The Rumpus Interview with Eileen Myles

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Eileen Myles is a force. A poet, writer, performer, and 1992 write-in presidential candidate, she has authored more than twenty volumes across different genres. To me, she is poetry incarnate. Her work traverses the everyday in a way that coaxes you closer to the divine without you even noticing. As she said at an event at the Los Angeles Central Library this past summer, “Poetry isn’t about anything except going about.”

Aloha/irish trees, Myles’s new poetry record released by Fonograf Editions earlier this year, is a perfect distillation of poetry’s “going about.” In it, Myles weaves through poems with the casual coolness that pervades so much of her work. You can hear as she trips over words, takes sips of water, and tosses pages on the floor. Though her manner may seem cavalier, you can always tell that she’s working; trying to get that one line just right, or repeating a poem completely. Aloha/irish trees is an ode to both casualism and perfectionism, carried out in true Myles fashion.

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The Rumpus: So, the occasion of our conversation is your new poetry record, Aloha/irish trees, put out earlier this year by Fonograf Editions. I’d like to start at the beginning: how did the idea for the record originate, how did you connect with Fonograf, and what was the recording process like?

Eileen Myles: I got an email from Jeff Alessandrelli last year announcing the project and asking if I’d like to do the first record, which seemed cool. I’ve always loved vinyl. I love listening to music that way. It’s like the difference between writing by hand and writing on a computer—if I write a poem by hand it’s in the room, but if I write a poem on the computer I’m in that other space. I’ve been noticing that for twenty years, how computers have changed that process. In the 90s I was briefly living in a loft in New York, and I remember sitting in a space that I thought was really adequate for how I wanted to live. But there I was working on my computer, which meant I wasn’t there literally in the space. I didn’t have a turntable for awhile and then I got one again. There’s something so appealing about waking up in the morning, making coffee, and putting a record on. Everything’s in the room together in this very visceral way. So when Jeff proposed that we do a record I was really excited. Then the question was recording. But happily at Naropa University there’s something called the Harry Smith house—it’s a little house on the Naropa campus—which Ambrose Bye uses to record everyone all summer. I had gone into that little house the summer before and recorded a shitload of poems, new and old, and did it in a really messy fashion. I was reading and throwing the pages down, and Ambrose was doing the sound stuff, and Anne Waldman, who I’ve known forever, was there. At one point she dashed into the recording room to tell me to be quieter about the pages because it messes with the recording quality. I’ve done a bunch of recording and people are kind of maniacal about hearing the pages turning. That always struck me as silly because I remember in the 60s when you heard people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you always would hear the frets and all these sounds in the studio. It was this exciting postmodern gesture. So I thought, even when Anne was speaking, nah, I like these sounds. It was fun to give them all this stuff and decide we were gonna use all the messiness of it.

Rumpus: Right. And it sounded like it was recorded in one take, except for some of “Western Poem” and of course all of “irish trees.” I was instantly struck by how casualist it is. Even in the first poem you trip up and then just start over. It’s exciting to hear that, especially on vinyl which is such a sacred format. It’s sort of this weird fuck-you.

Myles: Yeah, we were into being able to hear that struggle. I actually haven’t listened to it since it’s been on vinyl. I have a hard time reading interviews or listening to recordings. It’s not that I don’t like my own voice—I like using it live, I like talking, I like public discourse. But I never want to listen to recordings. I had to listen to it when we were initially putting it together, to say what we would and wouldn’t use. I remember thinking that it wasn’t the best reading. I read kind of fast, I messed up a bit. The whole thing is immensely cavalier, so the question is to what extent do people enjoy that. I think it brings up all sorts of issues in the literary or poetry world in terms of how we experience reading or recording and what we think is right or desirable, or interesting or cool or avant-garde.

Rumpus: Yeah, I think about that a lot, a sort of worth in making mistakes. It’s such an inevitable and valuable act. But generally we’re taught to read in a very specific way so as to avoid it. You tend to mess up quite a bit when performing live and always seem totally unperturbed by it. I think that’s really the way to go about it, to make it part of the performance.

