The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Dodie Bellamy might be one of the most important American writers you’ve never heard of. Her work spans fiction, essays, poetry, memoir, sex writing, blogging, and practically every cross-genre splicing therein. Throughout her several books, from the epistolary vampire sex novel The Letters of Mina Harker (1998) to the post-confessional blog-memoir the buddhist(2011), Bellamy never wavers from an unapologetic interrogation of class, gender, sex, and theory—not just as topics or themes of well-mannered writing but as raw wounds of personal experience, where the stakes are always one’s daily life and the struggle to express it on one’s own terms in a culture that expects even its avant-garde writers to behave (especially if they are female and/or working class).
I first met Dodie as a student in her famous living-room prose workshop, and have been a fan ever since. She lives in San Francisco with the writer Kevin Killian, with whom she edited the important underground lit zine Mirage Period[ical] , and their three cats. I visited her to discuss her two new books: Cunt Norton (Les Figues, 2013), a savage (and unsettlingly hot) gender-fuck of the canonical (and largely white male) Norton Anthology of Poetry ; and TV Sutras(Ugly Duckling Presse, forthcoming), a book of New Age koans delivered to her from the television screen, that desiring machine of our collective unconscious. While generally categorized as a New Narrative writer, Bellamy’s more recent work pushes beyond her already bold experiments with narrative and autobiography to explore the realms of the pornographic, the cut-up, and détournement, further testing the limits of what avant-garde writing can still accomplish in an age of self-obsessed middle-class bloggers and the mainstreaming of MFA-sanctioned “Alt Lit.”
— David Buuck
David Buuck How did Cunt Norton come about? Clearly it is a project that comes out of your earlier books.
Dodie J. Bellamy Anne Colvin asked me to write something for her art zine, Skank Bloc Bologna, so on a whim I dug up the original material from Cunt Ups. I always liked the way the one based on John Wieners’s “A Poem for Benzedrine” turned out—so I took T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and collaged it with the porno-erotic text that I used for Cunt Ups, and called the resulting poem “Cunt Norton.” That was many years ago, but the name of the poem made me think that I should do my own Norton Anthology. Then one day it struck me: this was a Les Figues book. So I proposed it to them. I thought it was going to be this toss-away, like I’d just sit down and pull it off quickly. In fact it ended up practically killing me. It was so much work.
DB How so?
DJB I was reading Dorothea Lasky’s Ugly Duckling chapbook, Poetry Is Not a Project, in which she criticizes project-based writing. “[A] poet intuits a poem,” she writes, “and a scientist conducts a ‘project.’” That struck a chord, because my original draft of Cunt Norton was a “project.” The cut-ups were okay but they had not become poems. For the book to really take off it demanded my full attention and heart.
DB Yeah, someone might think, Oh, I get it, the project is a feminist détournement of canonical male poets or, you know, another version of the Gurlesque. But when you actually read it, it’s not only more complex and twisted than what a procedural poem might produce; there are lines that I want to read as poetic statements of sorts. For instance, you have the twist on Williams: “No ideas but in juice,” which is brilliant. And your alteration of the famous Dickinson line: “Tell all the Truth but tell it like the Earth hatching.” In the “Cunt Hughes” poem you write: “I talk dirty to stay alive.” I’m taking these as single lines out of what’s a larger collage piece, but it feels like they are not just chance-based cut-ups.
DJB When you do a collage, there’s this whole range of editing strategies to choose from. What’s delightful about collages is their chance collisions. The key is how much you are going to refine them. I spent hours on each cunt-up. I wanted the book to read smoothly. So I’d sit there looking at them, waiting for inspiration, and eventually, characters and almost shadows of plots would emerge. You have to really go to that deep, crazy part of your brain. When that would happen, I would start shaping the piece. Shakespeare’s late sonnets are all about death and mourning, so I pushed my lovers to mourn while they fucked. Pronouns were totally up for grabs; a poem can go a lot of different ways when pronouns are up for grabs. For instance, with Ginsberg’s “Howl,” I had this aha moment where I realized that all the pronouns had to be we: “we who picked ourselves up out of basements hung into the earth & fuck our cunts in Third Avenue iron dreams & stumble to unfuck again, who fuck with shoes full of blood on the snowbar until our asses jiggle through to the other side, our rivers opening to a room full of steam-heat, who take each other from behind as we look out watering our dramas onto the apartment cliff-banks of our butts …” The other poems in the book go back and forth between I and you, but this one is about communal sex.
