It Was Me and Not Me All the Time: A Conversation with Eileen Myles

By Lydia EnoMay 1, 2024

It Was Me and Not Me All the Time: A Conversation with Eileen Myles

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles

EILEEN MYLES is an award-winning poet and writer who has published more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. They have received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, four Lambda Literary Awards, and the Shelley Award from the Poetry Society of America, among myriad other honors. They live in New York and Marfa, Texas, with their pit bull named Honey.

I emailed Myles on a whim in early February. I was hardly expecting a response, let alone for them to agree to an interview. And yet I woke up the very next morning to their response: “Oh, totally.”

I was pleasantly surprised by their informality and honesty during the interview. Famous though they are, they addressed me like we were close, longtime friends. I’ll admit, I was a bit starstruck; even so, the conversation felt easy and natural. We spoke about, among other things, Chelsea Girls, a book that was published 30 years ago today, on May 1, 1994.

Written between 1980 and 1993, Chelsea Girls is a collection of prose that reads like a memoir—although Myles has adamantly expressed that it’s not. Genre aside, the essays loosely span their childhood, teenage years, and, eventually, their life as a writer in New York; throughout, Myles’s unmistakable voice is drenched in wit, honesty, and the arrogance of youth. They describe life as a dyke, plain and simple. Yet their prose leaps off the page—to me, the stories read as if Myles is sitting and speaking right across the table.

I was first introduced to Myles’s work—Chelsea Girls specifically—in high school. After that, I couldn’t get enough. I wanted more than anything to write like Myles, to bring audiences the kind of reading experience so profound that it registers on a physical level. The fictionalized, lesbian, and flat broke self the book constructs is messy but incredibly brave.

As I’ve gotten older, Chelsea Girls has only resonated more. These days, it’s almost always in my bag. It’s there when I need it, which is often.


LYDIA ENO: When you’re writing, do you have any specific intent for how a work is going to be engaged with or interpreted?

EILEEN MYLES: You know, I talk to people in my head all day long. There are a lot of people in there. I know who I share certain kinds of a sense of humor with. And who will be appalled.

I was reading an interview you did a couple of years ago with The White Review, and you were talking about wanting to be seen and written about as a writer rather than as this big cultural phenomenon.

It’s a little weird, because I think I always knew that part of the job of being a poet or an artist is getting known. I was always writing; I was keeping journals in grade school and high school, and I wrote some poems then, but I didn’t really start writing until I got to New York when I was 24. I feel like that’s when I really began.

I’ve become more of the subject—the way I get written about. I feel like I’m a very sophisticated writer, I feel like I do lots of interesting things in my work, and I taught writing; nonetheless I’ll get written about in The New York Times and they’ll talk about the cover of the book, what I look like, what kind of person I might be. It’s nuts.

I think I miss out on a bit of serious attention because I’m doing something dirty. I’m using my own name—that’s dirty. If you write about sex and you’ve used your own name, you’re like a pornographer!

I was rereading Chelsea Girls this weekend, and I was curious about its label as a “novel” when it reads so much like a memoir.

It gets labeled as a memoir, and I don’t want it labeled that way. I don’t like autofiction and all these made-up things. I read a lot of novels. I love fiction. I love novels. I feel like I am made-up and my vision of reality is made-up.

I also think that as soon as you put the pen to the paper, you’re making shit up. Anytime I’ve been at something with friends or family and I write about it later, people are like, “That’s not what happened.” I don’t believe I’m writing about myself any more than anybody else. Stuff very much like the stuff in Chelsea Girls did in fact happen to me, but it’s still an illustration of it rather than the Lord’s truth.

I’m also wondering about how you balance the personal and the artistic when you’re talking about these intimate experiences you’ve gone through.

I want it to feel authentic. I want you to be noticing the writing in some way. There is this human need to tell and to talk about something that happened—to me, or something I heard about—that I think I’ve never heard before. Having been born female, having considered myself queer for most of my adult life, thinking of myself as trans and lesbian, and going through all these different ideas of who I am … I’m not used to reading those stories still.

I love to read. It’s my problem. I think I like reading more than writing. That flavors what I give people; I want them to really enjoy the reading of my story. I’m repeating myself now, but I have a very human need to say that these things happened on this planet, and you should know, and it will change.

Do you struggle with navigating boundaries of what to share and what not to share? Crossing a line, that kind of thing.

It’s part of the writing question, all the time. Some things I know in advance I won’t share, maybe will never share. But other things—like, my mother died in 2017, and it really changes what I can write. It’s not that my mother read my work (that I know of). Pretty early on, it was clear she was not reading it. But the fact that she was in the world meant that there were things I wouldn’t say. And then it changes.

Do people ever get mad at you for writing about them?

Yeah, and other people goad them sometimes. Like, the girlfriend in Chelsea Girls was fine with that book. I mean, we were long past having been involved, but I thought she was fine, and then somebody came over to her apartment and they were like, “Well, doesn’t that piss you off, the way Eileen wrote about you?” And she was like, “Yeah,” and then she was really mad at me for a decade or two.

In Inferno (2008), I’m talking about the ways poets read, and there was one poet who I had a lot of admiration for. I talked about this kind of Midwestern voice that he had, that it was a little librarian-like, and apparently he thought it was really mean. This guy. For some reason, we’re just crinkly with each other. More when I was younger than now … I used to make men mad; it was like I was getting away with something.

Yeah. I feel like all young lesbians want to make men mad all the time. You know?

Yes, because they deserve it! Right?

I would say, yeah.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

As you’ve become more well known, you’ve become almost a canonized figure—especially for young queer people, including myself. Do you feel pressure to behave in a certain way because of this audience?

I mean, it’s just the human fact of aging. I’m definitely somebody who felt like I was getting to be cool for a really long time. I remember somebody saying to me, when I was much younger than I am now: “You’ve gotten away with being young for a really long time.” I really was not so young. All these things in your life—your body, or—like I’m not in a relationship right now. I haven’t been for two or three years, and people always are like, “Who’re you dating, Eileen?” I’m over that. There were times I felt affected by that [pressure], but I guess it’s like anything else. You get more experienced at being this or that, and then increasingly you care less what people think.

If I go to do a reading, and most of the audience is older, I think, where’s my audience? I’ve become very used to reading to young audiences. That’s who comes out for my work, and it’s great. It makes me feel good, because the things that I wrote about and have written about are still addressing the conditions of how it feels to be alive and young and queer and female …

When I think about the next book, I have concerns about losing my audience. I also feel like I have to grow up, and what that means to me, at least, is to not worry about whether you’re pleasing people. It’s just very familiar to me, the thought that I like being liked. I like my work being liked.

With that idea, how does it feel to know that you’re such an admired figure for so many young queer people?

It’s funny, great … It was a little deliberate. It was mostly gay males whose work I was being influenced by when I was young, and some women, but not that many. What I was consciously doing on some level when I was writing Chelsea Girls was making up a female hero, a lesbian hero. It was always like a little bit more pathetic than me and a little bit more risk-taking than me. It was me and not me all the time. I’m just happy that it still applies.

Do you think that your willingness to be vulnerable in your writing has evolved as you’ve gotten older?

It might be a little harder. When anything is a new condition, you have to invent a new language.

LARB Contributor

Lydia Eno is a writer and visual artist from Buffalo, New York. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in English and studio art from Mount Holyoke College. She will be continuing her education at Buffalo State University in the fall.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!