Eileen Myles Is Back!

How lesbian poet Eileen Myles finally grabbed mainstream attention.


Published:

Libby Lewis

Eileen Myles is really fucking funny. “The only real cure for homosexuality is fame,” she jokes to me, referring to her recent string of successes and the mainstream adoration of her newest volume of poetry, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, which was published concurrently with the reissue of her 1994 autobiographical novel, Chelsea Girls.

“It used to be that the brighter you got, the less gay you got…both because it matters less in a certain way—you’re going to do what you fucking do—but you’re also not fighting to be seen, so you’re not naming it as much.”

For Myles, who is 66, 2015 could be deemed the Year of Fame and Malapropism: She’s become a cultural avatar on TV and at the movies—the inspiration for Cherry Jones’s character on Season 2 of Transparent, and Lily Tomlin’s character in Grandma. She’s won countless accolades and awards, including the 2015 Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing. I Must Be Living Twice sold out in its first three printings—baffling mainstream publisher HarperCollins, which assigned her an agent to handle the wave of publicity. The media has heralded her success as everything from a “renaissance” to a “retrospective,” with the New York Times saying she’s “earned” it and New York magazine running a piece headlined “Eileen Myles Gets Her Due”—which amuses Myles. “That writer is so great,” she confides. “I don’t blame her for that line. I’ve done enough journalism to know that you write a piece and then they put some shit on top of it…‘Gets her due’ is like trying to, like, extract something from the culture!”

Myles finds the attention both odd and humorous. Male journalists, she paraphrases, describe her as “the used to be obscure, punk, poet, dyke,” which, she responds, “is very strange [and also] funny, because it sounds like I was wandering through the darkness for hundreds of years and [publisher] Ecco found me.”

She takes slight issue with the use of the term “punk,” which more appropriately describes, she explains, “the art form of [her] generation,” rather than her own work. She says the misnomer reflects a deep-seated homophobia: “Every time I get called a punk poet, I think, [the media doesn’t] want to talk about class, vernacular, queerness, or dykes. A lot of things would have to be there, and because they don’t want to talk about those things, they say ‘punk.’ ”

Myles views these labels with the eye of a poet: “Any word that covers what I do, I’m not unwilling to claim. I just feel like I don’t want to be phobic about my own kind. I have to include what I am—lesbian is part of what I am. I prefer ‘dyke.’ It’s a better word! It’s an Anglo-Saxon word. We deserve that. It has more linguistic power. I think it carries a whole heavy load of thud. It’s got a real in-your-face thing.”

Her voice crescendos with excitement. “I just do think the dyke is back!”

It is perhaps out of humility that Myles explains in scientific terms the fame that eluded her for years. “I think that it’s geological—I simply have done so much that it simply would be impossible not to publish me in the mainstream.” To elaborate, she offers the example of a surging, endless water source: “I think sometimes it’s like the little boy putting his finger in the hole of the dyke, and eventually he can’t stay there and the water comes. I just feel like I’ve done so much that at a certain point in time it’s like, How can you keep this person out, when she’s all over the place?... Everybody who is important in the generation before me…knew I was good, [and] they published me.”

Like many queer artists who have been marginalized, Myles was called “too downtown,” or “too East Village,” or “too niche.” Her work was continuously rejected. “It’s so weird,” she conjectures, “because in so many other areas ‘niche’ is so exciting. Just look at that piece of shit Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Myles acknowledges that her “sexuality needs a big home,” and she emphasizes that she writes for a mixed collective of people. “I don’t want to live on a lesbian island. I don’t, and I never have. And I think that’s the best treatment for these fears of being niched away.”

She recounts how no agent, let alone publisher, would consider Chelsea Girls when she first wrote it, in her 40s. “To be young, female, full of talent, to be writing about sex, to be having sex, to not be owing anybody anything, and not paying your dues but simply living your life in this frontal way is like something that needs to be hidden,” she says. She reminisces about rejection. “It was too much that I was using my own name and writing pretty close to the time of these events—that would be interesting if I was a man, but it’s almost terrorism on a cultural level for a woman.”

I Must Be Living Twice was also rejected more than once before being picked up by HarperCollins. One publishing giant even turned the book down by claiming that it “ ‘couldn’t do such a large collection’—which,” she interprets, “means female!”

“When I say my work 20 years ago would’ve been celebrated exactly the way it’s getting celebrated today if I was a guy, that’s just a fucking fact.”

Her fans know this is a fucking fact, too, which is why Myles feels grateful for the recent support and enthusiasm: “People are acting like this is one for the team. It’s really weirdly great. I’m not getting people who are resentful—there’s nobody thinking, Fuck Eileen Myles . . . I think everyone is fucking happy that my work is out there in a bigger way.”

The year is also marked by personal celebration: Myles is dating Transparent creator Jill Soloway, whom she met on a panel last spring. “Immediately, we were excited by each other and what each other did,” she says. Myles becomes animated when detailing Cherry Jones’s character on Transparent, who is based on her. “Wait till you see Cherry Jones [getting together] with someone who looks like she’s in her teens. I think Cherry was so happy—I don’t think she’s ever played a lesbian!” (Note to the reader: She hasn’t!)

Myles, whose own romantic history is lined with intergenerational relationships with younger women, appreciates both Transparent and Grandma for portraying these relationships on screen. “I think that the thing that’s really important is that they are there at all.”

For Myles, intergenerational relationships have been a source of education, power, and exchange. “I’ve been with many women younger than me, and . . . sometimes you bring a person to the world they want to be connected to. My own attitude to it is that my world changes because someone else is in it with me now, and nobody I dated didn’t bring me music and books and perspective. It’s really rich. It’s sort of like, again, we’re just human, so dating someone from a completely different frame just yields…tension and difficulty, and it’s exciting and aggravating, but it’s been a real driving force in my life.

“I gotta say, my often mostly younger girlfriends have parented me in a big, big way. Every woman I’ve ever been with has shown me some way to take care of myself. It’s never been that I’m the sugar daddy or the hook-up, purely. I am those things in some ways—it’s unescapable—but I’ve been so nurtured. I’ve been so supported and so seen by all my girlfriends, who, even including Jill, are younger than me.”

eileenmyles.com

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