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Yoga for Losers Part 1

By Eileen Myles

The following is the first of two parts of a keynote I gave at the Advancing Feminist Poetics Conference at CUNY last week…

I have a bunch of things I’ve been reflecting on lately and I wonder what kind of keynote they’ll make. Generally I’m happiest with the off the cuff remarks which are so often planned. I have a number of things and I’ll jot them on an index card which seems a blank postcard to myself perfect little luggage with several of these I sit down and then the utter formality of the poetry world always feeds me. I feel like a predator.

The formal aspect of our world is never the party any of us came for. I’ve been trained through performance and an aspect of my private life to speak extemporaneously (which is actually the thing that is most repressed in the confererence settings except for the person who is getting to speak which is why not getting invited makes us mad – uninvited you’re squashed back down into the public silence of the gathering) and we all teach that way don’t we – a lot. You can always recognize a person who teaches by their unabashed capacity to talk to themselves in front of others – for hours.  There’s a kind of oblivious surface they excrete. It’s palpable, you can feel it. Of course you can never more feel it with a high school teacher but people who teach poetry in college are really good at blah blah blah. But somehow when we give papers or keynotes or panels we want to get it right nail it so we tend to write it down.

Jim Carroll just died which is one thing on my mind. He was an exceptional poet performer and he had one trick which I’ve thought about for years which was to look up from the text he was reading from and spontaneously fill you in a little more. To explore in some detail what he had been reading about. It made the audience cheer that they had come because Jim live gave even more than Jim on the page. But if you happily bought his  book you would discover that Jim was merely delivering direct to the audience a part of the text but acting as if it were off the cuff. He was spontaneously doing himself. He never said it; it was all delivered in tone. There’s a kind of genius in this, to almost appropriate your own work to your own ends, it’s a joke that you rope the audience into. It’s a con.

Patti Smith, is another poet performer who started hanging around in the late sixties in New York and hit her public stride in the mid seventies. Patti would organize the chaos of her patter into an art. If you listen to her early recordings you’ll hear her babbling about Arthur Rimbaud or Gerard De Nerval and then the babble becomes percussive which releases the poem that is essentially a chant and then it was just bringing the band in but they were already there. She created room for them in the poem. And Patti always came with an entourage to her early performances and her friends would chat with her onstage and she sounded and looked scared and that look evoked a kind of protective fan ship from the crowd both her friends and everyone else. It was Patti’s vulnerability when she performed that was her performance’s single most compelling note. It was a collective inside. It was breathing. She was Patti to an audience of Patti’s somehow. One felt the triumph of us in her earliest performances. Like Yoga for losers.

I’m always thinking another name for poetry would help out at this point and also another name for feminism. Isn’t that the impulse to make schools. I’m hoping in this conference someone will explain it to me. I mean if you’re using something everybody already knows (Language, Conceptual) and putting things in it that everybody already does then I think it’s a store, not a school. Maybe even a chain. It contributes to the history of branding not aesthetics. Poetry just seems like a handful of things and the spark part is how they are connected. I’d like to write about that spark but maybe that is what I’m doing. I’ve been noticing lately after taking yoga classes erratically for about ten years and mostly feeling rage through them as the person is telling me how to breathe and move and I’m freaked out by the intimacy and my inability to pay attention and then how rigid I am in some places. I’m stuck. The teacher gives you little tips. You’re doing something where you hold your knees to your chest and she advises that you stretch your back out and put your tailbone on the floor or spread your shoulders feel it open your chest. These are the things I rarely hear in the present maybe in about one class in ten but years later doing the stretch on my own on the floor the idea comes unbidden and the posture changes and I swiftly move to the next.

When we do a poetry reading we act as if we are unaware of the silence between the poems or that we never expected it would be there when we know perfectly well how long each poem is and when we are moving from one to the next especially if you look at all the post its flapping out of your book. You knew you’d be standing there drinking water leaving us awkward and thirsty. I love that Jim and Patti made those synapses be the life of the show. Jim’s interruptions of the text itself made the moments in between texts be invisible. We know he is our friend. He has opened up to us now and so we’re comfortable sitting here waiting together in time till Jim sees what’s next. I remember that he was a bartender’s son. He knew you were watching.

