The poet Eileen Myles ran as an “openly-female” write-in candidate in the U.S. presidential election against George H. W. Bush in 1992. At a time when a minority win was nearly unfathomable (then Arkansas’s governor Bill Clinton and the businessman Ross Perot headed the Democratic and Independent parties’ tickets), her act was one of championship and social defiance. She had done so after Bush declared that the country’s greatest threat to free speech was posed by what he deemed “the politically correct”—the marginalized activists, minorities, women, people of color, queers, and those Myles described as “everybody who he didn’t want to hear from more than once”—were a source of conflict. While Clinton eventually took hold of office, Myles’s nearly year-and-a-half-long campaign / pseudo-performance piece was emblematic of the queer writer’s own creative oeuvre. In her nearly two dozen printed and published works in full, Myles has exploited raw emotion and social critiques with biting wit. Much of her work decodes New York City as a locale—a place that she first moved to in 1974 to become a poet and would eventually become a hub for her creative friends, like the author turned publisher Dennis Cooper. Although situated across the country in Los Angeles, Cooper was a steady fixture in the 80s literary scene and quickly became pen pals with Myles. They first met, in fact, via U.S. postage, when each had been sent copies of the other’s magazine: Myles’s Dodgems (1977-1979), which published radical poems from the likes of John Ashbery and Barbara Guest and Cooper’s cross-discipline Little Caesar, which eventually became his imprint. Here, the old friends speak for the first time in nearly a decade about their early beginnings and the changes they’ve encountered along the way.
Dennis Cooper—We met by mail before we met in person!
Eileen Myles—It’s so antique now but I still really love it. It’s so funny and cool that so many social contracts came out of the mail at that moment in time. When I made my magazine, I would just take a ton of speed and stay up all night mailing it out to people and writing crazy letters.
Dennis—Same with me except it was coke. [Laughing.]
Joshua Glass—What do you think it was about each other’s work that attracted you to it?
Dennis—Tim Dlugos introduced your magazine and your work to me. I remember being completely blown away, and afterwards I read your poetry by whatever means I could. Later, I published one of your earliest books, Sappho’s Boat, on my press. And then you were in that “under 30” poets anthology [Coming Attractions: An Anthology of American Poets in Their Twenties] that I did, even though you were, what, 29? Almost 30. I was instantaneously (and always) just really excited by your writing, but I don’t know exactly why. When we met, I was really into the New York School. There was some of that in there, but I thought what you were doing was totally original.
Eileen—There was a whole pile of young, queer poets that we were just meeting in a really exciting way at that time. I do remember that when I saw “Little Caesar” I loved that it was like movie magazines and fan stuff and rock ’n’ roll mixed in with poetry, which I thought was really cool and exciting. It was such a collective thing. Us meeting each other was simultaneous with this whole group meeting each other, and I think all of us were thrilled that there was a gang of weirdos that were sort of “of the poetry world” but were also accessible—each one of us in a different way.
Dennis—That’s really true. We really had this kind of young gang: Bob Flanagan, Amy Gerstler, David Trinidad, and Jack Skelly—all those guys. There was this parallel universe happening, especially for us in L.A., because L.A. was such a backwater town. L.A.’s poetry was either [Charles] Bukowski or nothing, so we were kind of lost out there. We were really fired up seeing young poets who were doing all this stuff in New York that were immediately attached to some of the things that we had been involved or interested in, like the older poets. There was a rock ’n’ roll energy about it. An art energy, too. I felt an immediate, cross-national scene happen where there was this intense connection between the young people on both coasts.
“As soon as you get to New York, you start to think about leaving, because in so many ways—even in the 70s, which was so cheap and easy—it’s horrible and oppressive and hard and just not an easy place to live.”—Eileen Myles
Eileen—We couldn’t email each other. We had to mail shit and physically travel across the country to meet each other. The older generation that we were influenced by was very much about a secret world. I liked looking at art, but music was much more important to us. The ideal young artist was in a band at that time. That was part of one of the hallmarks of what you were doing, what all of our friends were doing at that time—not fitting into the academic thing, or the poetry thing, or even the art world thing, but into this music scene thing.
Dennis—Because it was the late 70s when we all got to know each other. That was obviously the heat of punk, and there were all those literary people making music: Patti Smith, Richard [Brautigan], and Tom Verlaine—all those guys who were this literary thing happening in music itself.
Eileen—Poetry was what they left to become them.
Joshua—You mention this really creative social-personal-collaborative circle. Do you think that sort of dynamic exists (or even can exist) today when it’s far easier to connect?
Dennis—What’s interesting is that it allows for works to not only be in just New York, L.A., and San Francisco. It allows this really large scene that’s scattered all over the U.S. It seems like there is a lot of energy, a lot of something. I don’t really see the internet as being a negative on that.
Eileen—I think that tiny clusters of people in the real world are doing things and just making. It’s like, just get on a fucking train and go to Brooklyn to some little bar to see it. I’m really glad some young writers are doing it, but I’m not exactly following. With New York, the way things have changed, everything was in this very close matrix, and so all the older poets were more likely to go to things that younger poets would make, because you didn’t have to go two boroughs away to get to it. The economy has really changed stuff. Of course writing programs changed things. It made it about money in a certain way. I think that poetry is really popular in this broad way right now—that’s one of the funniest things that’s happened.
