Never Born, Never Dying: EILEEN MYLES
I am sitting behind my desk on a rainy day that contradicts the arrival of spring when I call Eileen Myles from my apartment in Marseille. The city is a place of intense protests against the reform of the retirement age that Emmanuel Macron’s government decided upon and which resonates with hundreds of other demonstrations in the rest of the country. Its noise is audible as Eileen responds from Marfa, Texas, where they have been spending time away from New York City. It all creates a strange echo and I wonder why I myself am not outside as we start talking.
Eileen Myles (b. 1949) is one of the most important figures in American literature and poetry. A figure in that they evoke a history that included John Giorno, Cookie Mueller, Allen Ginsberg, and the literary scene in New York during the 1980s. On their own, Eileen Myles summons the morphology of an experimental writing that unfolds the beauty and violence of the everyday. The author and anthologist who has created around twenty works, ranging from poetry, fiction, non-fiction, libretti, and plays to performance pieces. Titles include Pathetic Literature (2022), a “Working Life” (2023), Not Me (1991); Chelsea Girls (1994); The New You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading (1995); Cool for you (2000); The Importance of Being Iceland (2009), and Evolution (2018).
Hugo Bausch Belbachir: Where are you now?
Eileen Myles: In my house in Marfa. I’ve basically been here since mid-January. I came here for a residency in 2015, and I really liked it, so I found a very cheap house and bought it. It’s been my getaway for when I don’t want to be in New York City.
HBB: In 1992 you ran for president of the United States, claiming to be the candidate of women, of lesbians, of queers, of anyone who made less than 50,000 dollars a year, of those who were dying of AIDS, and of those who were dying on the streets. It’s an important moment in that it underlines the beauty in misery, in our misery; in what was—and still is—impossible today. What do you think about that moment, thirty years later?
EM: In our context, it actually feels very fresh because having run for president is one of those things that never goes away, and it’s often brought up in a sort of jokey way. In the past, it would just be a part of my biography I didn’t always want to talk about. But when I got involved with issues in New York City—such as, the parks and trees and public spaces—I started to understand and remember how much I enjoyed working collectively with people and having something to talk about that wasn’t so immediately involved with me personally, and finding a whole different energy and taking on a particular problem with a particular group of people. It seems to me that anytime I’ve gotten vividly involved with any political cause, the outlying issues of how it has to do with every other political cause becomes really interesting. I think it flipped me back into a way in which I feel very pleased and proud and simply connected to the person who felt, in 1991, that it was a good idea to run for president because then and now it represented a certain way of throwing up my hands. There had been so much activism, and there had been some gains at that time. People felt like it could be a better moment. Then there was the election and it seemed clear that we were going to get Clinton, which was not a good thing. It seemed possible that we were going to get something radical, even progressive, and instead we got a middle step. So, I feel very excited by and close to the person who ran for president.
HBB: Do you still think that it was a good idea?
EM: I think it was a great idea. As an artist, the act of deflection is always powerful. To even think about what else we can do with our small platform as artists and writers and to also think about what kind of currency we’ve created. By becoming an artist or writer, it seems like you’ve carved a little hole into the culture and you have some room to speak. But then, the question is: what do you say?
HBB: You’ve also said that “protest and poetry are respectively a language,” common to an action you put in place. It reminds me of Jenny Holzer’s early interventions in New York in the 1970s. In this way you don’t write, you act. How do you situate activism in your writing process? When did it manifest itself and how do these concepts relate to each other?
EM: When people started to die of AIDS in the 1980s, it immediately entered into my work. It was just part of the landscape of the world I lived in—my social world and my immediate friend network. It was just a fact at the time. I had so many friends who were in ACT UP. I wasn’t really a member of that. I went to a few of their actions, but I didn’t feel like I needed to be there or wanted to be there. People were always getting up very early in the morning, and I’m not really good at that. Anytime I’ve ever had to get on a bus and go to Washington Square to protest or get up early and go down to Wall Street, it was like I was half out of my body with exhaustion and I didn’t know how to connect to the collectivity of it. I didn’t feel it. And so, I always felt like the best thing I could do was with however political facts leaked into my work . I never had any second thoughts about whether my work was political or not. I thought—to the extent that I think about these things—that they will be a presence in my work. That’s always been the case. It really was. But recently it changed since I have become sort of prominent as a writer or a public intellectual or personality or poet, and I can use that very directly. But I realized I’m only allowed to speak about certain things, about my turf. I have my poetry published in The New Yorker. I’ve written for New York Magazine. I’ve been in all these magazines as a presence and as a writer. But when I approached them around a more political topic that had to do with New York and public space, they would not let me speak. Is it the degree of specialization that the media is engaged in? That somehow you’re not equipped to do certain things? Or is it that they are so literally wrapped up in real estate in New York City that they can’t allow those stories to be written? Nobody else is writing them either!
