Portrait

A conversation with the author of Chelsea Girls and Afterglow: A Dog Memoir.

By Emily Bitto.

Writer Eileen Myles

A firm handshake and a warm smile later and we are heading downstairs to order coffee. Everything about Eileen Myles is pressed and fresh, almost preppy: dark, rolled-cuff denim jeans, a plaid shirt and a neat navy blazer, the chin-length, floppy hair, reminiscent of a six-year-old boy before his first cut, except Myles’s is steel grey with streaks of white. Still, there is an ageless and indefatigable energy that bubbles up and out of this person, unremitting, that makes me feel a bit slow.

A conversation with Myles is a lesson in agility and curiosity. Like their unruly new book, Afterglow: A Dog Memoir, Myles is circuitous, elastic, at once lighthearted and incisive. When I listen back to the recording of our conversation, I am startled by the way in which their responses to my questions spiral out into what seems like completely unrelated territory, before circling back and homing in on the essence of the idea. “It’s funny,” Myles tells me, “in this piece I was writing recently, I was looking at myself in childhood a bit. And I thought, I’m not that different. I spend as much time as possible in a dream state. I could do very little, and I would be excited and in awe… I’m erratic. I’m dreamy and quiet and then I bound into the present in an almost too-much way. I’m a Sagittarius. I’m not sure if these things mean anything to you, but I think I’m a good one.”

What has changed recently for Myles is that, after decades operating in the literary margins, they have finally garnered some recognition, at least within a kind of Netflix-mainstream that means they can fill Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre with an audience of uber-hip book-reading types in their mid 20s and early 30s. This audience likely came across Myles via the show Transparent, which was created by Myles’s partner at the time, Jill Soloway, and which featured a character based on Myles, and a cameo appearance from Myles, too. Either that, or through reading the rereleased Chelsea Girls, an “autobiographical novel” that was way ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994, but that has paved the way for the slew of such hybrid works published in recent years by authors such as Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner.

“I’m having a big moment,” Myles says, not without a certain irony. The reason for this attitude is partly that this “big moment” has come late for Myles, and rather than engaging with what is now a substantial body of work, interviewers keep asking Myles questions such as, what’s ageing like?

“I’ve been in a period of rising power,” Myles says, “and I can’t believe how much people try to engage me about my age … I’m sort of asked to publicly take myself down because it’s got to be only temporary; like, it’s a fluke that I’m even talking to you, so please tell me about weakness and your vulnerability.”

The other side effect of success is that it has the potential to undermine the kind of embattled tenacity that often keeps marginal writers going for long enough to finally achieve it. I ask Myles what the impact of success has been on their work and identity. “Well… I mean, it’s the real thing of, say, being on trips like this, and having conversations like this… I think one of the difficulties of getting the attention that we all want so much is that increasingly your job is to be ‘you’, as opposed to being that person.”

At this point, Myles gets on another beautiful, rambling roll: “I did my chart in 2013 or something. And at the time I was like, ‘I just wanna be someplace really quiet and working’, and they were like, ‘Well, let me see… No, no, you’re not going to get that for a long time.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And it’s been sort of delightful that I’ve had these several turns of events which have produced a lot of publicity for me, and, you know how it is in the writing world… I’m a poet. I’ve been a poet since the ’70s. I was with this gang of poets – we were the younger poets, but we knew John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg, and Alice Notley was my teacher – and I saw everybody, and went to the parties, and the poetry world was smaller at that time, so if you knew which world you wanted to be in you could meet them all, and I did … The language ‘mainstream’ wasn’t even in use when I began, and I remember when it came in in the ’80s: I remember Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems came out, and there was an article in Time called ‘Mainstreaming Allen Ginsberg’, and I remember thinking it sounded like they were making him large, when in fact he was the most famous poet in the world. So what does this mean, even? But what it did start to mean was that the world that we considered the centre, and the only one worth taking seriously, was now regarded as alternative or fringe, because, you know, publishing really changed and became corporate, and the whole mid-list thing vanished and it just became about which writers would sell. And, then, I’ve become one of them – although I don’t know how much I really sell … I sell a lot less than anybody who’s famous, but I’m a known writer now and it’s just so funny to suddenly be in this other thing.”

What this will mean for Myles, we will have to wait to find out. So far, they seem to be responding with the self-described “morose cheery” outlook that epitomises their approach to the world. “The joke continues,” Myles says. “It’s sort of like, if being an alcoholic didn’t destroy my writing, and being a lesbian didn’t destroy my writing, and the academy didn’t destroy my writing, then why would good fortune and attention destroy my writing. And it’s sort of a provocation and a prompt to what you make in response to that.” The aim, then, is simply to keep working as usual. “I mean, you don’t ever return to the same time, but that is my goal, to be in that space. To be kind of poor and unwanted, and excited…” At this point, their clear, sparkling eyes crinkle up with laughter. “But not to be poor,” they say. “And not to be unwanted.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Not poor nor unwanted". Subscribe here.

Emily Bitto
is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize.