Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Blurry Choice: Hot Metal Bridge Interviews Eileen Myles


22 March 2013

The recipient of numerous literary awards, including the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Prize, three Lambda Book Awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, Eileen Myles is the author of 18 books, most recently Snowflakes/Different Streets and Inferno: A Poet’s Novel. She is Professor Emeritus of Writing at UC San Diego and lives in New York. 

I met Eileen Myles in a hotel restaurant at noon when the March sun had just begun blast work on Pittsburgh’s slogging chill. It was good to be warm inside, even with the airport lounge furniture, business lunch lighting and muzak. When I arrived she was already sitting in a corner, facing the windows, drinking coffee. She looked like someone who had been many places and like someone who had been sitting there awhile on purpose, tough and composed. In town to read the night before at the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series, Myles had spent the morning at a Q and A for graduate students and had forgone time at the gym in order to meet with me. A television fixed on low-volume CNN hung high on the wall by our table, and as we settled in it blipped about the stock market, Afghanistan and the latest newsworthy rapes. In The Steubenville Rape a high school girl was drugged, carried from party to party, and repeatedly violated while unconscious by members of the town football team, who memorialized what they were doing with cell phone cameras. The story was just winding down from its stint on the circuit of public attention; above us images flashed of teenage boys in suits standing to take oaths, a long shot of the football field, a concerned female reporter speaking next to courthouse steps. Our interaction began with mutual teeth sucking at the way that case was being handled.

Hot Metal Bridge: Well, I guess the one positive thing with all that is that, for once, no one can say the woman was exaggerating.

Eileen Myles: Yeah, I mean the part that I find irritating is that the accounts I read early on were very clear about the fact that one of the football players was her boyfriend and she broke up with him and he set her up. She didn’t want to go out that night. She was convinced by another girl that convinced another girl that convinced her to go out, and once she was in the car they gave her a beer and somebody had put a rufie in the beer. Right at the beginning of the story. And I don’t know if that came out in court, but it was like, Who did that? Who was her boyfriend? Who was that girl?

HMB: And I still see people commenting on these stories saying things like, “Well, if you go out and get drunk what do you think is going to happen?”

EM: Oh exactly, and that’s exactly what people said when I got raped. It was like: “I thought you liked it.” I was in a complete blackout, you know? So, yeah, it’s sort of shocking.

HMB: It correlates with everything else that’s been going on.

EM: Yeah. And it’s like “These poor boys!” And every time I see “A Town Divided…” Into what, the pro-rape and the anti-rape parts of town?

HMB: All of this resonates with some of your own work. I remember that part where you were writing your name in the sand—

EM: That’s in Chelsea Girls.

HMB: That image definitely stuck in my head, maybe an image of what rape does? I mean, that kid [at the Stuebenville rape who was videoed by a friend] who kept saying that she was dead, he was commenting accurately, albeit in this really sick way, on what was happening. Rape seems to take a person’s agency and, in that way, their aliveness. Is that what you were gesturing toward, or was it something else?

EM: It was pretty literal. After a traumatic experience one of the ways that you summon up identity is through your name. And that didn’t work. I guess I prefer to think of the story as an act of writing. Well, I don’t know, it’s tricky. It was an account of a real event that happened in my life that was absolutely true. But I also think that moment was the moment of being a human and the moment of being a writer. And maybe the triumph of the pile-up things that made up that story was that I succeeded in saying all those things. That I was a writer; that I was a female; that this had happened to me. That it had this effect on me. And that I write my name now and even say that these things did happen to me. I think for a number of reasons identity is really important to me in writing and in my writing. Anonymity is a lot of what I’m writing about now. Anonymity is a very female condition, and, in a way, one I choose to write from. When I write about something that is called “Eileen Myles”, what I’m writing about is the label over something that is deeply anonymous. Which is like the female condition. We only talk about “These boys lives are ruined.” That sentence is exactly the same as me wiping my own name out with my foot. To say that that person doesn’t exist, that girl. It seems like my whole writing activity after that is about reassembling. And reassembling, not just after that but after any number of events that have occurred, not just in my life but in any female life where you’re reminded always that you’re a multiple rather than an individual. That your experience is anonymous rather than particular. That your experience is background rather than foreground. That you are context rather than subject. That you are object rather than subject.

