Eileen Myles is known for her poetry, her novels, her art journalism. For a time in the early ‘90s, she was also known for being the only “openly-female” candidate in a presidential race filled with men. In 1991, she launched a write-in campaign from the East Village that quickly spiraled into a project of national interest. Her participation in the political process was part performance project, part protest, and part joke. Nonetheless, she exhibited more political integrity than anyone currently running.
“It was 1991 and there wasn’t any possibility that there would be a female candidate, a gay candidate, an artist candidate, a candidate making under $50,000 a year, a minority candidate,” Myles told me on the phone last week. “The thing I grew up with in American history—‘Taxation without representation is tyranny’—was the condition I was living in.”
Myles launched her campaign in response to a commencement speech given by President George H.W. Bush at the University of Michigan, in which he declared that political correctness had began as a “crusade for civility,” but had “soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.” Bush said:
“Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”
“He appropriated that term, which used to be kind of a controlling kind of conservative lesbian term that we used against each other,” Myles explained. “That was the ‘politically correct’ lesbian who was always telling you not to eat meat and what to wear and how to be.”
Moreover, when Bush referred to the politically correct, Myles said, he was really referring to her community—to the marginalized, generally.
“Anybody who was complaining more than once about their lot in America was a danger to freedom of speech. They were taking too much, taking too much airtime, saying too much. And by that he meant activists, minorities, women, people of color, queers, you know, everybody who he didn’t want to hear from more than once,” she said.
Myles had grown up thinking of the presidency as an office for old men—she had seen it occupied by “bald, World War II guy” Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, who, despite his full head of hair, still seemed ancient to a ten-year-old.
Her candidacy would, with a strong dose of irony, buck that trend.
“I was like 41 in 1991, and so I thought, ‘Oh, that’s sort of funny.’ I would be a young presidential candidate as opposed to an older early middle aged poet or performance artist.’ All these things together made me think I could run.”
“Once I decided that I was running—that was April of 1991—I decided that every public event that I was asked to take part in I would turn into a campaign opportunity,” she said. “So that meant that if you asked me to do a poetry reading, if you asked me to be on a panel, if you asked me to speak at a memorial, whatever it was, I was going to run for office, and that would not end until November of 1992. That was the large single gesture that bound all my activities.”
During her speaking engagements at that time, she would discuss politics, what happened in her day, whatever she happened to be feeling at the moment. Then, she would announce her bid.
After about a month, she recognized a major problem: in any given room, only a small portion of people knew she was running at all. She was repeatedly announcing her candidacy, rather than actually campaigning. So, Myles decided to make the effort more official. To do so, she sent every person on her 400-member mailing list a letter explaining that she had decided to run for president and why, along with an explanation of the important issues.
She also asked each member for $8, a donation which would keep them subscribed to these monthly mailings, and get them a phone call, a bumper sticker and a button.
“What [the formalization of her candidacy] did was instantly make it larger. Not just because everybody knew, but also Interview wanted me to be interviewed, Art magazine decided to write about me. And colleges, I was invited to do readings at a level that I had never,” she told me.
“I was in 28 states, I was in Europe, I was, you know, I was on MTV. It was kind of a nonstop experience and I realized—whether this was a mock campaign, a real campaign, an imaginary campaign—it was a campaign. Which meant that if somebody said, ‘We’d love you to come to dinner, Eileen,’ I’d sit at dinner and then they would look at me and say, ‘Tell us about your campaign.’ There was no way out of it.”
During that period, she also took her new one-woman show, Leaving New York on tour.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the show:
Myles, a 42-year-old native of Boston, devoted the first half of the rather brief show to her poems, pointing out that she was once young and a drunk, which made her a perfect poet. But as she gave up drinking, and then smoking, she missed her favorite props and began to segue into performance art...
Her campaign oratory, though punctuated with too many “you knows,” was charming because it was so simple, lucid and candidate-like—complete with buttons and bumper-stickers, all saying, “Write In Myles,” and all for sale. Enough have been sold, she said, to cover the cost, so she considers that she has run “a break-even campaign.” “What’s a platform?” she asked rhetorically, then answered herself with perfect truth, “It’s just a wish list.” Hers would include forcing candidates to write their own speeches and to offer total disclosure which, she said, “would give you, the voters, more knowledge than you’d ever want.” She’s also in favor of a Cabinet-level department of culture, free health care for everyone and a method of ending the deficit by taxing assets and holdings, but not income.
Myles told me that there was an odd divide between communities where her candidacy was known, and others where she was a relative stranger.
“We all knew that George Bush went into a supermarket once around the time of the same campaign and looked at a product that was being run by the clerk and saw a barcode, and he had never seen one before. It was a really funny moment in the campaign—it was like, this guy has never been in a supermarket. Whereas my situation was more like being in a supermarket in line and thinking, I wonder if anybody in this supermarket knows that I’m running for president.”
“But then there are opposites too,” she continued. “I would be walking across Avenue A at night in the dark thinking about probably my campaign and I would absent-mindedly almost get hit by a car. Then somebody on the other side of the street would yell, ‘That’s no way to get elected president.’ Or in an ATM, you’d be putting your card in a wall and the person next to you would say, ‘I’m voting for you,’ or ‘I voted for you.’ So there was kind of a real micro-awareness that was sort of matched by kind of a macro-unawareness which was kind of amazing.”
“Everybody loved me running for president in ‘91 and ‘92,” Myles said to Interview, “because they never knew a presidential candidate before. So in this moment when I’m getting attention, everybody’s excited because they always knew my work or they just discovered it. Like, now we’re all at the party. It’s one for our team.”
“It was kind of like staying in character for a year and a half, which was incredible. But the only way that was possible was to determine that everything that I was feeling and thinking and doing [was part of that candidate character]. If I am PMS-ing today, I’m going to talk about PMS as part of my campaign,” Myles said. “And I realized how, again, how openly female a presidential campaign had never been, because these were not the dilemmas of the bodily realities of the candidates ever.”
She had an increasing sense that “there was something mighty in the mini-campaign, and to know, as a citizen, as a poet, as a woman, as a human being, that I could run a campaign as much as the next person.”
In a letter that was mailed to voters towards the end of her campaign (dated October 12, 1992), Myles wrote:
Bill Clinton defeated Bush (and Myles) that year.
Looking back, Myles’ campaign feels honest and funny in a way that politics decisively aren’t today. I asked her if it was somehow possible to recreate it.
“Not my campaign, but a campaign, of course, absolutely,” she said. “Early on in the campaign season when, I think it was 10 Republican candidates were sitting at a long table saying stupid things, I remember Jill Soloway saying to me, ‘What would that be like if it was 10 women?’ Like, why can’t we have that? We should all run.”
Myles told me that she has little respect or patience for politics today.
“America forever has been a comic nation, not a tragic one, and I think comedy in some ways is probably the luckiest way you could look at America in this point in time,” she said. “I sneer at American political life and the office of the presidency and the act of voting. I’ll vote for Hillary because it’s symbolic. I want a woman in the White House. Even though America is a site of declining world power, it still is the face of world power. And if that face can’t be female in the 21st Century, then I just hang my head in shame.”
When I asked her more about her 2016 vote, she said, “There’s probably a million reasons why Bernie Sanders is a better candidate, but I’m supporting Hillary because I just want to see a woman sit in the White House once before this empire falls down. And if a woman brings it down, I think that would be cool. I hope she blows it up.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Myles’ one-woman show as Eileen Myles for President (and Other Things). The show was actually called Leaving New York.
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Archival images courtesy of EileenMyles.net.