Colonized on Every Level: An Interview with Dodie Bellamy
July 29, 2014 | by Christopher Higgs
Dodie Bellamy writes genre-bending works that focus on sexuality, politics, and narrative experimentation, challenging the distinctions between fiction, essay, and poetry. Her methods include radical feminist revisions of canonical works, as in Cunt-Ups (2002) and its follow-up Cunt Norton (2013), which appropriate the “cut-up” technique made famous by William Burroughs; and The Letters of Mina Harker (2004), an epistolary collaboration with the late Sam D’Allesandro, which reimagines Bram Stoker’s Dracula in an AIDS-plagued San Francisco. In her 2004 book Pink Steam, Bellamy explains, “I’m working toward a writing that subverts sexual bragging, a writing that champions the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the sexually fucked-up.”
As an active member of San Francisco’s avant-garde literary scene for the past thirty years, Bellamy is often associated with the New Narrative movement. Before moving to San Francisco in the late seventies, she grew up in the Calumet region of Indiana, studied at Indiana University, and joined a New Age cult. That experience informs her newest book, The TV Sutras, which Norman Fisher has described as “part porno, part memoir (maybe), part spiritual teaching (probably not), [and] part fiction.” Bellamy says she spent five months “receiving transmissions” from her television set, writing brief commentaries on each, which serve as the material for Part One. For example, from #5—“Do you want me to come back to your place? Man and woman in bar. Commentary: Focus on getting back to the basics/beginning anew. Establish a home base you can return to.”
Part Two, “Cultured,” switches into a more familiar form of narrative, but nevertheless refuses to explain itself. At times it seems as though it contextualizes and complicates the sutras in Part One, while at other times the connection seems hidden. In a recent correspondence with Bellamy, we discussed TV Sutras and her history with the New Narrative movement.
You refer to The TV Sutras as a conceptual piece. I’m curious about the ways you see it participating in the current trend of conceptual poetics, or conceptualism in general.
While my writing shares enough concerns with conceptual poetics to be published by Les Figues—poems from Cunt Ups are included in their I’ll Drown My Book anthology, followed by the book length Cunt Norton—The TV Sutras, like the current trend of conceptual poetry, connects with older roots in twentieth-century Conceptual art practices, procedural practices that have been employed since before the surrealists. Procedural strategies have been in vogue ever since I came to poetry in San Francisco in the late seventies—erasure poems, cut-ups, et cetera. I remember very early on going to a reading by Carla Harryman during which she said she “generated” a text, and I was shocked at her use of the word “generated” instead of “wrote.” For me, this was one of those “Dorothy’s no longer in Kansas” moments. Kathy Acker’s use of appropriation has been a touchstone, as well as her conflation of reading and writing. I “generated” the first handful of TV sutras for the Occult issue of 2nd Avenue Poetry, which focused on the intersections between poetry and divinatory practices, particularly rituals that introduce chance. In receiving my sutras through my television, I was reaching back to an ancient tradition of inspired texts—texts that arrive, bidden or unbidden, from a divine/alien elsewhere.
You’ve said elsewhere that “the central problem in The TV Sutras is that of boundaries,” which makes me wonder about the various boundaries being blurred between parts one and two of the book.
The two parts of the book form a symbiotic relationship. Part One is the received text, with mini-commentaries for each sutra. Part Two, “Cultured,” is an extended commentary on the received text as a whole—and the whole notion of who owns meaning. This essay mode provided a convenient container for these disparate parts of my autobiography I’d not been able to figure out how to address before. The whole issue of blurred boundaries in The TV Sutras comes down to the impossibility of separating out self from culture. Is there any part of our being that isn’t to some extent “cultured”? I don’t think so. We are colonized on every level.
Your experience as the member of a cult plays an important part in the second section of the book. In what ways do you see that experience intersecting with the sutras in the first section of the book?
The sutras are a mystery to me. I don’t feel like I own them, and some of the commentaries I find so groan-worthy that I take on Frankenstein’s relationship to his poor creature, wanting to reject them outright. In writing the “Cultured” section of the book, I was trying to understand and evaluate my sutras. Taken together, are they valid as an inspiration text? How valid is any inspired text? What were the personal and larger cultural vectors from which they sprung? The cult was simply part of the matrix from which the sutras emerged. Ultimately, I wasn’t so much interested in one particular cult, but in the processes of cults and their appeal.
Vulnerability seems key to both sections.
Vulnerability is key to most writing that I’m interested in. Unless the writer totally turns oneself over to their project, allows oneself to be twisted inside out by it, where’s the charge? You end up with a dead writing machine, like the prototypical MFA-workshop short story. I’m not a big fan of irony or cleverness. I always urge students to write to the point of discomfort.
I think you succinctly encapsulate one of the book’s central tensions when you write, “New Narrative Dodie versus New Age Dodie. Can one ever stop embarrassing the other?” For readers who might be unfamiliar, could you explain what you mean by “New Narrative”?
After moving through various poetry scenes in San Francisco, in 1981 I became involved with a small group of mostly gay, male writers who had created New Narrative as a literary movement. The goal was to reset narrative/fiction writing within the theoretical insights learned through their study of contemporary poetry. Language Poetry, and its predilection for literary theory, had taken over the Bay Area writing. I tend to view it as a phase I passed through during my youth, but its influence is still everywhere in my work. I had to work really, really hard to survive in the rigorous intellectual atmosphere of the time. When I was told that I was expected to write essays, to take part in the intense conversations about literature that were going on, I felt this deep sense of dread, not unlike when I was in junior high and my mother announced that I had to start wearing a bra.
While now it’s all the rage to do rituals and be a mystical poet of sorts, back then this would not have flown. So what was I to do about all this degenerate New Age material I was drawn to? When I was writing my first book, The Letters of Mina Harker, I was reading writing-scene-approved theoretical texts, but I was also passionate about all this goddess material and Jungians such as James Hillman and Marion Woodman. The Jungian and the goddess material overlapped, of course. Sylvia Brinton Perera’s Descent to the Goddess was seminal in my creating Mina, my vampire goddess, for it gave me permission to explore a psychic disintegration that terrified me. But I always kept those interests hidden. Recently, in On Contemporary Practice, I published an essay in which I discuss the profound impact Diane di Prima’s Loba—her wolf goddess poems—had on me. This felt liberating. The Loba poems are not well known in my circle, where di Prima is seen as a political Beat poet. It’s too bad so much of the New Age is so dopey. Di Prima’s more spiritual poems have, fortunately, held up really well.
You said earlier that you felt like some of the commentaries in the first section were “groan-worthy,” and then in the second part of the book you raise the issue of embarrassing yourself with your various identities. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the role of self-criticism in your writing.
This reflects back on your comment about vulnerability. I’m compelled to take risks in my work, to write toward taboo, both content-wise and formally. This can create a lot of anxiety. To keep going I have to shut out my awareness of an audience and throw myself into my fictive world like some outsider artist perv. Think Henry Darger salivating over his nubile cut-outs. When I do that, subject matter becomes sculptural—these bits of material that I manipulate until everything makes sense in this alternate reality. Self-criticism comes in during gaps where I lose my focus, or sometimes when I’m up in front of a room giving a reading and I’m unexpectedly mortified, and there’s nothing else to do but to continue reading with an air of confidence while thinking, How could you write such sick fucking stuff?
Christopher Higgs is a visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University.