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Leading poet Eileen Myles coming to Buffalo

Mainstream arbiters of culture are suddenly paying attention to lesbian poet Eileen Myles, who has been a significant figure in the poetry scene since the 1970's.

The New Yorker published a poem of Myles and a sympathetic write-up in 2015. That same year, the New York Times published a flattering piece with the headline, "The Poet Idolized by a New Generation of Feminists," followed by another last year. A long interview also ran in the Paris Review.

The flurry of attention followed the reissue of Myles' memoir "Chelsea Girls," originally published by a small indie press. This time, it was released by an imprint of Harper Collins. Myles is also portrayed as a fictional women's studies professor by Cherry Jones in the popular Amazon series "Transparent."

Myles will be in Buffalo Thursday for a free 7:30 p.m. reading at Evergreen Commons, 262 Georgia St.  It's presented by Just Buffalo Literary Center, and marks its final STUDIO series event for the 2016-2017 season.

Question: You wanted to be an astronaut -- which may come as a surprise to some of your fans -- and instead wound up a poet. How'd that happen? 

Answer: I always liked poetry, and it seemed easy and was a way to make jokes, and I was like a class clown kid. When I went to college, I was still vaguely thinking the sciences would lead me to being an astronaut, and then I slowly sussed out I wasn't that kind of right-brain person. I started looking at literature, and then from there found poetry.

As a young writer it was a form I could realize, as opposed to fiction which always seemed like a different job, a bigger job, a harder job to imagine in terms of time. Poetry was just right there for me.

Q: You became involved in the 1970's with the wildly influential St. Mark's Project in New York's East Village, later becoming its artistic director.  What kind of influence did St. Mark's and poets in its orbit like Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith have on you?

A: It was like my graduate school. The workshops there are where I learned to write. The thing that was cool from the get-go about St. Mark's is that it presented an alternative to the poet-academic model. We had this idea that poets were like these sad academics who killed themselves. St. Mark's presented this kind of rock 'n' roll/performance artist that was a more appealing image of being a poet.

I loved Patti Smith as a really funny, messy, remarkable definition of being a poet. She picked up a band and distributed the poetry message differently by taking poetry to another level of performance. She wasn't available personally, but Allen was.

When I was 25 or 26, he heard me read in group readings and went out of his way to come over to me and tell me he thought I was good. He helped me get published with City Lights. He was a really cool, supportive presence to young poets. He was a hero, always.

Q: The re-release of "Chelsea Girls" triggered big media attention the second time around and elevated your stature with some in the literary intelligentsia. Why do you think?

A: I think people like time to cleanse narratives. When I was submitting 'Chelsea Girls' to agents in the early 90's, I think it was a bit too much. I was writing in my own language about a world they didn't want to know about, and about a sexuality and level of poverty they didn't want to hear about. Now it's sort of exciting and retro, but at the time it was sort of announcing you were from the underclass. The 80's and 90's in publishing were very mainstream, and literature was just getting commodified in a big way. Other narratives were not really interesting to the mainstream.

Q: Why was the title borrowed so closely from Andy Warhol's film 'The Chelsea Girls,' as well as Nico's 'Chelsea Girl?'

A: I wrote a story and called it 'Chelsea Girls' because it was girls and the Chelsea Hotel, and it was a time when appropriating a title was very cool. Already by 1994, Warhol's movies were not that well known. My alternative title was 'Bread and Water.' I had a friend who said it had so much more dignity.

Q: What's it like to be turning the book into a screenplay?

A: We just closed a deal this week. Amazon is going to produce it. It's really exciting.

Q: That's got to be a very different kind of thing to write.

A: Yeah, and I don't even know how different yet. I've hacked out a first draft of the screenplay, but I've got producers and people who really want to be over my shoulder to make sure we're all in agreeing on the screenplay that I'm writing. I feel like I'm about to have a  writing experience unlike any I've ever had before.

In a way I'm trying to elbow my way in there with my version as quickly as possible, and then see what we can agree on. I'm very optimistic at this point because I'm still in a fun, do-it-my-way place.

Q: You seem to value accessibility with your work, as opposed to poets who work more abstractly.

A: I totally came up as a poet in a very avant-garde world, but that meant a lot of different things.  It meant Allen Ginsberg, it meant John Ashberry, it meant Alice Notley, it meant language poetry. There was a lot of variation in how much you withheld, or what themes you were playing to create a poem with.

I like abstract work, but often I feel I'm happy other people do it so I don't have to. I like writing poems my mother could read. It's not that my mother ever did read my work -- she certainly decided pretty early on she wasn't going to -- but I like the idea of bread crumbs, or stones to skip across the river -- that there's hand holding in there for you.

I don't mind people not knowing what's going on or being confused, but I don't like that feeling to linger too long, because I want people to keep reading. I'm interested in being read.

Q: In writing about your life, you also reveal things about your family. How has that gone over with them?

A: We always love to use that trope about Native people and having their picture taken and feeling their souls were being stolen. My family feels that way, too. It's sort of like, where do I get off being the family chronicler? And nobody agrees on your account, so it's like nobody's going to like it, and you're already in the room with that.

We were working class, or at least lower middle class. We owned a home, but it was a double. And the tragedy of the working class in America is that you're a cog in the wheel -- you're a part of the post office, you're a part of the factory, you're a part of all these institutions -- which now does not want you.

The working class sort of doesn't exist right now, or is being phased out by robots or whatever.  It always was systemic that you were to be an invisible part of the machinery, rather than to say look what I did. When I started to date middle-class people and would meet their families, they would ask me questions about myself and I felt like I was being interrogated. It was hard for me to get that this is what they do, because my family never asked me about what I did.

My mother just died last month, and there are things I can say in my work I never would have said. When and how to save them is still up for grabs. Its always an issue.

Q: We're living in dangerous times. Is this a time for poets?
A: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Social media is one opportunity that is distributing poetry and making poetry kind of topical. I think we're in a void. The press is failing us. They're not doing their job, and so poets step up in a moment like that.

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