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ANNOUNCER: You are listening to a podcast of a program produced in 2016 as part of ALOUD, a series of dynamic conversations, readings and performances that take place in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the historic Downtown Central Library in the heart of Los Angeles. These programs are presented by The Library Foundation of Los Angeles which supports the Los Angeles Public Library.
To support ALOUD or learn about the entire podcast collection, please visit www.lfla.org/ALOUD.
MODERATOR: I’m very honored to introduce tonight’s guests, two distinguished guests, Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, who are long time friends, mutual influences, confidantes. And tonight, through their words we will wander through a space of possibility where landscape and dreamscape collide, where a hole in a sweater becomes a hole in memory, where gender, as Eileen describes a friend describing it to her is “not what you’re doing, it’s who you think you are when you’re doing what you’re doing.” [LAUGHTER]
Eileen Myles has long gone her own way. Author Ben Lerner noted in his wonderful interview with Eileen in the Paris Review, “that Myles is often referred to as an institution; the way one speaks of a terrific restaurant that’s endured the waves of gentrification as a New York institution.” But the word bounces off of her. There is nothing official about her, nothing staid or still she is exemplifier for more and more young writers precisely because she has gone her own way.
Eileen Myles grew up in Massachusetts and moved to New York City in 1974, in her mid-20s, to be a poet giving her first reading at CBGB and living the downtown life when, as she writes, “Days spent sharing an egg with a cat were good days.”
Since that first reading she’s published 19 volumes of poetry, prose and fiction, including the iconic Chelsea Girls, originally published in 1994 and recently republished by Echo Press. I think we have it here tonight. The Importance of Being Iceland, Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, and most recently, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems of which one literary admirer noted, “5,000 years from now, people will still be reading Eileen Myles, which I take as a supremely hopeful statement about the state of our planet.” Please.
Maggie Nelson is the author of five books of non-fiction; among them The Art of Cruelty, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, and The Argonauts, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. If there are genres to be busted, Maggie’s out there busting them; autobiography, art criticism, poetry and theory. Eileen Myles has described Maggie Nelson as “one of the wanderers, working the line between worlds while enjoying the road and packing light.”
Maggie teaches at The School of Critical Studies at Cal Arts, and we treasure her
Tonight we’ll have two readings by our guests, and then they will be in conversation, and then they will invite you to join them. We ask that you ask a question, which is a question, if you can. We probably won’t get to all of you, but we’ll try, and then afterwards, there is a book signing and a reception out in the lobby. Please enjoy and, please join me in welcoming two great writers, Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson.
MAGGIE NELSON: Hi, everybody, how are ya?
Eileen and I have brought this show to Seattle and New York and then where? Brooklyn. Now we are bringing it to L.A. Anyway, good to see you all, and I’m thrilled to be here with Eileen and – at the library and everything. So thanks for coming out.
And, um, yeah, so we’re both gonna read a little bit, and then we’ll talk and then we can talk with you all. And I have been reading a lot from my most recent book, the Argonauts, and was kind of flipping through it and I’d read out everything there was to read in there. So I thought I’d read something different tonight, and I – so when Prince died, I read so many things about – so many remembrances, and just thought I don’t have anything to add, but this evening is called “Why We Write,” and I was thinking about the way that like one thing about – I don’t have any – there is no answer to the question why you write because I just feel like – I feel like you do it when you can’t push things down. So I was on a plane recently, and I just started writing this thing about Prince, ‘cause I couldn’t not write it, right? So I thought I would read it to you, and then Eileen will read. So –
In 1984, when I was 10, my father died. He was a small man, 5’5” tops, and jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect, electric, then liquid, then popping then burning. Above all it felt unobtainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it for the most part. Was I sexual at 10? I don’t know. I know my father died and then suddenly there was Prince.
1984 was also the year that Purple Rain came out. We saw it in the theaters, and my sister and I watched it immemorable [sic] times the TV downstairs, our lair. I had already watched him, would watch a lot of rock musicals; Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Song Remains the Same, Tommy, The Wall.
I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were all white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever the hell that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because of the girls in the movies were sticks. Who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, all chained up while Arrowsmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? It’s like the three people who know that movie.
Anyway – and while God knows I wanted to be the hippie chick in Led Zeppelin’s Going to California, I knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie fascist boyfriends in the haze of suppressed agency, or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto” as they say.
Anyway, that girl was pretty and she probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blonde ringlets on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she was not seething with electric energy, and she didn’t talk and she did not grind.
Then there was Purple Rain. Did I want to be Prince or did I want to be with Prince? I think the beauty is neither. He made it okay to feel what he was feeling, what I was already feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace.
I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front, and I wore it with skin-tight crushed-velvet hot pants. I laid a full-length mirror down on the floor and I slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he really doesn’t give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force on stage. Half-naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince was telling us a story. It’s an important story. The story is of a woman whom he meets while she’s masturbating. I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. Not a slut, mind you, she was a sex fiend. Yes, that’s it. There is no word in high school for that, because to be a fiend is to be beyond shame. You can make fun of someone whom you think has been humiliated by sucking dick on the playground, but what can you do with a sex fiend?
A sex fiend knows how to pleasure herself. A sex fiend knows how to and wants to grind. I didn’t – I’m sorry. I wanted to grind. I didn’t want to be dominated or to dominate. Maybe that would come later. In 1984, 1985, 1986, all I wanted was to grind. And so I slithered on my mirror and I told my sister to call me “Princess.” She understood. She was into Wendy and Lisa, the first dykes either of us had ever seen. And the brilliant part was no one had to tell you they were dykes; you just knew because they were always together, because they played their instruments without self-consciousness, and because Lisa says “Wendy,” and Wendy answers, “Yes, Lisa.” And so my sister became a dyke and I became a sex fiend, or I became a dyke and she became a sex fiend, and we both became neither or both or as Purple Rain had it, we became something you’ll never comprehend and that you may be, you yourself.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of Wendy and Lisa. That they were just there, the first women I had ever seen as fundamental parts of a band, a band that shredded. They were the stoica guys keeping it together to Prince’s histrionic grace. But that’s not really right. I never thought Prince as womanly or manly or even as androgynous. He was just beauty, grace, energy, sex and light. He came undone. He left it all on the floor. And he also moved in tight formation, choreographed chic. The opening chords of “Purple Rain,” they’re just the opening of a conversation, a plaintive, questing conversation. And I might add that they’re played, at least in the movie, by Lisa.
He was a hot little guy, the kind of guy whose profound sex appeal, none of the other guys, certainly not Morris Day, can understand. Morris Day and his macho buddies, rolled their eyes and shake their heads as Prince starts in on “Darling Nikki” in the movie. Prince is doing that weird thing with one of his hands that we all imitated, where you make one hand look like it’s the hand of another, creeping down the side of your face.
I know you guys know how to do it
It’s – this is Nikki’s hand. It’s one’s own self-pleasuring hand. It’s creepy. It’s one’s own body made another. It’s a self-seduction, a magic trick. It’s the masturbatory dream that one’s hand could feel on one’s body the way the hand of another might feel on you. I think this was another of Prince’s gifts; to keep self-seduction and alloseduction on a rollicking continuum, like those rectangular boxes that hold a wave. Why decide between oneness and an obsession when you can celebrate your root energy of both.
