Eileen Myles Wants to Put a Poet in Every Supermarket
The author of ‘Evolution‘ on politics, Twitter, and why we should make poetry mundane
One of the things I love about New York City is the mere possibility of Eileen Myles. In 1974, it was possible for Myles to move to New York with the intention of being a poet. It was possible to build a community of poets around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and take advantage of workshops and events happening around the city. In 1977, it was possible to find a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, and in 1992, it was possible to run for President of the United States with an “openly female” campaign.
When I was a child, queerness was not a possibility because I had no mental model for queerness. Until I turned 30, writing poetry was not a possibility because it never dawned on me that I could or should write creatively. The mere possibility of Myles’ work and life has had untold effects on queer artists and feminists like me. It was possible for Myles so it is possible for us.
On a cloudy Saturday morning, Myles and I conducted a phone interview with each of our rambunctious pit bulls vying for attention over the phone. We talked about settler colonialism, pedagogy, queer humor, and Myles’ trip to Palestine.
Candace Williams: In “I am Ann Lee,” I really love the midway revelation via footnote that we are in fact reading a keynote you delivered at the Feminine Mystic Conference. When I reread the poem with that information, it becomes a different experience in some ways. Can you talk about your process for writing and delivering the actual speech? What was it like in the room when you gave the keynote at the Feminine Mystic Conference?
Eileen Myles: Well, it was in a little church, like a chapel, which could have gone a lot of different ways, but in fact, it was actually really great. The setting was good and there was something about the shape of the setting that made me feel like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. When I got the invitation, I was like, “How can I not want to speak at a conference called the Feminine Mystic put on by the Shaker Museum?”
I started by doing research. My friend, David Rattray, who died in the ‘90s, was a poet, translator, and a researcher. He worked at Reader’s Digest Books and I had him come to the first class I ever taught with NYU and it was expository writing for adults. It was an evening class. So, David came to talk to them and he said the first thing you always do when you’re doing a research project, is to make a list. I started to make a list because I had a few things on my mind and I started to find information about the Shakers. Now, I understand the Shakers differently. I understand that Ann Lee wasn’t celibate for celibacy sake. Women in colonial times were just cattle. A man could get a woman, and he would make her pregnant as many times as she could be, and one of those pregnancies would kill her, and then he could get another wife. A woman was just produce and it’s amazing that we’re still on some end of that same condition right now, politically.
But, just that alone made me really feel differently about all the Shakers. Also, it was really fun to say, because I think as somebody who does write about sex and is even a little bit known for it in some ways, it was really a pleasure to put my own sexual condition right at the top and say I haven’t had sex for X number of months. I thought, “Okay, this is outrageous.” This is a revelation that felt naked in a way because I feel like embarrassment propels me a bit. It’s always like, “Okay, I’ve made myself really uncomfortable. What do I close myself in now?” And it became facts, and thoughts, and feelings and so on. Then, the location, PTown was perfect and I was still uncomfortable and I couldn’t believe I had to write this talk. But, the political condition of the world was surrounding me, so I think writing a talk like that is kind of shedding. At a conference, I don’t have to worry about who’s coming. It’s self selecting so I imagined the room and the building while I was writing.
I was able to explore the Comey situation in an immediate way. We tweet to have a collective experience with other people and I think the very nature of the invite gave me an opportunity to talk and to process that stuff in detail. It was almost like processing with a friend.
Embarrassment propels me a bit. It’s always like, “Okay, I’ve made myself really uncomfortable. What do I close myself in now?”
CW: I think that sounds a little similar to how I write. I spend a lot of time reading, whether it’s poetry or historical documents. I like going into the archives and pulling up the New York Times from 50–100 years ago and seeing how they wrote about black people, how they wrote about the FBI, how they wrote about different things.
EM: Oh, that’s cool. That’s really smart.
CW: I teach sixth graders how to write. I say, “This is notebook is gathering place and some of these scribbles might become seed ideas that you water and grow into a finished piece, but you should always have some kind of gathering place for all of these ideas.” Actually, I’ll tell them that you said that maybe I was right about gathering.
EM: Good. Believe me, because you’re right, what an amazing thing.
CW: Thinking more about “I am Ann Lee,” I noticed that you mentioned Palestine pretty early in the poem, then you circle back to it multiple times in the book. I talk to a lot of poets who are afraid to even mention Palestine in a poem, or even in tweets. I have friends who can’t even tweet about Palestine because they’re afraid to be fired by their employer.
EM: It’s astonishing. I think it’s incomprehensible, but also entirely comprehensible how we got to this place. Israel’s policy with Palestine is the same as the United States’ policy of with the native people and the enslavement of African-American people. It’s like this America, the way it was constructed and established, is of choices that are so similar to the choices of Israel in Palestine. We’re watching the same thing happen.
CW: That reminds me of June Jordan’s poems about Palestine. I was wondering how you approach writing about Palestine. Is it similar to how you approach other topics or do you say to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and talk about the Palestinian people and what’s going on in Israel.”
EM: Well, I had the astonishing good fortune, to travel to Palestine. There was a group called PalFest and I was invited to come to five cities in Palestine with this group. We were there to be shown and I think we were chosen as people who are already disposed to know and think about Palestine. For me, it’s really been the gradual thing. I just wrote an essay that I’m writing nervously about Palestine. I’m not even sure of the name of the journal, but it’s a friend of mine Ismail, who was on that trip, and he’s working with a magazine and they’re doing a Palestine issue. He asked a bunch of us to contribute.
The trip was the first time I’ve been in something that is exclusively about Palestine. It’s been leaking into my tweets and my life. I think I was really out of it in the ‘80s with talk of the PLO. I didn’t seem to get it. I didn’t know what was going on really. When I finally did understand, and started to see similarities to other struggles, natives peoples in this country, Ireland, and daily living for African-Americans. When I went to Palestine, the U.N. had us come to their offices and showed us maps. We went to checkpoints and museums. We had journalists and guides on the ground and it was mind blowing that this could be possible in this moment in time after so many fought against what happened in South Africa. I realized that we were in an apartheid state and we’re acting somehow as if that’s okay with the complete support of the EU and the United States. It was mind boggling. The world continues to be a place that produces the impossible.
The decisions made 75 years ago stick. In “I am Ann Lee,” I write about meeting that lawyer, Diana, who defended people whose homes were being knocked down. We talked about the politics of that, which were completely impossible. A village that’s about to be destroyed for no reason, for no reason, except that they want that land.
But, even here in Texas, we had a pipeline put through that nobody wanted. The state collaborated with the Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire who wanted to bring oil and gas from Texas to Mexico. These are rich people. They put that pipeline in because that’s what they wanted to do. It was government that was beyond government. The situation Palestine is exactly that and I don’t know. It renders me speechless that it’s possible, that our senator, Chuck Schumer believes that these are not human rights issues. Again, people are deemed not human, like they’re terrorists when they stand up for themselves. The people who are going into Congress during these hearings right now are being brought out and are not seen as people expressing their freedom of speech. They’re trouble. They’re problems.
I don’t have anything more articulate to say than that the very common, simple language I heard when I went there. They explained the colonial settler projects and then I understood. I was like, “Oh, right. We just settled this land. We acted as if there wasn’t anybody here,” you know?
It’s like when you talk about shepherds and you say, “Well, they’re not using the land.” Well, shepherds don’t use land like that. Don’t they graze? That’s the nature of it. We don’t say ranchers aren’t using the land if you don’t see cattle in every single spot, so this is in a rational deliberate erasure being supported with millions and billions of dollars.
Now, we’re cutting back billions of dollars in aid to Palestine, meaning that schools and people will be starved.
Why does the United States still ally itself with Israel? 24 states have laws against BDS. That’s, again, incomprehensible. Why does Israel, in a sense, have more rights than the United States in terms of our right to speak up and our right to protest?
CW: I was taught in school that I should be logical about things, that I should avoid emotion, and that if I thought about things long enough, then they would make sense. Then, I feel like when I hear people talking about colonialism and people losing their homes and sickness and schools, all of those things, to me, feel very simple. There’s a logic that our government and greedy people put around it but it’s actually impossible. It doesn’t make any sense yet it’s still so real in the lives of people. It seems impossible to even cut through but I think that at least we can write about it now, start talking about it, and hopefully make some changes.
EM: Just one more thing — the thing that people are looking at now is the argument that it is an ancient homeland. That’s just untrue. There was so many different peoples in that part of the world. There was so much immigration. Nobody’s talking about the ancient homeland of indigenous people here in the United States and what is constructed as Israel has so much less a valid claim than Native Americans do to the land we’re standing on.
Okay. I’ll let go of it there. All it is is that if you care something about something to the degree which I feel overwhelmingly engaged and angered and outraged with Palestinian issues, how could you keep it out of your writing? How could you not tweet about it? The silence around Palestine is what’s astonishing to me.
If you care something about something to the degree which I feel overwhelmingly engaged and angered and outraged with Palestinian issues, how could you keep it out of your writing? How could you not tweet about it? The silence around Palestine is what’s astonishing to me.
CW: One of the reasons that I like teaching is that teachers can help people break silence or to even know they can write. You mentioned your NYU expository writing class and I know that you teach quite a bit. I was wondering how you go about teaching writing and how you help people start to talk about the impossible.
EM: I think, like what you were saying about reading about something a lot, I feel like with politics and anything that you want to write about, you have to consume it and put it in your body and see how it circulates. The thing about teaching writing is that you’re really teaching someone to notice the rhythm of their mind and the way they manage language intrinsically. I think that everybody has a language body. In workshops, I always start with exercises that are about using language and texts that aren’t originated by the students, just appropriating stuff and making poems out of found speech. I don’t like the term “found” so much, but it’s just listening to the world, listening to a consciously chosen reading. I mean, it’s obvious we all go to readings all the time, we’re always taking down notes, and taking down words, and walking through the world taking language. I like to get people practicing taking language, not because appropriation is so inherently important, but to start to understand how the way you build something has everything to do with your metabolism, and your choice, and your energy, and your way of hearing, your way of not hearing, and knowing when to shut up, and when to listen, and what to put next to each other. I like to make people self-conscious about their own experience of taste and collage.
I think once you start to have a habit of language in mind and realize that there’s something signature about your particular way of assembling poems, and prose, and whatever genre, then you realize that everything is content. You just dive into an area, and then it’s like the more you become obsessed with it, the more it becomes part of your thinking and part of your moving. What you put back out into the world is intrinsically yours. Palestine is the material I’m using to construct the edifice of mind, existence, and belief. I mean, in a way you’re sort of always writing the same thing but you’re using different materials and different content for different purposes. Everything is an invite in some way.
I think once you start to have a habit of language in mind and realize that there’s something signature about your particular way of assembling poems, and prose, and whatever genre, then you realize that everything is content.
At the height of writing Cool for You, which I call a nonfiction novel, I had this dilemma. My Irish grandmother was in a mental hospital for the last 17 years of her life. That was my dad’s mother and we used to go to the mental hospital when I was four years old. We would visit her one Sunday a month. It was never explained to me how she was there, how I had a grandmother, why she was there, and what the story was. When I was working on this book, I was looking at the idea of women inside of institutions, myself being a teacher, camp counselor, and family member. I petitioned the state of Massachusetts to get my grandmother’s records. Then, I got them. It was shocking because there was more information in them about my family than I had ever been given, not just about her but about who they were in 1940, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
It was exactly the same thing you were talking about, where I just read it, and read it, and read it, and read it, and read it until I sort of became it. Then, it came up in my work because it inhabited me. So, it’s kind of like that. I worked with a composer once on an opera and that’s exactly what he did. Writing is an act of composition. Michael had me write the libretto. Then, he memorized it and then he wrote the music to it. He needed to inhabit my speech and understand my rhythms, and write with it, and through it, and alongside it. He occupied it. So I feel like it’s an intimate to approach a subject. Palestine is like that. I feel like it’s one of my beloveds at this point in time. I mean, I can’t stand to use the word occupy in terms of Palestine, but I guess there are occupations that are liberations, and that’s probably what I’m talking about. Obviously writing is one of those and anything that we love is an occupation. It’s like you’re just occupying something to bring it to another pitch.
