alternate presents 

Eileen Myles in conversation with Sean Thor Conroe on a bench in East River park, on the eve of the summer solstice. 

STC: So we met briefly one night, you were at a reading, and I had been—

EM: Well it’s in the book, isn’t it in the book?

STC: Well there’s the time I saw you read. That’s in the book. But there was one other time we met, a year later, when I was thinking about that earlier time a lot. It was in the fall of 2019 in New York. You might not remember this actually…

EM: I’m not sure…

STC: It was really uncanny, I’d been reading Inferno, and had been going over Evolution, and I was thinking a lot about that earlier time I saw you read. And then I went to a reading out in Dumbo, and you were there. I remember I’d gone outside, and one of the poets there had given me this weed pen, and I dragged it way too hard. You were outside, and I was trying to talk to you, but I couldn’t communicate—. I was like, “I saw you read this once, and I’d just been… thinking about that reading a lot!” You were waiting for an Uber, and you were just like, “Uh…” I think I ranted incoherently to you for a sec, and then you were like, “Alright dude, my Uber’s comin, I gotta go!”

EM: It sounds faintly familiar. And you look familiar, so.

STC: But Inferno was really big, reading it when I’d just pulled up to the city and was writing a lot of Fuccboi. There were so many similarities of, an artist coming to the city, writing in a spoken vernacular, quick sections, a concern with intimacy, an adamant energy of oneself as an artist… In a way, Inferno was one of [Fuccboi’s] templates. Not to mention, the ideas I had about Dante’s Inferno… There were some interesting crossovers.

EM: It’s very weird though, I feel like that stuff happens because, you know, I got your book in the mail, and I mean, I wasn’t gonna read it then. Then I started to look at it, and—It was like, it was not the time to read it, but I was already reading it. So I was like, OK, I think I’m gonna have to read this book. So then I start reading it later, I’m on the fucking plane, going to Lithuania—on my way to give a Marija Gimbutas talk—and first I’m in the book, but then Gimbutas is in there!

STC:  So crazy!

EM: And it was just like— But I think this stuff happens all the time.

STC: This stuff happens, right?

EM: Which is why I think my sense of reality is very, you know, I feel like, Is this a dream? Is this real? It’s very curated.

STC:  So you were going out to Lithuania to do a talk…

EM: About Gimbutas. In Vilnius. There was an exhibition about her work. And this friend of mine, who I’d met a few summers ago in Greece, who’s a curator, just emailed me out of the blue, and I had right then been reading about her.

STC: What is it, for you, that’s meaningful about Gimbutas’s work?

EM: Well a friend of mind, David Rattray, heard of him? Really good friend of mine, writer and translator. Died in 93. Of brain cancer. Very freak, sudden death in his 50’s. He was such a scholar, he spoke so many languages, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek. But so he had told me about her. I think he was kinda courting me. I mean, we were friends, he knew I was a dyke, but I think he also had a crush. He was always bringing me things to read. But he was like, This is where all the goddess and feminism stuff came from.

STC: Right.

EM: And then there was this piece in The New Yorker that I’m still obsessed with, about this guy going on this hike, it was some Himalayan lake or something. He started talking about the lake and the remains, and I guess there were some interesting remains. Like people who were like, Greek, or— The wrong people’s remains were in there. And then, below that, more interesting remains. Like, how did they get there? But so he started talking about Gimbutas, and how she had looked at the language and the myths and the artifacts of the Bronze Age, and was like, There were some matrilineal cultures, like five thousand years ago.

STC: The statues with the breasts…

EM: Yeah. And feminists and artists got really excited in the seventies, and then all the male anthropologists were like, Nah nah nah. But then now, with the genome, people are like, Holy shit, she was right. Because they can see now that there was a mass rape of the [goddess-worshipping tribes] 5000 years ago in western Europe and the genome was replaced.

STC: Wow.

EM:  It was like, all these tribes with the wheel, and horses—

STC: Horses, yeah.

EM: —came over the steppes, very male dominated tribes came in. Obviously killed all the guys, raped all the women, and just took over the culture. And stopped worshipping those gods.

