What is The Importance of Being Iceland?

On Friday, October 2, 2009, at 6:30 pm, we are lucky enough to have Eileen Myles, the sui generis downtown poet, novelist, essayist, and performer, “my President,” as Erica Hunt recently said at the AdFemPo conference, for a couple of hours at the Grad Center, in the English Department lounge, room 4406, during which she will read from her new book, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, and then Corey Frost (me) and Erica Kaufman, both writers, doctoral English students at the Grad Center, and fans of Eileen, will give short responses to her work, following which there will be plenty of time for questions, making for an excellent opportunity to discuss a variety of topics, everything from melting glaciers, movie stars, and menopause, to class, gender, and barf, and a chance to talk to a legendary writer, a vital part of the New York poetry scene from the 70s until now.

There are 30 commas in the one-sentence paragraph above, a surfeit of organizational punctuation that is more or less the opposite of Eileen Myles’ semantically messy, often punctuation-free Steinian sentence. Her new book covers a wide range of subjects (travel, art, people, and poetry, for starters) and has two or three brilliant, casually subversive ideas on each page, but each of the essays is unmistakably Eileen Myles. Each one feels like an improvised performance, as though the author didn’t know she was going to be asked that question but is really enjoying the process of figuring out an answer. And the process is never a linear one. In the title essay, Myles gives various reasons for her interest in Iceland, but perhaps one way that Iceland is important is that it seems so tangential to the way the rest of the world works, and therefore a perfect landscape for such an ambulatory intellectual method. “I’m not sure if I’m telling a story or unveiling my mania,” she says.

Elsewhere, in an essay published in Biting the Error, talking about her novel Cool for You, she says, “my dirty secret has always been that it’s of course about me” (151) — but at the same time, she points out, the novel is Cool for You, it’s for you. It’s a communal form, like epic poetry, long and social. This emphasis on the social importance of literature is something that interests me very much in Myles’ work. She tells a story, in her new book, about watching a rare public reading by New York School poet James Schuyler—his first ever, in fact—and what she focuses on, what makes it “the most unforgettable reading I’m sure I’ll ever be at,” is the applause at the end, which goes on enthusiastically, compulsively, for perhaps 10 minutes. The most memorable part of the reading, in other words, was not something that the poet did but something the audience did in response. James Schuyler was a genius, she says, matter-of-factly, but more importantly, he was “our genius.”

Poetry, then, is not just about poetry, or as Schuyler said (according to Myles): “I think anything that’s all poetry is boring, don’t you, babe?” Recently, when she gave one of three keynote addresses at Belladonna’s Advancing Feminist Poetics: A Gathering, Myles talked about her late friend, the poet Jim Carroll, and how he had a trick, at readings, of reciting passages from the text as though he were speaking extemporaneously, as though you were getting something from the live Jim Carroll that just wasn’t there in the printed Jim Carroll. And you do, of course, get something from the live reading that you don’t get from the solitary reading, that’s obvious, but I was struck by the observation that she made then: I’m paraphrasing, but she said something to the effect that people’s response to poetry readings, or to poetry in general perhaps, the way they value it, can be read in how they respond to the gaps between the poems. I believe she was talking about both audience and poet. Is there an awkward shuffling of pages between poems? A tense silence? Or is it a silence that is sumptuous and shared? What about the banter? If you only heard the introductions to the poems and not the poems themselves, would you still be entertained? Suggesting that a poem accomplishes what it accomplishes in large part for reasons that are entirely outside the text is still blasphemous for some people, including many poets, because it seems to elevate mere social chit-chat to the same level of aesthetic significance as the poem (and presumably somehow diminishes the poem in the process). But anyone who has ever attended a poetry reading, and especially anyone who has attended more than one kind of poetry reading, knows it to be true, and more and more criticism is being written that acknowledges it. For Eileen Myles, it is a fundamental part of her writing practice.

Some of my favourite lines, recklessly plucked from their context in The Importance of Being Iceland, which I intend to further de-contextualize, or re-contextualize, during our discussion Friday evening:

“Everyone has sex, even if they don’t.” (from “Play Paws”)

“Potentially a lot of art is waste, wasted labor, wasted intellection, and of course mountains and mountains of stuff gets made — so let’s just give it away.” (from “Free Show”)

“You don’t come to New York if you don’t like advertising.” (from “Prints of Words”)

“John Cage, who probably next to Gertrude Stein is the most important man in America. Ever.” (from “How to Write an Avant-Garde Poem”)

“It wasn’t so bad to be totally wrong if you just didn’t know and it was so much fun.” (from “Everyday Barf” — the story, incidentally, that inspired Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto)

“Hawaii is not that different from Denmark.” (from “A Wedding in Denmark”)

Howl is remarkable because Allen did the complete thing — he wrote both a poem and a culture to put it in.” (from “Repeating Allen”)

“Today I was a little ashamed to be inside a museum so I went outside. The street wasn’t under-inflected, nor was it wanting to make sure we had a good time. It was sure of its material and we grabbed a cab and went downtown in the rain.” (from “Vernacular”)