No accident then, that by 1986, when I wanted to be touched and to touch someone beside myself, I picked out an incredibly small guy who wore eyeliner and lipstick, and most definitively was an unrepentant sex fiend, not in the way that many teenage boys are with their gross language about “boning,” you know, the Brock Turners or medium-grade wannabe Brock Turners of the world. A sex fiend is someone who actually likes sex, not the getting off part, but the dirty part, the salty mess of it. So my androgynous boyfriend liked the mess and so did I. Grinding that is good enough, you don’t need to tell anyone else about it.
He certainly didn’t tell anyone about it, because the other eighth grade boys scorned him for being small and thin and freakish, if he was the only one at that school “getting it.” I’m telling you this now because I hate the way this possibility of experience for boys and girls and everyone in between gets drowned out in moralistic crap about power and consent, all of which is necessary, but it eclipses the real divine electric dirtiness that’s possible between excited young bodies who have accepted their desire and somehow found each other. And I want people, especially girls, to know that that is possible and that it’s possible even when you’re 13, 15, and it can be great.
I recited “Darling Nikki” like a prayer for two years, and then there was high school. Purple Rain’s moment had passed, but I’m here going to credit any good that happened on these accounts over the next several years to Prince. He was so many other things besides a sex symbol for suburban white girls like me. So forgive me my momentary narrowness, I’m just struggling to give my thanks. I’ve wanted to give it for some time. His feminism and clearness and blackness all blazed together, implicit, a streak of insistence of what’s possible; a rejection of the paltry ways of being that pretend to be that’s all that’s on offer.
Tipper Gore had it so wrong. All the music, all the forms of sexuality that might have been on offer to the youth in 1984, “Darling Nikki” was rate; female autonomy, mind-blowing consensual victimless perversions and a dirty little Prince who wants to grind, grind, grind, grind, grind, grind, grind. If Tipper ever listened to that strange hymn at the end of “Darling Nikki,” you’d have to play it backwards, the hallmark in other realms of the satanic. My sister and I played it. We knew what it said. Do you know? It says, “The Lord is coming.” It says, “Prince is coming,” and somehow, with his help, she and I learned how to come too.
EILEEN MYLES: This is not the thing to talk into. This is so weird.
That was so great. I love that. That’s amazing.
I also – um, my Prince story is that I got sober to “When the Dove Fly” [sic]. That was like – that was totally the theme for me not being fucked up [LAUGHTER]. Like this is suddenly like my apartment [LAUGHTER]. Me and Maggie are roommates, living in front of you guys [LAUGHTER].
So I’m gonna read poems, and my next book which probably won’t come out for probably a million years, ‘cause my next book is about my late pit bull Rosie who died in 2006. But the year after that – I’ll have a book of poetry. It’ll be called Evolution, so – actually the first poem I’m reading is not from that. But anyhow, that’s the story I’m telling.
This is called “Effigy”
At home when a small brown head appeared on the handle
of a whacker that I lean on the bookcase
I simply leaned closer
It’s just some kind of old metal clamp
not a face
yet the space I’m leaning in
is floundering around
tugging closer to that skull
that lolling stuck-out tongue.
This is called “You,” and I’m actually talking to my computer.
After all these years you should know my font
You should know the numbers go in the middle of what I say
There are so many of you why don’t you talk each time
I have to click and press.
What’s the use of being famous
This one’s called “Jiggly.” There are lots of these little guys. It was a very spiritual period of time, period of evolution.
I keep trying to get it right all night
If you’re going the wrong way
You’re responsible for everybody
Every living thing
This is called “Failed Appointment,” and my mother is 95, and she’s been dying for the past three years. And we keep – I mean, I almost say it like a joke, and almost is a joke in the way that death is kind of a joke. And she’s dying to die, and she can’t die, so we keep having those like crises where we all come together because this is it. And then she gets better. And then we’re all like, okay, you know. And we have all those kind of family fights and tense moments. And so one time my mother was sick in her hospital and I had a new notebook, and I thought I’ll just sit with her. And she’s in this little state, and I thought I’ll sit with my dying mother, and I’ll write. Ridiculous.
So this is called “Failed Appointment.”
If I thought I couldn’t write in you ever
Throw her out I did
Time for something new
Your short broken self requires a brand-new weapon
Skinny old lady ankles
Nobody sees them
You are my private furniture
We’re shocked at her ass
And a bill is stuck to the wall with a knife
At least once we joked about piggies
We were kids
And pretended to care about
Other people’s hearts.
This is sort of an upswing. The whole thing like of poetry is is you just go like this for about three or four years. And then you just pick the peaks and – what do you call the low points? It’s like the pits.
This is “May 26th.”
I keep to tiny gestures
Sweet William dazzling orange sky.
My, my, my, my dying New York.
I’m bravely eating my croissant at everyone.
I’m living on my wet board. I’m living on my money
Limits set and the lights lower.
I worship the blue Marcos the hydrant
How like the name of a flower.
And I was touring for the past year – past two years. Seven years I’ve been touring. And so the thing, I – I was touring my selected poems which is reading poems from all these different times in your life and career and stuff. So it was kind of a lot of being with the past. And then at a certain point I thought, “why don’t I just write some new old poems.
So this is called “Notebook 1981”
I was so willing to pull a page out of my notebook a day
Several bright days
and live them as if I was only alive
thirsty, timeless, young enough to do this one more time – to did –
to have nothing so much to lose
and to feel that potential dying of the self and the light
as the only thing I thought that was spiritual, possible,
and because I had no other way to call that mine,
to call that poetry,
but it was flesh and time and bread and friends,
frightened and free enough to want
to have another day that way,
tear another page.
And this one’s called “Television”
I guess I’m very attached to the small boats
moving across the deep blue sea
in a world much older than ours
but may be the same
It speaks to me
the smallness of the boat
the bigness of the night
the shot is wide
and I somehow feel close
I want to speak this enormity to you
I feel like that or I sing like that
not modern or loose at all
I’m loose like a tiny boat
in a wide cove
opening out into a bigger body of water
I relish the small ripples
like lines that hold my boat
It’s so quiet in the morning
I imagine myself seeing
and what seeing is a forlorn love
Can you understand this at all
It’s kind of lost in a color earth tone
something really old
and bound up with everything
in a moving picture
and I’m gone
It changes at the day or cartoon
but for the stretch of that voyage I am known.
Watching Game of Thrones [LAUGHTER] a few shots, oh, my
The kettle whistling
and I’m peeling an orange I’m gonna finish
in the air of this wild wild hor
And I splash the boiling water into the French press
splattering water splashing grains
I’m such an oaf
I wanted to be here with you.
That was a mega oof. I couldn’t (trailing off…laughing)
So this – you need to know one thing about this poem I’m gonna read, and what it is, is that a person has bought a window for their house, right? And they bought the window in a town that’s like a half-hour drive from where they live. So they put the window in the back of their truck and they realize it’ll probably bounce out and break on the way to the next town. So they go into the store and they ask the woman that sold the window to them, “Can you help me with this? And I have some straps but I don’t have enough.” And the woman said, “You could borrow my strap.”
So they strap the window. And then the person drives home to their house. And then they get a phone call from the woman. And somehow – I can’t – I don’t know how it worked, but the woman was like, “You – I forgot to get my strap back from you.” Somehow they need to make a plan. So the first person who, I guess by now is me [LAUGHTER], says to the woman, “You can just come and pick it up.” And the woman says, “Really? I’ll come after work with my husband.” I said, “Great.” And so the person falls asleep and then they write this poem. So you will know why I told you, when we get there.
It’s called “Lark.”
Anything could possibly – it’s so weird. I’m so trained to be talking into this thing. So I’m kind of like softly blowing something.
