Chronology Doesn’t Always Feel Good: An Interview with Eileen Myles

Photo by: Annabel Graham

Photo by: Annabel Graham

On November 10, 2013, I interviewed Eileen Myles over the phone. Our discussion was focused on her two-books-published-as-one, Snowflake and different streets. Now that Eileen has recently released two books on the same date—it seemed fitting to finally release this interview into the world. Here is Part 1 of 2 of my interview with Eileen Myles.


Cathy de la Cruz: These questions are all about Snowflake and different streets.

Eileen Myles: I love this new twist in our relationship.

CD: I know… it’s so weird, but it’s kind of hilarious. In my mind, you are this book right now and you’re not my friend, Eileen. I mean that in the best way possible.

CD: Did you intend these books to be read as one or as two separate books? Does one book rely on the other? I read reviews where some people said, regarding the middle, that they felt like they were able to take a breath before they moved onto the next one. And some readers saw it as these two times in your life being permanently fused together in this way. If you could talk about that, that would be great.

EM: Well, you know, I just thought I wanted something to be really organic. When I saw one book coming—the way a book is, it’s sort of like you’re writing along and suddenly you realize it’s approximating that amount of things that makes a book and there’s also some other thing which is asking what are the patterns or the meanings of this book and something like that. So I definitely knew that one book was ending or it was kind of full. And as you know, I had left California and moved back to New York and was puzzled how it was going to work with my writing because I was going to physically be a poet in New York and it’s a different occupation, so when I began to write again in New York, I felt a little lost because I felt like I was writing in an open California way, but I was in New York, so I was feeling a greater emptiness rather than a greater spaciousness. Then this thing happened in my life, where I fell in love with somebody and it sort of sped up and started to have its own patterns and when it came time to make books from both of these things—I really didn’t want them to be separate volumes. It really was a lot of thinking about how one is a poet in certain spaces and how one is a poet of certain experiences and how certain experiences like falling in love really change the shape or space of your writing. There’s a poetry convention where books have sections and of course I’ve done that in books of poetry in various ways, but it always seems sort of lame because it’s in the same body and we’re like, “Here’s a section.” and now, “Here’s something different and I don’t know what it is,” but it’s still in the same place. I wanted to keep the flow of each book and not put some kind of lovely furniture between the two. I really wanted them to kind of screw into each other in this way. The way I put it, you’ve probably read this a lot, is that I wanted the two to fuck each other in a way. It really was because the connection was so intense and so literal. I felt like I was living one life that went through to the other one.

CD: Do you feel like it matters which side people read first?

EM: No. The thing that’s so funny about putting a book together and that’s really different from making a film, is that you know that people are going to open it up and read it any fucking way they want. Particularly with a book of poetry—it’s really hard to control that experience. The thing why it’s actually a funny practice to be a poet is that you’re still kind of operating in this sort of ideal of, “If my reader sat down and read this book in a certain order…” The more I think about it, I don’t care which side of the book they read first. And I kind of don’t care how anybody reads it, period.

CD: Can you talk a little bit about organizing each book? Is it chronological in any way? If certain things are autobiographical, are they organized by the way that things transpired, or in the order that you wrote them? Can you talk a little bit about the organization of each side?

EM: The thing about chronology that’s great is that it’s always the thing you can fall back on. There’s something diaristic about putting a bunch of poems together. There’s a way in which you know that this was early and that this was during this time and this was during this period. So there’s always chronology to fall back on, but the thing about chronology is that it doesn’t always feel good. You do these three things that really have a sequential meaning, but then if you really went to the next place sequentially, it would just feel flat and wouldn’t be fun and it wouldn’t change shape. It’s sort of like, there’s lots of cheating, and it’s sort of acting as if you’re telling a story, except that in the process, you’re telling a lot of lies even in terms of one side of the book and the other. There are things in different streets that actually I wrote in Snowflake, but I just thought they were more interesting on the other side. There were even a few poems in both books that weren’t written in that period of time at all. But they were poems that I never knew what to do with. It’s sort of like making a house and how you might move through the rooms and how you might spend your time. You suddenly see that this painting would look good over this couch here and you’re solving problems and its really fun. And it’s also about content. There was all this stuff about computers and technology, particularly in the first book, so that made me think about how those things fit in our lives and how they can be disruptive. Sometimes it’s like picking up a phone or remembering there is a phone or something like that. You change the subject all the time on the phone call.