HMB: And that’s not even just what rape does but what—

EM: We’re in an amazing moment right now, and I’m just really interested to see how long the culture will say we’re over rape. Because we’re really looking at it. There’s the India story, the woman who was raped and killed in India was right on top of Steubenville, and then there was the one I saw the other day in—where was it, the Maldives?—the woman whose sentence is one hundred lashes for having been repeatedly raped by her stepfather, who then killed the baby that she gave birth to, and so… she’s being punished. For being an adulteress. And so they’re going to give her a hundred public lashes. And she’s a kid, nineteen years old, I think. And now there’s a move to withdraw our money. You know, it’s a vacation spot. A place where westerners come to vacation is a place where women are so deeply oppressed, and she’s right in that place, so people are trying to figure out how we can communicate to this country that we don’t approve of that.

HMB: Meanwhile, we—

EM: Yeah, I know. And not that there’s anything positive about this rape, but the fact that it’s being exposed right at this moment shows us who we are. And that’s tremendous.

HMB: Hmmm, I’m not sure where to segue from all of that.

EM: I don’t care if we have segues. It doesn’t have to be a natural conversation, right?

HMB: Well then this is totally random. Or maybe not. Actually, when you were talking yesterday about desire in writing, I wondered about the connection that had to your sense of spirituality. I know that you are interested in Buddhism and active with some Buddhist groups. I wonder if, from a Buddhist standpoint, desire in art—or in anything, but especially in drama or fiction, might be a sort of oxymoron. We’re taught that a story is about wanting something, and a central tenet of Buddhism is about letting go of our desires, so are those two things at odds? How do you make them harmonious?

EM: It’s funny, you know, I was brought up Catholic, and that was my education, so I was a little bit hemmed in to that viewpoint, and I feel that I was always looking for an outside. And growing up in the fifties and sixties, J. D. Salinger was huge, who, in Franny and Zoe and all of these books, wrote about Buddhism. His brother the poet Seymour was a Buddhist and also read poetry that came out of Taoism. And also the Beats and all of that was in the air in my childhood and in my high school years. It was there to explore and there to reach out to and something other and different and all that. And when I came to New York I found myself in the East Village, around St. Mark’s Church. I met Allen Ginsberg. I went to the Naropa Institute. And by that time I was living a much more drunken-young-poet kind of life, and I wasn’t really interested. I remember going to a Rinpoche who was the big guru of Naropa in the late seventies. I remember going to a talk of his in a huge basketball gym, and all these people were sitting on cushions. My girlfriend and I came in drunk with our cans of beer, Miller Lite. We didn’t know why all these Moonies were sitting quietly in their cushions. We literally didn’t understand that people were meditating. We were like “Look at these Moonies!” with our beers and talking, and people kept turning and going “shhh,” and I thought they were all worshipping Rinpoche, but they were meditating before the master came to talk. I was just completely out of it, and it was a joke at Naropa at that point: there were the druggies, and there were the Buddhists. There was a place called the Varsity Apartments where we all stayed, with a pool. People would play ball in the water, and the joke was that they were playing “Buddha ball”. It just was kind of something to be laughed at. But later on, in the early eighties I stopped drinking and taking drugs and started looking at things differently, and when I went back to Naropa, I suddenly realized that a big part of the poetry world that I was in, and not just the poetry but John Cage, the avant garde, were in so many ways seated in Buddhism. And that stuff that had moved me when I was younger, Emerson and the Transcendentalists and Thoreau. Gertrude Stein. There was such a sense of existence being a real subject. And I think that seeing what there is is in a way the subject of Buddhism. Not meditating to improve oneself or to have a clearer vision, but really to be here now like this in some way. To not jump to the further moment but to be open to the next one. And to not miss things. As I was starting to see in a different way I saw that that was there and that that had always been there. And as an ex-Catholic I sort of needed some kind of practice that was devotional in some way. That was a part of my nature that would always be there. I pray. Catholicism, poetry—they all seem to be next to each other. It’s sort of like Charles Olson, projective verse. One perception follows another. I’ve pretty much brought poetry since perception into fiction and prose, thinking about how you can assemble narratives. And in fact, the act of writing isn’t living. It’s a copy, and it’s an arrangement. So there’s always something artificial about it. But I’m really interested in the idea of assembling moments. Or, like in this moment, in this conversation or this interview, what are the segues? We’re always looking for how to connect the moments in a life-like way, but the fact is that no matter what we do it’s life-like, because that’s what we’re doing. Any time I’ve sat more than not I’ve started to see how I’m responsible, and I mean that in the most radical sense, that I am this being that responds to where I am and what I see. And like the events we were talking about earlier. I am responsible to those events. And to what they make me, and to what I do about that. So I feel like Buddhism is a way of getting access to that.