DB I was going to ask you about the pronouns, because in some of the poems there’s the I or thou—that trope of addressing the desired or absent beloved. Yet with the dirty language—for lack of a better term—mixed in, which can be very lecherous, it feels almost more abject than seductive. It’s fascinating because even though you know they are mash-ups, you can’t resist wanting to identify a speaker who intends to get something from the addressee. More than just requited love or sexual submission, it’s something that suggests moving beyond clear gender lines or boundaries between I and thou, my genitals and yours. Still, maybe it’s how we’re conditioned as readers, but a speaker still rises out of the onrush of all that.
DJB Yes, as I worked on the poems, characters, or the ghosts of characters, would emerge—I think of Tony Oursler’s projections, humanlike but distorted. And I’d shape these characters, within the limitations of my material. The porno-erotic base text is 17 pages long, comprised of sentences I extracted from a playful email correspondence I had with another poet, with the sentences arranged in alphabetical order. Its affect changes a lot from section to section. For instance, the sentences in one passage all begin with “I want”; in others they all begin with “you know,” “my nipples,” or “I’m going to.” I cut each page into quarters and shuffled them, then randomly assigned two quadrants to each poem from the Norton Anthology. The flavor of those porno quadrants influence the shifting tones of the book as much as the Norton Anthology poems do. Cunt-ups based on “I want” passages reflect neediness, while poems based on “I’m going to” are slightly more agro.
DB Were you using scissors and paste, doing the actual cutting up, or were you doing this on the computer?
DJB Almost all the poems I treated are available online. I’d copy them into a Word file and then get rid of all the line breaks in order to generate 30 lines of text with one-inch margins. Then I would cut them in quarters, choose two quadrants, and tape them together with two quadrants of the porno-erotic base text. Then I’d type up the result, unedited. Some of the more modern stuff wasn’t online. And each version of Chaucer is so different; I could not find any Chaucer online that matched the Norton version, so I had to type that one directly from the book. Anyone who actually knows about Middle English is going to be able to tell how ludicrous my interpretation of the Chaucer is. It is so fucked up.
DB I presume that the book is not going to be understood to be a faithful rendition.
DJB I am sure these geek poet-type guys will go, “Oh God, this is all wrong.” I actually tried to do it as well as I could given my limited knowledge of Middle English grammar. I spent a lot of time looking it up online.
DB As long as the dirty stuff is in the right English… . So there is only one woman in this whole edition of the Norton Anthology that you had?
DJB No, there are several women. Originally I was going to do only white guys, but Kevin [Killian] reminded me that the canon is more complicated than that. There is tokenism. If you read the intro to the Norton Anthology—this is the second edition from 1975—the editors brag about having added Anne Bradstreet, Emily Brontë, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as “four new black poets” who “amplify the presentation of that tradition.” So I did one woman, Emily Dickinson, and one black man, Langston Hughes, to represent the tokenism.
DB Should we talk about the other books?
DJB Kevin says that interviews are best when they are about personality. Nobody really cares about the writing; they just want to see you perform personality.
DB Tell me about being married to Kevin.
DJB Being married to another writer has been really generative.
DB How did you avoid competitiveness?
DJB It’s not that often that we both are going for the same thing and one gets it and the other one doesn’t. That’s when it is horrible. Kevin gets all this attention for writing plays; if I wrote plays, maybe there would be an issue. A long time ago we both applied for California Arts Council grants. He got one and I didn’t and I was sitting in bed crying and he went, “I’ll give you half the money.”’
DB I would’ve guessed that was exactly what he’d said.
