Eileen Myles and Solmaz Sharif: A Conversation Across Generations
PostedOctober 05, 2015
Typefrom American Poets
Eileen Myles moved from Boston to New York City to become a poet in 1974. Since then, she has established herself as an important and quintessentially New York voice in the landscape of contemporary American poetry—from her involvement with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she served as artistic director from 1984 to 1986; to her championing small presses and mentoring younger poets; to her presence as an active participant in queer culture. Myles has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, among other honors. In September 2015 Ecco published I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975–2014, an impressive career retrospective for a poet whose work continues to surprise and interest her readers. In this conversation, Myles and poet Solmaz Sharif—whose debut collection, LOOK, will be published by Graywolf Press in July 2016—discuss their poetic beginnings and how they approach their craft. In her forthcoming book, Sharif—who was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Iranian parents—appropriates and recontextualizes language from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and other source materials that came to light around the time of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, intertwining it with her own familial narratives around warfare, specifically the Iran-Iraq War. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.
Eileen Myles: The first thing I thought to ask you: What’s your poet bio of yourself? How did you get into this mess?
Solmaz Sharif: How did I get into poetry?
SS: Earliest, earliest would be my mom reading to me. My mom read me Whitman as a bedtime story. She is very much into literature, especially poetry. And my parents were activists when they were younger, so I grew up with a lot of stories around their experiences.
EM: Where did you grow up? I thought you were born in Istanbul.
SS: I was. I was born en route out of the country, out of Iran. We went to Texas, then we went to Alabama, then we finally ended up in Southern California. We moved around a little bit there. It’s been a long route. And I still follow that pattern—every four or five years I move.
I wrote on my own in high school—bad stuff—and in college I started working with a program called June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, which June had started.
EM: She’s amazing.
SS: Yeah. She was ill the first semester of the program, and she died that summer, so I actually didn’t get to work with her. I just missed her, but I studied with her students.
EM: It’s funny, the person I didn’t meet was Muriel Rukeyser. She was very famous in New York City in the ’70s when I got there. The first grant I ever got was in 1980, and she died during the selection process for it. But when I got my manuscript back, written on it was “This should be published—M.R.”
SS: That’s amazing.
EM: It’s so weird—I felt like she was a sort of spiritual muse or mentor. I never met her, but she gave me this boost.
SS: Yeah, and she’s a huge influence on me.
EM: I saw her—in your book. But keep going, You were in college…
SS: I was in college, I moved to New York City, I went to NYU and studied with Sharon Olds and Yusef Komunyakaa. I stuck around for a little bit, and then I started moving around again. I’ve been writing through the whole process.
EM: When somebody says, “first book,” I always assume it’s the first book that hit the air rather than the first book they wrote. Were there other manuscripts you were putting together or chapbooks or other things?
SS: No, there weren’t.
EM: This is it.
SS: Yeah, I’ve been obsessed with it for seven years now. It deals with the U.S. Department of Defense’s dictionary. There were a few years after I found the dictionary that I didn’t know what to do with it, so I was writing other poems. But I feel like having to work with the dictionary and having to work with this text really broke my own language open. I’m really glad that it’s my first book, because it forced me to write in ways that probably would have taken me years to get to, if ever.
EM: How did you find this dictionary?
SS: My best friend is a visual artist, and when she was an undergraduate, she had this idea of doing this thing in Los Angeles—she would make these images of warfare and I would write a caption for each of them. There was one of a dead body being dragged off the side of the road, and the caption was "Security Sweep/Suite," and then another one, "Operational Strike." I was thinking of all these euphemisms I could access, and then I ran out of them and thought, I should just Google it and see where I can find some kind of military language. I realized there is a whole, huge public document.
SS: After that I sat on it for a few years, trying to figure out what one poem I was going to use it for. And then I realized it could actually be a whole book. Since then, in general, I’m much more comfortable in long-form, actually.
EM: It’s great. Really, this is a terrific book. I’m really excited by what it is. It seems like such an amazing way to approach the political and the lyric, and excitement and despair, and public and private. It seems like an opportunity that is constantly on the horizon as you’re moving through all this material.
