Poetry, Life and Barf—the Poetics of Eileen Myles

April 30th Eileen Myles was in town, and she gave a reading at the Percolator Coffee House on Stanton Street downtown El Paso. I read with her. It was a great event. To promote the reading I wrote the essay below about her poetics, riffing off her own essay "Everyday Barf" that concluded her recent book of poems SORRY, TREE (Wave Books, 2007). If you don't know Eileen's work work, you should. She wears many hats--poet, novelist, librettist, and former Presidential candidate. The New Mexico State Writing Program in Las Cruces sponsored her visit to the area, and The Dishonest Mailman Series (The UTEP Writing Program) hosted El Paso event. Thanks again to Connie Voisine (poet, NMSU) and Rosa Alcala (poet, UTEP) for their collaboration to make all this possible.

Life, Poetry and Barf--the Poetics of Eileen Myles

I bought a refrigerator the other day, the first refrigerator I have ever bought in my life and the man in the store, Gringer’s on First Avenue, asked me what I do and I said I’m a poet. Let’s hear one he said. I balked, maybe feeling a little cheesy, you know like I should entertain him while I’m buying a refrigerator, like those cab drivers or waiters who flirt with women while they work, so that you’re reminded that you’re never really a customer, you’re always just a women, or a poet. I recited one--not well--I kind of stuttered. It was short. He looked at me blankly. Do you want to hear it again, I asked. No. I think that one went over my head he said, and turned his attention to the next customer.

Her poems wander. They like to wander because her mind wanders. Her poems pay attention to her mind wandering. She gets up in the morning and goes outside. Just like the rest of us. Our bodies are working. We know because we are breathing the air. What kind of news is this? In one essay presumably about poetics but probably more about life Eileen insinuates that every day is like barf because it just happens. Like barf happens. We are not in control when we barf. That includes you, dear reader. You just sit back and suffer and watch or you enjoy and watch or you just don’t pay attention. Eileen pays attention. And she writes poems. She wants her poetics to reflect how her day happens. She wants her poetics to reflect how she pays attention. It’s a subversive message. How a day in her life, like every day in her life, can be like barf. She gets distracted. A poem can follow along. That’s its job, that’s the poet’s job. She is an open door. It shuts and closes. She is outside, she goes back inside. She is awake, she goes to sleep. She is a function of the universe. She breathes, she eats, she shits, she makes love, she writes poems, she gets happy, she gets sad, she lives in New York City, sometimes she lives elsewhere. We are all a piece of the universe. We are all a piece of the same cloth. It’s empty, it’s not empty. Yes, yes, I know she is a lesbian. Let me tell you--she was a lesbian before everybody else was a lesbian. Do you know what I mean? In 1992 she came to El Paso. She was running for President of the United States. She thought it was important that a lesbian poet who looked and talked like a Kennedy should run for President of the United States. It was the thing to do. It was the moment to do it. It just happened. Part of her platform was to celebrate her dog Rosie, a pit bull. Very un-PC, even in 1992. Rosie is dead now, but she was a wonderful happy dog, and Eileen loved her dearly. Eileen believed that a lesbian poet in the White House required a well-adjusted and contented pit bull. The world would be set straight. In a poetics sort of way. But I digress. Like Eileen digresses. So she and Debbie Nathan went across the river and walked down to the concrete ditch that people still call the Rio Grande. They carried with them a bucket of red paint and big brushes and they wrote in big red letters: WRITE IN MYLES FOR PRESIDENT. She was running against Bill Clinton, the first George Bush and Ross Perot. It was not even close.

See a poem is a tiny institution. I just write lots and lots of them, and it gives me a way to be in the world. It’s actually a very worldly job, there really isn’t a wrong place to be, a poet kind of goes with anything, any kind of decor, indoor, out. Presidents like to have poets next to them, we’re sort of like a speaking wreath, the kind of poet you pick tells the kind of president you are, the hell of dating or marrying a poet is that certainly we will write about you, so if you don’t want to be seen, don’t date a poet, anyone should know that. Because really a poet has nothing better to do than look at you. A poet’s best friend is her dog, because instantly the dog will take the poet on walks, the poet is like the earth’s shadow. The sun moves and the poet writes something down.

