Eileen Myles is 67, and the closest thing poetry has to a celebrity. Famous for her unapologetic dykeyness as much as her fiercely elegant writing, she found a new audience with the reissue of Chelsea Girls (her iconic 1994 novel that redefined the queer text), and a character in Transparent that is based on her - she was Jill Soloway's muse. But she's had a hundred lives - in the early 90s, she was known for being the only “openly-female” candidate in a presidential race filled with men, and has published over 20 books of poetry, fiction and criticism. "I want everything," she told the New York Times. "I don’t want delicate change — the chipping away slowly. Screw that.”
I imagine many people must think you have a lovely lone cowboy kind of life, getting up early every morning and writing. Is that right?
No, not at all. I’m kind of disorganised. If I put myself some place, if I know what I’m working on then I’m very deliberate and I’ll make space. I love the ritual of it and I can do it. But I have all sorts of other tricks which are due to the fact that I’m an endless procrastinator and so I’ll write in this cafe or another odd place. But also, I write a lot of different things and I that’s the chief thing. So I’ll write a poem or I’ll be working on a novel. I think I would be a crazy person if I wasn’t a writer: It wasn’t an option.
So it’s all displacement of activity?
Yeah, and I do journalism too and I write about art so everything is always bouncing off of everything else. But today I have the next thing I’m doing, which is writing a screenplay for Chelsea Girls. I just got an offer from Amazon for a movie.
Was there a question of someone else doing the screenplay?
The producer bringing it to Amazon is Topple [who also produced I Love Dick and Transparent]. Their thought is to not separate the writer from the film. I had to spend a year pitching it, and finally it was cool because standing in a little board room was like a performance or teaching or reading or anything else. Getting to that point and having to write this whole crazy pitch and then when I thought I would be writing the screenplay and started writing, I started telling myself the story of it in prose because I hadn’t touched it for six months.
Chelsea Girls must have had so many incarnations for you. Do you ever come back to it and think ‘I’m kind of done with this’?
The book is always curious as I’ve moved on. I was thinking to what extent do I owe [the guys at Amazon] a reading of the product? I tend to always read the same parts. Once I literally enter the process of taking this book I wrote and turning it into a screenplay, there’s so many other thoughts. Some of them being that of course it is based somewhat and sometimes almost entirely on my life, but of course other things happened that didn’t go into the book so I of all people am allowed to bring that shit in.
With the displacement, are you at a stage where you might write a poem while on a TV set?
I’m sure, because I think that sometimes part of the thing with poems is that they’re perverse so the more I feel ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’ and the more I should be paying attention to what’s going on around me, the more some part of me will write a poem.
Do they come fast and then you edit at home?
Yeah, and sometimes they come right and other times it’s just bits and pieces.
So you can write a few pages straight off with line breaks?
Sometimes, yeah. I wrote one last May that I know is the best poem I wrote last year year. The better the poem is, the weirder it coming into publication is. The New Yorker have published me once and they keep acting like they’ve published me more than that, roping me into their events and stuff, and I thought I’d get them to publish my long poem but they sort of sat on it all summer and then said no. And then I watched them publish a couple of shitty long poems by very conservative people. So then I went to New York Review Books and they very quickly said no as well as Granta and a few others. I know a poetry magazine will publish it and give you lots of money but what I loved about New Yorker was realising it’s general reader - that’s when people from my high school contacted me. It means that people who don’t read poetry read it. That’s the thing we’ve lost I think.
The common entry to poetry.
Yeah, in magazines and the New Yorker is kind of it so it sucks.
What was your high school like?
A horrible Catholic high school. Conservative, small. I was a bad student. It was a terrible experience.
Do you think you were a good student that wasn’t being recognised?
I was a smart kid in a stupid school and the way they had it organised was there was a top class and if they didn’t think you were that, then you could just mess around. I think it was just a gender thing. I was a bad girl, a slob, creative, kind of a clown. And so all of those things together meant that the degree to which I was not a good student was me being bad. They knew I was smart but they couldn’t reward me for that.
