The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue
Poetry In Conversation

EILEEN MYLES and Noel Black

This interview with Eileen Myles is a follow-up to conversations we had during Eileen's visit to Colorado Springs to read at Colorado College in February 2013. -- NB

Noel Black (Rail): I want to start off by going back to your 2011 essay “Being Female” at in which you talk about the enormous courage and love you have to muster every time you sit down to write because our culture—and our literary culture in particular—still doesn’t value women’s voices. That essay was sparked by the VIDA graphs that showed the very real and disproportionate number of men being published/reviewed in various reputable publications like the NYT Book Review, Harper’s etc.  You also wrote that this is least true in poetry, “But despite the fact that there are more females in the poetry world, more females writing their accounts somehow only a fraction of them are able to bob to top of the heap. So the poetry world is in effect performing a kind of affirmative action for men by giving their work a big push ahead, celebrating men’s books at a much higher ratio to the amount and quality of work actually being produced.” This is a troubling fact, particularly where the avant-garde in one of its current incarnations is concerned. I recently went through Against Expression, the 2011 anthology of conceptual writing and found that out of a total of 112 poets/writers (depending on how you count collectives), 24 are women and 87 are men. Similarly, in both of Dworkin and Goldmsmith’s introductions combined, they mention a total of approximately 85 male conceptualist artists/writers and 11 women. In 2012 Les Figues put out I’ll Drown My Book, an anthology of only women conceptualist writers, which in the culture of anothology-as-canon-as-career will almost certainly end up as a sidecar to the Dworkin/Goldsmith anthology. I can’t help but think how much more interesting it would’ve been at this point in history if I’ll Drown My Book had come out first and just been labeled “an anthology of conceptual writing” and had been still been 100% women without any qualifiers whatsoever. I mean, why the fuck not? But it begs the rhetorically loaded question (to borrow and rephrase the title of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”): Why are there so few “great” women poets, or why do women have to have a separately labeled anthology, even if it is self-organized? Why do you think these kind of deeply gendered divisions are still happening in poetry of all places, particularly under the avant-everything poetry tent, and especially at a time when gender and sexuality have been so broadly questioned, particularly among intellectuals. In other words, if we’re so post-feminist, why do there still need to be his and hers anthologies? 

Eileen Myles: It’s a really good question. I think while female writers and editors are observing exactly what you are observing – that the proportions are bad – I don’t think anyone’s truly interested in waiting for the world to get it right in male editors’ eyes. I myself would always rather do a female majority publication so that men can be included in a female literary vista, and feel that, and we can have that option of looking to see which men are saying something that resonates with the work that needs to be put out publicly by us. So I think I’ll Drown My Book needed a few men. Me, for example. I’m glad they did their book but I think it comes from an early-in-a-career spot which is always so serious — where someone’s making her mark and circling around and looking at how she will shape a heap of women — that is what at some point most eminently matters. It’s not a body (bawdy) book which is I think a mistake women’s anthologies often make. Since we’re always being essentialized it’s like when we rule the world we walk out the door just wearing our heads. It’s kind of boring. Men never leave their dicks behind. When Vanessa showed me their book at AWP a couple of years ago she said:  Here it is. Everyone and everything. I pointed out that I (for example) wasn’t in the book and she went into a disquisition on “school” suggesting that I in her mind was associated with the New York School and that in arranging the book she did not include people who had affiliated so strongly (in her mind) with one school or another. I pointed out that Rae was certainly a language poet and that Bernadette was affiliated even more than me with New York. Vanessa then said that there were exceptions.  Which meant that the group’s editing process was just the typical mix of loves, opportunities, swaps and wishes. Dodie Bellamy I even heard wasn’t going to be included for instance. I don’t know.  To make an anthology is to both push something away phobically and same time doggedly scale one’s own mound of ambition. If Kenny and Craig really wanted some women they would have chosen a female co-editor. But that’s not what they meant.

