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Eileen Myles's unexpected surge in popularity


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While Eileen Myles has long been held sacred in the halls of feminism, lesbian culture, and the New York poetry world, only recently has she seen mainstream success. That is partially due to the reissue of her 1994 book Chelsea Girls. Read Emily Witt on the rise of Myles in partial below, or the full version via T Magazine.

At the age of 66, has published 19 books of poetry, prose and criticism, but until last year, when Ecco re-­released her 1994 novel, “Chelsea Girls,” many readers didn’t know who she was. That’s not to say she wasn’t famous in her own way — if you were a contemporary poet, if you were gay or if you had an interest in the cultural feminism of the 1990s, you probably read her. Each of these communities had its canon, and in their canons Myles figured.

But 2015 was the year that the culture machine picked up Myles and transmitted her to a larger audience. The gritty, idealistic outsiders of New York’s creative scenes in the late ’70s — their era’s music, art and general sense of freedom — provided an antidote to the homogeneity of today’s pop culture, and few writers captured that romantic rawness quite like Myles. She published poems in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for the first time. Young women were reading her work in the coffee shops of Brooklyn. On television, on the Amazon show “Transparent,” the poems of a character named Leslie Mackinaw, played by Cherry Jones, are actually hers, and the fictional feminist professor is based on Myles, too. (Myles and the show’s creator, Jill Soloway, have dated.) This new generation of public feminists, including Beth Ditto, Lena Dunham and Tavi Gevinson, cite her as an inspiration, finding in her writing a ribald and ponderous succession to the New York School. Earlier in her career, she explained, publishers seemed only to accommodate so much difference, so that “if you were going to publish gay work, you were going to publish sentimental gay work, you were going to publish conventional gay work.” Now, she said, ‘’I think what social media has done is made us relish variables. You know? We’re just living in these floating fragmentations.” And with that came a realization that “everybody’s queer — everybody’s wrongly shaped for a culture that requires conformity.”

Myles has a theory about her resurgent popularity — you might call it the Theory of the Bad Copy, which posits that most people who are breaking with the past do so by presenting initially as bad copies of an accepted person. Which is to say that Myles got published by Black Sparrow as a bad copy of Charles Bukowski. And that Leslie Mackinaw, on “Transparent,” is a bad copy of Myles. And that Hillary Clinton — who Myles recently endorsed — is a bad copy of the male presidential figure, but one who Myles insists will be different because of her gender. People get published or elected or onto television shows because they’re bad copies painted in broad strokes — that’s how difference slips by, and then the bad copies break with the past and make something new. This seems to have been Myles’s plan all along. “If a fool will persist in their folly, he will be wise, right?” she said, smiling, because she knew she already was.

*Image of Eileen Myles via Buffalo.edu