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A Portrait of the Artist Engulfed in Flames

Eileen Myles, a poet in her Inferno.

In maybe 2005 I was in a used bookstore in Williamsburg, randomly scanning the shelves for something interesting, and I saw a copy of Eileen Myles’s poetry collection School of Fish. This was a few years after I’d first read her story collection Chelsea Girls, and in the interim I had read Chelsea Girls several more times. I don’t usually reread books, but I realized after the second time I read Chelsea Girls that rereading it—even a page or a story—had a salutary effect on my brain and on my ability to write anything at all. There was a sense of permission implicit in Myles’s writing; it might have been just the idea that your stories didn’t have to contain large frilly descriptive passages about how everything in a room looked and smelled and what everyone in the room was probably thinking. She gave me the idea that you could trust readers to assume a lot, and that not only did this mean less fakey straining for you, it also meant a different kind of experience for readers—a better kind, I thought.

I picked up School of Fish, already knowing that I was going to buy it, and a note slipped out. It was addressed to the then-head of the English program at the college I’d graduated from a year earlier, and it was written in the half-bragging, half-begging tone I knew well, because at that time I was working as an assistant at a publishing house, and a lot of my work involved reading people’s cover letters. But this was a cover letter from Eileen Myles, hoping the professor’s summer was going well, asking if she could teach two classes, implying that this would improve her financial situation. She had inscribed the book to him (“Warmly,”), and he had sold it. OK, I guess. There are only so many books a person can own at any one time, but I still couldn’t imagine ever selling a signed one, and definitely not one signed by Eileen Myles. Eileen Fucking Myles! Didn’t the professor know Eileen Myles was famous? She was famous, wasn’t she?

In the intervening years, during which I have mentioned Eileen Myles every time anyone has ever asked who my favorite writers are, I have come to the conclusion that Eileen Myles is somehow still not famous. Which: what the fuck? Eileen Myles has been working steadily for 30-plus years, and she has written several brilliant books—prose and poetry and some other stuff that blurs the already-blurry distinction between these types of writing. Maybe the problem is that people don’t know where in the bookstore to stick her, or that she has never been taken up by a mainstream publisher, not even one of the “quirky” ones like Grove. Maybe the problem is her defiant approach to punctuation, her refusal—except when she is mimicking a voice—to ever employ question marks. Maybe it’s because she is never apologetic, especially for being rapaciously sexual and snobby/bitchy about other poets and artists.

Yeah, maybe those are the reasons she isn’t famous, and maybe this novel, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) will change that. I hope it will! Possibly, though, it won’t. For one thing, Inferno’s subject is Myles and her unfamousness—also, her unfamousness contrasted with the famousness of some of the New York poets and artists she has spent the past 30 or so years hanging out with or reading or reading to or admiring or despising. Inferno is also about the practical and psychological difficulty of writing even after it has become clear that the world attaches almost zero cash value to the kind of writing you do. Inferno is not really a coming-of-age novel or a portrait of an artist as a young budding artist/human, though it plays at being that type of book. Instead, it’s a portrait of a writer in middle age coming to terms with having spent a lifetime being a writer—and the inherent limitedness of writing a book about writing.

My girlfriend and I were standing in our kitchen—while I pondered the hopelessness of writing a book about a poet. Well she tooted. Have you ever considered the demographic you are writing for. Yes I have as a matter of fact.

I have also considered the demographic Myles is writing for and concluded: it is writers. And even in this era of everyone hobbyistically thinking they are somewhat writers, due to the Internet, that still might not be very many people.

The people this book is for, though, will consider themselves very lucky to be reading it.

Inferno is divided into several sections, roughly imitative of the divisions of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first section traces Myles’s first few years in New York, dancing around in time and circling back again and again to the moment when Myles has to decide whether or not she will literally prostitute herself. The second section is in the form of a uniquely baggy and deranged grant proposal—in theory, one that Myles has actually submitted. “In [the second section of my novel], I concern myself with the career of the poet,” Myles writes in an introductory “Abstract.” This section is made up of stories from the writing underground—readings, salons, experimental theater—but the cumulative impact of these small-scale narratives of love and sex and poetic infighting becomes apparent only toward the novel’s end.

Dante’s poem is explicitly mentioned only twice. The first time is at the book’s outset, when it’s taught in the poetry class where a young Myles, hot for teacher, receives intimations that she is (a) a poet and (b) a lesbian. Then near the beginning of the second half, after Myles has been discussing the jinxed and strange hierarchy of poet-fame, she describes visiting Dante’s grave in Ravenna: “This older couple took my picture in front of Dante’s big mound. It was a handsome flat stone surrounded by ivy. It would look great on the back of this book. Blurbs streaming across the ivy.” In her hotel lobby, she picks up a copy of the best-selling book Seabiscuit, which tells the story of a successful racehorse. This spurs a protracted meditation on the appeal of pulpy, mainstream literature, why it connects with so many people, and the position Inferno and its author occupy in relation to it:

The marketing people will say—so who is she. Who is the author of this book, this lesbian no one, that we should listen to all this crap about her development. She didn’t win anything, right. Okay. Did anything horrible happen to her. Noooo. I mean yes but that’s not what she’s writing about here and maybe it wasn’t that bad. I love this book, the editor writes. We all love your book but we can’t get it past the marketing people. Cause who are you—I mean really. I’m … uh the poet Eileen Myles. Why not. If a fucking horse can tell his story why can’t I.

The parts of the book that do not explicitly concern themselves with the circumstances of the book’s creation are pretty great, too. The stories of Myles’s lesbian sexual awakening are by far the most vivid portrayals of the mechanics and emotions—both subtle and gross—associated with eating pussy that I have ever encountered in literature or even, really, in porn. And I especially liked the section titled “Solo Performance,” the story of a six-city tour of Germany undertaken in a van filled with the downtown literary stars of the ’80s: Chris Kraus, Kraus’s then-husband Sylvère Lotringer, Ann Rower, Lynne Tillman, Richard Hell, and tour headliner Kathy Acker. Myles reports on Acker’s diva antics with dispassionate, hilarious accuracy and absolutely zero piousness of the mustn’t-speak-ill variety: “Everyone traveled in the van except Kathy. Right from the beginning she didn’t want to be with us. Ducking us all in the airport, covering her face with a newspaper. Semiotext(e) and the Germans had to rent her a scooter to go on the tour. Kathy was always such a bitch.”

At each tour stop Myles would read her showstopper, “An American Poem”: “Though I have many great and wonderful poems, I have written one distinctly famous one and I believe it is the key to my oeuvre,” she writes, and she’s sort of taking the piss but also she is absolutely comfortable asserting that her work is great. This poem, presented in its entirety, reliably devastated the German audiences—except in Berlin, where Myles found herself giving a great performance to a totally unresponsive crowd. Halfway through it, she realized that the audience was being distracted by a live camera feed of Kathy Acker’s tattooed arm projected onto a screen behind Myles:

You asshole, I screamed. I went off on the cameraman. I made a very eloquent speech about the silencing power of the media. Nan [Goldin] told me later that I didn’t need to get mad. I was somehow missing the point, or taking it wrong. Oh sure, Nan. During some show of yours they should hit the lights and project somebody else’s work on the wall. Larry Clark, some cool guy. . . .

But even as she snipes hilariously, Myles offers readers who missed the ’80s in the East Village a Goldinesque glimpse into that degraded but somehow more innocent-seeming time. It can be more affecting than those photos, even, because of what Myles leaves to the imagination:

There was a party once at a place called Indochine and Julian Schnabel and Andy and Basquiat and Keith Haring and Lauren Hutton, and Pat Hearne in a beehive singing, they were all there. It was sort of a heaven place, not mine but one of them. If vanishing is one of the requirements of heaven, souls being eaten by their own brightness, it was definitely accomplished here.

