Even If It’s Bad: Eileen Myles and Anna Joy Springer in Conversation

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Eileen Myles: How do you actually feel about failure? I want a long answer. Who doesn’t have a big history of it, even a history since it’s been in fashion and how we feel about the changing list of who failure is in fashion with now? Where’s it with you? What does it mean?

Anna Joy Springer: Eileen, it’s completely possible now that if my lover betrays me, it will be with an actual celebrity from the television, even multiple celebrities. Here in Atwater Village, near Hollywood, a celebrity is sitting there, right down the street at the bakery, just like any other woman. I used to feel guilty about thinking of women as competition, and I hardly ever thought about fame. I thought about skinny, nice, laughing girls who were good at secrets. Now I think about movie stars from the television laughing at my lover’s jokes and I know that makes me seem not even just pathetic, but maybe really crazy too.

It seems fame has been democratized and it’s like another luxury item within reach, not something even mythologically attached to merit anymore, but like designer clothes, which makes failure seem less like a cool choice and more like poverty. I was listening to a radio interview with some guy who wrote a book about contemporary American culture, and he was talking about how, in this sort of culture where everyone is supposedly mobile, class wise or status wise, where anyone could theoretically be president or a billionaire or a reality TV sensation, lots of people feel like they’re failing life if they’re not succeeding wildly. Like I know undergrads who have maybe read a handful of books and written work for class assignments and they are super concerned with getting published ASAP, even though they don’t actually think of their work as something to be read by others. Back when I was playing in bands twenty years ago, it was embarrassing to want to be wide scale popular. Being hated gave a band bragging rights. But then stupid assholes like G.G. Allin got to brag for being so popularly hated. It didn’t work if you didn’t have men in the band, though. If you were a hated band with no men, you were just annoying, not popular, and the Go-Go’s or whatever wouldn’t have you open for them when they came to town. I guess I’m getting this sense that people I come into contact with believe, more now than ever, that life is something to win, or at least not to lose. Personally, though, failure feels more dangerous—now that I’m middle class, with some cultural status, and aging.

What about you? What do you see yourself failing in, and in what ways are critics or detractors wrong about your or other artists’ perceived failures?

EM: I think your answer is glorious and frank. I guess I actually do believe in failure as a way of life and have felt that way for a long time. Like, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Ever since I was a kid I have been so maladjusted and hungry that I knew I was simply doomed and so I finally settled for a private definition of success, which was I guess motility, however that could be achieved. For years I have draped myself in the lineaments of failure, telling abject stories about myself and signing up at the wrong moment for giant opportunities to waste time in hopes that behind that dying tree (my life) I might be doing something. Something that no one in their right mind would want to take away from me, which was mostly writing a poem. Setting out to be a poet was setting out to be a failure. The fact that failure is increasingly a hot topic makes my skin crawl. It’s like a collective “let’s put on an ugly shirt or a bad sweater so it looks like we have fun or something” or foot tapping until we can figure out how to go off with our notes on “the experience.” Failure as popular topic means we are living in an ugly time, I think. Real losers are not talking about failure. Are we? I’m single now. One of the things I’ve experienced in relationships, which seems sad but true, is that by the time it looks good to everyone else it usually sucks for you. An awkward relationship is often a good one. Something cool must be going on—they look so embarrassed. Is this about failure? A relationship that looks failed or failing is probably alive. In writing I think I’m considered a YA writer or something. Everyone loved me when they were in college. I mean I am part of no movement at all unless it’s the minds of young queers looking for a place to amplify their shame in their notebooks. But that’s why I write. To bring my shame to the world. I think since the 1980s it’s probably been a form of failure to not affiliate oneself with one of the big thinking literary movements of my time. I’m very pro-thinking but glibly I have to admit that much of my life I was thinking about sex. So I have aligned with those people and they are a bunch of failures. I mean on the corporate scale of things. I probably look like a failure on Facebook when I get into fights. It’s just cause I’m lonely. I must look lonely. Is there a deep shame in loneliness? Surely it’s a hallmark of failure. But again doesn’t a writer need to have some space? That no one else wants. Their life for example.

I love what you say about girl bands just being annoying for acting like losers. Do you think you can re-enter your relationship having just announced that it is probably about to end? It probably won’t (end) so aren’t you just acting like a loser? 

AJS: I was more feeling like a loser than acting like one. But I was also enacting it, in order to see it, so I could see its absurdity as a first step in trying not to feel it. I did end the relationship, but only for a few minutes. Now it’s much better than it ever was. It was a failure in order to sustain the ending. I love your answers too. I love when we can be honestly self-deprecating with each other.

