Eileen Myles is a recent addition to my hagiography of working artists. I developed an interest in, then an attraction to, poetry during the pandemic, and I Must Be Living Twice was one of the first collections I owned. It stood out to me, because the picture of Myles on the cover in jeans and work shirt felt comfortable and right to me. And now that choice feels mystical as I return to its poems time and time again.
There is something intimate about an artist that opens a new world to you. I had similar experiences with Ornette Coleman and Éliane Radigue as they led me to different ways of hearing. Myles’s poems were the first to unlock the rhythm, lightness, and specificity that can hide in the linear progression of words. I read almost everything differently now because of my first experience with those poems, and my readings of the writers I’ve found since have only benefitted by the education I gained from reading and re-reading I Must Be Living Twice.
I was feeling a bit reckless when I wrote to Myles asking them to take part in this issue. I assumed any answer would be a polite (or perhaps not so polite) NO. I thought perhaps they knew I worked with their friend and collaborator Ryan Sawyer, so there might be some niceties, some hemming and hawing—and then, NO. Instead, the response was simple: Myles liked the name of the journal. That was enough. Over the next few weeks, we negotiated timetables and questions, but I found myself paralyzed by possibilities. I was nervous and trashed three versions of my side of the interview after trying to be clumsily rhythmic and poetic in my questions. Instead, I decided the best role would be to set Myles up, and let their answers take on their own hue. The result is fantastic, an interview to be read aloud for the swing and color of its subject’s answers.
NWThis issue is about how artists work, and where they are as artists, physically and emotionally, when they work. It’s apt that the next book of poems you have coming out is titled Working Life. Can you give us an idea of what your working life is like right now? Is there a typical day and what does it look like?
EMIt’s a “Working Life”—since I’m a poet I’m really anal about upper case and lower case and punctuation. I just want to insert the thought that I’m not so much thinking about labor as that writing is a kind of modeling of your existence. Like it’s a work in
progress—more this than the writing itself. The writing is like a guiding fairy.
My days are very unstable and frenetic lately. If I’m in Texas where I live in a house I walk my dog and then I do the first thing I’m obliged to do. I’m working on a novel at heart but I’m caught professionally between two books, the anthology that I just edited and the new poetry book coming out and then various kinds of travel to like read in festivals and teach and do gigs and make money. A lot of the places I’ve been before and many of the gigs have to do with friendships and getting to see my friends by showing up and doing a reading. But today I had to send a bio and a picture of me and some contracts to a park in New York that has an art installation and I’ll read and talk about the artist in May. I have an intern I’m showing the ropes to because I hate doing that stuff. So I did it and then I wrote them, the intern, about it. Someplace in there my dog got in a fight. I broke it up and she had blood on her mouth. The good news is I wrote a piece last week about a blue face towel I found in the gutter and by now it’s washed so I wiped the blood off Honey’s face and it gave me a final paragraph for the piece that I quickly wrote. I hoped that wasn’t all the writing I’d do today. Maybe this is writing too.
I came back and started picking poems for some readings I’ll do in June at the Berlin Poetry festival. The poems will get translated and there’s something about the request that doesn’t make sense so I wrote Alice Notley who’s also doing it and she is also befuddled by the instructions. We went back and forth a little bit and by the end I had confused her even more. I decided I would just do it but then I got stuck. I went into a little shack I have in my yard and I meditated. I decided to do errands before I went back to work. I went to the post office and I mailed three copies of the anthology to people who are in a big event for it in New York in May (Pathetic Happening on May 28th at St. Mark’s Church). I keep thinking this will get covered when I do my taxes. I emailed my accountant, trying to get a date to do them. I finished choosing the poems and I sent them and I felt good. I figured tonight I would answer your questions and somebody else’s. I would probably finish the Walter Mosley novel I’m devouring. He’s pretty good. Then unbelievably I drove to the library where I met with a group I meditate with on Tuesdays. With some intermittent chatter we sat and did walking meditation for an hour. It’s weird when I was driving to the airport sometime in the past week I listened to Ezra Klein who I’m not sure I like talk with Rick Rubin who I think still lives here even though his house burned down. I was away when that happened. He was talking about meditating and that he does it twice a day. I never or rarely do that so on a day like today I feel like I really hit the bell. The day’s not over. I’ve eaten several meals in all this time I’m describing and I will tell you one more thing, my favorite thing. Once in a while I draw. I started a food diary a couple of days ago. I draw everything I eat. I can’t tell you how much pleasure this gives me. No words only pictures of what is probably unidentifiable food.
