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How Eileen Myles won a battle for personal pronoun plurality

Eileen Myles at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year. Photo/Getty Images

New York punk poet and writer Eileen Myles is happy complicating what being a woman is.

The ripple
of experience is the
only beauty here.
Dissolution (2015).

Myles, Myles, Myles … I’m in danger of wearing out the name trying to write about legendary American poet and writer Eileen Myles without using the pronoun “she”. Myles prefers to be referred to as “they”.

“Yeah, I do. Well-known people, as we know, transition. For me, it’s transitioning in language, just acknowledging that I feel like I experience myself as a multiple. It seems like something I can ask for and do.”

Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Myles told the New Yorker, “I’m happy complicating what being a woman, a dyke, is. I’m the gender of Eileen.”

The change to using “they” started in the poet’s professional life. “And then people who know me personally are, like, ‘Do you want me to call you they?’ And then I hesitate and struggle with it, so it’s new to me, too.” It can be awkward. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s what I feel and it’s what I need.” So third person plural she is. They are.

The pronoun isn’t always embraced by the literary establishment. “Yeah, HarperCollins. When my selected poems came out in paperback was when I was, like, I’d like it to be ‘they’, and it became kind of a tempest in a teapot. They really fought it a bit and then my agent stood up for me – that was so cool – and we got our way.”

For Myles, who you imagine picks battles, this one is worth fighting. “I cringe more the older I get every time somebody calls me ‘madam’ or I’m at a table full of women, some of whom look femme, some of whom look masculine, and the waiter comes over and says, ‘How are you ladies tonight?’. I never go through the airport security without them stopping me and feeling my crotch. Because I wear my jeans low. I just wear low jeans. Every time, no matter how high I pull them up … They call it ‘groin anomaly’ and I get patted down.”

Groin anomaly: that was the eloquent title of an episode of Jill Soloway’s brilliant Amazon television series Transparent, about college professor and father Mort Pfefferman, who comes out as Maura, a trans woman. Transparent’s poet and lesbian literary professor, Leslie Mackinaw, played by the formidable Cherry Jones, was based on Myles. Soloway and Myles were, for a time, a couple.

In the Transparent episode, Maura, going through airport security, is assumed to be a woman until a security scanner picks up … the anomaly. “If you want me to be a man, I’ll be a man. If you want me to be a woman, I’ll be a woman. If you want me to be a f---ing chicken, I’ll be a chicken,” Maura shouts at the security agent.

Was that episode based on Myles’s experience? “I can’t confirm it, but I certainly told Jill about it because it happens to me constantly. I think because the airport is such a police place that it is a little bit of a way of saying that you’re not one of us and you’re kind of a terrorist.”

So it’s not confusion but hostility. “That’s what I think, though it may not be quite conscious. It just might be more clear to me than to the people who are doing it.”

Eileen Myles, New York, 1992. Photo/Getty Images

In Transparent, Leslie reads from Myles’s poem School of Fish. Myles is an extra in the scene. That might be an out-of-body experience. “Well it is. And then, of course, they never are you and that’s kind of a relief. It’s a bad copy, just like everything is.

“Cherry Jones was great. We’ve become friends and like each other a lot.”

Myles is good company and exceptionally accommodating, considering my call was not entirely expected. “Oh, we have an interview right now. Yeah, yeah, I’m in a cab. I’m so sorry, I completely spaced on it. I’m a master at confusing my calendar.” It’s like a found poem racketing along on the way from the East Village, which is home for Myles (there’s also a place in Marfa, Texas), to Brooklyn, where a friend lives.

Pause to pay the cab driver: “Okay, hold on, one last movement getting out of this vehicle … And then I’m home free.” We carry on talking. At the end of almost an hour, it occurs to me to ask: “Are you in your friend’s house?” “No, I’m standing out on the sidewalk.” Good grief. It’s 9pm in New York. March can be a cruel month. “No, no, it’s very nice out.”

