Marks on Paper: Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls
March 14, 2013 | by Rachel Hurn
At Bluestocking Books, my favorite indie bookstore in Hillcrest, San Diego, I pick up a glorious-looking object. The cover is textured, beige with a blue inside flap—a look typical of the publisher Black Sparrow Press. On the front is a painting by Nicole Eisenman of twenty women in a brawl, or having sex, or both. All over the cover and among the cream pages are hand-scrawled notes. It looks like a literature student once owned the book. Probably someone studying creative writing. Probably someone at UCSD. I hold up the paperback to the woman behind the register, and ask, “What is this?”
“That’s Eileen Myles. She’s a lesbian poet. She’s amazing.”
That day I read the entire thing.
“You can’t force a story that doesn’t want to be told.” This is the first line in “1969,” an essay in Myles’s collection Chelsea Girls. Published in 1994, the book is a nonfiction novel, or a fictional nonfiction, a Künstlerroman (“artists’ novel”) about a young woman, named Eileen Myles, who is from Arlington, Massachusetts. She is a poet, and she likes women but “didn’t know there was anything you could do with those feelings.”
The first thing I noted about Myles was that her voice on the page reads like she is reading to me. She was reading to me that day in San Diego, sitting on my Craigslist couch with grad-school applications laid out on the floor across the room, about to go study creative nonfiction, whatever that meant. Chelsea Girls is a book of prose that reads like memoir and is called fiction. I didn’t know this at the time. I thought it was all true, all about Myles, and in a big way I still think so.
The essays jump around thematically and sequentially, beginning in a gay bar in Augusta, Maine, where Myles tackles a police officer: “I’m a poet, you fools, you asshole cops!” She describes New York in the eighties, taking the F train to Queens to collect her “light blue pills,” which she would buy for thirty-five dollars and sell for a hundred: “Go someplace out of your life, come back new, bring it around and make a little money. Clean your apartment. Write some.” Myles has a boyfriend: “I thought we looked alike … ‘Is that all,’ I asked as his dick ‘entered’ me. That’s all I’ve got, he said.” She has a girlfriend: “The first woman put her head between my legs and the complete sin, the absolute moment of sex came back and I was all in one piece coming apart. I was willing to sacrifice all for that moment.”
She publishes a book of poetry, A Fresh Young Voice from the Plains (1981), and throws a party at her publisher’s loft, where her friends found her discomfort amusing: “How’re you doing, Eileen? [Ted] put this faggy little turn on ‘Eileen,’ like it was a made-up name, something I’m pretending to be. It sounded right.” She works at Little, Brown in Boston, a position “underpaid but prestigious,” sneaking poems on her electric typewriter. She lives in the East Village on $250 a month, and friends offer her drinks, drugs, and cigarettes, but she is too embarrassed to ask for a steak: “I was thirty-one years old and it was too humiliating to admit I wanted food.”
She attends a kid’s birthday party and realizes she is the only adult who expects to get fed: “Kids’ parties were a spectator sport, and that any real adult would have known to eat before they came.” She recounts her sexual escapades to Jimmy Schuyler, her part-time employer in the Chelsea Hotel who paid her to make him French toast. How she has sex with women who are cruel, who are younger, who are involved with other people. How having an affair is “a gorgeous grey feeling.” She recounts what it’s like to have sex with another Catholic: “I loved the moment when Mary said should we go to a hotel. She kind of snickered like a dirty girl. I was glad I was not with a complete sophisticate.”
Eileen is a mess, Chelsea Girls is a mess, and I was a mess when I read it. My writing meaning nothing and everything: “Wet words on soft limp paper. Holy Holy Holy.” I loved every one of Myles’s sentences; I couldn’t get enough. I could be like her, this fictional nonfiction character—this mild sort of fuckup—if I wanted to be. “There would be such a future because something would happen to me. Soon. I was sure of that.”
The Rumpus interview with Eileen Myles, April 28, 2011:
“It’s a little hard, because I don’t want to be stuck, I don’t want to give the copyright to someone that I’m uncomfortable with. So a number of people have asked to publish Chelsea Girls, and what I keep waiting for is a publisher that I’m excited about. That was the plan with this book Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, but I’m always too weird. With fiction I’ve always had agents who are always like, ‘Of course you’ll be able to sell this book!’ And then people are so weird about my work. With Chelsea Girls it was like, ‘These stories just kinda crumble, they don’t, you know … arc.’ Or, ‘They kind of deteriorate.’ And I was like, Yes! Yes. I’ve had a few editors in the mainstream who have been interested. They’ll say to me—and this is even in the nineties when I had published a lot of books—they’d say, ‘We’ll have to work very closely with you because it’s a first book.’ It’s like, you’re kidding. So what I felt time and again is what I’m being told is they’re going to help me fix my work. Fix that bad English. Make those stories pop at the end.”
* * *
“Which way is St. Mark’s Bookshop?”
