Interview with Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is the author of Afterglow: A Dog Memoir and more than 20 other works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and libretto. They are the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction, four Lambda Book Awards, and many other awards and fellowships. They live in Marfa, Texas, and New York City.

I had heard Eileen read a pre-publication portion of Afterglow on the afternoon of November 8th, 2016, Election Day, almost exactly a year ago. When I heard they would be visiting the Miami Book Fair this November, I thought an interview would be a great opportunity for us to talk about what has transpired as well as discuss Afterglow, Eileen’s experimental memoir about gender, power, relationship, and foam through the lens of dog ownership.

Freesia McKee: So the last time that we were in the same room was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places, the day of the 2016 election.

Eileen Myles: Oh God, the day of…

F.M.: The day of.

E.M.: Kenosha is forever etched in my memory. What were you doing there?

F.M.: So my partner Jade and I lived in Wisconsin and, in Milwaukee, and we drove down because we wanted to hear the reading.

E.M.: It was, like, the last good night.

F.M.: It was the last good night!

E.M.: Because I remember I just went to my room. I was like, of course, Hillary was going to win. My room, I’m suddenly, wait a second. Yeah. That was a really funny opening, that’s really great.

F.M.: And I was just thinking about how, like, that was the last hours of relaxation.

E.M.: I know!

F.M.: So then I was trying to think of questions for this interview. I had read another interview where you’re talking about how sometimes poets can give away lines on social media that would’ve become whole poems, and they’ve already sort of put them out into the world. And then I thought wouldn’t it be so funny if I asked you if Donald Trump was an experimental poet, giving away his lines. But of course, we know he’s not an experimental poet.

E.M.: I don’t know, I would argue maybe that he is! You know, I feel like one of my critiques of him is that this is an abused child. First of all, he’s really invested in us watching him. But I also think he’s a little bit compelling. I mean, this is a showman, you know, and when you read transcripts of what he says, it doesn’t make sense.

But when you watch him searching and thrashing, I feel like this is somebody who, because of his crazy Nazi father, wasn’t allowed to be anything but a businessman. And this is a bad businessman, this is a fake businessman, this is an actor pretending to be a businessman.

That’s his whole performance. Now he’s like an actor pretending to be a president. None of his politics even feels authentic. He could be right, he could be left, he used to be a Democrat. I mean, it’s just like, “who is this guy?” I think he’s like a I failed artist, he’s like somebody that wasn’t allowed through the culture he came up in, to become a theatre kid at whatever college. I think he’s just like the epitome of an abused American who was forced into something that doesn’t suit him. If he was an artist, we would all be in a very different place today.

F.M.: It would be very different for sure. I’ve been thinking of course about Afterglow, your new book, and the chapter called “Foam.” It is about foam, but it’s about a lot of different things, feminism and the in-between, so I wanted to ask you about liminality and the in-between in this political moment and what that can mean.

E.M.: I think that’s what we’re all having to learn how to live in-between, and be in this place where you feel like you want to keep your energy up at some pitch. It seems if you take everything so literally there’s so much reason for despair and inertia. Or else to be only fighting, and that’s a hard place to live, too.

I just think that there’s kind of a way in which you have to be able to mentally or emotionally sustain this: this state of not knowing and yet feeling like this. I mean, he’s such a piece of America’s karma. We’re all doing different things in response to this presidency. I, who had owned The People’s History of the United States since the 80’s, and every place I’ve lived, I moved the book along with me, never read it. Just owned it. Even knew there was another edition. But, I thought I haven’t read the first edition, but I finally sat down and read it after he was elected and then, it just made it so abundantly clear that he is America.

I mean he’s such a piece of art history that there’s nothing he says, there’s nothing he’s done, there’s nothing he represents, that isn’t part of what’s been happening in America since beginning.

So I was in Wisconsin the next day after the election. I remember sitting with people in a graduate lounge; I think I was doing a reading at the library that night. I was meeting with the graduate students for a graduate student lunch. People were, of course, devastated. It’s like, what did you expect, this is America.