CD: Did your publisher get excited or concerned over the idea of two books together as one?

EM: I think their first impulse was to talk me out of it. I think they thought that it might seem sort of cheap and gimmicky and they were concerned people wouldn’t take the book very seriously because it was sort of a kid-book idea or a funny idea. So I think there was that kind of concern, but you can’t worry about people taking your work seriously or not. It’s just like format in the art world or film, something is always getting challenged. Why shouldn’t a book be a technology? That was part of the argument of the book itself: the book is a technology, so we get to fuck with that. I wanted to do something that was unconventional in the poetry world and kind of, a little silly even.


CD: Can you talk a little about the cover art? It’s minimal and so amazing. I’m such a fan of it.

different streets

EM: Well, Xylor Jane is an amazing artist. She’s into all these compulsive mechanisms. She’s like a mathematical genius. She’s very much an artist in the raw who’s become discovered by the art world in a nice way in recent years. She was always someone who slept in her studio, radically punk and edgy and stuff. Somebody’s work I’d seen coming up for awhile and had been really excited about because it seems to be about light and time and strange spirituality and all that. But also, part of the thing with cover art is that you’re always trying to deal with some strange limitation the publisher throws you. The last time I did a book with these guys, they were like, ‘Color is OK, but no images.’ and so I found a guy from UCSD who was a designer, and he came up with a design that sort of secretly did have pictures in it, but not right in your face. I could use the color green and the kind of paper matter. This time, they didn’t allow color either. All they wanted the covers to be was font, so I thought, ‘How can I subvert that?’ So I thought, what artist do I know who does really interesting stuff with fonts? And I had seen some amazing fonts that Xylor had made, so I just went to her and presented her with the struggle and she came up with a handful of solutions. Those were two of them.

CD: Has anything funny come up in terms of how the book gets cataloged in libraries or found in search engines because they’re two books as one?

EM: Not that I know of. There probably has been, but I don’t know about it. The thing that’s funny about a book is that a lot of the life of it, you don’t even know. You don’t know where it’s going. I think it’s perfectly possible that people could own the book and not know for a while that it’s two books. When I give it to somebody, I always have to flip it over and for a while, they don’t even know what I’m doing. I think the most innovative thing you could do is to get lost and rediscover it in some kind of funny way.

CD: I have a story about that. I didn’t realize there’s a poem in different streets that says, “For Cathy” and I’m assuming it’s for me, but maybe it’s not and I didn’t see that until recently and I’ve had this book for awhile.

EM: And I can’t even remember which poem it is.

CD: It’s “Nervous Entertainment.”

EM: Oh of course. Yeah, yeah.

CD: But I read this book the night that you gave it to me at a reading. I didn’t see that dedication which is crazy. So yeah, I definitely rediscovered something recently.

EM: To me, you’re in the book in a bigger way, which is a poem about recording in a car and music by a young person. You know the one?

CD: Oh, I know the one. I heard you read that at REDCAT a long time ago and I thought, ‘Oh I think that might be a reference to me and those mix CDs I made Eileen.’ but I didn’t want to say anything because that just felt so presumptuous and then you came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Hey, that poem was for you.’ And I was just like, ‘Yes. I had a feeling.’

EM: I referred to you as the only person I knew.

CD: Yes.

EM: In a San Diego way of knowing.

CD: That was really great. Thank you.

EM: You’re welcome.

CD: Starting with Snowflake and maybe you already answered this when you were talking about chronological order, but why did you start with “Transitions”?

EM: Well you know, a couple of things. One is that a long poem is always a great way to start a book. It’s sort of like you just—the person opens the book and they start to read and they just keep going. The first poem sort of sets the tone. And I felt like Snowflake, the thing of the snowflake, the whole moment of that book was completely about transitions. You know, like literally in your life—you know something’s about to change and you don’t know what and you don’t how, but you know that that’s happening and you see it everywhere and snowflakes are these beautiful items of permanence that are so complete and then they’re so impermanent. And the timeline of so many people I know who were transitioning gender-wise. Snowflake for me, just felt like the whole book seemed to be about all of that that: about gender transitioning, about aging. I felt like it was the first book I wrote where I thought, I’m really thinking about aging a lot here and also aging in a time of all this new technology, so it had some weird sci-fi feeling of aging in a world where you can be copying your existence and even potentially saving your life while you’re dying. The first poem was about Rocco because Rocco was transitioning, but also just about the kind of odd thing of being in my life and seeing my dog die or feeling like my dog was about to die and being in this sci-fi world where you’re picking up your phone, but it’s doing the wrong thing and it’s taking pictures and you’re copying and saving and losing all at once and it seems like such a mega-transition—so that’s why it’s right there. It’s like a fade of the whole book in one poem.