DJB It’s been good. Being married to me meant he did not have to become heterosexual. He is very much a gay writer in a gay writing scene and it’s fine with me. I am really happy for his career. Because he has done Spicer’s biography and co-edited his collected poetry, My Vocabulary Did This to Me, he’s taken more seriously as an intellectual. Sometimes I feel jealous of that, but it’s not anything that big. I mean, any two people are going to have jealousy going on. The good thing is that I can express it and then it gets defused. Every once in a while he feels it for me too.
DB Kevin shows up in your work a lot, sometimes in the sex scenes. Does he get veto power over those? Do you show those to him?
DJB Of course. I show him everything. He is really good at detecting places in the writing where you are bragging about yourself—you may not think you are doing it, but it comes across that way.
DB Does he write about you?
DJB Not that much, actually. I come into the poems a lot.
DB Can we talk about Plath? I mean, you narrate your trajectory as a writer by saying that you were very interested in Plath and a certain form of confessionalism. Maybe a certain kind of second-generation feminism too. You come to San Francisco and you have a working-class, lesbian identity. Then you find your way into these overlapping writing scenes: the queer writing scene, the beginning of Language poetry, the avant-garde art and poetry scene, and the emergence of French feminism and feminist high theory—some of which can be said to frown upon Plath’s confessionalism. So how did you navigate all that in terms of, I mean, everything, from your personal life to theoretical tendencies to social milieu? Were you writing poetry then? Fiction?
DJB Oh no, I was terrified of fiction or any kind of prose. I associated prose with writing college papers. I was writing poetry and when I arrived here in 1978 from the Midwest, I was in hog heaven. Somebody showed me North Beach and Vesuvio’s and said, “This is where Beatniks hung out.” I thought I was going to faint. It was so fabulous. There was still an active art scene in North Beach. I went to poetry readings there, in restaurants and galleries, at Intersection for the Arts, at the San Francisco Art Institute. I went to readings almost every night and saw incredible stuff sort of randomly, so I guess I went through different scenes.
DB How did you end up in New Narrative? How did you find your people?
DJB There was what they would call “street poetry,” which I’d say was the ancestor of spoken word. I was involved in that but, I mean, there was no place for women in that scene unless you were a hooker. They liked hooker poetry. Then I got involved with the Feminist Writers Guild. I got to go to meetings in hot tubs in Marin, and in Arts and Crafts houses in Berkeley. I found myself standing in the same room as Susan Griffin. Many of the Guild members were working class and poor, but there were lots of rich women as well, so it had dynamics similar to a Marxist community. People with money had the opportunity to have lesbian sex with lower-class people and people of color. Somebody there said, “You have to study with Kathleen Fraser at SF State.” I ended up taking four graduate classes with her, and Kathleen suggested that I take workshops with Bob Glück at Small Press Traffic. There were three workshops a week and they were free.
DB Is that when you started migrating to prose?
DJB Yeah. I was writing linked poems that kept getting longer and more narrative. The last poem that I wrote was called “Reptilicus.” It was about this woman who goes to the Florida bogs and turns into a reptile. It was based on the actual story of a woman who had a breakdown and whom they had found in the bogs. (I don’t think she thought she was a reptile, though.) I read a whole book about reptiles and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and listened to David Bowie’s song from Cat People over and over again to get into the transformation. I really spent a lot of time on this piece. You know, by then Language poetry was taking over the whole city, and writing long, linked poems about women who turn into reptiles was not going to fly. In Bob’s workshop I could get away with doing in prose everything that I wanted to do in poetry. That was part of the New Narrative, right? You didn’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You could still be pushing form while dealing with content and emotion and all the gooey stuff—
DB You’ve done a lot of autobiographical writing. It ranges: often you can’t distinguish fiction from memoir from essay from appropriated text from text that’s been manipulated in a lot of different ways. More recently you did the buddhist, which is primarily a collection of blog posts that were, of course, published in real time as they unfolded.
DJB And they were edited and shaped for the book.
DB Did you write blog posts and then add in fiction, or was it more like a raw memoir?