HMB: Reading Inferno, or really any of your prose, I notice there is a certain quality about it that puts me in a place of being aware that it’s writing.

EM: Yeah, I want that. I mean, I kind of want the reader to some extent to be in my studio. To be at my elbow and to realize that this is being constructed. And it’s weird because I always hear—and I think it’s classism—people say things like “Oh, that Eileen, she really tells it like it is! She’s like Charles Bukowski!” I guess I started writing prose in college, so technically I was doing it since the sixties, and it was just as natural as, if not more than, writing poetry, but I didn’t know to keep going, I didn’t know what to do with it—I knew I wanted to make a novel but I didn’t have that kind of attention span. I didn’t have an idea for the kind of novel that I could write, so I just put it over here, and poetry opened up for me. But in the eighties, hypertext was really big. This idea with narratives that, thanks to computers, we could get to this point where it could say, “Do you want to go here, or do you want to go there?” and the reader could decide what direction the text went in. And I felt like I didn’t really want to do that, and I didn’t want the computer to be so necessary or so instrumental to my writing, but I do like the idea of standing at a crossroads as a reader, and knowing that that’s where you’re standing and that choices were made. It’s all the things we like in handwritten fonts and recordings where you can hear things that aren’t actually part of the song, or sampling. I think we’re increasingly at a moment in which the only way we can indicate authenticity is to show extraneous material and things happening and background and the place being real. I want the writing place to be a real place, not just because it’s about Eileen Myles and it’s so transparent, but because the act of writing is a small pile-up of moments where the sensations had a choice. Because I think aesthetics are about sensations, and even bodily sensations. I don’t think we make conceptual choices based on our brains alone; it’s about being there.

HMB: Hybridity is a big buzz word these days. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?

EM: Well. I guess I don’t really know what it means. I’ve used it sell or promote things that I’m doing as a professor or a person writing grants or something like that. It always feels like putting a mustache on. I feel like “hybridity” is like “prose poem;” it’s a word to make it comfortable for people who think this doesn’t look like a real poem. Or this doesn’t seem like fiction fiction. Or novel novel. I’m not really interested in conservative definitions of forms. I don’t think there are any pure genres. Lately it seems really soupy to me. Genre and gender are slopping all over the place, and especially just talking about writing and technology and computers and recording and podcasts. There’s just so many different ways of splicing up the moment of creation and distributing it. And I don’t see how anybody can keep track of that and say, “That was a good novel;” “That was a good poem;” “These things are different classes and we’re going to learn them differently.” I don’t think reading happens that way, and I don’t think thinking happens that way. So, hybridity is the norm, I guess is what I mean.

HMB: Why then do women in particular seem to be so interested in hybridity? It seems that behind that is a relationship between gender and a desire to make things a little messier.

