She stands in a small room, exuding confidence. Wearing a baggy hooded sweatshirt and black pants, her grey hair is cut into a shaggy style that adds to her androgyny. She overflows with energy and grabs a microphone to recite her poetry, guitar music adding to the intensity of her performance. She screams/sings the “yeaaaahs” and picks up the pace reciting “but we stood strong and now we are famous.” She pauses and deeply inhales, preparing to belt out the word “rich!” in her gravelly voice. She sings huskily “Bjork is the world’s brightest star/Better than Beck /Stronger than Madonna/now without ever having to become dumb!”
She is Eileen Myles, and the video, Eileen Myles Iceland Song (2008), featured on her website, is only a small glimpse into her considerable legend. Indeed, she “is a female adventurer [ . . . ] a peripatetic poet on a mission to amplify herself and to live large as the heroic anti-hero of her poems,” wrote The Village Voice. She is considered “a cult figure to a generation of post punk females forming their own literary avant-garde,” according to The New York Times. Now Winnipeggers will have the opportunity to see Myles first-hand when she recites her poetry and delivers a talk entitled, Eileen Myles: The Pleasure of a Painful Book on Oct. 21 at Mondragon, in an event hosted by The Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies and the University of Winnipeg department of English.
Myles moved to New York from Boston in 1974 to be a poet. Since then, she has lived and worked in the culturally diverse East Village. She has developed a strong writing style although not one easily defined. It is a mix of chanting and musing, sometimes jarring, other times contemplative and soft. She is easy to comprehend and writes on subjects that appeal to a wide variety of readers. This is in part because “she writes in the vernacular [ . . . ] in poetry as fiction, in opposition of high culture,” explained Heather Milne, an English professor at the University of Winnipeg.
It is not just her writing that has defined her as an icon. Many people know of her from her write-in campaign for president of the United States in 1992. She has also toured extensively with a lesbian and feminist performance art and spoken word group called Sister Spit. Her work has appeared in publications including Vice, Art Forum and TimeOut.
“She is a well-known literary popular culture figure within lesbian communities,” Milne said. “A fascinating lesbian writer [who has been] working for many years in a variety of genres — poetry, fiction, essays — but she is also, in some ways, a cult figure.”
Myles writing cannot be defined solely in terms of her lesbian identity. Indeed, Milne teaches a course on gay and lesbian literature, and stresses that one cannot generalize when discussing common threads between gay and lesbian writers. Milne asserts that “often what you see in queer writing is a struggle to come out, or a struggle with identity,” but this is not the case with Myles.
“She writes as a lesbian, but it’s like that is just her viewpoint and that’s just how she sees the world and how she is. It is not like a crisis or any kind of self-loathing,” Milne said. Moreover, Myles does not allow her writing to be defined in terms of her sexual orientation. She is known as a working-class writer as much as she is a lesbian writer and, as Milne noted, “that is very important because she brings both aspects of her identity together.”
Several aspects of her identity are on display in her most recently-released book, The Importance of Being Iceland, a collection of essays spanning 25 years where she writes about subjects ranging from nationality and travel to sexuality and art. It is expected that in her artist talk in Winnipeg she will speak about her experience writing this book.
Eileen Myles: The Pleasure of a Painful Book takes place on Oct. 21 from 7:30-10 p.m. at Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The event is free.