On April 14th, Staff Writer Monisha Gunasekera attended a conversation hosted by Art + Life with Eileen Myles, poet, novelist, and art journalist.

“The animal part of the writer is the most important part in the same way the childhood is the most important part of the life,” said poet Eileen Myles.

Adjunct Assistant Professor and Nonfiction Advisor of Undergraduate Creative Writing James Yeh interviewed Eileen Myles, known for their work including Chelsea Girls, Cool for You, Inferno, and Afterglow, on April 14 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts. This was part of the Art + Life series hosted by Columbia’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Program. 

Myles started their discussion by sharing some of their newest poems from their poetry collection, A Working Life. These poems included: For My Friend, regarding a friend of Myles who came to them for love advice; First Poem, Lucky Kittens, Park, inspired by their activism for East River Park; Put My House, about a long-distance relationship Myles had during the pandemic; and Even, After Getting Off the Boat.

Much of A Working Life was written during the pandemic. While Myles described the pandemic as awful, since people died and many got sick (including themself), they acknowledged that the pandemic was also an “alternate time period” that served as an “incredible workspace.”  

After their performance of their poetry, Myles took a seat next to Yeh. Yeh started the conversation by commenting on a line from Eileen’s poetry in The Importance of Being Iceland. He asked about the lines: “In general, I think writers are not smart. They’re something else and each writer can fill in the word here, but smart is not what that word is.”

In response to this, Myles went on to discuss the concept of “the animal.” “Some part of you is just really dumb and that’s the most valuable part because that part is the animal that is thinking and feeling and smelling and hearing and just absorbing,” said Myles.

Their conversation quickly turned to the younger days of the poet. Eileen shared their path to becoming the poet that they are today. As a middle child and student who did not feel like they mattered, Eileen let the audience know that not much was expected of them. They were used to “coming up from behind.”  As a child, Myles was an artist. However, much to their own disappointment, they attended college instead of an art school as they had always figured they would. This happened to be a blessing in disguise because it was only in college that Myles discovered their love for literature and went “nuts at the prospect of discourse.” Myles described literature as liberating and entertained the idea of being a professor… until they realized they could be the ones writing literature instead of teaching it.

Myles’s path to success was not without challenges. From being forced to give up drinking despite it enabling them to “speak” to barely being able to make ends meet for a large part of their life, Myles persevered despite many challenges. Later on in the Q&A section of the event, when an audience member asked if a student of theirs should major in creating writing, Myles acknowledged that with writing came challenges that not everyone could face. Especially today, times are different from when they started as a writer.

In their discussion, Yeh asked what Myles thought about AI in the world of literature. The two discussed ChatGPT, “soulless” AI-written poems, and the threat of AIs in screenwriting. Even despite these dangers, Myles acknowledged, “I feel like it’s wrong to be against anything utterly.”

Myles also touched upon the imposter syndrome they felt when they first started writing poetry. They constantly asked themselves, Am I the wrong person doing this? “I always had this feeling of wrongness, which is part of what I work with. Whatever you got is your studio. Being in the wrong class, being in the wrong gender, being the wrong sexuality,” Myles said. “When I first started writing I was like, do I have permission to be a poet? I feel like someone needed to say that you, Eileen, are a poet.”

Myles ended their discussion by talking about their love of reading. “Every day is an effort to stop reading,” they declared. “We’re all made up of bits and pieces of everything we’ve ever read. The things I read. I am changed by them. Every time. ”

Myles compared this to thrifting. Specifically, clothing that belongs to someone else but looks really great on you. “Writing is like that. You’re imitating styles and adapting them and adopting them and some of them become yours.”

Eileen Myles via Wikimedia Commons