Eileen Myles, an interview and a poem

Eileen-Myles-WEBIt was with great satisfaction, and not without amusement that I read several recent interviews with and profiles of Eileen Myles, a poet who has always been much beloved, but who has only recently become the kind of poet profiled by the New York Times. I am always happy to see poets given big profiles in the mainstream press; right after this, I found another profile in The New Yorker. In this brief interview, from the Talk column in the Sunday Magazine, there was so much to love:

Poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy. It’s like the un-Trump: The poet is the charismatic loser. You’re the fool in Shakespeare; you’re the loose cannon. As things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.

Which is not unlike what Ursula LeGuin said recently in the speech she gave upon receiving an award from the National Book Awards. Myles’ hyperbole is funny:

I think it would be a great time for men, basically, to go on vacation. There isn’t enough work for everybody. Certainly in the arts, in all genres, I think that men should step away. I think men should stop writing books. I think men should stop making movies or television. Say, for 50 to 100 years.

Myles ran for President a while back, as the first “openly female” candidate. This poem, related, is from her 1991 collection Not Me published by (semiotexte), An American Poem. It as satisfying much like her interview is satisfying: she says things that are profound, necessary, hyperbolic, and funny. Her poetry is accessible, and down to earth:

An American Poem

BY EILEEN MYLES

I was born in Boston in
1949. I never wanted
this fact to be known, in
fact I’ve spent the better
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
and have a life that
was clearly just mine
and independent of
the historic fate of
my family. Can you
imagine what it was
like to be one of them,
to be built like them,
to talk like them
to have the benefits
of being born into such
a wealthy and powerful
American family. I went
to the best schools,
had all kinds of tutors
and trainers, traveled
widely, met the famous,
the controversial, and
the not-so-admirable
and I knew from
a very early age that
if there were ever any
possibility of escaping
the collective fate of this famous
Boston family I would
take that route and
I have. I hopped
on an Amtrak to New
York in the early
‘70s and I guess
you could say
my hidden years
began. I thought
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
While holding this ignominious
pose I have seen and
I have learned and
I am beginning to think
there is no escaping
history. A woman I
am currently having
an affair with said
you know  you look
like a Kennedy. I felt
the blood rising in my
cheeks. People have
always laughed at
my Boston accent
confusing “large” for
“lodge,” “party”
for “potty.” But
when this unsuspecting
woman invoked for
the first time my
family name
I knew the jig
was up. Yes, I am,
I am a Kennedy.
My attempts to remain
obscure have not served
me well. Starting as
a humble poet I
quickly climbed to the
top of my profession
assuming a position of
leadership and honor.
It is right that a
woman should call
me out now. Yes,
I am a Kennedy.
And I await
your orders.
You are the New Americans.
The homeless are wandering
the streets of our nation’s
greatest city. Homeless
men with AIDS are among
them. Is that right?
That there are no homes
for the homeless, that
there is no free medical
help for these men. And women.
That they get the message
—as they are dying—
that this is not their home?
And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?
How high is your rent?
If art is the highest
and most honest form
of communication of
our times and the young
artist is no longer able
to move here to speak
to her time…Yes, I could,
but that was 15 years ago
and remember—as I must
I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.

Right? She is the partner of Jill Soloway, the creator of the TV series Transparent, who said  of Myles:

I see Eileen as a wayward walking country minister posing as a dyke poet. Her mind is the most expansive mind I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in contrast to. There is no thought or impulse of mine, be it revolutionary, feminist, radical, dirty, beautiful, silly, abstract or murderous, that feels ugly. That totally frees me up to say to myself: more, more, more.

Plus that great gummy smile. Myles is the author of a novel, Chelsea Girls, recently reissued, and the collection of poetry ‘I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975 – 2014.

