Writing is simply an ‘alibi’ for living, says poet and novelist Eileen Myles
As a young high school student, poet and novelist Eileen Myles sat in on a class at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, envying the ability of the art students to draw the form of the partially unclothed model before them.
In the keynote address at the Windham Campbell Festival’s award ceremony on Sept. 17, Myles (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) said writing, for them, is also a way of “copying,” as well as their way of being present in the world.
“[S]omewhere in there is this action of copying, both literally and conceptually,” said Myles of their craft. “Copying everything in words is a form of loving the world … If you ask me to tell you why I write, it probably has to do with this deep 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. It’s not an antidepressant, and it’s not exhilarating, and it’s not aerobic, but it’s a form of chanting — for religious reasons. I mean, it’s my default position.”
Myles, who is also a performer and art journalist, spoke on the theme “Why I Write” before a full audience in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall following the awarding of the Windham Campbell Prize to eight writers in the categories of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. The ceremony was the first of a series of festival events celebrating the prize recipients and their work.
At the start of the address, Myles said that they wanted to get to the truth “right away” by revealing that they write simply because they “need an alibi” for living.
While the word “alibi” implies being “elsewhere,” said Myles, the point of living is “to be here, to be present, which I think is truly the hard part. Yet I keep coming back to it. It’s undeniably true that writing, it turns out, is the easiest way to copy that feeling [of presence], and I’ve been doing that for years.”
Myles recalled how they left Boston in their early 20s for New York City, where a rent-controlled apartment, and especially time, allowed them to pursue a vocation as a writer. Being a queer person with no desire to have children also meant they had fewer constraints, Myles said. The author of 20 books, including the autobiographical novel “Chelsea Girls” and numerous poetry collections, Myles studied their craft at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where they later served as artistic director from 1984 to 1986. They have received numerous honors and grants for their work.
Often described as a “punk poet,” Myles contrasted their own early life in New York City to the lives of some neighbors in their East Village apartment building, who were struggling parents, often poor, including one from South America who had come to America to receive care for sick child.
“Today our government is pulling those kids out of hospitals and deporting them,” Myles said.
In comparison, if Myles struggled financially, they only had to call the legendary poet John Ashbery to “ask him to recommend an emergency grant” to support their writing, Myles said of their earlier days in the city.
The biggest reward for writing, Myles told their audience, was “time itself.”
“Once I tasted time, I never wanted anything else,” they added.
The writer described their own writing process by saying that an aesthetic experience inspires them to write, and that experience determines the style and content of the work. “Betrayal is deeply a part of it,” Myles continued, “because I’ll be sailing along thinking, ‘This is incredible,’ and a day later, I’ll stop at some version of me that lives at a different pace, who reads what I’ve written and pronounces it bad. And I’ll return to it later and pick out pieces, searching and rearranging.”
All writing, art, and music, Myles said, is created in relation to living, being moved by life, and “copying” that experience. This is true whether it’s an Instagram picture the poet takes of a reflection of light moving across the room or a picture of their dog, a drawing of trees and a lighthouse seen during a weekend excursion, or hearing the music or a conversation of a favorite musician, such as Bob Dylan or Bobby Darin, they said.
“If I love a thing, creatively I will use it,” Myles said. They later added, “I disbelieve all ideas about genre because it’s all fabricated stuff. Writing, art, music — every bit of it is not so much lying but instead is parsed in relationship to this other thing which is living, and however I am about doing this thing — in my case, writing — it makes that thing, I think, more beautiful.”
Myles often elicited laughter from audience members as they humorously described a visit from a new landlord and a subsequent eviction notice from the rent-stabilized apartment due to the landlord’s belief that the poet does not live there enough of the time. While acknowledging that they own a home in Marfa, Texas from which they also write, Myles described their formation as a writer in the East Village apartment and attachment to the place, where they have lived for more than four decades.
“It’s a small space with a thick feel,” Myles said of the 300-square-foot apartment. “It’s a hot space. I think you can have sex in it. It has a dirty public/private feeling to it all. It’s been used and used and used, by me and before me.”
They continued, jokingly, “How do they think they can get rid of me — the most famous poet in the East Village?” — before reading a passage about the apartment from “Chelsea Girls.”
Myles told of their personal debate over whether to fight eviction or just move to another place, concluding that for now, they will stay put. “I’ve been in hell lately about my apartment,” they said, adding that by the time the legal fight over eviction is over, they will have a book called “For Now.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about departures, separation, loss,” Myles said.
Myles concluded their keynote address by saying that they have been “relentless about talking about time” because they “hear it drumming.” The act of writing — of copying — Myles said, “lets me fall out and relax” in a way that they hoped, the poet quipped, is nothing like that of a writer they had once seen drunkenly “telling us her stuff” at a dinner party.
Myles was introduced at the event by Kathryn Lofton, professor of religious studies, American studies, history, and divinity, who commented that the writer is so iconic, especially among queer people, that they are sometimes followed into bathrooms by those who simply want to be near, for inspiration. Lofton added that by bravely bringing themselves forward “into a straight-walking world,” Myles inspired other queer people to do the same.
An expanded version Myles’ keynote address will be published next year by Yale University Press. The address will also be posted in coming days on the Windham Campbell Festival website.
Supporting the work of writers
President Peter Salovey presented the prizes to this year’s recipients, noting that they hail from places as diverse as Ireland, India, Jamaica, Australia, Canada, and the United States. A committee of 81 individuals anonymously selected this year’s prizewinners. The prizes were established by novelist Donald Windham and his lifelong partner Sandy M. Campbell to call attention to literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns. The prizes are administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which houses the Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell Papers.
This year’s winners, who receive $165,000 in cash, are Kwame Dawes and Ishion Hutchinson (poetry); Patricia Cornelius and Young Jean Lee (drama); Raghu Karnad and Rebecca Solnit (nonfiction); and David Chariandy and Danielle McLaughlin (fiction). The prizewinners spend several days on campus reading from their own works and participating in talks and other events.