Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 9, 1949, to a family with a working-class background. She attended Catholic schools in Arlington, Massachusetts, and graduated from UMass Boston in 1971.
Myles moved to New York City in 1974 with the intention of becoming a poet. In New York she participated in writing workshops held at St. Mark's Poetry Project, which promoted the idea of the "working artist," a pragmatic notion that Myles found appealing given her background; there she studied with Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Paul Violi, and Bill Zavatsky, and was given a template for creating art in the context of an urban community. There, Myles first met the poet Allen Ginsberg, whom she admired and who became the subject of several of her poems and essays. In 1979 she worked as an assistant to the poet James Schuyler.
In 1984 Myles was hired as the artistic director of St. Mark's Poetry Project, which, she has stated, gave her the opportunity to rethink the institution that influenced her early work. In this period, Myles dealt with the cuts to the NEA art budget occurring during the Reagan years; Myles' energies focused on broadening the aesthetic and cultural range of the St. Mark's Poetry Project. Her leadership of the Project represented a generational shift away from the church’s base, which until then been run by the second generation members of the New York School. Program Coordinators in this period were Patricia Spears Jones, and Jessica Hagedorn, and Myles invited Alice Notley and Dennis Cooper to teach. Charles Bernstein ran the lecture series, Chris Kraus, Marc Nasdor, and Richard Elovich coordinated performance, Tim Dlugos and James Ruggia edited the Newsletter. During her tenure at St. Mark's, Myles performed "An American Poem" for the first time at P.S. 122.
In 1991-1992 Myles conducted an “openly female” write-in campaign for the office of President of the United States, unsuccessfully, though she campaigned in 28 states, and via MTV and other media outlets (where the number of votes she received is unreported).
Beginning in 2002, Myles began serving as a Professor of Writing at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD); she directed the writing program for five years before she left. UCSD funded the research and travel grant that enabled the creation of Inferno (2010), as well as Hell, an opera composed by Michael Webster, for which Myles wrote the libretto. Since leaving UCSD in 2007, Myles has been a Visiting Writer at Bard College, Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Washington University, University of Montana-Missoula, Columbia’s School of the Arts, and New York University.
In 2016, Myles endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in a Buzzfeed piece entitled Hillary Clinton: The Leader You Want When The World Ends.
By her own account, Myles moved from Boston to New York in 1974 "to be a poet," where she became associated with a group of poets at St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Myles's first book, The Irony of the Leash, was run off by Jim Brodey on the mimeograph machine in the office of St. Mark's Poetry Project in 1978.
In 1977 and 1979, Myles published issues of dodgems, a literary magazine, a title referring, in the vernacular of Great Britain, to bumper cars, specifically those of Revere Beach, MA. The title is said to serve as a metonym for the collision of aesthetic differences that characterized the poetry scene of that time. The dodgems issues featured poems by John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Charles Bernstein, as well as a letter from Lily Tomlin and an angry note from a neighbor; both issues are referenced in the book, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side—Adventures in Writing: 1960–1980, (which also describes St. Mark's), and were exhibited in vitrines in the Library's 1998 show on the same subject.
Myles's next collection, A Fresh Young Voice From the Plains (1981), earned her first major review, by Jane Bosveld in Ms. (magazine). Not Me (1991) is Myles's most popular collection of poetry. It contains Myles work, "An American Poem," in which she fictionalizes her identity and claims to be a "Kennedy", and comfortably addresses politics in the work. She first performed the work at P.S. 122 in New York City, during her tenure at St. Mark's. Since then "An American Poem" has been filmed and shown in film festivals all over the world, screening in New York and other major cities. It has been included, in translation, in German, Russian, and Italian anthologies of American writing. The trajectory of "An American Poem" is documented in Myles's novel Inferno (2010).
Myles produced Maxfield Parrish/early and new poems (1995), a collection of both new and selected poems on the theme of the surreality of sex. In the same year, Myles co-edited The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading (1995) with Liz Kotz, which is described as having a multi-genre approach and postmodern focus on reading rather than identity, and which is said to have offered something different from mainstream gay and lesbian poetry anthologies of the 1990s. Soon after, School of Fish (1997) appeared, the first work wherein Myles's dog, Rosie is featured, where Rosie served as a second camera in the poem's field of vision.
Myles published Skies (2000), a project begun in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the poet described the sky becoming "a new character in my life." The book is framed by a transcript of a panel at The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts featuring Helen Miranda Wilson, Frances Richard, John Kelly, Molly Benjamin, and Jack Pierson, who each spoke about their own relation to the sky. On My Way (2001) concludes with an essay about speech and class, "The End of New England."
Snowflake / Different Streets (2012) uses the technique of dos-à-dos binding to combine two distinct collections of poetry in the same physical book. As Ian Bodkin writes in his review of the work, Myles' poems "navigat[e] the ever-insular landscape of our technological culture that invades moments of quiet thought" in Snowflake, then "offers a sense of return to the people and places of intimacy, connections that bring her back to this world" in different streets.
Though Myles's primary intention was to be a poet, she has stated that she was also moved by the New Journalism of the sixties and seventies and the art writing tradition by poets of the New York School. In the 1980s, Myles began to publish personal journalism, book reviews, and art reviews. Early columns appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter; her essay "I Hate Mimeo" called for an end to the same publishing format in which her essay appeared. In the 1990s she wrote a monthly column in Paper Magazine.
Myles' early book and theater reviews appeared in New York Native, Outweek, and Out (magazine), and she was a notable figure on the poetry and queer art scene of the 1980s and 1990s on the Lower East Side. Later, Myles would publish essays and other article in the Village Voice, The Nation, Artforum, Parkett, and Art in America.
