number of publications including Parkett, The Believer, Vice, Cabinet, The Nation, Art Forum, TimeOut, Book Forum, and Another Magazine, and has blogged for the Poetry Foundation. In 2007 she received The Andy Warhol/Creative Capital art writing fellowship for Iceland. She is a Professor Emeritus of Writing & Literature at UC San Diego, where she taught from 2002 to 2007. In Spring 2010 she will be the Hugo Writer at U. of Montana in Missoula.

The following is an in interview with Myles about Iceland, amongst other things.

The Rumpus: The Importance of Being Iceland begins with a long essay on your travels in Iceland. It’s almost a love letter to the country and a manifesto on the idea of remaining small and independent. In view of your obvious affection for Iceland and its people, what are your thoughts on the financial crisis that has happened there in the past two years? How have the people you know there been affected?

Eileen Myles: Well, like Ireland, another former colony that had some fine economic recovery and boom in the past decades, it’s figuring out how to manage money in a completely insane global economy. What I mean to say is, I don’t know. Everybody is affected but not surprised, because even ten years ago I heard in Iceland that everyone was in debt, living beyond their means. Artists are very productive, flourishing though. There are three interesting shows of Icelandic art up in New York right now.

Rumpus: Have you been back to Iceland since your book came out? What do Icelanders think of your book?

Myles: I haven’t. I hope to in early 2010. But I’ve gotten it to people and it’s very positive.

Rumpus: One thing I was struck by in Iceland was your many definitions of what poetry is. As I was reading your book it was like I was traveling along with you to different galleries, countries, situations, etc. and you were pointing at things saying, “That’s poetry,” and “That, over there, is poetry too.” Many people have certain guidelines for what they believe poetry is and isn’t. Can you speak about what makes something poetry to you?

Myles: It’s an action, an arrangement. Remember, not everyone wants to be a poet. I think it starts in part with claiming that identity and then expanding the definition (or shrinking it) in relation to the historic form. If I take a photograph is it a poem? How about a play? I think of a poem as an important formula – how one learns to see. If you translate a poem you quickly understand that within that person’s poem THESE senses are amended like this, and THESE ones barely come into play. I think a poem is an endlessly transferrable vision. A signature of sorts.

Rumpus: As a writer who’s mostly concentrated on poetry, is it difficult for you to make the transition to fiction and nonfiction? What is that process like for you? Does writing in each genre feel different to you?

Myles: Well, sure, it took time. I had to wait for fiction writers who showed me the way. Violette LeDuc and Robert Walser, for example. I think you have a desire but don’t know how to realize it and some writers will do the work of opening the door for you. I don’t mean imitation, but possibility. Nonfiction was more economic for me and also related to high school, where essays were what we were invited to do and I enjoyed writing something funny so I could make people laugh when I stood up to read mine. So I could be asked by my fellow students to read mine aloud. All the genres feel related but you do each for a different purpose.

Rumpus: You write a lot about education and class structures. In your essay “The Free Show,” about an art show where everything was free to be taken, I was struck by this passage:

“And after all, who are these artists. People who learned useless skills in an abundant economy, that was distributed differently than it is now, and now are competitively or gently trying to stuff themselves into the shrinking number of spots on bookshelves, screening rooms, and walls. Potentially a lot of art is waste, wasted labor, wasted intellection, and of course mountains and mountains of stuff gets made — so let’s just give it away.” You’ve made a career in the art and literary world and yet seem to have these conflicting feelings about art at times being waste. Did you ever feel you should’ve had another career? What were some other jobs you worked? Can you elaborate on this topic?

Myles: No, you have a different attitude towards waste than I do. Waste is good, important. Especially in art. It’s not the perfectly placed and chosen object that rules. It’s a pile of things and one might catch your eye but its always in context. We need too much. As long as we have hands and bodies.

Rumpus: Iceland is a 360-page beast of a book that could also be titled something like “A Life in Poetry and Art.” You have essays on everything from art criticism, to sexuality, to aging, to travel. Was it cathartic to edit a life’s worth of writing?

Myles: Yeah, it was horrible. But very sweet to be done. Now for volume II.

Rumpus: I saw on your website that your have a novel, The Inferno, coming out soon. Will you tell us a bit about it?

Myles: Yes, it’s a joke in a way, and a continuation on my other fictions, Chelsea Girls and Cool for You. Chelsea Girls is like a series of short autobiographical films, Cool for You is an examination of what it’s like to be female inside various institutions. One of them was the institution of “writing” and it was the one narrative my friends said, ugh, take that out. I didn’t get it right. When my agent shows my novels to editors they go, but who is she?!

Like if I had fallen down a well as a little child my story would be interesting now. So I thought, ha-ha, I’ll write a novel about being a poet and when they say who is she, the answer will be – she’s the poet Eileen Myles. But oddly they all seem to know me now. They go yay, Eileen Myles. No, sorry, not this book. But I do have a wonderful publisher and I’m about to sign a contract. I think it’ll be out in the fall.

Rumpus: I also saw you were working on a memoir about your dog Rosie (1990-2006) and you dedicated Iceland to her. People often downplay the relationship between humans and animals, and the validity of that as a deep experience especially in the literary world. Will you tell us a little about your thoughts on animals and your memoir for Rosie?

Myles: Animals are our beloved intimates and our fellow travelers. A day at a time I’m deciding not to eat the mammals which feels good. I’m writing something that began when Rosie was dying and plans to expand into her lives that preceded this one and even maybe explore where Rosie’s going. It’s a somewhat sci fi fantasy memoir about a very beloved dog who I hope will always be around.


Susie DeFord is a poet, musician, and dog walker. Her work has appeared recently in Bomb, Oranges and Sardines, and Work Zine. She fronted the bands Terset and Wu Wei. She lives in Brooklyn, where she runs Susie’s Pet Care, a dog walking business and writes the blog Dog Poet Laureate and the poetry column subTEXT for BOMB magazine. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first book of poems and photographs by Dennis Riley called The Dogs of Brooklyn (c.2007-2009). More from this author →