Eileen Myles is one of America’s most important poets and the poetry Lit POP judge for 2013. Her poetic education took place at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1975-77 in workshops lead by Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan and others, later becoming the Artistic Director of the project from 1984 through 1986. Eileen is a Professor Emeritus of writing and literature at the University of California San Diego where she directed the program from 2002 to 2007. She has also taught at Columbia University and NYU. As a journalist & art writer she contributes to a wide number of publications including Art Forum, Parkett, The Believer, Vice, Cabinet, The Nation, TimeOut, Book Forum and AnOther Magazine and has written catalogue essays in recent years on Sadie Benning, Cathy Opie and others. Her Inferno received a Lambda Book Award for lesbian fiction in 2011. The Poetry Society of America awarded her the Shelley Prize in 2010. Her books include The Importance of Being Iceland/travel essays in art (2009), Sorry, Tree (2007), Skies (2001), on my way (2001), School of Fish (1997), Maxfield Parrish (1995), Not Me (1991), and Chelsea Girls (1994). She lives in New York.
Interview by Tim Forster.
Tim Forster: What role did the St Mark’s poetry project in New York City play in your formation, and what significance have you seen it play for other artists/poets too? Is it an alternative to formal education in poetry and writing?
Eileen Myles: St Mark’s is basically where I got educated as a poet. They had free writing workshops in the ‘70s and it introduced me to the avant garde and the poetry and performance worlds that I’m still a part of. The project spawned Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, David Wojnarowicz. It’s legend. Writing programs weren’t a necessary part of a poet’s education then so it was a real public option. You got educated in a scene.
TF: How have your ties to the music scene influenced your poetry and writing?
EM: I was always more influenced by music than anything else and even though I’m not a musician and have worked very little with music except for one band (Japanther) and an opera I wrote the libretto for (“Hell”), I think of it as the model for what a poet can be. You’re performing, you’re singing even if it’s more as speech.
TF: What tensions are you facing or exploring in your current work?
EM: I’m working with fantasy and documentary in my current work, which is a dog memoir. I liked sci-fi when I was a kid but I’ve hardly ever written it. When my pit bull Rosie was dying in 2006 I wrote directly about her death process and when I lived in California with her from 2002 to 2012 I recorded a lot of her walks on my camcorder. I’m transcribing those and mixing them up with the imaginary relationship I had with my dog. So I guess fact and fantasy are the opposing forces for me in my writing at this time. They’re really not so opposed but I have to use a style that accommodates them both.
TF: You have extensive teaching experience in addition to writing – why do you teach?
EM: I teach to make money. Most writers make more money teaching that writing. But I do like to talk about writing and I do that more with young people I meet in the classroom since people more along in their careers prefer to write than to talk about it.
TF: What appeals to you about teaching?
EM: Other than performing or getting paid directly for my work, it’s the best kind of work I know. When I went to college I was I awe at these people who lived in books and thinking about them. I’ve always loved to read and it seemed unbelievable you could make your living that way.
TF: Are there any particular values you want to make students think about?
EM: No values. That’s not my business. Too many words. That’s the problem. I show them how to throw words away.
TF: Do you have any particular devices or strategies to provoke creativity or “activate” your creative process?
EM: You need time. You need to return constantly. You need to not quit on a piece.
TF: You’ve said that “I don’t want to be published by a female press. I don’t want to be published by a gay press. I want my gay work to get into your space” – do you think there’s a problem with the existence of such spaces for marginalized writers?
EM: I’m not a marginalized writer and I don’t think the writers gay presses or women’s presses publish are marginalized. But personally I’ve preferred not to work with a press that stands for this or that because I like being the writer you pick up and you discover that they’re queer and that it’s doing something you didn’t think say a lesbian writer would do, and so on. The existence of a female press suggests to me that we must be protected. All writers need protection. I’d rather rot.