I’ve been thinking about the end of American imperial dominance a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about globalization and neoliberalism and the turn of the last century in relation to the 1990s and the pre-teens of this century and in relation to stories we tell ourselves and each other. I’ve been painting this rebus that takes over a hundred hours per page to make, which is totally stupid of me to do because I can make it in photoshop and make the images look hand-painted by tracing them with a special digital pen, but instead I’m painting the images in guache on watercolor paper. I had thought it would be nice to have something to sell, and that “originals” of paintings still sell. But mine are covered with a sort of white ink cover up for comics artists, and they’re lumpy and smeary.

And I’m wasting time. Being a time waster is like being a fat person—it bugs some people a lot. And wasting time painting these medieval, intricate pages, I’ve been watching a lot of television.

Over the past ten years I’ve noticed TV is a lot better. And I’ve noticed the shows are all about the “goodness” or the “normalness” of characters conventionally deemed villains. They’re murderers, drug dealers, political schemers, and crazy people. Their moral goodness or normalcy is related to their roles within a family as consumers and guides and to their social roles as entrepreneurs. Lots of compelling shows feature bad guys who are good consumers and entrepreneurs: Sopranos, Weeds, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and probably some of the vampire stories. I’m not sure this has always been the case, and I think it reflects some larger desire in twenty-first century neoliberalism for a way to reconcile this way of living as members of overdeveloped nations in which there seems almost no way to live a truly ethical life without going entirely off the grid, which is nearly impossible. There seems to be a wide-ranging cultural acknowledgement, rather than a limited subcultural critique of this grand failure of American moral superiority.

And at the same time, like I said before, it seems like people I’m around are even more convinced than ever that the point of living is to win, or at least not to lose. Living is a competition; reality is a sponsored game show. It’s a narrative framework that makes satisfaction nearly impossible, but this is a total success, because in a consumer culture the entire economic system is maintained by manufacturing discontent or failure anxiety.

I mean, people are freaking out when they don’t get the anticipated number of “likes” on a social media post. We have all sorts of ways of checking the polls to see if we’re succeeding or failing, not just in what we do or make, but in who we are.

But Eileen, what if life isn’t about succeeding or failing? What if we’re being duped, even in all our awareness and critique? What if it’s about and for something else entirely? What if success or failure is irrelevant? If so, what should we be talking about instead?

EM: I don’t know. I sit in my own shit and think, “well, there’s a problem here,” and spend much of the day getting out of it. I think a lot of the things I need to do to keep my sanity have wound up exposing me to people in very different class situations. It turns me inside out a little bit and I hope to keep turning. I went to a screening of films tonightby Margaret Tait, who lived most of her life on Orkney Island and shot these gorgeous 16mm films of men using drills on the sidewalk and cats staring at crows who had just scarfed up a big juicy worm and patterns of leaves and bits of music, fantastic bluesy explosive music and classical music kept punctuating her sailing vision. The time code of her work, the mix of her work, was really astonishing. She had accomplished thatmade another time entirely. Not an old time or a new one but, like, a poetic time in which she blended these things for her awakening presence behind the camera. I went because the description was so good I felt I must.

I’ve been feeling like a bit of a failure since I came back from Ireland. Initially I landed in this large house in Northampton and I thought I want it. I badly need a home. I need to have all my books and art up and rooms to wander through. I didn’t want to come back from my wonderful time abroad into my new strange single life in which it feels like my dog dies and I come back and is she still dead, yes. And am I glad. Well kind of. But I don’t understand the signature of this time yet so I decided this house would hold it. The failure part about not raising a ridiculous amount of money in time to stop the owners of the house from doing the renovation that will get them even more money. I loved the dump. This house was this large flowing New England dump I decided I need to own. Tonight I wrote them and explained more for me than them that I quit. I can’t have your house. I can’t afford it and you’ve already made it much too clean. So I’m suddenly in this new old time. I’m in the apartment I have lived in since I was 27. The stasis of it is overwhelming at times. I think the fear of time in general is that this is not a new time. You both fear not knowing what’s coming (death) so you do know but you hate the shapelessness of the oncoming execution and so I put these circus tents over my life. I’m living in Ireland. I’m in this relationship. She is my queen. Ha. The thing without hats (life) is the scariest and then today or recently I thought, what if this is the wildest island to be writing onI mean this moment I don’t understandand not failure at all? Or failure! So I like it too. I’ve kept thinking I wanted to move into some new phase of existence that was all writing (and living) from an older place that was not so engaged with, as you were saying, the number of likes. What if you stayed in the pond swimming with yourself and whoever you meet and try and maneuver in that even without looking outside at all for the count? And… I do have a new bike, new couch and new mattress and when I go to the gym I lift weights and have an entirely different regimen. I was thinking, sitting in my shit, I can’t write here at all. I’ve never written here. So then I thought, what if I wrote here? What would it take? Maybe just a big box to put everything away. That’s a house. What if you had less and kept swimming? If you were breathing and paddling and kicking would you be failing? You’d be making some foam.

