‘I am your president’ declares Eileen Myles at the end of ‘An American Poem’. Despite an optimistic run for the White House in 1992, this statement remains a hopeful fiction. Over the last five decades Myles has practiced a radically optimistic art. Myles has written that ‘I made the model of what I needed there to be,’ and in a conversation with Olivia Laing, they said that it was important to ‘assert the wrong body, that every time you do the wrong thing, you make the wrong thing right’. In Chelsea Girls and in the books which make up the selected poems, I Must Be Living Twice, Myles bears witness to all kinds of social, sexual, and political degradation. In doing so, they force the lyric to accept and express experiences and identities which the cannon of Western poetry has, at times, actively excluded. I met Myles at a bar in South Belfast just two weeks after the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. Myles had reached their last stop of a European tour which had taken them to Switzerland and London.
So the first thing I wanted to bring up: I know in I Must be living Twice you mention that you lived in Belfast before—
Yeah, the first poem in the book was written here.
What were your impressions of the city? Were you going to readings here and involved in the literary culture?
Yeah, somewhat. It was a very funny time because I think I had just—it was the beginning of an extended stay in Ireland north and south and—I think I had a very sudden breakup with someone that I needed to break up with. But I found myself in Belfast where I knew virtually no one. I mean I knew a few people, but I didn’t even really know them. But having said that I was just extremely interested in the place. When I decided to spend time in Ireland, I wanted to be in the country and the city and so I just sort of asked people, what’s the interesting city, and they were like Belfast. And I was like, ‘OK’. I had spent one afternoon in the seventies here, when I was just out of college myself and another woman did one of those hitchhiking trips around Europe that we all did at that time. And so we were in Ireland, and it was really at the height of the Troubles and I was like we have to go to Belfast and she was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I was like we have to go. And we got here and I think we were spooked: there had just been a bombing, and there was writing on walls, something about the Papists and I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s true!’ I don’t know what I expected, but it was very weird. It was random in a way that I came here, but I have always been intrigued by the place and I wasn’t let down. It felt like a moody place going through a transition and the people were a very weird combination of held back and very forthcoming. And I lived in a very strange place; I lived up in Ballysillan.
That’s very close to where I grew up.
It was cool. I was isolated, in a way, except that I would go down to the leisure centre and shop at Iceland. I was thrown into a very North Belfast way of life. I was endlessly taking Value Cabs down to this neighbourhood for readings. Seamus Heaney had just died. I wasn’t for or against Seamus Heaney, he just wasn’t a poet who had been important for me. So it was little bit like being in Germany; I went on a tour of Germany in the nineties, and as writers we were endlessly asked by German journalists, ‘So what do you think about Goethe?’ You know, it was like, ‘How do you feel about Seamus Heaney?’ God, I don’t know! The person I’d been told I had to meet was Medbh McGuckian.
Oh I think she’s great, I think she’s a fantastic poet.
Yeah, I already knew her work somewhat and I was excited. One of the first readings I went to at the Heaney Centre [at Queen’s University Belfast], somebody, Paul Maddern, walked me over to her and we instantly began talking as if we knew each other, and she gave me a ride home. And so we’ve had a nice connection since then because I love her work. And then some younger poets invited me to some group reading that was really great and I heard a lot of work that I liked. I was myself in a weird space but I found Belfast sort of perfect. Oh, and up in Ballysillan I had rented a gatehouse that had been squatted in by this British guy and so it looked like this little hobbit house. It has been a big estate and it was the gatekeeper’s house, and now it was all council houses, and there was just this one little house. It was very funky and trippy and perfect. I wrote some. My next two books were somewhat written here.
Is that including Afterglow, the book about your dog?
Yeah, I did about fifty percent of the book here.
You’re known as a poet who is not afraid to address politics, and write overtly political poems, so I thought we did have to address the elephant in the room—you know, the big orange elephant. I should mention we’re two weeks into the administration; this isn’t going to go to print until May, and who knows what could have happened by then. But I was watching a video of you in conversation with Olivia Laing at the London Review Bookshop, and you read a new text: your acceptance speech for the presidency. How did that come to be written?
Do you know Zoe Leonard, she wrote the famous ‘I want a dyke for president’ piece? She wrote it in ‘92, kind of in response to the fact that I was running for President. The first line was ‘I want a dyke for president’ but the whole of her piece was a request for all kinds of Presidents that we wouldn’t have: a President with HIV, and so on. It was a few days before the election and the High Line had put up her piece in a very prominent place, and then she decided to invite a whole array of performers and writers and stand-ups and myself to come and do an event around the piece. At that moment there was no doubt that Hillary Clinton was going to win so it was a great exciting moment. And she said, ‘I’d like you to update your presidential campaign’ and I just and I just thought the only way I would do that is just to accept the presidency and say what I’m now going to do.
