If a biographer ever goes harpooning for the story of poet and novelist Eileen Myles, I imagine a critical autopsy of the writer's grade-school report cards would ensue. Surely there'd be some struggle to find parallels to the present-day Myles: repeated misconduct, inability to sit still, an exasperating refusal to follow directions. Of course, we'd tap our nose at the other unmistakable signs: the refusal to wear a dress, the "unnatural attachment" to other girls.
The point being, at 51, Eileen Myles has yet to adjust. Neither in her lived life, which has been dotted with such stunts as running for president in 1992 (as the first "openly female candidate"), nor in her almost anti-literary life, has she ever been one to comply.
Zooming into focus as a poet of the New York School set, she brushed up against neighborhood greats like Allen Ginsburg and Ted Berrigan and even graced Robert Mapplethorpe's lens. After a dramatic first reading at St. Mark's Church in the late '70s (she came out as a poet and lesbian in one flourish, "pissing everyone off"), she's never flagged. Her eight books of poetry include Maxfield Parrish and School of Fish, which won the Lambda Book Award. Still another, Skies, will come out later this year.
At the same time, she's also had two plays produced at experimental theater P.S. 122, and has co-edited an award-winning anthology with Liz Kotz called The New Fuck You/adventures in lesbian reading. And with Chelsea Girls (1994), a careening documentary of her New York life in the '80s, Myles made a memorable departure from well-defined genres. Not poetry, not a novel, exactly, it was more a loose-knit collection of stories that narrated real life, tweaked with the tools of fiction.
Myles' most recent work, Cool For You (Soft Skull Press, 2000), is cataloged as a novel, though one betrayed by its smirk. Like Chelsea Girls, it is a cinematic river of images, locations, passersby.
Anchored by little other than the protagonist, Eileen Myles, it jets through various moments in this girl/persona's life, changing tense and decade-hopping without notice. While an intentionally sprawling, spidery work, it finds its connective tissue in portraits of female experience, its too-frequent place within institutions.
At the novel's emotional center are snapshots of Nellie, the grandmother who withers away in a mental hospital. Her howls, her gripped pleas to go home, are flattened by the state-speak that meets her. There are also sketches of a nursing home's ignored residents and the lyrically bent members of a Cambridge hospital. Each glimpse adds to a claustrophobic sense of a woman's place--a palpable sense reminiscent of the one in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist classic, "The Yellow Wallpaper."
"In the first story, I had been thinking about my perspective from inside an institution," explains Myles. "Unlike being a practitioner of the male avant garde, and that idea of the artist-as-outsider, I thought of the female artist as sort of an insider, in the respect that I was always stuck inside of institutions not of my own making."
While many of the institutions depicted in the novel are of a gross, obvious sort, there are other insidious entrapments for the character Eileen--a superstitious Church, the heterosexist assumption, violence, near-poverty, and neglect.
In face-off with this last trap, neglect, Myles uses the novel to counter the invisibility of women's lives, generally, but also the invisibility she encountered early in life. "There was a sense around my female existence that no one was seeing anybody--that I was a 'no one,'" she reveals. "And there's a kind of reportage I do as a writer that comes from acknowledging that female reality is sort of an anonymous reality. You're just 'some girl.'"
In this Myles pits herself along that continuum of women writers who have long echoed Emily Dickinson's bleak decree--"I'm nobody." Yet writing out that reality seems to be more an act of defiance than of self-effacement.
"I feel like it's my job to write from that place--that anybody happens to be Eileen Myles. It's like putting that nobody in the scene, literally saying, the only thing in the world I may own is my name, but I'll start there," she says.
Equally arresting as the dissolved line between author and protagonist in Cool For You is the poetry that infuses it. Even in a supposed novel form, Myles never shelves her knack for the crystallized image, or the condensed, steaming line that marks the poem. In fact, a couple of chapters set perfectly intact verse smack in the lap of an otherwise messy narrative. Myles intends for this mixed breeding, and describes her latest work as grafting poetry onto the novel. While this effect can be disorienting, it's also a blatant challenge.
"I don't think there's any real integrity to the forms literature gives us right now. And at first, I thought of writing a novel as sort of a goof, because the whole plot-driven novel is the appropriate commodity," she says in reference to the publishing climate. The pressure to create a plot-heavy book is "really about the marketplace, and about the academy making all these other things separate from poetry."
In the work she's doing, as well as in her teaching, Myles is constantly charting a form that is "stretchy" enough to include poetry, prose, even film. She admits that Chelsea Girls was written to satisfy the filmmaking craze of the '80s, a way to shoot her life at that time from the vantage point of a typewriter. And the "poet's novel," as her workshops are called, is that wide-enough form.
"A poet's novel is about throwing up all these forms in the air, grabbing the pieces as you need them, and making a new vehicle for female experience."
That shake-up urge is always there for Myles. Over the last three years, she has toured on many occasions with the spoken-word artists of Sister Spit, a raw, all-girl road show of dyke poets and performers. Invited by Michelle Tea, author of Valencia, to "join the soup," Myles snatched up the offer. "Michelle and the girls really heard my work, and that really empowered me." And though their styles differed, there was a huge emotional influence in having that next generation validate her take on the world.
"Your friends' work always subliminally affects your writing," says Myles. "But more than anything, it affects your living, because basically they are giving you a place to live."
Eileen Myles will read from her work this week at UNC-Chapel Hill, Internationalist Books and Duke. See "A&E Calendar" for details.