On a wet Monday evening in Trinity College, I found myself somewhat accidentally attending a Poetry Ireland reading with Eileen Myles. Not knowing what to expect, having only come across a few lines of her work by chance, I filed into a lecture hall open to what little I knew of her outside her published poems and fiction.
A jittery PhD student introduces Myles as the queer poet extraordinaire, New York School legend, assiduous celebrity and of late – a radical activist. Her credentials go on and on and certainly are intimidating. But then, taking the stand, Myles is abhorrent. She simply snorts and says “Wow! That was some cup of coffee, eh?”
Poking fun at her own success she is brazen this evening, wearing a bright yellow shirt and tie, and making it clear up there on stage that she isn’t the fazed type. She skips her own introductions and cuts through formal tension, taking no adoration from us; an eager crowd of readers, academics, lesbians, poets – and last minute blow-ins– who came here to listen to what she has to say.
She first takes a swig from a can of 7 Up before launching into her first reading – an unpublished piece called Sweetheart. We the ever eager crowd become hushed as cracked ice-cubes sitting in glasses and the insecurities of early intimacy rhythmically tumble out from where she is standing. It’s a funny, sweet sort of poem with whimsical moments of clarity and eloquence. More than halfway through though, a phone goes off in the auditorium. There is a scuffle and everyone looks around irritated and worried, secretly eyeing their pockets for a lit up screen. But it’s too late, the worst happens: Myles stops reading mid-stanza and looks down hard at us.
“What was that?” she asks. In response, we look at our shoes.
“Mo-ther fucker!” she contorts, in that over-emphasised manner of hers while totally having a laugh at our expense. It works and we laugh with her until she continues reading, taking back the room, taking us further and further into her words. When it comes down to it, this is Eileen Myles at her best, crushingly sentimental one moment and brutally crass the next.
“So we’ll go backward – no, forward to the past this evening”, she smiles broadly and breezes through several poems complied from her latest book of poetry, I Must Be Living Twice (2015). She stops a moment to catch her breath and say the years of her writing, mismatched and scattered, are “like going through a thrift shop”. Now picking and tossing poems as she pleases, she gushes out Peanut Butter and Evolution, only to stop reading right in the middle so she can tell us an anecdote about her deceased father, an ex-girlfriend and all the hard drugs that came with it. This kind of work is boundless, highly personal and fully aware of the pleasure of momentary experience.
After poetry comes her fiction, so Myles cracks opens Serpents Tail’s latest reprinted edition of her fictional memoir, Chelsea Girls (2016) and reads us a scene from the book where she throws a party to push her first self-published book (and lines of cocaine) onto her literary guests. It’s a sort of success as everyone is drunk and interested in her new novel. However, when Allen Ginsberg approaches her to sign a copy of her book, she freaks out and tries to think of an impressive line to inscribe in the cover. She muses: “To Allen, from one howl to another” and “To Allen, from, the only woman you’ve ever liked”. It is in these moments Myles has cast the often hilarious irony that underlines most if not all of her work.
When the evening draws in and Myles has read us a scattered repertoire she turns to rampant political satire. It takes a dark turn when she performs her own presidential inauguration speech that subverts and parodies the nightmare of Trump’s America, speaking out against guns, cars and men. This too is another side of Eileen Myles, the raging queer activist and spokesperson. The crowd love her and by the closing sentences of her speech she almost has us rallied.
At some point in the evening, it became unclear to me what was read out and what was ad-lib; Myles is a force and one to be reckoned with at that. Her work is less formal poetry and more of a fluency or humour within her own manner of being. Sure, she is angry, boisterous and temperamental but she is also charming, vulnerable, and – when you catch it – profoundly true, so that you come away from an evening of her prose and think yes, that’s very Eileen Myles.