When Eileen Myles first came to UC San Diego in the fall of 2002 to teach writing, she couldn't sit still.
Gesticulating wildly as she paced back and forth in front of a packed lecture hall, wearing a men's dress shirt, tie, jeans and boots, it was clear the New York-based author-poet was new to the quiet, tame campus.
Her speech patterns sounded like she was reading beat poetry-sometimes hard to follow, but rhythmic and captivating nonetheless. She would talk herself into a frenzy in her Boston accent, piling stream-of-consciousness anecdotes about daily life over quotations from poets, then interrupt herself, and then pause mid-sentence, sometimes stopping over her desk to stare down at the notes she had prepared for the day's lecture. You often left class with the feeling that you had just witnessed a mastermind, and that some of her lines were brilliant, but when looking over your notes, they made no sense.
"Poem can be like a dog," mine once read. "How to get it to go downstairs if it doesn't want to?"
Rumors about the lanky, animated, gray-haired woman spread among students in whispers: She had done tons of drugs. She was a friend of Andy Warhol. Not only was she a lesbian, she only wrote poems about lesbian sex. One thing was certain: She would most definitely not be using the same reading list that other professors had used for Introduction to Fiction.
After asking students to read a work by experimental writer Dodie Bellamy that contained scenes of not entirely hetero-normative sexuality, Myles got her first taste of how kids in Southern California would be different from those on the East Coast. Students raised defiant hands, sent angry e-mails. Two girls in my workshop group told me, independently of one another, that they were brought up in religious households and that Myles' lessons were inappropriate.
Four years later, the class seems like a fitting start to Myles' relationship with San Diego.
"I always knew those kinds of people existed," recalls the writer during an interview at her home in City Heights. "But I was still extrapolating from my experience, which was to go to college from Catholic school and then have these kind of mind-boggling hipsters teaching me.... I always thought I was getting enlightened. Most of the schools I taught in New York, likewise, I never encountered students that were more conservative than me."
Eileen Myles grew up in a working-class family on the outskirts of Boston, an adolescence that gave her "not good" associations with the suburbs. After attending the University of Massachusetts, a move to New York in the 1970s provided the rest of Myles' education: She gave her first poetry reading at CBGB, the seminal punk-rock club, in 1974, struck a friendship with Allen Ginsberg and worked for poet James Schuyler. While editing a number of poetry magazines, teaching workshops at small liberal-arts schools and performing her own work whenever and wherever possible, Myles quickly became a fixture in the art/music/poetry scene of Manhattan's East Village.
Fans of her work-10 books of poetry, a novel, a short-story collection, an opera, art criticism and constant contributions to publications such as Art Forum, The Nation and The Village Voice-will tell you that much of her writing actually feels like a brisk walk down a New York City street: sometimes grimy, disheveled or overwhelmed, but always exhilarating.
So it's no surprise that, seated calmly at a picnic table in her spacious, green backyard on a warm fall afternoon while the California sun sets into the palm trees, the woman The New York Times called "a cult figure to a generation of post-punk females forming their own literary avant-garde" seems decidedly out of place. She doesn't appear to have aged in the past four years-her almost-shoulder-length gray hair still falls in the same basic way; her face is serious and calculating when she speaks, but open and expectant when you work up the nerve to speak back to her. Her hands still jump and weave through the air when she talks, and she radiates an aura of barely contained urban energy.
How did that fervent, neurotic energy wind up here, in the easy, sunny sprawl of Southern California? Drawn to the stability of a teaching job after finding herself with little to show financially for her critically acclaimed 2000 novel, Cool For You-she published it with an independent press that had "money problems"-Myles was unable to turn down UCSD's offer of a professor position that, after surprisingly minimal bargaining, came with money to buy a house and the possibility of a teaching job for her girlfriend at the time.
"It was sort of just like this job bit my leg and wouldn't let go," she recalls. "They gave me every single thing I wanted. So I said OK... and here I am, four years later."
Four years later, Eileen Myles is still trying to figure out how to be a poet in San Diego. From that very first class-which wound up being "an education" for the professor herself-to the bureaucratic hurdles and opposition she's had to overcome in order to start a master's writing program at UCSD (slated to get off the ground in 2008), Myles' time in San Diego has been marked by the distinct feeling that the area itself is resistant to the concept of a true literary or arts scene of any kind.