Myles: I think a lot of the thing about messing up is what you do with it, how you proceed. The thing is if you mess up you can also stop in the middle of the reading and talk about what you’re reading. Interruption is possible by accident and also possible deliberately.

Rumpus: Was there a certain point when you realized that was an okay thing to do?

Myles: I guess maybe in 1997 I did a very expansive tour for School of Fish. Oh, and I went on the first Sister Spit tour in 96. We were on the road for a month, doing a show almost every night. That really changed what performing was for me. It became one state. Theater also used to have this effect on me. If I was doing anything repertory then I always think of that time as having a circus tent over it. Like it’s an altered time. Say when I used to work at the Poetry Project, when we’d have a benefit coming up, the whole ramp up to the benefit was this altered state. That can sort of be your life. When that happens, dropping things on stage is as normal as dropping things in your apartment.

Rumpus: Right. That also ties into an anxiety people have about being a “poet.” It can be an identity or profession or it can just be another state.

Myles: If you throw out the vocation word, or the occupation word, it’s like, how are you occupying your time? I mean in your existence, because that’s the place where you write the poems. You don’t write them outside of your existence, you write them inside. So everything that’s there is available. It’s like, I don’t know why I always think of the word guy—in German, there’s a word der bub, and it just means the guy. When I think about epics like Beowulf and The Odyssey, all those long-form poems, they’re basically just the adventures of this guy. If we enter that with gender in mind, which as women we must, and empty it and claim it and occupy it however we choose, you’re just this person. The whole history of poetry and sagas and narration are just the tales of people. Recently I was talking to Fanny Howe about War and Peace, and she was talking about how great it is, but she was like ugh but I hate the war parts. What I find very interesting about the war parts is they’re just about people messing up. It’s about how empty the occupation of war is. It’s not these great noble thoughts and deeds and acts of bravery, though those things do happen as well as when they occur domestically. But war is mostly just these spaced out dudes prancing around on their horses without a clue as to what they’re doing, while other people go look how noble he is. But nobody really knows what war is. Because in a way there is no such thing, and there’s no such thing as history, or any of it, except for how we’re spending our moments in this sort of infinitude we call living. To capture that as poetry, and to call that your occupation, is to sort of reify your life.

Rumpus: That’s interesting that there’s this sort of ungendering or regendering of “the guy.” The other day I saw that you tweeted “I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about and it’s not always feminism.” It was funny to read that as I was finishing up my questions for you, because I wanted to ask you about something along those lines. Not about feminism or the feminism in your work, but about those moments when it slips away. Women writers are always being prodded about their “feminist” work. I’ve noticed that in some interviews you’ve given. It’s as if a woman writer can’t be “the guy,” or can’t even go about, without being labeled a feminist.

Myles: Right right right. It’s like of course I always want to kick the frame in some way. But that’s still not the only or the most interesting thing I do. Every time that question begins, every time you’re corralled with the other women, it becomes more about that corralling, and more about the person who decided to make the book or the event or do the interview. It’s exactly what we know—men are allowed to carry on, and women are always asked how they carry on as women.

Rumpus: I’ve heard you talk a bit about that in relation to the work itself. Like if you write something funny, someone else tries to make a joke on your joke. Women artists are always being one upped and dumbed down, when we’re just trying to make our work.

Myles: Exactly. If you try to use the materials of your life as a female, everyone’s putting arrows on it and saying there, that’s feminism. Look, she mentioned her period, you know, as opposed to going to work like a man might be. And the more you try to naturalize it, the more you might get pointed out as essentializing. There’s a whole other layer of this now too. Like, when I wrote about Hillary, I was really responding to language. There were all these women who were saying, “I’m not interested in voting for someone just because she has a vagina.” I just wanted to take the word back and be like, “I’m very interested in the fact that she has a vagina!” And then that got captured as transphobic, which is another layer of it. I think I was unwittingly being brought into an entitlement about who gets to say who is female today, when it’s a much more complex and inclusive field. People with vaginas are welcome; people without vaginas are welcome. And I’m not setting up the rules by saying who’s welcome. I was talking with someone last night about something they saw on Facebook—some woman shared a post by a guy, this big long speech about how down he is with women being themselves. And this woman had shared it saying what a great guy he is for feeling that way. And this person last night was like what a gross guy, and how gross that she was grateful. There’s so many layers. So even as I’m saying this, about how we as women should be included, I conceivably can be considered an entitled vagina-essential female. Just the act of talking and using language always gives someone else the capacity to point at the text and say that’s exclusivity. It’s an endlessly complicated discourse.

Rumpus: I see so many posts like that, where men label themselves as feminists in search of some sort of gratitude or praise. In a way, it’s another type of pointing-out, though obviously very different. It goes back to the idea of “carrying on” which I guess is tougher for women to do unquestioned. I bristle when my own identity is pointed out in that way, or even in a more casual way.

Myles: I think we can replace gender with time and place all the time. Instead of saying how are you today ladies we can say how are you today. Pronouns still work. The whole dilemma of address is sort of not a dilemma if we state where and when and what we are. That’s something we can agree on that doesn’t need to other anybody.

Rumpus: I think that’s so pertinent, especially now, with so many young people identifying as nonbinary or agender. Of course gender is temporal, and always has been, but I think we’re really starting to figure that out in a serious and sort of mainstream way.

Myles: Yeah, yeah. Each day you start with a bunch of perceptions. And those are always given to people instead of given to you. And they’re yours, you know, and they’re always shifting. It’s very interesting to think of the world we’re going into with the youngest people stating who they are.

Rumpus: It’s very exciting. All these super young people engaging in this discourse that they’ve made for themselves. What’s so crazy is that most of them haven’t read the theory—it’s just in the culture. Maybe we have social media to thank in part for that. I’ve been wondering, because you’re so active on social media, especially Instagram, if it’s influenced your writing practice at all.

Myles: Yeah, although I don’t and couldn’t know in which way. Sometimes I wonder if I’m writing less because I’m on these platforms. Probably the answer is yes. I sort of get off on it in the way I get off on poems. Now I notice the poems seem to rise up more when they’re big ones or if I’m on a plane or somewhere without Internet. It’s an attrition of certain kinds of writing. I do find that I am less occupied in my own writing than I’d like to be, because I have this new place to go. But I don’t think that’s the problem; I think the problem is figuring out new ways to get to the place where I want to go.

Rumpus: Maybe it’s a cop-out for me, but I find sometimes I tweet or post on Instagram and decide that’s a poem. It starts and ends there.

Myles: Yeah, that’s a whole side of it; that’s exactly how I feel. That’s something I think about in relation to open mics, or something even more open than that. The open mic gives you an opportunity to get up and read your absolute newest poem. I remember, years ago, being in some poetry competition event that was organized by very disparate poetry organizations—maybe the Academy of American Poets and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I was on the Nuyorican team. I really didn’t have much to do with that scene but I’d been in and out of it since the early 70s so it made sense. One of the competitions was to improv a poem right at the mic, doing that thing that stand-ups do, where you give them a word and they riff on it. So I got up and did my thing. In its kind of stupidity, it wasn’t very good. I felt very embarrassed by it, and didn’t really know where I was going with it, up there in front of all those people. I guess weirdly I’m doing that right now with you. But I’m not claiming this as poetry. That claim was what I felt uncomfortable with. The thing that’s so wonderful about social media is feeling safe in this claim that’s x number of syllables. And you’re always coming from behind, out of invisibility into visibility, on your own terms. That seems to me to be an incredible gift for a writer. That is what we do all the time, except now it’s in tiny doses. I like being present as a poet in that way.

Rumpus: It’s funny that you use the word “safe”—social media makes me feel anything but. It’s like I forget that anyone can see anything I put out there. When I really think about it I want to crawl out of my skin.

Myles: Yeah, you play chicken with your own vulnerability. If I’m posting about something I’m going through personally, it’s like, to what extent do I want anyone to know what I’m feeling? That’s another interesting challenge. But it does lead people to our work. Some people are definitely reading my work because of my Instagram feed or my Twitter feed.

Rumpus: That’s great. That must feel really weird, especially at this point in your career. To suddenly have this second world where people see you there first, rather than at a reading or on the page.

