Writer Eileen Myles has been described as the rock star of modern poetry. She was born in Boston in 1949, but she spent her post-college years in Manhattan's East Village, befriending other poets like Allen Ginsberg and Alice Notley. She gave her first reading at CBGB's—the now shuttered club that once hosted punk rock groups the Ramones and the Patti Smith Group.
Though she's published 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, articles, criticism, plays and libretti, she's probably most famous for her lively readings. As the University of Montana's Hugo Visiting Writer this spring, Myles will teach graduate classes in both poetry and non-fiction, as well as offer two public readings. Her recent book, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, riffs on everything from working class speech to queer Russia to flossing. We spoke with Myles about her book, academia, the term "queer" and what not to ask a poet.
Independent: How has the poetry world changed since your days in the East Village?
Myles: When I first came around there was definitely more of a mixture between the generations. It wasn't understood that one has to get an MFA in order to be a poet. You went and hung out with the poets. But also there was more money given to public art institutions. It seemed a little more worldly and unprotected—but it might be that it was a more bountiful time. A lot of things that have happened in the last 20 or 30 years have changed the shape of real estate, of disease. Everything sort of shifted things to a more institutionalized place, I guess. I think that's part of the challenge now.
Independent: Tell me about The Importance of Iceland.
Myles: It's a big mishmash book of every bit of non-fiction I've ever written that doesn't purport to be a story exactly. It's fake catalog essays I wrote for [art] shows, and columns. Coming up in New York, there was kind of a tradition of poets being art writers and I was pretty resistant to it. But after a while I realized it was a way to gain an audience, to make money, to engage with another art form. So I wanted to put together a book that was very playful about what art writing could mean. I went to Iceland for the first time in 1996 and I was completely excited about the country. It became an obsession. I decided to write the longest non-fiction essay I've ever written about Iceland and put that in as the planet in the middle of the book that everything else can revolve around.
Independent: Like Richard Hugo, you seem to write in a playful way that's accessible outside of academia.
Myles: It's important to me to put some handles in the work for various types of readers to apprehend, whether it's poetry, fiction or non-fiction. I don't think any one of them has more responsibility or less to communicate. I like to throw some breadcrumbs in the woods so that conceivably one could follow me.
Independent: Do you hit on other themes in the book?
Myles: Yeah. The enacting of poetry by being a poet in the world and looking at things from that perspective. And being a lesbian. I think I use the word lesbian not that many times, but for a book that's not about being queer, it's an extraordinarily queer book. And I want the word "queer" to be a generous term, too. To call oneself a lesbian is to not claim to be from a Greek island. Especially in a country like America where we're encouraged to inform, I think queerness is just kind of the sign of the artist. There certainly are a lot of queer artists, but I think most artists would claim to be queer in some way in terms of being oddly shaped or a misfit in some way.
Independent: You taught at UC San Diego. How have you dealt with being a poet in an academic realm?
Myles: I thought of all the things I had encountered in my years of coming up as a poet, and the positive and negative influences hadn't stopped me, so why should the academy? But right away the problem was how to be me, how to be an artist inside of this institution. But I like the idea of coming to Missoula for a semester because I like to teach. I like the sociality of an academic community but I like to know that I'm kind of a fleeting part of it.
Independent: A lot of people don't understand poetry, but I also often hear poets ask that question, "Does poetry matter?" Do you hear that a lot?
Myles: I think that's always been the boring question that people like to ask of poets. Over the years I can't tell you how many panels I've seen or been on where it's like: "Does poetry matter? Is poetry political?" These are very empty questions. Poetry is anything you want it to be. It's just language. And that vague question seems like a recipe for tedium. You could say: "Is poetry political, are oranges political, is a door political?" What the hell does that mean? I think poets should get better about refusing dull questions and, instead, talk about interesting things that could be very specific.
Independent: You've criticized big-time poets for delivering poetry like a lecture. What sort of criticism have you gotten over the years that you've either taken to heart or blown off?
Myles: I feel like people are always ready to make you think that what's wrong is that you said anything at all. Particularly for women I think people would rather we would just shut up and smile at the work that we're hearing. And by the time you've earned your right to speak publicly there are always plenty of people who have a lot to say about why you should or shouldn't have said something. People like to get into that more bourgeois way of critiquing the style of the delivery rather than to say that they actually were completely furious at what you think. I think a lively culture is driven by people's passionate thoughts. We need more of that publicly.
Eileen Myles reads at the Palace Sunday, Jan. 31, for the Second Wind Reading Series with MFA fiction writer Megan Kruse at 5 PM. Free.