Rail: The avant-garde/post-avant/whatever also seems to keep replaying a particular kind of othering in which Brand X of “pure”/Platonic academic new NEWness gets pitted against the subversive narrativity of previously marginalized voices. This was true at the moment that Language poetry came about. As Robert Gluck wrote in “Long Note on New Narrative” at “If I could have become a Language poet I would have; I craved the formalist fireworks, a purity that invented its own tenets. On the snowy mountain-top of progressive formalism, from the highest high road of modernist achievement, there was plenty of contempt heaped on less rigorous endeavor.... Meanwhile, gay identity was also in its heroic period—it had not yet settled into just another nationalism and it was new enough to know its own constructedness.... We had to talk about it. Bruce [Boone] and I turned to each other to see if we could come up with a better representation—not in order to satisfy movement pieties or to be political, but in order to be. We (eventually we were gay, lesbian, and working class writers) could not let narration go.” Somehow you’ve managed to dodge or duck a lot of this culture in your life as a poet though many have claimed you or lumped you in as New York School or lesbian, New Narrative, as your poems range widely and wildly through language. I wonder if you’ve deliberately resisted these kinds of othering dichotomies, and do you see a parallel where gender is concerned?

Myles: The problem with othering dichotomies is that no matter how skillful you do deploy your resistance to them the desire to “be” as Bob puts it is very real, and people who don’t see themselves as other and think of their relationship to literature and writing as primary or formalist or maybe don’t even think of it that way but anyhow do play and affiliate that way nonetheless don’t need to “be.” They are monolithically plural and their worldview is uncontested so they can get on to the more important things like forming an avant-garde without all that social challenge at their heels. Who are you, who-who. No one’s asking that inside or out. Personally I just think I’ve been more interested (formally) in how the poem can also seed essays and novels and a multitude of genres and even the same sort of self beat can be deployed in a maddening variety of ways so that the tapping that is my own language system is almost kind of beyond me and outside of me and that sensation allows a whole lot of other presences into its web that aren’t finally about identity at all but distribution and rapture. Why not.

Rail: Is it unfair to call the naming/labeling/anthologizing tendencies in the avant-garde Empire building? A technique/trick/trope gets taken out of the communal tool box, named as “The Tool!” (“Hey Rocky, watch me while I pull a rabbit out of my hat!” ... “Again?”), and then velvet rope gets put up to keep the VIPs (the anthologized/the new canon) in, and everyone else out. Now, with conceptualism, it’s appropriation and recontextualization, which poets have been using since Apollinaire, often as a trick, but not as a career (not even Duchamp and his tranny alter-ego, Rrose Selavy, stuck around after the broken arm, and nobody seemed to get the joke even after he went completely narrative and representational at the end with Étant Donnés, his grand, explanatory nod to eroticism, in my opinion). Again, the subtext of this staking-and-claiming tendency seems to be deeply rooted in gender and class. There aren’t any big paydays for the writing itself, but there certainly aren’t many jobs without the “mound” you refer to. It seems like there’s a reluctance to question or call bullshit on these problematic tendencies for fear of being labeled anti-intellectual. But if we buried the author and burned the canon, why are we exhuming the corpses and writing new names over the old ones on the tombstones?

Myles: I think there’s a lot of new technologies, that’s what’s new and there’s also new shirts as well and as humans we are living differently around the technology and the clothes and even despite it with our faces and our voices and the amount of freedom our bodies can get for themselves in this limited amount of time. Conceptual writing is definitely re-stirring the pot and it’s full of a lot of things that we probably assume we already knew. But the important thing is that we know about it now. Again, in this new context.  One of these books points out that the difference is spreading. That’s a nice line. We know about it not when just a gang of mainly dudes in Soho in the 60s and 70s wanted to do stuff outside of the gallery and talk about it but now when there’s a global community of speakers and readers and non readers. I used Against Expression for my NYU “craft” class and craft is my least favorite word in the world and suddenly I looked at Kenny’s big book for a moment and I felt trapped. All this theory and ‘writing.’ No more “poems”. How will my “master class” move. Well I got sick. That helped. Flipping through that book in bed I grabbed some ways of writing that were familiar and then discovered some new riffs on managing and inventing information like write your personal history of the world. Someone did that and the book just helped me mix it up. Bern Porter’s obsessive essay on getting dressed spurred the group of us into walking to the subway in silence and then watching the lights of the oncoming train and not getting on, then going and writing the detailed ritual of that. And lifting the use of footnotes from someone else’s piece had us footnoting our walk and eventually the amount of excess my poet students poured into their footnotes made our obsessive exercise ludicrous and beautiful and that is the point. It’s just all there to be picked up.