"I'll see things in the paper-there was an ad for "artsy" people; I think it was an art fund that was starting up. And in a big city that would be like-." She makes an astonished face. "Artsy people? So I guess in a way you could really rule the roost here, if that's what you wanted to do."
But Myles doesn't seem to want to rule the roost. A writer who built her career out of networking with other writers and artists, she's found the life of an artist in San Diego to be much more solitary.
"One of the things that I was hired for is... I have a career that's very social," she says. "And with group things, you do a lot of work and somebody comes. Here, maybe somebody comes, but nobody comes the next time." She pauses, taking a swig of Diet Coke. "It seems like part of the work you want to be doing is getting other people interested in doing the work you're doing, too, so it doesn't just become like you're carrying a rock up a hill. It's really static."
From 1984 to 1986, Myles served as the director for the St. Mark's Poetry Project, a performance venue and literary workshop forum that's seen the likes of Robert Lowell, Alice Walker, Patti Smith and John Cage. Even before that, in the '70s, she was so entrenched in the East Village poetry and art scene that it would sometimes take her two hours to walk her dog for a few blocks because she kept running into people she knew.
"It was great, but it got to be paralyzing," she says. "You just woke up, and people are like, "Well, what are you doing, Eileen?' Like, you had to be spitting out your résumé at 10 in the morning, if that's when you hit the streets... so all of these things conspired to make [moving to San Diego] seem like a good experiment."
She wasn't, however, expecting to find herself in a place with what she sees as having no arts community whatsoever. Coming from a city where she read her poetry whenever possible, the poet's life as a performer in San Diego has been markedly empty.
"I never read in San Diego. It's really been an experience of being someplace not as an artist, except for myself and for my friends. Whatever it is that I would connect to just isn't here." The most "happening" things she's attended have been events like T.M.I. (Too Much Information), the monthly queer- and feminist-oriented readings hosted by writers Anna Joy Springer and Ali Liebgott-both East Coast-based friends she's helped get jobs at UCSD.
"I feel like, in general, it's very easy to not do things here," she says. "It's the inertia problem. It's huge, and it really does seem to be in the place itself." She looks around at the stillness of the sloping yard, at the clothesline gently swaying in back of the apartment complex behind her house, which is separated from her property by an abrupt, miniature gorge that doesn't quite look naturally formed.
The lack of an arts community is only one aspect, says Myles, of her feeling that something about San Diego encourages isolation above collaboration and effectively prevents people from starting new networks of any kind. A friend once told her that, because of the way the highways were built here, the feng shui of the entire city is off. That sounds about right to her.
"Sometimes it really does feel like a no-man's land," she says. "The freeway cutting up all this pretty land, no sense of connection from neighborhood to neighborhood." In one sense, Myles says, it's a blank slate. "It could be possible to create another state in a place like this," she says.
So perhaps the main reason San Diego doesn't have a thriving arts or literary community, according to the poet, is that the majority of its inhabitants just aren't interested.
"Once in a while, I say that I hate San Diego," she says matter-of-factly. "But it's not really something that you can even hate. It's like vague Middle America in Southern California. The Midwest of California. I think there's the military influence and the border, which makes people very nervous and conservative...." The poet's relationship with the military is a confusing one: Her deceased father, a military man who now figures heavily into her poetry, was stationed here for a time-and absolutely loved it.
"And then you hear people say they moved here for the weather," she says. "So that's retired people, or very weird or conventional young people who just care about sports, and none of these are the kinds of people that want to have an edgy cultural life."
That kind of life, she says, takes a willingness to be dirty, to be honest and, above all, to allow your city to be something more than a warm, attractive tourist destination. Like a kid sharing something she learned at school that day, Myles excitedly recounts a bit of the history of prostitution in San Diego-as explained to her recently by a student. In the early 20th century, she tells me, in an effort to curb Naval officers who kept prostitutes in business in San Diego, the police simply rounded up all the area prostitutes and put them on a bus to L.A. When the sailors started going to Tijuana to get their kicks, the Navy shortened leave allowances and tried countless other tactics to prevent officers from traveling to Mexico.
"Finally, they brought the prostitutes back and just kept them confined to a section of downtown, which is now the Gaslamp, where these very clean people are out every night having fun, with quotes all around it; it's all been wallpapered over," says Myles in one breath. "The thing is, poets kind of thrive on squalor, and San Diego seems to refuse it."
