Television brought me Eileen Myles. I first saw the poet deliver a reading from I Must Be Living Twice at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Institute during a public symposium on Jill Soloway’s Amazon series, “Transparent.” My daughter—silent until Myles took the podium—began babbling as babies do, clanging toys on the leg of a table we had nestled under. Heads turned. Eyes narrowed. Hot with shame, I collected our things, baby on my back, ready to duck out of the library and into the night.
Myles, who goes by the pronoun they, paused. “I don’t mind the baby,” they said. “We really need more babies at these things.” The reading resumed, Myles’s hand carving line breaks out of the air. Was it during “Along the Strand” or “I always put my pussy…” that my daughter stood up from my lap, taking her first steps across the floor and into the arms of a female rabbi sitting next to us? I’ll never know.
Lines are drawn to keep just about every non-cis-male out. Lines are drawn to keep children separate, too—because, after all, they are so much a part of women. Parents of the Western world, regardless of gender, feel that tension. But Myles shows us that the lines demarcating who we are aren’t as fixed as they seem.
Literary form is no exception. Myles’s latest, Afterglow (A Dog Memoir), warps the canon by embodying the mutability of memory and mind. At the crossroads of a book about the fading life of Myles’s beloved pit bull, Rosie, is a blueprint for dismantling conformity and exploring the sublime planes of our existence. With monologue, sci-fi reveries, cosmological lectures, and a chapter called “Dog House” that resonates like a Shepard tone, the book speaks to our shared animal vulnerability facing the fragile, uncertain essence of life in time. A dog lesson.
A recipient of countless accolades, including a Creative Capital nonfiction grant, Myles is the author of more than twenty books and has spent over forty years as a poet, novelist, performer, and art journalist. Having served as artistic director of the St. Marks Poetry Project and run for president as “openly female” in 1991-92, Myles’s life is a caravan of residencies, workshops, fellowships, and teaching opportunities at organizations from grassroots initiatives to institutions like NYU and Columbia. “Unknown to who?” Myles asks in response to mainstream media’s late-breaking awareness of their nearly half-century oeuvre.
At an Avenue A boulangerie near Mast Books, I met up with Myles to talk about Afterglow. They dismounted a white Linus bicycle, hair silver and spilling over smoke-and-cinder plaid, and locked the bike to a rack. They walked inside, reticent at first. A little brusque. At a window-side table in the sun, we sat down to coffee and orange juice, and the layers of anxious formality fell away with Myles’s reflections on life, death, New York, and the birth of a dog book.
—Carlie Fishgold for Guernica
Guernica: Etymology, the origin of words and their layers of meaning in time, comes up a lot throughout your work. Where did that fascination come from? Is it related to being exposed to Latin in your Catholic upbringing?
Eileen Myles: I think it’s part of having studied Latin in high school and—it’s so funny—I was such a bad student and I never did my homework. But Latin went into my head and parts of it have been massively useful. There’s Latin everywhere. My friend David Rattray, a writer and lexicographer who died in the ’90s, was one of a series of male, classics scholars in my life who gave me so much arcane information—the stuff I had an appetite for. [Charles] Olson liked words that had a little bit of dirt still on their roots. I think that all words—all words—do, perhaps. But certain words you can really feel with.
I think about vernacular and how vernaculars persist. There’s that Robert Burns poem, [To a Louse]: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us.” Gie is for give. In German, the line would read geben sie mir. Then it’s “give me” in English, and then we say “gimme.” “Gimme” seems like my territory in some way, in some accordion way. Even if it’s not necessarily apparent that I’m working [in that territory], those word relationships in general are its world.
Guernica: How do those relationships reproduce the world for you? When you’re looking at a word and you can recognize its history, how does its meaning amplify for you?
Eileen Myles: Well, the first time I was in Rome, I loved that it was so layered, that it was cats and coliseums and restaurants and little sports cars. It was all happening at the same time. India was like that, too. I think New York is utterly that, and every place is like that. There’s layers of physical reality, but then when you start to know the people, you start to hear stories about a dog that everybody knew from years ago, or just who used to be here. Or this person! If you want to know about this person, talk to that person.
Guernica: Like folklore?
