SAN FRANCISCO-BASED NOVELIST, poet, and nonfiction author Dodie Bellamy is among the ranks of America’s literary avant-garde born in the decade after World War II, along with Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, and Eileen Myles. Bellamy’s work is known not only for consistently pushing boundaries of both genre and form, but also for its concerns with female bodily desire and the place of sex in language. Some of her latest books include The Letters of Mina Harker, an imagined sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula set in an AIDS-plagued San Francisco, and The Buddhist, where Bellamy, questioning what experiences should be deemed public and what should be private, ends an abusive affair while simultaneously writing about the breakup on her blog.
Bellamy’s latest book, Cunt Norton (published in November 2013), is a follow-up to her 2001 book Cunt-Ups and part of Les Figues’ “TrenchArt: Logistics” series, in which participating writers and artists use the cut and cutting as organizing concepts in their work. Here, fellow experimental writer and friend Matias Viegener speaks with Dodie about her latest project with Les Figues. The two discuss how sexual desire can be expressed through text and other issues surrounding the position of pornography in today’s literary climate.
Matias Viegener: I just finished reading Cunt Norton and loved the mix of high and low, the literary and the pornographic. Many of the poems resonate with the syllabus of my class on literary pornography at CalArts. Authors like John Cleland, de Sade, and Sacher-Masoch struggle with the relation between language (so cold) and sensation (often “warmer”), and, of course, titillation. Were you thinking about any of these questions — the classic ones for pornographers — as you were writing?
Dodie Bellamy: I don’t see such a dichotomy between language and sensation — it’s more like each realm influences our experiencing of the other. I’m well aware of how pathetic English is in providing words about the sexualized body. We have the clinical on the one hand, the pornographic on the other. But I’ve never thought of language as cold. Maybe that’s because I was a nerdy, socially dysfunctional child who was alienated from her body — reading, writing, language became an escape for me. I found glory there. See my heightened little Midwestern heart racing.
Pornographic language is fascinating in that it has a direct impact on the body — tumescence, heart rate, breathing, etc. But to use it, one risks reinscribing a narrative of power relations that I would hope to subvert. I learned a lot from writer Kathy Acker about appropriating vulgar language and using it for my own ends. If it weren’t for Kathy, for instance, I’d never toss around the word “cunt” with the ease of something like “ruby flower.” Ruby flower … I’m thinking that perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the florid for subverting the pornographic/clinical divide. In my book Cunt-Ups, which is a predecessor to Cunt Norton, I wanted to play around with the language of pornography, but shred it by applying William Burroughs’s cut-up technique. I wanted to use jumbled pornographic language to mimic the multivalent, nonlinear consciousness of sexual arousal. I wanted to be playful, ridiculous. In Cunt Norton, since I’m cutting that same porno-erotic text into poems from the 1975 edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, in a way I’m fucking those poems. The writing itself becomes a sort of sex act. Each of the resulting poems is an erotic love poem, even when I began with a downer like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado.” At least, that was my intent.
MV: Would you say, then, that you’re a classic pornographer inasmuch as your primary intention is to arouse the reader? I heard echoes of your first book, The Letters of Mina Harker, with a narrator whose autoarousal seemed hardly to preclude, but certainly to precede, any will to arouse the reader. Speaking of Kathy (since you preempted my future question about the word “cunt”), I thought of the passages in The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula in which the narrator masturbates as she writes — riffs on both the phallic male writer and the clichéd charge of masturbation so often leveled against experimental writers. Nevertheless, I think she is totally turned on. You see it through that whole book. Her appropriation or plagiarism of the murderess’ lives broke new textual ground for her, and I’d daresay, for us.
DB: Me a “classic pornographer.” Ha ha. I don’t even like porn that much — though a couple of years ago I was writing about a grade C porn actress. I abandoned the piece, but as “research” I watched a lot of her work online and geeked out on her. She does a lot of anal and interracial stuff, and when she got older she dyed her blonde hair jet black and surgically grew a giant chest and ass, which makes her waist look really small. She looks more like fetish doll than human. I’m intrigued by the online discussion of her — viewer comments on porn sites — the way issues of race and corporeal “normality” play out. Some guys are turned on by her; others think she’s a freak. And the fact that she does it with black guys — if you’re curious about the texture of unfettered bigotry, look no further. I was even following her on Twitter. She seems really likeable. She’s into books and is a big supporter of Obama. It will be a difficult piece to pull off, but in the fall I hope to work it up into something I can include in my forthcoming collection of essays that Semiotext(e) is doing.
