“Fame is merely advanced sentiment.”
Eileen Myles wrote that line. If you follow contemporary American poetry, you probably heard of her years ago: she is the author of 19 books, has been a central player in the poetry community of downtown New York City for decades, is a lesbian literature superstar, writes about and collaborates with renowned avant-garde artists in other mediums, and has toured and taught all over the world. That said, she’s a poet, and even famous poets are rarely household names. Lately, though, she’s hard to miss: last fall, two Myles books were published: a reissue of one of her most famous titles, the 1994 novel Chelsea Girls, and a volume of new and selected poems, I Must Be Living Twice. She’s become a media darling, profiled everywhere from the Paris Review to New York Magazine and featured in not one but two articles in the same recent issue of the Sunday New York Times.
One of Myles’s earliest influences was Andy Warhol, so it makes sense that she seems to be approaching the sudden spike in her celebrity with a mixture of bemusement, scholarly curiosity, giddy enthusiasm, and Zen detachment. It is not lost on her that as a poet who has often written about fame, she is now as famous as a poet can get, and that this role is fraught. Famous people are of course the repositories for the hopes, dreams, and shames of the non-famous. Through depictions of their lives and choices—no matter how manufactured or one-dimensional the versions we receive might be—we see our own.
This is also perhaps the purpose of autobiographical literature: the Confessional poem, the memoir, the fictionalized account of a life we recognize as the author’s own, all of which are genres and styles Myles has played with over the years. Sometimes the reception of such a literary work generates fame for the author, and thus both the life-depicting work and the life itself are altered ever after by celebrity so that the art and the image are indistinguishable. This is the hall of mirrors in which Myles finds herself in now.
For example, Myles pops up in a recent New Yorker profile of television-show creator Jill Soloway, her current romantic partner. In the kind of meet-cute that usually happens only on sitcoms, Soloway had never met Myles until she began researching her as the basis for a lesbian poet-academic character, Leslie Mackinaw, for Soloway’s hit TV show, Transparent. The research led to a virtual crush, and after the two appeared on a panel together in Los Angeles, an actual relationship began. Although the New Yorker piece is about Soloway, not Myles, Myles has the last word in the piece: There is “the fiction of being alive,” she said, how with “every step, you’re making up who you are.”
In a conversation with Adam Fitzgerald for (Warhol’s) Interview magazine, Myles talked about Warhol’s impact on her generation of artists. “There were all these constructed identities, made-up selves. And even though my fake persona was my literal persona, I was constructing it. I got to New York in the seventies, and I remember looking at Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen—these are working-class kids from New Jersey—and I thought, ‘I'll be a working-class kid from Boston.’ Well, I was a working-class kid from Boston. … So it’s somewhere between constructing and believing, and I’ve been living that construction for as long as I can remember. But even before I was a poet, who hasn't been making up a self?”
It’s true, of course: we all make up a self. We invent and perform multiple selves. But writers—especially writers who choose an autobiographical first person, as Myles does—have a particularly bizarre relationship to that invented self because the construction is also the basis for the art. Then the art generates further ideas about the invented self, and sometimes the maker gets a bit famous, and now which is which? Is the constructed self the writer? Is the writer the work? Is the work the image, the fame? Is the image or fame the same as the life? There it is: the hall of mirrors.
I can distinctly remember being a young poet—nose ring, vintage dress, combat boots—browsing through the experimental literature section at Tower Books on Astor Place in New York’s East Village in the mid-nineties and stumbling across the distinctive, ribbed-matte-paper texture of a book from Black Sparrow. The book was Myles’s Chelsea Girls: in episodic chapters; a lesbian poet named Eileen Myles alternately recalls her childhood and gets into and out of all kinds of grown-up, sexy trouble—fights with cops, a momentary hippie experiment at Woodstock, drunken affairs with junkies. It’s rambling, graphic, direct, deliciously gossipy, and rife with badassery and insightful self-awareness: “I guess I was about 18 and I was driving in a car down the Southeast Expressway toward Cape Cod,” the Popponesset chapter begins:
I had a tall can of beer in my hand and it seems I see me in profile. How strange. I was riding in Louise’s car, a black Mustang. She was a short athletic constantly tanned girl. I had a strange feeling of excitement around Louise which compelled me to fulfill her idea of me.
Chelsea Girls is billed as a novel, but it reads more like a memoir in anecdotes. Or a tell-all of a certain moment in the American poetry scene, with the names changed to semi-protect the innocent. Myles herself calls it a “fuck you to the notion of genre.”
