Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)

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It’s painful to be finished with this book, but I assuage with the idea that I will purchase a copy of it and so begin a neverending reread cycle. Nearly ever page is filled with inspiration, the freeing idea of poetry, that hated, unrespected, ill-paid art form that I’ve forgotten for so many years. I’m reminded again that Eileen Myles spent time in the same beach town in Massachusetts that I did, a connection that pulls me closer.

She begins with an epigraph from Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project I just broke down and purchased, it being too meaty to consume from the library—”The distracted person, too, can form habits.” This autobiographical tale leads her from Boston to New York, looking to establish herself as a poet first, and then find time and energy to become a lesbian. Along the decade that it took her to write this book, a friend donates her Pennsylvania country house, or she finds refuge in a winter cottage in Rhode Island, or she scribbles away at it in New York.

We share an obsession with finding the perfect bag:

I had a canvas bag, a white one. I had spent months searching for it—to hold my cigarettes, a book, a notebook and a black spring binder for keeping my poems in. The search for the bag produced a poem or two because of course it was a mythic search. The bag I wanted was beyond reason—something to hold my poems, twice as big as the universe and it must be androgynous. Cause, you know. And I found it: tough and white, and resembling something I’d wanted for a long, long time. All my life. A newsboy’s bag. I just wanted a paper route. To fling the Globe thunkily hard from the moving vantage of my bike, and speed off to the next address.

As she searches for her poet identity:

I walked east. I smoked while I walked because it made time go faster and it kept people away. Not really, but it had an effect. My destinations came from the back of the voice where they listed readings. On Tuesdays poets met at Emily Glen’s on Avenue D in the projects. She was nice, but what. She was like sixty and looked like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. She served little cookies and tea and had her special shiny chair and two fat men sat on her couch, and a swarthy looking youngish guy sometimes came. James. I had a dog with the same name and the coincidence embarrassed me, but the dog didn’t stay in the picture. James, the man, was overly serious, but sexy somehow, and I think he was married. He was rich. It seemed unclear what he did. It sounded like he built buildings, but that didn’t seem possible. He was about the same age as me but he treated me like a little girl. Would you like to read Emily said to me. Go ahead, smiled James. Egging me on. I’d shrug and hold my papers on my shaking knees, sweatily reading into this indecipherable bunch of kooks of which I was part.

She’s invited to attend a group reading in Princeton, so Eileen hops on a bus from the Port Authority in NYC, arriving late:

I called somebody’s house and a bald guy came and got me at the bus station and he told me their night was mostly over but maybe would you like to read a poem and I felt like a balloon with the air letting out, and after my poem I looked up at them all completely scared, and they asked me if I had studied poetry in college and I said no. I hadn’t.

I felt like they thought I was some kind of fool coming to Princeton; they taught in college these people, and had jobs so maybe they weren’t even real poets. Pretenders…. What I did get from this entire crowd was that anything goes. About time. I had a whole life of things to discuss… I was in public but I was totally alone. and I relished the opportunity to not be smothered. This was art.

On listening to people’s reading styles:

I had noticed that if somebody considered themself a Patti Smith person they arced the end of each line to fall, but then at the last second they shoved you a little bit with a whine. Like Patti Smiiith. Patti didn’t do that. Reading styles marked sides of the river. You knew in a whiff whether to listen to someone. And a perfectly good poet can sometimes learn to read wrong. It’s sad because they will probably never be able to hear themselves and change.

Poetry as the ugly stepsister of art:

I am so glad I am not an artist. A poet kind of is, but really it’s like you’re like a professionalized person. Poetry. Nobody knows what the fuck it is. And what makes it entirely odd is that there’s no money in it.

More on poetry:

Poetry (and his is why I love it and will until I die) always winds up being the conga line between random chaos and it. It being the real monster moving up the coast. The Norm. Pretty much the white norm though if you agree to its terms, anyone can come. Well, one of anyone. That’s what makes it so insufferable here. This horrible view. That the mind’s possessed of two stops. Good (which includes everything from “safe for kids” to the entire grim suburban American maw full of uplifting, meaningful, accessible verse), then dirty and crazy. And I would include “inaccessible” in there as well. Poetry that refuses to give it up on the first reading. We don’t have time for that!

On society:

It feels like we are missing something—a layer—well, maybe 2 or 20 got washed away by the storm, quietly removed, scrape-scrape, or plunk, dropped in the trash. In the past twenty years or forty years—not much public thinking going on in this country (watch out, world!) outside the academy, itself a very expensive and disconnected finishing school for artists who indenture the next ten years of their lives gambling on the prospect of their art career paying out getting a gallery, selling a book so they don’t have to sit with a bunch of losers wasting time sleepless working millions of hours a week to pay rent here in New York especially during their highly marketable youth while the government, Leviathan, fartingly collapses onto the vulnerable context of its own stupidity, the poor suffering world.

Being a poet is about observation, spying, infiltrating. Myles talks about Lucy Lippard’s book about the scarcity of working class artists, something I’ve been thinking about lately. Plus I just saw Lippard on screen, looming large in the Eva Hesse documentary at the Roxie, I’ve added her book to my list. Other tidbits to dig into: movies by Pasolini, Deleuze’s Masochism book

Chelsea Girls

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In my dream life, I meet up with Eileen Myles, Hito Steyerl, and Gail Scott for brunch once every few months to talk art, poetry, literature, life. In my real life, I simply clutch the pages that these women have bequeathed the world and give them free reign to romp in my mind, using their pitchforks to rouse my torpid thoughts. This 1994 gem from Myles shone some intellectual radiance my way on a rainy Sunday afternoon, making me wonder what percentage of strong women writing is done by ladies who love other ladies. Is it that straight women are usually caught up in domestic drudgery of raising a family or tamping down their own voice to please a dude? Evidence mounts and the mystery continues (see: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Gail Scott, Eileen Myles, Gertrude Stein).
Myles’ prose can barely contain the poetry bursting out of it, making it a hugely enjoyable reading endeavor. The fragments, the forceful bits, swirled up a memory for me of Gail Scott’s My Paris which came a few years after Myles’ work, and both hat-tip Gertrude. This is Myles’ attempt at autobiography couched as fiction, dealing with her alcoholic father who dies when she’s a teenager, growing up in Boston, surviving as a lesbian poet in 1970s NYC. There’s a section in here about Marshfield, MA and Brant Rock, a few spots I know well from my childhood visits. Myles’ family stayed on Hancock Street, a few blocks from my grandma’s Lowell Ave. cottage. She mentions the old stone church, showering in the backyard, going to the beach every day. The world is truly a small place.