At the same event I think you were talking about Samuel Beckett being in the French Resistance and you said, ‘We must all be members of the resistance and reinvent what that word means.’ I wonder if you have seen any signs either from the Women’s March on Washington or other demonstrations, or from the Democrats in Washington, that might suggest a workable definition of resistance for this moment?
I think the Democrats in Washington might be beginning. They’re a little bit shocking and disappointing in terms of their absolute lack of resistance. How are they not just fighting each one of these people chosen for cabinet positions? They’re ridiculous, every one of them. It’s a gang of crazy dysfunctional people being offered us as our government. But I think the feeling in the air is deeply challenging, and I think it’s going to be very telling. I feel it asks the real question for Americans, and I’m sure there are counterparts for you guys here, if we had a revolution once in response to tyranny what are we going to do now? Do we not have that in us anymore? Are we just like a big fat world power and we’re going to get trampled by a fascist because that’s who won even though it was really a coup-d’état? Everybody watched it. I felt that since before the election—we’re having a coup—and I wasn’t sure that they were going to succeed but they did, so now we have to push back. I think they will. I think everybody’s just waiting to see what the shape is and how do we produce this effect.
I was really struck by a comment from Maggie Nelson that’s printed on the back of Chelsea Girls, where she says that the book ‘is an act of social justice’. This seems like a big claim for the efficacy of writing: that it doesn’t just call for justice, or show how justice might happen, but that it is act of justice. I wonder if that’s something you can go along with? I suppose this is a roundabout way of asking what role writing has in this?
Yeah, I’ve always felt like it’s not merely a response but an action. It’s a way of being present in the room, and it’s a way of giving voice to sentiments that are probably not always on the surface, and telling people that what’s going on inside of them is not crazy and wrong, but is who we are in a way.
Do you expect more political poetry to be coming out of America now?
I suppose people are pretty pissed about the National Endowment for the Arts [whose government funding could be cut by Trump’s budget]?
That’s insane. I also think we’re going to have to kind of figure out ways to create replica institutions, and even come to terms with how those institutions were in so many ways a failure and had been for a long time anyhow. So I think the ways that we replace those moneys and those capabilities is going to be a critique in itself.
Do you think the rise of the Creative Writing program might affect this? That Creative Writing has become so institutionalised within the academy, which is kind of a weird place, it’s so obviously a marketplace—
Yeah, part of a corporation—
And it can be exclusionary but it also does provide communities and financial support for a lot of writers?
So yeah, I’ve been feeling for a while that the MFA thing isn’t right or wrong; I think as an artist you could write a really great poem in an MFA program as well as anyplace else in the world. It doesn’t necessarily hamper you but also I suppose there is a way in which it doesn’t encourage disobedience. Writing in a certain way in a writing program can be an act of obedience. So what’s interesting is, right off the top of my head, when the wrong thing happens, like there are two women I can think of who are poets who went to Iowa, who both studied fiction and then went and wrote poetry.
Who are you thinking of?
Jenny Zhang and Alice Notley. It’s really funny that they both studied fiction at Iowa.
You did a Creative Writing MFA and dropped out?
It wasn’t an MFA, it was an MA in Creative Writing. It was at Queen’s College and it was such a non-program. It was how I moved to New York. I was in Boston and I had some vague idea that I could go to grad school at some point. I was surrounded by people who did things like that; I was working in a publishing company. So I applied to three graduate programs. I applied to Columbia’s MFA program and got rejected, and then I applied to Toronto, and then Queen’s College. I applied in Literature. I wasn’t going to get an MA in Creative Writing but then at the last minute I thought why would I go to graduate school and not be in a Creative Writing program? So I just called them up and said, ‘Can I change my application?’ and they were like, ‘Oh sure’. I thought that’s weird, that’s too easy. In the brief time I was there actually some interesting things happened, I was exposed to some stuff that affected my career in a good way. What I discovered was that it was really a program for New York City school teachers who wanted raises. I think the poet who ran the poetry workshop was thrilled by my presence because I was a young person who actually wanted to study poetry. I stayed for two months.
I think of your writing as being sort of essentially optimistic, not in a foolhardy way—
In a dark way.