AJS: I love that weeks go by between our questions and answers. This conversation is a sort of circus tent (or one for fumigation, as they do look a lot alike). I didn’t understand you’d stayed in New York instead of going to the house in Northampton. I do like the idea of making a home in the awkward. Los Angeles feels like the actual material location of Facebook right now—like all the Facebook people are moving to Los Angeles—which is not true of course, but it feels that way to me right now. I never thought I wanted to live in Facebook, just to flit in and out, but now it’s like one of those movies where the devil takes his toll and I get all shrunk down and sucked into the tiny world. I’ll see my avatar at the Trader Joe’s and won’t know which is me because we’re buying the same things. I can handle that, but I don’t know what I’ll do if I discover that your New York is also the material location of the social internet and you’ve just seen yourself at the gym, using all the same weights.

A few days ago when Maggie Nelson was giving a reading at the New Writing series, she described a drawing Harry made, a picture of a cartoon ghost with a speech bubble: Without this sheet I’d be invisible.

Gender has always been about age, we know, but doesn’t it now more than ever seem to be, at least personally, about aging? There are these two contradictory teleological trajectories in the American mythos—that progress is forward and equals success and that aging is forward and equals failure—and this contradiction is synthesized by the idea of “the kids,” or the inheritors of one’s so-called successes or failures. Do you think about your offspring? Who gets your stuff when you die? Do you care? Or do you think there’s a queerer or more compellingly perverse way to respond to ideas of progress and aging? Also, I’m thinking about these questions in relation to what I’m seeing as a re-take on expressionism in “experimental” queer literary arts. I’m trying to work through a theory of perverse expressionism, or maybe perverse “diffractionism” that attacks the moral basis of success and failure. Are you seeing a turn in writing toward a newish kind of expressionism, or is that too loaded a term to use for literature that sets static notions of identity a-spinning through an intentional upsetting of poetic and narrative conventions (including even those conventions considered innovative or avant garde)?

EM: I like thinking about offspring. I told you I met a palm reader in Montreal who told me I was very fertile. I felt she meant the writing. The piles of sludge and beauty are fertile. I think these offspring make institutions— books certainly but schools too. The expressionism you allude to is really out there and it is this new moment of excess, of smart emotional writing. I’m that school. I’m totally depositing into that lode. That’s my offspring.

AJS: So what does offspring have to do with failure…?

EM: Is there a way to defy failure and not with success? And not just an either-or. Is there a third term and a fourth? Your offspring seem to be in relationship to the future of something. There’s plenty to doubt about the future but what we really can do is waste, I think. Wasting time making stuff—not stuff that nobody wants but stuff that is about wanting.

AJS: But I get really freaked out about wanting and “desire” now because I see that I’ve been totally conditioned to be this endlessly-productive wanting machine, and so it seems like the thing to oppose failure is to stop wanting, but that seems wrong too. Even nihilism seems too baroque. Or product-y.

EM: That is it. It’s too baroque. How can you stop wanting though? Don’t you write when you want something? Isn’t it like making money?

AJS: I want to want something I haven’t been conditioned to want. I guess that’s why I’ve been into wasting time. Maybe that’s the allure of “failure”? To aim for a desire that’s not offered? But it seems now that failure is one of the many shiny things to aim for. I want something shiny, but not desirable. Does that make sense? I write when I want to stop being told what to want.

EM: (Long nothing.)

AJS: I stumped you?

EM: Yeah, something. (Snorts air.) I suppose the allure of failure for me is to play it as close to the edge of nothing as I can. I mean in all sorts of ways. Doing too much so there’s no Eileen, giving in too much so there’s no Eileen and being alone so much there’s only Eileen. I suspect those are all failures. So maybe I only believe in the tiny adjustments I find sometimes so I don’t wind up in the realm of “no” or “only.” Could there be a radiant spot or even whole puddles of radiance where I’m not always looking at the edges? When I think about literature that’s excessive and emotional what I mean in my heart is people or writers who are being quite normal, i.e. unbalanced.

AJS: I think your signature poetic lines do that. Your poems continually unbalance or twist a set-up within a line. My work does that too—I set up an argument, then undermine it. I think that’s partially what I mean by “perversity.” It’s a way of dodging capture, but also of staging a kind of radiant evasiveness, a kind of seduction. And it’s a way to provoke desire—to displace it. The thing that’s between failure and success is not knowing, not ever knowing what’s been generated in a reader, or even if there is one. Except in performance, where you can see people and maybe even feel their hum. Is the third term that’s not failure or success—is it just the useless one? The unusable one. An unfathomable offering?