Anything could possibly become anything else
It was a condition of this dream
Things could blow themselves right into other things
Not like a collision, but a blend
It was like that with the wind in this universe
In conversion with the rule
I was telling her about the thing ending
And I did notice who I was talking to was
Not the 2015 one but the 2013 one
She didn’t seem to know who she was
Or be particularly perturbed not to be herself anymore
She was simply her
Even a little concerned
I guess it got weird when I tried to talk about my feelings
“Feelings?” she shrieked
She became the most magnificent storm
Not even a being anymore but a spell
A giant boat rocking roar
I guess it was pretty absurd of me when you put it like that
Eileen called the voice out the window
She had come with her husband to pick up the strap
Who would want to spend the rest of their life with a fat bearded man
But of course that could be Brenda herself
I could be this house or that silvery ceiling lamp
Looking down my love that distant car
Tiny limbs in president blue sky
My fingers on this pen
This feels like it went really fast.
I have one last poem. Yeah, I might jam in one little…
This feels right, don’t you think?
You never have anybody up this close that’s like such a good friend as Maggie is.
Should I read one more poem, Maggie?
You know what? No. I don’t think so.
But thank you for that vote of support.
I’m just gonna read this last poem, and it’s called – it’s called “Sweet Heart.” But it’s two words.
It’s “Sweet Heart.” I want you to hear me.
Fresca’s got a new look
But I’m not drinking that
My Coke struck the ice
And the ice cube cracked
I’m sitting bite little Buddha
Who is sitting in my yard
I imagine you walking in
Gasping at the same couch
The same bed
It’s almost the same town
But this is what I meant
And there’s so much pleasure
Difference in this
I meant to be here
One sleeps on what they need
And arises on the decided side
And that’s the hope
An entire room is open by particular feelings
That say you’re on the edge of the space
And then you wait to watch it grow
Grow like a love
Or a feeling of distrust
Or a body grateful
For sun and breeze
And a rising and falling of my dog’s chest
A little Buddha smiling southeast
I figured that out
Their genitals are unknown
In fact they’re everything smiling
Walked on by ants
Planted in the dirt but not dead
Activated by my gaze
Their smiling makes me glad
Dog turned Buddha’s way
I go forward with confidence
I may turn nothing up
With this gentling scratching in my yard
Before making the call
Opening the self somehow
So it’s possible to have a friend to call
Not only for me
But interest in their life
The body I’m pouring into
Joy is to be connected to someone
While covered by ants
Surrounded by breeze
Actually touched by birds
There is nothing romantic in their absence
The bird is all touched
No matter how distant their flight
The sky is open
My gaze is wide
It matters how they dive and hover
The silly cluck
The ninny constant
The hoot makes the gray sky blue
Free and slanting trees
The woman dying
And her face thought am I recording
But it was the young man counting everything
Cora Creet whose art I like so much
Perform bird in a dying woman sky
So his quote was reverential
That she could be copying anything by dying
Was more about him
A mustache on a sound that life’s made of
I think you don’t miss me enough
Or you regard me as seasons that simply come
And it’s true I’m everything
I used to love so much to show you my poems
But everything’s not enough
You have to go out and shake everything’s hand
And the tremendous feeling of everything is not shook enough
I’m sick of being God for you
I’m not the Fresca or the Buddha or the bird
I’m the ice that cracks
I’m really feeling it now
The amazing difference of contact
It begins so slow
Hours of freezing
A life and the draining of it by waiting too long
Riding around in my car
I’m not any Coke
I’m every Coke
And a bird likes the sound of that
To be so close
The earth parts for its own arrival
The time of day is enchanted by my jeans on the line
I’m enchanted by everything too
How could I beat it and feel it
Drawing sun lines
If I say too again and I’m creating a pattern
Someone who doesn’t love me will say
You say too too much
I suppose going blind
Is momentarily seeing colors in everything
And remembering them for the rest of your life
I’m afraid to tell you
I’m going blind
What I’m saying is I’m retiring from God
I will feel my genius quietly
The furrows of a dead tree accepting pie love
You start like a car and pepper in a number of growls
You roll in your bird
And Buddha’s difficult now
More of an aside
It’s something so different as the sun could turn
And we’re turning on our dirty little urn
There is a movie about everything
My getting this part of that
Endlessly obliged to be wise
Upstairs 16 little eggs turn
In another galaxy
Someone else’s sandwich
Today I was so busy I didn’t even see lunch
I had it but I didn’t see it
The distant eggs are turning for someone else
I poured a Fresca into my glass
And then I poured my vodka
And then I got drunk
Darker day now when my throat fills and Buddha’s awake
A bee wants to sting me
And in that moment
I would notice everything
Why do you think I’m sweet
Why must I die
EILEEN MYLES: This is the unchaperoned part of our – of our -- unchaperoned.
MAGGIE NELSON: Exactly.
EILEEN MYLES: The teenagers are out yakking.
MAGGIE NELSON: I know. Well, Eileen –
EILEEN MYLES: Maggie –
MAGGIE NELSON: We have a lot to catch up on.
EILEEN MYLES: I know. We haven’t talked for, like, months. We’ve been meaning to. We’ve been texting. And we –
MAGGIE NELSON: Now we’re gonna do the non-texting part of our conversation
But see, I’ve been following a lot of things that have been happening with you from afar.
EILEEN MYLES: Like what?
MAGGIE NELSON: Well, just things. But I –
EILEEN MYLES: That wasn’t a question, but I was likewise.
MAGGIE NELSON: No – but – I mean we were talking before this about things that are cul-de-sacs you don’t want to get into, but I think that one of the things that – maybe one of those cul-de-sacs is – um, everyone keeps saying like how’s is [INAUDIBLE] like you’ve had a big year, Eileen. You know, and it’s just like a lame cul-de-sac.
But there is something I did have –
EILEEN MYLES: I know I was really scared of that one –
MAGGIE NELSON: I know. But I think I’m just – I’m interested in like, for all, you know, for so long you have – like I think about – I don’t think about fame as a very interesting topic generally, but for so long in your work you have actually like kind of theorized anonymity, knownness, like the process of people getting to know something that – that isn’t you, like there would be like a comic book figure of Eileen or all these different figures or even like, say, I’m not God anymore. But all these kind of like metonyms, you know, as they move through the world.
I just wonder if there is anything in the past, you know, while, that’s happened with – just in the past year or so that’s made you – that’s – that’s changed or altered for us or – or deepened any thoughts that you had about anonymity and knownness and –
EILEEN MYLES: Oh, God. That’s the hardest question in the world.
MAGGIE NELSON: Great. Okay.
EILEEN MYLES: Because the only thing I think of is the more you seem known, the more whatever anonymity is, it’s something that you want, right? Or not even anonymity. What is it when you’re alone? What is it when you’re just sort of with yourself and you kind of, like you have that amazing breakthrough experience where you’re not even watching yourself, you know, because sometimes I think writers – and even the right kind of – there’s ways – I mean, our writing is vastly different if certain ways, but vastly similar in other ways. And one of the ways it’s similar is self-consciousness, you know, and negotiating that and unloading it in various ways, you know, by various kinds of excess and holding back and all that.
But someplace in there is this desire to sort of vanish into your own existence and just sort of be there and be present, you know, that sweetness which – um, I have to segue into one of my topics, so now we’re gonna –
MAGGIE NELSON: Okay. Great.
