Eileen Myles is a canon unto herself. She’s the author of at least eleven books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, the most recent of which is Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (O/R Books). Among the many things she has done and places she has taught, she was an Emeritus Professor of English at UC San Diego. She is now back in her longtime home of New York City.
Inferno blazes and roams, lighting up moments in Myles’—or rather “Myles’”—broke young existence in late-20th-century New York, finding her way as a poet, drinking too much, loving her dog, having sex with wrong people and right ones, discovering queerness, peeing in Goethe’s yard, and making a life as an artist. It is a book full of mischief and wisdom and crankiness and insight and humor. Says John Ashbery: “zingingly funny.” Alison Bechdel: “I was completely stupefied by Inferno in the best of ways.” Me, I had to stop writing down great lines because they were happening on almost every page. (“A poet is a person with a very short attention span who actually decides to study it.” Art is “boredom, turned electric.” Etc.)
At the AWP conference in Washington, DC this past January, we sat down with coffee and talked at high speed for over an hour. Here’s the essence of it.
The Rumpus: When the book opens, you’re writing an inferno for your English class in college. Dante had to write Inferno as a poem, but for your own inferno, you chose prose. I was curious about that choice.
Eileen Myles: Part of it was just a liftoff from the work of the last novel I had written, Cool for You. When I was publishing that book, showing it to editors, people were like, “Who is she?” Like, “Why?” Because nonfiction sort of demands that the person has a certain level of celebrity, otherwise you’re not permitted to talk about yourself. You know? And often a book is spurred by a joke I have with myself. So I thought, Well, the next time they ask that question, I’ll say it’s about the poet Eileen Myles, and my next novel will be about such a person. And that way the book will answer the question.
Which of course they no longer asked by the time this book was going around to editors. So really, I just thought, I’ll write a novel about being a poet, so that will be a self-explanatory, self-marketing device.
Myles: For me the focus is on the fact that it’s a piece of writing, it’s a work of art, it’s not a personal—it’s not bursting out of my chest with a need to tell a story. It’s out of the impulse to make art. It’s an aesthetic action, not a personal divulsion.
Rumpus: The book hooked me right away, but not the way a novel usually does—by pulling me into a specific time and place and setting and all that, because this zigzags around in all these ways—but in the way you capture writing and being a writer. I recommended it to one of my students who just graduated, and then I thought, I wonder if it will get her in the same way it got me?
Myles: I totally meant it to be kind of how-to book for a young female. I really loved the opportunity to keep returning to this younger me, at the outset in these various ways, thinking about work, thinking about writing, thinking about sexuality, each one of those journeys being told slightly differently and intermingling. I wanted it to be sort of a gift between generations.
I think the story of a woman becoming a writer is a female coming-of-age. The whole sexual coming-of-age that they usually use for men is like, going to a prostitute, or something. [In Inferno] the irony of somewhat being a prostitute in the first section is the flip side of that. That’s not the story of how this narrator becomes a writer, but it’s along the way. The story of becoming a writer is a coming-to-power sexual narrative. It’s about not selling something.
Rumpus: Later on you delve again into the uneasy relationship between art and commerce, or art and poverty. The “economic drag” that the middle- and upper-class aspiring artist dons. And the wealthy patrons who kind of “collect” artists that they admire: “You occupy their huge interesting spaces either in casual living time or for specific events and then you are part of how they relax. You’re like an animal roaming around their house, but you’ve got to be you, since they chose you… It was the being-collected moment.”
Myles: Exactly. We’ll put this poet on our property, it’ll be like an installation… You define that in the same way that having a certain kind of dog on your estate defines your estate.
Rumpus: Dante’s Inferno is a tour of hell—
Myles: And also he wrote it from the position of being banished. He wrote it in a place that was not his home. And I wrote it in San Diego. I really was very careful to not talk about the academy. Being a professor, I felt like, what do I do with this in the narrative of this poet’s life? So I deliberately excluded it. But [San Diego] was the setting that allowed me to go to all these places mentally and as a writer. That seemed really important that I felt banished from my own existence. And so I could write such a book.
Rumpus: What about the hell aspect? In Inferno you write about very trying times in many ways, but it’s also quite wonderful. So I wondered, are you playing with the idea of hell as this hedonistic place—
Rumpus: I also couldn’t help thinking of how queers are supposed to be burning in hell anyway so, you know, this might be what it’s like.
Myles: Yeah, I think we’re always a little bit in hell. It’s a mixture of things, right, it’s sort of all around us. Like how hot New York is in the summer. Or an intense, wonderful, hard, hard relationship could be hell, and you think, I will stay here forever, because I love you. Watching somebody die is hell, but you know you’re in the holiest place you’ve ever been. So I think part of the growing-up idea is learning to love hell.
Which is the occupation of being a writer. Because it’s such an insecure existence. We’re wallpapering existence while we’re in it and trying to make a living doing that.
Rumpus: I love the part where you’re at MoMA with Rene Ricard, looking at an Arthur Dove painting:
“I’m not gay he said with his hands in his pockets. I’m not gay at all, he said. Are you? No, I said. Who would want that. I shook my head. I think it’s horrible. I’m not happy. I’m never happy. I’m sad. I like queer better. We’re queer. This is what we get. We have all these beautiful things. He waved his hand at everything there. These are ours. We stood a moment in Rene’s church.”
To me that touches back on what you’re saying about hell, about the hard and the beautiful being inextricable from each other.
Myles: And queer suffering being an aesthetic statement….What writing is not queer? Literally and metaphorically. Obviously so much of the canon, or what everybody is reading and has always been reading, is queer writing—that’s just what the history of literature is, pretty much. Stein and Wilde and Whitman and Dickinson—we just are the history of literature. Proust, and on and on and on, I’m looking at all these pictures at [the Hide/Seek exhibit at] the National Gallery and I’m like, Really? All these painters were queer? It’s astonishing. Marsden Hartley? And Walker Evans? Was Walker Evans queer? I’m not sure but it was a little suggestive and heartbreaking and beautiful.
Rumpus: It makes sense since arts have long provided a sort of haven from the heteronormative timeline that’s imposed upon everyone else. But that’s interesting that you mention all those writers, because the queerness in their work is also sort of sublimated, it’s not that explicit. It’s stuff we know after the fact. It’s coded. When kids read it in high school, they’re not like, “Oh.” They don’t necessarily know until somebody tells them later.
Myles: At UC San Diego they have all these Christian kids from Orange County who didn’t get into Berkeley or UCLA. It was one of the big UCs, but it wasn’t the one you really wanted to go to, so they were just there with their suburban ideas, and when I gave them a piece of writing by Dodie Bellamy, they just were outraged! It was a short novella called “Fat Chance” and it was about an internet romance with a very fat guy, and his fatness was part of the sexuality, and that was the queerness. They found it so repulsive. And I thought, What you guys don’t like is the non-homogeneous sexuality. That’s what queer is. And it really reiterated that first definition of queer, which didn’t mean that you had to be gay, it just mean that your sexuality was non-conventional and you felt it deeply. You bonded with other outcasts.
Rumpus: It’s like your definition of lesbianism in here: “it’s not a thing, it’s just unbridled lust.”
Myles: That was fun to write. I think that the thing that’s so funny and weird about lesbian sexuality is the way that it registers or doesn’t register for people. They just can’t wrap their minds around two women wanting what everybody should be trying to get away from, which is just the fact of being a woman. “Don’t you want to not be a woman?” And I don’t mean become masculine, but it’s like we’re supposed to devalue our female-ness, and you can’t quite get away from the fact that you’re admitting that you actually want and are deeply into it.
I had plenty of sex with men growing up and there was a sense of needing to conform to male desire and who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. There are unique men who actually are really into female sexuality and want to know what women like and enjoy that, but mostly that’s not it. I think being a lesbian is claiming that space as this wild space that you’re deeply interested in. That’s the wilderness you’re staking your claim in. And I think that’s why it’s so hard—you’re often this tiny boat in the ocean with this other woman and if there’s a storm, you know the world is not with you on this choice. So it’s like, Why would you do that? Why would you want to go away from the thing that’s great powerful and valuable?
Rumpus: You expressed some reservation about the identity “lesbian” in Inferno too. “And I was pulling on my clothes. It seemed like the clouds were laughing at me. In their majestic, gleaming beauty. I had always felt kind of tough, but now I was just a faggot. That was it. I felt like a gay man. I didn’t feel any stronger being a lesbian.” It is a complicated word.
Myles: I get it all the time, you know for years. I’ll say something about “that’s because we’re lesbians,” and then a friend will say, “I don’t think of myself that way anymore, I feel more like a man sometimes.” And I’m like, “Well I feel that way too!” Or somebody I know who’s femme, I’ll say something about us as lesbians and she’ll say, “Well, I’ve been dating trans men, so actually I’m a straight woman now.” It’s really interesting, and it’s funny, that then a part of me wants to dig my heels in and say, No, I am a lesbian in fact.
But it’s just like any other lid, it sometimes feels a little bit tight and not right.
Rumpus: Speaking of sex and sexuality, at the end of Inferno you go into very detailed descriptions of various women’s anatomy and sex. At first it seemed almost gaudy, there’s something over the top about it, the sheer amount of detail—
Myles: —It’s meant to be gaudy!
Rumpus:—Right! And there’s this persistence about it that becomes insistent, and it’s like you’re claiming some sort of space, a new space. Can you talk about that section and why you went there?
Myles: Yeah, well there’s a couple of things. One just occurred to me, that there’s this trope in visual art by women and by feminists where everybody has this moment where they do pussies. They do paintings of vaginas or photographs of vaginas or menstrual spots in art school, there’s all this vagina art. And I thought, I have never seen that in writing. I have seen so many men write about women’s bodies and women’s anatomy, but I had never seen a female writer do it like that so I just thought, I’m going to make wallpaper. Pussy wallpaper. Everything I remember—write it until I can write no more. That was my intention.
And I wound up weirdly more influenced by Virgil—there’s one chapter in the Aeneid which is the description of Achilles’ shield, and it’s a pattern narrative. And I sort of thought, that was my shield.
Also it was meant to be the abundance, because I think I had the quintessential first sexual experience that was so bad and so painful and so uncomfortable, and I kind of wanted there to be an explosive flip side to that so it wasn’t the abject narrative where the sad lesbian has a bad time sexually and that’s where we leave her.
Rumpus: Do you want to talk a little bit about [your pit bull] Rosie? In the acknowledgments you thank her for rerouting your existence.
Myles: She could be one of the Virgils of the book, she’s such a presence in there. And in the time that I lived with that dog, she was such a presence in my poetry because she just changed the way I moved through the world, who was in it. She was always in it.
As soon as I got a dog, every time I made a decision that was good for Rosie it was good for me. She brought me to nature in a way. That summer where I was in the Pennsylvania house was actually the summer of finishing Chelsea Girls, and I didn’t get into an artist colony, and I was like oh no, and so I knew that I needed to be someplace beautiful and natural with my dog and that would be the ideal writing space. It became this whole relationship that changed my world.
Rumpus: What do you think about the influence of academia on poetry and vice versa?
Myles: I think it should spur conversation like the art world has, which they call institutional critique. I think as writers we should be criticizing the academy more than we do. I think people see it as a necessary evil and a way to make money. But you know, I think that the values of the academy are not the same values as those of most writers and artists.
The structure of the institution doesn’t serve us. I didn’t get a Ph.D., I don’t know how to talk in academic meetings. The way it was set up in my department [at UCSD] was that most of the teaching of writing was done by adjuncts and there were only a few tenured faculty. Which meant that those of us who were writers who were tenured faculty had so much administrative work because adjuncts can’t do it. It also meant that we had, like, twenty adjuncts who didn’t have any power to vote in the department. Even though there were more undergraduate writing majors than anything else in the literature department, we had less power than anyone else. So we were babysitters.
And they didn’t take us as a serious discipline. I would see these academics, if they had to be on an honors panels where someone submitted a manuscript as an honors thesis, and some academic had to look at poetry, they’d say, “What? I can’t read that.” They would literally sneer at it. And they regarded our grades as inflated. It was such a total class system between us and them. It was their institution, they understood it, they knew how to run it and they weren’t going to let us in. But we were bringing in the undergraduates. The arts were the most popular major! And I think all these writing programs are cash cows.
Rumpus: Chelsea Girls is out of print and I had to pay $30 to get it used. What’s the story with that?
Myles: The guy who ran Black Sparrow was a millionaire, mostly thanks to Charles Bukowski. But I think that what publishing was becoming—when Borders would refer to publishers as “partners”— John Martin, the guy who started it in the 60s, was a great publisher, wonderful to deal with, but he just didn’t want to become that. So he just pulled the plug on it and sold Bukowksi and Paul Bowles and John Fante, who were the big sellers to Ecco, who did their own Black Sparrow imprint. They tried to sell me, Ed Sanders and Andrei Codrescu, but they didn’t buy us, we were the next tier.
