RM: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview. We’re so excited and humbled to be including you in this series. As a Montana magazine, and in light of your time working with the UM MFA program in Missoula, we’d love your thoughts on this community as a place for writers, nascent to established, queer and otherwise. Also, many of us adore your “toilet” picture on the wall of visiting writers - could you share the backstory?
EM: I loved Missoula. I found it had a unique quality as a writing program in that people wanted to be THERE. I mean people clearly were interested in studying with this person or that person but there was also a really unique way in which a desire to be in Missoula or Montana unified the writers in the program which yielded a vivid kind of thereness and a real community that was quite intentional in its state of being. People who study in New York are often so oppressed or stimulated by the city that that’s what they are. In Missoula I really liked how everyone had formed a temporary home with the place and each other. I felt that way too. Queerness flourished too in the program cause people had a western privacy and sense of freedom and I think lgbt rights had just passed in Missoula when I was there. Also some old fashioned bigotry too flourished in the city at large and though not ever a great thing did make your/my bonds with other queers in town be necessary and real.
The toilet photo has to do with the drive to Missoula which was hellish since my partner & I came in the winter, had an accident in Indiana and were ecstatic to be almost there. I think the photo was taken in a motel in Billings where the bathroom had fantastic light like bathrooms often do. When I taught in the room with the photos I noticed the men smoking and drinking and people in funny hats in writer pose at their typewriters. To sit on a closed toilet in very good light having your picture taken by your girlfriend seemed to exemplify the writer I was at that time. Glad. Almost there and also I don’t drink at all. That seemed important. The bathroom is the site of water.
RM: In your lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival, you begin by mentioning an obsession with wolves, and the tragedy of their spoilage and ruination. Were you privy to any of this destruction during your time in Montana? Clearly, animals play an important role in your life and writing, as they do for many of us. What do animals, and dogs especially, contribute to your creative soul?
EM: We’re each other. Dogs mirror an inner life that humans are always struggling to suppress or struggling under others’ attempt to suppress it in them. I love the idea that wolves are the undomesticated dogs the ones that didn’t come in. Who maybe cruise our trash but aren’t lured into a domesticated lifestyle by it. I think the beauty of Montana and what it held made me feel a lot more for wolves than I did but their pure wildness has moved me all my life and in my writing it’s something I’m trying to let out again always and find new forms and ways to do. Our wildness is our energy and our art.
RM: CutBank applauds you for bringing poetry to OWS and your courage to a “Retreat” where you lived on the streets of New York. Are the writing and the activist life necessarily linked?
EM: A poet who meant a lot to me when I was young and is always becoming richer and more complex (like for instance read Savage Coast her novel she wrote in her 20s) is Muriel Ruykeyser and she always had time for activism and the issues of the world. She and Allen Ginsberg too were always models for me. I mean writers are just people and some care and some don’t. Right now I’m most troubled and moved by Gaza and wolves. That’s what I’m capable of seeing and commenting on when I can.
RM: In “My Gay Marriage,” a wonderful essay that appears in The Air We Breathe: Artists and Poets Reflect on Marriage Equality, you write that “When you are queer, gay, transgender, lesbian, fag, butch, you are routinely invited “in” to perform your queerness. To be it. Being gay is like joining the rodeo.” In the piece you go on to describe visual artist’s reflections on queer marriage. I’m curious how you see expectations around this “performance” differing between writing and visual arts. Also, whether series like “All Accounts and Mixture” can, or should, negotiate the danger of seeming to solicit spectacle.
EM: I think it’s a little trickier to be a writer invited to contribute to a queer or lgbt platform because you feel invited to say “it”. Yet I think we can make our offerings be as compressed or outlandish or symbolic as anyone operating in the visual field can do. It’s more conceptual work than we’re used to doing and that’s good. I think such requests always stretch us aesthetically because we have to reframe something personal each time which is our sex as it interfaces with the world.
RM: Visual and performing arts have played a major role in your work, from essay collections and reviews, to the print collaborations Tow with artist Larry R. Collins and street ensembles such as “The Collection of Silence.” Can you discuss the significance for you of fostering dialogue between artistic mediums? What might writing ideally gain from other arts and what should it contribute?
EM: Mostly it’s friendship I mean collaboration. Being in the room w someone else doing something different.
Plus I always need to point out that a poet needs to survive and invites do come from all quarters if you’re lucky and probably you’ve put yourself there already somehow out of desire or restlessness and invites often come with an honorarium. It’s funny there was a queer show at ICA Philly a few years ago and I was just talking about it w CA Conrad and he pointed out that in this show I think called Queer Voices that Conrad and I were the only lgbt poets and writers in it. And that some of the other contributions were actually homophobic or at least really uncomfortable or giddy in that context. I guess the curators thought it was interesting to ask a lot of people to contribute who weren’t queer. I kept wondering after the conversation w CA what I had contributed and I couldn’t remember it. Then I recalled that when I got solicited to give 250 words to ICA Philly on my queer voice or something I said “for free?” Since I do write in the art world a bunch I really couldn’t believe they weren’t paying writers. And most of the poets in the book were happy to be in this art museum’s catalogue so they gaily contributed. What I like about being a poet in a lot of worlds is that I become worldly. I don’t work for free unless it’s a benefit or something that really needs to exist and doesn’t have support. That merits mine. Poets in the poetry world especially if they spend their lives in the academy don’t value their own labor in this kind of quid pro quo way and I do. I think that’s a benefit to stepping outside and feeling the air.
Also a queer writer is always asked to do things for free. So a queer poet in a museum invite was doubly specious. Being mobile gives you greater capacity to critique the institutions who want your work for nothing.