In Cunt Norton it’s not my intention to arouse the reader. All the poems are in the first person, but it’s not a stable first person. The lovers in each poem share the “I” and toss it back and forth. I leave it up to readers to figure out who is speaking in any given sentence. What I’m trying to do is to cram the text inside the magnetism of these lovers, so there’s no breathing room. That’s one of the reasons that each poem is one long paragraph — to better trap the reader inside this erotic bubble. The Letters of Mina Harker explored voyeurism — the epistolary form always puts the reader in the position of voyeur, of snooping around in a private conversation. Mina is also about exhibitionism and public display. Mina’s a vampire goddess. Unlike the Dodie in the book, she wants to be seen, and she performs for the reader. In Cunt Norton, the lovers are so consumed by their erotic drama, they’re unaware of the reader. I wanted the reader to be sucked — without the distance necessary for voyeurism — into their frenzied, giddy exchanges. When people hear the poems, they laugh. While humor can work in early phases of arousal, ultimately it’s a buzz kill. So I doubt if Cunt Norton will arouse anybody.
I haven’t read The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, but your comments make me want to run out and get it. According to what I found online, Tarantula came out in 1973 — I didn’t realize Kathy’s masturbating while writing went back that far. When she was at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1990s, I heard stories of her teaching her class how to masturbate while writing. One of the students in the class was Lynn Breedlove, who at the time was in the lesbian punk band Tribe 8. When I asked Lynn what she thought of Kathy teaching them to masturbate while writing, she rolled her eyes and shook her head, and said, “I’m into doing one thing at a time.” I suspect Kathy’s intent was to literalize the eros we all feel when writing and reading. When I’m in the thick of writing, I’m totally charged, and whenever I write about anybody — or thing — it’s like I fall in love, the way a fan falls in love, all this naive adoration and excitement. It’s the same with books I connect to. Last year, for instance, I discovered Villette and I went wild over Charlotte Brontë, especially when I learned that the book was drawn from Brontë’s real life obsession with Constantin Héger. I felt this pervy thrill when I finally got my hands on their teeny correspondence. In Cunt Norton, the back and forth of my porno-erotic text and these canonized poems is a sort of fucking. Lovers, readers, writers — we all rejoice in the eros of literary consumption and production.
MV: Perhaps not a pornographer then, but I and many people I know think of you in part as a sex writer. I agree with you that Kathy was less turned on by the sex she was writing than the act of writing the sex. You often follow your desire, or your narrator’s desire. Might this be a feminist gesture, not to defend against the reader’s arousal, but to prioritize your own?
DB: Yes, sex has been an ongoing topic in my writing. When I first met you in the late 1980s I was writing the stories for my Hanuman collection, Feminist Hijinx, which was about female friendship, and not sex per se. I was new to prose, so I kept things pretty simple in that book. It’s in The Letters of Mina Harker that I really jumped into the thick of sexual experience, and I tried to approach that experience from as many vantage points as I could come up with. Reading Dennis Cooper, for instance, I noticed how in Dennis’s work, sex is as much a state of mind as something that happens between two people. So, I started to more deeply explore Mina’s (and Dodie’s) sexuality when no actual sex was imminent — the erotics of standing on a crowded bus, for instance. Sexuality became a beam of light to project onto the world.
Like anybody working among the avant-garde, I’ve been concerned with pushing the boundaries of what’s permissible in my given field. Writing about sex has been a part of that, but in a broader sense, it’s still a struggle to have female-specific subject matter be taken seriously — or as seriously — as “higher” topics for avant-garde writing. I’m using this clunky term “avant-garde” for lack of a better, as a way to reflect the ecosystem of experimental poetry and narrative. This avant-garde can be pretty elitist. At a certain point, I decided to move my writing towards accessibility, mostly because I hate the precious and I’m more interested in genuine intelligence than in studied performances of it — a position you and I share. Otherwise, I can’t define what’s feminist and what’s not, and whose arousal we feminists should be concerned with. There’s a lot more permission for women — those working within experimental forms or otherwise — to write about sex than when I was a young writer, or even when Cunt-Ups was published in 2001. “There’s a lot more permission” is too passive — women have claimed this right — and so it’s an exciting time right now in terms of in-your-face powerful female expression.
MV: What most stuck with me from Mina was your prose style, the rush of language, almost a parataxis — clauses added, sometimes an interjection in italics, a rush, another clause, no subordination, just accretion, more rather than less, as if not only could you not stop, but some second voice insisted you keep moving. It seems to me you work more from an intuitive process than anything programmatic. Cunt Norton has a sort of programmatic backbone, but this kind of elision happens too. Or am I seeing things?
DB: I haven’t framed my work in terms of accretion rather than subordination, but I think you’re on to something here. I’m reminded of when I teach students about writing vignettes — I’ll suggest that by placing vignettes side by side, you can organize a piece by means of accrual rather than by using a conventional narrative arc. This is based on my own use of the paragraph as a sort of modular block in my writing. I like to write paragraphs that are self-contained, that I can rearrange at will. In the early days of “The Debbies I Have Known,” when I was still using a typewriter, I’d type each paragraph on half a sheet of paper, then scatter the sheets on the floor, then pick them up one by one, fan them in my hands like playing cards, rearrange them until they made sense to me, then retype them in that order. The earliest drafts of some of the letters in Mina were written this way, then I got my MacPlus with one megabyte of RAM and its glorious cut and paste functions — though I have nostalgia for the materiality of the earlier method. So, one might say that my organization of the paragraph is also paratactic. Don’t you think that cut-ups are the epitome of parataxis? I love to pile things on and to write really long breathless paragraphs — it doesn’t work for everything, but when you’re going for excess and overwhelm — as I am in both Mina and Cunt Norton — it can be very effective. Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden wouldn’t be half as horrific if it wasn’t one endless paragraph, like a labyrinth from hell that you’ll never find your way out of. And — considering parataxis — the way he equalizes experience in that book also adds to the horror — flowers and food and flies are given the same weight as brutal rapes. This totally destabilizes the reader.
I keep thinking about an interview I read with Jayne Anne Philips, way back in the 1970s when she was still publishing with indie presses, where she was talking about excess in Southern writing, and she brought up all the junk that is piled around poor people’s houses in the South, how if you have nothing, you’ll bury yourself in junk to relieve that. The other day, some friends were discussing the TV show Hoarders, which I’ve never seen, but someone said that hoarding usually begins with a major life loss. So, maybe my piling on of language is a desperate Lacanian impulse to camouflage a sense of lack. In my personal life, I’m really bad at creating hierarchies. On my to-do list, “change cat litter” would be right next to “finish manuscript.”
MV: Yes, Eden Eden Eden is one of my favorite books. The apparent lack of structure is both terrifying and exhilarating. Long ago, a professor suggested to me I was misusing details in my work, not subordinating them to plot, character, etc., and he explained to me that the function of the details was to ground the text and invoke the real (i.e., Roland Barthes’s “The Reality Effect”). You abuse the detail in a similar way (I can easily imagine changing the cat litter entering the passage you’re working on), and yet I find your work deeply realistic. I’m thinking here of “Complicity,” which is the first thing I read of yours. It’s essentially a list of shoplifted objects, each of which spurs a narrative and a set of ideas on theft, guilt, class, and desire. These things form a sort of nexus of details, concepts, and narrative that for me were profoundly more dynamic than a realistic narrative. So, do any details pop up at the moment that should be part of this conversation?
DB: The first thing that pops into my mind is Tony Oursler’s video sculpture, such as the freakish heads that line the escalator in the Seattle Public Library, these flashes of being, of emotional drama. Narrative arrives in my writing in a similar fashion, a flash here and there from out of the thickness of lived experience. It’s not that I don’t love conventional narrative — I’m one of those folks who can stay up all night to finish a movie or a TV show, or better yet, an entire series on Netflix. But, like you, I think your professor is full of shit, and the aesthetic he was trying to drill into you is responsible for all the narrative dreck that is produced in the US these days. I’m thinking back to the 19th-century novel, the loving piling on of detail for its own sake, how rich the world is in those plodding tomes. My current go-to-sleep book is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). Even though it’s touted as the first detective novel, it’s Collins’s quirky narrators and his social satire that delight me. I lie in bed, half asleep, laughing out loud, not because of any sort of rousing plot, but because Collins has seduced me with the minutiae of his English bourgeoisie. We have relationships with objects and ideas as well as people — there’s both an emptiness and a comfort in that.
MV: Dodie, are you a hoarder?
DB: You make me think of the Debtors Anonymous meetings I sometimes visit with a friend — for fun we go out for dinner and then to a DA meeting. Each meeting begins with people going around the room, saying, “I’m blah blah and I’m a debtor.” “I’m blah blah and I’m an under-earner.” “I’m blah blah and I’m a compulsive spender.” You can always tell the compulsive spenders because they look so good, with their outfits and great accessories. I’m not a hoarder but I have been known to self-soothe with material possessions. When I’m stressed, Etsy can be a real problem because you can get fabulous things for under $50, and when you pay less than $50 for something, in my addict’s mind, it’s hardly spending money at all. One of the reasons I was drawn to reading The Moonstone is that I love my moonstone earrings and bracelet so much. I’m that superficial. But right now I’m actually in the process of getting rid of a lot of stuff. Kevin [Killian] and I are sorting through our books and keeping only those that are precious to us, mostly the ones autographed by friends. And we’re organizing our papers to sell to an archive. I have a fantasy of a simple life with few things in it. Except cheap jewelry, I guess. Oh, did you know that in The Moonstone, it turns out it’s not a moonstone at all? It’s a yellow diamond plucked from the forehead of a four-handed “Hindoo” moon-god statue.