EM: And also that women are not obedient. You know? I think it’s one of our plusses. And even if we apparently seem more obedient, we see more than we should. Because there is more, there always is more. And for economic reasons the world is always being reduced so we can have a simple exchange and keep doing business. But in fact in every moment there’s such a wider rise of possibilities. We are the subaltern. I know it tends to be associated with race-based oppression, so it is offensive to some people to include white females in that group, but I think it means Other, radically. And I think that’s who we are. We see as the subaltern sees. But I think increasingly the world is a subaltern place. I think that’s what the world is becoming, especially as it’s dying.

HMB: The whole world is the subaltern?

EM: Yeah! The whole world is toxic and it’s toxicity is killing all the creatures—aren’t we all subalterns? Haven’t we made ourselves something that is being destroyed by its own context? And that makes us Other: we have no home. And I can’t imagine how anyone thinks that any amount of money will separate them from that experience. Because they’re initiating it. But we’re all feeling it, and there’s no way out.

HMB: I was recently researching about Muriel Rukeyser and stumbled across your review of The Life of Poetry. Which was awesome.

EM: Thank you.

HMB: You talked about her being a wolf in the sense of not differentiating between the inside and the outside. That seems to resound with what you are saying about everyone being a subaltern. That there isn’t really a separation. When we’re oppressing other people, when we’re oppressing the planet, we’re ultimately oppressing ourselves.

EM: Right.

HMB: How did you become familiar with her work? There was just recently a revival of interest in her, right?

EM: It’s so weird. The first grant that I ever got was a poetry grant in 1980 from something called CAPS, which no longer exists—Creative Artists’ Public Service. It was in New York State. It was really weird because when I got my manuscript back, written on it in pencil was, “This should be published. –M. R.” And it turned out that, just before she died, Muriel Rukeyser was one of the judges for that CAPS grant. And it was a portfolio of poems that would later become my third book called Sappho’s Boat. I mean, I had heard of her, but I was just so thrilled that this older female poet had taken notice of me. So I started to pay attention to her then, and again when The Life of Poetry was published. I think I read that book and wrote that review because I kind of felt like I owed her a debt because she gave me a leg up as a poet. But she died and her moment was passed, and a woman’s moment in poetry seems to pass more quickly than a man’s. So I think when Paris Press republished Life of Poetry it was the beginning of a new Muriel Rukeyser moment. There was a show at the New York Public Library in the nineties, and it was called “A Secret Place in the Lower East Side.” It was about small press publishing from about 1966 to 1980. And it was funny because me and Dennis Cooper were like the youngest old people. We were the youngest people in it—then. But they curated the show so that you could see that, oh, Charles Olson and Muriel Rukeyser wrote letters. I mean it’s so weird that we have these histories, and people get written out, and connections get lost. It really invites a curator or somebody whose looking at the writers’ papers to understand that in the living moment of connection and community, all sorts of people who shouldn’t know each other did know each other, and were reading each other and hearing each other. And later on when you’re privileging who matters and what matters you’re kind of siphoning these characters out. And Rukeyser was right there in the thick of it in so many different ways. There’s just waves of excitement in putting her back in place.

HMB: Yeah, it seems like what she was talking about was kind of post-structuralism before that was a word. Maybe part of why she got ignored was that people just couldn’t understand it.

EM: Well she wasn’t in the right conversation. She wasn’t using the right terminology. Even her involvement with film. I think she made film; she worked with filmmakers. The language of film was the language of post-structuralism. That’s where the theory all came from, from Russia, language theory, film theory. But praxis is theory in the most radical sense. The people who were making the art were the people writing theory. Eisenstein wrote theory because he was making films. Rukeyser was in that position, too, but again, she wasn’t in the right conversation. I think that’s what so often isolates us. Or to not use the correct vocabulary so that you’re making a claim. You wind up outside of the claim if you don’t use the right language. But the thing that’s so peculiar about intellectual life today is the people who are using the right language are separate; I mean, I think the vernacular is always the open door. If you talk about anything that’s complicated in mundane, daily language, then it’s available to more people. I don’t think I mean so much accessibility as distribution. The daily language is there for us all to talk about the complexities of life. The industries of the academy and publishing and the marketplace all valorize particular languages so that so that they can—I don’t know what, you tell me—

HMB: The jargon?