Dennis—I don’t even know where anybody lives. I read everything online because I am in Paris, so I’m really out of touch with where exactly everything is located geographically. I have this weird thing, because I’m older or something, when I read these young poets I just immediately think they all live in New York, and I’m amazed when they don’t. But I’m also amazed when they do.
Joshua—You both reference New York so much in your upbringing and in your school poetry. Dennis, you live in Paris now, and Eileen, you split your time between New York and Marfa, Texas. Can you talk about the decision to leave New York, how that came about, and how that affected your work going forward and now, today?
Dennis—New York to me was a dream. I grew up in L.A. and I lived there my whole life until I moved to New York in 1983. I always wanted to check it out; there was a very vibrant scene of young writers and I wanted to be a part of that. At that point, the older and younger writers knew each other, so that was cool. I don’t know if that still happens, but you’d go to New York and hang out with the gang of younger poets, and then you’d also end up hanging around John Ashbery and Alice Motley and people like that. I just wanted to be there, it was super exciting. I was there for two years and then I moved to Amsterdam because I was in love and I was broke and doing too many drugs. Then I came back again. At that point, I was mostly in the art world, and just got completely distracted by the scene, because that was the late 80s and it was just horror. I couldn’t deal with the politics, so I left and came back to L.A. Ultimately, I wasn’t in New York very long, but it was an incredibly intense time. I made some of the best friends of my life there, and had a lot of great things and a lot of debts. New York still feels like the dream, but I don’t think of it as ever having been my home. It seems like I just visited there.
Eileen—As soon as you get to New York, you start to think about leaving, because in so many ways—even in the 70s, which was so cheap and easy—it’s horrible and oppressive and hard and just not an easy place to live. Early on, Anne Waldman, who we would weirdly call an “older poet,” even though she was only like five years older than us, told me: “New York never changes, it’s always the same.” On a certain level, that is still exactly true. There are nights where I’ll go out with a pile of people—some of them younger, some older—and I’m like, “Okay, there is no place in the world where I would have this night exactly like this.” It remains a certain kind of touchstone, but on the other hand, look at the real estate: You can’t talk about younger people being out in Bushwick and not think that’s really different from me paying $115 rent when I first moved to New York. Economically, it’s radically different. But then, in some soulful way, I feel something of it is still in that steady state. I’m still attached to that, and it might be that I need to feel that way, but I still think people come with this kind of pilgrim-y feeling like, “Make me an artist. Make me somebody.” That kind of appetite can be beautiful.
“I’m not wired to be even-keeled or high-functioning. I just have to do so much just to be awake or feel good. Writing is just a balancing act for me.”—Eileen Myles
Dennis—Did living in New York affect your actual writing in any kind of radical way?
Eileen—It created the work. I was clueless about who to read before I came to New York, and New York was just this combustion of people saying, “Read this. No, don’t read that.” Even my little magazine was named “Dodgems,” which means bumper cars, and I just felt like my head was all these collisions. I think New York is that. Whenever I have lived someplace else, I really have [had] to get comfortable with this peace and with this other kind of space.
Joshua—What are your current inspirations? What keeps you engaged, and perhaps in unexpected ways, to keep writing and to keep making work today?
Dennis—I can’t put a finger on exactly how being in Paris has affected my writing. I don’t really write poetry much anymore; that had happened a long time ago. I mostly wrote fiction, but right now I’m not even writing fiction; I’m writing films and making films and making fiction out of animated G.I.F.s and doing theater—it’s weird. I guess Paris has made me move away from fiction into something else. I am really interested in the new writing in the U.S. I keep up with it via the internet. I read a lot of these younger writers and I do this blog and that gives me the opportunity to investigate stuff, so I just make posts out of things I’m interested in. I don’t know, people I meet inspire me. Working with—I write the theater pieces for—director Gisèle Vienne has certainly affected me. I started making films together with my friend Jack. It’s no different than it ever was. Really, I’m in a different place, a different location, but I still feel like I’m inspired in the same way I always was. It doesn’t really feel any different.
Eileen—I continue to write because otherwise I would be completely insane. I write because of being a slightly energized, mentally ill person. I feel like I’m not wired to be even-keeled or high-functioning. I just have to do so much just to be awake or feel good. Writing is just a balancing act for me. If I’m not writing I just start to feel kind of lonesome; I get really unhappy and ill-tempered and negative. I have to be making up the world on some level, or I find it just an unbearable place. I’m excited by other people, by music, by art, by writing, and, again, by reading. If I’m not reading a huge amount I feel empty and stupid.
Dennis—I feel like you are more interested in writing prose these days than you used to be, is that true?
Eileen—Right now I’m a little bit in-between. I haven’t exactly been writing any poems, and I have these sort of essays—this kind of in-between, essay-ish thing mixing fiction and nonfiction. I haven’t had a burst of poems lately, but it probably means I need to fall in love or something.
Joshua—Eileen, I’ve heard that you are adapting your classic novel Chelsea Girls (1994) into a screenplay. What is it like to revisit all those stories and experiences now, two decades later?
Eileen—It’s weird and it’s great. It’s sort of like, the times have so changed, and even just looking at stuff like race in the book. I never thought of myself as privileged, and, nonetheless, I look at my story and think, “Oh this is wildly privileged.” There’s a different context to tons of it. It’s a huge challenge. You have to move so much to even move inside a book, it’s weird. If you wrote the book, you have to not be precious. In a way I feel like books get destroyed by films, so maybe who better to destroy the film than the person who wrote the book? Who better to destroy a book than the person who wrote it?