I was in Maine last summer and Jennifer Moxley asked me why I didn’t get involved with the language poets since I was that age. I don’t even know how to answer that question simply. I actually get asked this a lot. Like there’s the boat going by. From another generation you might think it was a class.

If I think of how blurry it was at the time. Publishing in the same magazines for a while, a language poet might try and have sex with you and try and make you a language poet girl. But actually once there was a magazine there really wasn’t a feeling of openness. I was never asked to write and I wasn’t interested in theory and that seemed to be key though I’ve also heard in retrospect that what passed for theory in language magazine was often pretty lame but I wouldn’t have know the difference at the time.

I think the biggest difference is I was queer and really wanted to write about it. If you look today in the piano bar chronicles about language writing there really isn’t much sex. And they were having sex. They were young. They had to be. They just didn’t like writing about it and for me, aesthetically that is a problem. There was a whole revolution in San Francisco which created New Narrative Writing which was I think about people on the poetry scene wanting to be engaged with excess and sex and narrative particularly as AIDS reared its head – I have to ask where is the great language poem about AIDS, how could you watch so many people die and not write about it? I’ve always thought of AIDS as the Vietnam of my generation. A war needs its poets and we were absolutely there. John Ashbery did it in his John Ashbery way. And I think Language writing did not see that as its job. For that alone I have to stand in resistance to thinking of Language writing as what happened in poetry in the seventies and eighties.

To advance our poetics we have to go back. I think I’m allowed to say this because these poets are my friends (or they were) and this is what we do right, a discourse, and I’m trying to make room for other histories as we’re wallpapering the past we have to know there were many more than one. The explanation isn’t happening here. And also despite the fact that this conference is taking place in the academy I think we also must know that as artists we have to always take the academy with a grain of salt. It’s a resource, it’s a workplace, it’s many things. It’s a patron. It’s something we’re in cahoots with. But it can’t be the ground of the poetry world. It’s not in here.

When I taught in San Diego I noticed that the excitement for a writer’s work was at its peak at the hiring stage. Like when you were being eaten. Once one became part of the faculty it became clear that poets were not as trustworthy as scholars. This puts a poet at a dilemma. You realize you have signed on for an unholy marriage. Some poets are able to take advantage of what the academy offers. I found there was an insidiousness to being someplace that undermined you daily by its refusal to treat you as an equal. Your work was not research. Your grades were inflated. Your students’ texts were impossible to read. These pronouncements were delivered with great huffiness like poetry was a stumbling block to them, an affront to their experience of knowledge. Our outsiderness was never an enticement, or rarely. We were most visible when we received rewards. We put our paws or our genitals out and were lauded. For those for whom it was, we became friends. Mostly though it was like one applying for a grant, to be a poet in the academy I always felt I was in the position to need to prove my love. It could not be taken for granted. It had to be demonstrated again and again. Finally I realized we were baby-sitters keeping the numbers up for the department. Because writing as a major was popular. That’s why we were there. To support their jobs.

I mention this because approval by this same academy is a specious measuring tool for poetry. Work that “looks like” work or can be demonstrated as being “work” to academics eyes will fly. And that’s been one of language writing’s main powers since day one; it’s capacity to sell itself to the academy. And now Jorie Graham is coming around, and who else is liking us now. Actually I think of myself as not not a language poet. It’s a new negative space and I wonder who would like to come gather around…..But seriously folks is enthusiastic reception from the academy and its poetry stars our criteria for success. Mission Accomplished.

I prefer a mess.

Not a flarf mess or a conceptual mess. I think poetry history is always messier than that and if you only studied poetry with Heather McHugh or Charles or Kenny or Eileen you will probably be missing a lot. We tend to over-believe our filters. And a poet in the academy is a filter.

I don’t know about Heather, well yes I do. She is not a genius. I have written about it. I can tell you exactly why. I sort of thought Rae would get a MacArthur this year. Didn’t you feel it. So perhaps in some worlds language poetry is still a coming thing, not the blunderbuss of “us,” whichever one is out there somewhere hard at work keeping the fringes down. But I say the fringes, and their tiny adjustments is where poetry’s live edge is. Not in here.