Describing the heyday of NEA-sponsored experimental art and its shameful end, Myles writes, “This is definitely not the story of my novel, but please look it up. The cultural wars in the United States started with poetry. I just think people should know.” What is a poet to do, then, in an era when poetry for all intents does not matter to anyone besides other poets? This is the question asked and finally answered—in a satisfying way, even—by the book’s final chapter. Myles describes a winter day in Provincetown, taking a walk, whipping out her notebook but then deciding not to write:

It had lately been a problem that poems didn’t make money, you couldn’t sell them, so what were they worth. . . . When I was younger I watched [poetry] become money and that saved me. It became my work. Now I was just standing in the day. Had I ever considered what this was worth. Just standing in the goods. If the words I plucked out of standing here were incomplete then probably they were not “it.” And maybe this was. The thing was existence itself.

You can’t buy food or pay your rent in “existence itself,” though, and being somewhat sneeringly designated a “rock star poet” doesn’t, probably, make it any nicer for poets—Myles especially—to read professional writers’ increasingly common unabashed declarations that they “just don’t like poetry.” Such a declaration emanated last year from blogger Jenna Sauers, who began a post on the Gawker Media women’s site Jezebel, a site for which I've written and with which I've had some disputes, by declaring herself opposed to poetry “both academically and personally,” but nevertheless said she’d thought that attending a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club might be a “perfect way to kill a dreary afternoon.” In the post—subtitled, in standard Internet-hyperbolic style, “Scenes from the World’s Most Annoying Poetry Reading”—Sauers described how she and her companion had managed to infuriate some other audience member (to be fair, a cranky-sounding one) with their laughter, but had later congratulated the poet they’d laughed at. That poet, probably feeling awkward about the whole situation, had then thanked them for laughing. Myles, who’d also been in the audience, wrote a comment in response to the post, which read in part:

You were actually in a live community of artists and intellectuals. You weren’t invisible. You know poetry is not just a spectator sport. It’s not holiday shopping. If I went to a gay male event and was choking with joy at every come shot it would be a little weird. It’s a public event but your friend’s incredibly loud laughter had a distinct character. Your pal invited attention and then was high falluting in his response to the fact that people actually [heard] him. Ariana invited comments and I loved that Nada said what a lot of people were thinking. Who’s the over-excited dude compelled to make the room think about HIS pleasure. I love that you reverse it like we were repressing you, we were the serious ones. Ugh. And you were and are his lady pit bull. Nada was irritated, I was bugged. Don’t be such a coward. If you want to take up a lot of space at a public event you can’t take it back afterwards. You are part of the performance. You’re with the big dogs now, little puppy. Stick with your Christmas shopping lady. You might like movies better. Those people up on the screen won’t hear you. Go to some neighborhood where everyone will feel at one with your wise and smothering laughter. Just buy, chuckle and feel totally in control. Thanks for your freedom of speech.

The other commenters, predictably, had nothing but contempt for Myles. “Seriously?” one wrote. “This is the poetry goddess we’ve all been told we should not just bow, but wallow prostrate in ’gasm over? What a crock. . . . People like you, Ms. Myles, make me want to throw my writing in the fire and go do something respectable, with people who’re worth a good goddamn.”

Aside from the total dumbassness of threatening to abandon writing for respectability (like: ooooh, no! You mustn’t!), this commenter sums up exactly the opposite of how I feel about Myles’s comment, and about her writing in general. In an era when it often feels as though whatever writing spotlight still exists belongs to whoever can be the most abrasive or pandering—that supposed limitless voice-giver, the Internet, serving actually to shut down discourse right and left for people who aren’t as brazen as Myles and don’t particularly relish the thought of being shouted down by packs of dummies if they venture to put forth their version of a shared experience—Myles is a voice of reason and a voice of courage. Above all, she’s a voice of taking your art completely seriously while not taking yourself too seriously at all. It’s terrifying that so many people could so completely miss her point. It’s emboldening, though, that she and her work exist.



A Portrait of the Artist Engulfed in Flames

Eileen Myles, a poet in her Inferno.


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