Chelsea Girls wasn’t the first time I’d heard of Myles. I was fresh out of undergraduate school, and my knowledge of contemporary American poetry wasn’t particularly deep, but I already knew Myles’s name and something of her reputation: I knew she was a lesbian who wrote about that, openly and proudly. I knew that although Chelsea Girls was prose, Myles mostly wrote poems, in a style associated with the second generation New York School style that I loved: casual, deceptively plainspoken, somewhat surrealistically discursive, intimately conversational, as in the opening of her early poem “Romantic Pain”:
And in the first barthe woman next to me said, “How would you like to be introducedto a couple of muscle-bound …”Then she talked about when shehad been chef, “Moist juicysalad with russian dressing”I gulped my bourbon & walkedout the door.The second bar was all women.Bartender, a chubby Diane Keaton.
I knew she wrote short lines in long columns, like Robert Creeley, as in this excerpt from her long poem “Merk,” from 1997’s School of Fish:
I am the daughterof substitutionmy father fellinstead of the dresserit was the familyjoke, his deathnot a suicidebut a joke
I knew she wrote in messy, manic long lines, like Allen Ginsberg, as in this excerpt from another long poem, “Whax ‘n Wayne,” from 1982’s Sappho’s Boat:
It’s the new god, the one that doesn’t know about me at all,who misses me in movies, restaurants, who doesn’t count mywheels spinning—who could count silence? that’s the one I love.
And I knew she was cool.
In 1994, Myles was cool by definition and by association: because I was a mildly punk rock (indie, we said then) riot grrl writer, most things queer were cool, and most things poetry were cool, and most things that referred to Andy Warhol were cool, and most things on St. Mark’s Place (including the Poetry Project, for which Myles served as director in the mid-eighties) and in the East Village (where Myles lives) were cool. She had studied with Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan, two of the most admired, most out-there poets of the countercultural New York literary scene. In a recent interview in the Guardian, Myles says of this time, “you just rolled in on Friday night with your beer and Alice Notley was teaching a workshop. You brought drugs.” She had worked as an assistant to James Schuyler, one of the original New York School poets. She may have come from a working-class family in Massachusetts, but if what impresses you are the avant-garde and renegade circles of New York City poetics, Myles’s pedigree is second to none.
At the time, in the mid-nineties, SoHo was becoming a high-end shopping mall: many newly arrived artists I knew were nostalgic for a downtown we’d never gotten to experience, the grittier version from the late seventies and the eighties that Myles wrote about and still represented. I remember attending a screening of experimental films and hearing that one of the impressive young directors was Myles’s girlfriend and that Myles herself was in the audience. This was presented as juicy, insider information. In the small world of innovative poets and artists, Myles was already universally acknowledged to be the height of cool.
Myles herself knows (I assume) that she was and is cool because she knows what it means to be cool: coolness is often the subject of the work and a word she uses often in her writing (including in the title of her novel Cool for You). In I Must Be Living Twice, the very first poem included from her very first book—The Irony of the Leash (1978)—begins “Oh, Hello. C’mon in. / You know I was just thinking about how you’ve / Always thought I was cool …” In many of her poems, Myles takes sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll as subjects. She writes about cigarettes and bourbon and romantic love. She writes about living in the city. She writes about her dog and about the devil. She writes quite a bit about Joan of Arc, a figure who has come to be deployed in 21st-century Western culture as almost a cliché of renegade feminist cool. (Myles has written that she “loves clichés.”)
Of course, if it were all a veneer, all an act of coolness, Myles wouldn’t be cool at all. What makes Myles’s poems so resonant is, in fact, their reverence: she writes with swagger but also with honesty and vulnerability, a lesbian James Dean. They are urbane and fresh; they radiate energy and humanity. She writes about the time when she “had a small hole / in the shoulder of my white shirt, and another on / the back” and how she looked “just beautiful” (from her poem “Holes”). Her poem “The Honey Bear” begins with a typically louche scene: the speaker is listening to Billie Holliday and “standing in the kitchen / smoking my cigarette of this / pack I plan to finish tonight / last night of smoking youth.” But what follows are a series of admissions of frailty: rather than drinking whiskey, the speaker “made a cup of this funny / kind of tea I’ve had hanging / around.” And even though the tea’s “[a] little too sweet,” her “only impulse / was to make it sweeter.” Later she tells us, “I’m standing by the tub / feeling a little older” and yet “I’m not a bad looking woman / I suppose.” I think it’s this mixture of bravado and doubt, shamelessness and anxiety, that so endears Myles to her readers.
