Long and Social
Eileen Myles


My book (Cool for You*) is absolutely an extension of my poetry practice, I've even come to refer to it and maybe the class of novels it's a member of as the poet's novel. Having written a novel I don't have to protect myself from the disparaging term poet--yet I'm more clearly a poet than ever. I mean a poem is an extravagant grandiose and trembling form, for better or worse always alive, I think, and I've brought those weaknesses and virtues into novel writing and I'm dying to do it again. As a younger poet I was urged (in order to be important) to think large, to write the long poem, but I think this is it. It's epic poetry in the sense that the epic poem is a communal form, and long and social. I wrote it for you. That's what the title means in a way. I know there's a more technical definition for epic poetry but that seems the best way to get it wrong. I'm more interested in what Joyce Carol Oates did in Blonde than Seamus Heaney's prize cow. Poets should write novels en masse and reinvent the form and really muck up the landscape. I often think of Leslie Scalapino telling me that her long book the return of painting, etc. was called a novel because a novel means you start at the beginning and you read to the end. It was a way to guarantee she could be read differently. I don't care about that particular aspect, the front to back thing but being read differently of course is nice. Time is my real subject and calling a book a novel immediately adjusts the reader's perception of time.

My book is shuffled if you take the long view. When I started to write the first chapter which was a story, the whole thing is a story for me, it occurred to me that a novel could just be all these stories shuffled, and I thought of books I loved long ago, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. I read that book straight through, but I read it differently knowing that he had that chart at the front suggesting you could alternately read it this way, and that the book could permute all these different ways. I'm in love with the form of the novel being molten, not putting the power of reordering in the hands of the reader but to extend to the reader a sense that the form of the book is as accidental as life. It's studied, damn studied, the cool casual life as is the cool casual novel, but as accidental as say the zabruder footage. Some guy happened to be there with his camera, and as it turns out history was made. As it turns out he gave us our only window onto that day in Dallas. When one realizes that John Clare inadvertently gave us the first No Trespassing signs in literature you realize bumpkins must write first, not last.

One more note on that—everything's visual and in even or especially in advertising the oddly cropped shot is what's used. Literature as it's sold today is so backwards. Hand held literature is of course what I'm selling. It's not a memoir, it's a recording. And even purporting to be a bad recording at times. As a female writer the pose of awkwardness is very dangerous though because at this post feminist moment one should be a top, one should win etc. But female in history is ground down, anonymous, untold. That's the story that's interesting.

And another thing: more poet's novel. In Chelsea Girl's "My Father's Alcoholism" was the story where I stretched myself, and tried to write out of pools and see how they would build. I just literally go into a room (one labeled my father's alcoholism) and begin inventorying the memories, the substance of the memory, the materiality of it. The fur of childhood, not the feelings. When I was done with one I would wait and let another one grow. It really is like walking in the rain. Can that generate a narrative,or a narrative feel? It sure works in movies. But movies have the dark on their side. My hope is that by being as solipsistically in my mind, downloading erratic shaped drops and letting some momentum build on that order, rather than an order based on action, you can kind of reverse our assumptions about activity. Or maybe I mean self. There's a beautiful math to it, like music if you just let yourself go and describe the experience of your life like it's some public spectacle you are privy to and you‚ re waiting for the music of the information along with everyone else. I feel less alone when I tell my most private stories than any other time. This does link up to performance. When you are acting or even reciting a text you wrote and you're on a darkened stage under a pool of light there's a terror as you're singing along with the text, its like driving, that moment at night when you think shit I could just pile into the opposite lane and that would be it. The self could just smash into the light and dark and be gone forever. So you feel contained within the details by that sense of danger and that provides the tension while you proceed lavishly downloading "me" in every ribbony way I can imagine.

The limitations of "New York School" have been what Frank did, what John does, are you like Jimmy. Mustn't forget Kenneth or Barbara. It's like Mt. Rushmore. You can say some quick thing about them all—it's chatty abstraction, it's American speech, and I've learned different things from all of them but since they are just people I think it's tone that people wind up miming, or concerns rather than electricity, the weight and pause and incredible expanse of the exploring mind in speech. I discovered what I sound like long ago and of course I go where they wouldn't and couldn't so it's sort of like explaining why you prefer not being a corpse. New York school mimed is worse than academic, it's like my dad being a mailman coming home with the Ivy League clothes from the Harvard dorms where he had his route. You have to blow that up pretty quickly but it's just sad. Let's face it, they were just as New critical as everyone else in the fifties. They all would assert the poetry was not about them. It's about skimming the surface of the self. Using that facility to shape the poem. My dirty secret has always been that it's of course about me. But I have been educated to believe I'm no one so there's a different self operating and I'm desperate to unburden my self of my self so I'm coming from nowhere and returning. That's sort of classic. You just cannot underestimate the massive difference in writing out of female anonymity. It blows all the styles out of the water.

I think the form of the novel gives dignity to my shame. Sometimes I'm just ashamed to block the sun. Performance, and I include readings in that, makes the body be the container for the work. It is when you write the words of course. The body always seems like the shame. The camera must cut away to the trees, the animal is telling too much. The animal doesn't want to die etc. If you've ever sat on a panel when some people read and some people speak directly the difference in those two deliveries in terms of the room's interaction with the speakers is immeasurable. The dangerous loose canon is how we conduct public life—we want to stifle the stray remark and we want to house it. I'm totally translating that impulse into a several hundred page thing, my sorrowful body is now text. It's like a zoo.

One last thought. In the Times there's occasionally these articles where the great artist, Brice Marden or whoever takes us into the met to see the work that is interesting to them. I started reading Robert Smithson a couple of years ago and his move out of the studio helped me understand the poet's situation, having no such institution to tour through, having no Times to conduct the tour in, and possibly being invisible because of that. Smithson yearned to kick free of that structure that has been happily plunked down ever more solidly. It seems like a novel is the only way to prove I was here. Exactly how I was here. It's a social poetic invention.

*Cool for You, New York: Soft Skull Press, 2000

Issue Two Table of Contents