No 24.

Dodie Bellamy

in conversation with Lauren O'Neill-Butler

Dodie Bellamy is the author of many brilliant and groundbreaking books including When the Sick Rule the World (2015), The TV Sutras (2014), Cunt Norton (2013), Barf Manifesto (2008), Cunt-ups (2001), and The Letters of Mina Harker (1998)—an epistolary novel written from the perspective of the heroine of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—which was recently rereleased in a new edition by Semiotext(e). With her late husband Kevin Killian, she edited the anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977-1997 (2017). In 2019, she was the subject of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art’s “On Our Mind” program, a yearlong series of public events, commissioned essays, and reading group meetings inspired by an artists’ life and work. She teaches literature and fine arts theory at California College of the Arts.

It was truly an honor and a thrill to sit down with Dodie on the occasion of her new essay collection Bee Reaved (2021). The book assembles nearly twenty texts she wrote over the past few years with a loose focus on grief. It considers not only the passing of Killian in June 2019 from cancer, but also aging, absurdity, the American working class, feminism, TV, and deep embarrassment. The interview was conducted in October–November 2021.

LO-B

Did you know that today is Sylvia Plath’s birthday? I thought of her while reading “On Becoming Undone” in Bee Reaved, when you mentioned how you had memorized lines from her poem “The Hanging Man” while you were plagued with a neurological disorder: By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

DB

No, but if I had thought about it, I probably would have remembered. I’m teaching a class now on Plath. Just a couple of months ago, I finally finished that thousand-plus page biography of her, Red Comet, which is a fantastic book. I just loved it. It was good to finally see somebody write about her with intelligence and compassion, you know?

LO-B

Yes. I was thinking of her poem “Lady Lazarus” while getting ready to talk to you. In a reading for BBC radio, Plath introduced the poem this way: “The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the Phoenix, the libertarian sprit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, and very resourceful woman.”

DB

I love that. Her intros are from a different world than her poems. And that’s one of my favorite poems of hers, for sure. Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.

LO-B

Just the best. How does it feel to be having The Letters of Mina Harker republished in 2021, and how did that come to be? Obviously, a lot has changed since 1998 but the book still feels so fresh.

DB

Can I bitch about something? I’ve been really wanting to.

LO-B

Yes, please!

DB

It was never out of print because University of Wisconsin Press sat on it for 14 years. The first edition was published in 1998 by Hard Press, after it got rejected everywhere. Part of the problem when I was trying to get it published was that it was a moment when some publishers were sending back books that they had already accepted. It was a rough time in publishing, but also because of the sex in the book, so many publishers were just like, “No way.”

Anyway, Hard Press was a great poetry press that was run by Michael Gizzi. He took it instantly and that was a very sweet experience. Being that it was a small poetry press, it went under after a couple of years. In 2004, Eileen Myles and Joan Larkin lobbied for University of Wisconsin Press to republish it. Eventually they took it on but with the agreement that they didn't have to spend money to re-typeset it. So, they used the same galleys as Hard Press with the same typos. Life lesson: don’t publish a book with a press that’s not invested in it. A dozen years later, since the book was languishing in obscurity, I contacted them about getting the rights back. And they said they were continuing to make the book available via print on demand and therefore the book was still in print, and I couldn’t have the rights back. . .!

A couple of years after that Semiotext(e) got involved and Chris Kraus ended up getting a pro-bono lawyer to help, and the press still wouldn’t give the rights back. So many authors have this problem: suddenly, print on demand is considered in print and their publishers won't give their books back. Somebody needs to make a rule about this! In the end, we had to pay that press more money than I have ever received from their sales to get the rights back. I just wanted people to know this book exists. I mean, “fans” of my writing did not know about that book.

LO-B

So, it was worth it.

DB

I feel that the mission has been accomplished. You know, I’m obviously not looking to be a bestseller, but I do want that book to be circulating. The curious thing is to see how the book is going to fly now. Last night I gave a reading at Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles—live, which was great. I was in conversation with Michelle Tea. She had an incredible argument for the book: She loves its polyamory. That’s not a term I would ever use for it because the times were so different when it was written, but I can see how it works now.

