Chelsea Girls: A Novel

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Memoir as Addiction: On Michelle Tea’s ‘Against Memoir’

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.
There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

As she describes in bits and pieces throughout this book, Tea started her literary career in the ’90s, sitting in San Francisco dive bars, drinking and writing about her love life, then reading the contents of her notebook out loud at open mics around the city. After leaving her hometown of Chelsea, Mass., the gritty little city located across the Mystic River from Boston—and a place that still haunts everything she writes—she made her way to the Bay Area with her queerness, brokeness, and punkiness as her guides. She soon plugged into the city’s underground gay community, finding her first girlfriends and discovering herself as a writer at the same time.
Now a fixture in the San Francisco scene, she runs her own reading series, a nonprofit called RADAR that she founded to promote queer artists with affordable literary programming. (Disclosure: This reviewer once read at a RADAR event and had a lot of fun doing it.) Those of us who love her today love her for her steady stream of fearless, vivid writing about sex and love, working-class family life, bad jobs, city life, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and looking/feeling/being socially unacceptable. Tough-minded and naturally funny, charming and tattooed, Tea became both popular and respected—a bona fide literary figure—simply by writing about herself.
So why is she now, after having made it such an important aspect of her writing life, against memoir? Well, she isn’t, exactly. But as she writes from her now-sober, more settled life, she recognizes it for the dangerous occupation that it is—a betrayal of friendships and confidences, the desire for revenge always slipping around under the surface like a shark. To illustrate this, Tea recounts in Against Memoir’s title essay the time she performed an old story about “the bitch who stole [her] girlfriend” to a packed bar, only to discover that the woman who’d done the stealing years earlier was in the audience—and not for the first time. The other time Tea performed this piece in front of her, the woman went outside and kicked a bus shelter in anger and broke her foot. In the same essay, Tea compares the drive to write memoir to alcoholism—an addiction she has kicked, though she vows never to give up her memoir habit. She also refers to her profession interchangeably as “writing” and the compulsive behavioral condition “hypergraphia,” and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s kidding.

Though this book shows how Tea’s work has developed from straightforward memoir to a more nuanced form of self-reflexive cultural critique, memoir makes up about a third of it. The section “Writing & Life” is composed of the kind of stories she’s best known for: outrageous yarns about things like the Sister Spit reading tours she ran in the ’90s and the lousy part-time jobs she worked one summer as a teenager. But interestingly, her writing about art—the ostensibly critical pieces—are among the strongest in the book. When she writes about Eileen Myles’s lesbian classic, Chelsea Girls, or about Andy Warhol’s would-be killer Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto with tenderness and understanding, the electricity almost leaps off the page. “The City to a Young Girl,” a complex and affecting piece about the Trump presidency, a poem written by a teenage girl, and Tea’s own girlhood, is probably the apotheosis of Tea’s development as a nonfiction writer.
Of course, writing about other people and their ideas can be a powerful way of writing about yourself. With the long-form essay “HAGS in Your Face,” Tea gives us good old-fashioned journalism, reporting on the gang of hard-living gutter-punk women who called themselves the HAGS and were notorious to San Francisco’s larger gay community during the ’90s. Tea interviews several of the HAGS who fascinated her back then, and they tell her how they traveled in packs, scooping each other up from the “black hole” of “addiction, homophobia, family abandonment, gender discrimination, all of it.” With her portrait of the HAGS, she shows us how being forced to the fringes of society can damage people irreparably just as it can forge them into something beautiful and brand-new.


When Tea seems less sure of herself, she can lean too heavily on a tossed-off charm to gloss over her discomfort, like when she worries aloud that her “hetero sisters are not getting the most out of their vaginas.” But on the whole, this book, like all of her best writing, bristles with life and a fierce intellect. Her voice is as distinct as ever, and her ability to conjure something—an album cover, the feeling of a hangover—in just a few phrases, like Zorro (zip, zip, zip!) is still wonderfully intact.
The most delightful discovery—to me, anyway—is a version of a short, bright piece called “Pigeon Manifesto” that I have only ever seen in print as a Poems-for-All book the size and shape of a matchbook, put out in 2004 (the book credits it as a performance Tea gave in San Francisco that same year). Writing about herself and her fellow misfits as much as the maligned city birds, Tea says: “When you say to me, ‘I hate pigeons,’ I want to ask you who else do you hate. It makes me suspicious. …Pigeons…are chameleons, grey as the concrete they troll for scraps, at night they huddle and sing like cats. Their necks are glistening, iridescent as an oil-slick rainbow, they mate for life, and they fly.”

You Can’t Go Wrong With Heart: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

I’d been hearing about Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import.

Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of five other books, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea’s life — there’s one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, “Andrea,” about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea’s friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea’s dating life, and others focus on her family. I’m curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don’t.

Jami Attenberg: I made a list — I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere — of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles.

The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was — the adult she was, I guess — so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.)

TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal “writer’s life” — you’re pretty prolific, for one, and you also don’t teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City — which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it’s taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they’re all grown up?

JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all.

My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can.

TM: I’ve always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies.  What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character’s physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what?

JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me.

All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft.  Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me.

TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It’s loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter?

JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them.

Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side.

TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea’s sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child’s illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea’s building; Andrea’s younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They’re all magnetic — and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea’s eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind?

JA: These women were all there from the beginning — all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought — oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times.

And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not.

TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are “fairy godmothers” for you and your writing?

JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion.

As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic — not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life.

Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book.

And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart.

TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?

JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.

Year in Reading Outro

Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next.

Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016.

Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’”

It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Maggie Nelson

I was captivated this past reading year by a trio of books about, among other things, hard living: Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper, Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, and Like Being Killed by Ellen Miller. Myles’s Chelsea Girls meant everything to me when it came out in 1994, so it took me by surprise, in reading it anew (it was re-released by Ecco this past year) to find it even better than I remembered, a true miracle. Re-subtitled “a novel,” it is a work of kinetic, ecstatic, muscular, hilarious, sorrowful, valiant, original, necessary, and timeless genius. Straight Life (also from 1994) and Like Being Killed (1998) were new revelations. Straight Life, which is the 500-page, dope-soaked story of jazz musician Art Pepper, is a fascinating and repugnant read, made all the more so by the backstory of how the book came into being (it’s largely an oral history told to his wife Laurie — see “The Tale of the Tape: The Miracle of Straight Life” in the September 2014 issue of Harper’s, for more on that story). The novel Like Being Killed is also a junkie’s tale, along with a story of friendship, the Lower East Side, Jewishness, AIDS, the fraughtness of being fat, being female, and more. I was so taken with its erudition, abjection, and opulence that I immediately looked for anything else Miller had written, and was crestfallen to discover that she’d died in 2008 at age 41, leaving this novel her only offering. It’s out of print, which is a howling pity — but so was Myles’s Chelsea Girls, until this year. Hope springs eternal.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Sady Doyle

I spent a lot of this year writing a book, making me acutely aware of how terrifying it is to publish one of those things. You can spend years working on a book, and people can just not read it! How many books have I just not read, in my lifetime? What a travesty.

So here’s where I mention two books written by my feminist colleagues, Asking for It by Kate Harding, and Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, and tell you that they are great: Respectively, the Rape Culture 101 breakdown and pop-friendly biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg you always needed. Reading Feminist Books is good for the soul. Try it.

That said, much of my reading was about feminists of ages past. John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, published in time for Holiday’s centennial, was fascinating; Holiday’s complicated relationship with her own media coverage and her highly entertaining fights with her publisher over her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues are in there, but more importantly, there’s scads of information about the music. Did you know that, due to illness during her final recording, Billie Holiday was one of the first musicians to use pitch correction? (She sang to a slowed-down backing track and they sped it up to make her voice higher.) Did you know that some of her experiments with tempo were unprecedented in Western music outside of Frédéric Chopin? You do now.

Outside of this, I mostly read for escape. Many titles are too embarrassing to mention, but lots of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks got dragged out from storage. (Coincidentally: Joan D. Vinge’s out-of-print feminist sci-fi classic The Snow Queen was reprinted this October. And I know this. For totally unspecified reasons.) One 2015 book, however, I’d recommend even to non-nerds: Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand, in which a British psychedelic folk band of the ’60s may or may not be hunted down by the Ancient Faerie Spirits of Olde Britain they can’t stop singing about. It’s so scary that I was afraid to walk alone at night afterward, and taps into all Hand’s strengths as a writer: Her stylish prose, her obsessively detailed portraits of musical subcultures, and the witchy, chthonic undercurrents of her ’90s classic Waking the Moon, in which (and I’m trying not to spoil anything) a tousle-haired, ethereal icon of Goddess feminism gets possessed by a bloodthirsty Moon Goddess and only a queer folk-punk icon named “Annie” can stop her.

I mean. You read that, right? There’s a book, available in stores, in which Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco battle to the death. You could be reading that, right now. What is stopping you?

Meanwhile, Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls, which I’ve been trying to find for years due to a recommendation from Michelle Tea, is being re-issued. And Michelle Tea has a new book, How to Grow Up. This probably also falls under “escapism,” because Eileen Myles and Michelle Tea are both very cool, and I am the sort of person who gets excited about a Snow Queen re-printing.

So: I read these books. You should read these books. You should read all books. I’m just saying: It took someone years to write them. So if you don’t, you’re probably a bad person. No pressure.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Bold but Messy: On Eileen Myles and the Fugitive Form

I have an almost full collection of Hanuman Books, the thumb-size editions handmade by the press founded in 1986 by Raymond Foye and Francesco Clemente. They are kept in a glass box and were a gift to my husband. He hasn’t looked at one yet. I can’t stop thinking about them. It was the acid covers with gold leaf titles that initially attracted me to the set; they looked so charming piled together. I am neither art critic nor expert, but I am curious and was drawn to further inquiry. I guess saying they were a present was the best cover for smuggling them into my house. I fell in love with the tightly edited cast of avant-garde works and hard-to-find translations. Here were Henri Michaux and Dodie Bellamy and Bob Flanagan and Eileen Myles and other writers and artists that created works that can be difficult to categorize by genre or media. Foye and Clemente had successfully created objects that were cult and cool and brave and lasting.

I wasn’t completely surprised to hear that this September, HarperCollins will be publishing Myles’s Chelsea Girls. It was Myles, herself, who told me that Chelsea Girls was, at first, “something stapled” and published by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press, perhaps best known for introducing Charles Bukowski. I love the romance of this, and of an East Village poet and writer whom people say is about to have a moment; an overnight success after 40 years.

Chelsea Girls is an example of a hybrid work that’s taken on cult status. It’s considered an autobiographical novel, straddling the space between nonfiction and fiction. One of the times I meet up with Myles, she is just back from a panel at AWP, the big writers’ conference, with Maggie Nelson, Eula Bliss, and Leslie Jamison, among others, at which she turned to them and said, “Isn’t it a fugitive form you guys are creating?” Well said.

Myles notes that, like her, many of these writers of fugitive form are also poets. And it is social media that, unsurprisingly, has helped to push this once avant-garde approach into the mainstream. She talks about the fluidity of Twitter and Instagram (she’s active on both), the flow of images and captions, and what’s real and what’s not — considering our intention to portray something altogether different than one’s reality, only the best parts.

“Can we acknowledge part of it (hybrid works) is happening because of social media and engagement with the photograph and film?” Myles sees prose writing in these forms as a natural response to the inundation of images and accompanying words on social media. “The word ‘literary’ is out the window because of all these new forms; the original of the book is no longer the book! It’s not a collective intelligence, it’s a collecting intelligence!” She cites Bellamy, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus and even Violette le Duc as examples of writers who have long trafficked in this fluid space. From here, there’s the aforementioned panelists, and others like Sheila Heti and Miranda July. Maybe fugitive form is the new intermedia?

In a 1965 essay, “Synthesthesia and Intersense: Intermedia,” early Fluxus artist and publisher Dick Higgins offers the term “intermedia” taken from the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1812. He writes, “We are approaching the dawn of a classless society, to which separation into rigid categories is absolutely irrelevant.” He mentions Marcel Duchamp as an early adopter of this play with his readymades, and further examples range from John Cage’s “music and philosophy” to Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” or Allan Kaprow and Al Hansen’s “Happenings.”

In 1981, Higgins wrote a follow-up essay explaining that his intention was “to offer a means of ingress into works,” to abate fear of new forms, to not be “dismissed as avant-garde: for specialists only.” He was worried that he may have overvalued the term, in his efforts to “popularize” avant-garde intermedia. It is a thoughtful meditation that is as important today as then, but for different reasons. Higgins established Something Else Press in 1964 (-1974) and it was in his first newsletter that he would publish “Synthesthesia and Intersense,” arguing: “It seemed foolish simply to publish my little essay in some existing magazine, where it could be shelved or forgotten.” Today it could have appeared and lived on a website like this one.