920 O’Farrell Street

Harriet Lane Levy, in her book 920 O’Farrell Street, show how many different nationalities were mingling on the streets of San Francisco in the 1880s:

“On Saturday night the city joined in the promenade on Market Street, the broad thoroughfare that begins at the waterfront and cuts its straight path of miles to Twin Peaks. The sidewalks were wide and the crowd walking toward the bay met the crowd walking toward the ocean. The outpouring of the population was spontaneous, as if in response to an urge for instant celebration. Every quarter of the city discharged its residents into the broad procession. Ladies and gentlemen of imposing social repute; their German and Irish servant girls, arms held fast in the arms of their sweethearts; French, Spaniards, gaunt, hard-working Portuguese; Mexicans, the Indian showing in reddened skin and high cheekbone—everybody, anybody, left home and shop, hotel, restaurant, and beer garden to empty into Market Street in a river of color. Sailors of every nation deserted their ships at the waterfront and, hurrying up Market Street in groups, joined the vibrating mass excited by the lights and stir and the gaiety of the throng. ‘This is San Francisco,’ their faces said. It was carnival; no confetti, but the air a criss-cross of a thousand messages; no masks, but eyes frankly charged with challenge. Down Market from Powell to Kearny, three long blocks, up Kearny to Bush, three short ones, then back again, over and over for hours, until a glance of curiosity deepened to one of interest; interest expanded into a smile, and a smile into anything. Father and I went downtown every Saturday night. We walked through avenues of light in a world hardly solid. Something was happening everywhere, every minute, something to be happy about… . We walked and walked and still something kept happening afresh.”

U.S. Congress Takes a Momentous Stand Against Human Trafficking

child-prostitution

I have for quite some time done what I can to help children who are used for sex. I am a contributor to organizations that fight sex trafficking, and I follow much of the law surrounding it. So I was very happy to see that the JVTA, which has been sent today to Obama to sign, passed our Congress. Here is the writeup from CATW:

New York, May 19, 2015 – The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) applauds the U.S. Congress for passing the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA), the first comprehensive bill to address domestic human trafficking. It now awaits the signature of President Barack Obama to become law.

The JVTA creates a new funding stream to finance services for U.S. trafficking victims. Up to $30 million of the innovative funding mechanism will come from $5,000 fines on perpetrators of crimes ranging from human trafficking to child pornography. The legislation also redefines federal law to clarify that sex buyers of children and human trafficking victims can be prosecuted as traffickers.

“Not only will the JVTA finance services for U.S. victims of trafficking, it puts the onus on sex buyers who cause the devastating harm. We finally have strong federal legislation that aims to prevent the demand for sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation,” says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of CATW.

One of the JVTA’s most important provisions requires the Department of Justice to incorporate demand reduction strategies into all human trafficking training programs. Survivors have been key in demanding more accountability from commercial sex buyers who cause extensive harm to those they exploit. As a result, the JVTA also creates a new U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, with at least eight survivors, to make recommendations to the US Government on anti-trafficking strategies.

“This victory is not only the result of successful collaborations across political and ideological lines, but it is a testament to the power of survivors enlightening us with the best solutions to end trafficking and exploitation,” says Bien-Aimé.

Bluebells and buttercups eliminated from childhood in favor of celebrities and chatrooms

There was a recent update to the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and someone noticed that many words describing nature had disappeared. The Guardian says:

Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

Social Peacocking and the Shadow

I’ve long spoken of the idea that much social media has turned into “social peacocking” — showing yourself in a favorable light online, presenting only the happy moments, a “highlights reel” of your life, so to speak, and how this leads to FOMO in others. Look at me: here I am doing cool things, in interesting places, with beautiful people. This has always given me some pause. When I look at Flickr and Findery, two social media companies I’ve built, they are not, I hope, venues for presenting the air-brushed version of one’s life. So many of the new social networks seem to encourage it. They seem pretty, but shallow.

