INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Inferno is the latest book by poet, novelist, essayist, performer, and one-time presidential hopeful Eileen Myles. (It’s true, she ran as a write-in candidate in 1992.) Eileen did not call Inferno a memoir, even though it sort of is. Maybe one could call it a remembrance. Eileen calls it a novel. In the process of remembering, she lets go a frantic and enlightened rush of recall, impressions, and wit. Loosely modeled on Dante, the novel traces the character Eileen’s dual coming out as both a poet and a lesbian (via hell, purgatory, and paradise). It starts in Boston (hell?) and quickly moves to New York, where she has mainly lived since the ’70s. She moves in and out of the punkier side of the NYC poetry world in a warm, complicated way. That’s mainly because Eileen is, let’s say, a pillar of that world. She’s published numerous books of poetry, including Not Me and Skies, the short-story collection Chelsea Girls, and an earlier novel, Cool for You (she also wrote the libretto for an opera). She’s a former steward of The Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church and was a caretaker of genius poet James Schuyler in his later years at the Chelsea Hotel. Inferno includes encounters, for better and for worse, with Amiri Baraka, Marge Piercy, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and Patti Smith. Like many of Frank O’Hara’s poems, the seeming bits of real life in this novel take gossip and elevate it to the level of art.
But the backbone of Inferno is identity and going for it. How to be a poet? How to be a lesbian? How to be vulnerable, or strong? How to be anything with a body? The book’s ride is Eileen’s life up to now. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending. I recently talked with Eileen in the East Village the morning after she’d given a reading at the posh new Poets House in Battery Park City.
Jesse Pearson: I understand that Inferno took a long time to finish.
Eileen Myles: This book came into existence over ten years. My friends all feel like they’ve already read it because there are parts that they know so well.
From hearing you read them aloud?
Yes. When you’re writing a book and there are certain sections that you know you feel good about, you just read them repetitively. That’s why I was so weird about reading the opening of the book last night. I’ve been reading it for ten years now. But I had a really good time with it. You know, before you got here, I was thinking about Bob Dylan. Some of how he interests me is in that sort of Picasso-y sense of looking at an artist with a long career.
And with easily discernible periods, too.
Exactly. I heard him when he was performing in Woodstock a couple of years ago and I loved hearing him sing old songs and completely hit them differently. Totally different versions. Last night, it was fun to read that section of this novel, and to hit different emphases and make it play differently for me so that I wasn’t bored by my body and my voice. There’s this thing in the poetry world about the voice—not in my poetry world, but in a more academic one. Like “the voice” is this really fetishized thing. Yet I do actually feel like a vocal artist. That’s what I feel like I’m doing.
When you’re reading?
Yeah, and across the board. I imagine what I’m writing, whether it’s a poem or a novel, as a performance. A sound performance. I hear it, and it’s a listening thing. That’s always the measure. It stops according to sound. The silences really mean something.
The breath, the physical thing, really figures into it. Why did this book take ten years to finish?
Well it’s not like I was sitting down writing, writing, writing for ten years. I took an academic job for five years, and that wound up being more work than I’d suspected it would be. Then somebody [Michael Webster] walked up and said, “How would you like to write an opera?” I wrote an opera called Hell because I was already doing Dante. Somebody else [Chris Kraus] said, “How about a book of essays?” I was like, “No, No, my novel has to come first.” But it just didn’t work out that way.
Right, Semiotext(e) put out The Importance of Being Iceland, your book of travel and art essays, last year.
And then there’s writing poems. But it was good because as this book changed over time, my real life styled it. The stops and starts. It evolved really spasmodically. Often I’d have to wait six months for the next big piece of it. If I’d had that beautiful luxury that I’ve always wanted, to be able to sit down for a year and work on a novel…
Would you have done it that way if you could have?
Sure and it would have been a much smoother citizen. So I’m glad. As it was, it ended up being sort of a saga—the journey to write the book was the book.
What’s the act of remembering like for you? Do you access things from memory alone, or do you keep diaries that you are later able to refer to?
I do keep diaries, but I never referred to them for this book.
So were you true to events as they happened?
How would I know? It was really more like an assemblage of what moments in my life I wanted. I’d find myself saying, “Why am I thinking about this person” and so on. It’s always that some problem you’re trying to resolve now has a resemblance to conditions then. Memory, I think, is triggered by present conditions, but often it’s kind of soporific or something, like “the past is the drug I need to take for what I’m feeling now.” Mostly when I think about memory, it’s all about filming. I just kind of think of a place and try to download it physically. I try and remember not so much what happened, but the room. If I get the details right—not that I use them all—but if I can kind of evoke a place . . .