What about feminism. I’m so sick of the word. Aren’t you?  Don’t we ever just get to be. To my fellow females, I’m bushed. Do we have to talk about poetry here? Good I won’t. When I see Details magazine leering that porn is the new Sex Ed and learn that that is pretty literally true I feel scared. Boys (and girls) have more immediate access to porn at this time than at any other time in history. The access is only growing. There’s no violent sex act you can’t see with a click. The web is furnishing what would have been previously unimaginable could be out there for a boy of 13 or 17. Or a girl. But there’s no porn for girls. It’s aimed at a male audience and the come shot is aimed at her face. And that’s what he gets. We’re writing poetry and advancing feminist poetics at a time when girls grow up with less access to interiority, less ability to imagine their own bodies and what they might want than ever before. She is expected to get in position. The media purports what she is and was. I love Cathy Wagoner’s new book My Job suggesting at various points that she could be writing a sex manual for adolescent girls. That’s the kind of advancement of feminist poetics I endorse. All kinds of private revolutions for the female body and mind. The brave and the playful, the imaginative men can come. I would advocate a poetry full of characters like CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank who delivers mad obscene haiku healing yes I said it healing in 137 tiny doses over eleven years, unstoppable poetry that hurts and turns a mirror to pain and risks being viewed as the problem when CA you’re the cure. Poems that can be sung, that step outside of the reading room, into the studio, poems that design themselves into collective projects so people can see what poets do, poets climbing up a mountain, talking among themselves and making a film about it, working publicly against poisoning our water, slicing the tops off our mountains, extracting gas from under the ground at what cost. Poets running for small local offices, women fighting to put sex education back in the schools, sex in our poems, poems in our songs, time in our lives, time to lose, to lie on the mat to make tiny adjustments, to live. To live long as we’ve got.

I’ve been mostly thinking about the earth these days, mostly that she’s a girl, that she’s a poet and one in great danger. I decided not eat red meat, do that for a while. No ice on the planet in 2013. What should we do. Start a school or shut up? No.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2009

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she...

  1. October 5, 2009
     anne lemon

    I bet you'll never be asked that question again!

  2. October 5, 2009
     edward mycue

    remembering back to 1985 and michael mcinnis doing a book of mine EDWARD from his primitive press in allston ma and him writing (we wrote letters then) asking if i were gay and i thought wow how YES and how could it not be THERE in the poems (because they were mine of course i guess i thought whatever i wrote was me). we feel 'ourselves' even when writing abt eating a blogny sandwich UNLESS of course we are adopting a "persona" perhaps consciously. but even then...? well, it is interesting. after that i wondered if i should announce--as i do in my everyday--that i am gay queer other and still the same me. i never wanted to write "answer" poems. some pieces i write have lots referenced straightforward gayness and activity reflected in them, even how-to-ness. though on reflection there have been times (looking back 40 or 50 years) at some poem of mine that drifts up from some old zine, or found in a pile, with my name on it and i can't REMEMBER writing anything like that. even when i think it's a good poem. eileen what you write at times really makes me wonder. about me. not good or bad but just poking the corpse. edward mycue

  3. October 5, 2009
     Adam Strauss

    I like that this post calls out LANGUAGE poetry for sex-hobia/homophobia, tho I'd add that R Silliman most definitely does have sex in his work; the sex is dull, but him on flirting is really fabulous! Soooooo true how it's weird there's no "canonical" language poetry AIDs poem, when San Fran is so relevant to both the poetic movement and the diease epidemic.

  4. October 5, 2009

    "We’re writing poetry and advancing feminist poetics at a time when girls grow up with less access to interiority, less ability to imagine their own bodies and what they might want than ever before."\r

    "I’ve been mostly thinking about the earth these days, mostly that she’s a girl, that she’s a poet and one in great danger."\r

    Thanks, Eileen.

  5. October 5, 2009

    "I’ve been mostly thinking about the earth these days, mostly that she’s a girl, that she’s a poet and one in great danger. I decided not eat red meat, do that for a while. No ice on the planet in 2013. What should we do. Start a school or shut up? No."\r

    Gaia is not in danger, Eileen Myles. It is the species that is in danger, ours. She will outlive us in the same way she has outlived all dominating species who get too big for their britches. In the end your words will pass and so will mine. Gaia will still be around even if you and I might find her atmosphere difficult to breathe.\r


  6. October 5, 2009
     Ben Friedlander

    "We tend to over-believe our filters."\r

    Very true! But they're still good for making coffee.