I find it wild how much of the recent media coverage of Myles’s newfound, larger-scale fame—her “retrospective moment” or “ascension into the mainstream,” as a host of big-name publications have recently deemed it—is about that fame itself and about the problems thereof.
Of course, it is weird for a poet to be famous, and no one feels this weirdness more deeply than poets themselves. It’s even more weird for a poet to be newly more famous—genuinely, glossy-magazine famous—in her mid-sixties, after writing 19 books, after being famous within that smaller world for many years prior.
So now Myles is famous in part for having been famous on that micro level for so long and stepping through the invisible boundary that keeps poetry celebrity from actual, A-list, American celebrity. Myles was once the kind of literary star who sits in a dark corner of a seedy downtown bar while the fellow poets gathered to talk excitedly to her. Now she’s the kind of star whose face or words show up on television or at the local Cineplex.
Even when the work is about the Self, we want and expect that others will weigh in on it, critically, as art. But many poets—especially, I wager, queer, feminist, marginalized, and young poets—read a Myles poem and see, beyond the work as literature, a vision of the self we would like to enact in the world: brash, confident, living large. This was true in the seventies and the nineties and is still true today: the colloquial language and loose-limbed structure of her poems, from the earliest to the most current, feel vibrant and risk taking and wild.
So, in a sort of fangirl way, I feel awkward writing about Eileen Myles the celebrity, the poetry rock star. Because, of course, she is also still Eileen Myles the actual person and the actual poet. (Like many people in the poetry community, she and I are generally acquainted—she wrote a blurb for an anthology I edited—but I do not know her well.)
Another reason I feel awkward writing this piece is that Myles is a living writer, completely capable of formulating and disseminating her own ideas about her reputation and her fame. She’s been doing just that with typical introspection and wit. For WIFEY, the feminist media site Soloway co-runs, Myles wrote a piece of lyric prose called “Copy, Copy” about her involvement with Transparent:
later on I was engaged in some emails with the wardrobe people about what such a character might wear and of course there are these ideas about lesbian academics or poets that they dress in sort of baggy masculine clothes so I suggested that such a character might wear tighter shirts and not such loose jeans. A vest they asked. Well maybe.
Later in the piece, she writes of the actor Cherry Jones, who plays Leslie Mackinaw, the character based on Myles on Transparent: “Slowly I’m thinking at least for now she might be a better copy of me than myself.” She writes about playing a cameo part as a friend of Leslie’s, which is to say she plays her own sidekick.
Myles also weighs in on how, in a climactic episode in Transparent’s second season, Leslie Mackinaw reads poetry at a fictionalized version of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The poem she reads, “School of Fish,” is an actual Myles poem. Thus we have an alternate television reality, a (semi-transparent) palimpsest in which the poem that exists in our world is turned into a slightly tweaked version of itself at a slightly tweaked version of a real event. Of this Myles writes, “Just as Cherry Jones can play a poet Leslie Mackinaw based somewhat on an actual poet, Eileen Myles, so can a poem, this one called ‘School of Fish’ be pawned off as a poem written by someone else, the fictional poet Leslie Mackinaw. … The poem was on stage in Cherry’s mouth (kind of weird) cause now she had my poem and my clothes.”
Is there a need for me to write these thoughts about fame and coolness if Myles’s work has been about these very issues all along?
In a recent piece for New York Magazine about Myles, Rachel Monroe interviewed director Paul Weitz about the poet, whose lines are used as an epigraph to open his film Grandma. Lily Tomlin plays Elle, an aging lesbian poet, who, unlike Myles, has not seen her success build over her later years. She is currently down on her luck and has a grandchild. Explaining why he chose to evoke Myles, Weitz calls her a badass, an ass-kicker. “She’s incredibly literate, with an aspect of punk rock,” Weitz says. “That’s what I was hoping to capture with Lily Tomlin’s character—that somebody in their sixties can be more edgy than somebody in their teens.”
But what are the financial implications of “edginess”? There are maybe only two economic categories for the contemporary image of the Poet: glamorously broke, in a bohemian sort of way (garret apartment, getting by on charm alone), or glamorously rich, in a bohemian sort of way (louche attire, frequent travel, fabulous parties around a built-in stone fire ring). The Tomlin character in Grandma, Elle Reid, of the cut-up credit card sculptures and the broken-down vintage car, occupies the former category. The Cherry Jones character on Transparent, Leslie Mackinaw, of the outdoor hot tub and impressive feminist art collection in the Los Angeles hills, occupies the latter.