RM: In writing “Welcome Aboard,” a piece for Harriet about the above-mentioned public project on silence, you express the following, a notion I love: “The idea of directorhood, or conceptual artisthood I think is to be some kind of ghost. If the machine is working you simply float.” Can you say a little more about this as it relates to public and private artistic projects? How about teaching?
EM: I think teaching can be different every day. If it can’t you should stop. I think you can bring your whole relationship to the world into the classroom. I mean one makes choices about what you reveal but I think in that reference I was advocating for a kind of lightness of exchange where passing through you learn as much as you leave.
RM: Returning to the idea of silence, I can’t help but think of the Silence = Death campaign. And yet, Buddhist meditation practices like your own and public projects like “The Collection of Silence,” suggest that silence need not always be equated with compliance or fear, especially for queer artists – in fact, silence can be empowering, positive, revolutionary. Would you speak to this?
EM: We live so much of our lives in silence. Public silence fascinates me. Standing on the train. The collection piece was amazing because we just got to look at each other in all these various activities including spectatorship for a solid hour. It felt communal and aesthetic and incandescent. In a way you’re just feeling your aliveness together. At that moment too in New York we weren’t in danger. We weren’t in church. We weren’t being conveyed. It was really unusual. I would love to see in happen again, elsewhere, lead by other people. In Occupy one day a bunch of Buddhists gathered and sat and I at with them and it was transparent in the best way. It was like sharing the practice. People really watched. It was cool.
RM: Your creative output is prolific and your writing defies genre. In a response to The New Inquiry’s “Five Questions,” I’m thrilled by your assertion that genres don’t exist and further, are, as you say, “just a way in which we are controlled, protected I suppose but I’m not a writer to be protected at all.” It would be lovely to hear more about how you arrived at this conclusion and how it continues to influence your work.
EM: I’m at MacDowell right now and I’m working on a dog memoir and I stop to write this and it feels kind of exhilarating to look out at the woods and the road and even think about a life in Montana I had that’s now so long gone. My god. I feel powerful in my vulnerability. Yesterday I was a mess. I talked too much and when I got to work the writing seemed dense and I ate too much sugar and talked too much at night and couldn’t sleep. Today is so different. Each piece of writing offers you an opportunity to funnel that difference into something articulate. But even if I just sat here writing poems they wouldn’t be still. But I think different forms (for me, at least) facilitate the now more than working on the same form. To stick to the same form you have to wait to say “this.” I think. Whereas the opportunity to answer these questions gives “the now” direct access which my memoir kind of does but truly I just have to stay in it. Let’s face it. It’s heavy to work. So I’m saying different forms offer a steadier kind of release which I want.
RM: Speaking of borders and boundaries, I greatly admire how the “I,” the “you,” and the character “Eileen” shift and sway in your work, resisting concrete association with one author, one poetic voice, one audience, or even the “you” that is the public figure, Eileen Myles, writer. At the end of Not Me, you clarify the “welter” of “you’s” that appear in the collection. Could you tell us a bit more about multiplicity and syncronicity in the voices that appear in your writing? I wonder also about the tie between this array and the “ghostwriter” you refer to in the conversation with C.A. Conrad that appeared in Bomb, where you discuss writing about the “you” that struggled with addiction: “That sense of pastness always gave me a feeling of being able to write with the self as if she were an other.”
EM: The book I’m working on now has a lot of selves who speak their “I”s differently. I think fiction kind of invents pastness so you can get to it sooner. I think there’s real surfaces of information, landscape, intimacy that surround us and one “I” couldn’t bear all that. I think pronouns are part of how we navigate time. Did you ever notice when a person starts speaking as an other – the white person is suddenly speaking in the black voice, the man is female, the woman is man, the straight guy feigns gay. I’m like what happened in that moment that they had to become another them. I think that’s really a turn of mind that as a writer and a person I try to be conscious of at many points as possible both to not trample someone else’s terrain and to be as dimensional as I can in my description of the world inside and out. Time is media.
RM: Silly questions by way of rapid tonal shift: Where do you write most often and what do you eat for breakfast?
EM: I love eggs and often have two. I got a trainer for the first time this year and she says I need more protein. I also like granola and milk a lot and had that today in my studio. Eggs though manage to leave you feeling satisfied which is incredible. It’s good to be done. I always write on planes and trains. Boats are the best. But those are my favorites, not my most often. But mostly I write at home. I consider this studio I’m sitting in to be home though. I’m addicted to home though I travel a lot so I think a certain constellation of habits is where I write most. Getting them in place and going ahead. .
RM: Any advice for queer writers just starting out? Those mid-career and/or post-MFA?
EM: To queer writers starting out I’d just say read a lot. Reading is so important. More important than writing. Mid career I’d say write something new, step outside your “genre.” Post MFA…I wonder if these were all one question. Post MFA you should go someplace. But that also could mean stay home. Live there without school, work as little as possible to make money and write your ass off and show no one for a while. It has to be kind of a thrill. To be the frothy machine bearing down with no one checking in.
Eileen Myles was born in Boston (1949) and moved to New York in 1974 to be a poet. Snowflake/different streets (poems, 2012) is the latest of her 18 books. Inferno (a poet’s novel) came out in 2010. For The Importance of Being Iceland/travel essays in art she received a Warhol/Creative Capital grant. In 2010 the Poetry Society of America awarded Eileen the Shelley Prize. She is a Prof. Emeritus of Writing at UC San Diego. She’s a 2012 Guggenheim fellow. She lives in New York.
Rachel Mindell is an MFA candidate in poetry and MA candidate in English Literature at the University of Montana. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Horse Less Review, DESTROYER, Anti-, Cream City Review, Delirious Hem, interrupture, Pity Milk and elsewhere.