EILEEN MYLES: -- which is, I mean, I just – I happen to start reading – so we’ve been trying to get in touch for months, and so when I looked up Maggie today, I suddenly see this amazing – this Carolee Schneemann essay that you wrote. And then I thought, “oh, my God. I got this like months ago, and I haven’t read it,” you know, and I started to read it and it was so interesting. But there was something in there that made me – I think you were talking about Carolee Schneemann doing this work with photographing dead cats, you know, and it was really kind of bizarre and Baroque and stuff. And then I started to think about us in terms of death and dying and excessive topics and subject matter and stuff
And then, you know, my next book is about a dead dog and started with the dog dying and then it went on. And then just – I thought about both of these have us these lost fathers and sort of weird ways young. You know, like suddenly you’re in this strange space. You’re tossed into this space by yourself which, you know, life does all the time, right? But it’s very particular, I think – what age were you when your dad died?
MAGGIE NELSON: 10.
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah, and 11.
MAGGIE NELSON: You were 11, right, yeah. Your dad died when he was 44. Mine was 40.
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah. It’s so weird and, it gives you a different feeling about whatever this journey is that we’re all on. Right? Like, how do I – when I – every now and then I’ll meet somebody. I mean, there are lots of people in the world who are like this and they’ll say – they’ll be 30. They’ll be 40. They’ll be 50. And they’ll say “I’ve never really been touched by death,” you know, and like I I’m a little weird. No, you’re not a little weird. A lot of people – I mean, a lot of people in the world have – right now we’re in a world of such refugee crisis and so much loss and so much war. And there’s so much pain and suffering. But still there’s still a shitload of people who have not seen that much at all.
So – so I think that the experience of – experience of having this one thing sort of early on kind of makes you want a certain journey that – that you could do many things with. You could just shut down and become extremely a neurotic person, which I’m not sure I haven’t done too, but – and – and found writing, but it still – I feel like it’s just – it’s just – I think of it as the Buddhist thing; when something happens, it’s completely unexpected. You get this [INDICATING] and they always use that as a teaching tool. You know, like boom, you know, and it’s like, oh, my God, all times come together. You know, what do you do with that? And it’s sort of a – it’s sort of a question in itself.
MAGGIE NELSON: Well, you were the person – the only person, actually that now I know better because you were 11 when your dad died, but when I told you that I had been 10, you said something like “Really hard age to lose your father.” And I was like, “It really was.” You know, like, as if nobody had ever said that before, but I think – that it’s really ironic that the piece Eileen sent me this text earlier today so that we could talk about our dead dads and then I realized that the piece about Prince weirdly, that I wanted to read, that starts with “My father died when I was 10 in 1984” and I think that – that when I read the scene, I mean, you – I also was reading in an interview with you talking about the way that – I mean, this is no surprise about so-called primal scenes, but you know, we tend to return to them over and over again in our work.
So I’ve revisited your father’s death scene with you, via you, in different places or different guises, and I feel like I’ve also revisited the scene of – I mean, your dad died when you were in the house, and we found my dad dead, but like, you know, these kind of, um, you know, wormholes that you keep going back and revisiting.
But interestingly, when you were talking is that you were I think connecting that sense of early death with a kind of privacy. And I think what was weird about the age of being 10 when I was kind of trying to touch base with, again, with the whole like imitating Prince thing, when I was writing that was – it’s also an age when you’re sort of berthed into self-consciousness. And I remember very clearly writing one of my first written pieces was I wanted to write, you know, something to read at my father’s funeral. And I gave it to my mother, and she was like, “It’s not specific enough. You’ve got to go back –“
EILEEN MYLES: Oh, really?
MAGGIE NELSON: My mom’s an editor. This is more personal than I’ve ever gotten in my writing. This is –
EILEEN MYLES: Great.
MAGGIE NELSON: I know, so she was like, you know, “Go back and put some more specific memories in” or something. You know, like –
EILEEN MYLES: Oh, my God.
MAGGIE NELSON: You know, like platitudes that –
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah.
MAGGIE NELSON: So, Mom, if you watch the live stream – but anyway – I was like – so I was thinking it was really this awesome moment of self-consciousness about like presenting, like wanting to present and just show and expose and feel grief or be a part of the ceremony, but also be like oh, I’m presenting here and it has to be good enough and it has to be specific, apparently.
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah.
MAGGIE NELSON: But, you know, the really weird – and then the way that grief is kind of a performance and not a performance, but – you know and, writing touches that, you know. Um – yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: I’m reading – I just – I’m reading, I – you know, in my travels. I’ve also thought about what’s your day like? What’s my day like? It’s – I mean, like traveling a lot. The nice thing about having one of those years is that you’re traveling all the time, and you start to think about how it is you really want to live –
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: I feel like right now my favorite – favorite part of traveling is waking up, like being on a plane and being asleep and then waking up in an airport, and I’m going out and getting a really strong cup of coffee and then getting like sushi. Having these two worlds hit, like protein and coffee. And suddenly it’s like you’re just clapped awake in this crazy airport. And for some reason it’s the greatest high. [LAUGHTER] I just feel like it’s all gonna be okay, because this caffeine, because this raw fish, because I can buy it, because there’s this, all these people are walking by going places, and it’s so amazing.
MAGGIE NELSON: But you also seem – I mean, since Eileen and I haven’t talked for a while, I’m going on all the things I’ve – like I’ve garnered from afar, so you can tell me if they’re not true. But it seems like, you know, it seems like you – just like you’re describing – like I’ve often – like are able to – that you are able, like maybe in that traveling and you say you’re think being how you want to live, like I feel like you’re able to find how you want to live in every moment, with the coffee and the sushi or on the road or there’s different things. I also think of that as relationship to poetry where like I’m – I don’t do like a – I’m not doing like a mea culpa thing anymore like about people say, “Are you ever going to write poems again?” And I go, “I don’t know. Yes, I hope I do someday,” but like I’ve kind of let that all go and be like maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. But I also feel like there’s something about the belief in the poem is a belief that the moment is good enough to describe it, you know, and that you never have lost that. And I think I’ve lost it a little bit.
EILEEN MYLES: See, I think you’ve lost it into prose.
MAGGIE NELSON: Well, it’s true.
EILEEN MYLES: I mean, like what’s the difference?
MAGGIE NELSON: I know. It’s true. It is true.
EILEEN MYLES: Like the way stuff – like the – okay, from the Carolee Schneemann, my favorite line was so amazing. You were talking. It’s a quote from her, but you picked it. “I’m just some part of nature that keeps pouring and pouring and pouring.” I mean like, holy – you know, that’s so much – that’s so much the female right of the female artist, the person I want to hear about that is sort of – that is giving us something that perhaps – perhaps we’ve not been expected it want or need or know or understand, and yet she’s unable to do anything other than to keep giving and making and – and you know, creating, which is – is absolutely the way I see you as a person respond to go life and its conditions and the situations you find yourself in. I mean, that’s like – you can call it a lot of things. I mean, I did think that too, like us talking here today. What would we call this, that we’re doing. But you can call it a lot of things, but one of them is poetry.
MAGGIE NELSON: Uh-huh.
EILEEN MYLES: You know?
MAGGIE NELSON: It’s funny, ‘cause the – well, Carolee Schneemann, you guys probably know, is – she actually wants to be identified more as a painter, but you know most people know her as a performance artist, and – but it’s funny because after I did – after I wrote this long piece about her, and it’ll come out later this year, and then I gave it to Eileen. But when I was looking through it, I actually pulled out the exact same quote.
