Have you ever stumbled upon a particular book and the writer has you immediately enthralled? You’re fervently reading huge chunks at a time, and when it’s over you just want to re-read it in case there were snippets that you initially overlooked? And then you start obsessively searching for every other piece of writing they’ve ever done? That was my experience when I first read Chelsea Girls – the novel that Boston writer/poet/all-round legend Eileen Myles is most known for.
So obviously when the Wheeler Centre announced that Eileen Myles would be speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre on 2 May, I was all over that. I was even adamant for a while that I wanted to get them to sign my arm and then get it tattooed, but my roommate said that would be really embarrassing and she would stand far away from me if I did that.
When 2 May finally came, I got to the Athenaeum Theatre ridiculously early, partly due to excitement, but more because I’m a stickler for being punctual. While I sat on the foyer floor reading, I saw them walk through – they were smiling, and it hit me that they were real.
Being a part of the audience as Myles discussed their work, life and creative processes in that deep accent, I felt so lucky to be in the presence of someone whose work – especially Chelsea Girls – had touched me to such an extent.
For those of you who are not familiar with Chelsea Girls, the novel is a semi-autobiographical, creative nonfiction collection of fleeting moments, which was first published in 1994 and re-released in 2015. Recounting periods spanning from Myles’ Catholic upbringing in Arlington, Virginia in the 1960s, to their life as young queer creative in New York during the 1970s and 1980s, Chelsea Girls has attracted a particularly strong cult-like following over the last five years.
Balancing autobiography with fiction is a common thread found in Myles’ literary works, such as Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) and Cool for You. It leaves you with this beautiful uncertainty – you feel you know Myles intimately, and yet because the works are partially fictitious, you are equally aware of your distance and that you can never definitively know the truth behind these moments.
Myles’ rejection of plot is another distinctive feature to their writing which deepens the feeling of authenticity and rawness in their works. Jumping erratically between ages and moments, each memory stands alone and yet together they form an incomplete understanding of a single individual you crave to know more about. Just like how our real life connections develop, as readers our knowledge of Myles is a collection of snippets that over time we’re given a chance to see, the details of which may or may not be entirely true.
I still naively think that all Myles’ stories are true, obviously with exception to that time they claimed to be a Kennedy. But regardless of each narrative’s literal truth, reading Myles holds so much truth in how it portrays the ongoing connection each of us has to our past, and the changing versions of who we are.
Hearing Myles’ voice outside of their books is a moment I’ll always cherish. To see someone who I admire live up to the hype and be such a witty and down-to-earth soul made me feel less alone, despite the fact that they will never know me as I feel I know them.
Listen to Eileen Myles in conversation at the Wheeler Centre here.
Image by Ellen Muller.