“Cheerfully Monstrous”: Dodie Bellamy on Writing and Grieving

“I didn’t pay much attention to what was being put in the archives… there are letters that, if I had been paying attention, wouldn’t be there.”

When the writer Dodie Bellamy lost her husband, she entered an epilogue of rationality. Bellamy, the author of more than a dozen works of poetry and creative nonfiction, was married to the poet Kevin Killian, a fellow writer of the avant-garde New Narrative movement, for 33 years. When Killian died, Bellamy became “a creature of impulse and instinct, ravenous for media images that resonate with my unendurable.” This confession comes to us from her newest collection of essays, Bee Reaved, a book about living in the “anti-space” of widowhood, the salvific banality of a makeup guru’s Instagram feed, Mary Beth Edelson’s unruly Goddess images, the voluptuous imagination of Leonora Carrington, why vignettes make for ideal bathroom reading, and much more.

One can point to several themes that tunnel through all Bellamy’s works—the polymorphously perverse, the pornographic, the dialogue between vulgarity and propriety, cultural appropriation, authorship, the politics of language, and the possibility of rebellion in a deeply antagonistic age—yet to articulate a neat set of her interests feels like an especially egregious act of opposing an author in her instinctive sense of mission: her refusal to be confined by systems and categories. (One might also paraphrase Beckett on Joyce and say that Bellamy’s writing is not about something; it is that something itself.)

Like Kathy Acker, for whom “the only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense” and with whom Bellamy is often associated, Bellamy’s work sprawls across many forms. She has published blogs, zines, poems, novels, essays, and memoires, as well as experimenting with the techniques of cut-up and détournement. As she wrote in Barf Manifesto, she is committed to a form of art where “meaning is so surplus it decimates form.”

The meaty materiality of life is never far from her mind: in Bee Reaved, we read about the sagging skin and wrinkles of women of a certain age, as well as Bellamy’s habit of composing essays while sitting at her desk in front of a room with only a toilet and a cat’s litter box in it (“septic,” it turns out, is Australian slang for an American). Some of the most indelible chapters are duets in which Bellamy and Killian improvise conversation about a range of topics, including clown shoes and the carnivalesque, their first sexual experiences in childhood, and Sylvia Plath’s inspiring resistance to “dronedom.”

I talked with Bellamy over Zoom in November about Bee Reaved and some of her earlier works, including The Letters of Mina Harker, an epistolary novel originally published in 1998 and newly reissued by Semiotext(e).

Rhoda Feng (RF): Many of the pieces gathered in Bee Reaved have been previously published and were commissioned for different venues and catalogs. When did the idea come to you to put these disparate pieces between two covers?


Dodie Bellamy (DB): As soon as I finished When the Sick Rule the World, the last collection, I started writing toward this one. I would make these disparate pieces fit various themes on mortality and aging. But then Kevin got sick, and his illness and death became my entire world; I couldn’t write about anything else. I really hate those collections where it just feels like all the garbage the author has written in the last 10 years goes into them. Dividing Bee Reaved into two parts, the before and the after, the here and the where, was my strategy to make the collection feel like it had some cohesion.

If Kevin hadn’t died, I never would have included those dialogue pieces I did with him. But he was really into collaboration. I do not value collaboration at all really—like, people get together and they do work that is not as good as when they are alone. That’s my attitude, but that is obviously not true. Some forms, like film, are very collaborative, but in general I have avoided writing collaborations. But, oddly, the final year of Kevin’s life, we kept being commissioned to write collaborative essays. I included some of them in Bee Reaved because I wanted to bring his voice and how we interacted into the book, so the reader would have a sense of what was being lost.


RF: You’ve talked about creating a sense of vulnerability in your work. Were you consciously calibrating a certain level of exposure in Bee Reaved?


DB: I was tracking how much I could handle, because I was writing this during the course of actually grieving. I couldn’t approach the pain directly, so I created a persona, Bee Reaved. Bee’s very much me, but it’s like she’s living my life at a distance. There are three Bee Reaved pieces about Kevin, and their tones morph as I move through the grieving process.