What was interesting was that the context that she was talking about was when someone was asking her – so Carolee, like a lot of female artists has a kind of ongoing, you know, ongoing reality and acute feeling – not necessarily in her case a bitter one, just a kind of a noticing of things that she’s done being picked up and you know, used by, moved around in the culture, but not necessarily credited to her. So she has this amazing book that she keeps a big scrapbook of places she sees her art being used in the culture [LAUGHTER] and, she showed me this scrapbook when I was interviewing her.
And then that scrapbook is actually going to be the visual text that will accompany this essay I wrote, and it’s all just pictures of other people. Like Carolee did this piece where she’s strapped into a harness and like drawing on the walls, called “Up To And Including Her Limits,” and then, you know – what movie is it? Julianne Moore is this artist who is strapped into a harness drawing on the walls – whatever. So she has pictures of Julianne Moore from the movie, and stuff like that. But anyways, so this artist – so another artist is interviewing her and talking to her about Matthew Barney, and saying that their drawing restraints are really similar, but Barney has got a lot more, whatever, money or recognition. And she says – and they say “what do you have to say about that?” and she says, “well, I can’t speak to that except to say I have my usual wonders to why I’m so unattractive to promotion machines. I guess I’m just some part of nature that keeps pouring and pouring and pouring.” So it’s just interesting to put that in the context of us – book calling that out as well.
EILEEN MYLES: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE NELSON: But –
EILEEN MYLES: I’m overhearing some guy say about some female artist. “oh, she’s just an endless woman.” [LAUGHTER]. It was so incredible. I was like, wow, he just said it, just like the unimaginable.
MAGGIE NELSON: That’s very funny. [INAUDIBLE].
I mean, because there are these two different kind of approaches I think we both also do too, which is there is the poetry where you’re kind of describing, as you’ve said, what’s coming down the river, you know, and then there’s the kind of things I think we both, in the prose, like in The Inferno and Cool For You and then, you know, in books of mine like The Red Parts or other things where you, you know, you draw kind of temporal or thematic circle around a period of life and kind of choose it really tightly, it’s like – you know, that says 14 to 19. Or this is the color blue or whatever –
EILEEN MYLES: Right.
MAGGIE NELSON: -- and then you kind of experiment with refracting life not as the flow, but through a lens, you know, it’s a kind of – it’s not like stock footage, but it’s, to me it’s like a huge eddy, you know –
EILEEN MYLES: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE NELSON: -- as opposed to trying to, um, you know, give out the now, although, obviously the now is what you are doing when you are writing because you are looking down from the now. Like Virginia Wolfe said, you know, “Down through the pond,” you know.
EILEEN MYLES: But truly, yeah, by picking something, by staking out a territory or saying there is such a thing as subject matter here, what you get to witness is this movement of the mind over it –
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: -- like I’ll go. What was I watching on the plane? Revenant? How do you – that incredible be – hated movie. But there was a moment where he – he built this like little eddy of rock – I guess – is that what an eddy is? A little pile of rocks and invariably fish would get caught in there. And then he would put his man paw in and ate the raw fish. You know? But it’s sort of like – it’s a way to capture and it’s justice a way to –
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah. Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: And it’s [INAUDIBLE]. It’s almost a way to claim you’re doing work? You know?
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Right.
EILEEN MYLES: Once you start poetry, you just like, you are doing work, but it sort of doesn’t look it, especially because somebody will – like the worst thing for a poet is somebody will say “what’s it – what’s your poetry about? You know? And it’s just like – there is actually no answer to that, you know, and you can throw some stuff out like landscape and love and [LAUGHTER] and death. A little news, you know? Vernacular, you know? But it just all feels silly, you know, because it’s not about anything accept going about, you know? And I think when you do – I mean, because I do what you do sometimes, but you do what you do all the time.
MAGGIE NELSON: [LAUGHTER] But I think, you know, what’s interesting, I was reading an interview with you today or yesterday that, where were talking about – it was something about how people in the 80s, you were saying, used to be into the word “rigor,” um, and I was laughing because I remember very clearly that when I graduated from college, my thesis advisor took me out for lunch and, we toasted, and she said, “To rigor!” [LAUGHTER].
For years I thought that was kind of like the best toast, like what you were supposed to toast to, you know. But it also felt like, I mean, kind of like, your saying like the excuse for writing like to me is like, I’m rigorous. I do rigor. I love what you were saying in this interview, though, where you were saying, so I guess the subject matter in a way is like announcing rigor like as if you’re really researching the color blue when you’re actually kind of, you know, just snapping around. But like you said something in that interview, you said, you know, like “fuck that,” like blah, every time someone says like “rigor,” you felt like “blah,” you felt like it was more interesting and I don’t know what you said, but something like this fog of incoherence and the amazement of things being able to bubble out of that incoherent state, and that seemed really interesting to me.
EILEEN MYLES: Right, because it looks like it’s not gonna work, and that’s always exciting to me.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: Every time I have to write something I feel that way, like, oh, this will be the time that’s proved that I’m completely and utterly mad, and I have no ideas and I can’t write and it’s all over. And you just sit there, and, you know, and then you trick – trick yourself backwards into actually sitting down and beginning to write, and then something happens, and it’s so weird. You know, because –
MAGGIE NELSON: Maggie. It’s so enviable because like the dog book. When’s the dog book coming out?
EILEEN MYLES: April 17.
MAGGIE NELSON: Okay. Um. And what’s it called?
EILEEN MYLES: Afterglow: A Memoir.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. But Eileen has been telling me for years she was writing a book about her dog, Rosie, and then gave it to me in manuscript to read. So obviously, I mean, again, you say in conversation [INAUDIBLE] of my dog. But then like it was probably, you know, I mean, it’s – it’s a close race, but when I read it my overwhelming feeling was like this is the wildest thing Eileen’s yet written, you know? Like it felt – but it felt like, um, your description of it – I mean, it just felt like maybe just by saying – well, you told me it was Rosie, you know dog and obviously spelled backward is God, so it’s kind of like the book feels like it, you know, there is one dog in question, but it goes for God in this way that – that nothing I’d rather do is – really did is pretty amazing.
EILEEN MYLES: Because how could you go for God?
MAGGIE NELSON: Exactly.
EILEEN MYLES: You know? [LAUGHTER]
MAGGIE NELSON: You did it.
EILEEN MYLES: I mean, you guys can go for God, but I mean, I can’t do it right now, you know?
You’re having an ecstatic look.
MAGGIE NELSON: I know.
EILEEN MYLES: You’re going for God. It’s happening.
MAGGIE NELSON: I know, I was just thinking about wildness and I’m thinking about, um… how, um – well, there is a part in the Argonauts where I’m talking about my beloved Harry is writing and saying that I’m jealous of it because whenever I read it, it feels so much wilder than my writing, and then somebody – Dana Ward, who we both know, was very kindly said to me once something like – I was lamenting hating – and he said something like, you know, rehearsing a compliment here for you all, so I’m sorry about that. So but he was saying to me – he said there can be something wild and radical sanity, you know, what this book feels like, you know?
EILEEN MYLES: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE NELSON: I felt that was really kind of him, you know? That I felt like is it true? I don’t know if it’s true or not. But I feel like there’s something – [INAUDIBLE] you’ve written a lot about this feeling in terms of like I was reading the Paris Review interview where you’re talking to Ben Lerner about what you got from getting sober and your writing, and it seems like there’s a kind of wildness that – that a kind of radical sanity allows that isn’t necessarily available otherwise that you got to – you know.