CW: I like the idea that you occupied what wasn’t even really the text of your grandmother, but the text of the state, and of the medical industry in relation to your grandmother. I like the idea that we can occupy the different texts that tend to be weaponized against us.
EM: Yeah, of course.
CW: For my writing, a big direction that I’m going in is erasure poetry. I find an article from the New York Times from 1906 that talks about people who are like me but lived a long time ago. The media depicted black people a certain way and that kind of dictated our future.
CW: With erasure poetry, I’m actually able to change and subvert the power relationship. The New York Times still has way too much power over my life. Even if I don’t read it, it’s forming the opinions of people who either by voting, or even by these really underground backroom deals, influence everything around me. I wish more people really thought about found poetry and erasure. I’m going to teach a Poetry Project workshop about it soon because I think that erasure poetry really helped me understand the power of relationship between me and everything I read. Whether it’s an ad, or an article, or a tweet, there’s actually a power dynamic being enacted and I think we have to subvert some power dynamics and create new dynamics.
EM: Right. Right, right. No, I think that’s absolutely it. I remember a few years ago there was a group, who had an after-school program to teach kids how to unpack media and how to read the news. That is so interesting and so valuable because I feel like I came to it so late. I mean, I knew sort of maybe in the late ’70s (which is me and my late 20s), I started to understand that the demonstrations I went to were being reported inaccurately by the media. The numbers kept becoming smaller and smaller on the radio after I’d been someplace where it looked like a billion people were there. There was an investment on the part of the media and the government to say that we were fewer than we were. I saw that in action but it took me longer to understand it. It’s when I became engaged with any particular issue, during the ’80s and ’90s it was AIDS and Act Up, and you watched how the media describes it. You saw it every day. I see it with Palestine all the time, how they under-report it. Any violence towards Israel is over-reported. It’s not that things are lied about, they’re just omitted, or only one part of the conflict is described. It’s like the math is off and the math is invisible. The true calculation, you know?
CW: I try to teach media literacy with a librarian to our sixth graders. We try to teach them how to read the Internet, which they read all the time. I mean, they’re on their phone all the time and they’re on their computers all the time, but it’s just this really interesting thing to watch a child compare websites and talk to you about why they think that a website is accurate or not. Then, you have to explain to them that there are tricks that people use to make themselves seem more reliable than they actually are. Yeah, I just wish more people had access to that kind of information and training because I think it would change a lot of things.
EM: When I was growing up there was a class called political science but we did nothing. We just learned the difference between congress and the Senate, and so on. It was the most boring class. It was not at all lively or contemporary. Education is invested in the opposite of creating citizens.
CW: How so?
EM: Well, in that the tools that you’re describing are not routinely given to kids. People are not taught how to vote.
CW: No, not at all. I just think about my consciousness as a person. I went to college and I went to teacher grad school, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York and started reading my own stuff and meeting people, that I had heard my black history actually explained to me. Or even had the idea that the media could be wrong. I think gaslighting is also huge when it comes to power dynamics. I think we’re all being gaslit about gender, and race, and Palestine. The work of white supremacy and hegemony is that it erases all the work and it makes it seem like it’s a natural way of things.
EM: Exactly, exactly. Just the language you just used, “my black history,” it’s so intimate and empowered as opposed to being African-American and reading history.
CW: Yeah, definitely. Or even just making it feel like I actually have a place in history. My college was kind of conservative and I feel like we just read the Federalist Papers and Machiavelli 50 times. I read The Prince and The Art of War at least once a year for college credit. My college turns out a lot of lawyers and doctors. Honestly, a lot of white men who go on to have a lot of power. Why is it that I wasn’t reading something like Angela Davis, or Frederick Douglas, or Audre Lorde? How come I didn’t learn about Audre Lorde until I moved to Brooklyn in my early 20s? Why is that? That tells us who the education system is really for. I think it’s one of the reasons why I started teaching but I didn’t realize the full expanse of it until I actually started teaching in the Bronx, and seeing what kids are being taught, and why, and how it contributes to how they see themselves.
