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The Story Behind New York City Poet Eileen Myles' Presidential Bid

Picture of JW McCormack
Updated: 9 October 2017
In 2016, poet Eileen Myles endorsed Hillary Clinton—over Bernie Sanders whose popularity among many other writers was a sticking point—for President in a Buzzfeed piece titled Hillary Clinton: The Leader You Want When The World Ends, writing, “I don’t think Hillary has horns though she does have a vagina and wouldn’t you want it sitting on the chair in the Oval Office (not to get all weird) because things will never be the same. She will see something no woman in America has ever seen before and then all of us will see it. She’s like our astronaut. That’s what I want…” And then she adds, “It’s why I ran (against her husband) in 1992.”

Indeed, fans of Myles seminal 2010 memoir Inferno might have been surprised to discover the write-in campaign for President Myles conducted in 1991 and 1992 on a platform she called “openly female.” This was not a lark or a joke candidate, but an actually revolutionary run that is not separate from her work as a poet and which remains an inspirational campaign that it is necessary to remember even when it seems painful to consider alternatives to the present. Because that was exactly what Eileen Myles managed during her 28-state tour and appearances on MTV, offer an alternative glimpse of what politics might become even when things seem certain and stacked against the progressive, radical, and socially committed interests Myles represented.

Courtesy OR Books
Inferno | © Courtesy OR Books

Born in Cambridge in 1949, Myles moved to New York in 1974 and quickly became friendly with Allen Ginsburg and New York School poet James Schuyler. Within 10 years, she was working as artistic director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she brought aboard writers and artists as varied as Jessica Hagedorn, Dennis Cooper, and Charles Bernstein. Most of all, Myles became known for “An American Poem,” collected in 1991’s Not Me, in which she examines crises like homelessness and AIDS from the point of view of a Kennedy (appropriate since she was born in working class Massachusetts, where the Kennedy legend still loomed).

When Myles announced she would be running against Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot, her friend Zoe Leonard wrote the widely-disseminated poem “I want a president,” in which she distills the feelings of a marginalized community still fighting for recognition in declaring, “I want a dyke for president,” and going on to list other qualities she wanted to see in a president like “someone with no health insurance,” someone with AIDS, and someone with leukemia.

Revisiting her campaign for Jezebel, Myles said: “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.” Her campaign, which functioned as a kind of auxiliary to her poetry readings and panel discussions, changed all that because Myles was all those things. She quickly became a unique kind of political celebrity in the New York downtown scene, recalling almost getting hit by a car only to hear a bystander call out: “That’s no way to get elected President!”

Myles’ bid for President may technically have been unsuccessful, but that’s not to say its impact wasn’t enormous or that her words on the campaign trail mean any less today. In fact, they mean more. In a 1992 letter to her supporters, she wrote: “You’ll be alone in that booth & it’s so dirty like a peephole or a dressing room or a confession. But you’re really not so free until—pen in hand, you pull the lever, you push the button … and an empty white space appears, empty as poetry and this is your freedom of speech.”