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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.



Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.


Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.


Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Eileen Myles, 1998

WITH AMY KELLNER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CATHERINE OPIE


I am so picky about the writers I like, and poets? - Forget it. But somehow, Eileen Myles has become my favorite writer AND poet. Eileen has done a million things, all with an odd, spacy grace - which is one way to describe her readings, where her words either float or ricochet around the room. She has three books of poetry, Not Me, Maxfield Parrish, and School of Fish. Her book of stories, Chelsea Girls, took her fourteen years to write, because her life is her research, and her stories and poems, a catalogue of the results.
Eileen ran for President against George Bush in '92 as an openly female, queer poet-politician who writes her own speeches. Her campaign speeches were poems, with plenty of ideas about important things like freedom of speech and birth control. Her campaign made activism exciting and fun. Officially, Eileen received a grand total of 5 votes, but she says that it had to be much more than that. People come up to her all the time and say, "You're Eileen Myles, I voted for you!" Imagine if she had won. Oh, what a happy world it would be.
I called Eileen somewhere upstate at one of those tranquil artist colony places, where she went to write and decompress after a month on the road.




AMY: So, what did you do today?
EILEEN: I learned how to canoe. And I'm readjusting, because I spent July on tour with these girls, Sister Spit. We did this amazing 20-shows-in-30-days tour, you know, where we slept on floors in anarchist bookstores. It was dazzling and funky and totally cool. So I went from there to here, which is this incredible big-lake-knotty-pine-looking place with great dinners and eighteen people I never met before. It's a big meltdown and now I'm getting used to it, and I'm writing, working on a new book called Cool For You.

AMY: Is it going to be Chelsea Girls, part two?
EILEEN: It's more about childhood. It's weird because its technically about female incarceration. I had this idea about how the outsider in art is really male. Because I always think that females are insiders, and that female rebellion starts someplace where you're really trapped, like mental hospitals or shitty jobs. So I'm exploring my narrator, the Eileen Myles character, from the position of being, like, a camp counselor, and in lousy jobs and institutions. I have an Irish grandmother who ended her life in a state mental hospital in the '50s, during my childhood. So I'm weaving a lot of my childhood in with the notion of work and jobs. It's totally about class.

AMY: Class is a big thing for you.
EILEEN: I come from an Irish-working-class-townie-in-greater-Boston reality. I went to U Mass (Boston) and we were constantly reminded during our education there that we were unique people for these teachers to be teaching because they all went to Harvard and we hadn't read James Joyce in high school. So we were very exciting because we knew so little.

AMY: That's not very encouraging!
EILEEN: It's how I learned about class. It was crossing the river, in a way. I went to college in the late '60s, and there was lot of political activity going on, but not at my school. We all worked in Filene's Basement, and there were a lot of Vietnam vets. It was already a very checkered class world view when I started to wake up and write, and be more me.

AMY: And then you came to New York where it's considered cool to be lower class.
EILEEN: Well, you get to New York and you try to figure out who you could be. And I certainly figured out quickly that I could be an Irish working class alcoholic who is a poet, which is what I was. But with more awareness. So there was no point in losing my Boston accent.

AMY: You do have a thick accent.
EILEEN: Once in a review of a performance in New York it said that I had an "outer-borough" accent. Boston is quite an outer-borough.

AMY: Oh, sure. Boston, Queens - what's the difference?
EILEEN: They didn't hear the region, all they heard was the class. There's so much fantasy about class. I wrote this Kennedy poem which starts out with this confessional mode where this poor poet is suddenly coming out with her upper class Boston background, and then slowly she reveals that she's a Kennedy. But what she uses that identity to do is to write a really political poem about homelessness and AIDS. This was ten years ago, and I'd never taken on stuff like that in my poetry because I just don't do that, but, as a Kennedy, I did. It was exciting to realize that with a little bit of privilege, I could have a whole different position on politics. Since then I've been trying to figure out different ways that I could regain that privilege. And one of them was running for president.

AMY: Running for president began with that poem?
EILEEN: Yeah, I was moved by my own words. I recited that poem all over the place and I thought, how great it is to make a speech. I thought about speeches a lot. I had gotten into watching videotapes of demagogues, like Hitler, Mussolini, and Huey Long, and that lost art of speech making. There's all sorts of visual cues and pacing. One of the ways that Hitler gained power in speaking situations was that he would be really boring and be reciting details endlessly, then suddenly he would go into this staccato shrieking rage, and you never knew when he was going to do that, and that's how he held the audience. So I wanted to figure out a way that I could give more speeches. Then, during the Gulf War, I went to India for a month, and I found myself in this odd situation of talking about what America was doing in the Gulf War, and it was as if I was supposed to speak for America. So I came back to New York, and that's when Bush was making those talks about freedom of speech and the politically correct and blah blah blah. So I got this brilliant idea that I could keep doing the talking that I was doing and shape it completely politically, and be a poet making speeches and just colonize the political campaign - as a woman, as a lesbian, as a low income artist, as a working class American, as all the things I was - as representation, because there are many of us. So it was kind of a desire to be a hero, but in a pluralist way.

