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An Icelandic Personal Culture: An Interview with Eileen Myles

Interview by Sophie Erskine.

3:AM: Your new book, coming out next year, is called The Importance of Being Iceland. You’ve also read and performed in Iceland. What’s your particular interest in that not-so-familiar country? What is it about Icelandic art and culture that floats your boat?

EM: It is an amazing place and I went there at a kind of vulnerable, searching time. I had had a hard trip to Russia the year before and really wondered about myself as a traveller. My first trip to Iceland was entirely by accident and I was there under very cushy circumstances, an “art junket.” I saw landscape, was introduced to poets and writers, and mainly was introduced to the quirky sense of nationality and language that’s peculiarly Icelandic. It’s a very old culture and language that due to its location (and the economic freedom their boom economy was offering) allowed its citizens to live and travel and be educated all over the world but everyone seemed to have a strong sense of home, it being a place they must return. I admired that for a lot of reasons. My own feeling of disjointedness personally and culturally was coming into contact with a kind of culture I admired and hadn’t imagined.

3:AM: You’re a veritable polymath, I think – in addition to publishing pieces of poetry and fiction you’ve created plays and libretti. How much cross-influence is there between the different genres of writing you’re interested in? To what extent does theatre influence your poetry, prose influence your libretti, and so on and so on?

EM: Well, there’s always seepage. Like having this conversation with you is a break from my book. Things feed each other. We all get sick of work and watch a movie, or get sick of making a movie and read a book. I’m guessing. I do. Often… like, the invitation to write a libretto came from a friend, Michael Webster, a composer, who knew my poems. So if you put your work out there people have ideas about it and see other possibilities in it. I always think of this performance of poems I did in NY the night I turned 40. I had an amazing audience – like anything could have came out of it but a gallery director was there and he asked me to write a catalog essay about one of his artists. That was both fun to do and lucrative as some writing is. But it wasn’t the plan. In a way I keep getting cared for by my work in all different ways. That essay will go into the book. My personal culture feels fairly Icelandic, I’ve got to say.

Also as a poet I’m really opposed to any kind of culture of separateness. When I was in my 20s I thought it was amazing that all my friends were poets. But that’s not true at all today and it wouldn’t feel right.

3:AM: Being a philosophy graduate and therefore somebody who has written exam after exam about the (wait for it) ‘deep’ questions, I love this line from Not Me: “[t]here is an argument/ for poetry being deep but I am not that argument”. But you also say there, “I/ write because/ I would like/ to be used for/ years after/ my death.” What would you like to be used for, if nothing ‘deep’?

EM: Wow, what a great question. Well I’ve been fascinated lately by writers’ and artists’ refusal of certain questions about their work and its implications. People always seem proudest about themselves when they choose a question to not answer, when they deliberately suggest their work doesn’t “mean.” The photographs are just photographs, the poem is just a poem. Very few poets would admit to thinking about how they read, perform. It seems like most artists are articulate here and adamant about that area or area(s) being dumb, something that accrues or is and doesn’t think about itself. So I love being confronted or asked about my own unwillingness (stated) to mean deeply. Hmm.

Well to tell you the truth, the first lines seems to be about taking depth. To say I am not that argument does not deny depth, but kind of labels it as a non speaking space. It makes a shape but won’t declare its meaning. Negatives have a wonderful power to access without divulging. It might be the visual in the logical or something like that.

On the second part of your question I am claiming a body of work. It’s kind of a pun, the carcass of my writing to be picked over, devoured, disseminated when I’m no longer its keeper. I think it’s a kind of ambition, a dream of unimagined influence and use. I mean one of the wonderful things about writing is you don’t know at all where your writing goes. It’s always the antidote to despair when you feel you are wasting your time, or have. Or are invisible or whatever the current fears are about what I’m doing. Truly I would like to be used for whatever occurs to the reader. But truly to be  really honest, today I would like to be used as a model for maybe how technology influenced minds. In general how a writer moves from one thought to another seems to be the realm of pure opportunity and risk-taking and radical freedom. In our time it seems that bodies of knowledge are so niched out and these people don’t know what those people are doing. I read and look pretty widely so my work is very horizontal I think. What’s deep about me is how those things find each other in my work and I’d hope that my way of connecting things in a poem or a conversation or looking at your work gets viewed as what I was (am) doing after all.

3:AM: Eileen Myles the woman seems to feature rather a lot in Eileen Myles’ own poetry. I’m thinking of “I think I will/ be the anti-/ Christ. Rather/ than simple/ Eileen Myles” in Not Me; I’m also thinking of the fact that Eileen Myles is the prospect-free main character in Chelsea Girls. What’s your personal motivation for putting yourself inside your work like that? Artistically, what can such a move achieve?

EM: I like the idea of the writer and the person being kind of seamless. And the character too. We have these names and these lives that contain all this information but literary culture suggests that you stand outside as author and make these things. Like kind of a wizard of Oz. I like being part of the illusion of writing. And also to “invade” the world with my actual name breaks down the difference between the inside and the outside of the work. Who reads it and who writes it. When I write I feel like I’m kind of reading, that creates ease for me. To be in a kind of associative flow in the world and kind of download what you are seeing, thinking, remembering and acknowledge your own presence in the expedition. It seems so wrong (to include myself) that I get elated every time I do it and it seems that strategies and styles give me ever new ways to describe the world and the “I”’s place in it. Frankly I can barely write any other way. The person writing is always ready to bound into the narrative. So I think, say, in a film how long we would look at a piece of business, a kid tying a shoe, a horizon, and when I think about those as an extension of autobiography it seems impossible to say anything is not including the author but my signature is my signature and I think I decided early on I would go this way. I like the challenge of 3rd-personizing “me.” The possibilities are endless. It’s what everybody else is doing I wonder about.

3:AM: To my mind, you’ve set all kinds of precedents, but I want to focus for a minute on the fact that you’re – so far – the only lesbian poet to have run for American presidency. You’ve said before that in some ways writing is no different from being a presidential candidate. But what can a poet offer the political process that straightforwardly political candidates can’t?

EM: Oh, for better or worse we are trained to use the actual pattern of our thoughts. We don’t just take positions, we describe how they occurred. I think there’s a real community in every poet. Like… that multiplicity of positions that is an individual is not a suppressed element in our speech or discourse. I think politicians (and newscasters and much of the talk that goes on in public political life) is endlessly creating a myth that simple hard positions are possible, manly, and necessary. In a really complex time they are dumbing down thinking. What a disservice!

3:AM: Finally, a question that might irritate you but that still interests me. Sorry. I’m fascinated by your gender-boundary-defying comments. I’m thinking of “[r]eally not a girl anymore. A boy on her bed in the world” of Cool For You and “I knew I was a man… I was standing in nature alone, this guy” in School of Fish. I’d love it if you could elaborate a little on your feeling towards manliness and the male in relation to yourself. How would your writing change if you were a man?

EM: I don’t know. You know, when I look at friends who’ve taken T, everyone comes up different. I suppose I think of a man as being myself without worrying what will happen to me as a nonconforming female. I’m just as aware that I not only have female body parts but female beliefs and histories and aspirations. Because I’m female I fight for her. Yet which part of my desire, for instance, is male, and which part is female? I like making claims for being a man, a boy, because it was my secret feeling as a kid and I brought it in to the adult world as a dirty secret and as a lesbian it remained and remains. When a butch/femme dichotomy became the rule in the 80s or 90s, and then transgender issues moved to the forefront in queer culture the difficulty of being me… or… I can hide behind my generation here, too, the difficulty of being kind of a person with a big interior life of my time was that I had compromised and hid and proclaimed and refuted and generally wore only male clothing for twenty some years and said anything I wanted in my poems and writings – I don’t mean to get all Radclyffe Hall about it but the more it’s okay to simply become male more or less, to say ‘I am he’ and in some cultures have that pass, the less any avenue is simply right for me. Butch seems a little dissolved in the current climate. I think something romantic is called for here. I have dreamed I was a man for much of my life though I know I’m generally viewed as female even though I pass maybe half the time in my daily business. I am always happier in my dream which might mean in my home, or reading or performing or writing. The person who lives freely from the inside out is most readily described as male and I’m happiest and most familiar to myself when I’m him.

Eileen Myles is probably America’s best-known unofficial poet. She has been called “the rock star of modern poetry” by Bust Magazine and is, in the words of the New York Times, “a cult figure to a generation of post-punk females forming their own literary avant-garde.” She is the author of Sorry, Tree in which she describes “some nature”.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 2nd, 2009.