EILEEN MYLES: Well, I mean, like I love the sound of this idea of radical sanity, and I think that definitely when I first stopped drinking and taking drugs, I – I wanted to – I wanted something like that, and I feel like I pretended to be doing something like that. But then I realized – or wanting to seem as wild as you were when you were wild, you know? And it seemed like once you gave up the pretense and stopped trying to convince people you were wild, you started discovering this real wildness –
MAGGIE NELSON: Right.
EILEEN MYLES: -- you know, what just the way things actually are, that it’s like existence is uncanny, you know? And that every day is kind of remarkable, you know, but it’s sort of like we’re usually so stressed. I mean, like when I – you know, I guess I was in Marfo, I was in like a 7/Eleven or something. This is very classiest, that I was just like the woman at the register was saying, “My God, I’m so busy I can’t even go to my kid’s recital.” So I – you know, and I was like, she can’t go to her kid’s recital, and she work – you know, it was just kind of like. Everybody’s too busy – we’re all crazily too busy. And it seems like the really radical step is to figure out how to not be too busy and to absolutely figure out how to see what’s there, which is just people’s – people’s most passionate desire to being enacted slowly or quickly, you know?
I mean like by you – by you making the aquarium be your family and your life, you know, it’s just like – and you know, and you said it’s like of course some film crew wants to come and like – you write the beautiful book that deconstructs what it’s like to be in a family that’s really ordinary and really quite radical. You know, and people read it and love it and think this is an amazing book, because it is an amazing book. And the next step is let’s go into your house with a camera and stick a - you know? And make a movie about this radical family. And that’s – that’s insanity. That’s not radical. [LAUGHTER]
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. No, I was telling Eileen about some offers that have come in since the book had come out.
EILEEN MYLES: But part of it is that the beautiful act is not enough, and the hard thing is to say, like that’s a real eddy to say the beautiful act is enough.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. You mean of writing?
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah, I mean, people always say, you know, that writers always want to talk about form and everybody else wants to talk about content, you know. But it does seem true that like the content, to me, is often like you need enough of it to do the formal experiment [LAUGHTER].
EILEEN MYLES: Right. Right.
MAGGIE NELSON: But the – but the – it’s, um, I mean, like The Argonauts is about what it’s about, but it – in my mind, you know, it has like a phosphene [PHONETIC] or a skeleton that it could be about anything –
EILEEN MYLES: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE NELSON: -- in a way. But I found the – like the tone or the holder or the form of the thing which was the project, you know –
EILEEN MYLES: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE NELSON: -- which is something about how to think, how to think on the page through and with, you know, like I guess would be that, would be the skeleton of that from, you know, so the content seems like coloring in a coloring book or something, somebody else could fill in.
EILEEN MYLES: Except that you have to love what it – there is an unspoken relationship which is you have to love the subject.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right.
EILEEN MYLES: You know, like that’s like – because that makes you want to do the work or the coloring, right?
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s kind of – I mean content also could be everything. It just might be that it has to be repressed for me to write anything, you know? Like I can – I’m happiest when I can start thinking about form, because then your unconscious is doing the work with the content, without you having to say” I’m writing about X.” Just kind of going on it, you know.
But I wonder if – I feel like – small bird told me that there were like four books coming out, soon. And one of them was an Eileen Myles reader? Is it true?
EILEEN MYLES: Isn’t that crazy? Yes.
MAGGIE NELSON: Are you picking the selections yourself?
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah, I sort of – I’m already kind of absentmindedly doing it, which is kind of fun, because it really is like your greatest hits in a way. It’s like what would you – it’s this small. I mean, like, to me, my aesthetic ideal is like the small volume that like whether it’s – like years ago, I had a friend who is like a poet that sort of – I don’t know why this is an important factor – sort of mentally ill, and her boyfriend was a super in a building and, so the basement of this building was her office. It was crazy. It was the summer, and it was hot. We would spend all this time hanging out in her basement, just talking.
And I remember she showed me this thin volume of poetry, and I’ll never know if it was Du Fu or Li Po -- whoever. And I remember picking it up and looking at it, and seeing it was this guy’s whole life. It was this one little child poem and one slightly older poem, and one – and it was just like you could put somebody’s whole life in a volume, you know, and I think it’s so exciting, you know, if we write and write and write, and it’s like you don’t know where any of this work is going, and is it found to be reduced if not entirely lost, you know?
So the idea of actually doing the losing and reducing yourself is so exciting. So I think it’s really fun to think of your work as like a candy store, and it’s not just a selective thing, but – if I were to give you – I mean like if somebody was [INAUDIBLE] you writing about, hand on this small volume, and it’s just your happiest projects [trailing off). Yeah, it’s cool.
The other thing is it’s Grove, and they’re being really smart, like I’m doing the dog book, and in it there is this crazy lecture about foam [PHONETIC) and in that there is like a class that I taught at UCSB called Prophetic Literature. So they’re so cool. They’re like we want the prophetic anthology next. So it’s sort of like all these embedded things so each book open and then there’s something else inside there that yields the next book, so it’s actually really fun. They’re being really –
MAGGIE NELSON: The prophetic thing is an anthology? Or is it –
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah. Prophetic literature is an anthology. Yeah. I’m sure you’ll be –
MAGGIE NELSON: Oh, great.
EILEEN MYLES: I can find something –
MAGGIE NELSON: I’m sure you can. [LAUGHTER].
EILEEN MYLES: Probably touched it for a moment, at least.
MAGGIE NELSON: That’s funny.
What do you think? You want to keep talking? You want people –
EILEEN MYLES: I feel the Q & A – I feel the Q & A is upon us. Crazy.
MAGGIE NELSON: The microphones?
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah.
MAGGIE NELSON: Questions?
EILEEN MYLES: I think we did okay.
One right over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. On the sort of road to finding your voice, was there any sort of particular burst that you felt was like the most valuable? Or had the most effect? Both of you.
MAGGIE NELSON: You said “burst”?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, burst like, um, like – like things kind of crystallized or became a lot more clear.
EILEEN MYLES: Is that to both of us? Either of us? Or –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [INAUDIBLE].
MAGGIE NELSON: Well, not to be too insular, but seeing Eileen read in 1992 was a pretty big burst that I had for me. But you know, it’s funny because I was talking to someone, back to this, you know, boring fame question, but they said, “Eileen’s always been the most famous person that [INAUDIBLE] ever knew.” But I think what the person was saying was that like it’s not about fame, it’s about – I mean, I’ve said this before, and you’ve said this before, about other people, but they’re like – like – you know, when you’re growing up, you – you don’t – you’re moving around in the dark, and then you see something, and you’re like, whatever outlet that is, I’m plugging – I’m plugging into it, you know.
And Eileen has said this before like, about, I don’t remember who, maybe Paul Violi, or somebody that like you just decide to believe, you know. And then in retrospect, you often realize, you know, you can see all the reasons why your choices were the right choices. But, you know – I mean, Eileen for me was really like. You know, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was 20. But it was like, well, Eileen Myles teaches in New York City, so you could move there and take classes with her. And I was like, okay, that seems like as good a beacon as anything – as good an outlet, as, you know, as anything else. So there you have it. And –
EILEEN MYLES: I don’t know what to say to that –
MAGGIE NELSON: Seems over determined now, but, you know…
EILEEN MYLES: I think – I mean, but I – I think like the Carolee one, when people talk about “voices,” I don’t think – I mean, like, you sound like you, and I sound like me, in my writing, but I think the thing that’s more the point and maybe even how I interpret your – what you said – it’s like you find a tap, you know, inside of yourself, and you just figure out a way to keep pouring, you know. And that’s the thing. It’s sort of like it’s not so much what you sound like, but then – but what are you talking about?