The other piece of San Diego trivia Myles has picked up-and one that she feels is beautifully representative of the city-is a somewhat convoluted history of the patron saint for which it was named: Saint Didacus of Alcalá, a hermit and a healer. After his death from some kind of infection, his corpse began to emit a strong, sweet fragrance. The corpse never went into rigor mortis, continued to smell sweet for years and was purported to heal those who came to pray next to it.
Myles e-mails me Wikipedia links to the information, in case I don't believe her. The story seems to check out, but her enthusiasm about the body as a symbol for San Diego is so genuine and giddy that it almost wouldn't matter if she'd made it up. "A rotting corpse that just smells sweetly!" she says, like a punch line. "I love that."
As evidence that she's not the only one who feels this way about the city's lack of energy, Myles counts off acquaintances-writers, musicians and artists alike-that were born and raised in San Diego, and left as soon as possible. She doesn't blame them.
"My first thought would be to leave. In Los Angeles, San Diego really has a bad name," she says. "When you go to L.A, they're like, "What are you doing there?' It's kind of like you're down in a well or something-they can't believe you won't pull yourself up and get out. Because, OK, the truest and fairest thing I can say about San Diego is we're talking about small-town America. And no one would expect you to stay in Iowa City."
So why hasn't she gotten out? For one, her elderly and ailing dog has loved it here. Myles says she'd have traveled a good deal more in the past year if Rosie, a big, black and white creature with sweet brown eyes, didn't get sick every time Myles left her in anyone else's care for a few days. Myles' most constant companion for the past 16 years, the dog loafs on the ground next to us with her nose resting on her paws for most of the afternoon; Myles looks over at her every now and then.
She has also stuck around to make sure the master's writing program she's dreamed about for UCSD becomes a reality. But with that battle coming to an end, it might be a natural time for her to leave.
She's been thinking about the conference she'd like to hold to celebrate the program's launch. "Hopefully, it would bust the boundaries of the university and really take over the city," she says. "With all kinds of people who write and make art and make music, and students, we could actually have things coming in and going out."
The opposition she's faced from people within the academic world at UCSD-endless red tape, as well as some outright backlash at the way she teaches and the materials she's chosen to use-has made Myles a bit of a cynic on the subject of academia. "I remember, maybe the next time I taught [Introduction to Fiction]... realizing, maybe it's not bad to back down, maybe you don't have to teach the most provocative texts, and deal with that reaction," she says of the outrage that ensued from that first class.
"On the other hand, it's a drag, because I didn't want to so much be leaving my world.... I came here rewarded for being who I am, and this is my reward?" She does, however, give the university credit for attracting artists and intellectuals "almost in spite of the place."
The poet says she has also been thinking about moving to L.A. and commuting to teach, "like everyone in [UCSD's] art department." Sure, there's something weird and sick-feeling about the air in Los Angeles, she says, but at least it feels like something.
In Myles' view, a countywide identity crisis may be at the heart of San Diego's cultural apathy. "The riddle is that it's not a college town, but it's not a big city, either," she says. "It just refuses to be either thing." The result, in her experience, is pretty much the opposite of community. "If you're single, it's a really weird, lonely town."
So what would it take for San Diego to cultivate a vibrant, experimental arts and literary scene-a community that encourages young artists to stay? Can we force people to network? Absolutely not, she says.
"You would need to have a deep sense of irony about where you were," she says. "Rather than fixing the place, you accept it. Embrace the sunny deadness of it, the Teflon-ness of it.... [San Diego is] pretty much a beautiful, warm anywhere," she says. "If you can figure out how to be a poet in that-how to build a poetry scene around that-I think it would be the most post-modern poetry scene anywhere."
At the same time, Myles allows that a city in which it's easy to be isolated-as well as easy to "do nothing"- can be good for self-reflection. "It's so pleasant, and it doesn't impose anything on you," she says, almost resentfully. "California is like that: It forces you to work on yourself."
When I suggest that what she's describing is analogous to a giant rehab clinic, she readily agrees. A self-described alcoholic who's been sober since the early '80s, Myles speaks openly about her former relationship with drugs and booze and their effect on her development as a writer. Amphetamines were her drug of choice throughout most of her 20s, while "LSD was really good for thinking of reality as sort of constructed, realizing that it's all speculative, and that so much is interpretation."
But, she says, "nothing has been as powerful and fascinating as stopping taking drugs and drinking.
"The context of being clean and sober gave my consciousness an opportunity.... You become so used to adding different elements that it's, like, so what if I feel this way? ... And then there's this whole realm of negative possibility. What if I don't do anything?"