Was it all girls?
No, it was mixed. But it was terrible, single file, girls side and boys side in the corridor. No talking in the corridors. It was not like high school, it was just a terrible Catholic experience.
Do you look back now and feel you resisted performing as a girl or do you think you did have to capitulate mainly?
Kind of, and I think alcohol helped me with that because I think I felt that there was something deeply wrong with me. The house I grew up in was a two family house and we were the landlords, and there were a couple of lesbians downstairs who turned out to be rowdy alcoholics that had big fights both for being drunks and for being lesbians. I’d seen that there was this thing and I also felt that there was something wrong in the masculinity I seemed to be exuding and my desire to not be female.
In the two lines at school did you wish you were in the other line?
I just felt that I was a boy. I liked what they had, liked their whole clothes, liked the whole thing. My brother would go away or go out and I’d try his shit on. I had a very permissive dad who died when I was young and he seemed pretty queer and so there was much more of a feeling of fluidity in the house when he was alive. I think when he died I just felt a little shunned and so I quickly sort of gravitated to the coolest hottest group of girls, still the tomboy, but then somehow I think junior high was kind of almost a sex change in thinking ‘I can do that’. My girlfriends would force me to have perms as they did in the 50s and 60s, the fashion changed by 8th Grade and suddenly I was good looking so I could pull off being a girl and so I did it and it worked. I think I was sort of tense as a cat but if boys liked me, it seemed like it’d all be ok. But booze made it be like I could feel ok, which then kind of started to take my performance down too. So I think if I’d have stayed sober I would have been a hot cool girl.
I don’t drink or take drugs at all now because I had to stop but it really enabled me in so many ways in terms of moving forward with my writing, around my sexuality, around both performing as a heterosexual girl and later on performing as a guy. When I discovered drugs, I felt I could be a lesbian. It was all impetuous.
Would you have changed your name, almost like a mystery?
Absolutely, I’d have kept my last name but changed my first.
There was always a hope of mine to be somebody a little brighter and larger so I was always acting as if that was true.
Did you like seeing yourself on Transparent or was that not really you?
It wasn’t really me. I loved it because it was so funny and so comic and so pop and all of that. Cherry and I have become good friends, but it’s not me.
Do you feel your work has had a resurgence in recent years from people 20 years younger?
I don’t know if you were able to buy houses and those kinds of things before, but how does it feel to suddenly have all of this kind of interest? Does it bring money, new things you can do?
It brings courage and space and some money. I’m not wealthy but it’s like the sluice is open in a way it hasn’t been before, like I’ve realised I don’t have to teach and I can count on it being there. I have to learn how to be comfortable or privileged, remembering to say no. I love reading and touring and travelling, but I could operate like a band and spend months doing it and then months not doing it and now this is that time. So I have to get a lot tougher in giving myself the time I need. What’s weird is I have this great house in Texas and my dog lives there, and the way I take care of her is I just get younger friends who are mostly writers to go and house sit so then they get to do what I want, and I had that when I was their age because nobody wanted me so much and so I would have time to think. All I had to do was figure out how to live cheaply and then the free time was mine, I just had to make it viable. And so now I just have to figure out how to do that in a more privileged situation. You know how it is, I’m ambitious and even though I’m Catholic my relationship to fame is not that different from Andy Warhol’s. There was always a hope of mine to be somebody a little brighter and larger so I was always acting as if that was true. I don’t think that just because I’m a poet means I’m not gonna make a living doing this, so I think you have to act as if you are going to make a living doing it. So for me, it’s been having to reinvent myself every decade as an art writer, a performance artist, a presidential candidate. It’s always poetry, I’ve always thought the primary thing was that I’m a poet and that’s where all of these different things are coming from.
You’ve got a line, ‘My great sacrifice exists because everyone sees it and I need that a lot. I am such a big lesbian that I have to jump off a cliff. I am such a handsome poet I have to become an advocate of verse and stop lying and get rich.’ Is that about that?
