Usually when I leave a reading that I love, it is because of the writers’ language—a single line I can’t get out of my head or a phrase I’ve never heard before. When I left Maggie Nelson and Eileen Myles’ Seattle Arts and Lectures reading and conversation on Thursday night at Benaroya Hall it was their intellectual riffing, even more than their recited work, which left me somewhat awestruck.
Perhaps it’s not surprising: In the world of contemporary poetry it would be hard to think of a better power pairing for a reading than Nelson and Myles. Both poets have been widely published on large and small presses alike. Both write poems that are uniquely theirs—disregarding genre and rewriting poetic formulas poem by poem. Both are award winners, risk-takers, and scholars. And both are dashingly, daringly cool.
Thursday’s event began with local fifth-grader Maria Hahne reading an original poem inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “Cape Cod Morning 1950.” Tiny and nervous, Hahne whispered her poem and scuttled offstage. Rather than giving standard book-blurb introductions to Nelson and Myles, Rebecca Hoogs—the event’s host—wrote an 18-part introduction in the form of Maggie Nelson’s most lauded and recognized book Bluets, using short, numbered sections Nelson refers to as “propositions.”
Nelson took the stage first and began by reading an essay from her most recent book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, which discusses representations of violence in art. The remainder of Nelson’s reading was from Bluets, what Nelson described as “an homage to the things I find beautiful.” The book uses blue as a tethering line, while blazing through many facets of human emotion, obsession, and the art of exploration. Nelson’s reading was calm and relaxed and, at times, because of her use of quotations and precise scientific facts, almost lecture-like in tone.
Eileen Myles read like Eileen Myles reads: first a smattering of new poems, a bit rough around the edges, then a series of poems from her most recent book Snowflake/Different Streets.
It wasn’t until both women were comfortably settled in armchairs, legs crossed in the same direction towards Hoogs, the conversation’s moderator, that Myles seemed to relax into her surroundings. Finally her thick Boston accent showed its rasp and her intellectual muscles could flex their stuff.
A few of Hoogs’ questions seemed to miss their mark, specifically one about how brave (the actual quote: “transgressive”) it seemed for the women to talk about sex in their work in the way that they do. For the post-feminists in the audience (and perhaps onstage) this question seemed a little archaic and caused both Myles and Nelson a sideways glance at each other and delayed response. “I don’t know how people don’t write about sex,” Myles finally answered. “And also, when aren’t you writing about sex?”
For the most part, though, the women shined in conversation, not only weaving their way through more topics than seemed possible in 20-odd minutes, but also giving insight to their long history as friends and peers—from the first time that Nelson saw Myles read at age 17, to their individual experiences which led both of them to publishing on Seattle’s own Wave Books in recent years.
The evening seemed steeped in womanhood—from Hoogs’ opening joke about her impending motherhood, to the jump-off topic of the conversation—the current Elles exhibit at SAM, to the talk of writing about sex as a woman. Myles though, like in much of her poetry, repeatedly turned the trajectory of the evening on its head. At one point, just as the conversation seemed to be turning to a lull, Myles reinvigorated it with an off-the-dome remark about the abundance of the color yellow (traditionally the ugliest color according to Nelson’s Bluets) at Elles that seemed perhaps the most driving quote of the night:
“Women are reclaiming ugliness and calling it power,” Myles said. “We’re tired of beauty.”