Eileen Myles: Perfecting the Art of Telling the Truth

Eileen Myles is a feminist, beat, punk poet and it is no surprise that she was befriended by Allen Ginsberg upon her arrival in New York City in the mid-seventies, giving her first reading at CBGB’s in 1974. Her first book of poetry, The Irony of the Leash was published in 1978. Like Michelle Tea, Myles grew up working-class, lesbian, and well-read in Massachusetts. Somewhere along the way, she fell under the mentorship of poets like Robert Creeley and James Schuyler. Myles cites them as some of the reason that much of her writing often takes on somewhat of a masculine tone. However, she has always identified as a lesbian poet and uses her poetry and writing in other genres to constantly question our conventional ideas about gender and even about poetry itself. She is the author of one novel, ten volumes of poetry, one short story collection, and the co-editor of a collection of lesbian short fiction entitled The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading. Her writing (including art criticism) has frequently appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation, The Stranger, Art in America, Book Forum and in the late nineties she was part of the touring feminist poetry collective Sister Spit. She is also the former Artistic Director of St. Mark’s Poetry project and the current director of the Creative Writing Program at UC San Diego. In the midst of all of that, she even mounted an inventive campaign for president of the United States in the 1992 election.

“I have this feeling that being a poet is kind of a religion,” Myles once said in an interview with Daniel Kane. It is evident from reading any of her writings that she approaches her craft with a distinct reverence and care for the form and beauty of language. She also approaches poetry as a way to cope: “… I think a poem comes out of a difficulty. You then have to create something to balance that difficulty out. With all this stress in your life, you’re like a boat going in a variety of directions. The question becomes, how can you strike a balance?” Myles strikes that balance with everything from the color blue in the poem “School of Fish” to her own deeply personal experiences in her short-story collection, Chelsea Girls and her novel, Cool for You. She has an intense yet introspective interest in humanity ?- the humanity that lives within herself and the humanity that flows all around her. It is this combination of self-knowledge and permeating interest in life itself that stops Myles’ work from falling into the trap of navel-gazing that so much deeply personal, autobiographical literature often finds itself in.

Chelsea Girls is exemplary of the kind of autobiographical poetic prose that Myles has mastered. In this collection of short stories, the stories weave together in a style that makes them indistinct from one another, relying on one another yet still maintaining their own separate identities. Myles doesn’t hide the fact that she is telling her life story in this work — the main character is a lesbian alcoholic named Eileen Myles. She chronicles her own life and adventures, still calling it fiction to protect the innocent, but infusing enough truth that to call it a fiction is almost fiction in and of itself.

In School of Fish, her 1997 volume of poetry, Myles asserts her femaleness in a way that she hasn’t before in her writing, citing this assertion as a conscious choice: “In a culture wild about dick, it’s essential, I think, to do some kind of owning, of what’s inside your belly, the invisible”.

Cool for You is really the book that sealed her literary-icon cult status. Similar to Michelle Tea’s The Chelsea Whistle, Cool for You details Myles’ experiences growing up queer and working-class in the Boston area. The gritty realism she uses makes the book a difficult read, but only because she doesn’t muffle any of the pain and discomfort of her early life. As always, Myles tells the truth and invites readers to experience all the nuances of her world, unapologetically.

In the “canon” of works by queer writers, Myles stands at the helm. She is an artist in the fullest sense; to encounter her work is to encounter a life that is difficult, beautiful, hopeful, and real. Myles speaks for many who lack the courage to speak for themselves. She opens a window into the truth of a difficult life and the power of testifying to the true nature of a life fully lived.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!