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Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is like no other poet in America. In part, this must be because Myles is not a product of academe, did not attend an MFA program, does not hold a university sinecure, and has, with fierce independence, created what The New York Times calls “one of the essential voices in American poetry.”  Indeed, Myles may be the ultimate poetry outsider.

Eileen Myles’s life and career make for a riveting tale. They – and they is her personal pronoun of choice – were born in Cambridge Mass to working-class Irish-Catholic parents, and attended parochial schools. Early in adolescence, they determined that they were queer, and that their queerness was a matter to celebrate. Coming of age in the late 60s-early 70s – well before the advent of the LGBT movement – they were notably comfortable in their sexual skin.

Following graduation from UMASS-Boston, Myles made two more, fateful decisions – to move to New York City and to become a poet. She arrived in the Big Apple in 1974, just as the Lower East Side was emerging as both cradle and crucible for music, art, and poetry. Andy Warhol was there, Allen Ginsberg was around, and so many others. The young Myles threw themself into the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, attending readings and workshops, and thus began the invention of a voice that became one of the great instruments in American poetry – a voice defined by candor, directness, and humor, a voice at once personal and natural in its edgy urban sensibility, a voice adaptable to a seemingly endless spectrum of emotional and intellectual inquiry.

In those early years in the city, Myles struggled, was poor, often drunk, emotionally unmoored, as it seemed was everyone else in the East Village, but the young poet stayed the course. They published their first book of poems The Irony of the Leash in 1978 (published on the mimeograph machine at St. Mark’s). They began to write reviews of art and theatre, which earned them pay checks and professional recognition. They published and edited the poetry magazine dodgems. They worked as assistant to the poet James Schuyler. They co-edited the feminist anthology Ladies Museum. And they co-founded Los Texans Collective, which went on to produce the play Patriarchy and the spiritual entertainment Joan of Arc. All of this, within five years of their arrival to New York!  

Myles was still poor; their life was still a mess; but they were busy, working hard, and meeting everyone. And all of this was happening outside academe, which meant that they were not considered for the usual prizes, fellowships, jobs, and other opportunities available to poets in the academic world. Instead, they were lesbian and living in New York, where they experienced first hand the AIDS epidemic. In 1984, in a kind of poetic justice, Myles became the Artistic Director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. In 1991-92, they ran for President of the United States, campaigning in 28 states and via MTV as an “openly female” write-in candidate. And they were in New York for 9/11. Indeed, there is in Myles’s work a constant and prevailing sense of living through history.

The poems kept coming, with increasing recognition, filling more than a dozen books and  culminating in I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems a magnum opus published in 2015 and surveying 40 years of poems, and the just published Evolution. The Boston Globe described Myles as “that rarest creature, a rock star of poetry.” At the same time, Myles’s art criticism has been published in Art Forum, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and Paris Review among others. In 2007, they published The Importance of Being Iceland: travel essays in art. They even published the popular Afterglow (a dog memoir), which the Village Voice praised as “a radical memoir about and for and by their now deceased but forever beloved pitbull Rosie.” Over the years, Myles’s productivity also extended to fiction with publication of the celebrated story collection Chelsea Girls (1994), and the novels Cool for You (a nonfiction novel (2000) and Inferno (a poet’s novel) (2010).

As if their lifelong frenzy of publishing were not a sufficient creative outlet, Myles also became a solo performance artist who has toured the nation and the world multiple times in pieces that include Leaving New York (1989), Life (1991), and Summer in Russia. They wrote several plays and the libretto for an opera called Hell, which were produced at important theatre and performance venues in New York.  Poems written by – and a character based on – Myles appeared in season 2 and 3 of the Emmy-winning Amazon show Transparent. The New Yorker described them as “a kick-ass counter-cultural icon.”    

Though well outside the mainstream, Myles’s work has earned many honors, including the Lambda Award (four time awardee), the Clark Prize for art writing, and the Shelley 
Award from the Poetry Society of America, along with many grants, including from the Warhol Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.  And in very recent years, 
Myles has received teaching appointments at NYU and the University of California at San Diego.  

Though it’s way too soon to eulogize the creative force of nature that is Eileen Myles, what a life! 


Mitten
By Eileen Myles


It’s beautiful. I mean
it’s beautiful here
but the thing 
is it is beautiful.
The peach sky is beautiful
and black outlines 
of the branches
and the leaves
look I even 
hesitate but it doesn’t
matter if it all comes
at once or breaks
down slow. Catch this
honking or the rumbling
of the world.  Last
night in “Different
Streets” which I didn’t 
bother to write I made
the point that the two places
are connected and its great
where you are too
and boom boom rumble
all the places are connected
thus the endless
beauty. And I have been
beaten & suffered and you
have too. Whoop whoop
listen to that someone
getting arrested. Someone
caught, someone’s heart
just stopped. Someone
else holding the bag.
I wrote something else
about the day holding me
and me holding you. A car
passes like a big breath.
It’s what I’ve got: all these
things and I hand them
to you like sex in the city.
My ideal. Our endless
sound. Our connection.
Listen to all your voices now.  

        


Greece 
by Eileen Myles


This summer
I tell my friends
I intend to spend
a solid month
in Greece.

This is ridiculous
my friends say.
Look at yourself.
Your shoes are worn thin.
When rent time comes
you fall down on the street
and cry
until someone comes along
drops dollar bills on you.

I will go to Greece.
For a solid month.

Living on a Greek isle.
Bordered by the blue Aegean.
In a small stone house.
I can go to Greece
if I want.

On July 1st
sitting in my apartment
with my sandals on
I will be in Greece.

This is madness
my friends say.
You cannot travel by sheer 
desire.
I agree with them.  It’s madness.
But in Greece I will be sane.