I remember showing someone my box of poems and they said don’t you have a copy. And I gleamed no. I liked the perversity of the original. I would never lose this.— Eileen Myles, For Now
In reality, however, the poet has given concrete form to a very general psychological theme, namely, that there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open, box …— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Early, on the morning of the 10th February, i got a call from a private number — from someone, i don’t know who — who told me i have beautiful feet.
i wasn’t quite sure what to do, not wanting to engage, i felt exposed, where were my socks? But also i was curious — surprised at my mind’s tuning to details, sharpened to find clues, some sense of something missing. i was imagining who, why, and why so early? He sounded young-ish. He sounded echo-ey, as if in a vast space, an empty room with high ceilings. He sounded awake.
And he said it quickly. Maybe he knew i would hang up, like i’d done two months prior, on the 10th December after a series of missed calls: 06:30, 06:58, 07:12, 07:30 … the last one i’d woken and answered, and he said hi, knew my name, i asked who it was, and he said he’d rather not say, said he was my secret admirer.
Had anything out of the ordinary happened of late? 9th December i’d posted an ad on Gumtree of some shoes.
A photo of my feet in ‘2 Baia Vista — Yellow Black Flat Sandals’. A swift response from Steph in SA: ‘How much is postage to Adelaide do you have PayID what’s your number?’ i gave her my quote, my digits, but then no answer. Steph?
Time had passed, the shoes didn’t sell. 9th January, and the ad went down. Come 10th February, 07:10, a private number. i’d forgotten and answered. And he began by saying he’s calling about my shoe ad. Confused: the ad was no longer listed. Oh — my mind went back to the vast empty space. Echo, that’s when he let me know about my feet.
Poets’ archives are measured in linear feet. The space taken up by the width of a box. i noticed this while ordering some scans from Bernadette Mayer’s archive at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). It was last year, when searching online for the manuscript of an out-of-print pamphlet as a gift. i found her register of papers and got distracted by the long list: 70 archive boxes, one card file box and seven oversize file folders, with notebooks, loose notes, manuscripts, typescripts, teaching notes, audio recordings, photographs, calendars, datebooks and ephemera, documenting her writing, teaching, publishing and editing career.1 30.0 linear feet.
i also found some lists of correspondence — including from poets Lyn Hejinian, Eileen Myles and Alice Notley, all sitting in San Diego. Along with the manuscript, i ordered these letters too: selected the four ‘Request Box’ boxes tick tick tick tick, ticked the ‘Request Duplication’ box and in the ‘My Notes’ box wrote my email for the digitised copies. About five months later they landed in my inbox.2 In one letter on the 30th January, Myles lets Mayer know that they’d recently seen the movie their friend Shelley made, the one with Bernadette and Lewis in bed. Myles then says: ‘You both have nice feet.’3
It was from Myles that i first learnt selling one’s personal archive of papers can be part of the business of being a poet. Myles writes their life into their work and doesn’t necessarily distinguish between public and private. As in, ‘I feel less alone when I tell my most private stories than any other time.’4 Maggie Nelson devoted a chapter in her PhD thesis to Myles, titled ‘When We’re Alone In Public: The Metabolic Work of Eileen Myles’. She describes how the use of Eileen Myles as a ‘character’ in their poems, novels and essays is a ‘metonymic move’, quoting Myles who says that ‘instead of inventing some symbolic name for my narrator, I use a real piece of me’.5
Myles describes their own experience with selling papers in a piece titled ‘My Secret’ from 2018, which i listened to during a walk last year on Time Lost, a podcast that invites authors to share ‘unpublished or unpublishable work’.6 The text was first written to be translated into Spanish (Myles didn’t want anyone they knew to read it) and it’s about the recent sale of their personal archive to Yale University where about 100 folders from Myles’ boxes landed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
After reading, Myles explains that selling your archives (not posthumously, but while alive and kicking) is like the pot at the end of a poet’s rainbow: either you inherit some money from your parents when they pass away, or you sell your papers. But selling your papers is about playing chicken with mortality, Myles continues, as in you have to be old enough that you get a good price for it, and young enough that you have time left to enjoy the gold. Allen Ginsberg ‘notoriously’ sold his to Stanford University for a million bucks, only three years before he died.7 Included: a pair of his old sneakers.8
Some months after listening to ‘My Secret’, my friend O lent me Myles’ latest work, For Now. It was written for the recent ‘Why I Write’ series from Yale University Press, and the series’ previous authors, Patti Smith and Karl Ove Knausgård, both gave lectures and then published them as books. In the first half of For Now, Myles writes about their new landlady trying to evict them from their rent-controlled apartment in New York. Their apartment: ‘a sick little Eileen Museum … a small space with a thick feel … it’s been used and used and used’.9 As Gaston Bachelard describes in The Poetics of Space (1964), ‘A house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appears to our consciousness of centrality.’10 Myles didn’t want to leave, they’d been living there for 42 years — it was them. Then in the second half of the book,, Myles recounts their archive-selling experience at length. i found ‘My Secret’ in there too, it’s near the end, indented.
Once sold, what enters a poet’s archive? (Beyond Myles declaring that we! entered the archival moment in the late 1990’s?) For Myles, their papers mean ‘all those scraps and notebooks and recordings and binders and crap’.11 108.0 linear feet of them, including ‘drafts, computer files, and trinkets’, as well as many photos.12
In The Contemporary Poetry Archive: Essays and Interventions (2019), the editors introduce the poet’s archive as ‘a repository of both things and experiences, physical objects and immaterial occasions.’13 They explain that the early twentieth century marked the beginning of poets’ papers being collected and established by libraries and universities in the US, when ‘different materials, including manuscripts, letters and ephemera’ began to be recognised as valuable.14 There was, and is, a particular fascination with drafts, revisions, re-writing — materials that help map a picture of writers’ choices, meanings that extend beyond published works. These materials help interpret writers’ work ‘longitudinally’ by sharing how poems change shape, their ‘evolving tropes and textures’ and the ‘imaginative structures in play during a work’s making’.15
Susan Howe, whose lecture-turned-book Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014) is quoted as a preface to The Contemporary Poetry Archive, describes material that enters a poet’s archive as ‘waste’, as existing outside of an ‘economy of use’.16 Does Howe mean outside of ‘an economy of use’ by the poet? Perhaps this ‘waste’ indicates that the material had previously been used for published writing — that which is consumed by a public — and exists now as leftovers (after being folded unfolded folded again in the mind now paper-thin). Howe doesn’t see this excess material as inferior to published work: ‘what difference does it make if what we see before our mind’s eye has already been interpreted?’17 Neither do the editors of The Contemporary Poetry Archive, who in their introduction ask: ‘why should literary work in its final, reified form take precedence in criticism over the activity of its gestation?’18
The editors write that the material within literary collections and archives is recognised as a commodity of a ‘special sort’. That is, a commodity that sits outside of a mass print economy. Archives and collections have provided an interim space to protect these materials, and renegotiate the boundaries between private patrons, the literary marketplace and the academy. It creates a means to ‘regulate access’, though in doing so limits access to a researching audience. As they say: ‘archives, of course, do not exist autonomously, but are within the force field of institutional, national and world histories’.19 Access to poets’ archives is always ‘mediated’.
Intuitively I had always known to save things but temperamentally I am the opposite and felt compelled to create instead a radiant hole.—Eileen Myles, For Now
Myles became a ‘college professor’ at UCSD in 2002. This was about fifteen years after being artistic director of the St Marks Poetry Project in New York, having taken over from Mayer who was director for four years. The university moved Myles to San Diego, bought them a house, organised a moving truck, ‘which is sort of why I wanted the job. Such an offer’.20 So Myles shifted and taught and then wondered, ‘Don’t you want my papers too? ... I was about fifty I was ready for the big kill which is to sell my papers.’21 The collection at UCSD include archives of poets from within Myles’ writing community, having a specific focus on American poetry post-1945. At the time, the collection held papers from Charles Bernstein, Joe Brainard, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, James Schuyler, Ron Silliman and Hannah Weiner, and later acquired the archives of Rae Armantrout, Joanne Kyger and Leslie Scalapino. But UCSD never offered to buy Myles’ papers: ‘they didn’t seem particularly interested which felt a little insulting … I wasn’t exactly the right kind of poet.’22 There are agents whose business it is to help organise, catalogue, value and pitch the sale of a poet’s archive to buying institutions, and Myles got in touch with ‘Bill the archivist of the beats’ who advised them to wait; they were too young to sell at that point.23 Myles also noted that their friends who had ‘sold to San Diego and Stanford hadn’t gotten that much and I thought that I could get more and I was right. So I waited.’24
After Bill, the next agent Myles spoke with was Chris in 2015 when Myles was back in New York. Chris asked, ‘well what do you got’ and Myles explained about ‘the notebooks dating back to 1960 and all the posters from readings and performances and videotapes. Any pictures. Well … I told him how I had a collection … But I don’t know where they are.’25 These were in Myles’ missing box.
For years Myles only kept final copies of their poems in binders in a box. Or rather, a milkcrate. It was their system of recording: every year filing the ‘good poems’ to keep track of how their work progressed. Myles had no space or time for other versions. ‘I liked the perversity of the original. I would never lose this … When I got a poem perfect for years I would destroy drafts.’26 The box travelled with them wherever they moved: to San Diego when teaching, then back to New York, Cape Cod, Vermont, Montana. It felt ‘so heavy like a cat you inherited from a dead person’.27
The material included in a poet’s archive is chosen from what is available. i wonder who chooses this. If the poet first, who next? What is the hierarchy of decision-making for material that is deemed significant? The archive agent, the institution, the individual working for the institution valuing and evaluating the material with their tastes, biases and specific expertise? As the editors of The Contemporary Poetry Archive write, ‘An archive’s existence may be a statement about cultural significance, but archives — both paper and digital — are organised and curated …’28
Though what about the material that isn’t included, is left out or missing? For about ten years, Myles searched for their missing box of poems. They contacted previous lovers, assistants, people who had taken over their temporary homes in various cities, they tried using psychics and astrologers to help locate it. They imagined all kinds of stories for what could have happened to the box: ‘I have so many theories.’29 All the while the missing box accumulated weight. Chris, too, fixated on the missing box. Pressing, he told Myles, ‘You need to find it … In my business, he said, we call a box like that the gusher.’30 But the missing box of poems in binders remained exactly that. Manifesting a ‘radiant hole’.
In ‘Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes’, the third chapter of The Poetics of Space, Bachelard speaks of the role of the imaginary in defining intimate spaces like drawers, wardrobes and boxes, and how the psychological plays into these ‘images of secrecy’.31 He concludes that ‘there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open, box … it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.’32 Like Myles’ missing box, the contents of a closed box cannot be physically accessed, rather it exists in the space of the imaginary.
I was speaking with T about missing boxes and missing information when he scanned his bookshelves and found The Missing Pieces (2014), a book by Henri Lefebvre (a different Lefebvre to the Marxist philosopher). The book consists of a list of ‘works of art, films, screenplays, negatives, poems, symphonies, buildings, letters, concepts, and lives’ that were destroyed, unpublished, lost or hadn’t even existed in the first place and are now somehow missing.33 These are ‘holes’ left by artists and writers, where the ‘missing pieces’ are replaced by an idea of them. As Bachelard writes, ‘the imagination sharpens all of our senses’.34 The process of imagining builds their existence and value.
For instance, the missing play by Frank O’Hara, Dig My Grace with a Golden Spoon.35 Or how Pierre Oster’s The Field of May is ‘missing a comma on page 124, line 7, after “until here”’.36 Or how ‘Tintin’s bedroom doesn’t appear in a single album by Hergé’.37 And how Sergei Eisenstein never finished his film Capital, ‘based on “the screenplay” (sic) by Karl Marx’.38 Or like French journalist and writer Bernard Frank, who once wrote that ‘Maurice Rheims brought me a letter by Vigny, I also received some cashmere socks, I put everything in my pockets, it has disappeared with the rest’.39
All missing! In the end, in 2017, Myles sold their archive through another agent who didn’t value their missing box like they themselves had. A less ‘painful’ choice.
And the pain of Myles’ apartment, their ‘hell’? Myles described a famous case where a landlord was trying to evict someone, like Myles, for a ‘breach’ of rules. The rules were that a tenant had to sleep in their rent-controlled apartment for at least half the nights per year, to discourage ‘pied-de-terre’. But this someone was a shoe salesman(!) who had to travel for their work, it’s how they made money — and it wouldn’t be fair to evict them for having to go to work. The case was won by the shoe salesman, which set a legal precedent. So for Myles, who also needed to travel for work — to their other house in Marfa to write, but also for readings, lectures, residencies, university visits — they had to provide evidence they were leaving their apartment for this reason. Myles’ eviction case was dropped before it reached court. They were able to stay in their apartment, in their ‘concentrated being’.
Myles concludes the book by acknowledging that their box will never be found, ‘it came to me, unbidden, and I think it’s my secret, and I know it now. The box is gone. It is truly gone.’40 It is a missing piece. And this missing box and its contents are now ‘more than’, which seems apt, as the missing box is what guides the writing of Myles’ most recent book. Perhaps this is where the value of surplus lies, in the imaginary — the vast space of inaccessible information, outside of what can be found in archives (within their lengths of feet) and in previously published work. It has more mileage, always mystery. Like Myles’ last words in ‘My Secret’: ‘And yet something is hidden. What could it be. I will never breathe a word.’41 Because what else keeps one writing?
i tried to find the accession list of Myles’ archives through the Beinecke Library search page but could only find them via their correspondence to other poets within the collection. On the 30th March i e-mailed Beinecke to follow up. They replied quickly, apologised and wrote that Myles’ papers are currently ‘unprocessed’— they’re part of the Library’s backlog project.
‘Check back in a year,’ Yale said.