In real life, though, Myles is somewhere between: she keeps a sparsely furnished, rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan and recently bought a house in the artsy rural town of Marfa, Texas. She has no graduate degree and has mostly worked part-time teaching gigs and pieced together literary awards and fellowships. Like most people from working- and middle-class backgrounds, Myles knows there’s no appeal in being actually poor. She has said, “Money is much dirtier than sex ever was. That’s why I write about it.”
In conversation with Ben Lerner for the Paris Review, Myles further attempts to explode the myth of the too-cool-for-school, cavalier, non-working poet. She says, “There’s a faux vernacular, as though the ambition must be hidden at all times, to be more, I don’t know, attractive? It’s the loafer posture, the veneer of ‘I don’t really need this.’… There’s a whole female industry engaged in materially supporting the illusion that the artist doesn’t work directly on his legacy, his immediate success. He’s just a beautiful stoner boy or an intellectual.” In opposition to this, and on political principle, Myles is honest about her “sense of preservation,” as she calls it in the poem “Life,” the fact that she is smart and hardworking. She tells Lerner, “I like turning that illusion [of not working] inside out. And making the work be literally about the field and the failures and even the practice.” That more nuanced reality—of getting by, of putting in the hours, of living on very little, of tireless self-promotion—is harder to translate into a depiction of coolness.
Part of the ongoing outsider appeal of Myles’s work is that the multiple invented and performed selves she embodies revolve around gender and/or sexuality. For many of us, these are crucial components to the way we understand ourselves in the world. On Transparent, a few of the most interesting (and heartbreaking) scenes depict generational tensions within the queer community on this very notion. Young queers and trans people were raised with a discourse around the notions of fluidity and gender as a construction; there can be disconnect with elders who came up viewing sexuality and gender expression and identity in more binary or fixed categories, often informed by political climates that made such hard lines feel like a necessity. For example, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival famously had an “intention” that all attendees must be “womyn who were born female, raised as girls and who continue to identify as womyn,” thereby excluding trans women and other gender-nonconforming folks, which eventually made the event controversial among its own radical audience. This controversy is depicted on Transparent, through conversations between previous generations—Leslie and her older lesbian friends—and younger, differently politicized queers.
In the real world version of this generational chasm, Myles has been something of a poster dyke and as such has been chastised for making comments viewed as transphobic by some in the media. Others have questioned her statements that, had she been born decades later, she may have chosen to identify as genderqueer or to have transitioned. The truth is no doubt more complicated than any of those sound bites can relay: like many LGBTQ people, Myles has long invented her own rules around her relationship to sexuality and gender because the standard narrative never applied. A chapter from 1994’s Chelsea Girls holds this internal monologue, in the voice of a middle-school Eileen:
I was Mary’s boyfriend. I had always wanted to be a boy. To have women love me, to have extra rooms to go into, to be free. There on the soft couch in the Dolan’s parlor as we lifted our tall metal cups of Hawaiian Punch to our lips, the moment I was male and I was loved.
As always seems to be the case, in terms of deconstructing her own image, Myles got there first and wrote it better.
Why is the media so obsessed with Myles’s ascent into mainstream celebrity? I think a host of reasons are at play: the way Americans try to get “cultured” by osmosis so that stylish articles about poetry make us feel more intellectual, the “bootstraps” nature of Myles’s story, the novelty of someone who ran for president as a piece of performance art getting photographed for glossy magazines. I find myself thinking about a term used a lot in my circles in the early 1990s: co-opting. Back then, it seemed that everything authentic and revolutionary and vital—the riot grrl movement, grunge music, hip-hop—was quickly gobbled up by the establishment and spat back out in clean, shiny packages for mass consumption. I worry that the hoopla over Myles is an attempt by the media to take everything underground about her and her work and use it to make itself look cool.
Myles, however, seems to be thus far walking through the gauntlet of attention with her signature urban cowboy stride. Of the recognition, she told Lerner in the Paris Review, “Everything will ruin you; why not this?” and added, “It’s really creepy to be addicted to yourself or the performance of yourself. Like looking at your phone too much.”
So let’s let Myles think about her actual and constructed selves, and we can think about her image and her writing. The distinction between them all may get blurry, but so be it. As Myles said in the Los Angeles Times, the publication of poems drawn from lived experience is a kind of success in triplicate: first there’s the meaning derived from living through the experience itself, and then there’s the jolt of joy that comes from making a decent poem from the experience, and then there’s the publication and subsequent readership of the experience via poem, which, in the end, simply “makes a thing out of something that was always true.”
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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.
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