SS: Thank you. That means a lot. What about your poet history?
EM: Well, a little similar, in that I came from a reading family, a loving-books family. I went to a Catholic grade school and high school, and it was the moment when they would have you memorize poems in school. We would have to stand up after lunch, after prayers, after pledging allegiance, and recite a poem. It was usually kind of an icky poem, you know, [William Cullen Bryant’s] “To a Waterfowl,” [or John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Barefoot Boy”:] “Blessings on thee, little man / Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!” Sort of sappy, but I think part of the thing that was interesting was that it was an opportunity for individual power. As a kid, the fact that I had to go and memorize something by myself and take this language in and spew it out was exciting to me and empowering. You could kick that language out in different ways. It formed my way of hearing. I always found poetry sort of easy and sort of fun and like a joke. I guess it was always there. It wasn’t until college that I felt it was like a singularity, that the shape of it was an easy shape for me, some place to put my woe, and my vagueness. It held a lot, and that continued until after college, when I was really uneasy about what I was going to do with my life. When I saw that what I was doing was writing poems, it just suddenly seemed like, well, this could be the thing. I think once I made this decision it organized my life in this crazy way. Speaking of poetry and my life, it’s the same way that the dictionary gave your poetry an order. It just quickened my existence, and it continues to do that. You know, I write in lots of other forms and I’m always excited by what else I can do as a writer, or what else I can do as a poet, but poetry keeps being the line. It informs whatever is going on and takes the speed and the heat and the shape of it.
SS: How do you write in these different forms at the same time, and does that ever affect your process?
EM: When I’m working on a book of prose, poetry winds up being the release. Going for a walk, or…it seems to be the place where the extra language goes, where I escape to. It’s never been a conflict. Writing prose has made poetry not have to be so linear. Poetry doesn’t have to tell a story, because I tell stories in other forms now. I mean, I can and I do. There’s a burden that was off poetry once I started writing prose.
SS: And you’re working on the memoir for your dog right now?
EM: It’s really done. I have to clean it up a little—like pop in some pictures and fix the end of one chapter, but it’s a day and a half of work that I haven’t found the time to do lately. So it’s there, and it’s weird because I have my selected poems, and when Ecco publishes the selected they’re going to reissue Chelsea Girls, too, which came out in 1994. I have these two new old books, and then the memoir is new and exciting, but it probably won’t come out for a year and a half or two years. But I’m excited about what’s in the selected, too, of course. It has a different meaning.
SS: How do you feel about looking through this old work?
EM: Liberated. I feel good about what I’ve done, and I feel glad that it will be this monument that’s more out of me than in me—or at least in both places. It feels like an opportunity to go forward, in a way, and I’m excited about that.
SS: When writing the new poems, did you know they were going to open your selected collection?
EM: No, that was not the idea. I had a different title. But, weirdly, I had a cup of coffee with Dan Halpern, who turned out to be my editor, and when we were talking he was asking me about what I had, and I told him I had a selected, and he was like, “Why not new and selected?” I thought, because I don’t like new and selected. I thought that was a waste of new poems and the wrong kind of front-loading. He was gentle and very precise, and said, “Twenty pages of new work: Put it in the front, people like that.” And it was funny—I came home, and I thought what it would be like and knew right away it was sort of a challenge. So I picked those twenty poems. Then a couple of other things happened, and it gave the book a different title, too. It was exciting. I was invited to write an essay for the Liverpool Biennial, and I wrote this essay, and the word twice was in it. All these things came together in it.
SS: It’s a great title—I Must Be Living Twice.
EM: Likewise, yours—LOOK. It’s so good. You explain look as a term in the dictionary and then in the first poem, but there’s something else about it—what does it say in the book?
SS: It says, “In mine warfare the moment a mine is receptive of an influence.”
EM: And what does that mean exactly?
