The first time I heard Eileen Myles read her poetry was in New York City, in 1984, the same year that she was artistic director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Over the years, Myles has written at least 19 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and several librettos and plays. In 1991, she ran as a write-in presidential candidate when the notion of a queer, female, candidate was incredible. Myles has since become a feminist butch icon, with her writing and her persona quoted in the film Grandma and the Emmy Award-winning show Transparent.
In the autumn of 2012, I read one of her Facebook posts where she mentioned her plan to go on a street retreat where participants would sleep on the streets for four days, in the East Village, Soho, Tribeca, Wall Street, and Chinatown, and eat food in homeless shelters. When I ran into Eileen in front of the art gallery Participant Inc. on Houston Street, I suggested I interview her after she went on her retreat.
Last week, Myles embarked on another Zen Street Retreat, camping out again, possibly a repeat of what she described four years ago as “sleeping in the night air on the Staten Island Ferry, with the lights, and the darkness.” I found a description of the street retreat online: “We don’t say we’re homeless; we’re simply living on the streets for several days, relying on the generosity of the streets to take care of us.” The tradition of street retreats references back to 2,500 years ago when Shakyamuni Buddha led his Buddhist monks each morning in the practice of begging for their daily food.
“When I heard about the retreat I was so glad I could do it because it felt like the right time,” Myles told me in 2012. “I had been hearing about these retreats for a while and this was the one. … So to spend this time was to enter a fear and let it come over me. I liked begging. But of course it wasn’t my life.”
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Shelley Marlow: There were eight people on the retreat. What were the parameters and rules that you all agreed to before going on this retreat?
Eileen Myles: We agreed not to bring any money, cellphones, extra clothes — though a pair of socks was okay, plus the ones we wore. We brought one piece of identification. We brought a blanket and a rain poncho and backpack to bring them in. We agreed to stay with the group, to pick a partner for the few times we were separated and to keep our eyes on that partner.
SM: Were any of these rules broken?
EM: I think a few people wandered off at various points but we all became very interested in their absence and no one really took off or went elsewhere. It was minor exploring.
SM: Were there other elements of performance in the retreat?
EM: Well, when we begged we were encouraged to look people in the eye, to have a cup for people to put money in so they wouldn’t have to touch us and to say we wanted money for something specific, like food, and to ask everyone — to not decide which people would give but to ask everyone we could.
SM: So you were performing begging, and the passersby were both the audience and performers for you?
EM: I was actually begging. We had to ask for something specifically, like money for food, which was what I was asking for. We had to use a cup because people would not want to touch us. I can’t remember if that was true but I think my gesture — of offering a cup —was calming to the people who I asked, as opposed to an open palm, a human hand. I think that’s too hard, too intimate. We had to ask everyone. Not just the people who looked “good” to get money from. And that was great because of course I was surprised by who responded and who didn’t. I feel, in general, in my life at this moment, I’m very aware of how off my preconceptions are, whereas I’ve always thought I had good instincts. I really don’t know, which I think is a Buddhist thought. Audience and performer really don’t feel right here. I think, considering how we all feel about money, it was a humiliating proposal to beg in a place that was kind of my neighborhood. I could be seen and I was. I felt like people probably think you were always begging — i.e. my own relation to class and wealth and what a poet experiences in the time of a career. Everyone knows what you’ve “got.” So I was very naked and it was an old feeling.
But right next to this was my pleasure. I was very good at selling Girl Scout cookies in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As a kid, I was always wanting to take my wagon down the street, selling shit. These desires of mine were a great embarrassment to my mother, growing up. So the fact that I made 11 dollars in a half hour of begging actually delighted me. I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t you give me your money? When people recognized me I was reminded by my fellows that I needed to ask those people for money. That was a shock, but of course they gave it. I think enacting my “shame” and seeing it be met not with scorn but with a few bucks and even a look of understanding was beautiful. One guy of course said, ‘your jeans are better than mine.’ But they were just Levis. I’m sorry mine looked better. I guess I had the right to no dignity, no style in his eyes.
