How I Get It Done: Poet Eileen Myles

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Writer Eileen Myles has produced 21 books of poetry or prose, along with a cavalcade of essays, plays, fiction, and other artistic performances. Their landmark 1994 autobiographical novel Chelsea Girls was republished in 2015, bringing with it a new wave of young readers. In September, they release Evolution, a new volume of poetry. They’ve lived in the same East Village apartment for 40 years.

On writerly output:
I get up and do the coffee thing, I exercise, I meditate and then I get to the desk and I work for an hour and a half, two hours tops. Short stints are what really work for me. I’m working on something new now and when I was in Texas for a month, a friend of mine had read a Stephen King “how to write” book and they told me that he always does a thousand words a day. I thought, I’ll do that. It worked good for a month.

On feeling satisfied with short stints:
If I work for an hour and a half and I produce something, that’s a good day. That’s perfect. I try and stop when I feel like it’s cozy. You write stanzas, you don’t end the poem. When I’ve made a stanza in the piece, I can stop there, that’s a good day. Like I can just go and have fun and relax and do things and not worry about working.

On recognizing a poem:
Either a thought or a line just kind of comes to me and it seems to have a little more emphasis than the other thoughts flying around. It’s like if you saw a sheet, a cloth hanging, and then something bumped behind it. I just jump on it and see what it’s got.

On experiencing every day as a potential poem:
It seems like a point of the world. I don’t mean so much that the point of the world is to process my writing, but my writing is a way that I process being in the world. I always wrote a little bit, didn’t think much of it, but after college, when I was getting really mundane jobs, I had the freedom of mind, and would write poems as a kind of doodling. The opportunity to have a thought that creates a poem just makes me feel alive. It makes me feel connected to the world. It makes me feel like I have a purpose and that it’s weighted.

On determining if an emotion will end up as a poem, essay, play, or prose:
Oh, it’s really obvious. There is no question. It’s like being a farmer: I can tell a pig from a cow from a horse. They’re different animals. With the poem, I don’t know whether it’s going to be a short one or a long one, that I don’t have. But with a story or a book idea, it just has a whole different dimension and it just comes in notes. I just gather notes and go, I could write this. I can have a first line and I know what it means. It has content in a way, whereas poetry doesn’t exactly have content. It’s more like a musical note.

On the theme of her life’s work:
There’s a homelessness. I feel like I have like a cheery melancholy that winds up leaning on details and love and attachment, but there’s a homelessness and the sense of not belonging. It’s a place I always go or wind up or pass through.

On being perceived as cool:
I come out of an esthetic that doesn’t want to look like it’s trying too hard. I work really hard! But I don’t want that to be your problem. I come from a school of art and writing and literature that avoids heaviness in a way. I mean the whole world of poetry that I understand is really coming out of a sense of abstraction and improvisation and avant-garde. You don’t want to be too in-your-face with this or that tension. You want to walk into the room a little quiet and then lay out what you’ve got an a kind of offhanded way. I’m a middle child, like I come from behind. I’m not … frontal, exactly. I kind of worked the edges, in the margins, and I do have something to say, but I won’t kick you over the head with it.

On their label of a punk poet:
There was a review in the Times that described me as a punk poet in like 2000, and it has stuck and it’s so weird. We all dress like something, and I probably dress something like a preppy from New England who like, plays in a band. I mean I’ve said lot: I think people are uncomfortable with weirdness, with masculinity in women, with mixed-class presentations, and so you just need a four-letter word to reduce it to flat … to give a response to femaleness that’s packaging itself in a particular way.

On their very active Twitter account:
It lets you comment exactly on the contours of the world while you’re standing in it. It’s become lots of things, but you could use it that way. I’ll certainly tweet about politics and retweet things and publicize myself, but it’s really great when I get a line that could be poetry, it could be anything, and it just feels so fun to put it into that flow, into that mechanism, and know that people will receive it all these different ways.

On their Tumblr-famous lines, “I am always hungry/& and wanting to have/sex. This is a fact.”:
That’s something I wrote in about 1987. I was in upstate New York with a girlfriend, and I just wrote it really quickly, behind her back. She was taking a bath in the bathroom around the corner or something. I wrote about the moment I was in with her. It’s sort of like, I’m being an expressive animal, which is I think is what an artist is.

How I Get It Done: Poet Eileen Myles