Eileen Myles: Yeah. The physical world is folkloric, full of layers and remnants and stuff, too. Sometimes it feels flat and empty and lonely, and other times you’re just so aware of the depth and resonance and, of course, the people. We’re counting them, too.
Guernica: In the “FOAM” chapter of Afterglow, you seem to imply that foam—which you say is a code for excess, that it means I want—and time are connected. Do you think human desire comes from our inability to control the progression of time? How much of the book is about time?
Eileen Myles: I’m sure the whole book is a distinctly accumulative text. It’s not in the order that it was written. The letter from the lawyer in the first chapter—I must have written that in 1998 or ’99. Out of the blue I got this letter, as in I got this idea in writing. If I was another kind of writer, I would just have written the arch dog book about my crimes against Rosie. But I knew I wasn’t that kind of writer, so I published [the letter by itself] in a student magazine and time passed. Then when Rosie died, I started writing about her. Then the problem kept being where to go now in order to keep making there be a book.
There was this period of six months when Rosie was dying and I was reading a ton of science-fiction books, which was such a return to childhood for me, when I read so much of it. Then I just didn’t read it at all. Later on, when I was thinking, How can I get sci-fi into this book, I realized all I needed to do was lie. In “Everyday Barf,” I lift something from Bob Dylan’s Chronicles—wait, have you read this book? Did he actually write it? I don’t know! But somebody really wonderful wrote it, and they talk about Dylan explaining how he constructed Bob Dylan. It’s very postmodern. He talks about going to see Woody Guthrie when he was dying, later covering Woody Guthrie songs, and when he started to write his own songs he pretended they were still Woody songs. He did that for a while just as a way to stand up there and sing a Bob Dylan song. Here’s another old Woody song I found… At some point, he decided to let people know that the songs were his.
The whole idea of fake performance—it was exactly that. I thought, I’ll just tell people the stories of the books I was reading when Rosie was dying. Then I started making up my own shit.
Guernica: Is fantasy an escape of yourself to write about yourself?
Eileen Myles: I think it’s play rather than escape. You have a dog. You spend a lot of time walking the dog. You spend a lot of time with a non-verbal person. Who knows how they apprehend you, but you’re making shit up about them because we have this imagination—and a dog may have an imagination too. I held for a long time that Rosie was my dad. It made me embroider the closeness with her in a different way, so it was easy to write because I’d already had it as a space for a long time.
I got a Guggenheim and I went to Ireland in 2013 and wrote a lot of the book there, a lot of the later stuff like Rosie speaking. All the stuff that seems like it would be Ireland I wrote in Ireland. There was a point in which I needed about thirty-five more pages. I felt like I knew what I needed and I was staying in a monastery near Limerick that Fanny Howe had recommended. It was kind of like I was waiting for Rosie in a way.
I love tapestries, and there was a big show of them at the Met a few years ago. It was so important. For me it said something about narrative as a visual event and how beautiful storytelling for the illiterate is. I thought, How can we translate this experience to the page? Then when I was at the monastery, [Rosie] began speaking [through] the tapestries. If I allowed the dog to animate the tapestries, this gorgeous illiterate platform… Well, it was through this funny leap that Rosie performed. She began to talk through writing, and it was really exciting to see what she had to say. She told me about the family I already knew, and then she told me about the family I was meeting in Ireland. She kind of scrolled and unscrolled who and what I was meeting. She exploded everything.
I feel like the hardest thing about writing is creating movement. You have to use pots of information and always what I’m waiting for is a flow. Once there’s a flow I can pour a little of this in and keep going, pour a little of that. It’s a process.
Guernica: We travel in the book between New York, California, Ireland, Turkey, into dream states and even the cosmos. What were your approaches to space and time in creating movement throughout the story?
Eileen Myles: In the last years of Rosie, I would take Rosie on walks and videotape them. I had the recordings put on a disc, and the idea was to transcribe it as a movement. Actually, it is the same as tapestry is to narrative. The footage was like a tapestry. That was my homework in Istanbul: to get up every morning in my hotel room and transcribe for a few hours, and then just go out into the city.