In 2007 Myles received an Warhol/Creative Capital grant, which funded her first collection of nonfiction, The Importance of Being Iceland/travel essays in art (2007). The title essay from this collection, "Iceland," has been described as part travel essay, part personal essay, and part inquiry into the nature of how landscape and writing affect each other.
Myles's first collection of stories, Chelsea Girls (1994) features "Bread and Water," the oldest story in the collection, and an account of life in the East Village in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Raymond Foye called it "The quintessential memoir of the Lower East Side." Myles has said that she imagined the story as a literal recording of life, and so began her characteristic practice of dropping conventional punctuation and capitalization. In "Chelsea Girls," the title story, Myles chronicles her time as the assistant to poet James Schuyler in the Chelsea Hotel; their intergenerational exchange has been the subject of scholarship by Dianne Chisholm and Jose Munoz.
Myles's second full-length work, Cool for You: a nonfiction novel (2000) catalogs abject institutional spaces of an "insider," in opposition to the male artist as an "outsider." Among these spaces are school, family, and various bad jobs; the extreme insider of the book is Myles’s maternal grandmother Nellie Riordan Myles, who spent the last 17 years of her life in a state mental hospital in Massachusetts. Also included in Cool for You’s inventory is an imaginary one—a chapter that describes the solar system from the perspective of a ten-year-old version of Myles herself, Myles's first foray into fantasy writing. Cool for You received widespread recognition and was reviewed in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Nation.
Inferno (a poet's novel) (2010) fictionalizes the life of a poet very similar to Myles, and mirrors the structure of Dante's Divine Comedy. It was awarded a 2011 Lambda Award for Lesbian Fiction. On September 29, 2015, HarperCollins reissued Myles's out-of-print novel, Chelsea Girls.
In 1979 Myles founded the Lost Texans Collective with Elinor Nauen and Barbara McKay. That year the group produced Joan of Arc a spiritual entertainment and would produce Patriarchy, a play in 1980.
Later solo performances include “Leaving New York (1989), Life (1991), and Summer in Russia (1996), which were performed at P.S. 122, Judson Church.
Myles's later plays, Feeling Blue parts 1, 2, and 3; Modern Art; and Our Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, written for Alina Troyano were all produced at WOW Cafe and P.S. 122.
Since the early eighties Myles has toured and read her own work extensively. In late 1988 she traveled with poet and memoirist Jim Carroll on a tour sponsored by Lila Acheson Wallace. In the nineties Myles toured Germany with Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, Richard Hell, and Chris Kraus. Since 1997 Myles has frequently toured with LGBT performance group Sister Spit.
Myles's first book, The Irony of the Leash (1978), was produced on the mimeograph machine at St. Mark's Poetry Project.
Pulitzer prize-winning poet John Ashbery has described Myles's work as making one "uncomfortable and awake... chanting softly and beautifully the harsh if humorous realities that combine to make whatever life a poet can piece together today." She has been called “the rock star of modern poetry” by BUST Magazine and “a cult figure to a generation of post-punk female writer-performers,” by Holland Cotter of the New York Times.
In a recent review of Snowflakes/different streets in LA Review of Books, Brian Teare complicates these readings of Myles's persona in relation to her body of writing:
Though the book contains plenty of autobiographical detail concerning Myles’ life as a writer and lesbian, such details remain themselves, no longer coalescing into myth. Instead, the book’s saturated with this desire to gesture toward “it,” to somehow get fragmentary words to capture some essential aspect of “the thing,” and Myles’ genius lies in making the grand gesture that includes the trivial detail and the sublime at once, their juxtaposition underscoring how we are small and made large by connection, paradoxically isolate and dependent.
Inferno has been described by Craig Epplin as representing,
her attempt at sketching alternative sorts of existence in common. She does so not through simple prescription, but rather by modeling the act of assembly itself... 'I was addition and subtraction,' [Myles] writes in one scene set in a New York apartment, 'sunlight, bumpy white walls, millions of windows, Cafe Bustelo, my feet...' (The list goes on.) This inventory, at once abstract and radically concrete, involves more than just what surrounds the speaker. It’s conceived, rather, as what she was. There wasn’t a person in a room, in other words. There was a complex of person and room together: the sun shining down plus the walls plus a coffee can plus feet plus more.New York State Creative Artist's Public Services Grant, (poetry) 1980
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Performance/Inter-Arts Grant, (Modern Art) 1989
Fellow, Djerassi Foundation, 1994
Rex Foundation Grant, (The Grateful Dead) 1994
New York State Council on the Arts Theater Commission, with performer Carmelita Tropicana for Our Sor Juana, 1994
Ludwig Voegelstein Award, 1995
Franklin Furnace Performance Fund, 1995
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA/CEC) ArtsLink Grant, 1995
The Fund for Poetry, 1988, 1990, 1996
Fellow, The Blue Mountain Arts Center, NY, 1997
Lambda Book Award, 1995, 1998
Bucknell Art Museum Residency, for Hide & Seek, 1998
New York Foundation for the Arts, Poetry, 1999
Foundation for Contemporary Performance Touring Grant, 2001
Muir College Enrichment Grant, for Hell, 2004
Research and Travel Grant, University of California, San Diego, 2004
University of California Humanities Center Grant, for Hell, 2004
The University of California's Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA),for Hell, 2004
Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, Arts Writers Grant, 2007
Fellow, The MacDowell Colony, 1991, 1996, 2009
Shelley Award, Poetry Society of America, 2010
Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Fellow, 2011
Lambda Book Award for Lesbian Fiction, (Inferno) 2011
Guggenheim Fellowship, Afterglow, (memoir), 2012
The Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing, 2015