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: And that isn’t anything particular except this order of things. Like suddenly you start to find the right order, you know? And that’s when you feel like you really – I feel like, oh, oh, that’s a poem, you know, so writing these things and writing these things. And suddenly it’s sort of like based out of the pieces that liked each other started to find each other. And it’s like in the thing – the thing – it wasn’t so much the thing was endless, but the thing, I could feel this -- that non-stopping thing, you know? And so it’s like not so much a voice as like a ribbon [PHONETIC), I guess, is what I feel like is the thing that drives the work. It sounds like a voice, but inside – I think you know what said, there is a difference between inside and outside. Inside it feels one way, and outside it sounds like this other thing.
MAGGIE NELSON: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
EILEEN MYLES: But it’s a satisfied sound.
MAGGIE NELSON: Uh-huh.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was going to comment. You are right, when you do see death as young, you really live each day even more. I myself, lost my [INAUDIBLE]. My question is, other than your fathers, what family member has influenced you a lot in your write [sic].
MAGGIE NELSON: My mother the editor, as I’ve already outted [LAUGHTER].
When someone dies in your family, especially a parent, you know, you can do this terrible splitting where the dead one becomes the holder of all energy, grace, sexuality, wildness, and then the other one becomes, you know, your super ego, you know, which is what I definitely did with my mother and my father. But I think in some ways whenever that split was probably characterizes my writing. And I probably need them both, so…
EILEEN MYLES: Yeah, I feel like – it’s weird. I never thought this to this extent. But in some – a certain way, I feel like your family makes you work –
MAGGIE NELSON: Uh-huh.
EILEEN MYLES: -- and that’s sort of why they’re so –
MAGGIE NELSON: Makes your [INAUDIBLE] work.
EILEEN MYLES: -- makes your work come into existence even.
It was that system of crazy people that you live with, that you, you know, desperately started running inside of yourself to find a place, and find a place. And you mean, you probably didn’t find it then with them, but you found someplace, you know, for yourself in the world that – that recapitulating somehow what that system put you through, in a way, you know?
My mother – you know, I never thought of my mother as having anything to do with my writing, except that she was – she’s an amazing storyteller, I mean very clipped, you know? And she has a great voice and she read to us, you know, and she really read – really, great reader, you know?
And I had a grandmother, Irish grandmother, who was in a mental hospital who just kind of mumbled. And I was obsessed with her. But when I started to write, I thought I was – I thought I was going crazy, and I thought I was her, you know? And it’s kind of an amazing, scary, horrifying thought, but – but I was always wanting to know more about who she was and what she had, you know, and what she sounded like, you know? So I think the family is really weirdly such a root of what we do.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. This is for Maggie. Hi. I’m over here.
So you were talking about form and content in The Argonauts, and the form is really fantastic in the book, and it’s strange and wonderful. But the content is so deeply and profoundly important and great. And for many people probably in the audience here and certainly in the wider audience that you are gaining is new and, you know, you seem to just “Nah” kind of say, oh, well, the writing is the form. But the content. I’d like to hear you talk about how you really felt about exposing that content, and I know that you say you never think about repressing anything personal but about going the distance in that book.
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah, well, I think actually – I mean, I think what I said, my latter comment about repressing content probably more accurate because I think that, um, you know, I remember very well the day when I was talk to go my agent person about two different book ideas I had, and I described them both, and of course the one that I could barely get the words out about the content was the one he was like, well, that’s clearly the one you need to work on next. And I was like, yeah, you know, I’m not going around being like – [INAUDIBLE] like, as it was once put somewhere like “the queer ‘MOMoir’” or whatever, you know?
I was just like I’m just not doing that. Like – and I was, you know, matriphobic, just the way that everybody’s matriphobic in regards to literature and stuff like that. So it was, I think in a way – it wasn’t that the content itself I was actually phobic about. It’s like there’s the boogeyman version of your content, just like I said, like the “momoir” just like this tinny version of what you’re doing that runs alongside what you’re doing that you don’t what you’re doing to be. You know? And I feel like you’re trying to keep your thing on this side and kind of keep making this distinction and keep it interesting, and I think it’s – it’s repressing the bad possibility that you’re afraid of that like I think is like really, like you know, have to do with content, you know.
And I think – I mean, I say in The Argonauts that like all my writing, it seems like a bad idea, you know? And I think that, um – I think and that it’s hard to tell which is the bad idea because it’s like a good bad idea and what’s just a bad, bad idea. And often you don’t know – it’s like you write out a lot of things and later you’re like, well, that really was a bad, bad idea. This one’s a good bad idea, but it is a little frightening, and I think that I had the luck of – you know, when people talk about like, you know, exposure or something in The Argonauts or something
I really didn’t – the two books I worked on about my aunt that you were about like sexual violence, were really much more – like the tenor of that whole experience was much more nerve wracking to me. It’s because it involved violence, you know? And I wasn’t – so I think in a way – and actually Eileen was a person – not to keep her thing on all the great things Eileen has said for me over the years. But when I told I mean the story about my aunt’s death, and I wanted to write about it. But again, I felt like I couldn’t really do it.
Eileen said, like, you know – I said why would I do it? Eileen was like why wouldn’t you do it? Like you’re a writer and this is a story in your family, so you kind of like – I guess kind of a no-brainer that you’re gonna write about this. And I – and it was just that kind of shifting of permission that’s like, not why would I? But why wouldn’t I? That like with that push, I think, you know, I – that was more of a crucible for me in terms of making it kind of like a leaf, and then the other things haven’t seemed quite as difficult since.
EILEEN MYLES: It’s about the world too, right? You know, like when we talk about not wanting to talk about content, it’s because you already did, right?
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. Exactly.
EILEEN MYLES: Like you have an aunt who was slain or you have a particular family that might seem unique to some people. And all those things you live within your life and the world all the time, and whether you were brought up as a kid in a family where the aunt was slain, or you live in this queer family where here it’s comfortable but there it’s not comfortable, and you keep changing – you keep. And you sort of live with all those things and this very discomfort makes you write it –
MAGGIE NELSON: Right.
EILEEN MYLES: -- and that creates content, but really it’s something more abstract than that. It’s sort of like pushing out your actual version and you know, like almost in resistance to the kind of people’s ideas about the things that you are going through and remarks that somebody might make if they thought you’re – so then, then you finished, you do this beautiful construction, and then people want to talk about the content.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: And that seems crazy, because you did it.
MAGGIE NELSON: Right. Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: So it always was about the world, and now the world wants it again, you know?
MAGGIE NELSON: Right.
EILEEN MYLES: But that’s the way it is.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Goes back to when you were talking about being read to. And I just wondered what were the formative stories of your childhood that – that were read to you.
And Maggie, perhaps what are the stories that you find now that you love to read to your children?
EILEEN MYLES: Did that bounce from me to Maggie?
MAGGIE NELSON: You go.
EILEEN MYLES: I have one book that I loved so much when I was a kid called Scupper the Sailor Dog –
MAGGIE NELSON: The sailor dog, yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: I just love – I mean, I still – I own the book. Somebody, a girlfriend, found it for me, and she was like. And I was like – it was like going to paradise seeing those drawings again, because I have lived them over and over again. But it was really – it was a dog in a boat, you know? And it’s sort of like you get these pictures when you’re a kid, and you just go through your whole life thinking, I’m a dog in a boat. And you want to go where Scupper went, you know, and suddenly one day you’re standing there, you see those curled-toe shoes like they showed to Scupper in the Medina. And I was like, I’m in Istanbul. And I’m like there are the shoes. You know? So I feel like the scenarios of your life are given to you in the childhood books read to you. And this kind of dream is being handed.