I remember watching Robert Pinsky give a reading many years ago; pre poet Laureate Pinsky and he wore a beautiful striped shirt that he read a poem about. His entire delivery was smug and well honed; each little anecdote between the poems was planned and had obviously been work shopped through multiple test audiences to see what pleased us and what we could stand. This was not a spontaneous poet. Not even trying to look that way. Tight as a bandbox, kind of a hale and hearty fellow for librarians I thought. He was reading with a friend of mine. He’s horrible I whispered and she got mad that I would say this while he was in the room. But the room was where I was offended. The interregnum remarks of the poet tell us whom he or she is speaking to. If you are uncomfortable with their description of reality you don’t have to stay. They inform us of the nature of the whole production. Is this an intellectual exercise, is entertainment part of it now, maybe it will be, was it ever. Often people think ‘I hate poetry’ in response to these moments. It may be an appropriate response. But poets are the people who enjoy passing through these changes. Again I say Yoga for Losers.

In my Iceland book one of the things I say all the time when I read from it is that its one of the most lesbian books of art writing that doesn’t call itself that. I mean the book was written in bits and pieces over the years assembled I think much like a poetry reading. A reading I think considers the effect of the last piece listens and drops another one into that opening that will address or attenuate or alter the affect that continues to rumble in the reader and the audience’s minds and bodies. It’s an accumulation of things. Yoga for losers, so to speak. I say the lesbian thing because I’m continually (since I wrote the pieces separately) announcing my lesbianity in individual pieces because it was always an opportunity in public to stick that word in the unlikely place in the world when I’m writing an art review or a personal column or an essay. I kept seizing this opportunity to out myself and now I have the problem of putting these pieces together and wondering if I’ve said the word lesbian thirty-eight times or two hundred and fifty times or ninety-seven.  Then I realize I can search and I have. I think it’s similar with the phrase language poet. (More tomorrow….)

Comments (33)

  • On October 3, 2009 at 10:42 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I like this & I don’t like this. That’s how it is; this is my reaction; this is my riff. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Whatever. I like this because it sings along so effectively, like a jazz drummer who knows every touch on the syllable-skin;

    I DON’T like this, because, logically, my thought is that free extempore self-improvisation IS the CANONICAL FORMALIST STYLE of AMERICA TODAY – so that Eileen Myles’s persona of jammin’-kool rebel is in that (& only that) specific-particular sense an example of bad faith – because deep down she’s a Formalist of the reigning American Style – deep down she’s a lost American Prodigal Patriot of the Popular-Projectile Style –

    duplex, divided –
    I can identify, sort of – I have mixed feelings about it –

    just sayin’ -

  • On October 4, 2009 at 1:14 pm Terreson wrote:

    Mostly the address strikes me. Its motif, poetry as yoga for losers, is well developed and I think I get it. Mind you, it is not something I can subscribe to, since, for me, and at its best, poetry is a shake down, a take down, a shiver and a seizure. Still, it is nicely threaded through and with merit of its own.

    At the risk of being impolite where the address fails for me is when it expresses the writer’s animus against another poet, an animus expressed elsewhere I think, even if I can’t remember where. This strikes me as mean spirited, a cheap and unnecessary shot actually, causing a diminishment in what I think the writing wants to effect: an abolition of words that categorize and, therefore, keep people strangers to each other. Just my take. I hope the piece was well received.

    Terreson

  • On October 4, 2009 at 3:52 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Way past time to get over yourself, isn’t it, Myles?

  • On October 4, 2009 at 4:43 pm Rachel wrote:

    “and we all teach that way don’t we – a lot.”

    Is this true? I wonder.

    “You can always recognize a person who teaches by their unabashed capacity to talk to themselves in front of others – for hours. There’s a kind of oblivious surface they excrete. It’s palpable, you can feel it. Of course you can never more feel it with a high school teacher but people who teach poetry in college are really good at blah blah blah.”

    Maybe. Or maybe not. Again, I wonder.

  • On October 4, 2009 at 4:43 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    What I mean by this is why do you have to wear your homosexuality on your sleeve like it’s…I don’t know…the Medal of Honor or a big red ‘A’ or something? What do these personal details contribute to poetry, after all? I think most people are sick and tired of this ‘us and them’ bullshit: gay and straight, black and white, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, cool and uncool. Why would any poet want to compartmentalize and limit themselves like that? ‘Gay’ poet, ‘Feminist poet’, ‘Latino’ poet, ‘Political’ poet. Can’t we just be poets? Jeez, get over it.

  • On October 4, 2009 at 4:49 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    I say the lesbian thing because I’m continually (since I wrote the pieces separately) announcing my lesbianity in individual pieces because it was always an opportunity in public to stick that word in the unlikely place in the world when I’m writing an art review or a personal column or an essay. I kept seizing this opportunity to out myself and now I have the problem of putting these pieces together and wondering if I’ve said the word lesbian thirty-eight times or two hundred and fifty times or ninety-seven.

    Yay for you, Eileen!! Thanks!!! Cheers and whistles from the peanut gallery!!!

  • On October 5, 2009 at 9:33 am Zach wrote:

    While there is certainly a fair amount of overlap, I believe there is a significant difference between being a “Lesbian Poet” and a poet who is a lesbian. The former is a niche (and a politically important one) detailing and dissecting the experience of being an “other” in society. Someone mentioned “don’t ask, don’t tell” earlier, and saying these distinctions do not matter, should be ignored, is dangerously close to that process of institutional discrimination.
    As for the latter, of which I think Eileen’s work is a good example, her mentions of lesbianism in her essays seem to me more of an aside to the subjects. A qualifier for her point of view. When writing about art, this distinction is valuable and necessary for the reader. It lets us know what we are getting ourselves into. Any irritation it provokes seems to me a reaction of some sort of discomfort in the reader, and whose fault is that?

    Would you say the same thing about Lucille Clifton writing about African women? Should she have gotten over it?

  • On October 5, 2009 at 10:55 am Eileen Myles wrote:

    Gary

    I’ll say more but this is kind of 21st c 101. If you are “normal” ie straight. Everything’s about you. You don’t even notice it. You are the world. Gay people or people of color or women are always accused of wearing their heart on their sleeve but what’s actually going on is I (they are) am stating my presence which rocks the boat (still which is amazing, but true) because we’re all supposed to be one under the rubric of heterosexuality. In a way I’m announcing your otherness which is what makes you so uncomfortable. I’m not the problem. The silent empire of you is. Silent like every valentines day commercially silently being about you. What a world. You are making me so excited about my final post. Of course I’ve liked so many things you’ve said or written here but this blind spot seems actually so impoverishing for you and your world view. How lonely to live this way.

    Eileen

  • On October 5, 2009 at 12:18 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Eileen, you can’t seriously be trying to use these tired old arguments from the 70’s to justify your current verbal exhibitionism. I don’t know where you live, but you should move right away. Where I live, the significance of the difference between gay and straight and black and white and Hispanic and Asian went away decades ago. I work in a company with all of these types of people, and more, and we not only work together but socialize together and nobody really gives a rodent’s rectum about sexual orientation anymore. The only value this knowledge has in general society is knowing who not to hit on. :-)

    Maybe it’s you that should take 21st C 101. Welcome to it.

    I also can’t help but wonder, based on my earlier comment, how you would even know whether I’m not gay or TG. A little (arrogantly) presumptuous of you, isn’t it?

    Gary

  • On October 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Oh, and Zach:

    “…saying these distinctions do not matter, …is dangerously close to that process of institutional discrimination.”

    This is a classic oxymoron, isn’t it? I always though discrimination WAS the identification of distinctions.

    dis•crim•i•na•tion (dĭ-skrĭm’ə-nā’shən)
    n.
    1.The act of discriminating.

    2. The ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment.

    3. Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice: racial discrimination; discrimination against foreigners.

  • On October 5, 2009 at 2:03 pm Zach wrote:

    While I enjoy splitting hairs just as much as the next person, I believe the intent of the statement was clear enough.
    I think it’s great that you work in such an eclectic and accepting environment, but I find it narrow-minded to assume that the general mindset of our culture (assuming you are American) functions in that way.
    I live and work in New York City, a supposed Mecca of acceptance for queer-identified people, as well as countless other groups of societies “others,” and I see shit on the street every day that informs me that quite a large number of people are not, in fact, “over it.”

  • On October 5, 2009 at 2:40 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Zach:

    I’m originally from New York. I graduated from High School on Long Island and went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I see things haven’t changed much in 40 years.

    All I can say is: “Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.”

    GBF

  • On October 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Yeah, Eileen, Gary’s a lesbian, don’t you know? That’s why he’s an expert on lesbians. He has all the qualifications to speak for lesbians, because he is one, see. Get with the program!

  • On October 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    A) That was mean, Mary.

    B) My point is that people are people, gay or not.

    C) I am probably personally acquainted with more lesbians than you are AS a lesbian.

    D) Get with the program. You are actually discriminating against yourselves simply by DEMANDING to be considered different. In everything that counts, you aren’t at all.

  • On October 5, 2009 at 4:23 pm Terreson wrote:

    It always pains me when the conversation among poets becomes a fractured fairy tale.

    ~You can’t know what I feel. I am a lesbian and you are not.

    ~You can’t imagine what I’ve experienced. I am african-american and you are a cracker.

    ~You can’t understand me. I am the product of poverty and domestic abuse. You are the product of privelige.

