Ella Weisser interviews the legendary writer and artist Eileen Myles about finding confidence, acting “like a man,” and why gender is kind of like thrifting.
The first time I read Eileen Myles, I was in New York for the weekend, and I stole her novel Chelsea Girls from my friend Alex’s backpack to preparation for an hour-long subway ride. Normally when I’m in New York I feel jittery and confused, but as I read Myles’ writing about the city I suddenly found myself thinking, “Oh, now I finally understand how to be in this place! Everything makes sense!” and when I got off the subway, I really did feel equipped to see the world in a different way. Of course, I had not actually figured out an entire city in one hour and was mostly just in a good mood because I had been reading great writing, but it is true that Myles’ books have offered me new ways to think.
Myles has published nearly 20 books in multiple genres, including poetry, fiction, and memoir, for which she has received more prestigious awards and fellowships than I could ever hope to list here. Her writing is shocking and beautiful, and impossible to sum up, but I’ve especially enjoyed the parts of her books that deal with gender, alienation, sex, and lying in bed all afternoon. If my experiences with her work holds true for other readers, then she should also be credited with saving lots of people’s lives.
As you can tell, I’m super into Eileen Myles, so when she agreed to let me interview her, I freaked out and started spending all my time reading her books and begging my friends to help me choose an outfit. Even though I had been obsessing over our interview for weeks, the reality of the situation only finally set in as I climbed up the stairs of her apartment building and saw her standing in her doorway, holding her pitbull’s collar, wearing green and yellow tube socks pulled up over her skinny ankles.
Ella Weisser: In Inferno you discussed how writing about things made you feel freer to do them. That concept really interested me, especially the time you went on the date with the man who was paying you. It seemed like you were saying “I’m a writer so that gives me the license to do this.”
Eileen Myles: Are you talking about attempting to go on a sex date? Like prostitution?
W: Yeah. How did writing about it made you feel more emboldened?
M: Because I felt like a man.
W: How so?
M: Well, I think there’s such a history of men writing lavishly about their own experiences and making vulnerability often feel not vulnerable, almost because a man had the experience. Whereas if a woman makes herself vulnerable, she gets trashed. In our culture, if a man says he’s a loser, it’s really cute and vulnerable, but if a woman says she’s a loser, people will agree! But I can’t accept that myth. Whether it works or not, my intention is to reclaim female masochism, in a way. Because it’s male masochism to describe really vulnerable things and to be really open about stuff.
We let men do this because Jesus Christ was a man. We’re all moved by the fact that he died on a cross. I’ve definitely made the joke a few times: if a woman was on a cross, we wouldn’t do anything because that’s where women usually are. People would just ignore her. So I guess, in my description of that one actually sort of failed sexual encounter, my point was really that my failure to ask for money from the man wound up actually being masculinized.
“In our culture, if a man says he’s a loser, it’s really cute and vulnerable, but if a woman says she’s a loser, people will agree! But I can’t accept that myth. Whether it works or not, my intention is to reclaim female masochism.”
W: I was thinking that too: because you failed at it, it almost made it less vulnerable.
M: Yeah, anybody who does sex work was like ‘Ugh what a loser. You couldn’t ask for the money?’ But it made me be a writer, in that sense. I wasn’t in his exchange, he was in mine. I was watching him. I put him in his underwear, smoking a cigarette. The story was my story, not his.
W: Would you say that you intentionally make yourself more vulnerable in order to reclaim masculinity?
M: I think that I am vulnerable. Because I don’t refuse to use it in my writing, I’m taking the risk of being “such a woman.”
The thing is, you are powerless. I can be doing whatever I think I’m doing, but I’m still powerless about other people’s responses to my work. I just feel like if you keep going further or you keep doing what you’ve been doing, eventually people get that that’s your thing, and you become sort of freed from gender roles. You become an institution.
“Gender is like thrifting: you put on things and see if they fit, and maybe they fit for a while and then you think “No, I look terrible in this shirt,” and then you don’t wear that anymore.”
W: In a lot of your writing you talk about masculinity and kind of emulating that to get power, and that’s something that I really relate to. But also it makes me uncomfortable or sad because I want to be able to get power from femininity and I don’t want to be going to men for power. I was just wondering if you had similar thoughts and how you deal with them.
M: No, I don’t think masculinity means going to men. I think we’re all mixes of things, and so to invoke masculinity just means that who we are and how we present ourselves is a choice. When I was a kid, I sort of thought I was a boy, you know? Later, when I went through puberty, I learned that technically I wasn’t, but it’s a choice on so many levels. I feel more comfortable in men’s clothes. It just happens to be that that’s the gender I feel like I am. Men don’t feel this way, but I feel like it really has nothing to do with men.
Femininity is so constructed, and often so entirely constructed by men, in many ways to make women something that they’re not. If you’ve ever been with a partner who feels very dependent on your gender to back up their gender, you know exactly how it works. I think women have always been asked to prop up masculinity and men, and I feel like masculinity is there for the taking, as is femininity.
Gender is like thrifting: you put on things and see if they fit, and maybe they fit for a while and then you think “No, I look terrible in this shirt,” and then you don’t wear that anymore.
W: How does that work with your writing?
M: Well, writing is really great. Generally, writing is such a free and safe place. I can be a lot freer in that realm than I am in the world, where we are encountering each other all the time and being profoundly affected by other people. They’re there in my writing, but they’re not there in the room.
W: How does trauma inform your work?
M: Hugely, yes, absolutely. Anything that was hugely traumatic in my life I then relive in my writing—the writing becomes a place where you just keep rewriting it, reliving it. In a way, trauma is why I write. It’s like in the outdated technology of two or three color printing—like when you put the second color down, it doesn’t quite match the first.
W: The registration is imperfect.
M: Yeah, and that’s what I feel like trauma does. A person ideally has a whole feeling of being inside of their body and belonging here, but because of trauma your registration’s off. Like, there’s a shadow, and there’s body. But for me writing is a way to get back inside of my body. I think in the repetition of the writing, and in re-enacting the trauma, you can gain control over it, in a way. Sometimes I think when there’s a feeling of real success in the writing—you feel like you’re whole or you’re intact—but inevitably it goes off again, because perhaps with trauma you will always be off.
W: What emotion do you think is most influential to your work?
M: Either melancholy or anger, because anger creates action and melancholy creates space.
Ella is a writer and college student. Read her previous article for Slutever, “The 5 Trendiest Ways to Wear Bondage Rope,” HERE :)