Eileen and Me (1982)
Annie Finch and Alix Baer 1980 ( photo: J. Miller)
It’s 1981 and it’s a year before I’m going to meet Eileen Myles. I’m living in the East Village, on a deserted-looking block of Avenue A a couple blocks north of Tompkins Square Park, trying to figure out how I can ever find my place in the poetry world. I’m writing a shamanic long poem in rhythmic free verse, The
Encyclopedia of Scotland, and working for minimum wage at Books and Company uptown, because there I get paid to listen to poetry readings by James Merrill and Ann Lauterbach, sell poetry books, and gather plastic glasses of white wine off the edges of the bookcases after the readings are over. I’m high on New York, and I spend a lot of time going to open readings and bars and clubs and art openings and poetry events. The Encyclopedia of Scotland is a performance poem, and mostly I’m drawn to performance, but I’m ready to go everywhere, since nothing really fits. I go to the Ear Inn and the Gotham Book Mart. I take a Saturday afternoon class with Jack Collum at Saint Marks in the Bowery, in walking distance from my tiny walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen. I check out a Tuesday night class with Galway Kinnell at the Poetry Society of America and hear Joseph Brodsky at NYU. I hear Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg and Ann Waldman at St. Marks, and Robin Blaser reciting Shelley, and a woman I later realize must have been Helen Adam. I meet Bernadette Mayer and think she’s great. I meet Pedro Pietri and Bob Holman at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
By 1982 when I meet Eileen, I’ve travelled to Africa and come back in New York with a new low-wage job at the Museum of Natural History, screening mail for Natural History Magazine and writing a guidebook for the museum. On weekends, I’m working with some sculptor friends on an installation for a show called The Monument Show at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, where I end up performing as part of the installation. It’s just around this time that someone introduces me to David Rattray, who introduces me to Eileen. Maybe we go together to hear her reading from her new book somewhere downtown; I can’t quite remember. But I do remember that Eileen has just published a book called A Fresh Young Voice From the Plains and that I love her irony, her strong rhetorical control over language (no word wasted), and her sense of self. Also her sense of style; I love her sneakers. It’s spring, and David mentions me in a poem that he writes to Eileen called “White Easter” (he also mentions the blue whale hanging from the ceiling in the Museum of Natural History; he must have visited me there at my lunch hour). I’ve never had my name in a poem before, and I think it’s incredibly cool; it makes me hopeful that there can be a place for me somewhere in the poetry world after all. The poem has the dedication “For Eileen Myles.” To top it off, he even says in the poem that I’m “cute,” and he implies that Eileen thinks I’m cute too: “Sure, I know she’s cute,” says the line. Of course, this makes me like Eileen even more.
In spite of (or maybe because of) how voracious I was for all kinds of poetry, I didn’t hang out with poets much at this time. Most of the people I was drawn to were visual artists. But I felt comfortable with Eileen as soon as I met her. I can’t remember at all now how the gig Eileen mentions in her Harriet post came about; maybe my friend Alix Baer arranged it and then couldn’t come, and I asked Eileen to substitute. I remember it was some kind of performance art/poetry gig, maybe something to do with The Monument Show installation. But somehow, I remember finding myself on the subway going out to a high school in the Bronx with Eileen and an amp and her electric guitar, and a musical instrument I was supposed to play. Eileen says in her post that it was a fiddle, but I don’t remember it being a fiddle. Whatever it was, I guess it must have been borrowed, and I am positive that I had no idea how to play it. Maybe it was a saxophone? I don’t remember AC at all, or what I was wearing; dark pink seems right. What I do remember is that once we got out there, the school people said there had been some mistake and we couldn’t play there after all, and I think I negotiated with them and convinced them to let us play on the street for the kids during their lunch hour. I don’t even think it was inside the playground; I think we were outside the playground fence, on the sidewalk. I think Eileen might have even sensibly suggested going home, but her spirit of adventure won out and she was game for it.
We started in, and pretty soon I realized I couldn’t get anywhere with whatever instrument it was (maybe it was a fiddle after all? maybe, because now I see in Eileen’s post that AC had a saxophone so maybe that is where that memory came from), so I just bagged it and started drumming. Maybe we had a drum along also, or maybe I was just drumming on whatever firm surface I had along with me—probably my journal, or Hart Crane’s selected poems. I think I got Eileen to recite part of Blake’s “The Tyger” with me for a while. I remember there were a handful of high school kids around, some who were disconcerted and intrigued, which was presumably part of the goal of the event, and some who smiled and enjoyed it. I just thought about the poetry. Eventually I really got into it and was reciting the tiger chant and other bits from The Encyclopedia of Scotland, and more Blake. I know I was intent, as Eileen says. I’m guessing we were high, and from my perspective it was all very Ginsberg-inspired, and there was definitely a tiger involved.
So Eileen and I had shared a distinctive moment together, and I continued to follow her career with affection and interest. And now here we are on Harriet and she’s asking me how I can possibly cook a poem. And I’m thinking of that moment on the sidewalk and how I cooked my poem and Blake’s and the Ginsberg readings I’d been to all up into a chant. It’s the same basic process it was then. By cook I mean to change—maybe not that different than what Eileen means by blending, except that it’s words I am suturing, more than the situation. One reason I enjoy writing poems is that the art of poetry gives me a container in which to change words. Like changing food in cooking, this changing of language can happen in a few ways: through applying an intense process and through contact with other ingredients. The intense processes I apply are those of meditation and repetition (of words or sounds). The other ingredients are other words. The end result is very different than the language I started out with. For example, in “Butterfly Lullaby,” the butterfly names are changed by being set to a tune—a tune that just came to me and that I could probably have drummed and chanted outside that high school playground. Or junior high school playground, since I’m guessing that Eileen’s memory is more accurate—just as, if she and I each wrote a poem about that day, I’m guessing her poem would be a better source of information about what really happened.
Eileen, I like your equation of craft and time. It seems to me that craft in the good sense of the word only reflects time—whether it’s the time made to polish one poem or piece of marble or piece played on the bass, or the time spent developing the art so that a good poem can be assembled quickly out of the materials of the situation, or a good jazz performance improvised. If the poem comes out better, because of the time that has been put into the art of poetry somewhere along the line, I would agree that it’s the time spent and the attention given that is the true gift, rather than the beautiful object.
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...