Author Eileen Myles discusses class, sexuality and new recognition for an established career
Writer Eileen Myles’ seems poised on the brink of widespread recognition. This fall she’s publishing two books: “I Must Be Living Twice” and “Chelsea Girls,” which collect new and selected poems and capture the downtown New York of the 1970s in a novel. Much of Myles’ work deals with life in New York City yet the author said her themes and content also exist in cities like St. Louis.
These two books are Myles’ first for a major publisher and signal renewed interest in the author’s 40-year career and position as literary figure. Yet Myles takes the additional attention in stride.
“I’m not going to be massively altered by huge amounts of attention because I’ve been exposed to small amounts of it my whole adult life and I’ve asked for it,” she said.
Myles brings her writing and particular experience as a queer, working-class writer to Left Bank books Monday night. But first she spoke with St. Louis Public Radio.
This interview is edited and condensed for readability.
St. Louis Public Radio: What do you think people in this area or this region can take from your work?
Eileen Myles: Well the funny thing about the city is that “the city” is always a dream in everyone’s minds. Even as you’re living in the city you’re making up a story about the city for yourself which is about “me” living in the city. It’s a fantasy I was having that’s not unlike the fantasy of someone living in St. Louis. My work deals a lot with being a working-class kid from Boston, which I don’t think is probably that different from being a working-class kid from St. Louis. I think so many issues, whether they’re gender, class, aesthetic desire, or cultural dream are basically very human issues. You know, there are always dogs in my work and there are dogs in St. Louis.
What’s it like to experience the kind of career resurgence that you’re having right now?
Myles: I’m not having a career resurgence. My career has never stopped. Because I’m now publishing with a mainstream publisher, and I’ve gotten a lot of bang for my buck, it’s as if there’s a before and after. But for as long as I’ve been writing and publishing, my work has been popular. It’s just that if you publish with an independent press and they publish 1,500 books and those all sell out and they republish it, nobody talks about it. It’s all about distribution, meaning that when you read a poem, part of the excitement is who gets it? Where does it go? And that’s unknown. Now, more mysteriously, it’s kind of known and that’s a different experience.
What’s it like to see the reception of the work now as opposed to when they were first published?
Myles: I’m getting a feeling that the work is sturdy. It’s work that was exciting to young people, one of whom I was when I published it in the ‘70s or ‘80s, and seems to be exciting to young people now. You know young people come up to me and say “I just heard of you last week and I’m so embarrassed.” And I’m like, “That’s amazing that you’ve heard about me last week!” I’m like a new poet to these people and that’s fun.
What sort of fun can you have with that experience?
Myles will be at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, tonight at 7 p.m.
Myles: Well one of my favorite artists for years has been Bob Dylan. Because his voice has changed and he’s a different man from the one who wrote those early songs, you just hear him do different versions and not use that part of his voice or use different instrumentation. I feel that with poems I know really well and I’ve read a million times. It’s really fun to read them in different contexts, and read them slower or read them fast, or read them like a throw away and just see how your own work bumps up against other pieces of it. I think poets, like jazz musicians, should have standards and I think that what I’m reading are to an extent my standards.
It’s interesting that you bring up Dylan and jazz and yet the “punk” label often gets used to describe your work and life. What’s it like to have that label?
Myles: It’s several things. Everything that was New Wave, everything that was post-modern, everything that was “downtown,” can easily get thrown into the one syllable describer punk. And that’s OK because it’s accurate. But I think it sort of subsumes other less comfortable words like dyke, or working class, or poor, because I’ve always been pretty frank about the economic situation of myself as I’m writing. So punk just kind of has a messy way of saying “everything” for some people who don’t want to be too careful about what it is that they mean.
So there are ways in which it’s great and other ways in which it’s just lazy. But in some ways it’s kind of my fault. The first featured reading I gave was at CBGBs but that did not mean that I was reading with a band. That just meant that the poets had an earlier part of the evening and the bands had a later part. That just sounds like “I’m down with the Punks!” but it wasn’t that at all, it just happened to be the same stage. So I am to blame in many ways.
You mentioned being really frank about being queer and about your economic standing. What is it like to have people examining that frankness now as a slightly different, current, audience?
Myles: It’s probably the reason my work is being purveyed by the main stream at this moment. It’s one thing to be poor and queer today, that might be a bit of a scary message, but today I’m middle class. And you know I am queer but people are bothered less by the sexuality of somebody at 65 than they are by the roaring sexuality of somebody who’s 25 or 35. So what’s funny is that I’m more symbolic now than frightening. It’s a little more like books that I was inspired by when I was younger -- all these sort of masculine epics of poverty and randiness and adventure. I mean all the females that I knew, straight and gay, wanted to tell that story too but they weren’t getting heard. So in a way I feel like my work is entering the annals of male adventure, as a women. And that’s cool. I love that. You know there’s always some chick who throws herself off the roof or you know is sort of road kill in the male narrative and it is a really good feeling to be able to put myself or put a female self-square in the middle of it. A queer self. A different self.
With changing attitudes toward gender and sexuality issues do you ever worry that people mistake you for a lifestyle symbol instead of paying attention to your writing and your life?
Myles: I just kind of know that comes with the territory because if you’re other, people keep you as other. It’s one of the things that’s nice about being at this point in my career as opposed to an early point. Huge excitement about your work is an incredible opportunity, but it’s also kind of a drug in of itself. And I think I’m good at managing my drugs at this point.