Earlier, you talked about helping people find their own voice or signature. I interviewed Michelle Tea a few weeks ago. In her book, Against Memoir, she has an essay about your work. During the interview, she said that queer humor is very important to her curation and writing and that queer humor helps us survive. Can you talk about how humor works for you? Do you think that there is kind of queer humor that is part of queer culture?
EM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I feel like when I think about humor and its place in writing, I think about grade school. I went to very conservative Catholic schools. I’m thinking about how much we laughed and how important it was. We established our own secret hierarchies within the classroom. We were up against the nuns. Whether it was a song we were supposed to be singing or another activity, there was this elaborate anti-code in the room that linked us and disrupted the tedium of the day.
When it exploded, you were tossed out of the room. I spent a lot of time standing in the hall and I was in trouble all the time in grade school and junior high because I could not control my laughter. I was always trying to kindle it in my friends. When I think about it, it was like sexuality. It was like this incredible like bursting thing that had to do with the fact that we were alive despite the fact that the system was trying to tamp us down and tamp down our sexualities, tamp down our minds, tamp down our bodies, and tamp down our presence. So much of the writing process is like when I’m writing something and suddenly think of something funny. It totally comes alive. People always ask, “well, who do you write for?” You know, I don’t know that until I think there’s something funny. Then, I think I know who will think it is funny and it makes me work. The work changes velocity, it speeds up, and it starts to have a real shape. When I was a kid, when I first discovered jokes, I remember telling my dad a joke and my dad laughing, how important that made me feel, and how he seemed shocked that I told a joke. He was shocked that his own daughter was funny and that I wanted to tell him a joke. I saw me changing in his eyes at that moment and I wanted that moment repeatedly, you know? When I was young and an insomniac, I would just lie in bed making up jokes, thinking about how it would change tomorrow, how I would seem, what I would be, and who I would be. It always made you into another person. It always changed the power relation. So I think humor is just the bedrock of my writing, you know? I probably think of jokes and Gertrude Stein more than anything when I think about writing and what I do. She always talked about circulation, breathing, thinking, and talking at the same time, and this kind of simultaneity of mind and body. I think humor is right in there as a trigger.
CW: This is making me miss teaching younger grades and I think one of the hallmarks of second grade is kid humor, and just helping them figure out what’s funny, and why, and who might enjoy their humor. I like kid humor because they actually notice very gloomy things but somehow they’re still so optimistic and so giddy.
EM: You can’t resist. Kids are just mowed down by laughing, it just blows their minds. Their response is so total.
CW: I connect to kids in middle school by laughing with them. They do hilarious things and they don’t think that I notice. Iff they do something, and it’s hilarious, I’ll just crack up in front of them and we’ll share that laugh. I think they realize, “Oh, Candace, is actually a real person”.
EM: And you have to give the laugh it’s total time. If it’s happening, it becomes the message, it becomes a teaching moment like you’re describing. It doesn’t go away till it’s been given all its time. A joke has a size, which is an incredible thing. I think when you’re writing a poem, it’s the same thing. You don’t know how long a poem is, you’re starting a poem and you’re really not cognizant at the outset. The joke is alive and that’s exactly what you were just saying. It’s a teaching tool.
EM: When I first started to write poems there was a lot of immediacy. There were open mics that I would take part in, so it meant that if I had written a good new poem, I could go to the thing on Friday night and my friends would be there. Once I arrived upon having a gang of poets, there being places that we agreed that we all went, and it’s St. Mark’s open mic. I mean, it was such a melange of older characters and newer characters, but we were the newer characters and so there was immediacy. In the telephone era, much more than the cell phone era, when I wrote a new poem I would call my friend and read it on the phone.
There was exchange that was immediate and that reduced as I went along. I remember one time there was a poetry organization did some kind of poetry team event (that wasn’t slam). There was a team from the Academy of American Poets and we were in competition. One competition was to write a spontaneous poem and I remember that I was trying to push Tracie Morris who was on my team into doing it, she was like, “Oh, I’m not gonna do that”. I got up and did something really dull. The opportunity to write a poem and distribute a poem at the same time just never seen like a rare egg. It seemed like a space that I could occupy.