DJB None of it was fiction. You know, I was doing this blog, and a poetry power couple in New York had broken up. At that time, the female half was blogging about it, and people were giving her shit like, “How dare you talk about this in public!” So I became obsessed with what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable to talk about. Somehow no one wants to hear about women being dumped. I got into writing about something that’s humiliating and pushing that. You know, how much public humiliation can you take? In the middle of all this, Colter Jacobsen was doing the Publication Studio San Francisco branch. Matthew Stadler had started the press in Portland, with pods around the country and Europe. Colter wanted to make a book with me, so I started writing the blog knowing it was going to become this book, which changed the process a lot.
DB Once you knew it was all going to end up in a book, were you more self-conscious? When you put someone’s name on a blog, you have this feeling that people will forget in a week.
DJB People Google themselves, so if they’re mentioned on a blog, they all know. It’s almost more public there than in a book. I tried not to say anything that would bother anybody—except the buddhist, the ex-lover, of course.
DB You asked me if you could print something with my name, and I said of course it was okay.
DJB In the heyday of New Narrative, everyone wanted to be written about. Eileen Myles and I have talked about this. What do you do when you move into populations that don’t want to be written about? You learn how to write fiction.
DB That’s when there’s that undecidability when we are reading as to what’s true or not. In the forthcoming TV Sutras book, and also elsewhere in your work, there’s a lot about cults. I always appreciate that you don’t do conventional memoir writing where it’s like, “As a teenager I was in a cult. Back then I was naïve, and then I got over it, and now I am better.” In your work there’s often an interesting, almost nostalgic ambivalence about recognizing the lure of a guru, a master, or identifying with a group. That seems to come through the TV Sutras.
DJB TV Sutras begins with a spiritual text that I generated using my television. In the book I try to answer two questions. First: How valid are my received teachings as opposed to, say, the Ten Commandments? I was thinking about how people’s visions tend to reflect the culture in which they are raised. Blake is a good example. So the second question I ask is: What culture did I come out of that generated these sutras? I’ve read many books about cults these past few years, but the one that became a touchstone for me was Len Oakes’s Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Clearly and simply, he lays out a theory that explains the traits and appeal of charismatic leaders. He talks about everybody from these weird gurus in New Zealand that have like ten followers to Winston Churchill. According to Oakes, such leaders embody a form of extreme narcissism and create their own world, a world so compelling that you are drawn into it. It is a place where you feel you are being really understood when, in fact, you are only being indoctrinated. If you look at the poetry scene, you see a parade of charismatic figures: Charles Olson totally fits, also Jack Spicer. I could name some people that are around right now. It’s an interesting phenomenon. We’re all stuck in a certain level of tedium, and then this person comes along—suddenly we don’t have to be in everyday reality, and we can’t get enough of them, right?
DB Do you have personal experience with that?
DJB I don’t want to say which, but I was in a cult for ten years, so yeah. I’d say with New Narrative I was getting out of one cult and leaping into another. Like a cult, in New Narrative there was a leader, and the rest of us were all students. I certainly was devoted. I was like this overzealous student, you know? I was unquestioning; I took it all in. I wanted to be the best New Narrative acolyte and to write the best New Narrative book. At a certain point I started having my own opinions and things got tense.
DB At least you married within the cult. (laughter)
DJB Kevin was always radical. But I did marry within the cult, right? That’s why it’s lasted so long. We have the same religion.
DB So when you were writing TV Sutras, were you imagining what it would be like to be a guru or did you want to write sutras that didn’t come from that perspective?
DJB I just did them and asked the questions after.
DB How did you actually write them?
DJB I began seeing a therapist whom a poet friend recommended to me. The therapist was writing these psychological analyses of horror films that I read online. She sounded perfect. I would drive to Marin County; her office was the little house behind her pool. You know, it’s Marin. She was the worst god-awful therapist I have ever, ever had. She was more than incompetent: she was destructive. The one thing she did was get me to do yoga and meditate. In my living room I’d do half an hour of yoga to a DVD, then I would turn the DVD off, meditate for 20 minutes, and then I’d turn the TV back on, switching it from the yoga DVD to TV. Whatever the first words were that I heard spoken would become the sutra for the day. While still high, I’d write an analysis in my journal. I would describe the sutra in generic terms—what was happening on the TV. So, for instance, I wouldn’t write, “Cary Grant is saying this.” I would say “a man” instead, and after describing the situation, I would write a commentary on the TV sutra of the day in a non–ironic New Age way. The form was based on the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali.
I found out later that my therapist was in this psychology cult for like 30 fucking years. She had just gotten out of it and the leader was so crazy and evil that he had supposedly given LSD to his daughter and raped her. It was this big scandal, but the therapist still stayed in the cult for years afterward. I would arrive for my appointment and say, “Well, I did this for myself today” to kind of brag, like the cat bringing the mouse in and going “Look at this!” She’d go, “It must be really scary to have to take care of yourself, all by yourself.”
DB Just to crush you back down. It’s so interesting to choose TV as the source of spiritual knowledge. It’s like what you said before of Blake: you only can be of your time or your culture. And the thing is that I don’t read these as ironic.
DJB But they’re really embarrassing. Some are so bad.
DB Well, you don’t let readers know if you want them to take them seriously, as pearls of wisdom, or if you are making a comment on the shallowness and banality of TV and New Age affirmations. You have the one from the Muppets that is: “Be in being” which reminds me of spelling lessons from childhood, but it also turns into a spiritual commentary about presence. Or you have the one where the TV says: “Find everything you want with a name brand product up to 70 percent off everyday.” The commentary is about how everything you need is available to you: be present and be rewarded. On one hand that’s really funny, but the lessons you draw from the TV could also sound like “deep” New Age affirmations in another context. Was that your intent or were you just in a meditative state?
DJB I was doing both. I was consciously trying to interpret the sutras from that honest New Age perspective, knowing that it was bullshit. I gave Kevin one and asked him to interpret it. Soon Kevin could do it too. With a little bit of knowledge anybody can write some fucking book that Shambhala will publish, you know what I mean? It’s this mode that you go into. You become like a machine.
DB A sutra machine, which is what TV is. Having said that, though, sutras are intended to help. Do the sutras help you, personally, or are they literary texts, or both?
DJB For a while Colter Jacobsen and Marcus Ewert were my followers. Everyday I would email them the sutra of the day and they were finding them useful. It’s sort of like woo-woo poetry. It didn’t die with Helen Adam; it’s back again. There is a lot of the poet/sage mode going on—I don’t think it would have flown in the ’80s or ’90s.
DB Do you think that is in reaction to online culture?
DJB Reality is so fucked right now that at a certain point you can’t take it anymore. During the election I obsessively would watch Rachel Maddow and now it’s like, Okay, the election came and things are just as fucked. I can’t look at it anymore. What does it do for me? I don’t want to talk about the Internet—I would say it’s the worst thing that has happened in my life.
DB Well, you have gotten a lot of source material from it.
DJB I was spending so much time online with the buddhist that the blog became a replacement for him. I couldn’t return to the present; the blog was another way to not be in the present—the present meaning my life. Everyone is becoming really, really fragmented. We should all go get training to be ADHD therapists, because everybody needs one now.
DB That’s where the money is. You write in a lot of different styles. Cunt Norton deals with canonical poems and erotic sexual materials, mash-ups and détournement. In the TV Sutrasyou combine New Age discourse and an embodied yoga and meditation practice, and become a receptor for messages from TV. That book also has a long memoir/essay that considers some of the larger things that we have been talking about. And the buddhist comes out of a blog project, a very public form of daily self-exposure. You’ve written essays and pieces that start as solicited work for specific magazines or art catalogues of all sorts. Is that what spurs you on, or are you restless? In an ideal world, would you rather only do one kind of writing?
DJB I really do like writing in these different forms, but it’s hard to do different things simultaneously. When I was working on Cunt Norton it was impossible for me to engage in straightforward writing. It was fun at first to be writing and not have to worry about content. It’s just language that you’re manipulating. But after a while I was dying to go back to content.
DB How about being a writer in such a small community of fellow poets and experimentalists where you might debut something in someone’s living room? You’ve talked about how a community can be such a supportive thing; it gives you permission in many ways. But scenes can get also get messy and personal, as we know. Does all that change how or what you write?