MAGGIE NELSON: Scupper’s apartment does look a lot like your apartment in the book.
EILEEN MYLES: It’s very weird. I saw my apartment, and I thought this is Scupper’s.
MAGGIE NELSON: I thought that too when I started reading Scupper the Sailor Dog to, uh – oh, gosh. I don’t know. It’s a work in progress, you know, it’s a work in progress. I feel like, you know. You know, a lot of radical, political friends of mine recommended Little House on the Prairie books, and I’m now on volume 4, reading them, and – like reading them to your kids. And it’s tough. Not that my friends recommended them because the books were political or radical, but as a means of explaining settler logic. And I’m finding it really difficult to explain that right now. But it’s a challenging thing to think about because, you know, they’re from a white perspective and read to go a white child with a protagonist who’s awoken Laura in a world she doesn’t agree with and didn’t make, but that is rotten is really hard to – you know, such as it is today, you know? So figuring out how to explain all that is a task.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I think of you both as being very important contemporary poets, but I would have a hard time putting you in a specific school of contemporary poetry.
I think it’s interesting that Maggie, you said that you might not write poetry again.
Eileen, you’ve been writing for so long, you’ve seen many schools come and go, perhaps. And I think Maggie’s book on the New York School does a great job of sort of painting you as a latter day New York School poet. I’m just interested to hear what you guys think about the contemporary poetry scene today; like how would you describe it? Because you seem both of it but not in it. Or maybe in it but not of it? Probably the first one.
EILEEN MYLES: I think we’re both very in it. Because even if you don’t necessarily consider yourself a poet poet, whatever. I just hate all those poet poet, rape rape, when we say words twice, somehow that tells us more about it. But I think, but certainly a fellow traveler, you know, like Lydia Davis is a fellow traveler, there are prose writers who never – have certainly wrote poems but it’s sort of like a relationship to literature and culture, I think. But no – I mean, I think poetry is such an amazing position right now.
I think it’s so cool, because I think that there was such a day of schools and schools continue to be formed because there are ways of people making these like – you know, like poets have always traveled in small bunches and read to each other and hear each other, and you kind of create – you know, you create a community that way. But I think there is a way in which the world is so open to language through all – I mean, like I love to talk about – I mean social media is really like I think the poet’s paradise, you know?
So I think that all these schools of poetry that have come and gone, and then still – I mean, they’re like shirts. You know, it’s sort of like a good old shirt is still a good old shirt. So I think you can – I mean, some people would tend to debunk, like you can’t write a New York School poem anymore, because we’re after that. But I think you can always reach in to history and write any style that still works for you, whether it’s from your own closet or anybody else’s poetically.
But I think I sort of experienced this past 20 years, poets really morphing through schools and picking up influences in lots of different directions, and that seems really exciting to not necessarily need to cloak yourself so much from the rest of the culture and the rest of the arts because I think, you know, it’s such an amazing – and the art world is so into poetry right now in such an interesting way; not interested in poetry because poets will write about painters or – in that sort of 60s way. But I think there is a sense that visual artists are following poets more and reading the work, and finding that to be a new exciting space of thinking and formation. And you know, I think it’s an enormously hot moment for poetry because…
Language is getting rediscovered through all – whether it’s texting or social media, people are just naturally fragmenting language and using it again and recombining it in few ways. You know, it’s really exciting.
MAGGIE NELSON: That was good. [LAUGHTER].
EILEEN MYLES: Okay.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This, I guess is a question for both of you? Um – inspired by a really like maddening, maybe someone else saw this today, an article from the New York Times Magazine that’s titled like, “Everybody’s Calling Themselves Queer, But is Anyone?”
Any it just talks about how like queer, youth culture and celebrity really coalesced to make it very popular and talks a little bit of the etymology and the origin of the term.
But how – how do you see the – the current state of like intersectional identity politics, particularly queerness. Um, the white one, thank you.
EILEEN MYLES: [LAUGHTER]. Whose question?
I only want to say quickly, I heard that young, that really young kids, high school kids are using the word “transqueer” which I thought was really interesting and great. Roomy.
MAGGIE NELSON: I mean I think – I haven’t seen the piece. I think that – I mean, I go through this a little bit in The Argonauts but you know, there is always then – I mean I go through it vis a vis with Cedric [PHONETIC), but there’s always been this question about me – I say Eve wanted it both ways. She wanted the word “queer” to both designate something about like, you know, same sex or trans or whatever relationships; like regarding gender and sexuality would also [INAUDIBLE] the word queer to be a huge umbrella that could involve, you know, like doing – ecological work, whatever, like big kind of a thing. And like saying she wanted it both ways, I don’t think – but she says, but it can’t lose the relationship to the first, she said, because that loses all historical specificity.
But it’s a very – you know, it’s a tough question because I don’t think that, um -- like if it’s not intersectional at this point, then it’s kind of a cul-de-sac. You know what I mean? So I don’t – and it risks being cut off. But I’m not sure that the word is the most – you know, I don’t –
I mean, it was exciting to go to like Occupy and have it be like, you know, queer – like queer occupy or something, it was exciting to see like the word traveling in these other spaces, but I don’t know that like, that we need to like, you know – we don’t need to like – I mean, Black Lives Matters in some way started this queer, you know, so there actually is not antithetical. But I don’t think it needs to be a word that, um, the way it traveled in the 90s where it’s like the verb of like the thing that needs to be done to every movement in order to make it, you know, radical. I just think that’s not the moment we’re in, you know.
EILEEN MYLES: I mean, it’s sort of like poetry. Words get a really exciting and a really fresh at some point in time and sort of like at other points, you know?
MAGGIE NELSON: Yeah.
EILEEN MYLES: I mean, I was at this poetry conference a week ago, and I – you know, it was a version of what this article – somebody who is very queer was talking about this particular tall white seemingly straight guy who was always wanting this very queer guy to know that he’s queer. “He’s always telling me how queer he is.” It was like what does that mean? And it was just kind of this wanting – wanting to be let in in some way. Wanting to be in on certain conversations and feelings and communities and, you know. But the word doesn’t give you that, you know? It’s a whole – it’s a whole – you gotta think this same person like was very -- we were all on a panel, and – and everybody on the panel is either Trans or Queer, and I guess that’s what we were.
And then there was this guy who was maybe queer or maybe not, but he was talking about – you know, and we were all guided to take seven minutes, and he took like a half hour [LAUGHTER] continually thinking about new and interesting things that he led in to each time with “Quickly” or “Just quickly,” “I’ll just say quickly.” And it was like every time he said “quickly,” he took five more minutes. And it was sort of like the question – the point is not whether he’s queer or not or whether he’s political or not, but whether he’s self-conscious enough to not – to know [LAUGHTER] what he’s taking and making and doing in time, you know?
I guess words don’t matter, finally, right? I think.
MAGGIE NELSON: And on that note.
EILEEN MYLES: That can get us out of here.
MODERATOR: That’s your takeaway, yeah.
Maggie and Eileen, I want to thank you for letting us in on your conversation. It was really great.
Thank you so much.
And join us afterwards in the lobby and then…
[Recorded event ended]
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