LO-B

Speaking of that, Mina Harker begins on the day Mina/Dodie and KK (Kevin Killian) are married, right? The three of them basically get married. And Bee Reaved sees that relationship through to its closure when Kevin passes away. There’s something so beautiful about having both books released together. I wondered if that connection was in the mix with the timing of both books coming out this fall?

DB

You know, that was an accidental gift. The new collection was not supposed to be about Kevin’s death. It was commissioned as something else, with a different title. But that’s what happened. The two books together are kind of like the autobiography of a marriage. I didn’t want to push too much in making those overt connections, but I did make some editorial decisions that way, as I was putting together Bee Reaved. I’m very happy that they’re there together, for sure.

LO-B

Can you talk about the process of arranging Bee Reaved?

DB

A press in the UK was originally going to simultaneously publish it with Semiotext(e), right in time for Halloween. When I found this out, I had to pull together a tentative manuscript early in the process, which was motivating to me to write more. Like my last essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World, I wanted the book to have a focus. It’s obviously a book about mourning . . .but it’s also not.

LO-B

Right. It’s about so much more. Bee Reaved takes up mortality, the body, and aging. But also, so many other things, such as the American working class. I was lucky enough to commission the essay in the book on Mary Beth Edelson and that text is a good example of the latter. You speak about your own life growing up in Indiana and her more upper middle-class life growing up there, too. I don’t know why art writers never talk about class. It’s so annoying.

DB

Well, it’s very American not to. Art writers probably don’t really believe in class, or they’re not interested. And it’s kind of weird when you think about how everybody in the arts seems somewhat versed in Marxism. But yeah, I didn’t really think of the book as being about the working class. Obviously, I don’t have anything that resembles a working-class life right now, but that doesn’t change the working-class psychological constructs in my brain. Artists and writers from those backgrounds tend not to want to talk about that stuff but once they do talk about it, boy do they come out of the woodwork. The floodgates open.

LO-B

Do you have a favorite text in the book?

DB

I think “Chase Scene” is probably my favorite. It’s the most substantial and it was written for the book, to pull it all together. It took five months to write it. So, it took up a big part of COVID and made it a lot easier to have a text to focus on, even though it was a project that made me cry when I was writing it, you know.

LO-B

How did the pandemic impact writing the book?

DB

Focus was hard. Writing regularly helped. But, yeah, I don’t know. . .just the thought that these two books were coming out really helped. Gave me hope.

LO-B

You had to possess some feeling of futurity. That kind of future-forward thinking seemed to be in your final collaborative texts with Kevin, too. Part of that project was to keep things going, to give hope. Some of it reads as if he was really into the collaboration, or perhaps that he really wanted to get the ideas down. Did you get that sense in person?

DB

So, let me first say that we had the worst oncologist imaginable. He killed Kevin by giving him treatments he shouldn’t have had. He was also terribly vague. Kevin wanted to live at least another year, and the oncologist would just say things that were misleading. I guess I knew he wasn’t going to live another year, so just sort of motivationally, I suggested we collaborate. Anything to suggest a future seemed important. The fact that we were doing this writing project that was supposed to last a year was important.

After his diagnosis, we continued to make plans. Kevin bought tickets to see Nick Cave at the SF Symphony. He had bought them because this was something we were going to do together. And so, I ended going to the concert with David Buuck instead. Going to the concert seemed like something one needed to do. I didn’t really want to sit and wallow and give up, you know?

We were supposed to write a collaborative book in the 1990s and we never did. It was commissioned by Lyn Hejinian’s Atelos press. We called it Eyewitness, and it was going to be an account of our experiences living in a writing/arts community. Things we did, things we saw, people we met. A sort of gossipy reportage. But we simply could not write together. There was an ongoing struggle for control, so we gave it up. Interestingly, we had a lot of fun writing low risk material together. For instance, when I was director of Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center, we had a ball writing flyer copy together, and often the most Kevin-sounding passages were written by me. Like, I learned to spoof him. Sometimes when I’d get behind on my email, I’d let him answer my emails for me—he loved to impersonate me—and in general, based on the enthusiastic responses, people seemed to like Kevin’s version of Dodie better than my own.

LO-B

It’s interesting that in Bee Reaved we see Kevin going from not wanting to collaborate, to really wanting to, in a limited amount of time. The urgency that comes through is intense.

