Cx72 Interview: Natalie Mariko in conversation with Eileen MylesJanuary 15, 2020
interview conducted by Natalie Mariko @ the Haus für Poesie in Berlin, 14 June 2019photos by Marissa Patrice Leitmantranscription & editorial advice by Eliot Duncan
The first thing I notice about Eileen is what I might alternatively describe as either suspicion or defiance. It comes, perhaps, from years of not being taken seriously—as a literary force, they and their contemporaries occupied the fringes for a long time. Their’s is a subset of writer which, in its heyday, was simply far too transgressive and unpalatable for Discerning Readers—Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, Barbara Barg, Dodie Bellamy, Cookie Mueller, etc.; militant dykes and queers, feminists and the experimental, everything diametric and aberrant to the ruling conformist sentiment of the Reagan/Bush era.
And then the completely unwavering confidence. It’s not just that their writing is good, though that’d be enough reason for confidence in-itself. Much greater is the influence they’re able to exercise through the word-of-mouth, share-like-follow culture of social media. The underground years far behind them, their historical presence is being solidified amidst this rapidly broadening Queer New Norm—a type of online discourse which makes it both simple to google the terms of difference amongst parties and which makes it unconscionably lazy not to do so. Their work speaks indelibly to the history of punching through that wall. A history which, it must be said, for too fucking long rotted unnoticed in the bedpans of dying AIDS victims. And an ongoing history at that, largely unwritten—only the first step of which, by the way, involves the twee neoliberal talking-points of something so banally hetero as marriage equality.
They look me dead in the eyes.
“Let’s rip it right open.”
Do you have to be cocky to write?
What does ‘cocky’ mean? It seems very gendered. I mean, okay sure yeah of course… NO! you don’t have to be anything. I feel like you write with what you have and how you are and you figure out a way to write from there. So, ‘cocky’—that imposes a certain thing and I don’t know if that’s a projection on me or on the person who asked the question, but I don’t think you have to be anything particular to write. You only have to write with who you are and figure your way through.
When you’re in the middle of writing, are you aware of when you’re onto something good?
I feel like there’s a deliberate writing that feels a little slogging and then it’s like running and at a certain point you get a little high and are like—whoa. Like surfing (I’ve surfed exactly once), like catching the wave and suddenly you’re okay. Suddenly everything gets easy for a stretch and I think that’s part of the reason why I do it. There are these fugue states within it. But the thing that’s a little weird is that it’s not reliable that they’re good. Y’know, sometimes I write from an ecstatic experience and then I look at it and I’m like: garbage. But often it is good.
I’m cutting through your book, evolution, now…
I will, for sure. There’s a point in the poem “you” where you ask what the purpose of being famous is. So what is it?
That’s an assertion creating a space in which everyone is responsible to answer that question without me saying what that means. Though, what’s interesting to me about the poem is that it’s like saying anything that’s uncomfortable or arrogant or awkward or preening or presuming value feels risky and dangerous and is exciting in a way. Shouldn’t there be a point where you’re so well known that computers get it and know how you paginate? It’s being kind of frank about the grandiosity I live with sometimes. I think it’s interesting to think about what is possibly in the room that you may or may not address. Even for me.
I’ve been writing since my 20s and I’m in 60s now and I think I always - because it seemed like a good choice - felt like I was in the right place. I always knew I was good. It didn’t make me rich or famous, it just meant that there were surges where suddenly I got this award and I was like: okay, I’ll survive. But there was also a lot of grief. Writing is not an easy profession. and now suddenly I’ve had three or four years where I’ll be in line at a theatre and I’ll realize people are talking about me and I think, ‘Oh my god, they know who I am?’ So, in a way a poem like that is really enjoying the joke of this strange discomfort I have in life where people are talking about me. Some poets ask me what it’s like and I think I know what they mean, but I think it’s really gross to expect me to know and to answer that question. We’ve all been bozos in this bus for years and suddenly I’ve got it good? Very funny.
Do you think the internet is facilitating that discovery? I know you have an Instagram you’re active on.
There are people who have discovered my work through Instagram and not my work. Meaning Instagram led them to the work. I think that’s great. Things are coming in through the wrong door—like life. ‘Poet’ is such an extraordinary and comic profession at the same time. It’s exciting to get known as a poet not through poetry.