Rail: I want to go back to your 2009 book of essays The Importance of Being Iceland, which was hugely important to me because you articulated something about a mostly unarticulated queerness that I believe remains to be explored as our civilization wrestles with the difference between “gay marriage” and what it really means to be queer in the broadest sense. In the title essay you wrote:

So ... what if you had a whole language to yourself. Not just a few words. Because nobody sepaks Icelandic except the people here and when they meet each other around the world. It’s such a specific kind of belonging. The only thing that it resembles (other than a belonging I desire) is this piece I read once in the Times magazine about these kids of gay parents who are forming support groups when they come of age because the singularity of their conditioning its jarring encounter with the “normal” edges of the world need “articulation” in early adulthood. The writers of the article said that these kids were more like an immigrant group, that they had a specific kind of “nationality” among themselves, a gift of a sort that needed to be acknowledged as opposed to being liberated from. No one is asking Icelanders to assimilate.

I am one of those “kids of gay parents” who grew up an immigrant in this culture, and I love those words because it’s really jarring to have your invisibility so clearly seen, especially by someone in the queer community. Obviously, I thought: “I have to go to Iceland!” But aside from the fact that I’m now 40 years old and that we’re now watching a a slightly broader acknowledgment of gay (if not queer) subjectivity in the culture, I still find very few instances like that passage in which the particular queerness of my experience is reflected back to me. My experience has been that the gay community has been deeply disinterested in the adult subjectivity of its children because any kind of imperfection or discontent would threaten the hetero-narrative it’s had to sell to the dominant hetero culture in order to gain entry. Zach Wahls, the young Iowan with lesbian moms who testified before the Iowa House of Representatives in 2011, made himself into this kind of poster boy for queerspawn normality: He’s an eagle scout, goes to church, scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, etc. I get that he's trying to say: we're not extraterrestrials. But I sure as hell never wanted to be a poster child, and don't want to assimilate, but I’ve felt that pressure from every direction my whole life. And fuck, I've got two kids and a house and live in Colorado Springs! But I want what Bella Abzug wanted for women: to be judged next to the least, not the greatest, because isn’t that what those with all the privilege ultimately get? And I will say that what’s really been missing is a literature that speaks to our Iceland. I’m really glad that Alysia Abbott, daughter of the queer/new narrative poet Steve Abbott, has a memoir called Fairyland coming out soon about growing up in the gay poetry scene with her single dad in 70s and 80s San Francisco that doesn’t gloss over the complexities of their relationship or her ambivalence. I’m sorry it took so long for both of us to get books out into the world, but there they are. And that we’re at this moment of sea change with gay marriage/civil unions gaining some kind of acceptance (Colorado just passed civil unions a few weeks ago), it seems like we’ve just begun to open the language to the possibilities of gender that go beyond sexuality. I mean, up until very recently I don’t think I could even have articulated that most of my male role models growing up were butch dykes and that that’s how I perceive my own very female masculine gender. You talk about this in Inferno quite a lot in terms of your own gender. For example, on p. 184: “I was thinking today that I have spent my whole life trying to be a man. I’m sure you don’t understand what I mean by that. I think I was examining my behavior (as wrong) and imagining how some man would do it. I realized I thought he was right, somehow. Why do I think that./ If I crawl inside the head of a man, (and eat his thoughts alive) will I begin to live my life correctly? What will I do with the woman?”  Again, I’ve had those thoughts so often in man’s body. And I wonder if it’s even important to name it, or how much you feel like it can or needs to be named—that being of multiple genders that gets called genderqueer now? I mean, is that enough? Or does it take a whole book? Like does one cease to be a lesbian if one is really just a man? Like is a man a lesbian if his gender is a woman who identifies as a man? As you write, “A boy was my secret part, so where should I put that? Even if I was a feminist I would still have a evil secret baby. Myself.”  I want to open these questions, and I don’t. Y’know?

