Eileen Myles, photo by Leopoldine Core.

AN INTERVIEW WITH EILEEN MYLES

“If you’re interested in poetry, I’ll give you lesbianism, and if you’re interested in lesbianism, I’ll give you poetry.”

Inferno is the latest book by poet, novelist, essayist, performer, and one-time presidential hopeful Eileen Myles. (It’s true, she ran as a write-in candidate in 1992.) Eileen did not call Inferno a memoir, even though it sort of is. Maybe one could call it a remembrance. Eileen calls it a novel. In the process of remembering, she lets go a frantic and enlightened rush of recall, impressions, and wit. Loosely modeled on Dante, the novel traces the character Eileen’s dual coming out as both a poet and a lesbian (via hell, purgatory, and paradise). It starts in Boston (hell?) and quickly moves to New York, where she has mainly lived since the ’70s. She moves in and out of the punkier side of the NYC poetry world in a warm, complicated way. That’s mainly because Eileen is, let’s say, a pillar of that world. She’s published numerous books of poetry, including Not Me and Skies, the short-story collection Chelsea Girls, and an earlier novel, Cool for You (she also wrote the libretto for an opera). She’s a former steward of The Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church and was a caretaker of genius poet James Schuyler in his later years at the Chelsea Hotel. Inferno includes encounters, for better and for worse, with Amiri Baraka, Marge Piercy, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and Patti Smith. Like many of Frank O’Hara’s poems, the seeming bits of real life in this novel take gossip and elevate it to the level of art.

But the backbone of Inferno is identity and going for it. How to be a poet? How to be a lesbian? How to be vulnerable, or strong? How to be anything with a body? The book’s ride is Eileen’s life up to now. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending. Bookforum recently talked with Eileen in the East Village the morning after she’d given a reading at the posh new Poets House in Battery Park City.

—Jesse Pearson

BOOKFORUM: I understand that Inferno took a long time to finish.

EILEEN MYLES: This book came into existence over ten years. My friends all feel like they’ve already read it because there are parts that they know so well.

From hearing you read them aloud?

Yes. When you’re writing a book and there are certain sections that you know you feel good about, you just read them repetitively. That’s why I was so weird about reading the opening of the book last night. I’ve been reading it for ten years now. But I had a really good time with it. You know, before you got here, I was thinking about Bob Dylan. Some of how he interests me is in that sort of Picasso-y sense of looking at an artist with a long career.

And with easily discernible periods, too.

Exactly. I heard him when he was performing in Woodstock a couple of years ago and I loved hearing him sing old songs and completely hit them differently. Totally different versions. Last night, it was fun to read that section of this novel, and to hit different emphases and make it play differently for me so that I wasn’t bored by my body and my voice. There’s this thing in the poetry world about the voice—not in my poetry world, but in a more academic one. Like “the voice” is this really fetishized thing. Yet I do actually feel like a vocal artist. That’s what I feel like I’m doing.

Tom Waits

The Guardian reports that the sublimely gruff-voiced singer Tom Waits is publishing his first book of poetry, Hard Ground, a collaboration with photographer Michael O'Brien. In a 1975 interview Waits said, "I don't like the stigma that comes with being called a poet . . . So I call what I'm doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue."

The tired thesis that poetry is on the decline is being posited again by Joseph Epstein in Commentary magazine. Why does that sound so familiar?

Rand Paul has scored a book deal with Hachette Book Group’s Center Street division. The tome, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, will appear in February, just as Paul begins his senatorial debut.

Journalist Johann Hari had never met a fried food he didn’t like—until he converted to the Church of Exercise. We will keep his inspiring example in mind as we overindulge in food and drink during our Thanksgiving break.

Next month, the University of Chicago will publish e-book editions of all twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time,” a series of books beloved by tweedy, genteel eccentrics such as the narrator of Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up, Sir!. In December, the U of Chicago will give away the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, for free—call it a gateway drug for Anglophilia.

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