AMY: Like an anti-hero?
EILEEN: Mini-hero, serial-hero, big vulnerable sloppy masochistic hero.

AMY: You're a Sagittarius which is the crusader for the underdog.
EILEEN: That is really true. Also, I'm a middle child and we're always more likely to lead a rebellion than lead a country. There's something about me that's kind of empty or average, or at least that's what I was taught to think. So even in my grandiosity, it's an average grandiosity. I ran for president from that position.

AMY: I can see that in your writing too.
EILEEN: Yeah, even writing about sex. It's so much more fun to write about awkward, funny sex. A lot of lesbian erotic writing is just like we're these slick fish, so it's great to show a warped, funky kind of sex.

AMY: I love the story where you're doing it with this girl and she unexpectedly pees on you -
EILEEN: I loved it too! [Laughter]

AMY: And also how you described yourself as the person who has friends that are slightly more adventurous than you, and it's your job to say, "Yeah, I'll do that." To make it okay.
EILEEN: It's like telling the story from Sancho Panza's point of view, not the hero, but the hero's friend. It's a more passive position, but you can describe everything that's going on from there because you're constantly watching.

AMY: Are you part of any scene?
EILEEN: When I think about my life, it's not a dyke talking to a dyke talking to a dyke, it's more like a dyke talking to a fag talking to an older straight guy talking to a child. It's stronger for me that way. Like if you wanted all your friends to be famous artists, that would be dazzling, but it would also be a disturbing constant performance of all these egos flapping their wings.

AMY: You seem to like the young dyke punks, like Sister Spit.
EILEEN: That's my ideal audience, in a way. There's a whole generation of girls that I am so blown away by. Sometimes I feel like it's my generation, it's just that they finally came around.

AMY: Well, we had role models like you.
EILEEN: Heh, heh, thank you.

AMY: You're moving to Provincetown. What's it like there?
EILEEN: Its mostly like dykes you don't want to meet, like with that short-side-long-back kind of hair.

AMY: Oh, yes. The Billy Ray Cyrus hairdo.
EILEEN: Yeah, it's swamped with all sorts of weird-looking homosexuals from all over America in the summer, but in the winter it's so great. Its got four million shades of gray, it just feels like a little Irish village. It's moody and there's the water. It's beautiful if you like gray. I like gray a lot.

AMY: I want you to stay in New York.
EILEEN: I have the cheapest apartment in New York, so when me and my girlfriend move to Provincetown we're going to keep the apartment, so instead of a shit-hole, it'll be a pied-Ã-terre, like a little French flat. And my dog loves the ocean. There's all these funny things I've done to take care of Rosie, like, "Rosie needs a car," or "being in the country in the summer is really good for Rosie." We'll be back and forth a lot, I suppose. It's great to have a car in the city, especially an old car so you're not worried about people sleeping in it. You know, you get in your car in the morning and it has this kind of bum smell. I have a little coconut air-freshener, so it's like "coconut bum."

AMY: What are you influences, especially ones that are not writers?
EILEEN: Film as an idea. I try to record what you see and what you hear, and not try to interpret. Pasolini is my total hero. But why can't I mention writers? I have to mention Gertrude Stein as the world's biggest influence. And Henry Miller, not so much anymore, sometimes I'll pick him up now and just laugh, but when I was 22 I picked up Tropic of Capricorn, and it was so complaining and enthusiastic at the same time. I didn't know you could combine those two tones, and that's something I definitely shoot for. And Violet Le Duc, Le Batard. Sartre had Genet, and Simone De Beauvoir had Violet Le Duc. It's very diaristic, she's fifty and she's looking back on her life and her lovers. It's funny, my two favorite books, that and Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America, are both out of print, though I hear Le Batard is being republished. And looking at visual art is inspiring to me, people like Nicole Eisenman. I know some new painters like Phil Shinnick, Karen Platt. She's going to do this mural at Meow Mix. I love Robert Harms, Tony Feher. And Kay Rosen, who did the cover for School of Fish, the little black fish tank full of words like oafish, selfish, deficient.

AMY: And on the back cover it says "fich," which I think means "fuck" in German, right?
EILEEN: Huh, nobody told me!

AMY: I'm pretty sure ... Why all the fish?
EILEEN: There's that offensive thing about how women smell like fish, so it's kind of funny. And then it's a joke about all the schools, like there's the school of New York, the school of Paris, and then -- the school of fish.

AMY: What's this word "metonymy" that you seem to be fond of?
EILEEN: It's just about things being next to each other. I hate comparisons. I think metaphors are offensive because they assume that something is more beautiful than something else. It's about believing in god or having some ideal, and I don't. Like, doing a lot of drugs, like acid, one can feel that at any moment reality can wrinkle and everything is just a long procession of what's next to each other. It's neighborly.

