Everyone is talking about e-books these days, how they will change books, reinvent them, make what we think of as “books” obsolete. That may or may not be true, but for now, I want to hold on to one of the moments of reading I love best: opening up a new book. Holding it in my hand; I prefer to own it, because I’m greedy like that, but I make frequent use of the New York Public Library too. But at that moment, something magical awaits you. Or doesn’t, but you won’t know until you crack it open. I like to hold my books, devour the back cover text, though this time I didn’t. I started flipping through The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (which for some reason I just typed twice as "England" even though part of what intrigued me was the theme of Iceland, because my aunt's from there), a book I was drawn when I first heard about it in an interview with Myles at The Rumpus, perhaps more for the title than for the author, Eileen Myles, who I’m a fan of, and who was in the audience and asked an interesting question yesterday at the CUNY panel on Pornography and the City, about teen sexuality.
I read a lot of books because I want them to be an escape. Easy. A rest for my mind from its ongoing spinning and cycling and list-making. Some books, though, are the opposite. They make me think, for if I am to give them a shot, I have to exercise my brain. And/or delight it with the words, the grappling and the sensations of the words, as opposed to just their meaning.
I must admit that this book scares me a little, not because of the book itself, but because of me. In it I know there are many topics I know little or nothing about – Iceland, poetry, art. I know I am coming at it not with some wealth of knowledge, but a beginner’s mind. I look through the table of contents and see many names I don’t recognize: Nicole Eisenman, Robert Smithson, Susanna Coffey, Martha Diamond, James Schuyler, Alice Notley, Ann Luaterbach. Peggy Ahwesh.
There are some I do know as I flip through – I know before confirming that “Allen” is Allen Ginsburg. I see Ntozake and would be astounded were Myles talking about anyone other than Ntozake Shange. I now who Björk is. But I like that. I want that. Crave it. Maybe need it. I want to learn things about writing and art and Iceland. I want to keep reading essays that start with lines like “Allen was more of a star than a homosexual.” And “I think this guy is wringing out his towel his dick is so huge.” As far as I know, I’ve only read one piece before, in the excellent anthology Live Through This, about flossing.
And best of all, as I read, I hear Myles’s unique, powerful, strong voice, the one I’ve heard at readings and on CDs and on YouTube, in my ear. I almost wish there were an audio version and I don’t even listen to audio books. So that’s what I’m thinking about as I prepare to sink into the pieces that make up The Importance of Being England: Travel Essays in Art.
And here’s a clip of Myles reading the poem “O”– she can say a hell of a lot in just over a minute.
Read excerpts and reviews at EileenMyles.com
But The Importance of Being England on Amazon
Official description from the publisher, Semiotext(e), who I first encountered at St. Mark's Bookshop when I saw and immediately grabbed Michelle Tea's first book The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America - their front shelves always pull me in.
Poet and post-punk heroine Eileen Myles has always operated in the art, writing, and queer performance scenes as a kind of observant flaneur. Like Baudelaire's gentleman stroller, Myles travels the city—wandering on garbage-strewn New York streets in the heat of summer, drifting though the antiseptic malls of La Jolla, and riding in the van with Sister Spit—seeing it with a poet's eye for detail and with the consciousness that writing about art and culture has always been a social gesture. Culled by the poet from twenty years of art writing, the essays in The Importance of Being Iceland make a lush document of her—and our—lives in these contemporary crowds.
Framed by Myles's account of her travels in Iceland, these essays posit inbetweenness as the most vital position from which to perceive culture as a whole, and a fluidity in national identity as the best model for writing and thinking about art and culture. The essays include fresh takes on Thoreau's Cape Cod walk, working class speech, James Schulyer and Björk, queer Russia and Robert Smithson; how-tos on writing an avant-garde poem and driving a battered Japanese car that resembles a menopausal body; and opinions on such widely ranging subjects as filmmaker Sadie Benning, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, and flossing.