Myles, 68, was born in Boston to Irish and Polish immigrant parents; landed in New York in the 70s; knew poet Allen Ginsberg; was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. There’s a Myles poem titled On the Death of Robert Lowell: “The famous, as we know, are nuts/Take Robert Lowell/The old white-haired coot/F---ing dead.” In the 90s, Myles ran for president of the US as a write-in candidate.

Myles has, in a sense, come in from the sidewalk, or at least the maverick margins of the literary world, since the re-release of Chelsea Girls, a vivid, staunch 1994 autobiographical novel, in 2015, along with a collection of new and selected poems.

Terms like “badass” and “punk poet” get used, along with “queer feminist literary icon”, which is  …  “a mouthful”, says Myles. “Some of those are kind of a literary world trying to figure out how to deal with something they feel awkward about.” It’s a way, Myles believes, of not talking about class and sexuality. “I mean, there’s a whole tradition of men being a little rough or broad or working class or avant-garde. There are lots of names for the male artist, but when you’re female, especially if you’re queer and you’re feminist, then they don’t know what to call it except those things. So I feel like a lot of it is an easy way not to deal with my work.”

These days, the work gets published in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books. A new book, Afterglow (a dog memoir), was supposed to bring Myles back to New Zealand for the Auckland Writers Festival but changed circumstances meant that didn't happen. Myles’ last visit was in 2016, for a reading. “I went to the west coast with a few young writers and artists and saw the black beach and it was amazing.”

The ocean, the beach, feature evocatively in Myles’s work. “Even in Texas, where I live, which is desert, you can feel the Earth’s tectonics have shifted over millennia and in Texas I feel like I’m living under the ocean,” says Myles happily.

Afterglow is a trippy, funny, sometimes confronting voyage around the death and life of Rosie, the pit bull adopted by Myles from a litter of street dogs. The book has been described as playful, demanding, fantastical, feral. “A weirdo, Kafka-type book,” Myles has called it.

“When the dog was dying, I began writing, just because that was my impulse. She was dying for about six months, so in that time I got to think about it and be in it and make jokes with myself about it.”

There’s an extended play on what Myles calls “the god/dog reversal”. Well, dogs can come with god-like gifts, like unconditional love. “Right. For me this was a god that I would like, the dog god.”

Afterglow presents Rosie’s owner from the dog’s point of view, “when she’s loping towards me with a big smile and a rope like it’s good news I’ve got to go home for hours and sit on the floor.” In fact, Rosie takes credit for the poet’s oeuvre from 1990 to 2006, “as well she should”, says Myles serenely. Afterglow anatomises the transaction via an economic excursion to the heart of primary relationships: “She was it. Mainstay of my liturgy for sixteen point five almost seventeen years. She was observed. I was companioned, seen.”

The book blurs every boundary it comes across: male/female, human/animal and certainly, in a work where dogs get to speak for themselves, fact and fiction. “Part of what it’s doing is showing how much fiction there is in non-fiction. The two aren’t that separate, is what I really believe. By saying the book is a memoir, it would end up being the most fantastic fictional book I’ve ever written. I think that says a lot about form and how it happens.”

Afterglow is not Marley & Me but it can end up lumped in with the dog books. “Men are expected to do wild and wonderful things and make big complicated books. Paul Auster wrote a dog book and they just reviewed it. They didn’t put it together with a lot of other dog books,” sighs Myles. Myles has been touring the book. Do they get a lot of people telling them their own dog stories? “Oh, yeah. I’m signing a lot of books to people and their dead dogs. It’s a whole other inscription experience. It will be, ‘Write it to my Dad and Otto, his dog who he lost’. They show me a lot of pictures of living and dead dogs. So I’ve become a sort of shrine-y place.” You can’t help but laugh. “It’s very peculiar and very sweet.”

Very peculiar and sweet: it’s not a bad description of the experience of reading about the poet and their dog. “Part of what I’m meditating on is something just being alive that lives with me always until it doesn’t live,” says Myles. “You don’t have to be Kafka in Prague in the early 20th century to make much of something that isn’t human. And make something human of it, too.”

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.