SM: How did you find food and places to do other basic tasks such as brushing your teeth?
EM: We had begged from our friends beforehand. Each of us were required to raise $500 from our friends which we gave as a group to various missions and soup kitchens downtown. Then we ate at these establishments.
We very regularly after dinner went to Whole Foods on Houston and used their restrooms to brush our teeth and use the toilets.
SM: Did you miss certain foods? Did you miss the telephone? Did you stay healthy in the duration? Did you feel an outsider once it was all over?
EM: I missed pizza. But I really hadn’t been eating it lately. But I wanted it. I was obsessed with coffee. I wanted eggs. One mission that opened in the morning didn’t have coffee. They gave us bug juice. Horrible. Yeah, I was fine. I was walking, walking, and I loved the demonstration of how much walking you could do. The experience in general, the atmosphere at the missions, pretty much turned me off food. Except for the Catholic worker at the spot that served good soup, strong coffee. And another Catholic place that had coffee, oranges, and really big good peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I am more outside now. You don’t ever land back in the same place. I could forget, but some part of me, deeper than “me” can’t. I’m a little more out there now when I’m in. I didn’t miss the phone. I loved not having it. My relationship to the phone and the internet is still rocked. I loved being unconnected and not answerable to what is my life and being instead in this more present relationship to where I was. It felt old since New York used to feel more that way. I was younger, too.
SM: Did you plan on writing while on this retreat?
EM: I didn’t. I brought a notebook and a pen and I took some notes but mostly I didn’t want to and my writing felt creepy and revolting. I didn’t want to save anything. I kind of felt the opposite. I only wrote when I felt extremely anxious, which was usually at the Bowery Mission where we had to hear some really disgusting sermons before we got our food.
SM: What about the writing was creepy and revolting? Were the sermons dogmatic and limited?
EM: When I did write, it was in refutation of my surroundings, which if I think of was part of what writing was for me in the beginning. In part-time jobs after college when I wanted to be elsewhere. I went “in.” The writing was a reflection of my discomfort. My desire to not be of or with these people. To be different, to be myself, not them. Definitely here to be not them. In their willingness to eat anything, to eat what they were given. The sermons were often sexist, often about abortion and described a relationship to women, to our category that felt really fundamentally offensive and appalling. It reminded me of how I felt in childhood when I couldn’t understand why anyone would talk that way. And it was hard; because I was a guest I felt not entitled to stand up and say no. I had to be silent or I would have been an outsider; it would have felt wrong. I had to bite the bullet, it seemed, which made me go crazy.
SM: When did you start meditating? Was there an instigating event or person that got you initially interested?
EM: There was an instigating experience. I was doing a performance at PS122 and it went well but one night a bunch of people, friends came to see me, and the next night no one came. There might have been a woman involved too, somebody I was interested in and she was either there or wasn’t and I might’ve said the wrong thing or didn’t say anything at all. Anyhow she left. I wound alone after my show and very lonely and very hungry and didn’t see how after this experience I could just go out to some restaurant and eat by myself. What if someone saw me? They would know I had just performed and now I was alone. I felt shamed by my existence. I was so transparent. So I kept walking into restaurants and walking out. I think I even went home and walked my dog. But I was still starving. So finally I went to Vesselka’s and took out the big menu and ordered some food and some people who had been at the show or knew about it came in and said you just performed and I said yes, and it really felt okay. I felt like a god. A very minor one. And then I opened the Times magazine and there was a piece about Buddhism by Uma Thurman’s father [Robert Thurman] and he was talking about illumination and I felt I had just had one. Because the food was so good, and I had no shame at all and it seemed like I was doing what I should be doing after my show. Even that I should be alone and that I was happy. And I just felt like my life was so full of ups and downs, of this feeling and that feeling and I didn’t know how I would ever be able to connect this moment to that moment, or make all this hilliness be okay. My friend Myra had been meditating and I asked her to take me with her. I sat on the pillow and thought yes. But I’m very uneven. I want to do it every day but I don’t. I go months without and then I begin again. I sat today.
