Eileen Myles returns as a rock star of poetry
Like the characters in it, Eileen Myles’s “Chelsea Girls” has a bit of a checkered past. Initially scheduled for publication in 1994, what has become the poet’s best-known book was pushed back several months by the death of Charles Bukowski, the undisputed star of Black Sparrow Press. Later, when it was set to be published in France, that was delayed, too, when the translator died.
More than 20 years after it first came out, the timing of “Chelsea Girls” is finally spot-on. The book — a series of vivid snapshots of hard partying, sexual pursuits, and more coming-of-age misadventures, which the author situates “someplace between a novel, a film, and a long poem” — is being rereleased Tuesday by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. It’s a companion to “I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems,” Myles’s first collection with a major publisher. After decades building notoriety in the alternative world of small presses, Myles is returning to Massachusetts this fall as that rare creature, a rock star of poetry.
Though the Chelsea girls of Myles’s title refers not to the city across the Mystic River but to the Manhattan hotel, there’s a lot of New England in her writing, ranging from tales of her upbringing as a self-described Arlington “townie” in this book to her declaration that “we are all Kennedys” in her most widely noted work, “An American Poem.” In “Bath, Maine,” the section that opens “Chelsea Girls,” she recalls the local bars that were “like the bars everywhere, except with that New England distrust, no one talks to you.”
It’s one of the reasons she left Boston for New York in 1974, when she was 25. Yet she keeps coming back, both on the page and in person. Myles, now one of the leading contemporary figures in what she calls “vernacular” poetry, reads at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Oct. 26. She’ll also lead a walking tour on Oct. 11 in conjunction with Harvard Art Museums’ “Corita Kent and the Language of Pop.” And in the spring she’ll return again for a monthlong residency at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, where she will dig into its extensive collection of poetry recordings to explore writing in the Boston accent, from Robert Lowell to Robert Creeley.
“I’m very curious what they sound like — which Boston got recorded,” she says on the phone from her new home in Marfa, Texas, where she now plans to spend her time away from New York.
It was her sense of being an outsider — a poor kid, a woman in a male-dominated vocation, a girl who liked other girls — that first compelled Myles to leave her hometown. That sense still defines her work. But her overdue appearance with a big publisher is the latest in what’s become a long line of awards, fellowships, and other institutional recognition for a poet who has never shied from getting up in the reader’s face. Myles’s work has become, she jokes, “inside-outsider.”
From her new poem “My Devil”:
Give me that
me that menu
come or go
In your prayer.
“She’s very much a poet of the streets,” says Nick Flynn, another Boston-to-New York transplant and the author of “Another [Expletive] Night in Suck City.” “There’s something about her energy, her fearlessness, her presence. Any female poet I know, the road leads back to Eileen. She was the godmother even before she was old enough to be a godmother.”
But he also sees a broader appeal in her work. After watching her read at the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York last week, Flynn told her he thinks she is “the best poet in the country.”
Though she certainly has a devoted female following — Lena Dunham and Kim Gordon are two of the notables who blurbed the new collection — Myles doesn’t want to be confined to a particular audience.
“They like to say this is ‘chick lit,’ ” she says. The publishing industry has a frustrating habit of ghettoizing its own products, she says. When she talks about a dichotomy of class in poetry, “that’s the kind of class distinction I mean.”
When she first arrived in New York in the ’70s, the culture there was dominated by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, both young rocker-poets, and people like Myles’s late friend Jim Carroll, who wrote the punk litany “People Who Died.”
Having grown up in a provincial Boston, Myles was surprised to meet new friends who were unafraid to attract attention to themselves.
“In Arlington, people would laugh at you if you tried to get people to look at your drawings or listen to your poetry,” she says. “It was like you thought you were special.”
By the time she published “An American Poem,” in 1991, she had become an important voice on the LGBT scene. Through the previous decade she had conducted solo performances, published a literary magazine, and served as the artistic director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.
“It’s a big statement, if you use the word ‘America’ in the title of your poem,” she acknowledges. “Whitman knew that. If you’re going to be a poet and use the word America, you better be good.”
While self-doubt does not appear to be one of her hurdles, Myles does admit that her improvisational writing style — she doesn’t labor over the work, even if each word seems meticulously placed — isn’t always flawless.
“Poetry from the bottom up is an act of selection,” she says. In compiling a career-defining collection like “I Must Be Living Twice,” “you kind of feel your way through the crowds of poems. The good ones came forward a long time ago, and the bad ones fell away.”
When she wrote “Chelsea Girls,” she says, “I didn’t know how to write a novel, so I sort of let it happen in waves.” She recalled seeing Truffaut films at the old Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge: “The only way I could write it was to think like scenes in a movie. I was sending myself postcards from other times in my life. I was basically trying to put a voice track on a bunch of visual memories that couldn’t speak.”
That’s what she’s been doing through all her work. And that voice is only getting louder.