Not that it ignores what’s actually going on, but it does dare to imagine realities that sort of look like this one but are maybe just a little different. I’m thinking of your poems ‘Edward the Confessor’, or ‘Malmaison’, where you’re imaging this other woman called Margaret who is you and is not you. I just wanted to ask, do you think there is something inherently optimistic about the imagination, or do you write out of a sense of optimism?
I think the imagination is an act of survival. It’s funny because ‘survival’ maybe was overused a few decades ago and it became something that I wouldn’t have said, but suddenly in this time putting those two words together seems crucial. In so many ways it’s creating spaces of possibility, utopian spaces where we haven’t been yet, or where we want to go, or where we need to be. And I think with social media and the multiple narratives of cable television and Netflix and all the different worlds of writing that exist now, we’re all walking through so many worlds at the same time now. And we have to be able to imagine that just to survive. And I think the imagination is kind of like the subway, it’s like a vehicle.
I did want to ask you about the internet. I know you use Twitter a lot and Instagram as well, and I’ve heard you talk, in the past, about Twitter as being almost like a fragmentary poem. But in that acceptance speech you call for a reduction in the number of private computers. Do you think it is changing how we read and write?
Oh yeah, it’s almost creating a horizontal reading of a sort. You know, part of my response to it in my reading is starting to read long tomes which I never could wrap my mind around. I feel like I’m kind of knocking down one after the other. Like, why would I read War and Peace? And I was fascinated by it. It’s been like twenty years where ADD is such a normal diagnosis; any kid growing up and some of the adults I know are taking Ritalin because they have ADD, and I’m thinking, ‘Who doesn’t have ADD?’ I think the brain is migrating and becoming something else. All the books that tell us about how we learn to read talk about this transference from one side of the brain to the other, and we’re not sure now whether that’s still happening in the same way. So I think we as creatures are probably changing, and I think it’s because of all this different media, and this kind of different demand on our attention. I think that being the generation that I am I think I’m navigating ways of being on both sides of the brain at once.
Do you think it’s still too early to place any value on that change or whether that could be potentially a kind of liberating thing?
I think so, I think so. One of the things that seems to be coming up in sci-fi, and comes up in my own obsessions, is perhaps we might be going back to more collective kinds of thinking, and more telepathic powers.
Yeah, like I don’t know that Neanderthals could read each other’s minds but I suspect they had a more animal collective brain. And having just watched Sense8—it’s about this group, there were eight of them in different parts of the planet who were connected and were thinking together and of course rescuing each other and being each other’s salvation in various ways—I can’t help thinking that part of what’s happening with these different kinds of reading is really different kinds of reading that we haven’t even anticipated yet and might bring us to be a new kind of human. But I think poetry brain is a kind of vestigial or a predictive part of the brain. It’s either our past or our future or both, in terms of a phenomena of listening to language in a way, which is kind of how I experience poetry in my own mind; I feel that I don’t write so much as read or listen.
To the poem that’s coming out in front of you, or texts that you’ve read before?
All of that, yeah. But definitely what’s coming in front of me is a kind of a heard phenomenon. So I think that it’s a very funny part of the brain, maybe an old part.
I don’t know if this is a term that’s used as prevalently in the American media as it is in the media here, but this idea of ‘post-truth’, is that being used in America?
Is that Adam Curtis?
I think ‘alternative facts’ are bubbling up more now in the States.
It seems like a lot of your poems are kind of revising their own statements as they go along. You’re saying one thing then cutting it out in the next line, or sometimes a line break suggests two alternate truths. It seems like that’s not what people are referring to as ‘post-truth’, what people are calling ‘post-truth’ never really caught up with truth to begin with.
It’s not a process, ‘post-truth’. I think the thing you’re describing in my writing is trying to describe the actual process of thinking, and attention shifting and revising as we go. The poem is an act of revision in way, of experiential revision. I think ‘post-truth’ is when you cut away all the rest and present this thing that had been constructed, that is somewhat fictional but is somehow being distributed as a reality. I mean, I’m sure I’m manipulating, but not with a goal.
I wanted to end by saying your new book Afterglow is coming out this September and it’s about your dog Rosie. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about what that book is going to look like, and the impact that animals have had on your life and your work.
