Eileen Myles Talks the 70’s, Patti Smith, and “Poetry Voice”

"The longer I've done public readings, the more I've understood that you have to take that space, and not worry about the audience getting uncomfortable." — Eileen Myles

Rebecca Hart, who portrayed Eileen Myles in "Rimbaud in New York," a co-production between the Civilians and BAM, which ran for one week in March 2015. Photo Credit: Rebecca Greenfield.

If you didn’t already know about the Civilians process, we do investigative theater. That means we interview subjects for the pieces we create, which often weave scenes with monologues and songs crafted from interview transcripts. We always leave much good material left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. This past season, we presented “Rimbaud in New York” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In preparation for the play, artistic director Steve Cosson interviewed poet Eileen Myles in which she recalls the relationship between poets and other artists, Patti Smith’s quick rise, and mentoring younger poets.

STEVE COSSON: One gets the feeling that in the seventies poetry scene, everybody was talking about Rimbaud. Or is that just how it seems now?

EILEEN MYLES: No, I mean, everybody was talking about everything. Everybody was talking about surrealism, everyone was talking about drugs…and Nerval, everyone was talking about Artaud. You know, he’s part of a web of associations, cause he preceded surrealism, so he’s just a part of our poetic legacy. You know? Part of our art legacy. Everybody knew who Rimbaud was, is the easiest way to put it

STEVE: Can you say just a little bit about what the scene was like at that time? Just for those of us who came to New York later and we have our ideas of what it might have been like in the seventies. Would your scene, that East Village scene, was that the same scene where, say, Patti Smith was doing her readings? Or was that an overlapping scene?

EILEEN: No, no, Patti Smith was before. I got to New York in 1974, and Patti Smith was, she was beginning to soar, cause she was gone from the poetry world. And she was performing at CBGB and hotel lounges. There was a place called the Hotel Diplomat, which is where I saw her for the first time in ’74. And she had, you know, one guitar player or something. But she had already left the poetry scene, so I never saw her in St. Mark’s — she just wasn’t there. She was gone. I mean, the poetry scene was kind of a launching pad for her, like she went from, like the bottom of the rung at St. Mark’s Church was the open mic. That’s where young people and losers and old weirdos showed up, and Patti Smith came out of that scene. And I think she was sort of plucked out of that scene and given like a special solo gig. And then she got everybody on the planet to come to that gig. And then she was gone.

STEVE: Yeah, she launched pretty fast.

EILEEN: I mean from what I’ve gathered, she was around the scene for a while, but when it happened, it happened. I mean, I guess that’s how it always is, it happened fast, but there was a slow buildup that we just don’t hear about. That I don’t think she’s even written about very accurately.

STEVE: In your own work or sort of in the community, was there any sort of common sense of what poetry did in the world? Was there a shared sensibility of like, this is something that is meant to affect society, or it’s something that exists in and of itself?

EILEEN: Well, it was pretty mixed. On the one hand we absolutely…I don’t think anybody really gave a shit, you know what I mean? It was sort of like, all of us came to New York very literally to do this thing, and so it was the fact that you had found a small group of people, that you were writing poetry, and that they got it. That you could read it, and you could read older people from other times, that you were kind of making up this ethos, which is a thing we really cared about. And there were jokes, you know, the poets slightly older than us had this habit of writing poems that were “poets of the future” and I think they were joking about futurism and all these movements, these European movements in the early part of the 20th century that were always acting as if they were announcing to the future a new avant-garde. And the poets just before us, I think they were laughing at the antiqueness of that sort of sentimental wish, you know what I mean? Because we’re, you know we were already in a rock and roll media time, when poetry was a little quaint, even though we were making it new, but there was a general sense that poetry beyond our immediate circle was a quaint thing, so I think they were sort of doing a send-up of the idea of reaching to the future with poetry, you know? And so we would maybe joke around about that, but there wasn’t much sense that this was going anywhere except here. I mean, that was sort of — there was always that ring around poetry, that there was always that, that was part of poetry’s ambition, in a way, so it was both — it was acknowledged kind of in a jokey way, more than a real, sincere — I think it was just too hard to wish for something more than what you had. And what you had was really great, because we were young, and that always feels sort of eternal.

STEVE: Was there a lot of crossover between disciplines? Like were visual arts people talking art with the writers? Like did it feel like one scene of the arts or overlapping worlds?

EILEEN: Well, everybody knew some painters, you know, everybody had friends who were making art, and of course there were older artists who were just like kind of the — they kind of patronized the poetry scene in a way, and helped and supported it. But you know, there was much more chemistry between musicians than painters at that time.