EM: Well yeah. That’s what I mean, but the purpose for it is sort of—I guess it’s to create insides and outsides. For privacy? For exclusivity? I don’t know, but it seems like it’s something that happens all the time. The unfortunate part is that it privileges information, so that things are going on all the time that we don’t know about because these people have decided to talk to these people. Modernism is about private languages, I think.

HMB: Do you consider yourself a post-modernist?

EM: Yeah, yeah. I guess I consider myself a modernist, too, and lately I’ve been thinking pagan, pagan. I mean how do you get back to that place before modernism where all sorts of magical wonderful stuff was being talked about? They didn’t quite know how the systems worked. There’s a book that I’m really excited about called Bubbles by Peter Sloterdijk, and he talks about the German philosophers. He talks about the inside and the outside, formations of communities, how they’re always changing, like a foam. And every bubble’s inside is someone else’s outside, and they’re all pressing against each other. When they first started opening bodies, when they first started using cadavers to understand the female body—he says that that introduced the idea of separateness. The idea of the individual came with the idea of the dead individual. Before that people weren’t regarded as so separate. But once you could see somebody dead, open them up and see what was inside of them, you could say, “Oh, it’s a complete system; it’s a unique little person.” There were all sorts of crazy theories before the Renaissance about attraction to these strange drops of blood that were like rays and radiation. They were just making up all these things to try to understand how people were connected because they started from the idea that people were connected—they knew. There was a growing belief in science and they were trying to invent what that connection was. Before that, there just was a connection. Before the mirror you couldn’t see your own face; the only way you could see your own face was through the other person’s face. You were inextricably connected to other people because you couldn’t see yourself. You could only see them. It’s so weird to think of a world in which everybody didn’t have a mirror. So there’s a way in which being human was pre-human, by our definition. When I think pagan, I think that. What was it like to be in that world that was all kind of animal and connected in some way? I mean when they were looking for gold, alchemy was about all these other things, too. When you’re trying to figure out how to derail the process we’re on culturally now, people are looking back at other things that were around while we were moving forward.

HMB: Something very distinctive about your poetry is that you tend to write in very short lines. Why do you make that choice?

EM: It’s this little notebook, which is tiny. [Pulls tiny notebook from back pocket.] It’s not three by five, it’s probably two by three. I just started in my twenties carrying little notebooks all the time. I was a huge fan of the poet James Schuyler, who writes long, skinny lines; he said that he started to do it because he was an art writer, and he was always going to galleries, taking notes. It’s a kind of on-the-hoof notation that appeals to me. But then when I started to do it I realized that when I read those poems I didn’t read them with line breaks. I read them so that it feels like recording; it feels like filmstrips. It designates speed, too. The visual doesn’t have anything to do with the sound except that it’s technology. It’s just a print of the sound going by and the energy. And my goal is for the energy and the sound to produce a picture. And even though it’s sort of antique, there’s a great illustration in my favorite book by Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, I think it’s in the chapter “Portraits and Reflections,” where she talks about film—and this is film, not digital, so I wonder what means now?—but she says that every action is hundreds of little pictures, with slight variation. I think about that all the time, that motion is like a multitude.

HMB: You have talked before about characters not having stability, or being different each time you come back to them. We hear that counted as a criticism a lot in writing workshops: “This character has changed!”

EM: Yeah, right. And I say great. Why are we writing characters, anyway? I don’t really believe in the artifice of the character. That’s why I use myself—I figure I’m as good a character as anybody else. But one of my favorite poets is CA Conrad. In The Book of Frank he has created a character. And I guess my dog is a character, and will be a character. But it’s sort of allegorical, too. When I wrote my opera I had characters, but I didn’t think of them that way. I thought of them as moments or spectacles. But if they weren’t big and outsized like on the stage of an opera, but smaller and inside of the pages of a book, what would I think of them as? I’ve been looking at Aesop’s fables and animal myths, and thinking about how creatures move through things that we don’t even think of as fiction, like fables.