I also met an old friend who was living in Istanbul. He suggested we take a trip together, so we went to this town called Iznik, formerly known as Nicea—like the Nicean Creed. The town is known for creating this great Turkish tile. It’s tile town. This guy and I would just walk around together, but the thing that was so funny is that I had been spending days narrating the movements of the dying dog, and now I was with this man whom I wasn’t getting along so well with and we were kind of irritated and silent and we were walking each other, and it felt like the same action. I went to my hotel room, and I wrote our walks too from daily life, just a continuation of the movement of the book. I felt like the experience had been rendered into a machine through my own writing process. I couldn’t stop transcribing where I was, except now it was this parallel experience in reverse.
Guernica: You mention crossroads in the Ireland chapters. Do the transcription chapters act like crossroads? The word “transcription” is rooted etymologically in the action of crossing—that trans element—and you mark those chapters with x’s.
Eileen Myles: I like that. They’re interludes. I wanted them to have a sameness, which accounts for the x-x-x. I like the idea that the real Rosie, on some level, is walking through the book. The real, dying Rosie. Because her death was really the real moment of the book, too. It’s not so much about having a dog, loving it, and living with a dog as much as it’s about a dying dog. It’s waiting. And of course, the book is dedicated to my mother, who just died. She died on April 3. I was like, “Mom, my next book is dedicated to you,” and she said, “I’m not gonna be there,” and I said, “You will, you will.” It’s bittersweet.
Guernica: Are you okay talking about that a little bit?
Eileen Myles: Little bit. Yeah.
Guernica: I’ve heard you talk about preparing for her death so many times, thinking, This is it—that moment on the cliff’s edge—and then she’d live. What is it like on the other side of that kind of thinking?
Eileen Myles: I don’t know. It’s a mystery. I’ve never not had a mother. I’m sixty-eight. To have lived so long with a mother—she was ninety-six—is very eerie. Luckily, I was with her for five days when she was dying and then I was in the room when she died, which was incredible. During that week, I was in Massachusetts and then I was at the funeral, and then I came back. A million things happened in there. The first week I was back in New York I had a pile of gigs. I do too many gigs. I think something I hope I’ll come out of my mother’s dying with is to really do less. The week after she died, I did all of my gigs and it was weird. Of course, they were all radically different events. I had radically different experiences of what it was like to be there when my mother had just died. Sometimes I would say it. Sometimes I wouldn’t say it. And then, this past week, I had a couple of things to do, but this was the week I realized I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, no matter how much I loved the person or how close I was. I think I won’t be there. That’s been interesting. I don’t know what I feel. I feel like, wow. Mom. Where are you?
My brother wrote me today, an email, and he was talking about gardening. My mother didn’t ever have a garden. She never lived anyplace where she had that land. She was flowers in the window, flowers in the house. She could make anything grow. She was amazing that way. I’m the opposite. Any plant, if it can die around me, it will die. I just don’t have that maintenance sensibility. If it doesn’t walk, I won’t remember it. But my brother Terry was talking about gardening and remembering my mother, and then he realized that to garden was to have the thought go through his head: I have to call Mom. That was so weird. She’s just in all these weird places and I had never noticed she was there because she [herself] was the reminder to call her. I wasn’t the best—I hesitate to say daughter—whatever I am, you know? But we had a relationship and I feel we were at peace with whatever that was when she died.
Guernica: Would you consider Afterglow a masterpiece? Is that a gross cliché of a question?
Eileen Myles: [Laughs] I’ll give you an even grosser answer. All my books are masterpieces. I don’t think I’ve written a bad book yet.
Guernica: Fair. So how are your style and process evolving?
Eileen Myles: Well, I pulled all the stops out. I am very excited to see how people are going to react to this book. It was hard to find the right publisher. In a way, people don’t even look at the book. They look at you. It seemed like lots of publishers wanted me to follow up on what I had been doing. They were like, This will not build on their success. They felt it had to be alcoholic, lesbian, and wild, or however it is that they perceive me—it’s got to be more of that.
Guernica: Afterglow gives the reader subconscious tools to dissolve enmity. Regarding that desire to categorize or simplify the world outside of the mind, to check a box like “male” or “female”—do you think the book was too much for some editors to personally reckon with?