I keep notebooks and I’m always composing. I’m composing all day long. I think most of us are doing that. When I discovered Twitter, I realized that I could come from a new kind of place of composition. I realized when I got a line, I could send it out to 25, or 50, 1,000, or 5,000 people depending on how many followers I had, and that you could engage the world regularly as a poet in a way that had never been possible. You could be alone and public at the same time. I realized that part of the difficulty with composing, in front of people was the fact of being in front of them. I can’t get up at a mic and write a poem but I can be sitting outside with my dog and get a good line and tweet it immediately. It’s revealed and hidden at the same time. It’s like the after-writing, which is private, can become public, which is an uncanny new tool.
It’s funny, I think I was going through a breakup a few years ago during a trip, and I just decided not to tweet. I just couldn’t let my insides out because I felt so vulnerable. So, I just wrote my tweets in notebooks. I still haven’t really dealt with that poem. They are like poems. I think they are pieces of poems or poems in themselves. I think they’re like poems and different from poems too. Tweeting might have produced fewer poems because it’s like jerking off in public. It’s sort of like you’re relieving some kind of tension in a way that you’re not used to. So it probably does affect the number of poems I write. But I still write plenty of poems. It’s not the problem. So that’s been an enormous tool…and there was a second part of this question that was interesting. What was it?
Part of writing on the internet is one way of touching this creature, which is us. It’s a new public body.
CW: What does it help you see?
EM: I think “who likes it” is interesting. There’s information that I get in my life that I continually think about like plants absorbing water. There’s all sorts of information. I just absorb without even thinking about it and I don’t know how that is. And I think that part of what happens when you tweet something, and a ridiculous number of people like it, is you really get this sense of how we absorb knowledge and information.
I remember when I was reading about chaos theory and the notion of a singularity. Something that has a shape that always goes that way. I think certain lines have a singularity and it’s so interesting to experience that at that kind of a micro/macro level. It’s not like you put a whole poem out and think, “Whoa, that was a good one.” You put out this piece and everybody can put that into their own book somehow.
The search term is a much more interesting thing. We’ve all started to think of things in terms of how “If I know what I want but I can’t get to it, what piece of it would bring me there?” The search term is an interesting new use of language and I think it’s affecting us much more than we know. There’s an elephant in the room and we’re all discovering it in all these different ways. I Part of writing on the internet is one way of touching this creature, which is us. It’s a new public body. I think we were always engaging that as poets, but now, some of the dreams of the Internet are true and real and the question is which piece are true and how do we use it? Politically, we’re all obviously seeing it used incredibly by our president.
CW: Yes, and there are a lot of systems that we don’t see that use it. For example, the NYPD are constantly searching tweets from people who live in New York. IBM and Google are developing algorithms and software that allow our law enforcement agencies and the government to parse this information. There’s the NSA. It’s interesting how each person is able to search through Twitter. I do it all the time. Actually, when I wanted to read older interviews that you had done, I did that on Twitter, because it was easier to find all of that in public tweets than it was through a search engine. But also there’s this bigger level of institutions doing it at scale with terrible purposes or they do it so they can sell us things.
EM: It’s just a question of what part of our mind is out there.
When I discovered Twitter, I realized that I could come from a new kind of place of composition. Tweeting is like the after-writing, which is private, can become public, which is an uncanny new tool.
CW: Yeah, the way I explain it when I do crypto and tech security trainings for artists and activists, is that it’s almost like a homunculus. Google is building a copy of you. This you that you don’t see gets coffee at the same time at the same places as you. It has all the same friends, uses all the same turns of phrase, and goes to the same stores. When I explain it that way, people are kind of shocked, and the scary thing is that we don’t own this copy of ourselves. That’s the intellectual property of Google and Facebook.
I don’t like saying that social media is good or bad, because it’s actually just a thing. What’s good and bad about it comes down to greed and what people are willing to do to monetize it or to weaponize it against other people. So, it’s definitely something I think about and talk to my students about. I tell them that down the road, everyone can Google them and see what they posted as 11- and 12-year-olds.