I mean, so it’s always listening to women, but certainly to listen to people of color. It’s like after 9/11, I was going to something in San Diego at a black church and Amiri Baraka was there and Quincy Troupe was there and, I remember Baraka just going, “People are saying now that we’ve never had terrorism on American soil before.” He just looked around to a room full black people. It was like, really? You know, it’s really such a time to take a lead from people of color. And to think hard about what America feels like from that perspective, because increasingly that’s becoming everybody’s perspective. And it does always come home. If you don’t protect these people then later you’re going to have to need to protect these people and then, of course, you’re those people.

F.M.: One of the lines that I loved from this book was the line “All men’s books are chick lit.” Would you talk more about that?

E.M.: I was in an artist colony, and then I wrote some of this in San Diego, and then I wrote some in artist colonies, I wrote it at McDowell. Michelle Tea had a thing called Radar, they had retreats, and I went to Radar. I read the puppet’s talk show at the Radar Retreat and that was an amazing writing situation because we didn’t have our own rooms. We didn’t have our own writing spaces. What we had was times for silence. For example, it was silent from 9 to 12, and then it was silent from 12 to 4. And so, it’d be like, if the three of us were going to sit here and write. And we just agreed to not interfere with each other. I wrote it in a lot of spaces. I wound up at an artist colony in Ireland and this guy was like “I’ve got a great idea! I’m going to write a chick lit book!” And I just was like, what does that mean? You know? I felt it particularly when–I think it was Memoirs of a Geisha came out. I was dating somebody at the time who was a younger writer, but more mainstream than I, and that book kind of came out with the trough of books that her book came out in. I remember it getting so much attention, and I thought, “why is this so cool that a white guy is writing a story about an Asian woman?” I questioned why do we want that? Why are we celebrating that?

And so I just think it’s sort of like women in literature are male confections. Always, you know? And I thought, “That’s chick lit.” It’s not like this little category that we’re supposedly corralled into to make sure that this book is not everybody’s, you know?

Literature never was everybody’s. I certainly think that in the same way I’m entitled to write from a dog’s perspective and I am not a dog. I think we do make leaps, imaginative leaps, in our writing. And so I’m not a hardliner at all about that. But the abundance of representation, I mean the abundance of written representation in literature is by men. That’s it.

I remember one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard somebody say about reading as part of a writer’s history was this writer Louis Walsh who sat on a panel years ago. He was like, “Reading was when I first discovered that other people were thinking.” I thought, oh yeah, because my own childhood was so disciplinary—nobody was asking me what I was thinking. Reading gave me a sense that, that they were other minds.

F.M.: That thing of seeing oneself in another person. You read a book and you see yourself in it.

E.M.: Right. When you take that to its logical conclusion, it’s like we as women know about female interiority mostly from male descriptions. We are that raped. I mean, that’s a more primary version, I think, of the takeover of female selfhood.

We have not read to representation, still. And it’s so hard because, when you write from a female perspective, it’s like all you’re writing about—even as a queer, as a dyke, as whatever—I like to think about my way of writing about being queer including a lot of writing that isn’t about “officially” queer subject matter. Because I want to take space and say that all of this is my perspective. Suddenly I’ll say something, and you’ll know “oh, she’s gay” and that’s the great pleasure of the bait and switch of it, you know, to be, to be other. To be writing is to not have to be always reminding people through your subject matter, who you are.

F.M.: And I feel like that comes through a lot in this book. It’s so much about queerness and about feminism and about what is deemed female.

E.M.: And gender.

F.M.: One of the chapters I wanted to talk more about was the chapter “The Rape of Rosie.” The dog is being attempted to be bred with another dog. One thing I noticed was—and I may have missed it—but I don’t know that you use the word “bitch” in this book at all. I have some ideas about why you didn’t use that word, but it would have maybe been an easy one to throw into a book about feminism and a female dog, right?