SS: I think it means the moment that a mine detonates. So the moment that somebody steps on it is called “look.” It’s the only definition I include in the book, or have yet, because I think it’s pretty emblematic of the definitions that come. What’s funny about that word is the dictionary I’m using is the 2007 edition, and these dictionaries are supplements to standard English dictionaries, like the Oxford English, so they redefine words that we use for the most part—they’re not just coining new words. The dictionary is updated pretty regularly, so in the current dictionary, for example, the definition for the word “drone” no longer appears.
SS: It has entered everyday language. So it no longer needs to appear.
EM: How interesting.
SS: “Look” also no longer appears, and I think it’s because we don’t really use mine warfare anymore, so that level of nuance is no longer necessary.
EM: How would “look” occur in a sentence then? “There was a look…”
SS: That’s a great question. “It made it look?” I don’t know. I have no idea. I have yet to see it in context, actually.
EM: Yeah, “there was a look.” They use language in such a creepy way that it seems like it would be, “there’s a large look at 1800,” or “there was a look over this area. An unexpected look.” Very weird.
SS: On top of that, so much of the book is about recognition and witness, and sight. I’m a really visually driven person. I wish I could play well with others, because then I would probably be a filmmaker.
EM: I feel the exact same way.
SS: I love the word [“look”] so much, and I obsess about perceptions. Right now I’m working on a series that deals with persistence of vision, and this idea that you need the blank space between images in order to actually see or recognize motion, so you need that silence for motion to actually be registered or to happen. I was joking with a friend that every book I write in my life I’ll keep calling LOOK over and over, and keep thinking about it in different ways. Here it’s in a military context, but now I’m thinking of it a little bit larger than that, I guess.
EM: Those two o’s in the middle, they’re like a pair of spectacles.
SS: Yeah, they are. So you, too—filmmaker?
EM: Yeah. I mean, since the beginning when I thought about editing poems, I felt like I had more practice looking at TV and movies than looking at poems. And so as soon as somebody even likened, say, John Ashbery’s poems to film editing, or something, I thought, “Hurray, I can jump from here to there.” And I do think a poem is like a little movie.
SS: Me too.
EM: And very much about editing, and how you move sections and what drops out, and how one registers that hole/whole.
I want to get specific about your book and talk about some of my favorite poems. The poem that used the structure “soldier surprises his wife in Chick-fil-A,” “soldier hiding in a box surprises daughter.” What I like so much about that poem is that you’re using headlines in the same way that you’re using language throughout the book from that dictionary, but what’s harrowing is that it manages to uncover the implicit violence in the media that is pretending to be delight. Like, “soldier hiding in box surprises daughter at Christmas.” I was waiting for something horrible to happen in this poem. The psychology of someone who comes home from war and hides from their child…I feel like anything could happen.
SS: If I remember correctly I think that child was terrified, actually. I don’t think that one went well. Actually, they’re titled from YouTube videos. There are thousands of YouTube videos of soldiers returning home, and I found one—it was actually soldiers being reunited with their dogs specifically.
EM: I’ve seen some of those, actually.
SS: And I spent maybe twelve hours watching these kinds of videos and trying to list things that seemed to have some kind of larger cultural resonance to them. There are so many soldiers getting engaged, proposing to their girlfriends right after they return. That’s a huge thing. So what kinds of gender norms and social norms are being reified through these videos and through the military writ large?
EM: Crazy. It reminded me of the roughest, strangest thing I’ve seen in war and postwar—that famous picture of the soldier without a face getting married. Do you know that one?
SS: Yeah, yeah.
EM: And the look on the bride’s face. It’s just so devastating, and it’s all there. And this poem flipped me to that, too. You know, war is nothing but surprise. War is surprise that you’re marrying somebody with no face. You create this feeling of awe for what we’ve rendered mundane in some way and that keeps moving forward and is so horrifying.
SS: I think of them as acts of mourning. Judith Butler in Frames of War and Precarious Life talks about the grievability of lives and the importance of recognizing that, in order for a life to actually exist.
It was really moving to read your selected. I mean, I love your work, but to have it all together…I’m curious about how you went about ordering it. I know you’ve talked about putting your book together like an album, and it must be a very different experience with a selected. I thought “Homebody,” that first poem, and “The irony of belief,” if that’s still the first line, was such a beautiful way to open.
