“I could go for about a month without working. That was the amount of debt I could float.” — “Eileen Myles,” the narrator of Inferno (a poet’s novel)
Portraits of bohemian poverty are a dime a dozen. Describing your crappy apartment, elaborately painful relationships and the earlier, cuter stages of alcoholism is a way to show that one is suffering for one’s art and is therefore good at both. As Eileen Myles puts it, even just a few years of poverty can get “the dirt of authenticity” under the nails of comfortably middle-class artists. But Myles’s relationship to money isn’t a pose, or a bid for admiration. Money, for her, is a continual undercurrent of concern.
A stranger asks to meet Myles, saying she wants advice about the “poetry field,” and Myles thinks: “She sounds young, pathetic, but she probably has money. Maybe she’ll buy me a drink.” She sums up New York social life and real estate: “Often the person in the loft and the little apartment or room know each other. That is the traditional definition of cool. Because rich people need poor friends (but not too poor!) to connect them to the struggle that spawned them even if they never struggled.” She tells us why she began writing reviews: “It was good being a journalist or whatever I was now because I could do all the reading that was too much in college cause now I was being paid to know.” The entire middle section of the novel is written as a grant application.
The cult around the American Working-Class Artist has driven plenty of cultural movements: it’s why Bob Dylan studied Guthrie and blues records, why cool kids visit folk-art spectacles like Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, why people thought Sylvester Stallone should write screenplays, why Eminem can get away with any amount of bullshit, why Bruce Springsteen has developed that ridiculous and ever-broadening Okie twang. We know what the Working Class Artist is supposed to look like: He’s scrappy, charmingly unmannered and ungrammatical, and comes from some colorful –but not too colorful — ethnicity. (Irish works, as does Italian, but Robert Zimmerman had to become Bob Dylan to play the game.) He’s often cruel to women because of his emotional, primitive nature, but more often he simply ignores them. The left loves him because he demonstrates the struggle of the working man. The right loves him because he demonstrates that genius is inborn, not a matter of access to resources, and that anyone can succeed if he tries. He is always a “he.” And he’s always straight.
Working-class oppression is one of the few forms of oppression one can reasonably claim to be the victim of while remaining straight, white, male and in possession of all the perks that come with that position. So when we tell the working-class story, we tell it straight, white, and male. We talk about Rocky and Rudy and the ghost of Tom Joad; about a Columbia drop-out going on the road, soaking up the authenticity of migrant farm workers, telling the whole world about how he banged a Mexican chick and “walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro.” Myles’s story is about what falls through the cracks of that narrative.
Myles is a lowercase American working class artist, inhabiting some aspects of the archetype while examining, exploiting and laughing at others. Her most important insight might be that being poor can only seem noble or cool when you have another option.
There’s more to her identity than an accent, or the tactile simplicity of her prose, or even the mantra of her insecurities, but they’re all part of it. That mantra: “I was such a jerk and didn’t go to a good school and really didn’t know how to write.” The schooling, the etiquette, the legitimacy of one’s craft, always connected. You can tell Myles is a working class artist because she isn’t afraid to say that she wants to get paid to be an artist.
“I loved literature,” she says, “because it was money you could make. I thought that on the subway as I held the warm pole. That was it. Poetry is making money. I never knew that before.”
By claiming poetry as a money-making job, Myles isn’t reducing art to its commercial value; if money were all that mattered, she would be writing paranormal romances or click-through slideshows of LOLCats, not poetry. But when you are nothing but your economic value, making your art a job can feel like real power, or at least real agency. In my first year as a full-time writer, I heard people remarking on how “successful” I’d been; meanwhile, I woke up once a night with a gasping, sweating, cold-all-over panic attack, thinking oh my God, I forgot, I don’t have a job. One of the things Inferno is about is the moment of realizing that you have a job. This life you have: It is not too good for you. No one will take it away. You are just working.
Myles’s distinctly lower-class guilt around doing intellectual work instead of being useful makes her so trustworthy. Of course, she’s also a woman, and a lesbian; those two factors alone keep her from resembling the popular, Springsteenian image of the blue-collar everyman. Her thoughts on money, art, and class mobility are sharp precisely because she never descends into sappy white-guy populism. Sometimes it even seems like she’s about to, but then at the last moment she veers in another direction:
“I sat in the little sub shop in an alley behind UMass (Boston) eating my sandwich, looking over at the workers who ate there too and appreciating I was part of what they saw,” she tells us. Is Myles a glorious sister comrade in their struggle? A Gramscian organic intellectual giving voice to the working man’s reality? But wait: what did Myles think those workers saw, when they saw her? “Asshole college kids wasting time while they worked and I just totally loved that view. I wanted to keep on being it now and forever.”
This is an uncomfortable passage, precisely because it rejects so many of our pieties about working-class art. Most people know that getting into college, and grad school, and eventually getting to make art for a living, while hard in many ways, is still easier than most of the alternatives. This is especially easy to appreciate when you’ve grown up staring down the alternatives. But wanting to be “lazy,” reveling in the fact that you have it easier than your working-class brothers, is still forbidden. And acknowledging their inevitable resentment, or the fact that your life sets you apart from them, is dangerous.
Literature is “money you can make,” meaning that you can sometimes sell it. But literature is also “money” you can make up. It imbues life with a certain value, a mystique that’s coded as upper-class; it gives you elite status, without requiring an elite background or paycheck.
Writing is an escape for Myles in all these different ways. Not only is it an escape from identification with the workers at the sub shop, the people who may never have time to read the books she does because they can’t get paid to read them, but it’s also an escape from the sheer naked fact of what her life might be, without writing; what one’s value on the market is, divorced from mind, voice, and self.
Writing and getting paid to write are salvation from being merely female — from compulsory heterosexuality, and from the uses of the body which are, for many men, the only valuable thing Myles has to offer. She tries to work in a massage parlor; she can handle stripping down, can handle the hand jobs, but when her supervisor demonstrates how to suck a client off, she bails. She tries having sex with a traveling businessman for cash; the experience is unremarkable, not exceptionally traumatic or degrading, but at the end of the night she can’t ask for the $300 he owes her. When she visits a colleague to get her work included in his series of posters, he puts his hand on her thigh; when she rejects him, she blows the gig. And when she’s traveling, a man named Abe tells her that she can earn fifteen grand by letting him impregnate her and sell the baby.
“I’m not some girl traveling on graduation money her grandparents gave her. I didn’t even have grandparents,” she says. “I believed that because I worked for things I was safe. Meaning strong. To Abe I just looked poor.”
To be an American working class artist and a woman is not just about knowing that your humble background may sadly prevent you from being recognized. It’s about knowing that, if this writing thing doesn’t work out, you might not have much to fall back on but blow jobs.
To be an American working class artist, and a lesbian, is to know that the established female-artist career lifeline—find a man; they get recognized faster and paid better; if he works in your field he can advocate for you, you need a man to do that anyway if you want to be heard—isn’t an option.
Myles is white, but if she were anything else, her struggle might not strike some people as noble. They might call it being greedy, getting uppity, being pretentious.
Eileen Myles knows the price of things. Not only of rent and food and a hand job from the new girl at the massage parlor; she knows the price of identity, of history, of living with a self attached to a set of pre-determined values and meanings. It’s this, her constant reckoning of costs and benefits, that sets Eileen apart even among other writers: “I felt like the guys I knew were so in love with our story that they couldn’t even imagine being outside of it like I did all the time. Thing is, I am outside. I’m female, plus I’m me.”
Becoming a writer, in Inferno, does not mean becoming less of an outsider. It means gaining the freedom to stay outside. For Eileen, it means being able to read the books, to learn without going broke, to pursue what she loves with her whole self, and not just the worn-down, sleepy scraps designated “spare time.” It means not having to fuck men for money or advantage; it means coming out, falling in love with women, fucking women, because that’s what she wants to do. It means being able to value what she feels, and what she experiences. It means breaking through: Claiming a value for herself that is something more than economic, being a creature of thought and feeling and unfeigned, whole desire.
“When I was younger I watched [poetry] become money and that saved me,” Eileen Myles says, later in the book, after struggling to get her poetry funded, watching the grants dry up, and finding that her own poetry is simply less financially viable than it once promised to be. “It became my work. Now I was just standing in the day. Had I ever considered what this was worth. Just standing in the goods.”
Work, worth, goods: The language of money is ever present in Inferno. Beauty is truth, truth beauty, but that is not all ye need to know. Ye need to know where ye rent is coming from this month, too. And writing is not transcendence; it’s coffee, typewriter ribbons or wi-fi bills, fresh paper, three hours of silent time in the morning. Art has a role In this sordid world because art is this sordid world. It’s what you make of your inevitable attachment to it, and sometimes it’s what keeps you attached.