You can build from there. So it’s more settings than situations that you recall?
Conversations, I don’t really remember. They’re the most made-up things.
And memories can be very impressionistic and shifting.
That’s why I didn’t call this book a memoir. I don’t really give a shit about my memories. I really feel like it’s not about Eileen Myles. I’m kind of like the camera or the recording instrument.
Did digging through the past like this bring up any feelings of regret?
I suspect that I try to avoid writing about those things and instead write about the things that I am glad happened. But, I mean, there’s a sex scene in the book that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. I thought, many times, “How can I write that and not feel humiliation?”
Is this the sex scene in the tent?
Yeah. Which is like, so vulnerable. The character in my writing is much more of a dog than I am. And so to have this kind of sexual awakening happen in the book, where the narrator is so vulnerable, was hard to write. I had to kind of piece my way through that slowly.
I think that the novel sort of had to go there at that point. And even though it’s sort of fraught with your character’s over-thinking, it’s warm too.
I’m a writer who always rejects metaphor, but I felt that if I could just make the women be a couple of soldiers around a campfire after it, I would feel more comfortable.
The parallel between becoming a poet and becoming a lesbian is very explicit here.
Part of the heaven section is a bait and switch where I thought, “If you’re interested in poetry, I’ll give you lesbianism, and if you’re interested in lesbianism, I’ll give you poetry.” I wanted to put the power of the two together in the section that’s most about writing poetry because that’s a big part of what drives it. That collision.
The book also seems to put your lesbian stature at risk repeatedly. There can be a lot of rules in certain gay circles—a lot of codes, and transgressing them can mean exile.
It’s wildly coded. Also—it’s really funny to even think of such a thing as lesbian stature. Really? Where? I mean we, lesbians or even just women who write about sex I think are the true underground, the real thing. Everyone I know who is a great female writer is largely writing in the independent press. We’re like modernists. But yeah among us it is difficult. There’s a lot of self-hate. It’s true of all women but especially us. There’s always a new model for the right, cool way to be a lesbian. Everyone is always prey to the accusation that they’re doing it wrong—either in how they’re presenting themselves publicly or how they’re presenting themselves sexually. And generationally, it’s so disconnected. I mean there are always younger men who outright attack the older poet or fiction writer. Kill the father thing. Women don’t do that exactly, but there’s a kind of hatred for the older woman from younger women. Well from everyone, really. But among females it’s like everyone drank the Peter Pan Kool-Aid and now nobody believes that they’re going to become an older female, that hated creature. So female aging becomes the greatest crime. You know? “Whoa, I thought she was a boy. I thought she was a dude.” And there she is being a sixty-year-old female! Whereas the older and rottener William Burroughs became the better they liked him. Guess I’m not old enough.
Have you ever found that your writing that breaks with lesbian orthodoxy has led to personal trouble for you?
I think I just wouldn’t limit trouble to lesbian orthodoxy. Aren’t we just in an anti-female culture? I’m reading Naked Lunch and Burroughs endlessly is railing about Matriarchy. He’s such a reverse lesbian. Everything that Matriarchy represents is for him something that demands conformity and rebellious men always stop right at the door of gender, and can’t look at their own part in subjugating half the race. In my fiction I believe I’m doing something special and incredibly dangerous and against all orthodoxy. I’m constructing a world that resembles my own sense of mystery and existence, and even the symbolic existence of a public lesbian who’s willing to talk about her sexual life as something that’s very rich and full of rivulets. That is a dangerous and explosive thing. To suggest. To be human, we have to have all those strands. Something I’m really dedicated to is always writing “it” wrong—figuring out, stylistically and aesthetically, how to write the wrong thing. During the AIDS crisis, there was a sex-positive, forward, strong thing, and even then I was like, “Mmm, that’s not exactly the story I’m feeling or telling.” It’s the wrong wrong that I’m really interested in, not the kind that’s just against the culture.
Once you name and make public what could really hurt you, you sort of declaw it.
And you’re giving the version. I think that’s what writing is, is giving the version. Even going back twenty years in publishing, there’s been a tendency that’s like, “If you’re going to be female, we just don’t want some raped person. We want a strong, forceful top who wins. The super female. Blah! But that’s “the story.” And yet look at the vogue in films right now with the sort of abject guy.
