I walk into the room, and it feels like home. Almost all the seats are filled by women, and the majority of those women are queer. At last, I think. My people. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. So many beautiful ladies, so many sexy undercuts, so many sassy tank tops and mysterious tattoos. I have never felt so… single, or should I so, so ready to become un-singled by any one of these gorgeous people.
It’s funny that this event just so happens to be taking place in the Law School, in a sterile auditorium with imposing golden armchairs placed expectantly on the stage, next to a tall podium proudly bearing the insignia of the institution. The last time I was here, the space seemed to fit the occasion: an event dedicated to Christiane Taubira, an important French politician (and might I add, a total BAMF). But it seems odd that the person of the honor on this particular occasion, the person we were so anxiously awaiting, was none other than Eileen Myles, poet, novelist and #1 goddess of the lesbian literary scene. Not somebody I would expect to see in the auditorium of a law school.
“It’s a big room,” says Eileen, after messing with the microphone for a few minutes, arranging her papers and books next to a can of Diet Coke, placed awkwardly on the podium. “It’s a big room, but it could be a little fuller.”
We all laugh. Almost immediately, she makes us feel like we’re part of her club.
She’s softer than I expected, wearing a yellow sweater and cuffed jeans, with her salt and pepper hair falling gently in an arc around her face. It’s a stark contrast to the cover of her latest book: cropped hair, plaid shirt, legs defiantly open, face serious and uncompromising.
“Diet coke sounds the same as beer,” she says, cracking open the can. We laugh again, as if to say “Oh, Eileen.”
She fiddles with her papers, opens her book, and begins.
Everything’s equal now. Blue leash blue bike
blue socks covering my ankles today
what about my friend: “I never wear socks”
for a week or two she lived in the streets &
it was such an illumination…
She makes fun of us for not clapping after the first poem, then makes fun of us when we do. She stops herself in the middle of poems, offers anecdotes, picks up where she left off. She shakes her left hand with the rhythm as she reads, as though she’s directing a choir. Her Boston accent gets thicker as she reads, contorting her vowels, manifesting in the thrust of her shoulders. You never know when the end of a poem will come. When it does come, you wait for a few seconds, unsure if she’s just pausing. She’s not pausing. It’s over. But there’s no pomp and circumstance, no cadence. Just her, taking a sip of her Diet Coke, and pressing on.
I first heard about Eileen Myles back in September. I had just arrived in New York, and Chelsea Girls had just come out in a new edition. The book is almost as old as I am – the writer, much older. Somehow, the review ended up in my inbox. “The discovery of drugs, girls, poetry, poverty and George Plimpton’s book parties in Manhattan”— seemed like something I might be interested in.
Life happened, and I soon forgot about the book. But the book didn’t want to be forgotten. Every time I walked into The Strand (i.e., far too often), I saw it stacked neatly on the display table, Eileen’s unforgettable eyes staring me down from across the room. Alright, I get it, I conceded, and by December, I finally had a copy of my own.
I really had no damn business there, the book begins. And it’s true, she didn’t. Raised in a working class family to an alcoholic father and less-than-ideal mother, Eileen Myles’ rise to literary fame was no walk in the park.
Her sentences seemed to me, at first, almost accidental—the punctuation and grammar slippery at best, reminiscent of Kerouac, but less pretentious. The words just… happen, or so it seems.
It wasn’t until the fourth chapter, “Light Warrior,” that I realized the narrator wasn’t so hapless as she seemed:
I see my existence as similar to that of a sundial’s when I simply stand, and slowly the notion of movement is suggesting itself to my consciousness and action is also appropriate in the realm of the saint, the character who begins her life in the window of a church, in the religious air of her own imagination until history lines up with her nature, and the path becomes clear…. I have waited all my life for permission. I feel it growing in my breast. A war is storming and it is behind me and I am moving my forces into light.
Eileen is not your typical writer… not your typical anything really. Or, at least, that’s how she likes to position herself. The consummate outsider, who spends her whole life trying to get in. “If there is something I will always carry in my heart it is this earnest unwillingness to be part of the bunch, the whole horrible let’s do it generation to which I belonged,” she opines in the penultimate chapter of Chelsea Girls.
But this is not the whole truth.
Chelsea Girls is the portrait of a woman, yes. A woman who is at once reckless and ambitious, poetic and sordid, endearing and insufferable. But it is also the portrait of a generation, a generation that Eileen Myles is—however unwittingly—a part of. Over the course of the book, she gets strung out at Woodstock, high in the East Village, and drunk in the presence of the era’s most iconic artists, poets, writers and celebrities. In the years that follow, she becomes, in spite of herself, the symbol of a generation.
It is this tension, this ambivalence that gives Eileen’s writing a sense of purpose.
Oh yeah, and did I mention she’s a lesbian?
That’s part of her charm. Not so much the fact that she’s a lesbian as the “Oh yeah” mentality she attaches to it.
Eileen Myle’s approach to her sexuality is a bit like her approach to prose: it happens as if by accident.
I’ve learned so much. Women per se. Men per se. Everything feels equal. Trust per se. You walk away thinking what a great man what a great woman. How really nice they are. In or by itself; intrinsically. No such thing. You make a hole in the weave if you expect anything to be something through and through. There. I’ve gotten to explain it. You look at people. They look at you. Sure. It’s like have you been a catholic. Someone wants you to be a machine or else they think its just a passing phase. Lesbian per se. For their benefit I should be a mannequin—no, I never think of fucking men—they’re never cute I think they smell, etc. Then you don’t talk to them and it gets worse like nobody’s real. I mean I am a dyke per se but unless I squelch all my ambiguities—be like a guy who won’t admit another guy is cute or he’d be a faggot—Oh, no. Well I don’t care. I just intend to carry on. I’m not going to worry about my persuasions or everyone’s intentions—I know just how real I am. Honestly. Money in the bank.
It wasn’t until I saw Eileen Myles speak in person that I realized why her seemingly hapless prose packs such a wallop. She looks at people. They look at her. And you realize that none of us are anything through and through, that all we can do is carry on.
In my last Reading is Sexy post, I talked about my lifelong struggle to trust my own voice: the feeling, in sum, that I have “waited all my life for permission.”
I wish I had made my way to the microphone at the end of the night. I wish I had stood up, in that sea of beautiful queer faces, and trusted my voice. Because what I wanted to ask Eileen Myles, from the minute she walked on the stage, was: when did you stop waiting? When did you give yourself permission, and how?
But the thing is, I think I already knew the answer.
What I’ve learned from Eileen Myles, more than anything, is that the most important thing of all is to know just how real you are. And that, as Eileen so aptly concludes, is money in the bank.
What happens when you
contain the flame?
I stuck my head out
the window & waved
at the stars.
Wait for me, I’m coming
I’m coming home.