HBB: I remember that text you wrote and published on Art Forum recently, which is about the demolition of Manhattan’s East River Park.
EM: Right, but Art Forum is different. It’s not the New York Times or New York Magazine or The New Yorker. It’s not general interest. General interest is terrified to lose their sponsors.
HBB: Do you feel that these topics are still being covered up by the media and those who own them?
EM: I just think that the media is more owned. It’s more of a silencing mechanism than I ever understood it to be. The New Yorker can run a story about a young homeless boy that raises pigeons and goes to East River Park and has a relationship with them, but we can’t talk about the destruction of the park itself. It’s there anecdotally, but not literally. I think that the media of New York City is so in bed with money and real estate—I guess it was just as frightening during Bush when we realized that the White House and the media were completely controlled by right-wing talking points that there was no way to get through. New York City in many ways is even worse. The same forces controlling the city are controlling the media, and we are in a strangely censored place. Money runs everything in this country. You have “freedom of speech” but only as long as you’re talking about certain things.
HBB: I feel like this is very specific to New York City. The history of the city is based on real estate investment, the attraction of fortunes, and political and economic superpowers. Today even more than before. The city is designed around a real estate dictatorship, and some streets do not see any sunlight during the day as the nearby buildings have become higher and higher. You could say that New York is the prime example of a history of destruction. How do you understand that, seeing as you’re living there and have been for more than forty years? You’ve also lived in the same apartment the entire time, right?
EM: I got an apartment when I was 27, and it’s still my apartment. It was very funny this year because, for much of the year, I was 72 years old and I thought “I’d rather be 27.” And now we’re 72.
HBB: East Village, right?
EM: Yeah. It’s kind of unbelievable and small and cheap and well-situated. It’s kind of like having a perfect little hotel room in New York.
HBB: Can you tell me more about your neighborhood?
EM: Initially, I moved to the Upper West Side because I had friends there. But shortly afterward it seemed like all the poets lived in the East Village, and it was even cheaper. So, I moved to the East Village in 1977. It was very Puerto Rican and Ukrainian with lots of drugs. Everyone was in bands or were poets and artists. It was remarkable because everybody I knew lived in the neighborhood. It was that simple. You lived a very local life. The art world was mostly in Soho and then, in the 80s, it was in the East Village for about ten years. It was very much our neighborhood. It was pretty remarkable, pretty queer. It was great.
HBB: In the East Village between the 1970s and 1980s, there was people like David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, Mark Morrisroe, and Allen Ginsberg. You have also said that NYC at that time was incredible because everyone was what they dreamed of being; waitresses were dancers and cab drivers wrote movies, and you had to believe them because it was true. Everything was possible. At this time, you started attending St. Mark’s Church, where you met John Giorno. Could you tell me about those years and their importance?
EM: Mark Morrisroe was actually from Boston. He maybe spent ten minutes in New York. But he’s the one everyone got their ideas from. He was the leader of the pack. I think I met Allen when I was 25. There were these Puerto Rican playwrights who were showing their work at the Public Theater. It was like they were suddenly discovered. And there were Puerto Rican poets who were part of that, too. But while the playwrights could move to a larger platform, the poets did what poets do, which is make a space. This space called the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which still exists. It was coordinated by Miguel Algarín, who lived in the neighborhood. It was kind of a hot poetry spot. Anyways, because some of the poets were young gay men who were very attractive, it attracted Burroughs, and Ginsberg. And, of course, that attracted us who were white kid poets from the Poetry Project. I think I read some stuff and Alan Ginsberg came running up to me and was like, “who are you?” I was young, I was cute, and I looked like a cute boy. Somehow, I slipped through, even though they were not really into women, or women producing stuff. Giorno always had his eye on what was happening and was producing records. I was on several of his. I met Robert Mapplethorpe, who took my picture for Giorno’s record.
HBB: Would you hang out with Robert?
EM: No, I was too shy. He seemed to dwell in a very particular world, and it wasn’t my world, which was shooting pool in Ukrainian bars and drinking beer and going to poetry readings. I didn’t have the same kind of desire for art world fame. Frankly, I was a little intimidated by it. And sexuality is also a huge deal. I experienced my sexuality as something that made me a part of something else. I didn’t even understand some of the codes in certain nightclubs where there were plenty of lesbians. I just couldn’t read them. I didn’t know how to be a lesbian that way. I had to keep it simple.