SM: Is sitting a way to embrace emptiness? A way to know yourself better? How would you describe sitting or meditation?
EM: It’s a way to observe the incessant traffic of my mind. To have a tiny handle on it, or a balcony, and then it begins to slow down if I can bear it. I’m often too busy to sit but when I sit I realize that busyness is a state of mind. That I can reenter my busyness differently when I sit. I become a ‘what’ when I sit. What am I, not who. I like that. Though I don’t always like “what” is there. I remember telling a teacher that when I sat all I felt was death. He said that’s you. I was really troubled but then I got that he didn’t mean I was death. He meant I was filled with it. It really dissipated after that.
SM: Is there a connection between sitting and your writing?
EM: It’s almost the punctuation, sitting is. Language is filled with gaps, manifest and implied. Sitting is really a different way of accessing the flood of consciousness, but not to explore or frame or capture or direct but to see and then release, into a new space of not. Not not being, but not relying on thought as what there is.
SM: It sounds like you went into this retreat to face your fear and came across something much larger. Was this street retreat a controlled way to hit bottom the way alcohol or any addictive experience can bring you back to trauma?
EM: Well, I’ve been compelled by the image of the begging monk, the hobo, the traveling anything for as long as I’ve been alive. I wanted to run away when I was a kid. I know we all did. But it’s still a very sweet part inside me. When I tour I love that I’m alone on a strange street, in a train station. So this retreat seemed a way to be out there — with a modicum of safety and to feel that free fall. I know that there was a witnessing aspect that in so many ways is where I didn’t connect. But I witnessed to some extent what you get. Who you are around. What the services available are, what they are like. How much of your time these places want in exchange for a meal. It seems they want all of it. Or a lot. When I was drinking, because my life was so unmanageable, I was afraid of not having a home. The fear of losing my apartment was visceral and haunting and persuasive. But of course, like when you lose something, there’s a moment when it’s great that it’s gone. You love the hole it left. Drinking courts oblivion in so many ways. You could sleep on the street because you fell. Or you got left. Or just sat for moment and then you were out. I’m sure I did do that though I don’t remember. So practicing homelessness is definitely an experiencing of those conditions without anesthesia.
I mean to be out there and not drunk. I know I’m confusing loss and yearning. I think I just do. It’s why, for example, I don’t think my work is “about” myself. I feel the self about to slide off all the time. It’s a little thin. But the world is a very real subject.
SM: To paraphrase the poet Jalāl Rūmī, ‘When loss occurs and leaves a hole, that is where light can enter.’ Will you explain more about what you mean when you say you confuse loss with yearning?
EM: Yearning is so all-powerful. It’s being young and just looking at the world like a dog but I think it is these cracks of light in all of us. It’s never complete. It can’t be. So the concept of growing up is just failed. People think when they own a house or make a child or arrive as a someone in their something they’ll be glad and big. I think it’s a temporary feeling. Satisfaction passes. I just feel sad all the time. But I don’t think I live like that. So it creeps up on you — yearning. Loss is a consideration of true destruction. I look at my father’s life and think god he just stepped off a train. I mean, that was his drinking. But I have made huge mistakes or just look at things I won’t ever know about what I’ve done, how I’ve been perceived, how I’ve hurt people. We have mammoth effects on the world around us. Tiny but never-ending. I guess that’s where yearning and loss meet. Your sheer weight demands you have one life. There’s like this unplayed song that’s everything else. Yearning and loss are the tiny god feeling. You just have to go live. I had a lot of time to think on the retreat. Though if I was homeless I’d just become numb. It would have to stop, the thinking and the feeling.
SM: Were there moments of pleasure and joy in these street retreat days?
EM: Incessant. I felt part of my family of pilgrims. I loved us, our intimacy. I loved the city, the beauty of its interconnection and flow, and dirtiness and desire. I loved the water the night we slept on the Staten Island ferry, I loved the night air, the lights and the darkness. I was very glad to be out there. But it wasn’t my home, I knew that too.