EM: Anna, that is very beautiful. I like unfathomable better than anything. ‘Cause it’s more daring to not enclose the offering in a discourse about stuff. I like the spiritual glint, that pagan glint of offering. I mean, I know it’s Christian and everything else too. I think your work certainly qualifies as a bad religion, which is a lot more appealing than forming the next literary movement. To think of a writing occurring outside of literature seems free and new. And how simply great that you’re already doing it, ‘cause otherwise we’re schmucks. We pay our taxes and have bank accounts and I think we will just continue to have literary engagements with failure and success. We will dress badly! I reject failure as a fashionable subject since I come from the failed class. It’s all a little too familiar. But the beyond that your offering opens up makes me feel glad. Just to burn something up. I don’t need for everything to be gone. I’m sorry if this conversation was supposed to be fast. It’s probably going backwards. It’s so slow my replies are oxidizing.

AJS: The trick is to not make it be all about ourselves, right? Maybe that is the wholeness of desire. I don’t think it’s Christian. I like being in countries where there are these beautiful rotting little offerings with flowers and food inside out on the sidewalk and in the bins of flip flops and in the temples. You know, you go somewhere, you bring something. Dogs eat it or dead relatives or tourists take a photo of it. It’s not the thing itself that was the offering, it was the offering itself that was the thing. It’s a vulnerability. You’re right—that’s much more engaging than making a new school to believe in.

Eileen Myles was born in Boston in 1949, attended catholic schools in Arlington, Mass and graduated from UMass (Boston) in 1971. In 1974 she moved to New York to be a poet. Since then she’s published eighteen volumes of poetry, novels & nonfiction most recently Snowflake/different streets, The Importance of Being Iceland/travel essays in art & Inferno (a poet’s novel) which isnow also available on ITunes in her own voice. She received her poetic education at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in from 1975 – 1977 where she took part in workshops lead by Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan and others. In 77 and 79 she published dodgems, a poetry magazine which proposed a collision of styles as the only possible aesthetic. Along with Notley, Rower, Kraut, Timmons & others she edited the feminist anthology Ladies Museum (1977, Rag On Press) and in 1979 she was assistant to poet James Schuyler.  From 1984 through 1986 she was Artistic Director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project. As well as writing poetry and prose through the late seventies through the mid nineties she devoted herself to performing and producing plays most outstanding of which were “Feeling Blue Parts 1, 2 & 3”, “Modern Art” and “Our Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” all of which were produced at PS122. Books included Not Me (1991, Chelsea Girls (stories, 1994). School of Fish (1997), Maxfield Parrish, (1995), Cool for You (a novel, 2000), Skies (2001) and Sorry Tree (2007). With Liz Kotz, she edited The New Fuck You/adventures in Lesbian Reading (1995). In 1992 she conducted an openly female write-in campaign for President of the United States. Since the eighties she has contributed to a wide range of mainly art & culture publications including Bookforum, Artforum, Art in America, Parkett, The Believer, Vice, The Nation, AnOther Magazine & The New York Times as well as writing many catalogue essays for artists including Zoe Leonard, Catherine Opie, K8 Hardy, Sadie Benning, Anthony Friedkin as well as for lots of European museums & biennials. Her essay “Street Retreat” is part of the Semiotext(e) installation in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. She taught at U of CA at San Diego from 2002 through 2007 and wrote the libretto for “Hell” composed by Michael Webster, which was performed in 2004 & 2006 on both coasts. In 2009 she conceived and directed “The Collection of Silence”, a large scale performance piece involved dancers, children, Buddhists, a drawing group, silent poets and an opera singer (John Kelly) at the New York Hispanic Society and commissioned by DIA Center for the Arts. Her many grants & awards include a Warhol/Creative Capital art writers’ grant, The Shelley Award in Poetry from the PSA, a Guggenheim in 2012 & in 2014 she received an award from the Foundation for Contemporary Art in poetry. She is working on Afterglow (a memoir) about a Rosie, a pit bull she lived with from 1990 to 2006. Eileen teaches at NYU, sometimes Columbia. She lives in New York.

 

Anna Joy Springer is an artist, performer, and cross-genre writer who investigates the weird intersection of sacredness, perversity, and interbeing. She is the author of The Vicious Red Relic, Love (Jaded Ibis, 2011), an illustrated fabulist memoir with soundscape, and The Birdwisher, A Murder Mystery for Very Old Young Adults (Birds of Lace, 2009). An Associate Professor of Literature at UC San Diego and the Director of its MFA Program, she teaches experimental writing, feminist literature & graphic texts. She’s played in punk and dyke punk bands Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow.