Stacy Szymaszek: We recently had a brief conversation in the Poetry Project’s office about Leslie Scalapino, where I learned you were friends. In honor of Leslie, I thought we could begin with her in our interview. As a response to the Gulf War, she sent her writing to newspapers she thought would publish her, but none of them would – this grew into her book Front Matter, Dead Souls. At around the same time (1991) you declared your candidacy for president, and wrote your brilliant “Dear Citizen” letters. Through both of these actions you and Leslie refuse poetry as an outside category, and demonstrate that poetry is public discourse or “speaking what is real” (LS). Were you and Leslie corresponding about what you were each working on during this time?
What I want to get at is, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reception of poets in the United States and in my experience when I am asked what I do by people other than poets it can often put a damper on the conversation. A couple of times people have misheard and thought I worked at the Poultry Project, you know, a project for chickens makes more sense! One of the great things I, and so many others, got from you is that I needed to be the hero of my own life, and it takes a healthy ego to sustain that – but then we come up against a deficit in the culture’s education or understanding of poetry – what is your experience of those moments of potential disconnect. Is this where teaching comes in? Formally, but also informally, as in, just taking the opportunity to speak up?
Eileen Myles: That’s funny. My response to the Poetry Project was more that it was the pottery project, which also smeared to potty. I like the pottery project – I did think we should focus more on making things, spinning stuff, getting our hands dirty with poetry. I interviewed Leslie for a piece I wrote about her for the village voice at the same time I was running for President. It was a problem while I was running – whether to do other kinds of work. Does a presidential candidate do journalism. Even shopping for groceries felt strange. It was like Sabbath. Every activity became under the regime of being candidate rather than poet. I feel like that was the territory Leslie and I shared and I think some of it sprouted from Buddhism. If the world at center is empty, without meaning how do we proceed in the activities of our lives and how does the way we view our lives or view ourselves in it alter our perception of poetry and what the poet’s job might be. I think Leslie was open to outlandish proposals in that regard though part of the miracle of her was the lack of distinction between the outlandish and the conventional. I think she attacked the conventional by being quietly outlandish whether she knew it or not. I always wondered what she knew. As a poet I am interested in distributing myself differently as a worker. When I was young it was simply wanting to be only a poet – after all I had chosen what I wanted to do with my life – write poetry, so why should I bother with anything else. Which lead to the poverty project. I remember being asked when I was younger why I wasn’t aspiring to more middle class jobs – you know climbing up the rungs of art magazines or getting an mfa. Anything not to be a poor poet bum on the lower east side, doing any job, tossing newspapers off a truck to newsstands with a bunch of dykes (which was fun) but the point being that for years I did any job – because any job didn’t interfere with my idea of myself as a poet, whereas a middle class job would have engaged a part of my mind in a disturbing way. Squatted therein and proceeding to take more and more. When I got a little older I started understanding the concept of doing something else as a poet – being a journalist, a performance artist and probably the hardest – being the director of the polity project – having to work all those other people, those poets. I started to conceive of being a poet as an action that could infuse and inform other activities. Increasingly being maybe not “moral” in the world but as a responsible adult letting how I conducted myself in public spheres, whether I “spoke up” or not be a kind of radical question. Leslie thought her own thinking belonged in broader social spheres than just the sphere of poetry. If I critique the poetry world in any persistent way it’s asking it – and myself why I’m not being generous. If how I frame language, how I distribute consciousness is “poetic” ie informed by the history of poetry why do I want to incarcerate that thinking labor in the poetry world. Why am I obedient to the increasingly loud silent cultural command that we all stay in our zones and not think anyone else would be interested in hearing, reading, engaging these same thoughts too. Are poets really doing thinking just for themselves. Our labor, our critique of language is enormously valuable to the world. I sincerely believe it. The most exhilarating thing I heard about lately is a journal called The Lamp which critiques the media, which is about media literacy and it conducts workshops in the city teaching kids media literacy. So they can understand the messages of the culture. The elitism that informs the poetry world is enraging to me. That no one cares about poetry except us chickens