NWMost artists can probably recall the feeling of becoming engrossed in writing, music, art, dance, whatever, but I’m not sure all of us can articulate that feeling. Do you remember the first time you wanted to be a poet and what it felt like?
EMIt’s more like I was one all of a sudden. After college I wrote poems at jobs and at one job in the 70s they had the best IBM selectric and I could write poems at work and I wrote a good one and immediately the realities shifted and the job was unimportant and the poem was the real thing. It’s never changed though of course it’s been shaken. I go silent sometimes.
NWPeople with just an acquaintance of your work think of you as a poet, maybe as a political activist, but the breadth of the work you do is so wide. How do you partition yourself during a busy time when you may be working on poems, art writing, photography, film, political work, teaching? Is it a manic all-at-once-as-it-comes, or do you have to set up some system to keep focused on specific work?
EMI ask for deadlines and the world runs on them. But sometimes in the midst of that I just get caught up in taking pictures, or a poem stops everything. Writing novels requires the most attention, but even that if I’m really busy which has been the state of things lately I kind of re-think my novel and decide it requires a lot of little interludes so whenever my mind shifts to that book or something that feels like it I just write right then and there - no preparation. Music is largely an invite. I have a friend in town who designed some sound structure that he wants me to provide some writing for. I said I can’t for a couple of days but I might listen when I’m walking my dog and get an idea. I’m devoted to the idea of easiness meaning that I have a lot of work and sometimes the work is distributing it, deciding who else my work might belong to besides me. When I’m writing an essay about an artist I’m wondering if I can slip this in my novel. If someone asks for some writing for a journal I farm out a piece of the novel. Like I make the world be in my cave. I’m never exactly outside of my work. But I’m definitely rocked by the market place. My publisher kind of forced me to publish a poetry book this spring. And it was fun to just throw it together. I knew I had the work and I find that my agenda and someone else’s are often not that far apart. Music is totally a social thing. Ryan Sawyer very casually invited me to join him and Steve Gunn at a club called the Wicked Lady last summer and now Ryan and I have already made a record. Because it’s his world I could just step in which was kind of remarkable. He asked me to do a gig on April 18 and it just happened to be my release date so my poetry book will have a very unique launch.
Part of it, what I’m trying to describe is a feeling that relationships with other artists and venues kind of beckon and of course I’ve been scrambling to make a living most of my life so I’ll move over there because I think it’s all the same practice. I don’t partition, that’s the thing though I do like to work in different places, for example Texas and New York. I was in Paris for a book launch in September and I added a writing week to the trip and that was great and I’m going to do that somewhere else in June when I’m in Europe.
NWMaybe this is just an attempt at a more specific version of the above, but I’m a big fan of your art writing for its clarity and openness. Your essays feel poetic and they read fast and wild even as they are filled with unique insight. What kind of move do you have to make mentally to go from a poem to writing about Shannon Ebner or Carolee Schneeman?
EMThat’s the thing. I don’t. I put them in my world. Shannon is an old friend so I could write about the way it was in the world when I saw a work of hers on the highline. I like to look at work. It reminds me of a poetry workshop. There was big pressure in the 70s to write about art, or be inspired by it like New York school poets were supposed to be but I thought it was so corny. I liked bands and photography more. But Alice Notley in her workshop at St. Mark’s Church put this Jim Dine print on the table and said write about it and I didn’t know what that meant but I did and it was like a cartoon story. She made us go to the DeKooning show and we all went to the Joseph Cornell show. But by then I couldn’t look at work without writing. It was the form of my excitement. I wrote reviews for about ten years to give myself permission but by the time people were asking me to write catalogue essays I assumed they were inviting me to write as an artist, not an art historian. When I wrote reviews I always wanted to include what I saw on the way to the gallery, or who else was in the room. Once in a while I could do that, but rarely. They wanted me to write about the art. Now I like co-existing with it. If someone’s surprised I wonder why they asked me. What did they expect. I definitely was influenced by new journalism when I was in college. Hunter Thompson—
and Joan Didion. So I’m doing a poet’s version of that for sure. I never write about people unless I love the work. I loved that show of Shannon’s. When Moyra Davy asked me to write about a show of hers during the pandemic I just printed out all the photos on my shitty printer and taped them all over my apartment and into the halls of my building. And I had already been writing about my building that year so I kept doing it with her photos inside it. I like becoming the institution.