DB

Yeah. You don't see the bickering in the background. At a certain point he wanted to take over the whole thing, and I guess I should have let him. Like, he'd bring up subjects I wasn't interested in. But I loved the whole format of it. Each week we’d go back and forth. One of us got to choose the topic. So, you never knew what it's going to be, and there was this bouncing back and forth.

LO-B

I wanted to ask about Nick Cave as a kind of organizing principle for Bee Reaved. I loved its epigraph: We are here and you are where you are.

DB

That’s a line from Ghosteen.

LO-B

And then you have two sections of the book: here and where.

DB

Yeah. And you know, normally it would be here and there. But I thought with where it becomes a bit more loaded. But it’s also so simple. It just gave it enough structure to contain what felt like two books. Because, you know, Bee Reaved is about Kevin. So, I wanted to include our joint dialogues, for example on the Ugo Rondinone show and our piece on Mike Kelley, and the final discussion that he and I did together. I felt like I needed to show people what was being lost. To have them experience Kevin a little bit. Otherwise, I don't think I would have added those things in.

LO-B

I was thinking also about the epigraph to When the Sick Rule the World, which comes from Mike Kelley.

DB

Yes, that was from a video interview on YouTube: “What I dislike about a lot of contemporary artists is they want to be hipsters. They're not willing to be fools.” That was important for that book because I wanted to have tonal consistency. And so that was the principle. Like, I would look at that Mike Kelley quote, and I ask, “Does this piece fit?” One of the powers of Kevin's poetry was that he was willing to be a fool. And, obviously, in my writing, I'm making a fool out of myself repeatedly. I think that that creates an opening for people, right?

LO-B

Yes. For me, you evolve the idea of embarrassment to make it something much more rich and fruitful, and not shameful or something to be afraid of.

DB

I have this piece called “Lady Jane” that's in an out-of-print book and originally I was going to put it in the Bee Reaved collection, but then I decided, no, I was only going to include things that were written since Sick Rule the World, that I wasn't going to put old stuff in . . . anyway that one is all about embarrassment.

LO-B

When did you write it?

DB

Oh God . . . what era was it? It was right after Eileen Myles got her job teaching at UC San Diego. So, a long time ago. It’s about applying for an academic job and just, you know, the horror of knowing people on the search committee and being told all the horrible things that they're saying about you. Included is a list of humiliations that go through my whole life. Wayne Koestenbaum liked that one, and later wrote his book Humiliation. Glad I inspired someone.

LO-B

Ah yes, and there’s his brilliant quote: “Dodie Bellamy is a national treasure. I’ll go further. Dodie Bellamy is an international treasure.” So, in the spirit of humiliation—I want to ask you about Frozen and “Let It Go.” One of my favorite pieces in Bee Reaved is your essay on Anne Walsh’s 2015–17 video Anthem. Can you talk about writing that one, and about the piece for those who are unfamiliar with it?

DB

That essay is from the book Hello Leonora, Soy Anne Walsh, which is basically about Anne’s project on Leonora Carrington and Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet. For the project she took singing lessons—Broadway musical type singing—with all these post-menopausal women in Berkeley. Anthem shows the women singing “Let It Go,” and it's so great. I have to say, I don't watch very many Disney films or animations, but I had already seen Frozen, when she had asked me to write about Anthem. I mean, that “Let It Go” song is ridiculous—it is a very weird song for children.

The essay is also about aging. When I turned 30, I thought my life was over—I felt so old, like I couldn't be a child anymore. Of course, that was a lie—I continued being a child well past 30. It’s hard to find a way into writing about aging. So, I latched onto this goofy song and this goofy movie, as a way to explore things about myself that were very tender and embarrassing to talk about. But I also thought, “This is going to drive out my younger audiences. The old crone speaks!”

LO-B

Let them go! [Laughs.] But it’s inspiring how you add levity in some pretty heavy material. There’s a lot of humor in Bee Reaved about Kevin's death.

DB

But you could see that before it became about Kevin's death—I was already dealing with themes of mortality and aging. I always had the thought in the back of my mind that I was going to do another essay collection, so almost everything I wrote since my last collection, I would shape toward a sort of thematic cohesiveness, with the hope I could at some point plop them all together into a MS Word doc and they’d make sense.

LO-B

Another theme in the book is YouTube—you write about a Mary Beth Edelson interview and there’s an essay on Jeffree Star; I could go on. The book reminds me of how reality TV is the most ubiquitous form of media these days.

