undefinedIn 1980, in her apartment on East Third Street, New York.

Eileen Myles has lived in her East Village apartment, where this interview took place, since 1977, and yet, entering her studio, I got the feeling she’d just moved in or was ready to move out—both make sense, because she is itinerant (since our conversations last summer, she’s been in Dublin and Lisbon and Oakland and Paris and Provincetown, Massachusetts, and several other places) and because she and her work are unsettled in the best sense: restless, disturbing, changeable. She has no imitable manner, no manners. She has an interesting art collection, but no clutter. Her only built-in furniture—a sort of combination bed-desk-bookshelf—was constructed by her painter friend Philip Shinnick while he was dog sitting in 1995 (Myles was in Russia). Otherwise, she has her brilliance and her stabilized rent.

The author of nineteen books of poetry and prose, Myles is often referred to as an “institution”—the way one speaks of a terrific restaurant that’s endured the waves of gentrification as a “New York institution.” But the word bounces off her: there is nothing official about her, nothing staid or still. She is exemplary for more and more young writers precisely because she has gone her own way.

During our first talk, we ate scrambled eggs in front of an ineffectual fan. On subsequent visits, I brought iced coffee and stone fruit. There was no small talk and no dead air.

Ben Lerner

 

INTERVIEWER

The cliché is to end an interview with a question like, What’s next for Eileen Myles? I thought we could start with that. You’re working on a book about dogs, aren’t you? 

MYLES

A particular dog. It’s about the first dog of my life—a pit bull named Rosie I got in 1990. She was my longest relationship. She lived until 2006. When she was dying, I was living in San Diego. It was so boring and I spent the whole five years I lived there anticipating her death, really aware of time. At one point, I got a video camera and I would just take it with me on these long walks with Rosie. I thought I was making personal cinema, chatting while I shot, though in fact what I said was completely boring. But the actual walk and my bad camerawork were beautiful, so I transcribed it exactly. The book’s a lot of things but one is our walks, which are intercut with everything else. This is really what I do—on some level my writing’s just a really medieval account of what’s there. A loose and meticulous copy. What’s there is often fantastic. Like when I first got Rosie, I looked into her eyes and thought, This is my father. I was eleven when he died and I was always ­obsessed with him. It was a joke I had for the sixteen years of Rosie’s life—that my father came back as my dog just to hang out a little more. 

Also, I find myself thinking that maybe this is the last aids book, which is not to say that people aren’t still dying of aids, but not like they were in the eighties and nineties. I lived through so much dying that it almost ­became commonplace. And I had Rosie through all of that time, too. I’ve had her through the time of so many relationships that bloomed and failed. She’s the metonym for so much stuff. 

INTERVIEWER

How old was your father when he died?

MYLES

He was forty-four. It was an alcohol-related accident. He was successfully drinking himself to death. He’d reached the point where he had convulsions whenever he stopped. There was a piece of furniture in the house that was there when my parents bought it, and they wanted to get rid of it but they couldn’t angle it down the stairs, so they decided to push it off the roof. They got it out on the roof outside my brother’s bedroom, and we were all told to go downstairs and watch. It was Saturday and it was my sister’s birthday. We’re all waiting downstairs, in the gap between the houses, and my father yells, Here it comes, and he comes flying down and lands at our feet. The story was that he had a convulsion. Because he was exerting himself, he had a fit and he went over the roof instead of the dresser. We lived near Arlington Center, which is northwest of Boston, and fire trucks and everybody in the town were suddenly on our street. But he came to—he woke almost instantly after he hit the ground—and went to the hospital. He had pounding headaches for the next two weeks, and he went for an EEG, but they had crappy instruments in 1961, and they sent him home. I was in school that day, in seventh grade, and there was going to be a party that night, the first girl-boy party I was allowed to go to. Junior-high sex. There was total excitement that day in school. I got in trouble for laughing as we were all going down the stairs, so the nun said, Eileen Myles, write “I will not talk in the corridors” five hundred times as punishment. It was like a prompt. Does Sister Ednata know how many poems she unleashed with that command? When I got home, my dad was taking a nap on the couch. My mother said, Why don’t you just set up a table in the den and do your punish task there so you can keep an eye on him. I’m going to go out and hang clothes. She’s in the yard and I’m writing “I will not talk in the corridors,” and he starts to make weird sounds and he died there right in front of me, his face changing colors and the death rattle and the whole thing and I just kept writing “I will not talk,” “I will not talk.” And then he’s dead.

INTERVIEWER

Jesus.

MYLES

Yeah, that’s my trauma. And I don’t know if this is my family or the working class in general, but nobody ever talked to me about it. It was never discussed, not one time. Except once about twenty years later. I went home to visit my mother in Arlington and out of the blue she goes, I know you were alone in the house when your father died—like we’d been just talking about it. 

INTERVIEWER

How do you understand that moment? 

MYLES

It’s the insane scale of my family. Is it humor? Our brand of silence? I think she was just verifying the facts to me, that I wasn’t invisible, that she did ­understand what had happened. I think. Part of her knew that was necessary. My mother was an orphan, and she wore her own suffering like a badge. We were like children of concentration-camp survivors. She was always telling us we had it so easy—she was four standing on a chair doing the dishes, they made her work hard in all those houses she was passed around in. I’m sure she was beat up and sexually abused, but she’s always in control. She’s also sort of a miracle in a way—very strong. I mean, I really love and admire my mother. 

INTERVIEWER

Did she and your brother and sister notice that you had a way with language? Do they say, We always knew Eileen would be an artist?

MYLES

Oh sure. I was like the family clown. The middle child entertaining. I was a lousy student, but interestingly the nuns always let me write plays or do drawings, endless special projects. I made art when I was a kid so I wouldn’t fail in school. 

INTERVIEWER

I remember reading somewhere in your work that your brother was “the smart one,” the one on whom the family hopes were pinned. 

MYLES

I was the creative one and Terry was the genius. He was supposed to go to Harvard. It put incredible pressure on him, to his detriment I think. My ­younger sister was kind of on her own. My brother and sister never liked each other. They are still fighting. I always had the freedom to come out from ­behind—which is kind of a female position. I was reading on my own for years—­novels, a lot of sci-fi—and doing my special projects in school, which even meant ­organizing a band and writing songs. It was the sixties, so there was a little bit of a peace-love, Sister Corita tone to my education, and I made things as a way to survive it. If I had been a good student and an achiever, I might have been excited by a more systematic approach to writing than what I do. People loved to throw around the word rigorous in the eighties. I’d go bleh. When I started to pull something out of the pool of incoherence, it was exciting in itself. Later, I found theory next to the bed. I had girlfriends who went to college after I did, and they’d be reading Fredric Jameson or the Situationists or Deleuze. My girlfriends ­introduced me to those books, not the poets of my generation. If it didn’t come through the bathroom or the bedroom, I didn’t find it. 

INTERVIEWER

Your fiction uses all kinds of material from your life. What does the frame of fiction or nonfiction do for you? How and when do you choose to present your work as one or the other? 

MYLES

What’s fictional is arrangement—what follows what. If somebody is lying to you, part of what they’re doing is hiding things, omitting stuff, changing the order of things. And that’s fiction.