E.M.: I have to say it didn’t once occur to me. I just have never thought of a female dog as a bitch. It always struck me as shocking. The first time I heard the word bitch, it wasn’t applied to a dog. And so I remember at that point in my educational learning, I thought, “ohhh that’s a female dog. ‘A bitch in heat.’” You know, I think I have it in a poem someplace, but it’s really taking on the intensity of that. What the fuck does that mean? So yeah, it’s not my vocabulary at all. But interestingly, where I heard it: I have yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, but I think when it came I out I listened to some black writers who like, you know, who cast some shade on it, and I was like, “okay I don’t have to read that,” but he’s become somebody who speaks things that I really need to hear. The whole thing about the white president was so incredible because if one more person, a man of whatever class, but very often working-class, if a working-class guy made good, we’ll say, “we abandoned the white working class.” I love that Ta Nehisi Coates is like, “no, no, no, no, no. Look at the statistics. It was all white people that elected this president. All.” Don’t put that on the working class. He is not their president.

And more recently, what [Coates] said that was so great was at some public event and some white kid said, “So is it cool for me to use the ‘N’ word in music?” And he had a very long answer, but part of it was talking about how his wife calls her friend “bitch.” And he said, “I don’t call her bitch.” You know, that was so beautiful to think about how sophisticated everybody is about usage. You know, like people sneer at theory, but it’s a formal study of such things as context, which we all live in. Constantly. Everybody gets it. Everybody gets why you don’t say the ‘N’ word unless you’re black. It’s just like, what the fuck is that.

Yeah, so…bitch…to me it’s sort of like the word bitch is more owned by people who are not me. And so there’s no reason for it to, it’s just not in my usage.

F.M.: The things that we don’t even think to use.

E.M.: The “Rape of Rosie,” though, I think one of the things that was fun about the composition of this book is that there are chapters that I wrote that were—here’s a chapter, “Protect Me You.” [Rosie the dog] was dying and I sat down I started writing about her. “My Dog/My God,” same thing.

But then when the book needed to keep going and I had to invent stuff, that’s when it gets interesting. I think the thing for me that’s really interesting is that a book starts to become like a singularity. It’s sort of like, this is straight ahead stuff, and then this is invented stuff, and that’s another tier, and then it starts to be a space, like a real space, and it has rivulets and canyons and I start to think about other things that I’ve already written that can come in.

That was “The Rape of Rosie.” I wrote it during my presidential campaign, and it was just me basically just saying the stuff I’ve done, and this is gonna come out, so I wanna say it, ‘cause it’s actually horrifying.

When I read it out loud, people like, “Ugh, how is this?” People were laughing, but it is not okay. It’s really not okay.

F.M.: Yeah, that was my reaction: I was like, woah. Well, it’s interesting to think about somebody who’s running for president and saying, “this is what I’ve done” in the context of all of the truth-telling that’s happening right now about sexual assaults and harassment.

E.M.: [The chapter] “Foam” was the same thing. You know, “Foam” was a talk. I was obsessed with foam at the time before I wrote it. I was just like, “how do I deal with this subject matter?” It was just kind of transitional substances.

Grove is actually the greatest publisher, to their credit. They’re not my next, my next book is a book of poetry, but the book after that will be a book, an anthology “Pathetic Literature.” I’m going to produce the book of the texts that produced “Foam.” Which is really funny because it’s like the thing was that all these strange books had foam in them.

It was some kind of discomfort around gender that was extra weird and uncomfortable, and that kept making foam. I think that’s the way in which the book is truly a memoir. And by memoir, I don’t mean “I am telling the truth.” Memoir means, “I’ve made a space that has such authenticity that it makes room for other texts.”

I’m really obsessed with the declaration of one’s self as an institution. That was big in the 70s, there was a book called, what was it called…”Culture…”I can’t remember. Anyway, there was this guy, I think his name was William Irwin Thompson. His obsession in the 70s was the new concept of “the individual as an institution.” He wasn’t talking about Gertrude Stein, but that was part of it, but Andy Warhol was an institution. I can’t even remember his examples, but I started to make my own, Joseph Beuys was an institution. You know, to the extent to a person starts to grow, I mean Huey Newton was an institution, it was just people who grew things around them.

F.M.: Kind of like you were saying before about creating space for other things.

