Eileen Myles gave the keynote address at the Windham Campbell Festival’s award ceremony. Photo Beowulf Sheehan. As a young high school student, poet and novelist Eileen Myles sat in on a class at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, envying the ability of the art students to draw the form of the partially unclothed model before them.
In the keynote address at the Windham Campbell Festival’s award ceremony on Sept. 17, Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) said writing, for them, is also a way of “copying,” as well as their way of being present in the world.
“[S]omewhere in there is this action of copying, both literally and conceptually,” said Myles of their craft. “Copying everything in words is a form of loving the world … If you ask me to tell you why I write, it probably has to do with this deep discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day, that might be the best option available. It’s not an antidepressant, and it’s not exhilarating, and it’s not aerobic, but it’s a form of chanting — for religious reasons. I mean, it’s my default position.”
Myles, who is also a performer and art journalist, spoke on the theme “Why I Write” before a full audience in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall following the awarding of the Windham Campbell Prize to eight writers in the categories of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. The ceremony was the first of a series of festival events celebrating the prize recipients and their work.
At the start of the address, Myles said that they wanted to get to the truth “right away” by revealing that they write simply because they “need an alibi” for living.
While the word “alibi” implies being “elsewhere,” said Myles, the point of living is “to be here, to be present, which I think is truly the hard part. Yet I keep coming back to it. It’s undeniably true that writing, it turns out, is the easiest way to copy that feeling [of presence], and I’ve been doing that for years.”
Myles recalled how they left Boston in their early 20s for New York City, where a rent-controlled apartment, and especially time, allowed them to pursue a vocation as a writer. Being a queer woman with no desire to have children also meant they had fewer constraints, Myles said. The author of 20 books, including the autobiographical novel “Chelsea Girls” and numerous poetry collections, Myles studied their craft at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where they later served as artistic director from 1984 to 1986.They have received numerous honors and grants for their work.
Often described as a “punk poet,” Myles contrasted their own early life in New York City to the lives of some neighbors in their East Village apartment building, who were struggling parents, often poor, including one from South America who had come to America to receive care for sick child.