  7. October 6, 2009

    You did have a theory during the LANGUAGE era, it was just different than theirs: That people should write about their lives and the world around them. \r

    I like your theory.\r


  8. October 6, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Once one became part of the faculty it became clear that poets were not as trustworthy as scholars. ... Your work was not research. Your grades were inflated. Your students’ texts were impossible to read. These pronouncements were delivered with great huffiness like poetry was a stumbling block to them, an affront to their experience of knowledge. Our outsiderness was never an enticement, or rarely.\r

    You paint the picture so clearly (and poetically). I've loved all your Harriet posts, and I'm sorry you're leaving here. But I hope to read more of you in other places.

  9. October 6, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    What a brilliant and thrilling run of posts, EM. And this last two-parter not the least! You have me devoted to your next word.

  10. October 6, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    Thank you, Ben. Wow of course!!!

  11. October 6, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    Your welcome. I just called you dull in another post but I thought you were calling me dull. Glad we're someplace else.

  12. October 6, 2009

    Terreson, I take your point, but we're not the only species that our species has put in danger.

  13. October 6, 2009
     Jake Eyall

    How daring of you to say Heather's not a genius!\r

    I totally agree.\r

    I'm glad I'm not the only one whose eyebrows raised the roof when the funny girl got the genius grant.

  14. October 7, 2009

    Rachel says: "Terreson, I take your point, but we’re not the only species that our species has put in danger."\r

    Back at you Rachel. And, of course, your point is likely more important, certainly more poignant. Down here where I live, when driving to and from work in my teeny tiny car, I see these monster SUVs. Frequently, impressionistically I'll say most regularly, I'll see this teeny tiny human type animal straining to look over the steering wheel. More than not it is an individual specimen with the XX chromosomal make up. Racial coloration ranges from white, to brown, to black. The sight is always such a turn off to this aging environmentalist. At the sight of these SUVs involuntarily I think of the all the animal life getting wiped out so that that small type human being can feel safe on the road.\r

    On the other hand the stats concerning enclave reentrenchment and environmental adaptation by other animal species give me hope. Coyotes, raccoons, Merlin falcons, and all the way down to the microbial level, animal life either finding enclaves or adapting to even unfriendly urban environments. If adaptation can be taken as a sign of intelligence our species is not scoring so well.\r

    I was once involved in an environmentalist type discussion, brought in as the token poet. I was asked for my opinion on how to save the disaster humans have presented the planet. I said it would be nothing less than a return to the paleolithic level of material culture. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. An ecologist recently said that earth balance can support a human population of 2 billion. So I guess we need to kill off 5 billion people. Like that's going to happen? And who is going to convince that SUV mom her sense of road safety is diminishing her grandchildrens' earth? For that matter who is going to convince an NYC poet, a San Fran poet, an L.A. poet, a Boston poet, a Chicago poet, a London poet that their attraction to the happening scene is killing the earth?\r

    "But the longer her hour is poisoned, and therefore the more exhausted by man's irreligious improvidence the natural resources of soil and sea become, the less merciful will her five-fold mask be..." That is something Robert Graves said back during WW 2. And he was right. Gaia will see to the problem, she is seeing to the problem.\r

    Oh, I would love it if Harriet brought to the blog the central problem poets should be addressing. The earth.\r


  15. October 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Terreson said:\r

    “Oh, I would love it if Harriet brought to the blog the central problem poets should be addressing. The earth.”\r

    Well, Harriet may not, but I will:\r

    Ask any fresh new family out here\r
    in their brand new country home,\r
    four bedrooms on an acre, custom\r
    built just for them. They are the\r
    modern and genteel, on the web,\r
    Ipods, cell phones, brand new cars.\r
    Ask them about all these wars, about\r
    these violent, bloodthirsty hordes\r
    who have crossed our history and lands\r
    with genocide and death,\r
    invaded and murdered and conquered,\r
    how almost every nation now was\r
    carved by a nation of invaders.\r
    Ask them about that.\r
    Not me, they’d say… we are civilized…\r
    middle class, good schools, big TV, SUV,\r
    politically correct and morals uncompromised.\r
    We are innocent of such crimes.\r

    And what shock would come to them\r
    in learning of the slaughter\r
    their invasion has produced,\r
    the families sundered,\r
    the infants crushed,\r
    the great communities reduced\r
    as the bulldozers blundered\r
    through tree and brush,\r
    the instant death and flight\r
    of the survivors into the diaspora\r
    of roadkill.\r

    Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  16. October 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Interesting that at least four people out there appear to be opposed to protecting our Earth. How does that work? These four negative votes can't be personal because nobody knows anything about me. This isn't a poetry contest so voting on my poem would be kind of dumb. What else could one conclude? Pretty weird.