AMY: Even though you don't believe in god, I think you are very spiritual.
EILEEN: Well, I am a leftover Catholic. I loved to pray as a kid. I loved the ritual of getting down on my knees. I went to my friend Myra's Zendo, a place where you sit, it's a Korean Zen place, and I'm not faithful, but sometimes I go sit there and they make you sit quietly for half an hour and then you walk in single file for half an hour and then they tell stories and you ask questions. It's very empty and it's all about not knowing, which is a huge relief for me. It's a great answer, "I don't know."

AMY: How do you know if a poem is good?
EILEEN: It's like a little spell. Poems are shaky, I know a poem is done when it stops moving. Like a little animal shaking the water off its fur. It's like, you go to a party and you have that moment of "I should go." That's your power. Jump, get out of there. Poetry is so much about a short attention span.

AMY: Do you have any tattoos?
EILEEN: I have a tiny black club, like from a deck of cards, on my shoulder. I was at this other artist colony which was started by Carl Girassi who invented birth control pills. He has this big ranch in California where Neil Young's cows graze. Neil Young is the next door neighbor.

AMY: Did you meet him?
EILEEN: No, but I met his cows.

AMY: That's even better.
EILEEN: Yeah, so I had this dream one night that these people were trying to force me to get this giant tattoo, like a big Roman breastplate of armor and feathers to cover my whole chest. And in my dream, I said, "No, I won't do that, but what I will do is I'll have a little black club on my shoulder." So I woke up and went into San Francisco and got it. I love it.

AMY: What do you have on your desk when you write?
EILEEN: What's weird is what I don't have. I stopped smoking, so now I light candles. I've always had this one dumb knick-knack. It's a cheap shiny little plastic gorilla with a lime-green turtleneck on and it's lifting weights, and it has this weird grimace on its face. I gave it to my dad when I was in the fourth grade because it reminded me of him, and after he died I took it back. It always sits on my desk when I write. I tuck it into a sock and bring it wherever I go. Oddly, I also always have a little postal scale on my desk. I love weighing things, or being ready to. I'm obsessed with measurements, like counting and time. I don't know, it might be a big Catholic thing, just like: tick, tick, tick, tick ...

AMY: So speaking of time, how do you feel about aging?
EILEEN: Well! Actually, that was my fear going on this road trip with Sister Spit. It's kind of pathetic, but I just kept thinking that liking my work is one thing, but traveling with me in a van for a month is another, and that I would be some big disappointment, that I wouldn't be fun enough, that I would be OLD! But, in fact, I discovered what it means to be twenty years older than everyone, and it's that no matter what we talked about in the van - and we talked A LOT in the van - I had a story about everything and everyone. So it occurred to me that in twenty years you simply have that many more stories. Another thing is that they kept referring to my presence as being a sane influence, and I wasn't doing anything! I was just being me, and I imagine there was some consistency in my presence that they didn't have in themselves or in each other. I really got over the threat of age on that trip. Another funny thing - well, I don't know if it's funny - but I'm 47, and I've started to go through something they call [scary voice:] "Stereo-Menopause." This spring I started having hot flashes.

AMY: What is a hot flash, anyway?
EILEEN: It's kind of great. It's like you might think of something that makes you embarrassed in a normal way, so you get a little red and hot, but then it continues a minute longer than it should. It doesn't feel like you, it feels like your car is accelerating or something. So when these girls asked me to go on this trip, I had just gone through my first bout of it, and I thought, oh my god, is the van air-conditioned? My joke was that they were on the Sister Spit tour and I was on the Hot Flash tour. And it DID happen, and I was kind of freaking out. I didn't want to talk about it, but there were these privileged seats in the van, like some seats were more air-conditioned than others and it was really hot in the back, and suddenly I was pulling rank and saying, "I've got to sit in that seat up there," and they were like "Why?" and I blurted out, "Because I'm getting hot flashes!" And Michelle Tea just looked at me and said, "You're shitting!" The next day Michelle's girlfriend, Carrie, joined us on tour, and she wanted to ride shotgun, so she goes, "Can I find out what the hierarchy is so that I can buck it and get that seat?" And Michelle goes, "Well, if you'd like to go into early menopause, you're welcome to try and get that seat!"

AMY: What is your guilty pleasure?
EILEEN: My vanity. I'm totally vain.

AMY: How so?
EILEEN: I pretend that I'm not vain. I don't dress up. It's like that.

AMY: Tricky! Do you have a favorite body part?
EILEEN: Shoulders - Not my own, other people's. [Laughs] See? I'm still trying to hide my vanity.  

© index magazinegelatin1
Eileen Myles by Catherine Opie, 1998
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller