There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Streaming In: Piss and Place in Creative Nonfiction
“Variant: we are born amid feces and urine.”
– St. Augustine
Upon the death of his mentor Samuel, King David falls into a deep state of mourning. He rejects the company of Abigail. The only one able to comfort young David will be his beloved friend Jonathan.
He longs for Jonathan, sings for him, calls out to him who “by the morning light… pisseth against the wall.”
To think of David and Jonathan as the queerest of biblical pals is nothing new. But David liked to watch Jonathan piss? Hot. The Hebrew phrase “pisser against the wall” has been largely vanished by time and ideology. It’s barely there in the King James translation, and lost quickly thereafter, to Puritanical translations changing “pisser against the wall” to just “man.” As Duane E. Smith explains in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly,
…the literal interpretation… has never been questioned. There is a broad, but not universal, consensus among scholars that the final target of the trope is an adult human male or more generally males.
It’s unfortunate what’s lost in bad translation, or in translation with an agenda. It’s unfortunate that my desire to see others piss, or to be pissed upon, or to drink the piss of a beloved, is considered a human deviation, not an act of love. Oh well. Like David, I soldier on.
In the opening of Garth Greenwell’s much and aptly lauded novel What Belongs to You, an American poet cruises Sofia, Hungary’s subterranean “bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture,” with some “element conterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” Desire, part and parcel, draws us to such a place, to such a truth. And the promise of such a desire in such a place for those of us who love (can I say love?) not only the men at the urinals, but the urinals themselves, objects we long to embody. This ability to embody the esoteric and the erotic, too, is a fundamental aspect of writing nonfiction: to understand the truth, one must learn to inhabit difference, to inhabit place.
Piss play provides us with an apt analogue for writing creative nonfiction: it’s a genre that—perhaps more than poetry or fiction or playwriting—requires subjugation, of writer to subject, a type of submission kink has already trained us to do. Because what is submission, after all, if not learning to control, to generatively manipulate, the truth of any situation? Urine for some truth.
At nineteen I was trained in the mores of kink by a professor at Missouri State University, where I was a sophomore political science major. He was married to a woman; I was in a relationship with a man I met in grief counseling. On gay.com, he told me he was a baseball coach; I told him I was a NCAA Division I soccer player. We both lied, the truth. But he asked me to his office and tied me to the old metal desk with soft silk ties. He tickled me, at first, and didn’t let me cum. Then he blindfolded me and left me for hours while he went to meetings, while his wife picked up their child from the university’s laboratory school, while my boyfriend made us pasta shells stuffed with ricotta and basil, food that would be long cold by the time I was untied and allowed to walk to our apartment three blocks from the professor’s campus office. Then he tied me and blindfolded me and lifted a cup of his urine to my lips and bade me to sip. The professor didn’t last. But his teaching did.
At twenty-three I was trained again, this time to write creative nonfiction of place at Chatham University, a hidden garden of a campus tucked away on Andrew Mellon’s lush estate in Pittsburgh’s east end. Is not training itself an activity present in both the world of writing and the world of kink?
Here then, a brief catalog of the places where I have been pissed upon:
- In the basement of Donny’s Place, a leather bar on Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill, as the sun set over the Allegheny River through grimy glass block windows.
- In the locker room shower at Williams College Gymnasium, as a snowstorm outside rendered Western Massachusetts a wasteland.
- In a Midtown Atlanta high rise, where my best friend ordered me to lick piss off a gritt white tile floor, a moment in which I was glad for urine’s disinfectant qualities.
- In the black-lit bathroom of a Prague nightclub (I wish I could remember the name), where giant silver troughs held buckets and buckets of ice sizzling under the hot streams of all that Czech Pilsner run-off.
- Briefly, and by accident, in a crowded concrete restroom in AT&T Jones Stadium during halftime at a football game as Texas Tech fell to Iowa State.
- On a dock at church camp, by the pastor’s son, as the Missouri moon hit full midnight above us and we laughed and laughed while he pissed on my leg, a young seed of an honest desire blossoming inside me.
Eudora Welty explains that “as soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may and teachers well know how to, and consider what good writing may be, place can be seen, in her own way, to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it.” Now I’m not interested in goodness—quite the contrary—but Ms. Welty knows what a capable writer, especially any good essayist, must come to know: everything, from feelings to Truth, is bound in place. It matters as much where I was pissed upon as it does that I was pissed upon in the first place. Place is context in part, but it is not context in summation.
Another story, another lesson: having fought fiercely with my best friend, I loaded my car and headed straight up the eastern seaboard on I-85 towards the MLA convention in Philadelphia. With my dog in tow, I hydroplaned in rush hour traffic outside of Baltimore, successfully navigating my small Volkswagen Golf hatchback to the median without harm. Without harm, that is, until a Range Rover hydroplaned behind me but failed to break, careening into the back of my little car and totaling it. A rental got me to Philly, where I checked into the hotel and, feeling sad, perused Grindr, mostly full of nerds in town for one of the writing world’s largest conferences.
A man invited me over to his hotel. A fellow academic, he buzzed me up from the lobby, opened the door, ordered me to strip, brought poppers to my nose, and fucked me bareback for nearly an hour. The room dark, I cried, but with my face deep in the down of the pillow-top mattress some Ivy League school was paying for, he failed to notice. He came, laughed, jumped to the bathroom and cleaned himself. When he turned on the shower, he ordered me to kneel there, and pissed all over my face. One of these things is acceptable, and it is not the crying: acceptable in that New Year’s day, four-star hotel bathroom was the piss on my face, a cleansing of both the remnants of sex and of the metaphysical sorrow that consumed me that day. Oh the trappings of queer sex and kink.
Have I gone too far? This is always a good question for the essayist to ask, when the truth is too honest to render itself out of place. Piss play seems just far enough in the cultural imagination, but scat and blood play and bug chasing: these kinks all seem a bit too much. What is the kinkster to do? Push, but not too far. What is the essayist to do? Push, but not too far.
In her essay “Future Imperfect,” Dinah Lenney imagines a future she very much wishes for, where both her father and grandchild are alive at the same time to play jacks on the living room carpet. In an aside, she asks, “Do I have to say again that this is fiction? Is it?” The wish is very much in the realm of creative nonfiction. Put another way, Queen asks, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” When I wish for the kink of piss, when I stand at the urinal at my university gym and look over to the man next to me and wish to kneel in front of him, to drink of him, to lick him clean, it is both reality and fantasy, a lived past and hoped-for future, the pooled realms of creative nonfiction at its generic core.
Just before he died, Christ gathered his disciples in a scene immortalized as the last supper. “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more,” he told them, “until that day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” Did Jesus take his beloved John to a hidden stream below the Garden of Gethsemane after dinner? Did he bid John kneel there and drink of his flesh, a slippage of the communion kink we know today? Am I just a raconteur looking for a story to tell, taking the mundanity of urination and turning into fetish, into essay, into salvation, into more than the honest ordinariness that it is? Maybe, but isn’t that my writerly job?
The first man I loved, an impossibly cute and impossibly married boy with curly blond hair with whom I lived, one summer, for just a few months, on a lake outside Seattle, once dared me to take a shot of my own piss. He didn’t know my desires, not fully or not consciously, and pulled a small Dixie cup from the cabinet below the sink in the bathroom we shared. (I do not remember where his wife was at the time. The sweet revision of memory erases.)
“Do it, man,” he told me, laughing and watching me as I unzipped, pulled out my cock, and peed into the tiny cup, bringing it to my lips and drinking it whole, like communion. His gaze held my gaze, never flinching. “That was awesome,” he said, awesome in the sense of being awestruck. I began to harden and he coughed, breaking the scene.
In describing such an art of “sacred carnality,” of that which binds us to this world and this world unto our page, Mary Karr contends that “every memoir should brim over with the physical experiences that once streamed in.” Amen, sister.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.