@EileenMyles: On the Social Media Habits of a Poet Rock Star

By Liz von Klemperer

On December 31st, rock star of contemporary poetry Eileen Myles bluntly proclaimed:

And she did.

Myles has remained faithful to this promise, and continues to post incongruous and disjointed content that has charmed her niche but slowly increasing fan base.

Unlike writers such as Salman Rushdie (1.13M twitter followers), Neil Gaiman (2.3M), and Chuck Palanhiuk (556K), Myles does not use social media as a career tool.  These big leaguers retweet fans, give updates about their tours, post book giveaways, and occasionally give a glimpse into their private lives.  (If you haven’t checked out Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s adorable offspring, here’s your chance.)  Their wallpaper backgrounds feature an image of their latest book, its on sale date, and a blurb of praise.  For these much-adored authors, social media is an extension of the marketable self.

Lesbian lit star Eileen Myles occupies a different corner of the Internet.  She has a modest Twitter following of 12.3K and a mere 5087 on Instagram.  The 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship Award winner’s Twitter background image is a grainy shot of an orange couch, but it’s hard to tell because it doesn’t quite fit into the frame.  In her Twitter blurb, promotion of the new edition of Chelsea Girls and her latest collection of poetry I Must Be Living Twice comes after the rather ambiguous statements that she loves both “economic equality” and “Ireland.”  NPR.com recently deemed her poetry “relentlessly casual,” the New York Times review calls her “both vibrant and sloppy,” and no place demonstrates this more than her social media presence.

Her pages act as space for unapologetic sketching, for capturing what exists in the quiet and often overlooked periphery.  For example, she attended the 2016 Golden Globes, and among the pictures she posted was a grainy, zoomed in shot of some abandoned beverages, and a non-descript image of anonymous, dress clad legs:

At first glance, Eileen Myles’s pages may bring to mind that time your mom joined Instagram and didn’t realize that posting five slightly varied images of the dog in the course of five minutes isn’t really how Instagram works.  Myles’s trademark posts are of mundane, haphazard, or non-descript subjects with no real focus, for example:       

What gives these seemingly drive by, pedestrian snapshots weight, however, is the haunting ambiguity of their captions.  Her text often serves as commands, warnings, and sometimes-snide sarcasm.

For example, this photo with the caption, “don’t miss the point”:

What point, Eileen?  Are your referring to the bike lock that’s been left undone?  If so, why is it peripherally lolling out of the frame?  Hey, wait, this is Instagram, it’s not supposed to be ambiguous, it’s supposed to be pretty pictures, weight loss gurus and the occasional inspiring story from HONY.  As followers, we are primed to read Instagram captions like taglines, pithy explanations of images, or clever advertisements for a listicle or product.  Instead, Myles has created a virtual space of dissonance between our expectations for social media and her stark images and phrases.

Her tweets are often nonsequiturs, for example this string text:

When you click on an Eileen Myles post there’s no ulterior motive, no further explanation or clarification.  The majority are unmoored insights with no punch line.  This is the task of poetry: to take language, the crude material of communication, and alter it by removing it from a utilitarian context.  Myles radically transforms a space for self-promotion into both extension of her art and a workplace for fragments.

But wait, the dissonance doesn’t stop there.  Myles is also acutely aware of the frequent vapidity of social media.  For example, she laments:

This sentiment harkens back to her 1981 poem My Cheap Lifestyle, in which she writes:

 

After a bourbon
I came in turned on the tube
Lit a joint and watched Monterey Pop
Nearly wept when Janis came on
Janis’s legs kicking on stage was a memorable sight
Janis does her sweet little Texas girl smile as
her act finishes.  She kicks her heels
And Otis Redding is so sexy.
Millions of young Americans experience religion for
            the firsttime
In their lives
Or so the cameras would inform us
I’m concerned about manipulation in this media
How one gains such wonderful power

Even before the era of social media, Myles has reveled in the immediacy of popular media, but has remained simultaneously wary.  She likens a television program to religion for millions of young Americans, but also claims that it is a manipulation.  Her followers see live her struggle with this duality of pleasure, the knowledge of its ultimate fabrication, and her attempt to subvert it.

For example, she posts this image to Instagram:

But is back with a slew of new posts almost immediately.

Perhaps this public expression of inner conflict is also a reflection of her burgeoning presence in Hollywood, as she’s appeared in the Amazon show Transparent in a variety of manifestations.  Leslie, played by Cherry Jones, is based on Myles. Characters recite her poetry, and Myles even makes an appearance as an extra.  She’s voiced mistrust as a consumer of media, only to become its muse decades later.

Ultimately, Myles has created an unabashed murk of drafts, moments of awe, and social commentary, all in service of a new breed of poetry for today’s digital world.