NWYour work has such confidence that it would be hard to imagine you having any second thoughts about a poem like “Movie.” Have you had periods, or moments, of indecision or anxiety about a certain piece of writing? Or on a broader scale, was there a dark night of the soul at any point where you questioned being the artist you are?
EMWell I suffer rejection like the next one. I wrote plays in the 80s and 90s and even though people liked them I could never get them past one run and I feared they were bad. I’m always thinking like my current novel what if this is just bad. But I like just writing more than not writing. I’m a maximalist. I figure of the percentage I do some part is good. I write a lot of bad poems, and I’m floating in a million bad pieces of this novel. There just is nothing else for me to do. I feel incredibly lucky that I made up this life and it worked. Conviction is repetition, I believe that. I spread myself too thin, I know that’s a fact. But if I was somebody else it would probably be lauded. So I decide to feel lauded as much as possible. And increasingly I give less of a shit. If I just read and walked my dog for the rest of my life I’d be pretty happy. While drawing everything I ate…
NWSince this is a music journal, I have to ask about your relationship to sound. I have heard you read with drummer Ryan Sawyer, and I just read that you wrote an opera libretto. What is the relationship between your words and the music you like to hear or work with?
EMHa. I obviously didn’t read your questions first. I don’t know what that relationship is. I like, I love listening to music and I always wished I played something. So I think my poetry and my prose is definitely infused with sound, a kind of percussion that’s personal and I’ve let it rip more as time has passed, in terms of reading aloud of course…and I have always noticed that tradition in country or rock where someone’s talking – Skeeter Davis—why-do-these-eyes-of-mine-cry—I’ve liked when bands in the past—Japanther? They brought me into the studio and said give us something right there, so I did. But Ryan and I are in synch and I was a wicked fan of his immediately with his drumming and blues lyrics solos. I invited him to play everywhere I could in my life – I mean my birthday party right before the pandemic and I asked St. Mark’s to have him perform on New Year’s a few years back and I kind of follow his work so it’s great that he’s also created these opportunities. We’re mutual fans. I wrote a libretto in 2004 with Michael Webster for an opera we called Hell. I thought it was great and we had a bunch of performances and great audiences but no attention and no further opportunities. Maybe in the future. I always liked opera and Michael turned me on to a lot of composers so I could even understand what a libretto was. I understood that the lyrics conform a bit, meaning if that line has to repeat a bunch to work musically it’s fine. I probably needed to ask the music to conform too. With Ryan I have to say when something isn’t working but that’s rare. I’m supposed to do another libretto with Daniel Fish and Michael Gordon for the LA Opera but it keeps getting pushed into the future. Titus Andronicus. It’s so bad, Shakespeare’s pot boiler. It will be fun if we do it.
NWThis is a bit touchy-feely and speculative, but can you see a certain future for yourself, one that fulfills some need you are feeling now? In your perfect world where would you like to be in thirty years? And what are your hopes for poetry in the future?
EMIn 30 years I’ll be dead! I still want to direct films. I did a short one and I have another short up my sleeve. I loved writing a screenplay and I wrote a couple of pilots for teevee shows. I have one pilot I really want to see realized. I think it’ll happen. For poetry, I guess my dream is I’d like it to become speech and vice versa. I’d like to live in it, I’d like everyone to talk in poetry. I know I do and I’d like to see that be a much more common experience. I’d like to see it turned into the form of communication it already is. I’d even like it to be money.