HMB: So you’re talking about character in that allegorical sense meaning something that is stable for the purposes of representing something?

EM: Yeah, it always seems to be a tool for teaching something. I think the word allegory literally means “left-hand speech” or something like that; it’s like the other hand talking. It’s a technology for pedagogy. Or control, maybe. Or like in any old magazine, or in a women’s magazine where it’s about rape, the beginning will always be an account or a story. “June didn’t know on that day the events that were about to mark her for the rest of her life…” Then they describe the whole situation, and then we go into generalities. But we always start with particulars, and it seems like those two things next to each other are all about making a point. That’s allegorical, I think. And June is probably not her name. She is a character. And she’s a tool. Probably a tool to warn other women.

HMB: You have also said that the novel is a message with a lot of attachments.

EM: Yeah, it keeps being true for me. Just even as a way of thinking about “Does this novel have a head?” And I think, well, that’s the message. Though lately I’m thinking about the heart. Maybe that’s different.

HMB: And what other kinds of messages could there be?

EM: Well, I was going to let the message be a cerebral thing, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s a circulatory thing. Maybe it’s something that sends energy out rather than sending out its meaning. This way of thinking is spurred by the Bubbles book, too. A friend of mine who is involved with The Believer asked me if I would interview this guy PeterSloterdijk, which I was really excited about. You know I’ve had this obsession with foam for seven years, I think. When I was in California I taught a class called Pathetic Literature. If I looked at what was considered successful female fiction in the eighties, she was always a top. We sort of didn’t want to hear from a woman who wasn’t a winner. There was that kind of bionic woman thing that came out of feminism; it was sort of like Super Woman. You couldn’t write too abjectly as a female because that was redundant. We already know we’re losers. So you really had to be this distinct character and stuff, and I really felt a difficulty, because even though lots of people could identify with my work, lots of editors were made uncomfortable by it; they thought it was so depressing. And I thought well this is actual, but we don’t want to write that, we want to write ideals, because women have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. So there’s this kind of weird capitalist thing. My favorite quote was from my friend Chris Kraus who said that because capitalism is insincere, it wants its fictions to be sincere. So we wanted this really sincere woman who is winning, and kind of a role model. Just notice how often women are asked to be role models. As opposed to those guys who are showing vulnerability. That’s new for men, but with women it’s sort of old. So I thought, well what if you just reverse it and think about what’s good as pathetic. And I looked at the word pathetic and realized that in most Romance languages “path” was like “heart” and it was sort of a positive thing. You know pathos, feeling. There wasn’t anything wrong with feeling in most languages, but by the time you got to American English pathetic usually meant something about gender. It meant a woman who was taking too much, or a man who was revealing too much. It’s just pathetic. You’re supposed to stay in your right gender role and go to the right bathroom and say the right thing and don’t bother us. I thought well what if instead of having a seminar on queer literature I had a seminar on pathetic literature. And it was just kind of people who were losing their shit in various ways—and their formality. And we looked at John Wieners, a Boston poet. We looked at Dodie Bellamy, a San Francisco fiction writer. We looked at Samuel Delany, an African-American queer science-fiction writer. We looked at Robert Walters, a Swiss fin-de-siècle fiction writer. Chinese writer Can Xue, a woman of my generation, maybe a little younger. And there was a kind of leakage in all of them, where the container just couldn’t quite hold them. We looked at the SCUM Manifesto. We looked at a catalog called Pathetic Masculinities, about Mike Kelley and a lot of other men who were really big in the eighties and nineties in the art world because they were writing personal stuff. They were doing what feminism did, but they were doing it as men, so it was an innovation. While we were reading these books during the semester I kept noticing that there was foam all over the place. There was always a little trace of bubbles at the corner of somebody’s mouth, or there were little shitty bubbles along the strand; after something happened, somebody would look at the water and there would be some foam. Or after the horrible mother vanished there would be a bucket of dirty water with bubbles and a voice coming out of them. And the mother was the bubbles. And I just thought What is it about bubbles and foam? So I wrote the essay that I read at the eco-poetics conference seven years ago, but I didn’t quite get it right. Then I lost a computer and I couldn’t find the essay. So when I discovered this male philosopher was writing a book called Bubbles, and that it wound up being volume one in a three-volume history of spheres and roundness, and looking at nation states and wombs and all these things in a completely different way, and going back to Plato, who was talking about geometry and spaces, but also intimacy. And I thought, this is what I’m thinking about; this is what I’m talking about. It’s amazing when you start to focus on something, and then you start to see that other people are doing this.