is another was of saying us chickens are in a rareified librarian specialist world. Something without tone. I mean I can imagine this thought being interpreted as advocating for a kind of simplicity in poetry – like let’s have a big slam of some kind. I’m not. See that’s where I admired Leslie’s project infinitely. She really thought newspapers should print her pieces. She believed. I’m for escalating belief as a factor in our work. To move to the side a bit I’m so frustrated to have not seen the kids are all right – the movie in which Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian parents. I picked up a copy of the daily news at the airport and there was an immensely homophobic piece by Andrea Peyser about how the kids are so not alright with gay parents. To simply act as if we belong, as poets, as queers is to invite an enormous response. But if you stayed in the comfy confines of queer culture, academic, social or otherwise you’d never know how, well, for instance, unsafe you are. But you know Andrea Peyser is more unsafe than me because she thinks I want to hurt her children. I don’t. Poetry is to some extent about testing the world, palping it. It’s not so much am I here, as are you. What are you. What am I. It’s a Buddhist question and it comes out of interaction and breathing and acting as if you are here.
SS: “Acting as if you are here” is a great mantra, and deeply important to maintain the belief that our critique of language or the status quo, is valuable to the world. I’m reading Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, which is just out with OR Books. You write a lot about jobs you’ve had and describe coming upon St. Mark’s Church because of an assignment you had “to go to each building on the map that was still standing… and get into their files.” I love that your first encounter with the place was as a researcher of a historical site, and while you were there you saw publicity for the potency project. As kind of a side note, I’m assuming as Director, you heard the criticism that the Project is elitist, but it seems to me that people who say that are responding to something other than class – what do you think? But then you talk about a community of artists in “economic drag”. Are poets supposed to be poor even if some of us are not? Does this mean that the poor have access to some types of beauty that the upper class doesn’t?
EM: Well I think everything is class especially in poetry. The first criticisms of the p. project I heard was that it was a place – like “our scene” had a place and the poets who made this comment I think were assuming their poetry was more egalitarian because it instead made its own home in “the world”, or was studied in college so it was an early version of the mainstream critiquing something that seems coterie as separatist whereas everything else is theirs, hence unmarked, normal, ie classless. What seemed like the dominant poetry world in the 70s weirdly professed to feel rejected by this smaller “elitist” world that was not striving to get into the Norton anthology or whatever. Later it was feminists referring to that white boys scene at the church. And it was that, for sure. Only many of the feminists themselves wrote a more middle class egalitarian bourgeoise verse. Elitism is a blurry charge since it seems to be used to describe categories that don’t include me, whoever I am. I remember when Allen died and I was at some event at NYU and I mentioned the event beforehand to an extremely well known poet of the other, mainstream caste. He in his presentation generously referred to the event, though making the time frame of it be “all day” and kind of eye rolling instead of the specific time I gave him. I realized that a different sense of time was key in what was different or other to him. I suppose I would describe his conventional sense of time and his charge that ours was endless and all over the map as elitist. The planes have a schedule after all. When did you agree to leave, begin, whatever? How can I control. I think having left wing politics is supposed to be elitist now, in relation to “the real america,” something we hear get thrown around all the time. “Poor” is poetry’s real America, it’s this conceit for many poets that defines their authenticity. Being a little bit unable, ungluttonous, unambitious holds the spot for a lot of poets of all classes. Maybe booze and books are the only things it’s cool to admit to wanting a lot of. There are things that poets like to get like awards and big publishing deals but it’s supposed to come to you sort of accidentally or naturally, because aspiring or angling is a mark of not being really of the poet’s class. I think it’s this rift in America between commerce and art, the thing that famously tore Hart Crane apart – or that’s the story. Being an artist in America is not an adult profession. Right up there with being queer in terms of never growing up. But somehow those adult things are supposed to come your way and I think class ultimately becomes a set of manners that enables you to be a worthy recipient of these accidental gifts. The work you did mustn’t show. You did it for the team somehow, not for yourself. It sounds like a system that would work best for a man. Probably is. Should we talk about poetry?