Like the shlumpy Sideways guy?
Yeah, or, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with the guy who comes out dancing naked and gets betrayed. Like a big naked baby. As a woman, I really want to write to present my own kind of beautiful abjection. I have the right to get crucified too. And be funny about it.
Are there things in Inferno that you wouldn’t have been comfortable revealing five or ten years ago?
Well, even that scene with the plethora of pussies. Which I have to say is kind of Virgil. There’s a chapter in “The Aeneid” where there’s this decorated shield that tells a story . . .
You’re referring to the section that’s sort of an inventory of pussies you’ve known.
Yes. A gay man who loves my work said to me, smiling, “I love your book, but I couldn’t read those four pages.” Like I was supposed to smile and get down with his misogyny.
A lot of men, both gay and straight, are terrified of female anatomy.
And culturally, there’s a casual assumption of misogyny that’s a little bit like the pill that everybody has to swallow. We’re to understand that there’s a good reason why there’s never been a female president in the United States, that there’s a good reason why Congress is mostly men. And as an adult, you’re meant to have achieved some kind of comfort with that reality. So we have a persistent anger of course, a special engine, when you live in a world where a lot of your social life and sex life is running differently, and not wrapped around the true pole of the man being the human of greater value. What’s problematic about a lesbian is that there’s an abiding sense of cultural betrayal. And that’s ironic, because any woman I think is betrayed by her culture, and then the lesbian implicitly betrays the culture by her wrong polarity. Like she’s not playing the game. But the fact of the matter is that most of us are playing a game, some game, me included, just to function, to survive.
I love that the second part of the novel, the Purgatory section, is written as the answer to a grant application asking for a summary of your career. It’s funny because it’s the most digressive summation ever. It’s grant suicide.
That’s the joke of it. I wrote it in a year when I was thinking, “Should I apply for this grant again? It’s been twenty years that I’ve been applying for this grant. I should have gotten it by now.” When I realized that I could make the grant application be part of the book, I even wrote to the funding organization and told them I was doing it. And did it. Of course, again, I didn’t get the grant. But writing that section gave me a way to frame all my writing as a kind of claim—a request!
It’s a great response to the absurd request to write a career history in this little space. Your life, in many ways, has been your career. That’s how it is with most poets. How are you supposed to summarize that?
It’s a rich parent saying, “Lie to me so you’ll get the money.” What’s so weird about poetry is you don’t sell the thing. Finally, all you’re selling is the person. I make my living doing readings. Deliver the body. And when a poet dies, it’s all about who got him last. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that I missed Creeley. I didn’t know he was going to die the next weekend.” It’s kind of really crazy.
There’s also the way that, as a young person getting into poetry, you might be attracted to the persona before the work.
Right. Bukowski would have a refrigerator full of beer on stage with him. When I worked at the Poetry Project, I remember trying to get Burroughs to come and his secretary saying, “William’s really at the sunset of his performance career.” It was so beautiful, and I bet he trotted it out all the time. Who wouldn’t pay for that? The tawny lights come up and the checkbook comes out.
Two threads that attract me throughout Inferno, and in most of your work, are the ex-Catholic thing and the class thing. There’s the mention in this book of some artists being faux working-class and very conscious of it.
That’s all artists.
And Catholic, for me, usually equates with working class.
Yes. I know there’s the patrician Kennedy thing…
Or William F. Buckley, or Annie Dillard.
But my personal experience of Catholicism is more Rust Belt working class.
That’s where the mass manipulation occurs, you know? That’s where abortion gets sabotaged. That’s the manipulation within the Catholic Church, the refusal of birth control and population control. It’s the ruling class controlling the working class.
It would be a way to ensure a workforce, if there were any jobs left.
It’s a way to ensure an army, because I don’t know what else it predicts. There are no jobs, so all you’re going to have is too many people; it seems genocidal. I don’t understand it.
Sometimes it seems like a person needs to be more stringent as an ex-Catholic than they do as the average, practicing, casual Catholic.
When some people talk about poetry, they talk about line breaks. But I mostly think about measure. I’m not the only poet who thinks about that. I’m still kind of structured around a Catholic measure because they got me when I was young, and they made me pray, and they made me stand up and sit down and believe and withhold and be afraid of my body—all those things. The very mosaic of my existence is Catholic. I even get weepy and love it. There’s so much. I have so much buried treasure [laughs].