Yeah I think so. It was also about a heterosexual story about the Greek poet Sappho jumping off a cliff because it was a man who spurned her, so there was some joke about that too. In the 80s I was the director of St Mark’s Poetry Project which to any sane person would not be considered pay day but for me, it was my first adult job and I had a credit card and was suddenly in a new world.
Was that in the East Village?
Always in the East Village.
Does that feel like home?
It is yeah, I still have the same apartment which I don’t own but it’s rent stabilised. It’s tiny but really well located and faces one of the two oldest cemeteries in New York.
So death is always present?
Death is always present as are birds and trees and squirrels so it’s actually really cool. So I just kinda fix it up a little bit every 10 years and it becomes kind of more of little dig. I hope I always have it. I guess we reach stages of mortality so you’ll maybe get to 40 and think oh, this is halfway through and a bit further and so on. Are you at a different stage of thinking more about that especially with the disappearance of a cultural landscape in 2016 reminding everyone that life isn’t forever?
It’s always different, it’s real. It’s strange in terms of work too because I have to make sure I’m working on what I care about. It’s very weird, I don’t wish I was young again but I’m bummed by the fact that there’s clearly a limit to what I get to do now. I mean there’s somethings that I think why didn’t I do that before.
If you’re narrowing the focus, what’s the plan?
I think to just get the timing right in giving myself more real time to work and be. I think if I don’t direct this movie I would like to direct one. I feel like this is the screenplay and I’ll see somebody else’s work but I think the next one I’ll write the screenplay for me to direct. There’s lots of book, my next book of poetry is already written. I’m cooking up an anthology which is more editing work. I’ve got a book of essays which are purposed to be travel essays but it’s merging with something. I have a TV show I’m pitching which is about the life of a poet, a drama or comedy, ficitionish. There’s a book that’s sort of contained within about a box of important papers that I have either lost or misplaced and it’s created a sort of drama in my life, and whatever point I was telling somebody about it they said, ‘Are you gonna write about that? If you don’t I will.’
I feel like I definitely wasted my youth, that was my intention.
Have you found the box in real life?
No, it’s still in process and I’ve gone to psychics and they all say it’s very close. It’s not lost. It’s definitely not in my apartment or storage unit, it could be in my exe’s apartment but she claims it isn’t. One psychic was great, he said, “I don’t find things but I know people who do.” So he’s gonna give me those names.
Are you trying that because why not or have you had good experiences with psychics?
I’m fascinated with what they do and seeing those borders down between what’s possible and what’s not.
If you’re there talking to a psychic about the missing box do you then talk about the rest of your life and relationships?
Oh sure, they all have very strong things to say about those things.
Have you followed the advice?
I think they jacked up impulses that I’ve already acted on. They’re basically warnings to stay away from certain people and stuff like that. And even geographically, it’s funny because South America keeps on coming up with psychics and astrologers saying that’s a really great place for me. I do hope I learn Spanish and travel extensively within South America, I’m really excited about that. I’ve never been to any of it aside from Mexico, not Central or South.
You say you’re disorganised but it sounds so disciplined and prolific to me. It sounds like you must get up every morning and get on it.
I don’t although today I did because I was really bold and clearing out, and the second I did that I started working on my screen play. I was in Los Angeles last week and then I had to teach in this program for a week which was great because I’m mostly not teaching but I do like it, it kind of puts you in touch with poetry in this really great way. I was just the perfect person, teaching my class, working out in the gym, working on my screenplay and I was like ‘this is amazing.’ Then I get back to New York and I just want to see my friends, go to the movies. I wanted to be in my apartment desperately, I wanted to be in my home and I didn’t touch the screenplay. It’s hard to know when it’s good to be slovenly and comfortable. You’ve got to waste time in order to be creative I think, it’s just working out where the boundaries are.
I always think of it as looking at the hairs on my arm during the day, you know, just really registering tiny details is invaluable. I feel like I definitely wasted my youth, that was my intention.