Myles: Yeah, absolutely. Likewise with Transparent, people who watch it will come to a reading without having known my work aside from the show. I love it, ‘cause I grew up loving TV, and I’ve even made the joke in some book someplace that I’m a TV poet. And I thought “how weird” because now I am.

Rumpus: Yeah, that’s wild. You were talking earlier about that improv show. I’ve seen you read so many times and I always think of your style as a sort of stand-up. How do you consider the relationship between poetry and comedy?

Myles: The thing that’s mysterious about comedy is you don’t really know what will make other people laugh. From reading to reading to reading you know you’ll read the same poem, and know that people always laugh at this one part. So you’re reading, and you start to slow down for it, but then they laugh over there instead. When I’m writing a poem I’m often really excited because I think it’s funny. But it’s not my goal, which is why it’s poetry and not comedy. I always know it’s a poem, but I don’t always know if it’s funny. But interestingly, of course, much comedy is working that way now too. They’re up there differently and longer and stranger. Comedy, just like poetry, always has to refresh itself for these sorts of departures.

Rumpus: Yeah, comedy has gotten very strange in that way. A lot of storytelling. That brings to mind something you said in conversation with Maggie Nelson at the Los Angeles Public Library, about how you’re putting together a “pathetic anthology.” The whole point of so much comedy is to present oneself as this pathetic figure, a jester. Sometimes poetry is like that, too.

Myles: Yes, exactly. And I think in America we have very little patience for the pathetic. But even the root word, path, has such great roots. It’s art. There’s lots of gender policing in it too, of course. What we consider pathetic as inappropriately gendered people.

Rumpus: Right. Women comedians aren’t allowed that space to be pathetic in the same way as their male counterparts. Women poets, too, perhaps to a lesser extent.

Myles: Yeah, and that’s exactly my intention and my hope, to hold that space and to be female and be pathetic and to be masochistic and be abject. To let that be my power.

Rumpus: Do you think of Aloha/irish trees as a selected works?

Myles: In a kind of fun way, because it basically is the collected or the uncollected. It’s all poems that aren’t in I Must Be Living Twice, with one accidental exception. I think we actually recorded it before that collection came out. But I knew what was in the book, so I was definitely deliberating. Yeah, it is a selected. It feels like outtakes.

Rumpus: Outtakes. Again, that’s such a funny thing to commit to vinyl.

Myles: Yeah, it’s almost like doing your basement tapes before the actual album. Like pirating yourself. I did an audiobook of Chelsea Girls, which was an amazing experience. Really on the other end of the spectrum. They’re slower to make audiobooks of books of poetry, which I think is really a mistake.

Rumpus: It really is. I feel like audiobooks of poetry make more sense—that oral tradition. I keep thinking about this casualist mode in which Aloha operates, and all of your work, in a way. I’ve always wondered what your revision process looks like.

Myles: I edit quite a lot. Sometimes a poem comes out pretty whole or pretty good, but it’s almost never that that’s the poem. I don’t really add a lot. I usually take away a lot. I change articles and tenses, get rid of adjectives. I tend to do less. Sometimes the poem starts later or ends earlier. Since part of the work itself is distraction, I try not to let it be too distracted. I try to make it be a clear drive. I’m really concerned about the duration of the reading, and for there to be room for distraction. I don’t assume that someone is listening to every word that I say, or reading every word. That’s why I don’t believe in using a lot of adjectives, because I believe people will put their own in.

Rumpus: Yeah, I was thinking about that when I was listening to the record. “Basic August” is like twelve minutes long, and I noticed I was drifting in and out of it and felt kind of guilty. It’s interesting that you consciously give the reader that allowance to tune in and out. It’s almost like the more volume there is, the more room there is for absence.

Myles: So many poems are the length they are because of my life at the time and how unmanageable it felt. I wanted to make something a reflection of it while I was living in it so I could like the idea of living in it and feel lightened in a way. That poem was what August felt like that year. It was such a full and turgid feeling year. One of the things I added to that poem—it was such a hot summer, and I remember thinking, oh I can just add some trees. So I went back and added some trees and shade. A poem can be like a landscape. You can make it more habitable.

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Author photograph © Jack Rudin.


Zoe Tambling is a poet, perfumer, and editor living in Los Angeles. More from this author →