Writing without the Filter

Published in: January-February 2021 issue.


by Eileen Myles
Yale University Press. 96 pages, $18.



“I AM a weird bitch,” Eileen Myles once wrote in Sappho’s Boat, a 1982 collection of poems. In a career that has spanned over forty years—in poetry, fiction, memoir, art writing, essays, libretti, and performance pieces—Myles has always played in the arena of the edgy, the uncomfortable, the uncontainable. Their work (“I don’t even call myself a lesbian anymore. I say queer, or trans. I say they.”) runs on the energy of the moment. It is writing that holds nothing back. Enthusiasms, confessions, hurt, confusion, desire, love—it’s all right there on the page. Their work gives us immediate “access/ to an uncontrolled intimacy.”

            For Myles, a poem is a kind of playground or field in which to take a joy ride through the bewildering, exhilarating, messy incoherence and abundance that is life. Their poems unravel with the logic of free association and stream of consciousness. Indeed, Myles has never shied away from writing a “very unattractive/ poem.” As they say in “That Country,” a poem from 2007: “I wanted/ to fuck up this/ language.” As a writer who comes “from a long line of strong crazy women,” Myles has never been afraid to do “one single thing—to be different.”

            This wild, unattractive, fucked-up difference in Myles’ work is evident in their latest book, For Now, part of Yale University’s “Why I Write” series. (Previous writers have included Karl Ove Knausgaard and Patti Smith.) In this short book, as in so much of their other work, we see something of the mad ecstasy of Walt Whitman and William Blake, the I-do-this-I-do-that quotidian observation of Frank O’Hara, the playfulness of Joe Brainard.

            “I’m alive. In my writing!” Myles proclaims. “I’m trying to tell this nice and convey the experience of living and writing unreflected, simply in it and almost having a graffiti style toward existence, everything in a way is a public wall, even the most private expression gets hot on its own visibility once in a while.”

     This is signature Myles: the unconventional syntax, the jazzy rhythms, the total commitment to writing in the heat of the moment, not edited or modulated by concessions to linear rationality. “I don’t know the difference between the mind and body or I do but I am always trying to erase it,” they write. “I have been arming myself with philosophies for years that support the notion that the point is to be here, to be present which I think is the truly hard part, and yet I keep coming back to it, it’s undeniably true and writing it turns out is the easiest way to copy that feeling.”

     Myles’ present moment most often takes place in an urban landscape. Ever since the mid-1970s, when they took up with a group of poets at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, New York has had a huge influence on Myles’ work. “[T]he city has taught me almost everything I know about language and existence and being a writer, density of impression etc.”

            Density of impression is a hallmark of Myles’ work. Their ambition is “for the product to have a lot of world in it, be a little humble messy and dirty, so that people can enter like they walk into a building, a public building that is there since once I’m done it’s theirs. I vanish into it first but then you do too.” The poem as urban space in all its ruckus and hubbub.

            Myles says their writing aims for “a jigsaw of mood, not a mood.” Like the poems, which they call “porous,” in For Now a jumble of texts and images “migrate in and become citizens of the world of the book.” In addition to discussing the art of writing, Myles takes many detours—some may find them maddening detours—into other arenas. We learn about their 300-square-foot apartment on East Third Street (“underneath the Tenement Museum”); troubles with the landlady; selling their papers to Yale; their archive of photos with other poets and artists—including Andrei Voznesensky (“on a couch as he was putting the moves on me”), Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Mapplethorpe, and how “puppet shows in my neighborhood when I was a kid … predicted my life as an artist.” For Myles, these “detours” are not irrelevant but a way of being “baldly open to the world,” of “copying everything (in words) which is a form of loving the world.”

            About writing itself, Myles offers many engaging aperçus: “all writing, whether fiction or not, is fiction. When my hand hits the keyboard I’m lying.” And: “writing makes that thing I think more beautiful.” And: “Once there’s a deadline the back of your mind comes shooting forward and the lazy front keeps litanizing and somehow the two like an old relationship are getting together.” And: “Writing is a form of employment for the unemployable, a life-long something for the got nothings, it’s just what I did (shrug) while I was living in this cheap apartment.” And: “I have to love it in the language in order for it to be true.”

            Myles is aware of their privileged position as a queer person, someone who is not tied down to raising kids or a nine-to-five job. And they are candid about the spiritual dimension of writing: “If you ask me to tell you why I write it probably has to do with this deep comfort/discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day that might be the best option available to me, it’s not an anti-depressant and it’s not exhilarating and it’s not aerobic but it is a form of chanting and I do it for religious reasons. I mean it’s my default position.”

            Myles has been called “the rock star of modern poetry.” For their many fans, this book will readily confirm that badge. Others may find For Now bewildering, a labyrinthine ramble with no real payoff. Myles is aware of the risks they’re taking. Literature, they say, “is not a moral project except in this profound aspect of wasting time.” Those who choose to “waste time” with this book should be ready for some surprising, even profound, literary adventures.


Philip Gambone has recently published his fifth book, a memoir titled As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II (Rattling Goods Yarns Press).