I’d like to ask you a final question. I love the poem “Acceptance Speech.” I feel like I probably could’ve just spent this whole interview asking questions about it. You talk about CETA, which is a program in the ’80s that funded artists in New York City. I started thinking about the Federal Art Project in the ’30s and ’40s and how most of my favorite artists, especially black artists and institutions in black neighborhoods like the Harlem Community Arts Center, were able to get money from that program. If you were given a few million dollars to pilot a similar program now, what kinds of projects would you fund, and what would you look for in the application process?
EM: I think I would just make poetry mundane. I think that I probably would assign poets to unlikely institutions across the country so there would be a pulse going on. There would be a different kind of news, a different relationship to language that would be driven and gathered locally. There are already are poets in the schools, MFA programs, and magazines.
This is just an interesting and amazing time to be a poet because of all the things we’re talking about. To normalize it by having poets occupy, not something as so obvious as libraries or the government, so I don’t even know what I’m talking about, it’s almost like—
CW: Like supermarkets?
EM: Like supermarkets. Or a farmer’s market. And maybe not even call it poetry. To have this relation to language be something that’s much more everywhere because it already is. People are already doing it. Ads are doing it, people are tweeting, and people are climbing this mountain of language in a whole different way, all the time. The program would be more like a facilitator.
Years ago I was at Naropa, and this poet Lorna Smedman, was giving a talk on Gertrude Stein. I appropriated her trick and started to use it in my classes. She used some text, maybe “Lifting Belly,” and she gave 80 people handouts. At certain points in the enterprise, she said, “Now let’s all read this together.” There was something so amazing about hearing Gertrude Stein together.
There are these plural possibilities in language, that certain poets use as part of what they do. I think that there’s so many ways that, unlike the school band, there could be a collectivity of voices in poetry and language. This could carry politics. Where there are pipes, water flows. It’s just more connectedness using poetry and language as the utility it is rather than the aesthetic object.
There could be a collectivity of voices in poetry and language. This could carry politics. Where there are pipes, water flows.
I mean it’s so funny is that when they started CETA in the ’80s, I applied and I got a little postcard that invited me to come for an interview. Somehow, I was so conditioned to get rejection and not acceptance, that I didn’t know I had been accepted. I thought I was rejected and I just threw the postcard away. Then all these friends of mine, Chris Crouse, Jeff Wright, and a bunch of my friends, created something called the Poetry Bus, and they traveled around New York State doing readings. There was a performance artist Diane Torr, who died recently, and there were CETA projects for women. I remember standing outside with Diane on a cold winter’s day for hours and being interviewed by various people but I couldn’t find my way into CETA.
It’s just so funny that I couldn’t even calculate acceptance as part of my story. That makes me think that the process is wrong. The cool thing about the Poetry Project when I got involved with it in the 70s was that I didn’t have to apply. I just came. They just made these little rooms behind the sanctuary, cold rooms with long tables, and you just walked in on Friday night and there was Alice Notley, you brought your beer and the workshop began. We were all there. There was a way of just gathering, more like Act Up than a poetry workshop. That kind of thing should be happening already and you just walk in and join it, rather than you apply to it. I would want whoever wanted to come, to come. Summer is such a jamboree of teaching poetry for a week and all these different places. I never pick the people. I never choose who takes my workshop. I always presume some people have MFAs and some people are in high school. I think it’s the best kind of workshop — that completely unstable level of proficiency. On some level, nobody knows how to write a poem. If I’m not writing a poem at this moment, I don’t know how to write a poem and I need to be brought there.
I have a lot of ideas, like doing a collective reading with CAConrad in a London gallery. These are ideas that I’ve gotten from other people like the LTTR collective. Ginger Brooks Takahashi, K8 Hardy, and Emily Roysdon were a gang of lesbians came out of the art world in the aughts. They had a magazine and gatherings. They did a Printed Matter event called called a Radical Read-in. Everybody came for two hours and read silently. You just hung out and read together. All sorts of people I know have friendships where they write together. They go to a coffee shop for two hours and write. I think collective writing is really great too. It’s nice not to think so much about production, readings, and creating little publications, as much as creating collectivities in which these activities are just happening.