The first one is really alienated—Kevin is not named. I didn’t feel much for a long time, and so the piece tracked that numbness. In the second piece, I’m still in the third person, but I’ve softened to the point that Kevin can be named. The final one was really, really hard to do. I was planning to do that one in the third person too, but as a side project I was working on a letter to Kevin, which kept getting longer and longer, and I decided to merge the letter with the third Bee Reaved piece. The lack of mediation that resulted from the letter form was really difficult for me, like insanely painful. It took five months to write, but it really was useful in that I was able to actually start connecting to Kevin again.

RF: You’ve worked in a number of modes, from the epistolary to a feminist version of the Dadaist cut-ups that Burroughs peddled in the ’50s and ’60s. Your books are almost an example of “genre flail,” to use a term from Berlant.


DB: Genre fail?


RF: Flail. For Berlant, “Genre flailing is a mode of crisis management that arises after an object … becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes on one’s confidence about how to move in it.”


DB: Flail, that is what I heard at first. I love that term—I should write it down.

I know some people who are what one might call formalists, who begin with a form and contort their content to fit the form. I’m always more like, “I have this topic, I have this material,” and then I look at it and I’m like, “What will get this across?” I planned for my book The TV Sutras to be a formalist project. After I performed the exercise of creating my own religious text, I was then going to write a straightforward memoir, but I soon realized that a straightforward memoir would not give a sense of how altered one’s world view becomes in a cult. I then started inventing characters, and at the end the text is colonized by this ecstatic poet having her crazy experiences. My goal switched from memoir writing to inducting the reader into the cult of the book.


RF: I was interested in your use of the word “cult” just now, because you have also used that word to describe the New Narrative movement in previous interviews. Could you say more about that? For me, your writing often gushes forth and settles in a crevice between the conscious and unconscious. Was this sensibility something that you picked up from New Narrative?


DB: Yes, saying that about New Narrative is being really pissy. But MFA writing programs also totally feel like a cult. They have their own language and cult behavior all over the place; you don’t have to join something like an ashram to have that experience. My concern with the unconscious, while not at odds with New Narrative, is not representative of its agenda.


RF: Yes, I’m now thinking of Mark McGurl’s 2009 book about MFA vs. NYC—The Program Era.


DB: Oh yes, I read that.


RF: He also just published a book about Amazon, and how it’s structuring the formation of new forms of narrative or new genres in a sense.


DB: Kevin wrote so many Amazon reviews, he was inducted into their Hall of Fame. We’ve just archived them. Some of them are gone, but the document is over 3,000 pages long. Kevin co-opted the Amazon review as a literary form for himself.


RF: There’s a section in your book where you write about your stalker, and you create a spread of thumbnail images of items that your stalker has bought online and sent to you. You write that an artist friend gave you the idea to take the photos, but the tableau is also uncannily reminiscent of the spread that precedes Kevin’s Amazon reviews.

Having those two pieces rattle around in my head quickened an interest in consumerism, class consciousness, precarity, what you might even call “crapitalism.” Do you see any connection there, or am I going too far?


DB: That is brilliant. It’s a really interesting connection you’re making. That piece is about using capitalism to critique capitalism, like there is no way out. The stalker is sending images of objects that are unreadable. That’s why I started creating characters based on the objects.


RF: If I can ask a slightly intrusive question, do you think your stalker has read Bee Reaved?


DB: No, I do not know for sure who the stalker is. The stalker in the book is this creation of mine. I have no idea.


RF: Would you maybe care to speculate what Kevin’s Amazon review of this book might be, if he were able to reach back out?


DB: I don’t know. He would give it a positive one. Tripwire, which is run by David Buuck out of Oakland, is putting out the fourth chapbook of Kevin’s Amazon reviews, and I did the intro. He could be really absurd when writing about household objects or weird cookbooks, like that toaster-oven cookbook. But when he wrote book reviews, they were very serious. Some of them were like celebrity bios, but he also wrote up a lot of poetry books and experimental writing that would normally not get reviewed on Amazon.

A lot of women I’ve known are really interested in that feral part of themselves.

RF: To pivot to another periodical, is the periodical Mirage that you and Kevin worked on still being published, or it is archived somewhere?


DB: The first few issues of Mirage were perfect bound, but at a certain point, when that was no longer financially sustainable, we produced Mirage periodical number four as a series of 150-ish photocopied and stapled zines. The zines are in a few archives. We worked on that for years until Kevin got caught xeroxing it at his office.