It’s a little hard, because I don’t want to be stuck, I don’t want to give the copyright to someone that I’m uncomfortable with. So a number of people have asked to publish it, and what I keep waiting for is a publisher that I’m excited about. That was the plan with this book, but I’m always too weird. With fiction I’ve always had agents who are always like, “Of course you’ll be able to sell this book!” And then people are so weird about my work. With Chelsea Girls it was like, “These stories just kinda crumble, they don’t, you know… arc.” Or, “They kind of deteriorate.” And I was like, Yes! Yes.
I’ve had a few editors in the mainstream who have been interested. They’ll say to me—and this is even in the ’90s when I had published a lot of books—they’d say,”We’ll have to work very closely with you because it’s a first book.” It’s like, you’re kidding. So what I felt time and again is what I’m being told is they’re going to help me fix my work. Fix that bad English. Make those stories pop up at the end.
It’s not worth it to me to work so long on a book and then just let somebody destroy it. So I keep being with good independent publishers and each time I write a book I’ll think, well certainly an editor could get this book as-is. And it comes close sometimes, but generally it’s just their advertising and marketing people who think lesbian and not new, because I’ve had a reputation, I think I’m on this shelf already.
Rumpus: So there’s wariness on both sides.
Myles: Yeah. But my thought continues to be that when there’s a publisher—and you know it could be an independent press—that I feel that I will just always stick with these guys, I’ll publish Chelsea Girls. So it’s tricky, but I’m just being protective.
And my next book is a dog book so there seems to be a lot of interest.
Rumpus: Do tell.
Myles: It purports to be a nonfiction book but it’s actually a huge work of fiction. It’s called My Dog: A Memoir, but it’s going to be Rosie’s far-reaching destinies. Who she was, who she will be, how the dog relates as a kind of cosmology. Cause you know when you have a pet you make up all this shit, right? We have all these jokes about who this really is.
I always thought Rosie was my dad. My dad died when I was eleven, and I thought he would totally want to come back. And she always felt like him. So I just thought, Well, I’ll explore that. I don’t know, it’s still a thing where people get excited so there are several editors who are like, Dog book! But when they see my dog book they might have other thoughts.
Rumpus: One of the first things I fell in love with about Inferno, and found also in Chelsea Girls, is that you’re just like, Fuck the comma, I’m just going to put it in whenever I feel like it. Tell me your feelings about the comma.
Myles: I’m very visual about it. I sort of think of it as a pause, but mostly I feel it kind of ruins the sentence. I read Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America, which is just my favorite book of hers, and she was very clear that the period is the only punctuation worth using. Everything else, it should be in the sentence! If the sentence is a question, it should be in the structure of the sentence.
So I do love to use punctuation in a comic book-y way. When I want it to be loud, I have a loud question mark at the end. I like the pop quality to a question mark, so I only use it when it seems to radiate on that visual level. Commas, I guess I do use commas, but I know, I make copy editors crazy. Also the uppercase/lowercase—part of that was a class thing I was responding to, to not make the titles of things be apart from the flow of the book.
Actually, you know, when I was writing Chelsea Girls, I had a girlfriend and it was the ’70s and we lived in the East Village and we drank a huge amount and it was right at this early, super-8 boom in the East Village, all these films being made, and we wanted to make films. So we’d talk all the time about the films we were going to make. She had a little camera. We were just so broke and so fucked up that it was sort of like the drinking and the talking about the film was the thing we were doing. I think once we made like a three-minute film and we couldn’t even tell when it was stopping and when it was starting and it took us a year to develop it, you know, it just—these were leaps. So someplace in there, the first story I wrote in Chelsea Girls was the story called “Bread and Water,” and I thought, I’m just going to make a film. I’m going to act as if this [story] is a film, I’m going to act like I’m recording and I’m going to just get the sound and the sights, so the punctuation seemed beside the point, the camera’s on. And words will be as we hear words. It’s just a recording, there’s no punctuation because we’re just you know—preserving it in this very old-fashioned way.
Rumpus: There’s a pleasing audacity to it. Which I kind of attribute to your being a poet as well as a prose writer. That in poetry there’s not the pressure to have this immaculate punctuation all the time.
Myles: There’s a lot more freedom extended, yeah. And I do feel that it’s not over yet. The idea that it’s determined that the English language works this way, not that way, and these words can’t be reinvented, that words can’t be rethought. Like “cause.” I’ve written, and I’ve given a talk at CUNY, on the word “cause.” …In the Steinian way, do we need be before cause? And I do, I’ll let the syllables roll, sometimes I want that extra syllable, I’ll say because, but I’m not trying to be kiddish when I say “cause,” I just feel it’s cause, it’s a conjunction, it operates, we’re just saying. But I really had fights with my publisher, this particular publisher [O/R], over that one.