So when Eileen ran for President, I didn’t vote for her. I did feel guilty about not voting for her. I even wrote a poem about it ("November 18, 1992" which is in The Price of Doing Business in Mexico). Debbie voted for her, which surprised me, because I didn't think Debbie was a voter (either I heard something wrongly or my internal stereotyping system was wacko). I’m sure Eileen voted for herself. She’s solid and real that way. She’s a very substantial person. My growing up poet friend Harvey Goldner would have voted for her except I don’t think the Eileen Myles for President campaign knocked on many doors in Seattle. Like Rosie the dog, Harvey is dead now. He voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. He liked him because Bill was from the south like us. Harvey laughed when he thought about Bill’s white chubby thighs chugging down Pennsylvania Avenue in search of manhood or a MacDonald’s. Whatever came first. Back then Harvey was driving a cab and working some in the psych ward of the public hospital. He was busy becoming a legendary underground and unknown street poet. Ten years before that he turned himself into a detox unit and dried out. He had been an alcoholic since probably both of us were 15 together in 1957 listening to James Brown and Bobby Blue Bland and Jimmy Reed in Memphis, Tennessee. I told this to Eileen once. She said 1982 was the year she went on the wagon. She too had been an alcoholic. 1982 must have been a good year for poets, she said. Harvey told me about his terrible DTs that he suffered through. He was curled up in a corner of his room. He was afraid. The door was locked. It was really a cell. Every time he looked up and peered into the darkness he saw way out in the distance a giant wheel of light coming toward him. It was pure light, it was pure energy, it was terrifying. It chewed up everything--men, women, babies, high school basketball players, lovers, houses, automobiles, trees, mountains, even the sun. It mangled them up and swallowed them whole. It horrified him. He wanted to get drunk and forget all about the wheel of light. But Harvey knew it was over, his drinking, because he had been privileged to see the wheel of light churning toward him. He had been blessed. I thought about this story when I decided to write this piece about Eileen’s poetics. She doesn’t let us forget the wheel of light rumbling down the road toward us. Her poetics are subversive that way. I know I said that already but I don’t want you to forget. She does this in an off-hand fashion, a conversational way. You’re being had. Especially if you think you’re cool. Take me for instance. I think I’m cool. I read Eileen’s poem and her prose all the time and at first they taste like candy I’m enjoying them so much. I want to call up my friends. And then she pushes me into different places I’ve never been before, places I don’t want to be, thinking about things I’ve never thought about before. Places where maybe I don’t belong. She’s a woman, she’s a lesbian, I’m a man, I have a family, grandkids even. How can I understand? I am uncomfortable. Unsure of myself. But there I am listening and watching. It’s like she’s talking to me. That’s okay, she says. Sit there and watch and listen. You’ll be happy you did. And then she’ll say something offhand like that little story about buying the refrigerator. It seems so inconsequential, so silly even, but thinking about it I realize the story is very serious, very real and substantial, like she is, like her poetics (how could it be otherwise) and I understand perfectly. Like...like...

...like this:

Once my girlfriend moved to Paris, like 1986, and I took her to the airport. Then I got on the train and went home. It was a big deal but I wasn’t upset. I walked into the bathroom and began shitting and puking at once. I felt like a worm. Like there was no difference between me—and anything. It was just this force flowing through me. Loss. I must be feeling bad I thought, sitting on the can leaning into the sink.

The excerpts in this piece are from a commencement address that Eileen gave at Hamshire College, 1998, which you can find on her website here. Billy Sullivan did the portrait of Eileen. You can learn more about Eileen and her work and listen to her read poems at her two websites at www.eileenmyles.com and www.eileenmyles.net

