When I first arrived in San Diego in 2002 for a stint of five years a student Tristan Wand was his name and I feel he was kind of a surfer and he was writing a senior thesis about La Jolla his point being there was a past – a kind of guy underbelly he was interested in writing about and it had to do with a bunch of dudes living in LaJolla in the 60s, the pump house gang they are called in Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name and it was guys who were basically into crashing cars into each other surfing and getting wrecked and just being a kind of outsider that was a little unclassifiable at the time but now of course La Jolla didn’t have much left of that being sort of Palm Beachy or East Hamptony – inconceivable that the that underbelly ever lived in there but Tristan worked at a restaurant with a bunch of guys who felt like that – were guys from that generation and a few of them, replaceable with one another a string of them like a line a chorus always manned the kitchen at work, dads, do nothing dads, older guys, my age who still got wrecked last night and so one might not show up today but the other did and they had a constant laughing mumble among themselves as they stood together in the kitchen doing work and they both scared and fascinated Tristan as he stood among them and I suppose he didn’t want to be like these dad surfer guys and that got him into the idea of writing his senior thesis about LaJolla’s grimy hipster past in a way to both animate and hold back the line and while he told me about these guys I drew this:
I imagine these guys like a chorus of bubbles not separate from each other but a string of things of words. And not in the ocean, but not far, kind of a strand, like the tiny string of bubbles on the beach when the tide has departed, that strand. Look I told Tristan, or maybe he did this drawing and gave it to me. A squiggle, not much. I thought I will do something with it in these five years, those guys, their wasted lives, but beautiful, so what.
It’s abstract don’t you think. A little teeny craft. A sign. If you keep returning to that – I told him. It was my advice to him. The drawing for me said something about writing. Like a beautiful thing it all gets reduced to somehow. And expanded differently from there. So here’s where we are today. I was up early this morning. I thought I’d keep working on this as long as I can. Writing is sort of performance work and text and ideas and bubbles will keep arriving till the last minute. Foam is kind of a radio show. I taught a class in LaJolla nowabout seven years ago. It was called Pathetic Literature. It began with a form of masculinity. I gave a version of this talk in “women’s world” – at the San Diego Women’s Center. I’m not being snide but womens world is a place where things can be said and somehow not get interpolated into “the larger culture.” I feel I’m a man yet woman is something I’m always turning into and back. I have a picture of myself stealing a nickel from a bank and I am about nine and I look exactly like a boy but that was a long time ago. I orchestrated the photograph so I wanted to be apprehended as a bad boy, a thief. The receptionist in the benefits office today said Sir. I said Eileen Myles. She said sorry. Oh I don’t mind. Why would I look like this if I minded. I’m about change.
Pathetic masculinity in the art world meant that a bunch of guys were doing fuzzy work in the late eighties and nineties. By fuzzy I mean both soft and cuddly unclear. Knitting, making crafts. Do it yourself stuff but within the high power graduate programs of LA. It was hot stuff this loser work the guys were doing. It was men being personal and pathetic. No one dared say feminine. Talking about their feelings. Making bird-houses like dad. Big banners like catholic school dances but you know saying other kinds of stuff. So here’s the thing. My thesis the secret about these pathetic men is that they had all studied with feminists.
Let’s step away for a moment. All the big shows that are up now (and this now is 2007) – in LA, in New York. There’s one in Spain. Everybody’s looking at women at this time. It’s big. And it’s true in 2013 as well. People wonder why. The academy is full of people wondering. So is the news. Every sun has its moon. Reflective stuff. Julie said she would bring me some foam music today. And probably I’ve missed her. The phone just rang. Not the foam. Apparently some guy in the sciences dept. at UCSD is recording foam. Just bubbles. Sea foam. And other things I think. He’s recording melting. He thinks that the sound of melting gives us new information about how fast global warming is occurring. Recording is a kind of measuring.
I had hoped to open this talk with the sound of foam. The ice receding from the world. Because the structure of crystals is not unlike the structure of foam. Their conversation with the environment is one of transformation. I mean and today millions of women are rising up all over the world in light of the violence against them. All the feminist shows a few years back I thought were in light of war. We had attacked Iraq for no good reason. The Brooklyn Museum in response bought Judy Chicago’s dinner party. Then all the other museums had similar shows. To create the illusion I think of an economy. Did it work. Probably not. But if we look back at the work in those museum shows here’s what women did. Not so much killing. Like the scientist they were measuring stuff. They were recording the family its culture as part of the science of feminism. They were doing it in the sixties seventies and eighties. Mary Kelley created a chart of her baby crying on graph paper. And Elinor Antin did one about her in-laws coming over. It was like personal art gone conceptual or vice versa. It seems to me that feminist art understood the radical ironies of living in the 20th c. perhaps more than anyone else because they were women. And had not truly been fully breathed into the economy. In my pathetic course at UCSD what I taught simply is that these guys studied with these women. These feminist women taught in art schools in the 70s and 80s. And they were meanwhile the gayer they got having dances with long velvet banners and making silly cushions that said things about dyke love. They were making occasional and communal art. Craft stuff, but not to accompany a family as such but to express a collectivity that could float silly artifacts against racism and for sexual freedom and to widely express anger. And jokes. These women were making pathetic or even plush (feeling) art out of their daily lives. But the problem still was they were women. So the art world needed those men to come along twenty years later and paint their diaries on the wall and write about their personal lives and make bad cartoons and knit bunnies. And kill themselves finally. Dash Snow. Mike Kelley. The concept is clear when a man does it because a man has to DO SOMETHING to be pathetic. He is not intrinsically pathetic like a woman is. Mike Kelley said in an interview in around uh 2004 that despite the fact that people were always asking him about feminism and its affects on him it was really beside the point because when he does stuff with craft he is being IRONIC whereas when a woman (aka his teachers those feminists cropping up in museums) when they do it they are being natural. And I don’t think those women realized it. That’s the difference between a woman and a man. A woman may think she knows something but in time history will see that she is just being a natural woman whereas if man means something, it stays. There’s a monument to men, that’s what the world is.
Okay also in my pathetic class we read Literature. Dialogues in Paradise by Can Xue had a story about a woman who had an awful mother. A horrible ranting woman. That makes people jump a bit. I like that. The woman’s mother was so bad that her daughter left the room and there was a bucket of water and when the woman returned her mother was gone and there was just some dirty bubbles on the surface of the water. Some dirty clothes next to the bucket. Her mother was gone yet cruel complaining words kept arising from under the water. Complaining and making life miserable for people still. It was a little bit like the wicked witch in Oz. Descending into a pool of slime. Melting, becoming less. Just this vocalizing residue.
There was foam all over the books I had assigned for the Pathetic Seminar. No one was following it but me. Foam again I’d shout. It was not the thing the class was about. Or was it. There was this slime on the side saying something. My plan for today of course was to go back and read all those books and see what the foam thing was all about. Believe me it’s there embedded secreted in the structure of all these books. Valerie Solanas? Robert Walser? Samuel Delany? Laurie Weeks? Dodie Bellamy? Deleuze? And these books were among other things about gender. Because gender makes excess, especially when it’s unstable which it always is. It has some extra stuff and it expresses itself in tiny bubbles on the sides of trees. Speech coagulated on the corners of your mouth. Or just the balloons that arise from the cartoon heads. Talking, yeah, but what about thinking. The excess message the artist gets to express. A guess. It’s quiet in here but somebody’s thinking. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Is that what you said. How gay!
There’s something incredibly queer about foam. I searched it. First I found a thing about buildings. In China. Which I loved because of the old women who spoke in bubbles was Chinese. I’m absolutely going to research this talk after I give it. An afterthought. Here’s what science thought:
The Water Cube employs water as a structural and thematic “leitmotiv” with the square, the primal shape of the house in Chinese tradition and mythology. The structure of the water cube is based on a unique, lightweight construction derived from the structure of water in the state of aggregation of FOAM as deduced by Weiare and Phelan of Trinity College, Dublin.
Behind the apparently random appearance hides a strict geometry found in natural systems such as crystals, cells and molecular structures. By applying novel (honk honk) materials and technology, the transparency and randomness is transposed into the inner and outer skins of cushions. Unlike traditional stadium structures with gigantic columns, beams, cables and backspans, to which a façade system is applied, in the watercube design the architectural space, structure and façade are one and the same element. Conceptually the square box and the interior spaces are carved out of an undefined cluster of foam bubbles, symbolizing a condition of nature that is transformed into a condition of culture.
Another product description of foam architecture actually talked about the yin and the yang the implicitly masculine and feminine aspects of these kinds of structures.
What else came up in my search was sea foam. Then this:
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. According to Hesiod, she was born when Uranus (the father of the gods) was castrated by his son Cronus. Cronus threw the severed genitals into the ocean which began to churn and foam about them. From the apros (“sea foam”) arose Aphrodite, and the sea carried her to either Cyprus or Cythera. Hence she is often referred to as Kypris and Cytherea.
When I was telling Jocelyn about this yesterday at one of those little receptions she informed me that Cronus in fact castrated his father because he could not bear the spectacle of watching his mother xxxxxx be incessantly raped. Which was an amazing thing to me.
There’s a lot of talk of hope in this conference and think just this tiny myth the entire story of this intervention describes a transformative kind of world we could be living in. I can imagine it.
When I first moved to New York in the late 70s and was bumping around the lesbian scene and I was still straight I had a roommate who was in the thick of it. She wanted to encourage me so she pointed out a few things. There was a lesbian poetry magazine called Aphros. Sea foam. I contributed again and again. It was no use. It took me a few more years to come out. And more importantly I didn’t actually like the poems in that magazine. They were so serious.
And I think I’ve wound up carrying a largely masculine experimental poetry aesthetic into the lesbian poetry world. Those worlds today the lesbian the experimental to some extent are one. And I know we’ve touched on other distinctions about poetry at this conference. The two streams as Evelyn put it. I think of them as the isolate/angsty/rewarded and the more diffuse/avant garde/social collective. Economy I think is the firewall dividing the two. Yet I want what you’ve got is the thing that breaks down walls.
We may not be post Avant but we sure as hell are post Sandy. Post Katrina.
Aphroi (Africans): Name of a people; the Karthaginians. [They are descended] from Aphros who was king of Libye, the son of Kronos by Philyra. I articulated this piece of information on the phone to Joan the poet Joan Larkin and she said that makes sense because supposedly Africa was “the middle of the world.” The birthplace of the human race.
April is first recorded in English in 1297, as aueril. It comes from Old French avrill, which is from Latin (mensis) Aprilis “(month) (mons?) of Venus,” the second month of the ancient Roman calendar, dedicated to the goddess Venus.
The Roman goddess had many names, as she absorbed different regional and cultic fertility goddesses in Italy. The name used for this month is perhaps based on Apru, an Etruscan borrowing of Greek Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Her Greek name traditionally is derived from aphros “foam”, from the story of her birth, but perhaps it is ultimately from Phoenician Ashtaroth (Assyrian Ishtar).
Aphrodite’s counterpart in ancient Roman mythology, Venus, was the goddess of beauty and love, especially sensual love, and Venus in Latin literally means “love, sexual desire, loveliness, beauty, charm.” The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base of this is wen – “to strive after, wish, desire, be satisfied.”
Foam means I want. I thought of the chemistry of the churning waters when they pitched the severed genitals in. It’s like cooking. I got excited about that. I mean not that I cook so much. Joan, it’s like magic. Right? Like the traditional wifey position of stirring a pot is like being a witch. The woman’s historic place in the kitchen like a castrated form of magic.
Eileen I think cooking is powerful stuff she said. Joan’s a good cook. I’m not. And I’m off. But don’t you love the idea of a dick and balls whatever the god cut off from his father being an ingredient, like mandrake root, lizard foot rather than a force, just an item in the soup. Throw it in.
Stir, stir. Well that’s good said Joan. I like ingredients, she said.
And I think foam looks like pubic hair. Sort of curly. It looks like waves, like design. In church, I thought. And I thought about a photograph from 1960 or 61 I’m with my friends the Delays, Patty and Ruthy and we’re in a pool in my backyard and my mother had thrown some soap flakes in so we were playing in foam. I guess when mothers saw kids in water they immediately desired a twofer and turned play into bath but we turned soap into hair. Did you do that – you know draping soap bubbles under our arms, on our chins and sideburns and laughing when my mother went upstairs – between our legs. Make a big hairy ass Patty urged as Ruthy obligingly got on all fours. The future was a joke and we told it in soap. How did we know about all that hair, our sex, how did we feel about it. Did you know hair falls out when you’re old. How do you feel about that. And you stay clean longer. The soap goes the hair goes everything. They wash your body when you’re dead. The foam dries between your legs and nobody cares. It doesn’t even feel bad.
Look I have these little wands. Joan reminded me of soap pipes. This is the forties and fifties. You would have a pipe and your mother would supply you with a bowl of soapy water and you will fill your pipe and blow bubbles out of it, streams of soap bubbles pouring down. Not hair but smoke, that was the sign of the adult. Pouring out of their nostrils, drifting from their hands as they spoke. Lighting up when they got together. Sharing a light. Got a match. Think of the magic that spatial sharing. The smokers all outside. What a loss.
Adulthood was hot when I was a kid. Great change, great change, great changes will come. I need a bell. A sound to make the foam. O bubble of the future. It will come.
My dream is that history is backward. The myth of a woman begat from a man is hystery in reverse. What if she is born of him, what if she is. How strange. That myth would take the story back. That we can be looking to the foam in the future and the past those expanding shining bubbles like the most hopeful mise en abyme outside of the museum in the world an unbounded and shifting reflection holding everything and everyone.
Tags: essay, FOAM, manifesto, memoir, Poetry