DJB I would totally bring fresh work to local salon-style house readings; they’re spaces that feel both thrilling and safe. But I imagine it would be much more problematic if you were a young writer, in terms of who gets invited to the party.
DB Part of it is that there is no money or institutional support for writing outside of the mainstream, unless it is in academia. But that’s also limited to people who write certain ways or are at a certain point in their careers. It’s not like if you’re a 25-year-old poet you’re going to go to the UC Berkeley Reading Series and meet people and get invited out for drinks. It’s intimidating.
DJB I think that when you live in New York, with all the publishing there, there’s this hope that if you behave yourself in certain ways, you can make money or be successful as a writer. That can actually be a conservative influence, whereas here there is nothing to get other than being invited to someone’s BBQ or an adjunct teaching job! For the big jobs they are hiring less and less people from the Bay Area, which pisses me off. However, you have this community where there is nothing to get but community approval, and that is a really good laboratory for experimental writing. It really works. In some ways the lack of funding helps.
DB Well, imagine, you have permission to do whatever you want, but the flipside is that people fight over the smallest spoils. Like, “So-and-so got to read in so-and-so’s living room and I did not,” as if it’s the biggest prize in the world or they must be sucking someone’s dick or whatever. I have gotten sucked into that; you forget the big picture.
DJB I don’t go to that much and I turn so many things down. But boy, if I don’t get invited it becomes this really big deal. I like to get invited and then say that I can’t do it; then I am fine.
DB I’ll remember that. Returning to the new books, they’re not mere ironic jokes or conceptual thought experiments, right? They’re meant to be read as literature. But as a reader you also don’t know how seriously you can take them. Especially Cunt Norton, which is fucking with the tradition. I can’t read the poems and decide whether they’re “good” or “bad” in terms of some kind of conventional criteria. The values by which one might judge a good poem, or at least the kind of values that the Norton Anthology has canonized, are put into question.
DJB Well, I tried to put moments of beauty in them. The ability for abstracted things to move you is always stunning to me. They are these love poems by these stick figures, basically, yet I find them moving. It’s so weird.
DB Whatever you are working on comes from a very … I mean, I don’t want to reduce it to an emotion, but an intensely affective space. These are not dry academic exercises. One critique of conceptual writing is that it is cold or clinical, that it can’t produce affect or feeling. Yet at the end of the day you do these things and make intense love poems that are really moving. How do you think that works?
DJB I don’t call myself a conceptualist, but Cunt Norton’s premise was conceptual enough for Les Figues to take an interest. One of the things I learned by being involved in the avant-garde is that you don’t need realism to move people. Think of Kathy Acker. Her stuff can be boring as hell, but when it comes together, it is so intense. It’s like your mouth is gaping open by her weird manipulations. No one is trying to make this believable, but we are still moved by it—that’s awesome.
DB And it’s not because those are the moments where she puts aside plagiarism and then is like, “Now let me speak freely,” but because she has put you through the ringer regardless of source material, method, whatever. Last question. I would hate to be asked this, so feel free to reject it. Of late, what kind of writing has interested you or inspired you the most?
DJB It all becomes research–based, so I am reading stuff about cults or this new book by Elizabeth Robinson, On Ghosts. It’s so provocative; I have to reread it. I am thinking about poetry a lot. Dottie Lasky has been coming up. What is interesting about her work is that it’s like a parody but it’s totally serious at the same time. She is always taking me to these surprising places. I’ll be kind of bopping along, and then I am like, “Holy shit!” And I won’t know how I went from one state to another. Kathy Acker does that for me too. That’s why her writing fascinates me.
DB It’s not like, “Oh, I see what they did.” You have to get inside the work.
DJB Yeah, I am convinced that the moments of ecstasy could not exist without the tedium.
David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, California. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr, is just out from City Lights, and SITE CITE CITY will be published by Futurepoem in 2014. He is currently finishing a manuscript about Occupy Oakland and performing with Abby Crain’s LOOK dance and performance company.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.