Maggie Nelson on Eileen Myles

Side by side author photos of Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson

The following is a talk that Maggie Nelson delivered on Eileen Myles as part of the Poetry Society of America's The Voice of Women in American Poetry, on September 18 2014, at the Pasadena Public Library.

Earlier today I taught a class at CalArts about the great artist and writer David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. In Cynthia Carr's biography of David, she quotes a student at Illinois State University—located in "Normal," no less—who saw him talk there in 1990, right when David was becoming a poster child, or rather a whipping post, for the culture wars of the 90s. The student said, "After you hear a voice like that, it changes you." Indeed. After you hear certain voices, the direction of your life is changed, and there's no going back. That was what hearing the voice of Eileen Myles was like for me, in the year of Wojnarowicz's death, 1992.

I was eighteen, maybe nineteen. I'd just started college. I had recently left my hometown, the San Francisco of the 80s, for the east coast, with a felt sense but no real understanding, really, of what my city had been through, with AIDS; nor of what forces—nefarious or sustaining—American artists of radical mind and body had to contend with. It was newly the 90s, and Eileen was running for president. A write-in candidate, the first "openly female" contestant for the job. My college was one of her campaign stops.

I want to start by reading you the poem that Eileen read to us that night, which is one of her most famous, and the one whose performance changed my life. She had memorized it, and I remember it being really unnerving, to see someone perform that way, i.e. not theatrically, just looking at us squarely in her own body and reading her poem, which was called "An American Poem."

I was born in Boston in
1949. I never wanted
this fact to be known, in
fact I've spent the better
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
and have a life that
was clearly just mine
and independent of
the historic fate of
my family. Can you
imagine what it was
like to be one of them,
to be built like them,
to talk like them
to have the benefits
of being born into such
a wealthy and powerful
American family. I went
to the best schools,
had all kinds of tutors
and trainers, traveled
widely, met the famous,
the controversial, and
the not-so-admirable
and I knew from
a very early age that
if there were ever any
possibility of escaping
the collective fate of this famous
Boston family I would
take that route and
I have. I hopped
on an Amtrak to New
York in the early
'70s and I guess
you could say
my hidden years
began. I thought
Well I'll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it's really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
While holding this ignominious
pose I have seen and
I have learned and
I am beginning to think
there is no escaping
history. A woman I
am currently having
an affair with said
you know you look
like a Kennedy. I felt
the blood rising in my
cheeks. People have
always laughed at
my Boston accent
confusing "large" for
"lodge," "party"
for "potty." But
when this unsuspecting
woman invoked for
the first time my
family name
I knew the jig
was up. Yes, I am,
I am a Kennedy.
My attempts to remain
obscure have not served
me well. Starting as
a humble poet I
quickly climbed to the
top of my profession
assuming a position of
leadership and honor.
It is right that a
woman should call
me out now. Yes,
I am a Kennedy.
And I await
your orders.
You are the New Americans.
The homeless are wandering
the streets of our nation's
greatest city. Homeless
men with AIDS are among
them. Is that right?
That there are no homes
for the homeless, that
there is no free medical
help for these men. And women.
That they get the message
—as they are dying—
that this is not their home?
And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?
How high is your rent?
If art is the highest
and most honest form
of communication of
our times and the young
artist is no longer able
to move here to speak
to her time…Yes, I could,
but that was 15 years ago
and remember—as I must
I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn't we all be Kennedys?
This nation's greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don't think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can't
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else's, confirming
the audience's feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.

And with that, she became my President. My fraudulent President, of course—for just as she is no Kennedy, she is no ruler. Here, for example, is something Eileen recently said on the question of "mentorship" in poetry:

Mentorship is totally hierarchical as a reigning reality. It suggests that someone has the keys to the kingdom. I think your own horizontal friendships are way more important and really are the future. . . . Sure, I help young poets I admire. Plus the colonies and graduate programs require letters of recommendation. It supports the illusion of mentorship and creates a mass of paperwork for the older poet and a lot of emailing on the part of the younger poet. Weirdly, that all used to be conducted in a more personal manner. You'd have to call the person to ask for a favor. I'm not saying call me, but it seemed more on the line ten or twenty years ago.

I guess I was lucky: I met Eileen before the internet, or at least before I used the internet; things were more on the line. I literally moved to NYC to find her body, her voice, to be near whatever it was that I saw and heard that night. It never occurred to me to get an MFA, because I had heard that Eileen taught workshops out of her apartment and others' apartments in NYC, so after graduating college that's where I angled myself.

These workshops—I must've taken about 10—constructed a loose community of people (mostly women, but not all) who were fearlessly combining experimental writing practices with personal and political convictions. These workshops were not populated solely by poets, but rather by artists of all kinds, and provided a place for a younger generation, often newly-arrived in the city, to meet and learn from slightly or significantly older artists who had already been working in New York for some time. Such an environment provided the grounds for a casual form of "affidamento," a term Italian feminists use to describe "a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires," as Myles defines the word in her brilliant essay "The Lesbian Poet." Certainly the time I spent in these workshops taught me, and continues to teach me, in retrospect, a tremendous amount about poetry, affidamento, and the power and potential of artistic communities that exist apart from any institution.

(To give you a sense of the charisma that Eileen exuded in those workshops, I will tell you that I can remember a fellow participant once uncurling her palm under the table to reveal to me a used BandAid that she had plucked from Eileen's bathroom trash. "This was Eileen's Bandaid," she said, incredulous, before pocketing her treasure.)

Eileen's effect on the youth, which persists, is an object lesson in how literature, at its best, creates its own audience, rather than serving any existing god. She has described this process, and her journey, this way:

When I came to New York in the 70s, I didn't know I was a lesbian. I didn't want to come out. I was homophobic, or scared—I just didn't want to be a dyke. There wasn't a woman in that circle of poets, either, who could receive me and let me know I was heard. . . . I made the model of what I needed there to be. I put lesbian content in the New York School poem because I wanted the poem to be there to receive me.

When Myles came to New York in the early 70s and "put the lesbian content in the New York School poem because [she] wanted the poem to be there to receive [her]," she didn't know who or what, exactly, would be there to receive her vision. But as she explains in an essay titled "My Intergeneration" (in reference to Sister Spit, the all-girl spoken-word group from San Francisco with whom Myles toured nationally in the mid-90s, many of whom are dear friends of mine): "What was so great about meeting this bunch of punky girls twenty years later was that I was received. But I was received later. It was like I had been talking to an imaginary tribe that then appeared, and that weirdly I even invented. Because when they saw my work they thought, 'Oh, I can do this.' I sort of created my own audience. . . . I was 46 on that tour. I'm 50 now. I just had to wait to be young."

In an essay entitled "How I Wrote Certain of My Poems" in the back of NOT ME, Myles explains that she wants to address her culture—"some new, larger [culture] out there which I suspect exists"—by "making work which violates the hermetic nature of my own museum—as a friendly gesture towards the people who might recognize me. I mean exhibitionistic work, really." I want to talk a little about Eileen's particular brand of exhibitionism, as its effect on my writing has been profound. Before I knew Eileen's work, I was a student of the confessional poets, and I drew much confidence and audacity from poets like Plath and Sexton. (For those who've read my book The Art of Cruelty, which uses Francis Bacon and Sylvia Plath as recurring figures, you'll see that this interest hasn't faded.) Back in the confessionals' day, critics who disapproved of the personal theater of Plath and Sexton customarily used the term "exhibitionistic" to denigrate their work ("narcissistic" coming in a close second). But Myles's relaxed reclamation of the term "exhibitionistic" points toward a profound difference. As Patrick Durgin put it in an essay on Myles, "A confession, strictly speaking, insinuates that readers are made privy to something which, in Myles's aesthetic, was always in the fore, assuming the nature of traditional wisdom. Her type of disclosure precludes the tension inherent in coming clean."

All of which is to say: Eileen's particular manner of wielding the personal in public provided me a way to think about the personal in public—how to continue violating my own privacy in my work, an art which has always come naturally to me, for better or for worse—without the antiquated baggage of the "confessional." That doesn't mean there's no shame in the project. It means there's a productive dialectic between one's bravado and audacity, on the one hand, and a startling—indeed shameless—exploration of powerlessness and shame, on the other. "I think the form of the novel gives dignity to my shame," Eileen has said, in reference to Cool For You. "Sometimes I'm just ashamed to block the sun." A poem from Skies, "Inauguration Day," which corresponds to the controversial inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, brings this shame into the public sphere, and ends up transforming it with defiance: "you cannot insult/ Me," the poem concludes. "I hold this sense of awe". The sense of awe is hers inalienably, so to speak—the speaker holds it, contains it, a priori. But she also has to hold onto it, grasp it, protect it from that which might insult it. The poem thus becomes the container which the poet holds out as spectacle, offering, declaration, and potential agent of change.

Here's another shining anthem that meant, means, a lot to me, from MAXFIELD PARRISH (I used to listen over and over again to Eileen reading this poem on the 1994 vinyl compilation record, "Move Into the Villa Villa Kula"):

I always put my pussy
in the middle of trees
like a waterfall
like a doorway to God
like a flock of birds.
I always put my lover's cunt
on the crest
of a wave
like a flag
that I can
pledge my
to. This is my
country. Here,
when we're alone
in public.
My lover's pussy
is a badge
is a night stick
is a helmet
is a deer's face
is a handful
of flowers
is a waterfall
is a river
of blood
is a bible
is a hurricane
is a soothsayer.
My lover's pussy
is a battle cry
is a prayer
is lunch
is wealth
is happy
is on teevee
has a sense of humor
has a career
has a cup of coffee
goes to work
is always alone
knows my face
knows my tongue
knows my hands
is an alarmist
has lousy manners
knows her mind

I always put
my pussy in the middle
of trees
like a waterfall
a piece of jewelry
that I wear on my chest
like a badge
here in America
so my lover & I
can be safe.

In Chris Kraus's review of Eileen's novel Cool For You, Kraus makes the important point that "[l]ike Kathy Acker, Myles values the most intimate and 'shameful' details of her life not for what they tell her about herself but for what they tell us about the culture." This formulation has been hugely influential for me. I've always been fascinated, both as a feminist and a human being, in the question of where culture begins and individual humans end, especially as (human) culture is made of human beings—human beings who live in bodies, the bodies of human animals, human animals capable of making speech. Eileen has spent the past four decades plumbing these questions in poems, stories, novels, art criticism, manifestos, public performances, mentoring, journalism, teaching, and more, with more experiment, hilarity, provocation, electricity, and doggedness than any writer I know of. Her imprint is all over my work, but I think I'll close by reading a short passage from my forthcoming book The Argonauts that I know to reflect her influence in a profound, if not immediately recognizable, way.

Poems reprinted from I MUST BE LIVING TWICE by Eileen Myles. Copyright © 2015 by Eileen Myles. Courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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