Many years later, when I was the subject of the Wattis Institute’s On Our Minds series, they funded another year of Mirage, and we produced Mirage periodical number five. After all these years of it being down, it was great to start working on it again. The fourth issue was just cut and paste, but the 12 zines in number five were digital.


RF: To clarify, you mean literally cut and paste?


DB: Yes, it was old fashioned. Kevin would print out the title and then paste the cover image beneath it. I used to be a graphic artist before computer graphics came in, and that’s how we laid things out. That is so funny that I would even have to explain that. It just shows how the world has passed me by.

The Wattis gave Kevin $1,000 to pay people, so that meant anybody whose work appeared in Mirage number five got $20. We would email the PDF to the Wattis and they would make as many copies as we wanted, but Kevin would still sneak and make copies at his office. It gave him a thrill.

People would say that Mirage was the easiest magazine to get into and the hardest magazine to find. The Bay Area, and poetry in general, has this whole history of these little marginal magazines. It is very low risk, so you can take all these chances. People who try to edit too carefully and make sure everything is perfect, their magazines are dead. You need to take risks and be open to surprises in editing.


RF: Yes, there was also an element of stealth in commissioning cover art. You or Kevin would ask for autographs …


DB: Yeah, Kevin had a vintage autograph book that he would get artists to sign. We would take an artist’s autographs and blow it up and put it on the cover. Often it was a famous artist. As Charles Bernstein once said, Mirage was the absolute low end of high art. That was our tag line. That DIY aesthetic is something I would really not want to lose, because I value it. There need to be small presses that are going to publish stuff that is not acceptable for mainstream publishing, like Semiotext(e).


RF: You have this line in Cunt Norton: “All is permitted, as long as we come.” There’s a libidinal charge to your writing, and I wonder if you see your work as part of a lineage. It makes me think about Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar talking about bodily fluids in writing by French feminists. They’ve made the claim that Hélène Cixous’s writing was a mix of vomit and blood, which is totally different from the fluids one typically associates with feminist writing (like milk).

Do you think that there’s a connection between Cixous’s incorporated writing and your writing?


DB: I read all that stuff and was very much influenced by it, so I would say so. I could never really connect to Cixous. But Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body blew me away and I still think that book is really radical: the way it presents this shredded, fragmented, gross body, rather than an aestheticized body. And Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection was really important to everybody I knew.


RF: What you just said also connects with something else you’ve written about your form, which you’ve described as “feminist, unruly, cheerfully monstrous … an upheaval, born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ.” You’ve also written about this alternative to the subaltern, which you’ve called the “feraltern.” Can you talk about what you mean by that term?


DB: A lot of women I’ve known are really interested in that feral part of themselves, the part that cannot be tamed. It’s always a struggle to hold onto that part of ourselves, to allow the feral part to speak. My idea of the feraltern was influenced by reading Diane di Prima’s Loba poems, where Loba is this wolf goddess that comes upon the poet. My memory of all my favorite lines is that they seem to be in the third person. Like, di Prima watches the Loba and tells us what the Loba is going through, but we do not actually get the Loba saying, “I’m a feral bitch.” The feral, in these poems, is connected to subconscious drives.


RF: You mentioned briefly in one of your e-mails to me that you are teaching a class on Plath. I’d love to hear more about this.


DB: It’s for an undergrad course at California College of the Arts, but I hardly ever get any art majors. My students are all design, illustration, or architecture majors. I’ve got a population where maybe one out of 15 students has ever heard of Sylvia Plath.

They really like her. All of them do. This is the second time I’ve taught the class and I start with all the myths about her and the misinterpretations, and they feel sympathy for her because they have all felt misunderstood themselves. We start out with “The Stones,” which is not an easy poem. It’s astonishing how much these students with no literature background, get out of the poem. We read a section from Plath’s journal where she goes to a local bee-keepers meeting, and then we read one of her bee poems, and compare the journal and the poem. The only complete books we read are Ariel and The Bell Jar.

I talk to them a lot about how poetry is experiential and get them past the idea that the goal of reading a poem is to be able to summarize it. For their final project, they have to take a poem from Ariel, research and compare two different interpretations of it, and come up with their own interpretation.


RF: What advice would you give to people who are looking to become writers?


DB: I would say the number one thing is: do a lot of reading. It’s shocking how many people will go to grad school for writing when they are not readers. So, that’s what I tell people.

