Pensacola, Florida
Friday February 22nd 2019


The Poet Muse

By C.S. Satterwhite

Eileen Myles is one of the most prolific and respected poets of our era. Myles is also one of the few poets to make a name for themselves in the world of pop culture. Slate Magazine described Myles as a “Gender Warrior,” and they’ve also called her the “poet muse” for Amazon’s hit TV show “Transparent.”

Myles, however, is hesitant to take on the mantle of the historic roles of poets, whether ancient or modern. Known as a fixture in the New York poetry world, Myles splits her time between New York and the artist colony of Marfa, Texas. I spoke with Myles on the phone at her home in Marfa in late January, the day before the Women’s March anniversary. We talked about politics, poetry and what she thinks of the poet’s role in our society.

INWEEKLY: Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Trump taking office. The government is set to shut down over immigration. Trump still wants to build the wall. It’s also the anniversary of the  Women’s March. There’s a big one taking place here in Pensacola, and across the country. I know you do political work, so I’m curious—one year into Trump’s reign, how do you think it’s going?
MYLES: It’s an insane question. Not your question, but it’s all just so crazy. I was looking on Twitter today, and a friend posted that Republicans control all parts of the government at this moment in time, and the whole country is in complete chaos. It’s horrendous. It comes down to every single thing that’s wrong with the United States of America. The shape of our government. The condition of our government. It’s kind of unbelievable. The sexism of our government. The complete money driven nature of our government at this point in time. It’s as bad as it could possibly be. I mean, it was written into the Constitution. People talk about the Constitution as if it’s some glorious document that has some real answers, and I think that’s not true.  It was written to be unequal, and now the chickens have come home to roost. That’s the way it looks to me.

INWEEKLY: That’s always the back and forth between the rhetoric and the history and the practice. Which, of course, is troubling. So in times like these, I often think of Paul Robeson or Anne Waldman when I think of what the role of the artist is in times like today. What do you think is the artist’s role?
MYLES: The role of the artist is the same as the role of any person. What you need to do is to take care of yourself and not have a sense of not being silenced or backed into a corner or filled with despair. So whatever a person does, I need to work. I need to write. I need to talk to people. We used to call it “preaching to the choir.” I think everyone has a new understanding. We need each other. We need to recharge our battery. We need a new conversation. And no matter how bad it is, I don’t think complaint without solution is incorrect. You know? I just think that you have to look at how dark it is, and I think that’s what’s happening now. I think to have an accurate take on the badness of it, a community to share that with, and to do what you need to do to take care of yourself in your life in some way, whether that’s making art or fixing plumbing or having kids or doing an office job. People learn to take of themselves. Then I think about ideas around action, and I think that’s part. Like the people marching today is significant and great.

INWEEKLY: Do you think your poetry has changed over the past year? I know a lot of people talk about the stress on their lives, the stress that they’ve gone through, just watching the news and paying attention to everything, especially if you’re gay or otherwise marginalized. Do you feel that’s affected your poetry at all?
MYLES: Everything that’s around me affects my poetry. My work has always been political in different ways, so sure, but I’ve written a few things that are utterly and completely about politics. But my way of writing has been like I’m feeling in and out of things, but it’s always in the world of what I do and say. In a way, I’d say that it’s not changed, but to say that I’m open to acknowledging these conditions. It might have a different effect on people when I read my work. I think that I’m somebody’s who’s always been writing about the political reality of our times.

INWEEKLY: When did you start considering yourself a poet?
MYLES: I was kind of bumping against it in college when I started taking writing workshops and realized I was kind of good at it. But it wasn’t until I came to New York when I was 24, and if I met you at a party, when someone would ask, ‘So what do you do?’ I’d say, ‘I’m a poet.’ It was kind of a professional choice to move to New York. In New York, I knew that’s where the poets were. That’s where an art life was.

INWEEKLY: What was New York like back then?
MYLES: I’ve written a lot about it, but I’ll just say that it was wild, it was spacious, it was cheap and it was fun. It was pretty ideal for my purposes.

INWEEKLY: Do you get nostalgic for it?
MYLES: Nah. You know, I already got to live there. It’s like being young, but I’ve already got to do it… Part of the reason that I love where I am now, here in Texas, is that the scale here is smaller. The town of Marfa has a permanent population of 2,000, but a fluctuating population of much larger depending on what art event is going on. It’s very local, it’s very communal, and it’s very art moving. It reminds me of the East Village when I was in my early twenties. When I go to an artist colony, I feel the same way too. You go to a place where local is the scale you live on. And it was always about the time. Even technology and economics alone have radically changed. As soon as we had the answering machine in the ‘80s, it was different. As soon as we had the internet in the 90s, it was different. As soon as we had cell phones, it was different. It’s like everybody feels like they’re on their own road. It’s almost like the nature of reality now is turning on a machine and seeing what everybody wants, or does anyone want anything.

INWEEKLY: I’ve heard you describe Western Civilization like this. Everybody’s for herself. Everybody is alone.
MYLES: And yet with everybody else at the same time, which is a very weird kind of contradiction.

INWEEKLY: What do you think is the poet’s role in this modern condition, or do you think the poet has a role in trying to bring the community together?
MYLES: You know, I’m always a little nervous about the ‘poet’s role.’ It seems prescriptive. I’ve been interested in what a director does, and I started to talk to some people, and it started to become clear that the director was really an extension of the personality. Like, if you were a small blocky person, and you liked to tell people what to do and always felt you were right, that’s a certain approach to being a director. Also, if you were the son or daughter of a contractor and your summer jobs throughout college were working for your dad and organizing small teams of men and women to do physical labor, and you got comfortable working in a way of delegating this or delegating that, you’d be a different kind of director. I’m a different kind of director, working in notebooks, writing poems, reading poems publicly, teaching workshops, writing about art. There are a whole bunch of skills that come with writing about that. That would order the type of director that I am. Big epics of culture, like big epics of poetry, like Beowulf. Who’s Beowulf? Beowulf might also be a poet. Maybe being a poet means just being this guy, and I don’t mean being a guy, as in varying gender. In a way, a poet is just a way of saying person. I guess I always resist… once I heard a poet say that poets are really truth tellers. And I just thought, ‘I just don’t want to take on that mask.’ Poets are as full of shit as anyone else. The only difference is that some of us are lucky enough to make a living.

Eileen Myles at PSC
WHAT: A public reading
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8
WHERE: Ashmore Fine Arts Center, 1000 College Blvd., Bldg. 8
COST: $7-11, free for PSC students

WHAT: A writing workshop
WHEN: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9
WHERE: Chadbourne Library, 1000 College Blvd., Bldg. 20, Room 2051
COST: Free

WHAT: A book talk
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9
WHERE: Anna Lamar Switzer Gallery, 1000 College Blvd.
COST: Free