DB

When I was really in the deep grieving state, my view of the world was very strange, in terms of what I found interesting and what I didn't. I would be moved by things like a child would be moved by them. And then COVID hit, and everybody was watching images all the time, because what else was there to do? So, yes, TV became a very important part of the book. I mean, watching all 17 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, even after it started sucking.

LO-B

There’s that great part in “Plague Widow” where you’re talking about watching A French Village and then you start exploring Crass’s song “Shaved Women,” which references the public humiliation of tens of thousands of French women accused of sleeping with German invaders during World War II.

DB

The weird thing about that was Donatien Grau commissioned that piece—he asked me to write anything I wanted about punk, which was obviously such a gift. So, I was going to write about Eve Libertine singing “Shaved Women,” and I had totally forgotten that there is a shaved women's scene in A French Village. And so, it was perfect.

LO-B

Last question: What are you working on now?

DB

Jennifer Krasinski is open to re-establishing the arrangement I had with you of writing on a somewhat regular basis for the Artforum blog, which is something I’m very invested in. I love how permissive the blog is in terms of style and the use of personal material. I enjoy the challenge of crafting these brief, personal engagements with whatever. It deepens my relationship with the world.

I have a novel from the late 1990s that I abandoned, which I want to complete. There’s a lot of wonderful writing there, but overall, it’s a mess, so it’s a big project to take on. It contains tons of sex and body stuff—and of course abjection. We couldn’t live without our abjection in the ’90s. I guess at this point it will be a historical novel. It’s a very ambitious book, and when I conceived it, I simply did not have the skills to complete it. But now I do. I’m taking steps to structure my life towards a daily writing practice rather than the binge writing I’ve been doing the past several years.

LO-B

Okay, I lied, that was not the last question. Do you think abjection is coming back? My feeling is that it is, big time. I should also mention November’s first volume was on the return of the informe. Is it time to read Julia Kristeva again?

DB

I have to admit, I had to Google informe, and I see it’s a word from Bataille. It’s weird I wasn’t familiar with it, as Bruce Boone, an important mentor, is a translator of Bataille. Oops. So, I see it means formless—a concept that has been important to my writing since the early 80s, when I discovered the New Narrative scene here in San Francisco. One article I just read included a list called “forms of formlessness,” and here are the words they listed: dangle, tangle, jumble, litter, mound, heap, junk, foam, fluff, mud, dirt, fat, trash, goo/ooze/putty, mess. It’s funny, but this could be a description of my writing, my love of dejecta and the word ooze. One of my favorite lines from The Letters of Mina Harker is “The monstrous and the formless have as much right as anybody else.”

A related concept from Bataille that I return to repeatedly—because of Kathy Acker writing about it so compellingly—is the headless man, where the linearity of the rational mind is supplanted by labyrinthine twists of the intestines, a sort of gut logic. In her essay “Critical Languages,” Acker offers a great quote by Bataille: “In the face of the weighty animality of death, life appears avid with joy imperative.” I’m assuming he’s talking about an opening to the sublime, but one that’s nastier than that of the Romantic poets. I should add that I always approached Bataille with tons of ambivalence. It’s hard to reconcile him with a feminist perspective. I’m all about writing from a feminist/queer agenda, exploring what it feels to live in a female-gendered or othered body.

CCA actually lets me teach a grad fine arts class called “Sex and Death,” and the first time I taught it, I assigned an excerpt from Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. And even though her theories on abjection were insanely important to my development as a writer (and continue to be important), last spring when I returned to her book, I had no patience for its abstract circuitousness. Should we read Kristeva again? Maybe somebody needs to do a dumbed down version for our internet-rattled brains. I’m not one to make big pronouncements about cultural trends. My attention tends to focus on the micro, on what’s right in front of my face—be it a memory or on a screen or some fragile blip of the “real”—and I let associations spiral out from there. Lately, when I’ve been in situations where a candid conversation is possible—and it’s always one-on-one, never in a group—there is a perception that the US is rushing towards totalitarianism, and expressions of hopelessness follow. And fear. And despair. I assume such conversations are happening elsewhere as well. Is abjection coming back? I imagine that hopelessness and its et ceteras would operate as a sort of petri dish for abjection. So, yeah.

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