Cult-Favorite Poet Eileen Myles Is Poised for Their Art World Breakout
Jacket art of Eileen Myles, Evolution, 2018. © Eileen Myles. Courtesy of Grove Press.
Portrait of Eileen Myles. © Eileen Myles. Courtesy of Grove Press.
Eileen Myles has just come back from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, and is about to leave on a book tour. The writer—who doesn’t abide by gendered pronouns, and self-describes as a “they lesbian”—is increasingly sought after. In the past few years, they’ve published a memoir devoted to their relationship with their dog, began working on a screenplay, and served as a muse for a character on the Amazon television show Transparent. On November 11th, they’ll open their first exhibition, a presentation of photographs at Bridget Donahue in New York, a gallery that counts Martine Syms, Sondra Perry, and Susan Cianciolo on its roster. That show will posit Myles’s daily musing—image of the mundane, uploaded to Instagram with wry captions—as art. If Myles’s photography has gained considerable traction online, with 21,000 followers and counting, they hope that their individual prints will stand for themselves, and create a new kind of conversation in a gallery space.
I met up with the 68-year-old recently at Café Mogador in the East Village, some five blocks from the East Village apartment they’ve maintained for more than four decades. If Myles’s literary celebrity doubtlessly opened a few doors in terms of promoting their photography, they don’t seem to mind. For decades, Myles published with small presses and lived without mainstream praise: Not until 2015 did a major publishing house (HarperCollins) opt to distribute—and market, and publicize—their work.
Myles surprises me by joking that they’re just one large grant or book sale away from purchasing a ranch and some cattle. They own a house in Marfa, Texas, the desert town made famous by Donald Judd, and their pitbull, Honey, is “in love with bigness” that city living just doesn’t offer. It’s surprising to hear Myles—an artist whose life story is intertwined with that of New York—entertain a fantasy of living as a cowperson in the American West. After all, they’ve become something of an unofficial poet laureate for downtown literati.
Since they moved to the city in 1974 from Massachusetts, they’ve produced more than 20 books of verse and prose about inner and outer life in the boroughs, all from a distinctly queer, bohemian perspective. In “My Poems,” an entry in a new poetry and essay collection entitled evolution (2018), they write: “My poems are so much / like the city they / couldn’t publish them / on the train.…The world is never superfluous. 2nd / Ave. is just enough.” If the poems can be a little messy (like the trash-piled streets), they’re always endearing.
It’s no surprise, then, that New York figures prominently in Myles’s photography. A few years ago, Myles adopted Honey (a stray from the Bronx) and downloaded Instagram in order to capture details spotted on their walks together. Myles’s account prominently features Honey, the writer’s friends (like the writer Porochista Khakpour), leftist political statements (“I Support TRANS PEOPLE,” “#CANCEL KAVANAUGH”), trash (a discarded chair with torn upholstery; egg shells; empty pizza boxes), and shots of exhibitions at New York’s galleries and museums (Simone Leigh, Charline von Heyl, Senga Nengudi).
Even when the geotag doesn’t specify their locations, the pictures—of half-eaten pastries, graffitied bathroom stalls, or rusting fixtures—convey the imperfections, wear, grit, and disorder of urban living. And, because this is Instagram, there are inevitably selfies. Myles’s are as rough and honest as their writing. They have fun photographing themself coming back from the airport, or in other such unglamorous states: Myles never takes themself too seriously. Some venues are better than others: “Bathrooms are shrines of selfhood,” they say—and the author photograph on the back flap of evolution is, indeed, a bathroom selfie, complete with a reflection of a hand dryer.
In many of their own shots, they aim to take the poet out of the picture and just show their own surroundings. One photograph depicts their kitchen counter with evidence of bodily presence (orange peels, a Chemex filter), conveying the life and mundane rituals of the character who lurks just beyond the frame. Absence and presence—in language or image—is always central to their work.
Myles tells me that their writing and photography practices really aren’t so different. (Indeed, the upcoming show at Bridget Donahue is called, somewhat confusingly, “Eileen Myles—Poems.”) For each, they maintain a position as a flâneur, observing the city with artistic detachment. “You’re in the world of people, and you’re in the crowd, and everybody’s getting out of work but you’re always in this walking space—which is your work,” they say. As a photographer, Myles’s vision is often askew, more interested in abstracting details than in displaying an easily legible scene. One recent image features the bottom of a wooden pole, next to the bottom of a white drainpipe. Another depicts a white paper-towel roll, on a slant, inside a metal recess. Shapes, colors, and strange interactions between various objects always catch Myles’s eye more than any formal composition or beauty.
Myles peppers their speech, too, with loosely connected images. Thanks to the transient New York University students who inhabit their building, broken and discarded furniture litters Myles’s backyard. They began picking up and photographing some of the shattered wooden pieces, which looked “almost geographic, like little islands.” They arranged them in their kitchen, where they photographed the pieces: According to Myles, the bits had “started to have dialogues.” Mass-produced rubber ducks also reappear in Myles’s photography, where they operate a bit like “puppets,” they say. We see the ducks situated on the counter, having imaginary conversations, which are indicated in the margins. Art, Myles says, is all ventriloquism.
Per usual, Myles’s work is about merging debris with lyricism and humor. And if it doesn’t always sound—or look—pretty, it always maintains Myles’s authentic, city charm. One very brief new poem, “May 26,” neatly sums up their relationship to the changing city, and might even serve as something like an artistic mission statement: “I keep / to tiny / gestures / sweet / William / dazzling orange / sky. My my / my my dying / new york.”