It occurred to me that the real problem was not the showing off. The eminence grise that was Carl Jung showed us what can happen to those who stay on the sunny side, and only on the sunny side of life. Jung posited the idea of The Shadow, the dark side of one’s character. The Shadow is not only what is evil, but what is petty, selfish, childish, annoying, and usually unconscious. The more a person acknowledges his shadow, and brings it into consciousness, the healthier and more whole the person will be. But if driven underground and sent into hiding, The Shadow will take on a life of its own, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ursula LeGuin wrote a magnificent essay, “The Child and the Shadow” (which I collected quotes from last year), in which she discusses the fairy tale “The Shadow” by Hans Christian Anderson. In the story a man allows his shadow to leave him, and the shadow goes on to live its own life, without the positive side of its character. Eventually the Shadow has grown strong, and the man has grown weak, and the Shadow come back and murders the man. LeGuin writes:

If the ego “is weak, or if it’s offered nothing better, what it does is identify with the “collective consciousness.” That is Jung’s term for a kind of lowest common denominator of all the little egos added together, the mass mind, which consists of such things as cults, crees, fads, fashions, status-seeking, conventions, received beliefs, advertising, pop cult, all the isms, all the ideologies, all the hollow forms of communication and “togetherness” that lack real communion or real sharing. The ego, accepting these empty forms, becomes a member of the “lonely crowd”. To avoid this, to attain real community, it must turn inward, away from the crowd, to the source: it must identify with its own deeper regions, the great unexplored regions of the Self. These regions of the psyche June calls the “collective unconscious,” and it is in them, where we all meet, that he sees the source of true community; of felt religion; of art, grace, spontaneity, and love.

Social peacocking is life on the internet without the shadow. It is an incomplete representation of a life, a half of a person, a fraction of the wholeness of a human being. It’s the lonely crowd, the network and society, and not the community, as Tonnies would have it. As Jyri Engestrom observed, it’s implied in Google’s mantra “Don’t Be Evil.” That’s the Yang without the Yin. We have to bring The Shadow back into our technology if we are to live there and find our humanity reflected back to us. In our strivings to be better, we must not forget to be whole.

The Pace Layers of Civilization

Pace Layers of Civilization

One of my favorite diagrams is from Stewart Brand’s book “The Clock of the Long Now” Derived from a diagram in Brand’s prior book “How Building Learns”, alongside an idea of Freeman Dyson’s, Stewart Brand expands on the idea of the pace layers of civilization in The Clock of the Long Now. Here are some note from the chapter in which this diagram appears:

“The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain. The fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts have all the power.

We can examine the array layer by layer, working down from fast and attention-getting to slow and powerful. Note that as people get older, their interests tend to migrate to the slower parts of the continuum. Culture is invisible to adolescents but a matter of great concern to elders. Adolescents are obsessed by fashion, elders bored by it.

The job of fashion and art is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this! Culture is cut free to experiment as creatively and irresponsibly as society can bear. From all this variety comes driving energy for commerce…and the occasional good idea or practice that sifts down to improve deeper levels, such as governance becoming responsive to opinion polls, or culture gradually accepting multiculturalism as structure instead of grist for entertainment.

If commerce is completely unfettered and unsupported by watchful governance and culture, it easily becomes crime…Likewise, commerce may instruct but must not control the levels below it, because commerce alone is too shortsighted.

Infrastructure, essential as it is, cannot be justified in strictly commercial terms. The payback period for such things as transportation and communication systems is too long for standard investment, so you get government-guaranteed instruments such as bonds or government-guaranteed monopolies. Governance and culture must be willing to take on the huge costs and prolonged disruptions of constructing sewer systems, roads, and communication systems, all the while bearing in mind the health of even slower “natural” infrastructure, such as water, climate and so on.
Education is intellectual infrastructure; so is science. Very high yield, but delayed payback.

Culture’s vast slow-motion dance keeps century and millennium time. Slower than political and economic history, it moves at the pace of language and religion. Culture is the work of whole peoples.

As for nature, its vast power, inexorable and implacable, continues to surprise us….When we disturb nature at its own scale, as with our “extinction engine” and greenhouse gases of recent times — we risk triggering apocalyptic forces. Like it or not, we now have to comprehend and engage the still Longer Now of nature.
The division of powers among the layers of civilization allows us to relax about a few of our worries. We should not deplore rapidly changing technology and business while government controls, cultural mores, and so-called wisdom change slowly; that’s their job….The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

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