E.M.: Yes, like a cultural space, like your mission becomes larger. Like, Judy Grahn is an institution. Donald Judd is an institution. I live in Marfa, and that guy just decided that the art world was not happening for him, and the work that he was making in New York didn’t have the right space. He essentially became the king of a town in West Texas, and he still is even though he’s dead. I’m sort of grappling with that in a piece of writing I’m working on right now. I’ve got to admit, in a really awkward way, I’ve had the same desire, you know, to be an institution. In some way, my books will be the place that best says that.

F.M.: Would you talk more about this line from this book: “Truly I live and die like a dog, except for the library.”

E.M.: Libraries are a place of such deep nostalgia. Foam is so much about these other kinds of birth. I think the library is totally the place that gave birth to me, you know. That’s why it’s probably so important for me to die there, too. I’m horrified when people talk about libraries without books.

F.M.: Oh yeah, then it’s something else. It’s a different institution.

E.M.: Sort of an aside, but it’s interesting: at this moment my papers are going to Yale. I just sold my archive. It’s weird because I was on tour when they were doing it. I have a couple of storage units in the area, so I just got somebody to give them the keys and they looked and they emptied out my stuff. I also gave him the keys to my apartment, and I also wasn’t there. So they looked, and I have file cabinets and archival boxes. I got to a point where I just have so much crap, I don’t even know. It’s a non-system that looks like a system. It’s all these grey archival boxes with all these notebooks and scraps and things piled in there and stuff.

So, I guess Yale thinks all that is theirs now, and I’m like, “wait a second, there’s things I need!” So I’m terrified, but I think I just mentioned it because it’s so funny. The analog reality is my home computer, but to be from such a paper place…I see that [yellow legal pad] and I feel good. I love a legal pad; they taught me everything.

F.M.: Another thing you do in the book is that you begin to call yourself “Bo Jean Harmonica.” For some reason, I put “Bo Jean Harmonica” into an online anagram machine. Two of my favorite anagrams were “rejoin a bacon ham” and “a coin jar hambone” and so I’m wondering if you’d leave out listeners and readers with three or four nouns.

E.M.: With 3 or 4 nouns? Oh wow…Tree, for sure. Aperture. Foam. And earthquake.

F.M.: Great, thank you. Is there anything else to mention about this book?

E.M.: No, I mean, I guess you always feel this way about a book, but I definitely feel that somehow this is like my favorite book [that I’ve written]. I loved fantasy and sci-fi so much when I was young. Then, I just didn’t read it all my life, and then when Rosie was dying, I started to read it.

I guess each new book is kind of a victory of sorts. You’re out there and feel alienated by the world and then you make this cultural product and you put it out there and wonder whose it is. And it always feels like a funny kind of revolution. For example with my Iceland book I really had a funny time because it seemed like it was gay male porn and Iceland and Daniel Day-Lewis, and it was such a weird combination of things. I was like, “what’s this going to be?” But so many people came up to me and were like, “These are all my references!” And I was like, “That’s so great!”

I heard in India that there are so many different Hindu sects, that it can almost be like one person can have their own sect. And apparently, when Poland was going through their solidarity moment, there were a lot of parties. A party could be a guy or two guys in an office, the only members. I’ve heard the same thing about when Joan of Arc was alive, that there were a lot of crazy people seeing god and taking messages, and we only hear about the big ones.

I guess the point of all this is that that it’s like there is a communal loneliness that I think I walk with. So I think it was fun to put this book out into the world because I felt like, “People can read this.” You know, cause I feel like the Iceland book was a challenge in terms of content. But this book was about legibility.

I’ve written other books where the character was Eileen Myles. When I get written about, people say, “it’s a novel, but it’s a memoir. Are you plaguing the form of the book?” Weirdly, it took writing a book about a dog for people to actually write about my book as a book. And I thought oh, have I done my Alice B. Toklas move? I don’t know if that’s about being female or being queer, and you’re always being challenged. But, since I have written about a dog, I am not being challenged.

F.M.: That’s really, really telling.

E.M.: Then you know just how weird it is out there, and how weird you are.

F.M.: Yeah. When I started reading it and it veers into all these other places that felt familiar from your other books. That was really satisfying, so thank you.

E.M.: Thank you, this has been great.

Listen to the audio transcript here.

By Freesia McKee