Copying & Lying

From For Now

Eileen Myles
Louis Eilshemius, New York Street at Dusk, 1908. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.

2019 has been a chaotic and exceptionally beautiful year, right, crowded with incident (horrible) and time itself had a kind of optic quality (full of great and awful things to see and the year has been busy getting copied—that way being memorable) and these are the things I’m always feeding into my purpose which is to write and maybe to get this part over with right away—because I need an alibi.

Alibi of course implies a kind of “elsewhere” and as you translate it into many languages it remains alibi, what’s the word for alibi in Czech. It’s alibi.

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. I have been doing it for years.

I would like to be here, I think I’m here, and the more I write, and the more you read it the more it’s simply a fact.

So that’s pretty much done and now I’m living here.

I have been living in an apartment in New York for 42 years so that’s where most of my life has occurred. My living, my thinking, my copying. It’s one of those East Village rent stabilized apartments and my building had just been sold in 2017 for the umpteenth time, and pretty soon after my lease was up, I guess probably in June and the new landlady totally took her time getting the new lease to me, actually all of us, which of course spelt danger, finally I got an email from her, Elaine Moosey, my landlady, saying she wanted to meet each one of us to hand us our leases and I thought that’s sweet and a few weeks later she’s standing right there in my apartment. She’s a conservative looking woman I bet about ten years younger than me and as soon as she got inside here, apartment 3C, she goes, I’ll give you 75,000 to leave. That’s a visitor, right. I chuckled and rejected her offer and she went on to say that she knows that as well as living here in the small very inexpensive apartment I also have a house in Marfa Texas. Which is not illegal, but a fact. And that she Elaine Moosey knows it.

I’m being watched. That was the feeling I got. Then she asked me what I do and I said I’m a writer I didn’t say poet which was interesting. I generally do say that because it is far more perverse—people generally don’t know what a poet does—but in the moment with my landlady I also grabbed a fat book of poetry out of a brown box sitting there right next to the tub and I flashed it even thinking maybe it would be nice to give her one (also wondering if there was anything incriminating in it) and she looked right through the two of us, my book and me, and then she said smiling wouldn’t you rather write in Texas.

It’s always very unpredictable where you will receive counseling in your life. There’s a philosophy that everything is a gift. If everything were coffee that might be true. The implication is that even Elaine Moosey my landlady is a gift.

But I’m actually still thinking about the utter banal Buddhism of my landlady giving me advice and it’s too bad we couldn’t have had an actual conversation about it cause I genuinely do prefer to write in Texas and that’s why I have my house, but I will never leave my apartment on E. 3 St. because this is my home that I love. I love the sweet worn quality of my apartment, historic stove, ancient sinks. Were people shorter in the past or was that how landlords needed to treat them? I have all this ludicrous cabinetry in my kitchen basically underneath which is the Tenement Museum. I keep thinking about Russia cause that’s what it’s like. Russia in the 90s was deeply worn. It was almost a color. I went to a place called Lenfilm in Petersburg with my girlfriend in 1995 and the very step into that historic building was the most humanized step I had ever seen. So soft and rounded. And so is my building, my block, the excitement of it, the relentless filth of the city, the subway, and all that surrounds 2nd Ave, the F, long long and the changing crowds, and all the historic and present machinations of the City of New York, the apparatus of it and this weird guarantee, this built-in security, this incredible fact of rent stabilization that saw me, the most generalized seeing, and knows me and generally has kept my rent low for so many years, and I mean my rent is really low, so low it’s almost pornographic, just imagine. I can show you the poem: the city of New / York has given me a [lifetime] rent stabilization / grant.” I actually have used that line—it’s like having a trust fund, a trust fund for the lower and the working classes and there’s plenty of wealth here in New York jostling helplessly with the poor but the city has taught me almost everything I know about language and existence and being a writer, density of impression etc. etc. of the forms and identities and textures that assault and excite and distract me living here, but that’s not what I’m talking about here yet, probably never, I’m really talking about the legal and political conditions my conditions that created me as a writer and I mean largely low rent and thereby time because one gives on the other and how do you use it.

It really takes so much time to become a writer and you have to be able to roll in time itself, that was my experience, it seems to me, like a dog likes to roll in dead fish at the beach. Or a dog (my dog) stands in the shit of a stable underneath the body of a horse (trembling) and feels awe. Cause there’s so much shit and there’s so much horse. But if you’re somebody that wants to do that with your life which is just waste your time moment to moment, I mean it’s great, I thought I will waste it being a poet, I threw the gauntlet down and what happened after that was nothing and nothing is where I work.

I’ll get to the why of it. I think literature is wasted time. I don’t think there’s anything good about it. It’s not a moral project except in this profound aspect of wasting time. I have had this adventure in all of these ways. It’s the great adventure of our time.

I guess you could be in this position by being wealthy, or having a rich partner though I don’t think being wealthy you would feel the same desperate intensity about living in this tiny preserve as one does if you’re being poor and you found yourself in a situation like mine that was simply a convergence of class and history and culture and on a personal level lethargy, fear and procrastination so that you wound up there somewhere workable where you could simply live and then you simply couldn’t move because where in the world was as cheap as New York if you lived among the class that lives this way (I suppose I’m talking about negative awe) and all of that became your decor to some extent even involuntarily relishing the fabric of being poor. I could tell you endless jokes about it but I’m not going to do that now and I wasn’t alone in it, my condition, there was an us to it. Now there’s about three left and when I go there’ll be two.

My apartment is pathetic. It’s an aerie from which I look down. From my 300 sq. feet apartment, from the position of bed I literally espy the New York Marble Cemetery, a graveyard from the 19th century which has been sort of like being young and then not so young and holding a skull for all these years and in that fragile and elevated space I read and wrote and just kind of looked at things very very slow.

And my built-in bed is jammed right up against the window and I sleep on my right side, and anywhere in the world if I can’t sleep, if I can’t remember what sleep is or how it works, I just think of the window. It is the original. I know it’s not very American to have a home. To feel this way about a location at all. But this is the time I am in.

Dogs as we have learned shit in relation to the magnetic poles of the earth. So, shrug.

Once I drunkenly climbed over the fence with my girlfriend and laid down on the raised gravestones and drank our beers and looked at the stars.

By around 2010 the Marble Cemetery began opening on the first Sunday in the month May through October. I recommend it. And also a historic plaque has magically appeared on the metal gate, and I discovered that the remains of John L. Stephens, the travel writer, are down there and had been right below my window for thirty years. And only last year on the tv show The Billions Axe and Wags were standing down there in the dark of my computer warm on my stomach in bed. Wags was buying a plot. The contortions of here and elsewhere are endless and rich.

Even Robert Smithson had a name for it, all the mirrors and the remembering and the displacement. Ultramodernism. And this is what I do about that.

It’s a literature of tiny folds, of nothing and then a lot.

I’m wondering if everyone has a childhood conducive to becoming an artist except that childhood is that somehow, the original studio, the time place, you make art sometimes and they the people in school try and make you write.

Literature is waste for sure. But the award was just time itself.

Everybody doesn’t like it; I did though. I didn’t think there was anything to it. Writing as a profession? Wouldn’t you want the world?

It’s interesting we got around to this. I had other thoughts in mind but as a kid the important fact is that you radically understand your own condition. You know that you don’t have to go to work or pay bills and everything’s new so there’s an enormously liberated feeling which certainly abuts on this awesome space which is writing or art or rolling in the shit of time.

Though let me add: this singular experience I project onto childhood the romance I have about dwelling in poor spaciousness from approximately my mid-twenties to my mid-forties contains a genuine element of risk but not of condemnation. Because the lives I collided with when I went out opened capacities and spaces and wider and wider opportunities if only I continued walking and breathing and picking up the phone and if I were so broke that the phone was turned off I could go downstairs to the bodega to call John Ashbery and ask him if he would recommend me for an emergency grant. And because I had such entitlement (I knew about this grant) and had written some good poems I’m standing here right now whereas some of my neighbors in my building came to New York from other countries, continents or territories (our colonies!) Puerto Rico and six people lived in the apartment right next door to my one, and the child of that house is now a large man who doesn’t leave the block or hardly the building, his name is Steve. And a woman on the third floor I love who has been carrying her groceries up the stairs bump bump bump in a cart for years we’re probably the same age and she came here from South America to get an operation for her son. Whereas now our government is pulling such kids out of the hospital and deporting them so I have to acknowledge for myself that I am living outside of that level of suffering.

I wasted time absolutely like I knew I should. Well I could. The waste was like a frame, an award. An attainment. Literature is waste for sure. But the award was just time itself.

There are writers who have jobs, they probably had children and they had to get up at dawn to write for an hour and that’s not me. Queerness is a factor. Even in childhood you’re a bit of a fraud. And later you just want to put all that time back.

If I had that little time (like the ones who write in the morning) I don’t know what I would have said. And a lot of those people were women. I didn’t want kids and I didn’t want a job. I knew that if I had either one of those things I would think about them all of the time. It would set my morning and it would set my night. I would be in its clock, its childhood and its adolescence, its responsibilities. I think women are supposed to open their legs to time and let it pass through them. It strikes me that that’s what choice is all about. If a man chooses to put sperm inside of a woman inside of her it must stay. It’s like she’s Tupperware. The problem is she’s visible. And there are women who want to have babies and I feel awe for the women who make that choice. In fact I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of women lately. I was getting on a ferry in July, or I was trying to make a ferry and I stumbled and fell down and I managed to get on the ferry it nonetheless but what was amazing was that in the café area of the boat where I was triumphantly putting a band aid on my bruises, my hands were bleeding from falling and one woman looked at me and said they have first aid here. Oh I’ve got a Band-aid I told her. Yeah I see I’m just telling you in case you need more. Thank you. It was nice that she was following me with her eyes. In a few minutes I realized I would really like an ibuprofen and I asked her if she had one and she said I don’t. But she really looked at me and another woman right over there said I’ve got one and she started digging in her bag and then the first woman said no I do, I do, I do and she handed a couple to me happily and the other woman said patting her bag I’ve got them if you need more.

I’m good I said and I sat down and I was hurting a little bit but it was incredible to feel so seen. These women could do anything with their lives beyond care and seeing but there is that part, a practice, which is ingrained in females and everyone takes it for granted and even despises women a little bit for it. Men do for sure and women do too. It’s the down gender but I’m gaining a new respect for how it’s amazing in small ways and large ways how people and especially women are in the condition all over the world of caring more and largely they are keeping people, mostly small people and male people too they are being kept alive by the caring efforts that are considered no great prize except if you fell down and believe me right now everything is falling but you felt the deep simple pleasure of being seen. I was brought up to be that way too but I kind of ran away from home I left Boston and everything that would have shepherded me that way in my twenties because I needed all the time in the world. I wanted to taste it once. I didn’t even know if it even existed. I went to Europe and it wasn’t there. Was it in the past? San Francisco didn’t have it either. Once I tasted time I never wanted anything else. And that is what I’m doing here. The only way I can prove it is that I started writing. Writing is my alibi. A few things must be true.

By now my building had cameras on every floor and at the front door and I think they decided they had enough information on me to pry me out of my apartment and they claimed I didn’t live there anymore. But I did.

I got a lawyer, David, and he agreed to take my case and then he told me that the worst possible scenario was that it could take a year or two and we would possibly go to court. How much will
that cost? I asked him and then he quoted what to my mind was a considerable sum for his labors on my behalf and I said alright I guess it’s worth it.

Right now I’m listening to a train I’m crazy about in Marfa Texas the train is largely why I came here. It goes crashing through the blue; it’s an entirely different energy than New York. I’ve been writing in Texas all along just like Elaine Moosey suggested I would like but I pretended I was in New York because weirdly it would feel less gross this way.

I think I must elaborate in some detail on this thing about copying. I’m in Europe right now and so I’m writing in that kind of English. I remember being young and it was Christmas and I had a large drawing pad and a charcoal pencil and we were all waiting for my father and hoping I think that he wouldn’t come home drunk. So I was making the tree. I wasn’t normally a detail person but I decided the way I could handle the excitement and the fear of the moment was to copy the tree, each needle one by one and I could show it to my father when he came home. I don’t think it went well that night and I don’t think I even remember finishing the tree but I remember copying and that it calmed me down and gave me a relationship to the world. I want that. I remember going to Mass Art when I was a senior in high school for an interview maybe and a test. I remember sitting in a room in a building that was filled with the smells of paint and the sounds of people making things and we went into a room and a female model her breasts half exposed was sitting on a pedestal with drapes and I thought wow and I drew her. I didn’t go to art school but I always wanted to do what they do and I know that their practice is complicated and diverse, but I contend that somewhere in there is this action of copying. Holding perhaps. I take pictures of my apartment and put it on IG, I take pictures of my dog. An abstract piece of light moving across the room fills me with something that commands that I copy it. I was on a boat last weekend when I began a new notebook and I started noting the water and the line of the trees on the shore and the dots of houses and the waving lines of the boat over our head. It doesn’t feel gross when I do it. Well maybe a little and I urged Erin to join me copying everything (in words) which is a form of loving the world, aiming and choosing, I suppose just the way it is. Life is I do this.

If you ask me to tell you why I write it probably has to do with this deep comfort/discomfort of being in the world and this option of devotion. If I want to sit here and copy all day that might be the best option available to me; it’s not an antidepressant and it’s not exhilarating and it’s not aerobic but it is a form of chanting and I do do it for religious reasons. I mean it’s my default position.

What I think about a lot is how I don’t remember feeling at all when I was young but I have these pictures like the one of drawing the tree. So what’s not gross for example is to copy an experience you can easily summon up from memory (putting in the feeling perhaps) and as the tape winds down you might pop in a bit of contemporary material that you can copy right in front of you. It kind of makes a bump like the first time I heard guitar frets on a recording, or the first time somebody laughed casual in the recording studio Dylan or Bobby Darin—men I loved who sang and then they sang the present as well. They gave you this little bit of stuff. I was thrilled by the naked admission of these two things next to each other and if I love a thing eventually I will use it. I will slip it in when it signals the experience of presence, even if it’s the present at the front of my mind.

I have been in hell lately about my apartment. It is the repository of now but it is a sick little Eileen museum. Where’s the goddamn plaque. It’s a small space with a thick feel. I think it’s a hot space. I think you can have sex in it. There’s a dirty public private feeling to it all. It’s been used and used and used. By me and before me.

I think I’ve been taking photographs of it since 2018 because I know that I’m leaving. You’ve got to go. I don’t mean legally but that part gets confused. What do we own? Obviously I was just going to fight the mother fuckers how dare they think they can get rid of me, the most famous poet in the East Village. At this moment a neighborhood of many moments, now this. I want a plaque and this is that. Someplace in the spring May in fact I went to court to begin the fight to keep my place. The court mainly doesn’t want you to go to court so they encouraged us to settle.

The fight to that point had been interesting. My landlord contended I was always in Marfa when I left my apartment. It used to be that if you had a rent-stabilized apartment you had to be in your bed half the nights of the year. They didn’t want any rich person who was NOT using the place to maintain occupancy.

Apparently the apple cart of landlords was upset a few years back when a travelling shoe salesman won his case. His point being that he travelled for work so it was unjust that he be penalized when he was simply going to work. So if you can demonstrate that your travel is for work then you may stay in your apartment. The cameras demonstrate that I am coming and going all the time; for instance I was going this week to Berlin and Brussels. My landlord contends that I am only going to Marfa and if that was the case, if I was there more than here, this would be illegal.

I have proved through cell phone records and ATM records that I am in many locations beyond New York and Texas and they want more detail to that effect which is when I threw up my hands and they were offering me money and I thought I’ll go.

