Eileen Myles by Nathalie Olah
Illustration by Elena Durey
Nathalie Olah is a writer and journalist based in London and originally from Birmingham. She writes on contemporary culture, politics and issues facing working class communities, contributing to the likes of The Independent, The Guardian, Dazed and Confused and Vice.
Being a woman I always thought, meant being ordered, well put-together, a work of fiction. It wasn’t about having a handbag full of old chocolate bar wrappers and roving polo mints that you had to blow the fluff off before putting into your mouth while no one was watching. It was even less about shouting, getting angry, doing dumb shit, messing up, making a fool out of yourself, being poor and feeling uncertain about your sexuality.
Which is why for so many years I think I questioned the validity of my own womanhood - and yes I choose this term because even though this wasn’t a question about my gender per se, and no one was still using words like ladylike anymore, the judgment still existed, from my peers, from advertisers, TV script writers and the magazine editors of even my late indie youth, prescribing cheats on how to stay thin. All of these forces culminated in the sense for years that my body and I just weren’t befitting of the woman tag – that we were somehow invalid, grotesque, unworthy and uncouth.
That was until I found Eileen Myles. Eileen Myles schooled me in the imperfection of womanhood. She taught me that to be a woman included being lousy, lazy, angry, oafish, slutty, awkward, unkind… and yes, still resplendent. My first encounter with her work came in the form of a quote on the cover of Zippermouth, a book by another gay writer, Laurie Weeks. My boyfriend at the time recommended it, and though I had never heard of either author, that book would be my first foray into a world of fiction that more closely fit my own worldview, if not necessarily my own experiences. I’d read and enjoyed Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, but it seemed too singularly erotic to have any wider impact on my life and identity. Zippermouth on the other hand was a more complex portrait of a woman struggling to survive the pain of drug addiction and unrequited love in New York city. It contained descriptions of being drunk, out of your mind, in love and subsequently rejected like I had never read before, and presented a bold new style of fiction that I – stupid as it might sound - didn’t even know was allowed.
Suddenly someone had given validity to the chaos of life as I saw it. I wasn’t a drug addict or an alcoholic, but my life seemed to be reflected in the disordered, episodic structure of that text – the unreliable narrative voice that fluctuated between angry and jubilant – the way, finally, that this would warp the very pace - drawn out episodes followed by sharp bursts of action. Unlike the books I’d read before, which had always felt tyrannical in their orderliness and structure, reminding me so much of those women who had always been better than me for the fact of their clean hair, clean fingernails and strict diet plans, here was a writer who I seemed to get, for the first time ever. Only with time did I see how much Weeks, along with pretty much every other writer I came to admire over the next few years – Sheila Heti, Emily Gould, Staceyann Chin – had, consciously or unconsciously, borrowed from Myles - the working class, Massachusetts lesbian and unlikely saviour of modern literature.
Myles first moved to New York and established herself as something of a fringe poet in the 1970s, before becoming the artistic director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project. In recent years she has achieved pop-culture status through a revived interest in her work, helped by the inclusion of her poetry in the Amazon series Transparent, but also – more to her credit – the increased relevancy of that stark, immediate and empowered voice.
I take pride in having found her before all that. Diving in, I read three collections of Myles’ poetry – Skies, On My Way and Not Me, before working my way up to what is one of the great works of Twentieth Century literature, Chelsea Girls. With its idolatry worship of imperfect women’s bodies, its candour about sex, humiliation and shame and its portrayal of identities that are so fractured and contradictory, that novel (autobiography? prose poem? something else?) stopped me in its tracks, and showed that women who choose not to compromise, are also excluded from that same, seamless passage through adulthood experienced by those who do. Rather than turning me away from that turbulent and painful road however, Myles’ writing drew me in and confirmed all of my deeply held suspicions that women could, in fact, define their own identities.
Not only was I drawn by that mad, unhinged writing but by the crucial fact of it coming from a woman, as opposed to the egocentric ramblings of a Jack Kerouac or a Hunter S. Thompson. It was far more complete and human than the sparse, WASPish, prose of Joan Didion and those who followed in her tradition, aad I not found it when I did, I wonder whether I would have just submitted to a life of quiet compliance within a safe but unexciting and marriage, a stable but unrewarding job. Instead, I decided to become a writer and to strive for the rest of my life to find ways of articulating the vast quagmire of emotions, feelings and experiences that make up my own life – for better or for worse.
It’s for that reason that at my lowest ebbs I still find myself coming back to Chelsea Girls, as well as the poetry and Myles’ other great novel Cool for You, to burrow down deep between the fierce, urgent words of loss, confusion, lust, anger, elation and apathy that Myles is so skilled at juggling. To feel their uncertainties and ambiguities wash over me, permitting and in some way redeeming all of my own uncertainties and ambiguities in the process.
Because it’s that space between that Myles occupies. The place stuffy nomenclature can’t quite reach, like that difficult and complex word, ‘dyke’: “…a one syllable word in a less complexly gendered time,” she writes in the preface to Chelsea Girls. And yet we can’t escape the fact that without her writing, that more complexly gendered time might never have been reached, or at least not so soon. That by unpacking in all of its magnificent detail, the real life of a woman who just happened to prefer the taste and smell of other women, Myles didn’t just help to break down conventions, but also the sanctity of words and their ability to control us.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.