Rumpus: To me it seems like such a central part of the package, I can’t imagine the language all “cleaned up.”
Myles: I know! And still every now and then—I just got a review, and it was a really good review and at the end I felt like—it’s so interesting when somebody’s loving your work and they quote, and as soon as they stop loving your work they sort of refer to these sort of stinky things that occur in the text someplace but they don’t use quotes anymore. And I’m like, What’s she talking about, nouns that don’t connect to antecedents? It felt very classist. I was like, This just doesn’t quite sync here. It was odd. And I thought, that’s interesting.
I think it’s more middle-class than upper-class, these huge class-bound things about the English language and the page and what we must do. Because I’ve noticed in journalism—I tell poets, if you want to have real battle around style, do journalism and try and change the sentence. People who went to good colleges are really afraid that people will think they’re stupid if they tamper with punctuation or spelling or anything like that. It’s like a dignity issue, and it’s really weird and even an implication that You don’t know.
And so I’ve had incredibly condescending— at this point, I kind of don’t know, because I’ve done it my way for so long that if I’m doing journalism I know they’re going to fix things. By and large, they’re not going to let me get away with some stuff, and if they love my writing they will. But mostly I’ll let people put in all the commas they want, I could care less.
Rumpus: You alluded to capitalization too as being a class thing.
Myles: It started with the word “catholic,” where nothing as an ex-Catholic is so much fun as letting catholic be lower case. Or have god be lowercase. Just tiny expressions of belief or disbelief. And the title, that kind of ownership that’s attached to the title of something, for that to vanish, and for it just to be another word in a sea of words, it’s very liberating.
The thing is it’s fiction, so we get to be in utopias of language here, and we get to change things, and I think that’s where the big excitement and the freedom of the palette of the page is.
Rumpus: One more thing is that I love the strikethroughs in section two, which purports to be an extended grant proposal. Ambitious unambitious, who’s asking these questions anyhow, running for president being confusing impressive. Wanting to jam your fist in her like a big cookie.
Myles: I was trying to be sparing with them so they wouldn’t be like this kooky wow joke, but I did want it to be like, how many ways can you say that this is purporting to be a grant application, so we’re looking over the person’s shoulder, I felt like this is a performance of sorts. But it was fun to tweak those little moments.
Rumpus: It creates this kind of delicious sense of impropriety, but then you’ve left it in, so the reader feels in on the secret.
Myles: Yeah, that’s my hope.
Rumpus: My last question is not so much about the book but a larger gay question. The big gay cause now is marriage. What do you think about the politics of that?
Myles: I think that marriage is an institution for everybody. I’m a little bit appalled by the phrase “gay marriage.” Is there marriage or is there not marriage? Are there citizens or are there not citizens? It’s a categorical question that I think is really appalling. Do we have the right to this institution? Why don’t we? I’m an adult. I’m sixty. I pay taxes. I guess I feel that way. And you know, when I was running for president in the ’90s my thing was “Abolish marriage for everybody.” Now what I feel is have it for everybody. The law should just be expanded.
Rumpus: Why do you think that changed for you?
Myles: I think I was just having fun then. It was a radical way to say the same thing. I really do think the thing is, friends should be able to get married. Groups of people should be able to get married, as long as it’s an economic unit. And the church should just get the fuck away from it—they can have their marriages, nobody’s stopping them, but it’s this very legal part of it, it should be any union, any unit should be allowable in the same way that anyone can own a corporation.
Rumpus: One thing that sometimes worries me about the gay marriage movement is that it tends to posit this super “normal” monogamous couple who just wants their own version of a straight family, except gay.
Myles: I think we have deeper problems as queer people in a culture that increasingly prefers norms of all sorts and is totally into homogeny. That’s our deeper issue.
Rumpus: Which is weird in the so-called information age. Theoretically we should have so many more options available to everybody—or at least knowledge thereof. At a younger age.
Myles: But options are now being used as ways to know how to stay away from what you don’t want to be near. You know? And I think that beyond the pie charts of VIDA and all that is, Where is queerness in all this? That’s not even touched on. Or race. Really, these are deeply segregated, deeply heterosexual institutions. … I don’t want to be published by a female press. I don’t want to be published by a gay press. I want my gay work to get into your space.
Photo of Eileen Myles by Leopoldine Core.