Through, say, culture…
Yeah! For poetry to be real it should be like everything else that gets known in all these different ways. Not just through, y’know, college or if you’re dating a poet & they’re actually good.
In the beginning of evolution you talk about the blind woman of justice being blinded by men so that men can lie—but do you see justice being unveiled in the world any time soon?
I mean, that’s the hope. What’s so weird is that it keeps being unveiled and then it almost seems like it doesn’t matter. We’re so over-saturated that we could be inundated by the truth only to discover that we have no mechanism to do anything about that revelation. I was in my 20s during Watergate. I didn’t geek out about it, I’d just moved to New York, but it seemed like the ‘system’ worked. Our president could be shamed and would step down. Now we have a shameless person in a dysfunctional system and an excess of revelations and I just have no sense that anybody is capable of pushing the button. Every day you read some article. I read about Elaine Chao and how completely corrupt [she is] and then a few days later she’s being subpoenaed or something and I want to go yay—but then… It’s like everybody’s adrenals are broken.
To me, it feels like this sort of neoliberal attitude toward breaking down the institution in some way precludes one’s ability to act on rage. Like you said, there’s no one pressing the button. But do you suppose that something has nevertheless changed since 2016?
No, what’s changed is we’re seeing how radically dysfunctional our system of government is. I grew up being told about the checks and balances, but with the right person in charge there are none. The biggest thing is congress, right? I never understood how fucked up the senate is. It’s completely unrepresentative and completely in charge so we have one evil man - stronger than Trump, I’m talking about Mitch McConnell - running the government in the same way Cheney did a few years ago. It makes me curious—how does it actually work?
How does writing poetry play into this curiosity?
I think it’s like a shapeless smattering. I don’t mean in a castrated way. I just think poetry isn’t a fixed system so it has a way of moving through and around and, at the very least, it’s capable of giving some sense of what it feels like to live in something that actually can see how it works. It’s a bellwether of where we are and how it feels.
Part of the reason poetry’s so important right now is social media and our reorientation to language. Once people started txting and tweeting and sending pictures with as-long-as-they-want captions… It’s a realization of what the internet could do at its best when it is at its best and so I think that that suddenly makes this quasi-forlorn form of poetry just more like everything else. We all know our friends by whether they send long texts or short texts or bubbles. That’s stanzaic. I think without knowing it everyone is knowing that.
If writing is a reflection of this truth that’s hiding behind whatever is going on in the world that you’re swimming through to try to find the crux of…
Part of what’s happening is the truth. It’s all true.
…is ‘knowing’ enough?
That’s the hard part—to figure out what that means. The problem in my own life right now is that I feel like I need to be in the same place long enough to do consistent things that make me feel like I’m touching the thing that hurts, y’know? In New York, friends of mine are getting training to sit with immigrants. The worst part of trying to get asylum is that you don’t know anybody. You go to court and there’ll be no one sitting there with you and so people are training to be with these people in court to create a sense that there is community and support. That was last fall that I heard about that. I’m gonna do it. I have to assume that part of what I’m doing is in the enactment of something else. Otherwise I’d feel too full of despair.
How does doing readings affect your work?
It’s what I know how to do almost better than anything. You never know what the room’s going be like—who’s going to be there, how it’s going to feel, what the scale is. I always imagine the wrong room. I’m always conjuring up a reality that is never there.
Part of a reading has always been seeing how I feel on the day. It’s a little bit like being an actor. The performance is always new and different. I’m not a performance artist or performance poet, but I think writing is a performance in the moment of actually sitting down and writing a poem or a novel. That is such a particular experience. At best, when you’re standing in front of an audience that original thing is reignited and you can actually feel it and you come close to the moment of actually writing the thing. Which is really the drug of it, I think.
The one thing I will add is that if you’re continually reading work you’ve already written, you’re not writing. That’s the thing that’s wrong with having a career. It means you’re reinforcing your own past. And, for me, it’s Chelsea Girls. It keeps getting translated which means I keep being invited to go some place and read from this book that I wrote 20 years ago…I wrote 30 years ago, really, or even almost 40 years ago in some cases. It’s interesting to be invited to re-enact it.