HBB: Writing for you was also a technique of dissociation. You’ve said that reading, as opposed to writing, is a trans act; so much so that reading was only about reading men—for whom the history of literature is unfairly dedicated. And that reading is to extract oneself from one’s body for a subject not identifying with the male subject. Writing, and writing lesbian narratives, including your own, allowed you to affirm yourself as your own subject, as the other. Could you tell me about that?
EM: I think I was creating a utopia in the writing that I didn’t live in, because the spaces where I found myself weren’t that expansive. I mean, I didn’t see how my location and my sexuality could open it. I had a limited vision of it. So, I think the writing was ahead of me. I didn’t see any borders in writing. And it was always that way. The literary world felt dominated by gay men or straight men for so long, and I think I was always traveling as an exception, so I wanted to be in a world that was mine, even if I had to invent it and yet I didn’t want to leave the art world that I was interested in. And that was poetry. There’s a lot of contradictions. I met people like Rene Ricard or Peter Schjeldahl because I was a poet and they liked my work and even wanted approval of their own poetry. It was funny. They both wanted to be in my little poetry magazine. I was like, “who me?” And then they would introduce me to people and try and get me to live in a bigger world. I was fearful and I didn’t know that I belonged there. So, I was always bumping against these worlds, going to Club 57 and the Mudd Club and all these places, but I didn’t know that they were mine. They weren’t yet.
HBB: Do you still feel that tension today?
EM: No. It’s like that joke from the 80s, that the only real cure for homosexuality is fame because suddenly nobody cares what you are. And I feel like that’s the way it worked for me because I’ve become so much more known. All these people whom I brushed against, it’s almost like we now have a history that we didn’t really have. I knew Sonic Youth. I certainly knew them as a band, and I would go hear them play. We were all in the Kiev in the middle of the night. But then by the aughts, we became friends and suddenly it just was one continuous past. I think that’s very funny. It’s like everybody knows me now and I was always there and I was always in the room, but now in a different way. By being recognized, I am part of the party. It’s very funny. I’ve met Patti Smith several times, but we have no friendship at all. I don’t think she’s interested in dykes. I mean she’s even written that. Probably because she seems like one.
EM: The thing is lesbians affiliate with her. But it doesn’t work both ways. Everybody identifies with Patti, but Patti doesn’t identify with everybody. One time I was at a reading at St. Mark’sChurch and Richard Hell was there. We were standing in a circle, and then Richard looked up and said, pointing at me and Patti, “do you two know each other?” Patti didn’t look at me. She looked down and was like, “yeah, we met in the old days.”
HBB: Funny way to not meet.
EM: Right? You throw it in the past. It was sort of the opposite of everybody else because everybody else acts like we’re friends now, and we were friends in the old days. But Patti just says it happened then so we don’t need to meet now. I guess she doesn’t want to waste time.
HBB: There is a sort of generational battle for who gets to inherit all this history from the 1970s and 1980s. Do you know what I mean?
EM: The thing is, as people die, nobody can say whether you were in the room or not. And that’s why I feel like I’ve tried to be very clear about it. I was in the room, but I was just passing through. I was an anonymous kid. I was not a star. I heard Patti play. I heard Sonic Youth play. I heard Television. I knew John Giorno pretty well by the end of his life, and I had known him since I was a kid, and he was always friendly, but still, I was a dyke. He was interested in gay men, so there were rules, and I understood them.
HBB: And NYC is different today. The landscape has changed and no longer leaves the same opportunities for artists. Today you are committed to changes taking place in the city, to the real estate investment that is demolishing its poetic potential. Last spring you stood with a group of activists around what used to be the last cherry tree in a park along Cherry Street and campaigned against the transformation of East River Park. Could you tell me about these struggles?
EM: Honestly, I feel like the things I’ve been to lately are more ceremonial. We lost half of that public park already. Early on, the work was about bringing people to the park and walking them around, showing them what would be lost, and now the focus is on what remains. Literally fetishizing a single tree that you know is 100 years old that they’re going to cut down to put a sewer in. I’m part of a very small group of people who were there. We were and are resisting, and we’re still trying to get attention. Yet it doesn’t work.
HBB: Have you, since the beginning of the movement, managed to engage in conversations with the representatives of these transformations or with the representatives of the city?
EM: No. When the mayor was running for office, his campaign sounded like he heard us, but once he came into power, the issue didn’t exist anymore. He’s completely wedded to real estate. He’s crazy on so many levels. He has said that he has been appointed to be the mayor of New York by God, and he’s there by divine right. He doesn’t think there needs to be any separation between church and state and that it’s a mistake to stop prayers. I mean, he’s really crazy. Corrupted all the way through.
HBB: East River Park is a symbolic place for you, where you came to run in the 1980s after learning that your friends were dying, one after another, of AIDS-related illnesses. The park holds that memory, that pain. How do you feel about seeing these landscapes disappear today?
EM: It’s so weird. New York is obviously a microcosm of the world and the country. New York has never had any respect for history or its own history. New York has always been notoriously capable of knocking down beautiful buildings and neighborhoods and having no sentimentality whatsoever. There’s no notion of pastness. Even the landmark commissions in New York iscompletely corrupt. People are fighting to change that right now, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Around Penn Station, they want to change the train station. And of course, there was a glorious old train station that they knocked down, and now they want to change the station again, but they also want to destroy the whole neighborhood in order to put up tall buildings that we don’t need. I learned that the deal of destroying something and building something over is where the money is. It’s not about the thing arriving, existing, or being used. That’s not what we’re doing here. Even in relationship to our park, it isn’t about a park. It’s just about the deals being made so that somebody gets the gig and gets to undo that park and build something new. That’s the excitement. It’s part of the larger planetary condition of human beings exterminating human beings without even thinking about it. It starts with the poorest. It starts with the living conditions of the poorest and eradicating whatever they want in poor neighborhoods. In New York City, we have Central Park and Prospect Park. These are big, beautiful, abundant green parks, but they’re actually private. Not for who can use them, but they are funded by private conservancies in rich neighborhoods.
HBB: Would you stay in New York? What kind of future do you see in this city?
EM: Unless something radically changes, I imagine myself staying there for the rest of my life. This becomes a smaller statement the older you get, which is very funny. But the city, to me, is a device. It’s like my phone. It’s like a way that I get music delivered. It still is the place I go to, where my friends are, where the galleries are, where the rituals are, the rituals of friendship. It’s still a hotspot that I return to and need and want, while not being deluded about how it’s a place lacking any kind of consideration for human beings and how they live. It’s vile. It’s simply vile. But we aren’t and there’s still a lot of us.
HBB: What are the next actions you would like to implement?
EM: Well, I’m involved. I am friends with the same activist community although people are dispersed. I get information. People are trying to get environmental specialists to come, they are still fighting for the second half of the park. But there isn’t a clear action right now. I know that I’m at a loss. My friends who are in the city are meeting and they’re doing things. They’re doing small actions. I guess I’m mostly thinking about what bigger piece this small piece connects to and how can we fight that. I feel like it’s not exactly a relief, but we’re all participating in an understanding of the situation with our park being part of a larger systemic violation of human life, plant life, and animal life that’s being widely perpetrated. I don’t know what the right action is right now, or even for the longer period of time, though we’re living in it. My first thought had been that I would write something and that that would change things. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t have access to the right platform for this subject. It became about large collective actions, and we did those. There were a few little blips in the media but we got very little attention. Then I think the ways that I’ve gotten attention in the recent past have been almost nostalgic. Like that piece in the New York Times of me hugging a tree. I hate that picture.
EM: It’s pathetic in a negative sense. That tree is still there and “my” part of the park is still there but probably not for long. I felt like it was a photograph of me holding onto something that was doomed to be destroyed. I didn’t feel great about it. Then they just talked about me in a way I’ve been talked about a hundred times in the media without really talking about what the story really was.
HBB: I get that, and that’s why it also remains beautiful. In my personal activism, I always understood my position within uselessness. Not that I had to consider the changes my actions would lead to but the importance of my presence. Of me being there.
EM: I like the word useless. I find that to be true, and I feel like it is the next stage in a way. And then it may be that there’s some new way of conceptualizing uselessness that becomes another action. I’m open to it, finding out what that is. Before they started destroying this park, I was part of a group and we were doing actions, and then I was just interested in anything I heard about, any small gathering of people, I would just go to it. I thought this was my new activity. If I heard people meeting in front of the governor’s office on Third Avenue that had anything to do with the environment or trees, I’d go. I would show up and it would be these old weirdos, these people who had been doing it for decades. This one’s from the Bronx. This one’s from Staten Island. There was also this older woman who I knew from the group that I’m in—she’s probably not older than me—who is straight and lives a different life. I think of her as this older lady, and we took the subway together. She knew all the politicians and had clearly been doing this for a while. I asked her, “Tell me about the really good struggles you’ve been in. What are the ones that were really successful?” She looked at me and said, “you never win.” I was stunned. I couldn’t even take it in. She goes, “that’s not why we’re here.” And I think that’s true. You just do the right thing nakedly in the world. And I want to do more, and I will as soon I can see what it is. It’s so interesting and so horrifying. As is everything that is happening everywhere.