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
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
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.