I had moved to New York two weeks before for grad school. I was living in South Slope, which was superbly different from San Diego, and I wanted to be a writer. I held Chelsea Girls in my hand as I crossed Second Avenue. In the back of the book is a picture of Myles taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in the early eighties. She describes the experience as one that made her welcome in the cruel woman’s bed and also as the time she finally got her mother to hang up a picture of her in the house in Arlington. A wall reserved for grandchildren and barbecues, “everyone but me.” Myles wrote on the back of the photo in pencil, “Photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe NYC 8/80,” knowing that her mother had no idea who Robert Mapplethorpe was. “This was my favorite kind of art,” she writes, “a dirty secret.”
I felt that way, too, like my life had become a dirty secret. Drinking in bars with classmates until one A.M., riding the F train home, sitting in the kitchen until three in the morning writing. Riding my bike to warehouse parties on Dean Street. Flirting with men, timidly flirting with women. Singing in a band. Writing, writing, writing.
At the reading, I was dumbly expecting to see the girl in the picture, twenty-something, hair brown and feathered, a self-imposed haircut, V-neck T-shirt, “like a statue, all glowing stone.” Myles was a lot older than I had imagined. She wore a tight cotton shirt and black framed glasses, and when the crowd had settled at the center of the store, she approached the mic and read like she wrote: Like Arlington, Massachusetts. Like a woman who thinks she looks like a boy. Like a godsend of a voice that cannot be replicated. Like, “A war is storming and it is behind me and I am moving my forces into light.” Maybe if I read enough Myles, I could write like that.
The greatest lesson in writing I ever had was given to me in an art class. The drawing instructor took a sheet of paper and held up a pencil. She very lightly put the pencil on the piece of paper and applied a little pressure; by bringing her hand a little ways in one direction, she left a mark upon the paper. “That’s all there is to it,” she said, “but it’s a miracle. Once there was nothing, and now there’s a mark.” —Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey
I was making my marks. I think we need to line poetry up with all the other arts. We are simply making marks, marks of sound, marks on paper. —Eileen Myles, School of Fish
Many of Myles’s poems are written in long rows, three or four words on a line. The effect being quickly moving phrases, tumbling out. As if there is a river flowing through the center of the book.
Why is light
so damn emotional
if its just
a burning star
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
—“An American Poem”
All the hills & the trees
all the woman
dog. I am
to this. Its existence.
After the reading at St. Mark’s, I approached her, this badass poet who sat at the information desk in the back of the store. All I could manage to say was, “Your voice. Your incredible voice.”
She smiled. I told her about leaving San Diego to come to New York, which she had also recently done, except that she was coming back after having taught writing at UCSD. Now she was home. I handed her Chelsea Girls—“Woah, I haven’t seen this in a while,” she said. On the title page she inscribed a message that looks like one of her poems:
us escaping from
SD now in NY
I am reminded of something Myles said in “The Lesbian Poet,” a talk she gave at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in May 1994 as part of the Revolutionary Poetry Symposium. The speech was reprinted in her collection School of Fish in 1997. I read it in my bathroom, where I keep most of my books of poetry:
“There is a word in Italian, affidamento, which describes a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires. Women I know are turning around to see if that woman is here. The woman turning, that’s the revolution. The room is gigantic, the woman is here.”
People like to focus on catty relationships between women. Competitive friendships between writers. Do the established of us care to help the emergent? We will never know if we don’t turn around and look for them, these sisters, heroines, friends.
Last May, I finished grad school, lost a job, and broke up with someone. I took a bus from New York to Maine. I found Maxfield Parrish, a collection of Eileen’s early and new poems from 1995 in Longfellow Books. I bought it, hiked up Blueberry Mountain with the collection in my bag, and at the top overlooked the Speckled Mountains spread around a small lake. I read the poems aloud, one after another.
When I am afraid or worried or unsure about my life—especially about this writing thing—I try to remember “Joan”:
Today, May 30th, Joan
of Arc was burned.
She was 19 and
when she died
a man saw white doves
fly from her mouth.
Newsflash: things don’t work out perfectly. Since when did that stop us, women? Go, write now: “like the smallest decision, like a boat slightly turning but now absolutely going in that direction.” Look for help when you need it. Others have come before you. Others are turning around to help.
Why do we read? It’s a question I’ve been asking my coworkers lately. We work at an independent bookstore in SoHo, handselling literature based on a customer’s needs. People come into the store either knowing what they want or wanting to be told what to want. So it begs the question, Why? For instruction? For guidance? For fun? For a feeling? The best part about reading a good writer is that they make me want to write. If I can’t read more than five pages without setting the book down, without turning to my own work, then I know there’s something special going on. I would call that reading for inspiration. I would call that a feeling.
I discovered Eileen Myles. At least that’s what I told myself until I moved East and realized I was wrong. Isn’t that what we all tell ourselves about our favorite writers? You are mine. The sixth time I saw Myles read, I told her I was stalking her. She did not smile; I think she thought I was serious. Maybe I was.
Rachel Hurn’s nonfiction and criticism have appeared on NewYorker.com and in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She is a bookseller at McNally Jackson and a graduate of the New School with an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn.