The Casual Poetry of Eileen Myles

When I heard Eileen Myles was coming to read at Yale, my expectations could be summarized by the vague phrases that popped in my mind as I climbed the Beinecke steps this last Thursday: lesbians, Allen Ginsberg, Transparent, and that one poem in The New Yorker; but primarily the word cunt, which they only said a disappointing four times at the event.

This semester, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library hosted two readings as part of The Yale Collection of American Literature Reading Series. Organizer Nancy Kuhl explained to me in an email, “the series aims to celebrate American poetry in all its variety and richness, featuring both younger poets of great promise and well established writers of high achievement.”

Myles is currently on tour for their new book, Evolution. They opened the reading with older pieces before progressing to the new ones in the collection. The event was an opportunity for them to promote their new work, while also being an opportunity for the library to announce its acquisition of Myles’ papers. These papers, Myles told me after the reading, includes scraps of their journals and original drafts of novels, poems, and other works.

Before starting the reading, Myles noted that they have always been criticized for reading too fast. Yet as they read, the speed seemed suitable, making their poetry, which is jarring and enjambed on paper, flow in speech. Each lengthy poem became one singular statement.

Myles was loud and surprisingly comfortable compared to the Nicole Sealy reading (part of the same series) that I went to a few weeks earlier. Then the upper level of the library felt dark and heavy, paralleling Sealy’s quiet and slow voice. Now, against the quartzy glow of the space, Myles sparked welcoming synergy. They were unhesitant to interrupt their own reading to interject an anecdote or refill their wine glass of Diet Coke, jokingly likening themselves to President Trump.

Before reading their poem “Joan,” Myles started with a prelude about writing a play with a group of women on Joan of Arc. I couldn’t tell when it ended and the piece began. However I knew once they were in the thick of reading the dark piece with the hitting line, “a white dove leaped out of her mouth as she died. Four-hundred and thirty-one years ago today a dove leaped right out of her mouth.” They ended with a tidbit about how the real Joan of Arc was killed for wearing men’s clothes. The subject of this and many other pieces were dark, yet Myles’ blunt delivery made them feel just as regular as those about their dog.

Myles is a queer, free-form poet from an impoverished alcoholic family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They’re a recent winner of the Shelly Prize from the Poetry Society of America and a 2012 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, among dozens of accolades. “When I started out I knew I was better than any of the boys getting more attention than me” they told me after the show. I asked if they felt satisfied career-wise. They didn’t hesitate to point out, “It’s rare for a poet to be able to live off of their writing.” After hearing Myles tell me all about why they were successful, I wondered if they would still be writing without that feeling. They immediately said yes. “It’s what keeps me from crossing over into insanity.”

When I talked to Myles after the reading, we first discussed their success and career more than who they were as a person. However, as we continued Myles told me about their past unabashedly. When they were younger they felt there was nothing to inherit from their mother but alcoholism, but later realized they were wrong. “I found I could inherit storytelling…it’s what makes me so natural at events like this.” Coming from a similar background, their comment shifted my perspective. People like Myles dig out the strength in their roots.

The Casual Poetry of Eileen Myles was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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