SS: We should. I saw you riding your bike down 2nd Ave. once and you were smiling, which caused me to smile too. I feel on the verge of coming across very dorky but your work gives the reader your presence, and just as importantly opens up the door for one’s own presence. I most often get a sense of elation when I read your poems and I think part of this is because you reorder things into a “healthy chaos” – a Joseph Beuys phrase. There is not a denial of pain, death, hard times, in your work, that’s for sure. Do you think you are doing something formally that defines pleasure as presence?
EM: That’s such a good question. And one I’m honored to answer. Because I’d like it to be true. Joseph Beuys is such a good person to be thinking about – always. When I landed in the poetry world in the 70s there was a sense that a person could become an institution and Beuys was an example of that and so was Andy Warhol. Gertrude Stein was I suppose. Susan Sontag was definitely some kind of institution. So was Allen. I mean it was a men’s idea and so I’m not exactly sure how it truly works for women (we don’t generally see women getting crucified either – something’s always wrong for women in terms of “big” ideas…) but I was excited by it for sure. It was cooler than famous. I think there was this idea that if your work was anchored firmly in a specific art practice and also wassort of a medium to begin to do other things with – make peace and question institutionality in the case of Beuys then you became a free individual and free of being an individual across the board. And one could free others. Get off the hook. One became a star or a citizen, just something other than being the thing you initially set to do. I suppose it was on the cusp of realizing that there could be a corporate self. A self that was more of a franchise than a person. Joy Division for instance. Later Martha Stewart. If I think of a couple of people from my generation say Charles Bernstein and Bob Holman you don’t think of them specifically as poet poets but guys with a mission of some sort. So in answer to your question yes I think I’m doing that too and you could read my work and my efforts as endlessly branding Eileen Myles but I’m thinking my brand is fairly transparent rather than thick. I think my “I” which I felt much pressure to dump over the years is a generalist “I,” no one in particular in a way almost the more specific I get and I think I write a poem every time I find a new way into that space where the specific me sees something else or is anyone. I like it when there’s less of me and something’s still looking. I think human pain is more complex than just being just a bad performance. It happens in an actual room and you’re building that room when you’re building the poem – a place to have the feeling in and ideally when you’re done someone else could enter it too. Sharing your pain – the how of it – I mean pleasure’s pain too right. People clench their teeth on the roller coaster because how can this be happening to me. And what if they are the last – if the thing falls apart. For experience to feel true it’s got to feel a little final. It has to have that feeling at the end, that something’s been accomplished and we never do that work alone. You leave it for someone else to read it, right. Though sometimes that someone else is you.
SS: To pick up a bit from something you said in response to the first question, would you describe your engagement with Buddhism, and how/if it alters your perception of poetry.
EM: Well I sure got excited at Naropa when I realized this was what they were all about. Of course so much of the practice we know as poets is just co-terminus w Buddhism. The impact of John Cage is a Buddhist impact. But Gertrude Stein is looking at a world in which everything is moving too. That’s not a western thought. But it’s such a piece of America, always has been, right? Once a catholic lets the water out of the tub there’s a Buddhist sitting there. I think. I don’t know how everyone isn’t a Buddhist except that everyone doesn’t have such a drive to believe and Buddhism perfectly refuses that desire so it’s this endless cartoon. I mean there’s Leslie again. Buddhism was such a joint of her work. Everything hinged on it if it hinged on anything at all. When poetry failed me as a commodity there was Buddhism to tell us that everything failed right away and if one liked writing poems you could write about that failure. Again that sounds like Stein cause poetry does. But so does Buddhism.
Eileen Myles photographed by Viktoria Krane.