    The fracturing list goes on. Then I think of things like this. Hands down Russia’s greatest poet was Pushkin. (in a whisper I point out that his great grandfather was an Egyptian (black) slave who happened to find favor with his Czar.) Jean Toomer, sort of associated with the Harlem renaissance, was taken to task for his lack of “negro” consciousness. To which he responded that he was a writer first, a black man second. Victor Hugo, France’s greatest Romantic poet, had African in his blood. Sappho’s poetry was less devoted to the women she loved, including her daughter, than it was to Aphrodite, the Goddess of love itself. And who ever thinks to remember that Whitman was a pedophile or that Melville was so in love with Hawthorn Hawthorn’s wife had to insist upon no more visits?

    I read you people, with your biases and agendas, and I get again something Yeats said in a late journal entry. From memory, the Moderns speak to the partial person, the Ancients speak to the whole. I kind of want the whole of the human condition back in poetry. I understand that for centuries poetry’s universals have been defined by men and by the ruling classes. I get it. Now give me the new universals and no more of this fractured, fracturing fairy tale.

    Terreson

  • On October 5, 2009 at 5:05 pm Rachel wrote:

    “I say the lesbian thing because I’m continually (since I wrote the pieces separately) announcing my lesbianity in individual pieces because it was always an opportunity in public to stick that word in the unlikely place in the world when I’m writing an art review or a personal column or an essay. I kept seizing this opportunity to out myself and now I have the problem of putting these pieces together and wondering if I’ve said the word lesbian thirty-eight times or two hundred and fifty times or ninety-seven.”

    At what point, if ever, does this approach become the equivalent of Pinsky’s well honed, striped shirt? I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a legitimate question one might ask of oneself or of someone else.

  • On October 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm Rachel wrote:

    “From memory, the Moderns speak to the partial person, the Ancients speak to the whole. I kind of want the whole of the human condition back in poetry.”

    I think Eileen said it best in the Yoga for Losers II thread when she wrote (about being sick of the word feminism): “Don’t we ever just get to be.” [Whole, human, universal.]

  • On October 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm Adam Strauss wrote:

    I very much agree with Eileen: heterosexuality is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo present in this world in a strong but also unconsciously marked way, that there’s nothing behind the times about continually calling attention to one’s homosexuality. Every time I drive anyplace, I’m swamped by heterosexuality! It’s the audience for, for example, every billboard or advertising sign which doesn’t have to do with food (tho surely some food adds feature hetersex couples); the number of–in public spaces–clearly homosexualized visual markers is rather scanty, I’d argue, to the point where one, except in certain communities, might be pursuaded to believe that non-hetersexsers don’t exist! Oh yah, the radio is mostly rather heterosexy too…but I’ll gladly admit that I ADORE the radio!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • On October 5, 2009 at 7:43 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Yes, Adam, it is difficult to be a minority in this society.

    You should try being a poet!

  • On October 5, 2009 at 7:49 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    And now, as everybody who knows me here expects, since I have survived another stressful Monday at work (and have gotten totally loaded to compensate), I just can’t resist posting a poem.

    Eileen said:

    “Silent like every valentines day commercially silently being about you. What a world.”

    I think this poem might speak to all ‘preferences’.

    .
    Valentine + 30

    Wow! All these years and
    such an ass, so many bad decisions
    but still you never left me.
    So inconsiderate, so often crass,
    but you’re still here beside me.
    You still make my dinner,
    pick up my clothes (carelessly tossed
    despite all admonitions)
    and still each year you happily accept
    my guilty February rose.

    Have I thanked you even half as often
    as all the things you’ve done for me?

    .
    Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD 2008, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On October 5, 2009 at 7:54 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Fooked up me own book title, I did. I think I’ll split before Travis beats me up.

    Did you know that the Harriet staff sent me a personal letter advising me that I would be cut off after 12 beers or three poems, whichever came first?

  • On October 5, 2009 at 11:49 pm Adam Strauss wrote:

    For GS:

    I could qualify for that identity, if it counts that
    I read poems for at-least 4 hours each week, that I write
    poems for, usually, at-least ten hours each week, and that I send submissions of poems out frequently…but, and this is a personal preference, not a critique, I don’t consider myself a poet: I prefer human or, maybe even better, just
    plain living; poetry is very important to me, but it can hardly account for all that living entails, so it seems a bit reductive. I hope all’s well!

  • On October 6, 2009 at 11:46 am Teri G. wrote:

    Terreson and Gary: A multicultural society isn’t one in which everyone is at the office or the poetry reading pretending to be the same. A multicultural society is one in which differences are acknowledged and accepted as such. The dominant culture in poetry and outside doesn’t need to pat the different folks on the head and say, I knew we were all the same! We’re not all the same. Respect that.