They asked for a figure and I gave a large one and they gave a significantly smaller one in response and I snorted and carried on and when I got home I thought uh. I looked around at the light and all the books. Here again. And again and again and again. So I communicated to my landlady via my lawyer David that I would go.

All summer I have been going. The leaves have been shaking outside my window, probably the most beautiful window view in New York. Each cruddy step up my stairs, each crack on the wall. I was in San Francisco with my friend Jocelyn and she said Eileen I don’t think you should let go of your apartment. She said New York walls are so bumpy. She indicated the smoothness of the walls in her house in San Francisco. You can fix it.

I said I don’t want smooth walls. I like bumpy walls. I want the past. Not mine, somebody else’s. I had already decided to move to East Harlem and then I walked around a little and decided I didn’t know anybody up there. I decided it had to be in this neighborhood or Chinatown.

All the apartments in Chinatown and most of the ones I saw in pictures on the internet were versions of what I already had but all gussied up. It was sad. They had destroyed all our little apartments and now they wanted 3,500 bucks for the crime. I had decided I would get someplace huge for a year or two, just waste the money so what.

The papers came through from the landlord one day, I had only to sign on the dotted line, I was doing it and I was going crazy inch by inch going crazy. I am leaving my home. Is anyone forcing me to do this. You are manipulating yourself said David who is not my lawyer but my therapist.

Then Max who I just missed at MacDowell this summer writes that he and Sarah are leaving their apartment in Brooklyn. I heard the apartment they were leaving was huge. I walked through it for five minutes I said sure. The place is gigantic, room after room a little dark with all this Somerville wood trim. I’ll take it I said. Crown Heights. Why not. I thought of Jean Michel Basquiat—that kind of crown. Then I went home, thought hmm not so bad and went into therapy and began to freak out. Do I have a good therapist?

Next morning I contacted David the lawyer and said I’m going to stay. Alright his folksy voice replied. We’ll see what they say.

Mary screamed. She was my neighbor when I moved into this building in 1977 and she had been a dancer and she lost her hand in a washing machine on East Sixth street and now she had a hook and she had just settled her case and now she could leave. You have to go, she screamed. This building is going to fall down on you. I really believed her and every time it shook in the night for forty-two years I thought it’s ready to go. When I thought I was leaving I was sure it would fall down right after I left and I would shake my head over a cup of coffee and go I really knew something.

People would send me texts late at night, Delphine Blue did that, saying don’t go. Don’t move to Brooklyn. A cheap apartment is good.

There are so many little buzzing sounds in my apartment. It’s a tiny place coming from both directions, sizzling in my ears. I have no doubt that I will go just not now.

I’ve had enough. All of this is good. All of this is a lie.

All of it’s an alibi. Because I am aware not so much that my own becoming a writer is a construction of sorts but more that there’s a kind of aesthetic experience I believe that precedes the work so that you kind of fail into it finding your style and content and opportunity all together at last. That’s happened enough times for me to believe that that’s my process and it exists and will occur again no matter how much suffering my work causes me and betrayal is so deeply a part of it because I’ll be sailing along thinking this is incredible and days later I’ll stop and some version of me that lives at a different pace reads what I’ve written and pronounces it bad and I return to it later and pick out pieces and surges and rearrange it so ultimately I’m talking about ease and how it is an utter fiction so I disbelieve all ideas about genre because it’s all such fabricated stuff, writing, art, music every bit of it is not so much lying but instead is perched in relation to this other thing which is living and however I am about it, doing this thing, in my case writing, makes that thing I think more beautiful. I have time for it. I am in it and I am relentlessly talking about time but I can feel it drumming, rarely am I really peaceful, no I’m happy but I’m digging this little hole right here which is really tearing a hole in the other thing, copying it somehow in a way I like.

Eileen Myles is author of twenty volumes of poetry and fiction, including the autobiographical novel Chelsea Girls. They have been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other honors. They teach at New York University and Naropa University.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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