The Poetry Project

Joycups: Notes on Piss

charles theonia

Dodge had mommy issues, yellow hankies, a “mug of gold,” a “joy cup.” He was a piss queen, and it was good to be a part of something. Cookie Mueller’s “The One Percent” tells the story of this thirsty guy against the world. It first made its way to me via earbud on New Year’s Day, 2021, as I floated home through Flatbush and the Poetry Project’s virtual marathon. I had long lost track of who was reading what. It wasn’t snowing or raining. It sounded too good to be new.

There were a whole NYC’s worth of piss bars to avail himself of, but Dodge entered them all at a remove—he read those he saw as tourists, or the indiscriminate “sleazos,” and his late, heavy-drinking mother as a series of cautionary tales about what he would risk by really enjoying himself. After storming out of a visit to a psychiatrist, who’d told him he probably liked piss because his mother wet his head during childbirth, he decided to stop blaming her for his proclivities. He got to just like what he liked to do, but just as he loosened his grip on shame, he tested positive for AIDS and came to believe that his love for piss had betrayed him. The worst of it was that he’d become afraid of piss, and with it, his own reason for being. “He was ready to die as soon as possible,” Mueller writes. “No one blamed him.”

Undertaking a course of spiritual study to prepare himself for the rigors of death, Dodge learned of a time-honored, natural remedy for all ailments: drinking one’s own urine. He believed he’d found a cure for AIDS, “a homeopathic remedy… a new adventure!” Best of all, piss is a homebrew panacea. You’re already doing it.

Leaving the back room for the hospital and sex for a remedy, Dodge reunited with the piss bar habitues: “Life Fluids” was where you went where you wanted to believe you weren’t sick anymore. By telling himself he could only partake of his own cup, he transmuted his troubled piss-drinking into wellness, affording himself a sip of peace when peace was hard to come by. Society had abandoned Dodge and the other Life Fluids, leaving them to erect structures of wishful thinking and sanitized coping mechanisms. Pointing an arrow at the Marianne Williamsons of the world—who told people with AIDS that illness is “our judgment on ourselves” and that “sickness is an illusion” brought on by an acute self-love deficiency—Mueller’s tragicomedy takes us to the limits of compulsory optimism. The Life Fluids, classic survivalists, never look further than themselves as they incantate their own endogenous miracles. We’ll all be fine, they assure one another, if we just believe we already have everything we need to live—if we just piss in our own eye.


If there’s one thing about piss, it’s that there’s so much of it. It’s just everywhere.

That being so, the tone we take with piss directs its interpretive splatter pattern. There are shameful pisses, irreverent pisses, inconvenient, resistant, defiling, banal, intimate, passionate pisses. Mischievous Calvin pees on cars across the political spectrum—a piss stream can say “fuck you” to anything under its purview. Duchamp’s urinal makes piss about context (Has anyone tried to use it?). Notably, some of us are allowed to pee more freely than others. My favorite headline about anti-trans bathroom bills paraphrases Dolly Parton to say “Be Who You Are, Pee Where You Need.”

Piss is a collaboration with our environment. In the series Attractive People Doing Attractive Things, Samantha Nye paints ladies’ pool parties, debauched gatherings of mostly-nude attendees. They would all qualify for the Timeless Torches, the New York Liberty’s 40+ dance troupe, by a wide margin. Nye—who is, to my eye, our painter of elderly queer glamor—attends with desirous reverence to the belly folds and creased skin of her subjects, but she doesn’t rule out humor. In “Piss Pool,” the partygoers are sexy and lovably ridiculous, mooning the viewer in a chorus line, panties around ankles. The dykes pissing up and into the piss pool are fountains, kitsch decor and participants in their own setting. At its edges, they fuck and see themselves. The pool is a site of unselfconscious looking at what they’re making together: bondage, suspension, sex alfresco, the sea horizon, and their own elegant arcs of piss becoming pool water.

A brightly colored oil painting of a luxurious party scene: Intergenerational dykes in various states of undress shoot fountains of piss into a beachside pool, fuck, worship, whip, and torture each other.
Piss Pool, 2021 © Samantha Nye


In another reading, piss is an origin story we reenact throughout the day. Directing our unconscious excretions through interpretive sewage systems, we filter memory into narrative. “We are all very fluent about ourselves,” as Rainer Diana Hamilton’s The Gossip According To cites Bernadette Mayer, and the questions posed of us can overdetermine the easy outlets of the sayable. When asked to read our present manifestations through the moment we first learned to hold in our piss or hold down a job, waving off a prescriptive question can air out our field of attention. Bickering with a therapist over the source of a “fear of pleasure,” Hamilton prods at convention telling us to seek out the unconscious in the age of potty training—there’s a much more recent chronic UTI right there. We may learn to manage our piss, but at any moment, it can reclaim the upper hand. “Does anyone believe that what happens / to adults also happens to them / again,” the analysand asks, then adds, “I forgot to mention / I was also unemployed as a child.” I take the poem’s rejoinders to be staircase witticisms, though I know the poet to be quicker with a retort than I: In poems, as with piss and pleasure, we always get another chance.

When dreams, like piss, come in the night, we can wake up sitting in them. Syd Staiti’s new book, Seldom Approaches, describes a dream or fantasy of being a small child who resented the conventions of his upper-class family and had no way out of failing to meet their mannered expectations. While his parents focus on his dirty face and fingers at a dinner party, he can sense a deeper issue at play: “there was a snake under the table but only I could see it.” After “pulling on myself” at the table, he stands up to pour wine for the table and has a vision:

one day I will say no to father, one day I will walk into the kitchen, join the others, and burn down the estate. I picture this in my head as I fill the wine glasses, then I walk out of the dining room into the parlor and I walk to the corner of the parlor and I begin to pee, I pee in the corner of the parlor, that’s what I do, I stand there peeing all over the expensive Persian fucking rug. then I go back to the dining room and take my seat at the table and pee under the table as I eat, as they drink up their wine, peeing with a smile.

Staiti’s piss is the substance of dreams, streaming out into an alternative version of the self, a you who can say no to the family and leave to figure out whom you can really live with.

As a dream pisses its own exit route into being, the story turns to an encounter with the self in one’s past writing. Opening a moving box to find a pre-transition poem prompts a struggle to imagine a freer life for its characters, who encounter each other in a home invasion centered on the bathroom. Staiti writes, “I think we need to blow up the poem and hope they escape the ruins. No more time in the tub and on the toilet.” Seldom Approaches narrates the question of moving out of the nuclear family, an ill-fitting pronoun, your own early work. The answer might be to piss on the floor and detonate the building on your way out.


Like a dream, piss is momentary, but there’ll be more where that came from. Once I got ears on it, I heard it dribbling in all directions. Reading Tan Lin on disco, I came to Andy Warhol’s oxidation paintings, which he produced by inviting men over to urinate on his canvases. Their corroding metallic pigments forestall piss’ impermanence and record the sexual traces of its provenance. During a commotion at the Eagle’s Nest, Warhol became “fascinated” by a man who pissed into a beer bottle, and other guys took notice too: “They were all fighting over it.” The desire to take home another man’s piss was explicitly sexual (perhaps especially if you know you’re not going to take him home); at the same time, his friend and model Bob Colacello says, “It was so abstract.” Piss is sex once removed.

Joe Brainard noted that “Andy Warhol makes Andy Warhols, and I like that.” If the Piss Paintings are too abstract to be Andy Warhols proper, in the sense that most wouldn’t recognize in them his stylized hand, they take up another strain of his approach to art and commodity. Lin writes that Warhol’s “less popular works embrace highly time-sensitive ‘mediums’ with short transmission cycles or life spans—for example, piss, semen, head shots, broadcast TV, or BMW hoods” and “his treatment of disco, perfume, and piss as mediums… allowed him to flaunt his undisguised dislike of high avant-garde art production by filing painting under the more relaxed, evanescent categories of décor, armoires, and butch smells.” Interacting with the right hormones, Warhol said, even Chanel No. 5 could smell butch. As such, transient piss is art eternal, and art is worth as much as piss.


Holding your piss can also be a show of your own self-made martyrdom. To fabricate “Pissed,” a protest against the Trump-era round of anti-trans bathroom litigation, performance artist and sculptor Cassils filled a sizable glass cube with their old pee. They enacted public additions to its stores, enlisting a bioengineer to facilitate long-term preservation. Possibly because of the chemical process she devised, “Pissed” is unsettlingly saturated in hue. If Cassils were a player on the football team that went viral for their coach’s color-coded barometer of moral hydration level, the cube’s contents would put them firmly in the range of “You’re a bad guy!” I think they’d think that metric makes their point—it’s tough to be a good, hydrated teammate to humanity when you have troubled access to the bathroom. “I shouldn’t have to make this,” they said of the piece, dodging the question of why we make one piece of art and not another. “Pissed” was a ritualized expression, scheduled in advance, of the kind of self-exposure many of us have been told we need to make in order to be understood. Cassil’s piss collection is an indignity they shouldered to transform nature’s call into a call to action for a trans right to public space. Right on, but my primary experience of the piece is how monovalent—conceptually and aesthetically unpleasurable, heavy-handed, sterile yet rotten—it makes piss out to be. Looking at the en-cubed urine, I felt my own backing up into kidneys, probably already enacting the mysterious process of crystalizing into a stone. Still, in an interview, Cassils reveals there was at least one appealing social element of the project: lacking adequate storage space before its first exhibition, they left jugs of their pee in friends’ houses around Los Angeles.


In Samuel R. Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast (the name of his band, commune, and memoir), the bathroom opened onto the kitchen. There being no door, it was always open. The whole household had taken a recent group trip to the doctor to get treated for the clap, but one of them still couldn’t take a piss:

​​Dave stopped playing his acoustic, uncrossed his legs, and got down from the table. “Hey, man, would it be easier if we all were out of the room?” Little Dave stopped sketching and looked up. Reema put the cover back on the soup pot and glanced over, licking the spoon.

“I mean,” Dave said, “sometimes you just can't get the plumbing to work if a lot of people are sitting around staring at it.”

“No…” Snipper said. His throat sounded like it was full of sand. “No. Would somebody come and hold my hand, please…” Dominiq and I went over and held him.

Sometimes you need a helping hand, or better yet, several. When he still couldn’t go, Heavenly Breakfast took Skipper back to the clinic and learned he had a concomitant fungal infection. The doctor told them it could have been fatal if untreated; since many are too embarrassed to get it checked out or even tell the people they live with, they leave it too late. Living with no bathroom door and a bunch of friends he was fucking could very well have saved Skipper’s life.

If my home life has a commune phase, it hasn’t arrived yet, but two of my dearest friends are living in a fixer-upper. They fix it up a little more each year, and in anticipation of replacing the bathroom door, they’ve removed it. Their bathroom opens up onto the kitchen too, and they say they can tell which friends love them best by observing who pisses en plein air, and who excuses themselves to go upstairs.

#275 – Winter 2024