Eileen Myles: Yeah, I do. The thing with checking a box is, no matter what you check, everything gets erased. Everything will get erased. With Rosie’s death, I started to have a real encounter with that fact. My dad died when I was eleven, and I couldn’t comprehend what I had seen and what had happened. I couldn’t understand it. Rosie’s death was palpable. I could be present and begin to understand what happened. Everybody on some level encounters death, but I feel like because my dad’s death was very intense and I was very young when I saw it, I didn’t know where to go with it. The rest of my life is what happened. I had a craft, finally, with which I could make a nice reception for my dog’s death.
Guernica: Rosie became a marker for the before and the after for you in processing the trauma of death.
Eileen Myles: I think so, yeah. I remember when I got her, I was like: I’m forty. I’m eight years sober. I can handle a dog. ‘Cause you know, I had one in my twenties, and it was a disaster. I lost the dog, it was terrible. At forty, I had arrived. I almost want to say, I became a man! But I became whatever it is that can own a dog and take care of it. I was still a bad dog owner, though.
Guernica: You tell the story of Taffy, the puppy your father brought home to you, in other books. In Afterglow, it seems your father probably knew a dog like Taffy could be a placeholder for him in your life.
Eileen Myles: That’s interesting, I never thought of that. Yeah. He was a pathetic man, my father. In the best, strongest sense. A little, kind dog is pathetic, and my mother had no room in the house for anything more pathetic.
Guernica: Could your mom have seen the dog as a placeholder for your father and taken it back to the ASPCA as a way to keep your father closer, maybe alive longer?
Eileen Myles: No. I think my mother absolutely didn’t want to deal with another ounce of caretaking and didn’t understand—well, I don’t know, would I have taken care of a dog at age eight or nine? I think I would have. My mother was a very controlling woman. When she died, I was adverse to announcing her death on social media and to the creepy narcissism of showing a photo of her as a beautiful young person when that’s not who died. My mother was a private woman. I love when I encounter my own privacy and the other ways in which I am like her. But because of that reserve in her, there was no room for something like a dog.
Weirdly, I have a stepsister whom I barely know. My mother remarried in 1971 right when I was leaving the house and graduating from college. I never knew the guy, but he had a grown son and a daughter. The daughter, when I told her my mother died, she wrote me back and I think, unbidden, she reminded me how much my mother loved Rosie and that my mother had said Rosie had pretty feet. Isn’t that hysterical? And she never mentioned it to me, which is very much my mother.
Guernica: Death brings that awareness to us. It brings all of these puzzle pieces back to the box, maybe just for a day.
Eileen Myles: Yes! It’s like the Buddhist thing where you ask the teacher a question and they hit the ground with a stick, or they say boo, or something. Death is that.
Guernica: Is there desire for any of your books to become a film?
Eileen Myles: I’ve already written the first draft of a screenplay for Chelsea Girls. We’ll see how that goes. I’m watching The Leftovers right now, and it’s so weird because I think I’m watching this show that has the most to do with what I’m going through emotionally. It’s a show in which on October 14 of a year sometime around now, 2 percent of the world’s population has vanished. But, with these shows, it already feels like time to be questioning the form. If you watch enough of them, you feel their pattern codifying, like they’re starting to squeeze the life out. At the same time, the things they’re considering for subject matter are really fantastic, and that’s great. The nineteenth century had novels and serialized novels in newspapers that were flourishing, and we have the TV show. I feel like it is the epic of our moment. But we’re also watching TV on the computer, all alone.
Guernica: Where do you think television is going, considering how we use social media? It’s as though we have co-opted our own means of transmitting sound and image that reminds me of broadcasting. Is social media television?
Eileen Myles: Yeah, I do think we’re all producers. But is [social media] your profession, and do you get rewarded for it? ‘Cause there really is such a thing as TV.
Right now, poetry and TV are the big art forms, and I think because of social media, poetry is fragmentary. It’s derelict. It’s triumphant. All of these things. It’s perfect for now, and it’s probably better TV than TV.
Have you seen my Mother Dance on Twitter?
— lazy eye haver (@arianareines) April 21, 2017
Guernica: No, I haven’t.
Eileen Myles: I had refused to acknowledge my mother’s death on social media. [One day] I was in a gallery with Ariana Reines—this show by a British artist. It was music and clogs, costumes. We like this [artist]—he makes us laugh—and I felt moved to do a little dance. I did, and Ariana filmed it. She put it on Twitter and I re-tweeted it and said, “This is a dance for my mother.” Which is absolutely what it was. You should see it.