The following is a craft talk given at NYU’s MFA Creative Writing Program in February 2023.
I taught a class here in 2019, and it was called the Poet, and my intention was to talk about the craft of being a poet. I’m going to do some version of that now again, and maybe differently and maybe not.
I have a website and there’s a page which is largely recordings and some are podcasts and some are readings. One is a performance with these two musicians, Ryan Sawyer a percussionist, and the other is a guitarist, Steve Gunn. In September Ryan asked me if I wanted to play with them at this club in Bushwick called the Wicked Lady. O-kay. I thought this could be really terrible, and part of this craft talk really has to mention the old poet and their band. Paul Muldoon has a band. Anne Sexton had a band. Nick Flynn has a band. Is it that you’re facing death and you think rock n roll! These guys are not my band, and the experience was a great one.
It’s the struggle with time—poems, my poems, are all different speeds, and they were waiting for me a little bit, and I was waiting for them, and I just began. To me, the first thing you have to let go of with music but also with car alarms going off outside and a baby crying or people getting off the elevator talking is giving a shit whether or not you are heard. And I mean every single word. Every word doesn’t matter, and I’ll go global here in terms of the craft of poetry. If people hate poetry, it’s that pretense that it matters. [Read a few words ponderously.] That’s why people hate poetry. Who likes that. I think the poet must pretend to be a regular person; I know I’m not a regular person but this must sound daily so that the poems are not separated from the flow of all the other communications incessantly getting bleated and emitted and whispered in every other part of your life.
I think poetry needs to be just another part, hence no big deal. When the music overwhelmed me, I had to be okay with that. So there’s a little piece of that evening on my website, and what I learned from watching that recording was that my face was still doing too much. I was communicating. I looked concerned. One line of the poem was different from the rest and I realized that if I continue to do this thing with Ryan and Steve or anything else, I think I have to get these expressions ironed out. It still matters too much. For a vocalist. I can be talking to myself but not talking to them. I mean the audience. I think it has to matter less. Be the horn.
‘Cause after all, and I will quote a great poet here, and I’m sure I’ve said this a million times before. He said, and this is James Schuyler the writing the poem part is easy. It’s the rest of the time that’s the problem. Like when the New York Times runs a piece about poetry being dead once again. It’s like little bitches. We’ll see how many poets come out of the woodwork being hurt. I’m not dead. They love to taunt us. Like journalists for whom there’s like three jobs left in the world they love to set little fires under the poets—nobody cares about you, nobody understands you. There’s millions of us. What are they talking about. Next to trans people or trans youth poets are like who the media really has a pass to mock.
Yet there they are and here I am. Here we are. We are so widely powerful. It’s important not to care. I think it’s an aesthetic challenge. Also on my website there’s a reading I gave in Greece in September, and afterwards there’s a q & a and I got very excited watching it. I thought I certainly can use that in my craft talk @ NYU. You probably remember that that’s what’s happening here.I think the poet must pretend to be a regular person.
The two things I meant to do today was dust and start this talk. I’m a little bit hungry too. I went and made a really good hamburger. I’m in Texas and there’s a really good company called Marfa Meats and it was run by a woman who wanted to slaughter cows right here in town where cows pretty much live. People were really excited and she lost her shirt. I don’t know why there’s something about this town that fails and for those of us who live here that’s what we like. It could be really glamorous but it’s somehow broken. And that feels good. Scarce. Rare. So I saw a parcel of her beef frozen in the freezer at the grocery store and I thought this might be last batch of Marfa Meats I get and I snapped it up. I kept thinking about it and finally I dropped it into the refrigerator from the freezer a couple of days ago.
You probably already know this but I’d like you to leave here with something tonight. If you defrost meat in the refrigerator rather than on the counter you can freeze it again. I think this true. You want to have access to that frozen future. I have a level of anxiety about tiny things. I have to admit I think that is why I am a poet. I labor at a very small level. The meat was soft yesterday, touched it off and on all day and I slapped that baby onto my George Foreman Grille which cooks a burger really well and really fast. I had it on a couple of tortillas with some whatever you call that stuff and red onions. It was incredible. It might have been the best part of the day.
I take my dog on these slow timeless walks around town and luckily on our route a guy named Mac White has a very large house and yard and in the front yard by the railroad tracks he has four sometimes five horses and my dog goes wild. She goes quietly wild. She feels awe. This is a dog who was a stray in the Bronx and she gets very quiet. She can smell and feel a horse from hundreds of feet away. She knows when they’re there. She moves very slow towards the fence and then she waits and watches and looks at them and slowly the horses come around the social ones and they meet her nose to nose. They feel that she’s another kind of dog, somehow trans animal and they commune. I bring them carrots which slightly messes it up because I become the focus not her.
The reason I’m mentioning this now today though is kind of a collective sorrow I’m carrying. As well as the five horses in the yard there is a newcomer, a black cow. She’s young, sort of breasty and very shiny and she’s shy and moves in a way that leads with her breast muscles, she kind of sways. Her mouth always looks wet and she has some dabs of white around her face. She does not return Honey’s interest which is intense. The cow can be transfixed by this obsessed dog and then the horses will come by and give her a nudge with their long heads and she accepts that. They’re neighbors. But she’s not going to come over to this dog. Once she knows we’re there she gives a long look and then tries to keep as far as she can from my dog’s urgency.
By now Honey’s got her snout under the fence and a paw and I am continually pulling her back from the young black cow and the horses notice that we are really looking elsewhere these days. They have a little bit of engagement with Honey but mainly she wants the cow. That’s how it is. I go home and I look at my phone. I’ve become a bit of an obsessive about rescue dogs in New York. Our city pound regularly kills them, good healthy young dogs and first it was an opportunity when I saw a good dog in trouble I’d make a pledge like ten bucks which is essentially the dog’s dowry and a large enough one can possibly attract a rescuer to taking a dog on and getting them out of the shelter.
But I’ve advanced to a new level of participation where if I see a dog I like I make a little kit of all their data including a cute picture and I retell the dog’s sad tale and I post it on Instagram and facebook and obsessively on twitter where it mostly happens. I have a pretty good track record of saving dogs and I don’t know if it’s because I’m picking the right ones. And once in a while I lose and a completely healthy good adoptable dog gets killed. It’s painful. I mourn.
There was a dog named Nena Moo who had been with an elderly person it said on twitter and they no longer could take care of 8-year-old Nena Moo so they brought the dog to the city pound, a really bad move. The dog was so sweet and playful and good mannered and they looked like a little cow. A white dog with a lot of black spots, this dog had clearly had a cozy life and always had a toy in its mouth and was cheerful and was a sweet good dog. I saw this dog in passing and I didn’t even think of saving Nena Moo. She was such a natural. And she was killed. Someone had even put in an adoption application for her. They just walked her down the hall and stuck a needle into her cheery guts. I and many dog people on twitter were stunned. Neena Moo. Who would kill her. I took Honey out for a walk and we wound up back at the barnyard and this time Mac White’s wife Julie was in the yard and she looked at Honey and I and asked what we were doing because I’m essentially standing in their driveway staring. My dog is in love with this cow. What’s her name. Oh that’s not our cow. That’s somebody else’s. She doesn’t have a name. She’s a slaughter cow. I looked it up when I got home and it just means what it says. When she gets heavy enough she’s gone. No name, so shy and big and breasty and swaying and nothing. Savagely cut up in chunks. Food.
I went home feeling really demoralized and what did I do. I cooked a hamburger. I didn’t even notice it for a while. It was day two of eating the unfrozen hamburger. Same little pleasure. Warmed tortillas. What do you call that sauce. I’m in New York by now. I get up and cross the room and look on the shelf. It’s Siracha. Siracha hot chili sauce. And some slices of red onion, salt and pepper. I have this on a plate on a tray in the sun and I’m eating and Honey’s sitting right under me and I occasionally pull a piece of meat off my plate, pretty rare and I hand it to her and it goes right into her warm mouth. We’re eating the wet mouthed nameless black cow and we’re even eating Nena Moo.
It’s one animal and it’s one sorrow and I’ve been wondering about this bottomless pain I feel about the cruelty of the world, this city, how it kills dogs and it has already half killed a park, East River Park which I’ve fought for and loved and look at Palestine. Why is okay to kill sixteen year olds in Palestine. To shoot them right in the head and our government still proclaims Israel a democracy when it is not. It is not that at all. Neither is America.
The burger was so good and it was kind of a sacrament. The blood was in my mouth and the mouth of my dog and she loves that cow so much and she’s eating her. We’re eating her together. And strangely that does something to the depths of my inconsolable pain. Is it because I’m an ex-Catholic. I don’t think it’s that I’m a monster too. You can argue that I shouldn’t eat beef at all if I love that wet mouthed cow who may or may not be there in Texas when I get back on Sunday. Should or shouldn’t isn’t my job, not really. My job is noticing even courting the conditions of irreconcilable pain, not trying to get out of it or drive it away and talking about it does make it worse but I want to talk about it and I do till I am satisfied or the talk moves away to something else but my job is to see myself eating the bloody meat and understanding that in some way I am participating in the sacrament of violence for as long as I am alive and there is no clean place. I am for it. I weigh it. Not the violence but the taste of the blood, knowing it and enjoying and then the meal is done.
Because I don’t eat meat all day long, and I’m not a butcher I am more of a priest than a laborer in the bloody waters of my time. I can’t make sense of it and I will stop. I will find its measure. But I saw it and I was there and at least momentarily there was an end to my inconsolable pain. I can’t explain it to my dog but her fervor for eating blood is much greater than mine. That’s why I have her. I have her because she kills and then she cuddles. Nena Moo was a much nicer dog than Honey. I saved her life almost by accident. I was going to foster another dog for a weekend, she was a submissive little pitbull named Mindy and someone was picking Mindy up on Monday so I would only have her for the weekend. I can do that I told the rescuer.
And then at the last minute she told me about this dog Honey and that she was lively and was only a year and a half old had great energy and they were going to put her down at one o’clock. This is in 2014. I look in her eyes and they were a little crazy. I would not choose to get that dog. But she cannot die. And I didn’t know at the time how common this was. I thought I was rescuing a very unique dog. I said I’ll take Honey instead. She had big energy. I had already vowed that at that point in my life, I was 64 by then I needed a calmer dog. An easy dog. I didn’t do that. I got Honey. I’m not sure I will go into the details (but honestly what am I doing here. I’m giving a craft talk) but technically this dog has knocked out three of my teeth. She didn’t mean to. Once she jerked real hard when I was walking her and I felt my rear teeth clack. That was tooth number one. This is craft.
My mother had just died and I was so glad because I didn’t want my mother to see me go toothless. One parent my dad lost all his teeth at 40. The alcoholic. I’m like him. The other parent lived to 96 with all her teeth, flossing for years. I’m like her. I had such shame, I did not want her seeing me losing one. So it was okay. She was gone. A few years ago I bit into a fig and one of my front teeth cracked right at the gumline. It was crazy. We fixed that. Then in January just now I bit a slice of pizza and I heard a crack. I could feel it go into my skull. I knew what it was. When I went to the dentist she said it’s funny the two teeth broke in similar ways. Was there some trauma. Was there some trauma. Was there trauma. Was there some trauma. But that’s not what she means.
She means did somebody or something hit my mouth. When Honey was pink and new and young she just was a total head butter. In the first week I had her this big smile came at me when I was sitting on a stoop with her and I had these two prong marks on either side of my mouth. I thought my dog has just bit my face. I mean not really. It was like a contact smile. But that happened several times. We’re both older.
I drove across America in January with stitches in my mouth and Honey is stretched out on her bed, completely stoned having just had very expensive knee surgery. That’s another story and I won’t go into that at all. We stop at like truck stops and I get mashed potatoes. What is this art. I thought if it kept going it would just unravel. But sometimes you have to pull a string. I don’t want to do much. I want to see everything and then give it a tiny tap. It’s like lesbian sex. I think that’s art.
In Greece they asked two questions after the reading. Lots of questions but when I was listening I thought I can use THAT for my talk at NYU. I was actually looking for something when I was watching the reading. A woman I had loved was dying and friends have died and men I had sex with when I was younger and one man I loved had died but this was the first time a woman I loved had died. We were in the season of her dying and I had written poems when I was in love with her years ago and in Greece they had published this little book with some very new poems and some old ones. One I think these are the best poems or my favorite poems I wrote. When I loved the woman I was very drunken and young and it was small scandal in the society of poets and even more recently when the woman actually died I didn’t entirely feel included in the mourning because of my badness I fucked with her marriage supposedly when I was young but I think if marriage is such a great institution they should be guarding it not me so in Greece I was talking about her dying and I read one poem and then the other and I began to sob. It was so great, I was in Greece nobody knew who I was talking about I wasn’t in New York and it was so intimate with all these people I mostly didn’t know in this beautiful backyard cinema in Athens it’s so great they watch movies in these like cafes it felt like summer it was September and I cried. And then I kept going on in the reading reading the newer work. Someone asked how do you know if a poem is good. People always ask that. Don’t they. How do you know. And you can’t give knowing. Cause you have to feel it.
I remember the first time I read a poem and I knew it was good. The room changed. I was like oh. It was an orgasm of sorts. I no longer had the job. I had work. That was the craft. Doing this. I had it. I had the rest of my life. Suddenly my life had a measure—in and out. You know what I mean. Cause you can put anything in a poem. Nothing is irrelevant here. And then the other thing they asked—I just peed I think is how did you decide to be a poet or when did you know you were a poet. I realized it was the only thing I could do. You know what I mean. There are so many things you can do. I won’t list them. But would I ever do them thoroughly. Is there one name for all of that. There is one name for this. And then I could feel good about everything. Do you want an order. Don’t you want there to be an order. I wanted to tear my heart out when I realized the wet mouthed cow was destined for slaughter, that rollicking Nena Moo had a hideous chemical jabbed into her happy insides and she just stopped. I wanted to tear my heart open. I didn’t want to stop the feeling. I wanted to expose it. So eating a sandwich of blood was true for me.
Sometimes an action is a poem. It’s a way of phrasing existence the act of poetry. Or the act of action. I’ve been collecting shit for years. I went to MacDowell first time in the 90s. I went to the drugstore in town to buy whatever and it turned out to be a Christian drugstore. It had a Christian book rack. I spun it. And there was a volume the Blood of the Lamb. Christianity is very bloody. It said that Lucifer was an angel, the biggest angel and he got thrown out of heaven for changing the order of the sacred words. So there is an order. And I must disrupt. And that is the religion of Eileen. This is not poetry. This is not craft. My dog beat me up. This is how I see it. I don’t mean a highly individualized convocation of truths.
The night in January when I was walking my dog in the dark and I had stitches in my mouth from where they’d pulled the tooth out and I don’t know how I feel about this dog. I don’t know how I feel about you. I’m sure she felt it. But I had to figure it out. It took time. It took this pilgrimage across America. I drove to Texas eating soft food. Actually five hours out of New York my car broke down and I had to hang out in a Quality Inn in Falling Water West Virginia for two days while they fixed it. I wrote a poem and I felt good. A guy picked me up when it was ready and we drove through these tiny towns and rolling hills. Did you grow up around here. Yes. It’s nice. I know. And you could tell. He did know. And the thing I’m inside is a poem. I probably didn’t know how I felt till I was eating that hamburger. Honey all is forgiven. In Gaelic Honey is Mil.I think part of the function of poetry certainly in a human life which I’m having is discovering the structure of yourself.
I figured since I wasn’t allowed to mourn collectively for the woman who died I could post the video of the reading in Greece on my website. A secret place. And if you actually watched it you’d get to the spot when I was saying that a woman I loved was dying and those two poems were about her. But this is so strange. That moment is not on the tape. It’s not there. I know it happened. I want it there so much. I want to be crying in public in front of the world if you somehow wound up there on my website but I can’t. I thought somebody else has to watch it. And someone did, EM, my friend. My assistant. My intern. They said it’s not there. I watched it again. It’s not there. I asked Iordanis and Per Giorgio the guys who invited me to Greece and who had sent me the video to make sure it’s okay before they put it up. We all know where up is. And I’m obsessed with that. I follow the word that describes the new shape that everyone suddenly knows. I avoid the word that everyone uses. The way everyone is siloing. When did that begin.
In any event I have the very latest unedited version and I am not crying. There’s crying no where. I’m putting it up. It seems the absence of crying that I know happened is still the same somehow. I’m putting it up. If you’re there you might feel the little tiny bump.
Early on when I thought about writing this talk I thought don’t get personal. And I don’t think I have. [Keep reading here but I also think it could end there.] I think part of the function of poetry certainly in a human life which I’m having is discovering the structure of yourself. All these things, teeth and dogs and lovers are hanging off this which is a way I shall never uncover but I deeply want to witness how it shakes and I get that by studying its objects. When I talk about disrupting it’s just I’m the loudest thing in a quiet family. So I’m always trying to find my middle. When I write prose I find the poetry by pulling the string. Reminding me for instance that I’m in this talk. That is the nature of the future deliverance of the fact of this talk. So it’s a little machine about time.
And in a poem I feel that I am typing blind. I am in it and I’m laughing almost daring myself playing chicken with the outside of the poem so I’m using my stuff of course but it’s covering this moving nothing underneath that starts and stops. I think we are filled with little baby demons. I loved when I was young watching old jazz men at the west end bar and young ones too talking to their instruments and remarking on the whole process when they do it. Growling and mumbling. Having a pet in a manner of speaking. And part of it is them and part of it is us and part of it is the piano or bass guitar they are hovering over. I’ll read a poem at the end that shows exactly what I mean. Maybe I’ll read two or three.
There’s a word embouchure that musicians use for how they use their mouth when they’re playing a horn and when I described to a musician friend this thing I saw at the jazz bar the guy scratching his bass with his eyes closed and moving this lips like a baby she said oh yeah embouchure so I think for musicians it’s referring to everything the mouth and body are doing when they’re fucking their instrument and I think it’s true. It’s my dog sleeping and cooing kicks her feet at once. She’s on both sides at once. I love when I write in my journal before I’m awake.
Sometimes I feel like my life is over and I’m just writing an ad. When I was younger I was saving things and now I’m helplessly losing things and there is a poetry in that. For instance I keep mailing packages of books to myself and these boxes keep getting lost. I have two homes and I’m trying to keep things even and it seems there is no such thing. The giant maw of the post office is open and is receiving books like a fiery pit. Why? I can’t save dogs I can’t save books. Activism which I really recommend is like being a saint. To care about something so desperately that you don’t even write. You make signs and write speeches and post pictures and stand with all kinds of people who you discover have been caring about for instance trees and fighting the city and the politicians for decades. I just look at them and marvel. They tell you things about the oldest trees they’ve even seen in New York, four hundred years old and this guy worked for the parks department and was forced to cut one that’s why he’s standing here now. Cause it broke his heart and he needed a ritual. Activism to my mind is a poetic action, as is love and teaching is too somehow.
But suddenly the internal order you’ve cast aside to stand there among the people of the earth becomes really scary because you’re going to die and this thing will never end and which side are you standing on and what is your work in this life. And I don’t have courage like that. I do and suddenly I want to melt away into my symbolic order and probably nothing or nobody should trust me. I’m sort of a half assed activist, sort of swaying from one to the other way. A bad capitalist, sort of a poet. I’m going to read three of mine. One old another four years old on a snowy day I was teaching here and classes were cancelled for a fake storm I believe. It was so good. And the final one has a perfect rhyme and that’s my talk.
A Working Life by Eileen Myles is available from Grove Atlantic.