Poet Eileen Myles’ latest book on writing is a ‘valentine to Marfa’

MARFA — “I have been arming myself with philosophies for years that support the notion that the point is to be here, to be present which I think is the truly hard part, and yet I keep coming back to it, it’s undeniably true and writing it turns out is the easiest way to copy that feeling,” writes poet Eileen Myles in their latest book For Now.

Myles, a part-time New Yorker, part-time Marfa resident, composed the book, in part, for a lecture they gave at Yale in 2019. It’s a small, tightly written volume on the immediacy found in the act of writing, accompanied by stories of a litigious New York landlord insistent on booting Myles to Marfa, a search for original copies of their lost early works and the task of completing the book itself.

Ahead of the paperback release of For Now, Myles joined The Big Bend Sentinel for a conversation on writing and the present moment, the conditions that shape their work and how For Now became an ode to the town of Marfa.

You first came to Marfa as a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2015, and now are a part-time resident of the town. What keeps you coming back out here?

I’m very East Coast, very New England, and the Southwest, which is not quite Marfa but kind of Marfa, intrigued me because it was not mine. I had no projections onto it, I had no sentiment about it.

I think the pandemic gave me the first real hit of living in Marfa, because I’d never been in Marfa for five months straight until the first wave of the pandemic. I loved and hated it.

It was more like I was a part of it. For instance, I think there were some controversies around ways of doing things during the early pandemic and I got to be part of that, rightly or wrongly. I felt like I weighed in on things in the town in a way that I felt more entitled, because my presence was more consistent. But I also got that kind of waterlogged feeling, like I had been someplace too long, and don’t I get out of here? But interestingly I had that feeling, and then that feeling passed, and then I was still in Marfa and it felt good again.

It’s interesting to not go, and I think that’s one of the gifts of the pandemic, is to see what happens when you stick it out in any way.

In the new book, you talk about being in the present moment and ultimately also letting go of parts of the past — have you always tried to stay in the present moment or is that something that has developed over time?

As a young poet in my twenties I was well aware of this thing that people had told me all my life, which was that I was a dreamer and I was absent. I think when I started to write, I kind of reversed the trend and felt like the thing that was really interesting to me, that I saw in poets and writers as people, they had very intense ways of being present and that they were trying to invoke that.

Before I decided to be a writer, I was always about escape, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to go someplace else. I wanted to be “otherwhere,” anything but here, so my writing has wound up being a combination of the two.

I’ve always gone away to places to be present, which sounds a little ludicrous. I love New York, but once I learned to write and once I learned that I could get away, I realized that New York was extremely distracting because there’s so many of us and we’re always like, crashing into each other and giving each other new ideas, and you’re always making dates, and there’s art to see and there’s so much to do.

So I’ve always gone away to places to work and to be more present. When I realized I could buy a house, Marfa just became the place where I felt like I’m most present, meaning, if I have a thought, I can continue to have it because I’m not going to do 17 things this week that will make me not be able to complete the thought.

In the book, you talk about your rent-controlled apartment in New York that you’ve had for 40 years, describing it as being almost better than a writing grant, because it offered you a certain security to focus on your work. Do you think it’s harder to be a young writer in New York or Marfa today than it was when you were beginning?

I’m sure, I’m sure. I think one of the monstrosities of our time, to my mind, is Airbnb, because it just devours all the rental properties and then makes them unavailable to people who simply want to live in a place.

I think there are many forces, including real estate changes and changes in the way arts funding is in America and even the move away from being in cities and toward writing programs, and just the lack of cheap space for visual artists in New York and increasingly in Marfa. Because what you need to practice is time, and you need to be able to waste time, I think, as a young artist.

And when time is so commodified, and when everybody is so busy, and obviously social media, we’re endlessly reproducing ourselves and our thoughts and we’re appearing and reappearing and retweeting what you just said. When I realized that if I was going to do a reading some place, anything I might say as patter between poems could be recorded and put on social media and then heard, you start to involuntarily censor yourself because you just didn’t want thousands of people to hear what you were saying to 26 people.

I think this layer of self consciousness, and speediness and absence and presence, it’s really different. But I think it’s every writer and every artist’s burden to figure out how to be, so the rewards are greater for being a young artist now too. I think people have opportunities that didn’t exist when I was young, but the fact that nobody cared about what I was doing was a benefit, but also, it was a long, slow benefit.

How does For Now connect with Marfa?

I wrote it in Marfa – you know, I wrote part of it just to give this talk but then the part that is the bulk of the book happened in Marfa and it was just in this quiet time that was before the pandemic, so I feel like it very much is dedicated to the town, and the feeling of the town, and the feeling of time in the town which is really special. I definitely think of it as a valentine to Marfa and I’m grateful I got to be there in that time.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For Now is available locally in paperback and hardcover at Freda and online at https://yalebooks.yale.edu/.