Reading a poem by Eileen Myles makes you move so quickly over the page that it is easy to lose your bearings. This is true especially of her more recent poems, many of which restrict each line to two or three words, such as her new poem “My Devil,” which begins: “before the sky/ opens &/ I drop my/ tiny ladder/ I will inhabit/ the minds/ of dogs.” Another, titled “The Weather,” closes with: “Every woman your/ age/ cute. Every woman/ my age/ wounded &/ glisten.”
Over coffee in New York City, where Myles lives, I tell her that this quick movement is one of my favorite aspects of her work, that it makes the poems powerful, that I feel like I am taking a risk by reading them. “The idea is that I don’t give a shit, in a way,” Myles says. “The words don’t matter. Fuck the words.” She smiles.
We are meeting to talk about Myles’s latest book, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975–2014, due out September 29 from Ecco. It feels a bit like a dirty thrill to hear a poet say that “the words don’t matter,” a sentiment antithetical to the genre in the academy and in publishing. Myles delivers that thrill, and it’s not surprising considering that her readership exists largely outside of the mainstream; reviewers frequently use the expressions cult following and underground icon in connection with her name.
Born in Massachusetts in 1949, Myles moved to New York in 1974, committed to a life of poetry. She spent years studying and teaching at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, a hub of classes and readings where she met and became friends with many of the most important New York poets of the latter half of the 20th century. Myles ran as an “openly female” candidate for the U.S. presidency in 1991–92, coedited 1995’s influential The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, and published roughly 20 books with smaller presses—several of them poetry, but also art criticism, travel writing, essays, and novels. Despite her dedication to poetry and numerous fans, mainstream success has eluded her.
Myles is decidedly not mainstream. Facets of her life, such as her identity as a lesbian from a working-class background, entwine with her aesthetics in powerful ways. She says that she didn’t begin to make her living as a writer until she was in her 40s, and she didn’t truly find her audience until she met and toured with the queer-feminist performance poetry collective Sister Spit in the 1990s.
Yet over the years, Myles has become a widely celebrated poet, with her influence especially palpable among a younger generation of writers. I Must Be Living Twice highlights her exceptional and ongoing career, beginning with selections from 1978’s The Irony of the Leash and moving on through new work, with many of the earlier poems excerpted from out-of-print or difficult to find books. It’s a hefty collection (“I always thought I would have a tiny selected,” Myles says, “but the books piled up”), yet one in which every poem is valuable for its own merits and for its demonstration of her evolving ideas.
There are recurrences, of course: lovers and desire, poverty, New York City and California, poetry and art, cigarettes, America. But as important as these themes are, the selected poems make obvious that it’s the broader, weirder thinking that emerges from these specifics. “I’m just a ragpicker, I’m just finding stuff as I go,” Myles says.
The questions that drive the poems, then, are less about the exact details of Myles’s life—she is often read, for better or worse, as an autobiographical poet—and more about trying to get away from that life in order to open up the poem and allow new connections to rise up. “There’s nothing special about me, and I’ve tried to make that my specialty,” she explains. “I’ve swept away what’s unique about me to make it a little more translucent or transparent, to let you in.”
In one of her most well-known poems, “An American Poem,” from 1991’s Not Me, she adopts a sort of hybridized persona: Myles as a Kennedy. It begins, “I was born in Boston in/ 1949. I never wanted/ this fact to be known, in/ fact I’ve spent the better/ half of my adult life/ trying to sweep my early/ years under the carpet.” The poem progresses through the peculiar humor that emerges when Myles’s biography is blended with the Kennedy mythos, the lines conversational, even chatty. “Every woman in my/ family looks like/ a dyke but it’s really/ stepping off the flag/ when you become one.” And then, powerfully, it reckons with the politics of its day, with the AIDS epidemic and homelessness, to announce “I am not/ alone tonight because/ we are all Kennedys./ And I am your President.” It’s all there— Myles and not-Myles, the individual and America, the politics and the aesthetics—and in that transparency she desires, the sweeping away of what is particular about Myles, there is room for all of us readers as well.
The release party for I Must Be Living Twice will be held at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the location where Myles participated in those early workshops with such writers as Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and Paul Violi, and where she served as artistic director from 1984 to 1986. It is still a place where poets from different generations gather to share and grow, a place that she describes as home. It’s a perfect location for this release both because of its personal importance to Myles (and her importance to its own development) and because of its role within the poetry community. Just as she arrived at St. Mark’s in the 1970s, young poets still arrive at St. Mark’s today, and they might find her there. “It’s still completely unique,” she says. “It’s always looking for what’s moving.”
The work of Myles would be a fine place to find what’s moving in poetry today; I Must Be Living Twice, especially, would be a fantastic introduction. Clarifying what “the words don’t matter” means, Myles describes the experience of running toward a train that you risk missing while carrying too many bags—when the right opportunity presents itself, you just have to drop some things if you’re going to keep up. This is the
urgency that one feels when reading I Must Be Living Twice, whether it’s the urgency of a young, broke, unknown poet chasing a train that no one else can see, or of a poet, nearly four decades later, finally being recognized for her talents.
“To be a poet, it’s a challenge to do it in poverty, to do it in wealth,” Myles says. “To do it in the academy, to do it in a relationship where you’re happy. Everything changes the game. To do it in the awkward state of love, despair, dying. You just have to work it.”
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande) and the curator of Body Forms: Queerness and the Essay (Essay Press).