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At a dark point in my life about five years ago—on the heels of a breakup—I went to San Francisco to do a reading. I was feeling bad and had convinced myself that no one would show. But I do believe in lifting a finger, and with it I picked up the ringing phone.
“Is this Eileen Myles?” The excited female voice on the other side asked. “I don’t really expect you to know who I am. I sent you a postcard last summer.”
I remembered the postcard with a picture of a big-faced, redheaded girl waving a ham sandwich. She had been traveling cross-country and she was telling me about her adventures like I was an old friend, and she signed it Michelle. Weird, I thought, and put the postcard down.
“Well, let me tell you why I’m calling,” Michelle said. “We have this excellent girls’ open mike at the Coco Club on Sunday nights. We can’t offer you money or anything, but a lot of us are huge fans of your work, and I would be so pleased if you would come. You would? Omygod!”
That was my initial encounter with Sister Spit’s Rambling Road Show, a lesbian spoken-word tour. I toast that drizzly December night as one of the defining events in my life.
I came out in New York in the late ’70s. But lesbian feminism left me feeling like I didn’t cut the mustard, like I’d gone to the wrong non-Ivy League school and liked punk rock and amphetamines too much and Aphra Behn too little. Generally I hung out with the boys and often I was alone. With poetry.
When I did connect with a girl (I could drink with), we were at war with the lesbian culture around us. I remember throwing beer cans off the balcony at an Alive concert. They were these dykes in leisure suits playing fusion jazz to a roomful of women with dangly earrings. “Ugh,” we yelled up the street.
Now, I was a guest at the phantasmagoric Coco Club. Sini Anderson, then 25, dressed kind of preppy with a TV-younger-brother’s scratchy voice. She was a Midwestern girl from an unreadable class playing easygoing straight man to Michelle’s wiry ecstatic hostess girl, squealing and cheering the readers off and onto the stage. Michelle’s hair was blue—or red. Sini’s was bright yellow. This was normal in San Francisco, a cornucopia of weird and adorable young dykes, clearly one moment out of college (or not), migrating West in buses and planes and vans in the mid ’90s. Now they wanted to speak.
At the Coco Club, poetry was the rule. Or literature was. One girl from L.A., long hair, kind of bourgie, read a slick and nasty piece of fiction about plopping a red-ant hill on the crotch of an evil ex-girlfriend. The audience howled wickedly. A Jersey-looking girl with big hair and scrub denim jean jacket and heavy metal shirt did a chugging rant. A tall, cute-cute-cute Elvis lookalike in a baseball hat read a lyric lament about home—and abuse. A pale girl stood up in academic attire, sincere, and read translations of a young Russian poet who had killed herself last year.
The room was resonant and warm. During most of the readings you could hear the audience breathing. In a fucked-up, messy way we were one. I looked around, feeling my cheeks blazing in the crowded club. I was sipping a Diet Coke and thinking: I can’t believe I’ve found my generation at last.
For dykes, generations are less about age than attitude. Try standing with a clump of your lesbian contemporaries. The dividing lines of race and class, shoes and musical taste, will predictably send us flying to our corners quicker than you can say butch/femme.
I know I’m not alone in my ancient alienation and new affinity. There’s a teeming society of women who identify the postpunk third wave of feminism as the beat we’re listening to, because unlike the taboo-laden feminism of my youth, the new lesbian mise-en-scène is a fierce, wildly infectious, and inclusive cultural force. It’s a dyke world where straight girls can come too, and maybe even men. Who needs separatism if you’re the boss?
Meanwhile at the Coco Club, it was my turn to perform. Have you ever gone to heaven? I mean, maybe it’s like getting a Guggenheim. I think every time a poet or a writer finishes something, even stands at a mike reading, it goes off into some secret place in the future. And now I was standing there with this tribe of loud and articulate girls who looked like me. I have a micro-tattoo and my hair is white and brown, but inside I look like them—and they knew it.
A few years later, Sini and Michelle invited me to go to the Womyn’s Music Festival in Michigan with them. I hated that festival—with its millions of bare breasts and fanny packs and “Womyn-Born Only” signs—and they did too. Horrible! That’s why it would be fun. And when we were rejected by the festival’s committee, the perfection continued. They explained that we were sort of like music—and they already had Phranc—and also sort of like literature—and they had Dorothy Allison.
So we decided to take our show on the road. Sister Spit started raising money frantically and bought two vans. Those same cheering girls kept dropping their money in the bucket from working at the Bearded Lady café, the Lickety Split moving company, and other Bay Area businesses. I had always wanted to tour in a van and sleep on floors and live on what I make. Well? I was 25 years older than everyone else, and didn’t everyone drink and I didn’t anymore? Drugs? And everyone looking for girls?
We did 30 cities in 28 days, sleeping on the floor in anarchist bookstores and tattooed girls’ apartments. In Cambridge, my hometown, the lines of girls were wrapped around the block and up and down the street. Boston girls are a little less varied than in San Francisco, a little more tame, it seemed. Many of them were recovering from very good girls’ colleges. Lots of the Sister Spit girls are working-class like me, and to shoot our wry and explosive wad of lyric culture here on a Cambridge stage was the sweetest success. I have never felt so proud in my life, standing there about a block away from where my mother was born, being a member at last of a utopian cadre of female outlaw optimists, teeming butch/femme talent, total tattoos and fearlessness, gaudiness, booziness, and flaunting a complex sexuality that would embarrass anyone’s mother.
At home, I have a great girlfriend. Karin is 32, white-haired (for real) since her teens, and now a Jean Seberg-looking novelist educated by wolves at Vassar. Not a Spitter at all—and she often rolls her eyes at what I like. We’re constantly working out the generation gap in reverse. Karin likes classic rock; I want Le Tigre. “Don’t get mean,” she pushes back. “You knew I was old when you met me.”
Karin was aboard for the Boston show. But we were going to Buffalo and she was heading for P-town. I kissed her goodbye and got back in the van.
I was 46 on that tour. I’m 50 now. I just had to wait to be young.
Eileen Myles’s upcoming novel, Cool for You (Soft Skull Press), will be published this fall.