I FEEL LIKE I NEED to forget what I know about Eileen Myles in order to review her new book of poems, Snowflake/Different Streets. In 2012 it’s almost impossible to separate the experience of reading her books from the popular mythology that derives from her career as East Village bon vivant, openly female write-in candidate for president, and feminist lesbian icon. This is, of course, the problem with fame, even of the underground sort — it mediates our experience of an artist’s work, which is always already saturated with what we know about them.
Such saturation is peculiarly heightened by an artistic practice rooted in autobiography, which in Myles’ case, as poet Alice Notley points out, “may be seen as a continuous striving for unity, of moment to life to short line to poem to performance of poem already written.” Notley nails it: an immediacy that feels real has long made all of Myles’ personae equally stagey and seductive, larger-than-life and totally approachable. And from the seventies through the early nineties confessional candor, insightful cultural analysis, and a highly constructed authenticity united Myles’ poetry, prose, and public performances into one seamless project. Interestingly, her most recently published prose — The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Writings in Art (2009) and Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (2010) — continues to refine her New York School mythos while redefining her current image, proving that prose continues to serve as Myles’ preferred medium for cultural autobiography. But the new poems of Snowflake/Different Streets made me realize that Myles’ myth functions independently of the past decade of her poetry, her fame out of synch with her career as a poet.
Of course I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles. I’m among those who’ve eagerly followed the career she seems to have fashioned for herself out of sheer chutzpah and a genius ear for the tones and syntax of the American vernacular, and I’ve become attached especially to her Schuyler-esque lines amped up with a feminist, queer, working class politics. I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles because it was fabulous to be in the audience when, at the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards Ceremony, she won a thoroughly deserved Lammy for Inferno.
Earlier that night we’d had to sit through an irritating speech by Edward Albee, who was accepting a Pioneer Award from the Lamba Literary Foundation. “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self,” he said, “I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” It’s because of gay writers like Albee, who do damage to the community by reinforcing homophobic double standards disguised as “universal humanism,” that I don’t want to forget what I know about Eileen Myles. For a reader familiar not only with Inferno but with the thirty years of Myles’ poetry, fiction, plays and essays that preceded it, her win that night both validated and reiterated some of the central aesthetic and sociopolitical claims of her career, namely that, as she writes in the novel,
Poetry (and this is why I love it and will until I die)
always winds up being the conga line between random
chaos and i...