HMB: And now you’re writing on balloons.

EM: Exactly.

HMB: Coming from a working class background, do you think that there is such a thing as a working class aesthetic?

EM: Well, I think if you come from a working class background, there are certain things that you’ve not been separated from. It’s hard to separate what’s place and what’s family and what’s class, because they morph in all these different ways. But I feel like there’s a different affiliation with the body. You’re not surprised to be asked to do physical labor. There’s a different physical responsiveness to space, a different relationship to precision and language. I feel like I’ve been learning how to write while I’ve been writing. And even though I learned proper English in my education I wasn’t always surrounded by it, and I wanted to meet the people who spoke poorly as well as the people who spoke well. I wanted all of those Englishes to be in my writing. I think there’s a bit of an exhortation among working class people to not think you’re anything special because you’re a cog in the wheel. You’re going to be asked to keep things moving. You’re not the front of the class; you’re more the back of the room. Or you’re in the room. I think there’s kind of a middle-childness about being working class. You don’t have a distinct role. And that can be abject, or that can be really profound and spiritual and beautiful. I feel like it’s hard to say what’s me and what’s working class. But I do feel that, that I was brought up not to feel that I was special. And then to be an artist you’re always having to assert that you are, and that you are entitled to this. At the reading last night somebody said “Read for an hour,” and I said, “Really?” And I had such qualms—while I knew that I had that much material and was excited about the prospect. And I saw that big room and all those people. I’ve been doing this for thirty plus years, but I still struggle with entitlement. And I think that when I can overcome it, which is most of the time, I feel there’s a certain excitement. And I feel like I have to work my presence to hold onto it. So I think there’s a different, visceral, jerky nature. We can be redundant, heavy, ultra. I think there’s so much extra involved with being working class because you’ve not been escorted through your choices as exclusively as a person from a middle class or an upper class background would have been. You find yourself in the art world, and you realize that you are surrounded by people who were guided into that position. They got this or are here because somebody they went to prep school with worked here. There’s kind of a sense of being known, and I think to be working class in the art and academic culture is to experience yourself as unknown. And learning how to assert yourself in that. I always think of when George Bush the First was president. At a certain point I realized that he was always home because he was a white man and he was rich and he spoke in a certain way and had received certain academic credentials. It was sort of his world. Nobody could say “You don’t belong here.” It was his. Then it was like, so what is mine? And that’s always a question and I think it’s true for anybody who is of a different class in this culture that we’re in right now. I think a lot of my quest has been to turn negatives into a positive, or at least let the thing into all the space that it has. So maybe you wind up being a little vague; maybe you wind up using the wrong word, but liking the way it sounds. Maybe you use bad English, but even when you use bad English, you still think, well isn’t that a part of history? Whenever I write for a mainstream magazine I realize that it is severely edited, because these are people from very upper class backgrounds, generally—they don’t want people to think they’re stupid. And I take that risk. Because we must because that’s the history of the English language. The less homogenized the language is, the more it’s an alive thing, and I want that alive language. That’s about a lot of things, but a lot of it is about being working class.

HMB: And the rightness is arbitrary, or defined by power dynamics.

EM: And the more codified choice. The media is full of asserted normality, which is just getting weirder and weirder. So I’m all for the blurry choice, and I think that’s working class.