STEVE: I think sometimes when people talk about downtown or how things have changed, that part of that is a belief that “back then” artists were just doing it for the work. And now, everybody is a careerist in some way and is trying to get into the academy, or trying to get a teaching job or trying to make a living, and that’s somehow…because everything is more expensive, you have to. But do you think that’s an accurate characterization?

EILEEN: No, because look: The person people like to mention the most in some ways is Patti Smith, and nobody could every say Patti Smith wasn’t a careerist in the seventies. Everybody I know, if you wanted the work to be paying in some way, you were looking outside your immediate circle, in some way, at some point, you know. Even if it was partaking in somebody else’s career, even if it was like being a poet and going to a Patti Smith concert in ’76. It just, it shook your world in a little bit of a way that some people were making work. It was not just in this scene that you’re in. So I don’t know. I feel like it was a little, in the poetry scene it was a little verboten to say that, you know. But it didn’t mean nobody felt that. And certainly, I don’t know, there was a film scene in the seventies and eighties, of independent films, and Jim Jarmusch came out of that, which is like — I mean I’ve never seen that world that didn’t have ambition, and lots of it. It’s just like, because it looks quaint from here, it’s easier to say there wasn’t any, and I know, at the beginning of the conversation I was like, “No, we were just making up poems.” Because that was the only way to think as you’re making them, but it didn’t mean you weren’t looking over your shoulder in some way, in some fashion. Now, because people are more desperate about money, and because we didn’t have to worry about money so much, we didn’t have to talk about fame and the future so much.

STEVE: And do you have relationships with younger writers? Do you teach or have a —

EILEEN: Oh, yeah. Well, you know I teach less and less cause, you know, that’s the desirable narrative, I guess, is to have more time to write and more time to do your own stuff, but you can’t not — young writers approach you all the time and they read your work and they send you their work. And I have friends, they’re my friends and they’re writers. I follow what they do and I go to their readings and stuff. So it’s like, it’s sort of a natural way of things proceeding.

STEVE: What meaning Rimbaud might have for the writers you know who might be in their 20s now?

EILEEN: Well, you know I would take it writer by writer. I think he’s not so fashionable right now, among poets. I think that people were interested because John did a translation, but I would say that Arthur Rimbaud is not in this moment. I think it was definitely much more — you know, we had to read Rimbaud. He was part of it. Where, I think, a poet conceivably today could not read Rimbaud.

Baudelaire, like say, people aren’t really reading Baudelaire either…sort of like what used to be the romance poetry is not the same romance.

STEVE: Do you know why that is? Or do you have a theory?

EILEEN: Well part of it I think, is it might’ve gone a little local. Like somebody like Lorine Niedecker, who’s a kind of a newly discovered poet from the 30s, who was doing kinda funky, deadly — to discover that there’s amazing people on this continent that we never heard of. Who seem almost more exotic than Arthur Rimbaud, in a way.

STEVE: Do you have any personal philosophy about how poetry is performed? Like how you like to hear it out loud? Or how you read when you read your own work?

EILEEN: I just try and kind of give it the time it has inside of my head. Like if it’s a fast poem, let it tumble out and not worry that people don’t hear all the words. And if it comes in surges to really let that — I mean it’s like, public silence is a really exciting thing and something you have to learn how to occupy. You know, but to me, the longer I’ve done public readings, the more I’ve understood that you have to take that space, and not worry about the audience getting uncomfortable. So all of that should be in real time with the work and not, certainly not performed in any kind of poetry voice, which has just never been a part of the world that I’ve been in, but it exists, and it’s really weird, somebody comes up to you after your reading and says they like your work because you don’t do poetry voice. I think, “Where have you been going?”

STEVE: Your definition of poetry voice?

EILEEN: It’s like, the im-POSSible. Existence of DAY. Like I would be TALKing to you like THIS? WONdering. If you’ve GOTten. What you WANTed from this conversAtion. You know, like that really crazy, precious, I mean, get every word and let me sing it to you. Which like, “What the hell?!” I mean, it just seems to me really, our American ears recoil. And yet, that is kind of what’s served up a lot as poetry, it’s frightening.

STEVE: Yeah, know I ask mostly because we’re of course trying to figure out how to perform these poems from Illuminations onstage.

EILEEN: I like the question.

STEVE: Which I think we’ll probably have multiple answers, but maybe never know—

EILEEN: If I was you, I would invite ten poets from completely different backgrounds, just over an evening, and ask them to each read Arthur Rimbaud. And see what they do. Cause I think you’d be really surprised at how different people read it.


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