When anything changes in your life your point of view changes. So I think when you put a dog in the middle of a life the dog has a different set of needs, and then you either treat the dog poorly or you figure out how to fulfil the dog’s needs, in the same that when I’m doing a reading I don’t know why I’m picking this set of poems, it always feels like some sort of internal weather you’re trying to navigate in front of an audience. And then I’ll be up in front of people reading and I’ll start to see all these crazy connections between the poem and that poem and that poem, and I had no idea I was doing that, but there’s a predictive quality to it. I think the very decision to get an animal means that you want to change your life and then the dog does do that with the choices you have to make to make things work for the dog. Since I put a dog at the centre of my existence my life has improved because it gets me to nature or the dog needs a car and so on. I discovered fairly late in life when I got this dog that the dog had been a request from the child me to the adult me because in my family we weren’t allowed to have pets really, we could have cats but what I wanted was a dog, and so I had to get to forty to get that dog, and then that dog changed me in so many different ways.
But the book starts when the dog’s dying in San Diego. I had gone to San Diego for five years, and it’s very funny because to me San Diego was kind of a fucking bore. It’s not a very interesting city. Everybody in California who grew up in San Diego were all in LA; they were like, ‘we really needed to leave’. But my dog, at sixteen or seventeen, was quite old and San Diego is filled with old people who like warm weather. It’s kind of a retirement place. So what was horrible for me was really perfect for Rosie to end her life. Rosie was very Irish, as soon as I got her she reminded me of a little boxer and I just thought, ‘She’s like a tough Irish girl,’ and thus the name. She came there to die and that’s where the book began. I meant to write a very dark book and I was always kind of haunted by Larry Rivers’ description of the death of Frank O’Hara. He read at O’Hara’s funeral this very graphic description of O’Hara dying, and O’Hara was this guy who was so vital and so much a part of everybody’s experience of being a culture and being young and being out there, and his artist’s tribute to O’Hara was to show this kind of like sculpture of his friend in a state that was completely unlike how anybody had known him. And I think that was my intention with Rosie, as an act of love, to show her dying.
But then of course once she was dead, what was the rest of the book? There’s this thing I say a lot when I teach which is: we get these prompts from teachers and the real value of them is to realise the framing and the shaping of a prompt because really a writing career is giving yourself a series of prompts for the rest of your life. And so I just kept giving myself more prompts. I left San Diego and I moved to Los Angeles and I brought a box of her stuff to Los Angeles. It was like her dog bowl, her leash, her dog bed. I got to this apartment in Los Angeles and I stuffed it in the closet and it wasn’t until I was leaving that I took the box out and I thought, right I’m just going to take each thing out of the box and take a picture and write something about it. And after I did that I threw away what I would never need and I saved a few things. So that chapter is almost like Rosie’s will. Many of them became narratives and some of them remained just little definitions.
When I got her I looked into her eyes and I was like, ‘Oh God, it’s my father!’ and my dad was, we were very close, and he was an alcoholic and he died quite young. It was a joke, which I think my prompts often are, and yet I felt like my father would come back and be my dog, he would have done that if he could. I carried that with me for the years of that dog’s life and so I wrote a chapter called ‘My Father Came Again as a Dog’.
I always loved fantasy and sci-fi and its always been right around the edge of my writing but never been my writing and so I just kind of let it rip. I took the God/Dog joke, the reversal, and I started to spin this whole cosmology about it: there were fish and fish couldn’t write poetry so they came out of the sea and grew legs and became dogs. I wrote this very fantastic chapter and I read it at MacDowell when I was there and people loved it and they asked, ‘So is Rosie going to speak?’ That’s such a MacDowell question! I thought about it and I thought, under what conditions would she speak? I have these childhood puppets that I made when I was eight or nine and I thought if the puppets had a talk show and invited Rosie to be their guest she would certainly come on their show and talk. So there’s a chapter called ‘The Puppet’s Talk Show’.
It just kept generating itself in a way. I would just wait for the next concept and the next chapter. I think finally I was near Limerick at a place called Glenstal Abbey. Do you know the poet Fanny Howe? She’s an Irish American but also her mother was Irish so she like myself has an Irish passport. She is ten years older than me and we’re good friends, and she always is someplace before I’m there. We follow each other around kind of. When I was coming to Ireland she gave me a list of places I should go to. So I was in the monastery and I was like, ‘Fuck, I’ve got to write thirty more pages for this book!’ Then Rosie or her ghost came to me and she was like, ‘It’s a tapestry! Just you weave, I’ll dictate.’ So there’s a long chapter called ‘The Dog’s Journey’ and it’s a tapestry. I love tapestries and I’d been at the Victoria and Albert Museum looking at them, so I kind of let her make a long tapestry explaining everything that wasn’t explained in the book. And that was almost the end.
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