STC: Right.

EM:  So I’ve been working on this big crazy-ass novel, and there’s this section that I recently sent to my editor, and it’s about rape. Because I was raped when I was eighteen. And it opened up into this whole thing about sexuality, but then into war, and rape as a component of war. So I’ve been really interested in it as a subject.

STC: You talk about it in Afterglow, about the fate of the person who rapes someone… About how it’s taking the envelope that’s not meant for you…

EM: Yeah, yeah. It’s always there.

STC: It’s always there. I’ve been interested in looking back at old archeological texts. Like I’ve been looking at the Egyptian Book of the Dead recently. And you have that idea in Afterglow, that your dad came back to you through your dog. But the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it’s all like instructions to people who’ve died for how to navigate the afterlife. I don’t know, it’s kinda interesting, that that’s the religious text. It makes you realize, these texts are a lot about how to deal with death.

EM: Exactly.

STC:  But then they also believe in reincarnation…

EM: Right. Do you?

STC:  Well it’s sorta like we’ve been talking about. These things that keep happening. I don’t know if it’s just—. Like running into you that time. Or oftentimes, when I’m focusing a lot on a certain person… I don’t know. Kooky things happen!

EM: I know, I know. But I do feel like, part of all this stuff that we’re talking about goes into, you know… evolution, and humans moving around the planet. And I don’t know why Neanderthals and Denisovans, all these early humans, really intrigue me. But my belief is that they were communicating like animals do. Psychically. Like, before language, we had a superior form of communication. And so I feel like all these things that seem like coincidences or woo woo, are just that earlier thing. Which is not actually language. It’s pictures.

STC: It’s pictures. That’s another idea I find an affinity with in your work. Those moments of. Nonverbal moments. What you can’t say. That’s sort of how Cool For You ends, when you’re talking about the death of your father. And you have this one rant about how… we’re just making sounds.

“I heard my father die. I saw him die, but it was the sound. I know his final notes, not the words, words are nothing. Believe me. Words are empty. It’s the squawking of the animal, the wheezing, the desperate wind of a life rattling through the body…”

We’re out here just making sounds.

EM: Yeah, yeah. Right.

STC:  Maybe that’s why the emphasis you talk about in your writing on feeling, I also try to emphasize feeling in my writing. Because then it’s like, using these words to get at something else.

EM: Exactly. There’s something underneath. Things you can’t talk about.

STC:  Do you feel like it was helpful though, writing about things with your dad, and with your dog?

EM:  I mean, I feel like it made me a writer. I feel like with my dad—. The way I used to think about it was like, you know when in printing, two-color printing, they’d say the registration was off? Pre-computer. It would look like 3D—

STC:  Right, right. It was a little bit shifted.

EM:  I feel like with my dad dying when I was a kid, it was like my registration was off. Just, in reality. I was trying to be sad, but I wasn’t sad. You know. Trauma. So I think, all the stuff about writing, copying reality, is me just trying to be here.

STC: Maybe I’m reading that into your books, of writing about those who passed away. But I mean, Sheila [Heti]’s new book is like that too. She started writing it, thought it was about a thing, and then her dad passed away. She started writing things down to deal with that, but then eventually realized that they were part of the book. She had this one idea she said once, that “Sometimes all writing is is getting down what you don’t want to forget.”

EM: Right, right. And then it just starts to have — I mean, I’m like, why am I so obsessed with the genome, and people traveling around the world. But I’m starting to think, that’s the people even before — It’s like, the whole history of the planet.

STC: Looking back in an archeological way is like looking back on a life, but in a macrocosmic way.

EM: It’s a way to escape the intensity of the present. To imagine all these alternate presents.

Eileen Myles is the author of twenty-one books including Chelsea Girls (1994), Cool For You (2000), Inferno (2010), Afterglow (2017), Evolution (2018), and, most recently, For Now (2020), part of a new Why I Write series from Yale University Press.

Sean Thor Conroe is the author of the novel Fuccboi (2022), out now from Little Brown. His full conversation with Eileen is available on his podcast, 1storypod.

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