Something Else Press intrigues me, much in the same way as Hanuman Books. It sought to create objects with an emphasis on decimating the avant-garde in a pre-Internet world. I reached out to Higgins’s daughter with fellow Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. Hannah Higgins is a professor of art history at the University of Illinois Chicago.

She told me an interesting anecdote about her father attending boarding school in Vermont and becoming friends with Andre Breton’s daughter Aube, who had been sent there when her parents left France. “I think that’s fundamentally when Dick became Dick,” Hannah says of imagining him “being entertained with stories of the French avant-garde.”

When Dick went to Alison and told her he was starting a press, he said he was going to give it a Marxist-friendly title, Shirtsleeves, as in rolling up your sleeves. Call it “something else,” she said. And it was decided.

Dick would go on to publish A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art, Al Hansen’s book about performance art, and to publish the likes of Emmet Williams’s “machine driven schema” computer poetry and the last work ever published by Duchamp. It was Knowles who was very close to Duchamp. (“John Cage introduced me to Marcel so we could do the print Coeur Volants together. Which we did,” she writes me.) It is noteworthy that Dick was in Cage’s composition class at the New School for Social Research, as was Hansen.

I corresponded with Bibbe Hansen, Al’s daughter, Andy Warhol-intimate, and, interestingly, the musician Beck’s mother. Of Something Else Press, which, of course, published her father, Hansen says, “The work was so little regarded or championed in its time, I think Something Else Press perhaps helped to archive these works until history and culture were able to catch up,” she says. “These valiant Davids played a vital and important role in a world of publishing Goliaths disinterested in anything untried or new.”

And here’s where I start to worry. I am worried that it’s not the innovators or early adopters that are getting play in publications where one needs to be vetted by a select few before being promoted by them. This leads me to consider the concessions and compromises being made even by these publications in an effort to garner “hits” and gain “followers.” Characters that were once forbidden now appear on covers. And we are turned upside down, because it’s suddenly not the hard work that’s being promoted, but something else altogether. We allow certain names to guest edit publications in an effort to get readers; we are taken with the commodity of youth culture. And all for good reason. I don’t condemn any of this, rather ask for a kind of awareness through the perspective of the ’60s era avant-garde, small presses, friendships, and networks. And I agree with Myles that there has to be a kind of authenticity to the collective intelligence, simply because it is so.

I ask Bibbe Hansen how she imagines social media would play out were it around while she was growing up: “Well, Andy would have LOVED it! HE would have been KING of Tweets!” She’s one of the few people with the credibility to say this.

“The avant-garde was always a game of friends,” Hannah says. “If you actually look at what’s driving those texts it’s intimate, small meetings, people, and one-to-one encounters. You hear from artists all the time that they can’t be friends with someone whose work they really hate, so you’ll tend to get social networks that are affinity networks, as well. It wasn’t just that Dick was publishing his friend and lovers, but that he could love them deeply if he really respected and admired their work.”

Hannah says,“But if the work is even to become truly important to large numbers of people, it will be because the new medium allows for greater significance, not simply because it’s formal nature assures it of relevance.” She explains Dick’s emphasis — that it wasn’t about social or geographic “climbing” to the latest, greatest big name, rather creating a “place” where people, friend, children, other artists, are affected by the work.

When I first met Myles and we talked about her experience with Hanuman Books, she also told me that these publications were driven by “intimate encounters,” meaning networks and relationships among artists. “These small presses have been the microphone for groundbreaking work.”

Myles believes that friendship and love have to be the reason you publish books. She prescribes publishers to “learn to represent, and not gamble,” which seems to me just right.

But then, how to push aside worrying about the other, louder, bigger voices. Myles tells me her take on a “celebrity” with over 20 million followers: “The essential fact that there’s something wrong, but something right. Think about it,” she says. “I love that it’s messy.”

So, what’s one to do?

“Find a messy team and write for them.”

Play the game, but do the work.

And now, Myles is about to have a “moment.” Only, she’s been living this moment her whole adult life, and as Chelsea Girls tells it, even before.

Surprise Me!

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