EM: Oh, I’m so glad.
SS: I’m wondering what kind of questions you had in your head about putting the order together.
EM: It was tough. One of the things that was funny was that the book started in 2007, when someone asked me to contribute to an anthology of American women poets in Italian. So this person who didn’t really know my work asked me for a bunch of poems to translate into Italian. I thought, why Italian? But I also thought, I’d love to see this poem in Italian! So I made this mini anthology—I can’t remember if it was twenty or fifty poems. And she did translate the poems, but I didn’t end up in the anthology. I was one of the people who got cut out at the end. So that was sort of the beginning. And after that it was just kind of an intuitive piling-up. Even now the book is so big and I think, “Is this the kind of selected you do when you’re not sure you’ll do a collected in your lifetime?” I almost think that a female selected is a collected because of the way women’s work gets held.
But when I was going through the book I thought, “Wow this could be so much smaller.” But there were so many poems that I wanted out there. I wanted it to be like a good long movie; I wanted it to be a visceral experience. That’s the way I always think about editing, whether it’s prose or poetry. The same way you put a reading together. If you want people’s time and you want the room for a half hour, you have to keep changing it up. And even the way the books were in the original, once you start removing apples from the original pile, the order you had in the original books just doesn’t work. So it’s really funny to reimagine those poems in a selected. It was a kind of existential re-musicking of work in a way. It was strange.
If I had another opportunity, I’d probably change the book again. I was left alone with it for a few months, and luckily Ecco didn’t at all interfere with me editing it two or three times. So in a way it will never be right, but it winds up being a photograph of a moment, which is the only way you can edit things.
SS: Well, it’s beautiful. I’m so glad to have read it early.
EM: Thank you. What do you expect from your book? What do you expect to happen when your book hits the world?
SS: I have no idea. I’ve been working on it for so long.
I have some anxieties about it like, “Oh, that doesn’t look like a book someone’s been working on for seven years.” And I have some anxieties about letting people down with my book. But I really thought that this moment in American history needed historical protest in literary form. Just to say that there were people—and I’m not the only one, obviously—who objected and continue to object. I hope that’s what my book will do. What about you? What expectations did you have for your first book?
EM: Oh, it’s a little tricky because my first, first book was a mimeo that was stapled together. And the poem “Homebody” was from that. For some reason, I kept thinking, “Is that too in your face? Is that too corny?” I guess I was thinking less about what it was going to do to the world and more about what it was going to do to me. Because I felt like it sort of made me real. It’s like the first little capsule of what I mean that got put into the world, and people could ingest it. The first book that had a binding was a few years later and maybe in some official way that was more of a first book.
I don’t know what I expected. I guess I had bigger, different expectations for books of prose. But a book of poetry was kind of a relief, like losing your virginity or having sex. I felt like it made me a citizen in a way. When I was first around in the poetry world, there was a much heavier presence of older poets than there is now. I think the MFA thing has made it more stratified. Certain readings bring out the band, but many readings, it’s just young people. But we were very aware of being young people. So I think having a book come out made me feel visible. It was important to be taken a little seriously.
SS: Is there a piece of advice you heard early on that you would like to pass on?
EM: As a poet, to never sell oneself short on what enormous power we actually have. I think we’re really insinuating so many messages and meanings into culture that aren’t getting out there any other way. Any time poets whine or sell themselves short or feel not listened to, I think they’re really getting it all wrong. There’s such an audience. Every time someone reads your poetry or reads your book, it makes a tremble, and that gets passed on. People really, very excitedly, tell others what they’re reading. I think that part is important, to take oneself seriously as a real shaper of the culture, because we are that in a real, primary way.
And I think, too, when you have a new book you should go out there and read as widely as possible because sometimes publishers don’t do as much for poets as they should, or sometimes people expect someone else to do that. I think whatever way you can accompany the work through the world is really important and valuable because it needs that attachment to the body of the author. That’s such a gift, I think.
SS: I totally agree.
EM: It’s like being in your own time. You are the bearer of that.
This interview originally appeared in the fall-winter 2015 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2015 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.