If the writing Myles has produced over the past four years is any indication-a novel, a libretto and almost two books of poems, all while teaching and heading the writing section of UCSD's literature department-the concept of California as isolation therapy has been good for her productivity. Her novel, which is currently being shopped around to publishers, is "essentially about being a poet in New York," so, says its author, she certainly couldn't have written it there. "From here, it's an ideal," she says. "And it's kind of a cliché that you go to New York to be a writer, but at some point you have to leave to be a writer."
Aside from changing her perspective, San Diego has altered the way she both reads and writes. The poetry of her friend, fellow professor, and San Diego native Rae Armantrout, for example, has started to make a lot more sense since Myles moved California.
"[Armantrout] is absolutely the poet of San Diego," says Myles. "Look at her work-it's all little modules-bits of information, palm trees-and it's staggered, and it's all kind of a mind inside of a car," she explains.
Myles' own work reflects a shift in mode of transportation, as well. In contrast to her New York-influenced poetry, which has always come from "a walking place, constant collision," her forthcoming collection, Sorry, Tree, was written from a more solitary "thinking place," she says. Car culture's influence on the writer is obvious in verses peppered with freeway numbers, driving directions and art in the form of electric utility boxes. "It's a lot about California... how weird it is here," she says. "Moving from the East Coast to the West. And love. And then, some politics and war."
Politics and war, as well, have been different for Myles to think about as a Southern Californian. After years of support from the counterculture community in New York-in 1992, she ran a surprisingly popular write-in campaign for President of the United States, billing herself as an "openly female" candidate-the rigidity of San Diego's moderate political landscape came as a shock. Myles moved here exactly one year after watching the Twin Towers' smoke from her rooftop in Manhattan. Attending a neighborhood association meeting in City Heights on the anniversary of 9/11, she was astonished to find that people were wearing American flag T-shirts, "and they were gay!"
The planes flying so low to the ground on their way in and out of the San Diego airport shook her in a personal way, too-yet one so strangely compelling that she found herself walking her dog at the beach on Coronado just because it was "weirder, more entertaining," with the guards at the entrance and the planes that much closer overhead. She was there in 2005, when President Bush spoke at the Naval base to get troops excited about how the U.S. was most definitely winning the war on terror. "I wound up screaming at people from my truck," she says. "I'm not used to being the minority culture, or feeling that way."
It's getting dark when she sends me home with a hug and some lemons from the tree I've been sitting next to in her backyard. An airplane flies overhead, and afterwards, in the street outside her little home, City Heights is absolutely silent.
A few weeks later, the night after Bush announces his decision to send more troops to Iraq, Myles calls on the phone from her office at UCSD. Rosie died during the holidays, and Myles has been in mourning, but she's still up for a political discussion. And this is when it clicks into focus that, for her, feeling alienated in San Diego may reflect larger feelings of alienation from the nation at large.
If artist-friendly communities require dirtiness, and crowdedness, and the ability to let freak flags fly proudly, then it's arguable that New York will always be pretty difficult to top. Eileen Myles knows she has purposefully left the most artist-friendly community in America, and she readily acknowledges that part of the isolation she feels here is that of a foreigner in a new place, learning to speak a new language.
"I guess I'm just saying, to come from a place where you love graffiti to land somewhere where people believe graffiti is a crime is to move really far away, and there's something valuable in that," she writes in an e-mail that accompanies new poems from Sorry, Tree. "It's like you almost don't know who you are until you feel alone."
And if San Diego is truly just a pleasant, warm "anywhere," then part of the problem with it-and part of what's been valuable-is the realization that this city, with all its indifference and stagnation, is actually fairly representative of the entire country.
"What do you do about the complete hopelessness of America, and the inability to say anything true?" she asks earnestly. "I didn't listen to the president last night... but "the new way forward'? He's calling 20,000 more troops, creating an opportunity for another 1,000 or 1,500 Americans to die, and another 100,000 Iraqis to die, and he calls it "the new way forward'? We're in such a complete Big Brother moment here, where artificial language is all we're getting in the media. And what's the poetry of that? We're prisoners of the English language."
She pauses on the phone, a magnetic silence reminiscent of her classroom pause over the desk to look at notes for the day's lecture. "And this might be the capital of that," she says, seemingly finding her place. "It's just got a smiley face on it. And it's writhing, and it smells sweet, and it's smiling in the sun."