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:11 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Teri:

    Point taken and well put. The issue Eileen brought up, of course, is basically social acceptance of differences in sexual orientation, but what I was trying to address is a deeper level of ‘sameness’. What I said above (before my little snit) was that we are all the same “in everything that counts”, i.e., fear, pain, love, anger, happiness and mortality. Ultimately, we’re all on the same boat. They say there are no Atheists in foxholes. I say that death does not discriminate. This sounds so obvious and banal that we never really think about it. Think about it! In the face of these overarching realities the differences between us seem silly and melt away.

    Gary

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:35 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    It’s kind of weird to get critiqued on my style. You mean if I wrote in a conventional expository format that wouldn’t be worthy of comment. What about your speak. I think your comment goes into the same difference argument that for some reason my post provoked which is that there’s something troubling about claiming a difference in your writing style or your content. Especially in your case because my difference in your head is reigning and I can tell you from my years as a poet journalist it’s an argument every time. One gets aloud to write “like that” or “this” in quirky little poetry journals and cultural mags but to try and use the vernacular you’ve arrived on in a more mainstream journal and all you get is editors trying to fix you. I’ve had some success in bucking this but you can’t tell me I am canonical. That just isn’t true.

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:39 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    I did make a pot shot at another poet and it had happened here, earlier in my blogging life. My take is we can write publicly about someone who is “big” and rewarded because they can take it. Some of the names of the awards poets get beg it, really. I also think we can lambast younger less experienced writers if they are pontificating, making large claims as if from a acceptable position of power – we all know that soldiers are political or some other weird proposition. Or if the younger writer cites ludicrous claims by older writer as if that assures him credibility. I guess what I’m saying is the world is more interesting if we write what we want and I try not to be a bully unless I think someone else is being a fool. Is that ethics or aesthetics. I dunno.

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    This is so good. Thanks Zach…

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:43 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    Of all the mysterious things you said this is the most mysterious. I will respond to your larger claims like I said in a bigger post not to you but the I think larger issue of privilege blindness. But I saw your latest post and do recognize I think you are finding a less combative ground to consider it all from and I am glad to hear that…

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:50 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    I think the idea is that we don’t replace our lost universals with new ones. We reconstruct the whole idea of what a culture is. We don’t have a handy center anymore cause centers and universals do the work of silencing. Our links for instance tell another story…

  • On October 6, 2009 at 1:55 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    I think when I anyone does it badly, when the response to the patter is a kind of dullness, a sense that we’re being talked down to or patronized or preached to. Different work has different audiences. I was certain Pinksky was not speaking to or for me. I think (and this was the point of my piece in many ways) there’s as many responses to what a person puts out (obviously) as there are pieces. So maybe you are in a sneaky way saying that I am as bad as Pinksy (but do you think Pinsky is bad – did you hear his performance, do you trust my account?) but are not willing to say that. Not so sly, Rachel. Actually your indirect question felt dull to me.

  • On October 6, 2009 at 3:09 pm Rachel wrote:

    No, I wasn’t saying you are dull. My question may have been dull, but it wasn’t meant to be indirect.

    Of Pinsky you wrote: “This was not a spontaneous poet. Not even trying to look that way.” I had at the back of my mind this quote from Rich: “We see despair in the political activist who doggedly goes on and on, turning in the ashes of the same burnt-out rhetoric, the same gestures, all imagination spent.” I’m not saying, if you use “the word lesbian thirty-eight times or two hundred and fifty times or ninety-seven,” it automatically becomes a burnt-out gesture. I’m also not saying I think the world is an enlightened place as Gary finds it to be.

    For the sake of this discussion, I was accepting your evaluation of Pinsky (who I have never heard read), and my question really was: How do you avoid following into the same trap? How do any of us? Political activist, political poet, non-political poet, how do we avoid the same old ashy gestures? How do we avoid becoming caricatures of ourselves? I‘m not implying you have fallen into this trap; I’m asking you how you avoid it.

  • On October 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm Rachel wrote:

    I understand the point you are making, Gary, and I agree with it. Those deep universals, the ones that unite, are the ones I think Terreson was referring to as well.

  • On October 7, 2009 at 12:45 am Adam Strauss wrote:

    I’d argue that the world’s not a case of “in the face of these overarching realities the differences between us seem silly and melt away”–I don’t think the difference Eileen is addressing is silly, and I’d be rather surprised if it melts away (and if it does, hurray, as the world GS is describing could–not always, sometimes–be read as the closet). Just because there are differences does not, however, mean that common elements of existence should be overlooked, that difference should always, with no critical consciousness, be be priviliged.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, October 3rd, 2009 by Eileen Myles.