  17. October 9, 2009

    Why does it need to be a contest in order for people to express their opinions of it? You're putting it out there; nobody's forcing you to post your own poems. Why be surprised at criticism?

  18. October 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Okay...fair enough. I'll bite. Why wouldn't you like it? If it isn't the subject, it must be...what...the prosody, the form? I have shared this poem before with positive results.

  19. October 9, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    I didn't thumb your poem, Gary, but what I don't like about it is (a) the poet is so much more aware, virtuous and sensitive than the stereotyped folks addressed (b) the images which carry the weight of the ideas are absolutely stock and have no fresh sensory impact and (c) the prosody is blah. To dislike your poem one doesn't have to vote against the earth. Bracing for rant in return.

  20. October 9, 2009

    This sums it up very well.\r

    I don't blame you for posting your poems on the internet, Gary. I do it too. There's just an understanding that when you make something public, people have a right to say anything they want about it. \r

    There's an old saying about heat and kitchens that relates to this.

  21. October 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Thank you.

  22. October 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    P.S. It was not my intention to offend anyone. I apologize.

  23. October 9, 2009

    I've been trying to figure out if I want to enter into this argument. Making queen bees this late in the season is calling for sweat euquity. Poetry, however, is the thing.\r

    By report ancient Irish Ollaves and ancient Welsh Bards, when they met their peers, would enter into and rapartee through poetry. This is the spirit in which I take on GBF's poetry on a blog.\r

    Upthread someone says that a down thumbing should be taken as a crit of a GBF poem. I say where is the intelligent response in such an anonymous signal? And I question again Harriet's policy of thumbing up or down. My gut tells me it has led to the dumbing down of conversation.\r

    Also upthread someone has taken GBF to task for being moralistic or for talking down to his poem's subjects. So wasn't it Shelley who said poets were the world's moral legislators? Do I remember this right? And doesn't everyone else find the Eileen Myles blog to be moralistic, judgemental, and exculionary? I do. So why is GBF getting processed this way for a poem he puts out honestly, not posturing in the way so many poets these days do, when the likes of Ms Myles gets sanctioned?\r


  24. October 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "My poems are hymns of praise to the glory of life."\r
    - Edith Sitwell\r

    "A poet must need be before his own age, to be even with posterity."\r

    - James Russell Lowell

  25. October 11, 2009

    Dear Eileen, one of the things I think that's so important is that YOU are saying this. I mean, because YOU being YOU, being this amazing writer everyone looks up to takes the risks to say the things you say, it's the Open Door, it's a true gift that Open Door. There's so much FEAR about saying, and when YOU say the things many people are afraid of saying it's the way to nothing but more discourse.\r

    And of course I'm completely thrilled by you mentioning The Book of Frank.\r

    YOU show us and give us the space! I'm grateful for being queer. Queer has been hard. But it's always getting better. But the real reason I'm grateful for it is because in a way THAT is why I'm a poet, because it's what I turned to in order to keep on my toes and not fall on my face the way I knew everyone wanted me to. Being queer got me away from the world where I grew up because in the end I had to leave it, it wasn't going to let me stay if I wanted to and of course all I wanted was to find a loving home. The world couldn't possibly be better if I hadn't found poetry for being queer.\r

    Kevin Killian says Hart Crane died so faggots could write poems, and I love Kevin for it, and I guess Crane too, even though I'm not as jacked up on Crane as others.\r

    HERE'S TO the bravery you bring back to poetry! How can we possibly thank you enough for it????

  26. October 11, 2009

    Shelley said poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world," a statement I've always thought was silly. Anyway the word "moral" isn't even there.

  27. October 11, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    Ditto CA, bravery is in short supply these days! I'm sure, Eileen, you are aware of yourself. Maybe the dumbing down mentioned earlier is a reflection of the receiver...but my stereo hasn't worked in ages!

  28. October 11, 2009

    Here's a Shelley quote I like but don't begin to live up to: "A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."

  29. October 12, 2009

    Thanks, Matt, for the correction. It was bugging me in the back of my head somewhere. What he actually said is better.\r


  30. October 12, 2009

    Death is not the only danger. To be forced, by another, to change is a special kind of Hell.

  31. October 13, 2009

    "Like when you were being eaten."\r

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! Tears in my eyes. I love you, Eileen Myles.

  32. October 13, 2009
     Michael Gottlieb

    God, Eileen - yes, it was so blurry. And as I've been writing about those days I think I've been including the sex. At least some of it.