It kind of cock blocks - speaking of cock - the writing present. You have to be cocky to put a pause in your own career and make it be so that you can actually write.
Who’s your canon?
First they’re my friends: Chris [Kraus] and Maggie [Nelson] and Rene Gladman - who’s not as well known as those guys, but will be, I think - Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, CA Conrad, Simone White, Ariana Reines.
Older? Violette LeDuc’s La Bâtarde. That book invented everything for me. Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, James Schuyler, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Lucille Clifton. Gwendoline Brooks, I’ve been looking at lately. She wrote a book called Maud Martha and it’s fucking amazing. Henry Miller.
I picked him up when I was 23 and I got so much permission. He was just like, I didn’t ask to be born, y’know? And he talked about the impossibility of this person becoming a writer. It was all about extremes and inappropriate reactions. Even the sex. I remember Kate Millet really taking him down as the worst sexist. I haven’t reread him in years, but the impression I got from him was that women really liked sex and I thought—that’s awesome. Not only is the shit dirty, but the women are into it. I did think that this was a man that women were important to.
Having had a career that you can look back on, and then looking forward with writing, do you ever get fearful that you may run out of things to say?
I worry about my brain. There’s nothing more horrible than reading about a writer with Alzheimer’s. So every time I forget something…I mean, I’m in my 60s. But even people like Willem De Kooning, who had wet brain, kept painting. They’re really good paintings.
I have a fear of getting stupider. Which Alzheimer’s really isn’t you getting stupider, it’s just your brain deteriorating. That’s a horrible, heavy thing I put out in response to this question, but it really would make it so that the changed conditions of my life make it so that I don’t get to write. And I have a next book I’m excited about writing.
What have you been writing recently?
I sort of detoured into writing a screenplay and 2 pilots. The worst is to write those things and not have them be made and not make any money. I had written them and I made some money, but now the next thing is that they may not get made. So then you’re looking at 2-3 years of work going out the window.
What’s the screenplay?
Chelsea Girls. The person who optioned it decided not to option it again after they hired me to write the screenplay and had paid me. It’s strange. One thing I have developed over time is the sense that I’m not in charge and things happen when you least expect them. There are so many fronts. I’m kind of relieved because I have a book I’m really excited about that I started in 2013 and I’m dying for the time to just be in it. I just have to have the nerve to start saying no in a real continuous way. I always write other things, so I don’t have really a fear of something ‘running out’. The very machinery of me would have to break down. I’m powerless over that.
What’s the author or text that’s given you the most intense physiological reaction?
Do you ever have physiological reactions to things you’ve written?
Yeah, I’ve cried. I’ve had physiological reactions to books I’ve been reading recently. I usually get really excited and tell everyone you gotta read this. But, really, Mary Gaitskill. When I first read her collection Bad Behavior years ago, I was struck. I was so excited about the work. I know Mary and I went to a reading of hers and was probably like a crazy person. Nothing happened, but what was amazing was that incredible arch of excitement about the person and their work and thinking: what do I do about all of this?
What, to you, is poetic form?
Everything. It certainly doesn’t mean traditional form, but it doesn’t not mean that either. I think it’s sensitivity to the form of language as used and as accumulated and as being. Poetic form uses what you’ve just discovered about the language in a way and how different kinds of languages intersect and make a culture or make a moment. It’s responsive to the moment. It’s inherently formal even as it comes to exist. I guess there are ‘bad poems’, but it seems to me a new poem is always making something up. That’s really exciting, to feel the edge of a way of describing reality in a poem.
I came across you in this anthology I brought along about trans and genderqueer poetics—called Troubling the Line.
I was very happy to be in that.
As a non-binary person, what role does your identity play in the construction of literary modes, particularly as they relate to your gender?
We have a discussion about gender and gender fluidity and being non-binary now, but that didn’t start it. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean that I’ve always been writing with the sense that pronouns are shifting because they’re weighty and they don’t describe a situation as much as I understand it. I think language is and isn’t gendered. Anyone who feels differently, uses language differently. That’s been my business for a long time.