CD: The word “Snowflake” comes up in that first poem, but then the actual “Snowflake” poem is the seventh poem between “Writing” and “# 1 (With Music).” I wonder what your thoughts are about how naming the book, Snowflake and having the title poem placed where it is.

EM: It’s kind of something I think about in novels or when I read other people’s novels, but it’s like when you read the title of a novel, there’s always some way in which you’re thinking, ‘At some point, I’ll see what this title means.’ When it comes up, you’re like ‘OK, what am I feeling at this moment because that’s part of what they wanted me to feel.’ The title is sort of like the name of the space. And you’re moving through the space in this kind of unknowing way. To have a book of poems have a title and for there to be a poem that has that title, sort of suggests that it’s a title-poem, but it isn’t necessarily. The word, “snowflake” is inside a poem and outside a poem. It’s weird how titles kind of operate to close a poem off and yet the words just point to the book in this funny way. I have outside poems, between poems. All is to say that I didn’t know it was number 7, but I moved that poem around a bunch when I was putting it together to figure out both where I wanted it to do something and I wanted it to not make too big of a splash.

CD: Talking about titles a little more, you have a poem called “The Importance of Being Iceland” and I was wondering if that is a regular occurrence for you—to have poems named after other pieces of your work?

EM: It was just really smug because I think when I was writing, that poem had a different title earlier and it was sort of untitled for awhile and then when I realized I just sort of had this title hanging around that was going to be another book, it was really fun to kind of brand my own poem with the title and, weirdly, I thought it was kind of a great title because it felt a little bit invisible because it had already been used, so it felt like kind of a thrifted title and it was really fun. ‘These are my books and these are my titles and I can kind of do anything I want.’ Earlier when you were asking me about the way you read a book: do I want people to read it this way or that way—part of what I was thinking about was how there are movies that people watch on TV and they’ve stayed up all night and watched whatever was on TV and certain movies you saw again and again and so that meant you could enter those movies at all different points, so certainly if you own a TV show or a movie, you just know it so well that you can just pop into the movie at any point. Something I really want for my work is a feeling of the opposite of precious. It will all be fused together in some way and it will make a real place—like a home.

CD: You end the Snowflake side with a poem called, “Choke” and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. When I read that title, the word seemed so intense, and I can’t help but think of Snowflake as the California-side and different streets as the New York-side, so leaving the California side on that note with a poem called, “Choke,” I was just curious about it. Also that poem ends with a few lines in italics and I was wondering about those lines. I was wondering if those were your lines or if you were quoting someone else.

EM: Yeah, it’s a song that my father used to sing and it’s probably a song that the guys of the World War II generation probably sang a lot. Maybe my father sang it in childhood. It was like…

(Eileen sings)

when the weather’s too hot for comfort

& we can’t have ice cream cones

it ain’t no sin

to take off your skin

& dance around in your bones

And you kind of sing the end of it like a pirate song, sort of like a real low man’s note. It always seemed really creepy, it always seemed like dancing skeletons and something that was really hideous that you’d see in a cartoon, but it was really great and funny because it was so dark. It’s weird: ‘It ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.’ I think choking in the context of that poem seems to be about failure. And there’s just a way that everybody who’s human just sort of fails because we’re not god and we just die. So, everything just sort of ends with this colossal failure which is death. I think there was some way in which I felt like that poem was thinking about choking in the way that I had fucked things up and I had this feeling that had to be sort laughable or regrettable or punk in its way, so I kind of thought of it as sort of a dancing skeleton punk song at the end of it.

CD: That’s great. And also, you sing really well. You should totally sing more.

EM: Thank you.

CD: Maybe that is your next big move.

EM: I’m ready, I’m ready.


New Yorkers can check out Eileen Myles and friends reading and celebrating her two recent publications (and the award she received yesterday!) at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church tonight at 8pm. The rest of the world should check out Eileen’s book tour dates here.

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