By the way, I wrote this essay and posted it quickly (4/27) to make sure something was up here and Facebook and Newspaper Tree to promote the reading, and so since the reading I found out that I had gotten a number of things wrong. I heard from Debbie Nathan (see comments). I had wrongly assumed that she hadn't voted in the 1992 presidential election, so I've edited the piece here a bit (5/15/09). But doing this reminds me of back in the day, 1992, when Debbie and Morton Naess and their kids Sophy and Willie in the Sunset Heights neighborhood overlooking the Rio Grande and Juarez. Debbie was an important part of the intellectual and political landscape of the city and a good friend. The first non-fiction book that Cinco Puntos Press published was hers--Women and Other Aliens, which is now out of print. It was an important book, and it opened doors for us in so many ways. Someday soon I will write about all of that on our Cinco Puntos Press Blog. But for now I simply want to say that we miss Debbie--her writing, her intellect and especially her friendship--here in El Paso. She and Morton now live in New York City and you can follow her writing on her blog DEBBIE NATHAN: Sex pol, borders, Mexico, Yiddish, my camera. It's good stuff.


May Day! May Day! Poet Eileen Myles in El Paso and Las Cruces

May Day! May Day! Poet Eileen Myles will be in El Paso and Las Cruces next week. She will be reading with me on Thursday, night April 30, 7pm, at the Percolator downtown. and in Las Cruces the next night at 730 pm. I'm honored to reading with Eileen. She's truly one of the most interesting ("savviest" is a word I read) poets writing. I get all her books. And I read them too. The El Paso event is hosted by the Dishonest Mailman Series of the UTEP Writing Department, and the Las Cruces event is hosted by the NMSU writing program. It's so nice that the two writing departments are collaborating these days. It means good things for the writing community along the border. Kudos to Connie Voisine (NMSU) and Rosa Alcala (UTEP) for greasing the wheels so this can happen.

EL PASO: Thursday, April 30th, 7pm
The Percolator Cafe, Stanton Street downtown

LAS CRUCES: Friday, May 1, 730pm
Corbett Center, NMSU, Las Cruces, NM
2pm a talk about writing in the NMSU English Bldg
For more information, call Connie Voisine, (575) 646-2027


Connie Voisine Book of Poems a Finalist for LA Times Book Award

Congratulations to poet and good friend Connie Voisine. Her book book of poems Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream (University of Chicago Press) has been chosen as a finalist for the very prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Award. Connie lives 40 miles up the road from us in Las Cruces, NM, and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at NMSU.

She's a wonderful colleague and citizen in our world of letters in piece of the desert along the border. She's full of curiosity about language and poetry and diverse poetics. Her poetry, of course, is remarkable. But for me as a poet her friendship has been invaluable. She's always there to listen to my distracted riffs of whatever oddball idea I have about poetics. She lets me wander. When I was putting together White Panties, Dead Friends & Other Bits and Pieces of Love I was unsure of a number of the poems. I hadn't yet read them many of them aloud to an audience. I asked her to look at the manuscript. Instead, she invited me to join her on Friday afternoons when she and two other poets--Sheila Black and Carmen Geminez-Rosello Smith--got together and shared and critically discussed their work. It was a great time for me. I'm not a workshopper, I've didn't do Creative Writing School, so I was a bit nervous. Especially the old man poet among three women poets. But they, especially Connie, welcomed me and helped greatly to improve the book. I wouldn't have had that experience without Connie's presence, so I thank her and wish her good luck on Friday night. That's when the winners are announced with lots of pomp and ceremony. My fingers are crossed. Good luck, Connie.

(By the way, son John Byrd will be in LA for the book fair representing Cinco Puntos Press. He's in booth #347 in the lawn on top of the staircase this time. Primo real estate we hope. Go by and visit with him. He'll be delighted to see you.)

Below is a poem is cut and pasted off the University of Chicago Press website. Being technically inept, I can't figure out how to put in all the line indents via blogger. Forgive me, Connie. To see the poem properly scattered across the screen, go here.

The Bird is Her Reason

There are some bodies that emerge
into desire as a god
rises from the sea, emotion and
memory hang like dripping clothes—this
want is like
entering that heated red

on the mouth of a Delacroix lion,
stalwart, always that red
which makes
my teeth ache and my skin feel
a hand that has never touched me,
the tree groaning outside becomes
a man who knocks on my bedroom window,
edge of red on gold fur,
the horse, the wild
flip of its head, the rake of claws
across its back, the unfocussed,
swallowed eye.