Myles: As far as naming it that invites a kind of poetry I think. I mean in regard to gender. People have such a massively hard time identifying and talking about their feelings and I think a similar difficulty lies within everyone in terms of talking about gender. I don’t think we have to “name it” per se. I think queers have always taken the hit for everyone’s inability to name it. We are compelled to name it and have historically been kicked in the teeth for it. But when we observe the wide span of genders that exist all around us, not just in the official queer community, I think there’s a new courage that everyone could feel invited at this time to summon up in order to have that conversation about what it is and how it feels and what it wants to do. Generally if people like what you want to do (change a tire, make a meal) they don’t challenge your supposedly gendered choices. If they don’t like that you want to run for president or have sex with that person it’s a big problem. Obviously the secrecy of the “patriarchy” needs to be addressed or renamed so we can take the central pole down or even begin a conversation about how it would be if the tent stayed up in some other fashion.  

Rail: We talked about this a little bit when you came out to read in Colorado Springs in February, but I wonder what thoughts you have as a poet about the choice to not transition from female to male?

Myles: I suppose a lot of it is age related. I was going through menopause in the late nineties and early 21st century and I was therefore becoming someone else when a lot of younger dykes were all transitioning. I noticed women of my age were taking a lot of hormones to remain their former selves but of course they weren’t doing that, they were becoming someone else. I actually wish menopause were as widely considered and discussed in terms of gender identity as transitioning is because it’s not the same thing but their effects both get compared (rightly) to puberty in terms of the new fluctuating narrative of a person. I think that’s what gender is all about. The story you are telling about who you are as opposed to how you are being read and how you endure, manipulate, float or occupy that conversation. Everyone agrees or disagrees with what I am when I enter the bathroom. I just don’t look right. For a lot of reasons. As I was going through menopause I was excruciatingly aware of all my gender choices and they were all out on the table for a while. I took some hormones. Am I taking these as a transperson or as a menopausal person. And looking back at when I was a young I guess heterosexual in my early twenties I was always super aware of my own secret male. I think the technology is not good enough. Nobody knows about the long-term effects of putting hormones into your body for ten or twenty or more years. And if I transitioned in my fifties it would be just in time to go bald. That totally affected me truly. I did have a fantasy of transitioning male and also becoming Irish (I have done the latter, I got citizenship) and writing a book of poems and seeing how he’d do.  It’s like when I stopped drinking and taking drugs and I decided not to die I also decided to die. But slow, you know, or whenever it wants me. It’s all about death. And same with gender. After 63 years of living in how the world (and my own psycho sexual genetic familial makeup) conceives of me I’ve just thought to allow instead what Kate Bornstein described as “rainbowy” be my gender. I feel pretty blended. When the man at the hardware store who is my age calls me young lady the pissed off feeling for me is the same as if he said that to a man. But he doesn’t know that. Should I throttle him. People are just shut down. They’re at work. He thought he was flattering me. So I make some kind of correction which he ignores or trivializes and I go home with my new lamp under my arm. I think the people who know me or read me don’t entirely treat me as male or female. No matter what Vanessa says I think I’m not in her book because I’m not female. I’m something else. I’m going to Ireland this summer and next fall I guess to be in the rain and feel unseen and observe what’s in the process now. I am now writing through the possibilities of a pitbull named Rosie, an Irish girl, who I actually lived with for nearly seventeen years. Who was she. The prevalence of dogs in queer and trans households but really all households has something to do with how all of us would like to live differently. Through another body. I wanted a dog when I was a child because I was a boy and a dog would have known. In the absence of that dog what do I know now. I think living in Ireland will help. I look forward to looking back to here, and further back for a while.


Noel Black

Eileen Myles’s most recent books are Snowflake/different streets (poems) and Inferno (a poet’s novel). She is currently at work on Afterglow (a memoir) which is about her late pitbull, Rosie. This spring she taught in NYU’s writing program.  Noel Black is the author of *Uselysses* from Ugly Duckling Presse and the forthcoming chapbook La Goon from Furniture Press Books. His translation of Mara Pastor's Llamamé Lactea/Children of Another Hour is also forthcoming this year from Argos Press. He edited the Angry Dog Midget Editions from 2000 to 2004 and co-edited LOG Magazine with Ed Berrigan a long time ago. He is currently at work on a new .PDF-only press, and co-curates the Say Hello to Your Last Poem reading series in Colorado Springs with poet and printer Aaron Cohick of NewLights Press. He is part of the Black Family Collective along with artist Marina Eckler and their sons Ursen and Jasper. By day he works as a radio producer at KRCC in Colorado Springs.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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