Eileen Myles is the author of more than twenty books, including recent releases such as Sorry, Tree (Wave Books, 2007) and Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (Or Books, 2010). She is also a recent recipient of such awards as a Guggenhiem Fellowship and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, in addition to being the former director of the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project
Last year, Wave Books released a double-collection of her poems: Snowflake/different streets. In short minimalist lines, the speakers of these poems address the big, quintessential issues of life—love and death, etc—within small, quotidian spaces. What’s impressive about these poems is Myles’ ability to yoke a commonplace experience into momentary but poignant instances of beauty.
In “Computer,” for example, Myles offers a brief but elegant rumination on using a computer: “I put my impossible / body in your hands” (85); or, likewise, her meditation on distance and email:
Both of these examples, I think, are indicative of the work in Snowflake/different streets; and her skill at capturing intense emotion through such spare language is admirable.
Moreover, the above excerpts speak, I think, toward one of the thematic concerns of both these collections: the process of composition and material reception of poetry. In the poem “Transitions,” Myles writes:
In my car
so long ago
I loved someone
who read me a poem
on the phone
about the car
of the day
you mean the
one I’m driving
and the fact that
she left it
on the phone
and that was new (3)
The fact that “a poem / on the phone // … // was new” to the speaker (and, we can assume, interesting in its novelty), sets the stage for poems that explore “the emerging / possibility of writing” (26) in alternative mediums and materialities, allowing the poet to “meet [her] new technology head on” (29). Over the course of the past few weeks, Myles was gracious enough to answer a few questions via email for me that address her writing process.
In the acknowledgments section of Snowflake/different streets, you mention that several of the poems in the former of these two collections “were dictated onto a small digital recorder while [you] drove from San Diego to Los Angeles” (84). I was hoping you could address for me your process of composition via dictation. What was the impetus for drafting poems vocally? What were some of the benefits; likewise, what were some of the complications? How do you understand these poems fitting in with the rest of your oeuvre?
It was pure accident. I was leaving a job and I was secretly thinking about writing a book about the job and I sort of maneuvered them in to giving me a going away party while some people I worked with were mad at me for leaving and others simply didn’t like me and some were my friends and so on. It was me working on my saga I think. So I thought well I’ll give a little going away speech and I’ll record it. A guy I taught with there had mentioned he carried such a little recorder to take notes in his car. Well the little speech didn’t record so I thought I’d try writing some poems on it on my drive from San Diego to LA. I’ve written lots since on that phone walking in the snow in Vermont and on my iPhone now. I’ve lost at least one iPhone loaded with poems which makes me sad. But the procedure drives on. Though I’ve seen Herzog’s film about texting and driving and writing a poem is not different. I could kill people. Benefits are an invisible line. Meaning a line of poetry unwritten at least at first gasp and to me that’s an interesting thought.
You also mention that you later discovered that these “new-seeming poems…were not new at all but merely older than writing” (84). Could you tell me a bit about what you discovered regarding the history of dictation in poetry and the arts as you investigated the origin of this process? How do you see your poems fitting into this broader context/tradition?
Well line breaks were late in the history of poems, right? As is writing itself. We don’t know if Homer really was blind but writing returns us to a kind of blindness, a philosophical place I think. I initially experienced my poems in public aloud. The microphone was the introduction of my poems to the world, their first date so to speak with anyone but myself. I realize you’re speaking about the coming into being of the poem but since the poems feels like sound in my head it leaving my head might be its truest moment. The poem getting out.
A bit later in the acknowledgments section, you state that, in response to your dictated poems, you “wrote a set of ‘pencil poems’ which were in praise of the fine fat pencil [you] were using” (84). Could you, again, address the process of composing with a pencil, relative to dictation or, likewise, a computer/word processor? To you mind, what are both the benefits and difficulties of doing so? What do you think composing by pencil offers you that other material forms do not? To this end, how overtly do you think the materiality of the composition process (and material conditions in and under which you compose) has affected your writing over the years?
There’s something very bodily about a pencil and even gradeschooly – the very person who learned was learning to write held this instrument. The smell, the growing bluntness, the whole thing. I simply love a good pencil. I’ve bought a few of the exact kind. When I teach I often use my pencil to write on poems and it makes me want to do it. The material itself leads me away from drudgery and towards a world of play or early discovery. The difficulties I don’t know if there is one. You’re signing on for many levels of publication with a pencil. You will type it on a computer later. You’ll edit it. It might be in a magazine. But the original piece of paper sits like skin with the really vulnerable marks of the pencil on it. I tend to fall in love with my materials. In the 70s I worked in an office funded by the department of corrections to defend prisoners. We had cabinets filled with yellow legal pads and I think they also supplied black pentel pens. I think of it as such a 70s pair and it was there when I was discovering poetry so I still feel serious and pure when I sit down to these. I like blue books too, mostly for prose though. These are our studios. There’s nothing but to take these things seriously. Any of us who came up in the 60s and 70s who learned to write when penmanship was still taught in schools and poets worked on manual typewriters have maybe a slight sorrowful feeling about the development of poet on computer. I like the future and the present but very rarely did anything get lost on paper or ruined like rewriting a poem on a computer can do. There’s something first about all that stuff that I want to insure.
With regard to the pencil you used in the aforementioned pencil poems, you confess that it was “stolen from the mailing list in the lobby of INTAR, NYC” (84). The fact that you lifted the pencil reminds me of a time in my life when I made visual collages with the self-imposed restriction that I couldn’t pay for any of the materials: everything needed to be free, found, or stolen. I realize this question is a bit tangential, but could you address the financial pressures and complexities of being an artist (either generally speaking, or as it pertains to your own life)? Or, perhaps more broadly stated, could you speak about the relationship between art/poetry and money when one is enmeshed in a hyper-capitalist, consumer culture?
It’s the big question. I mean how does a poet survive? I was hell bent on being poor when I was young because it was my only way to have time and space and reclaim a childhood of the mind. Then by the time I hit my 30s I thought wait wait I didn’t mean really poor. I mean not always! So I had to figure out how to do it really in time meaning aging and growing professional somehow. My only idea has always been to keep simply a poet in some way but also let it fan out into you know performer, art critic, novelist, teacher. I try to never turn into anything else entirely. It hasn’t been easy but I’m less controlled by money at this moment than any other time. I think time is the issue. How to be alone or with your group in time. How to find all the nooks and crannies in it you need to know and develop and laugh and be marginal. How not to become cruel in living. I think poets are kind of symbolic people. While we’re struggling in the hyper capitalist consumer culture doing this radiant thing we’re doing it for everyone. We have to learn how not to hate it.
You wrote both Snowflake and different streets in a minimalist, short form mode that rids itself of superfluous ornamentation. I was wondering how you see your writing (or if you even do) conversing with that broader aesthetic tradition (e.g. haiku, micrograms, etc.). Certainly your publisher, Wave Books, has a tendency to promote such work (i.e. Andrade’s Micrograms and Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple and Your Time Has Come); at very least, do you see a contemporary push toward short form/minimalist poetry? If so, what similarities and differences does your writing (and other writers of today) have with the writing of previous eras that work through this aesthetic?
Oh I think that poets like Creeley and Lorine Niedecker and Larry Eigner have been introducing us all to moments for a while. The measure of each of their poems well tiny is not the word but something that is both swift and slow. You can watch the curtain ripple. I’ve really wanted to do very little. Hardly it be a poem at all. I think that’s the lyric impulse. To do next to nothing. To live there.