I just worked really, really hard. When I first moved to San Francisco, I had ended a relationship, so I was living by myself. I would write seven hours a day. This was poetry, and I thought every serious poet did that.

I was not born with the ability to write well. Obviously, there must have been some talent there, but I worked hard to perfect my skills. Don’t expect it to come quickly. I spent five months writing the last piece in Bee Reaved. I am very slow at writing, and I’m envious of people who can write quicker.

RF: In the first chapter of Bee Reaved, you write about turning over your papers to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University—a situation you liken to a hostage negotiation. There’s this wonderful line: “The more the papers are organized, I start to think of them as an exoskeleton protecting me from annihilation.”

But I’m curious—in many ways your published work has been about, if not annihilation, then certainly shedding the carapace of conventionality. So, what is the difference between the exposure that comes from having your papers amassed at Yale for researchers to see and sending a book out into the world?


DB: The writing in a book is something I have control over. I spend all this time shaping it to create an effect, and the reader sees what I want them to. But the archive is unmediated, so it does feel more violating. I have all my journals since I was 14; they’re not going anywhere until I die. I didn’t pay much attention to what was being put in the archives, and there are letters that, if I had been paying attention, wouldn’t be there.


RF: Your collection at the Beinecke includes a cache of unpublished writing. I can’t resist naming some of the tantalizing titles: “Baby Auden,” “A Sex Memoir,” an entry on blackmail, another one on Shakespeare mansions, “The Mayonnaise Jar.” Are most of those unpublished works by you or by Kevin? And are there plans to further develop any of those pieces?


DB: The only title that I recognize from that list is “The Mayonnaise Jar.” I was married before, and once, when my mother was visiting, I got in a fight with my then husband. We were on the verge of breaking up, and I attacked him with a mayonnaise jar. It was so stupid. And it didn’t go down well with my mother. The story that came from this incident was failed writing.


RF: I’m curious about your choice of epigraph for the first chapter, which is from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “One does fill some with all one takes in, and I’ve taken in, I dare say, more than I’ve natural room for.” I’d love to hear you say more about this. Do you find that 19th-century novels—or James in particular—are good to think with?


DB: Henry James is his own category for 19th-century novels. I started out with The Portrait of a Lady, which is Henry James light; it’s so accessible, and I was reading his books to go to sleep at night. I read The Ambassadors each night sitting up in bed and falling asleep to it. My mind was already in a hallucinatory state and, in reading those hallucinatory Henry James sentences, I found the only way to do it is to just submit to them and allow them to filter into you.

That experience of slowing down while reading also happened for me with Villette, by Charlotte Bronte, which I had never come across in my younger days. With Villette, too, once you slow down and sense the expanse of time, it is just so beautiful. It made me feel a longing for a different life than the one I have now.


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RF: Was that ability to slow down a function of just having more time to focus your attention on those loose baggy monsters, or was there something about Bronte’s writing?


DB: Part of it is her attention to detail and the space she creates to get inside a character’s psyche. I felt like I knew Lucy Snowe. At some point, she has a breakdown, and I felt right in the midst of it, as if I were swimming through the breakdown with her. Whereas, a lot of contemporary novels are written from the middle distance—you feel outside the character and you never really get into that deep empathy with them.

In teaching, I often talk about foreground and background: everything can’t be heightened. Some parts should be sketchier than others to allow the important bits to pop through. There are so many rules in teaching graduate writing programs, it just drives me crazy. I studied with people in New Narrative and the one thing they were very big on is the power of telling rather than showing. I see students doing these weird machinations to get ideas into their books because they have been told they have to show it through all these little hints. And I think, “Why?”


RF: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that, at some point, you wanted to become a photographer. This gets to the tension between saturation and smoothness, or saturation and selection, which can also become an ethical and political tension—between what we choose to notice and what we choose to neglect.


DB: Totally. One of the things that drew me to writing was my desire to throw off received hierarchies—what in the ’80s we would call “logocentrisim” and “patriarchal blah blah blah.” I was recently reading Camera Lucida, and, like everyone else, I was taken with Roland Barthes’s concept of the punctum: “The punctum of a photograph is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” But when Barthes would give an example of the punctum, I kept looking at the photograph he would be analyzing and thinking, “No—you’re not looking at the right place. That’s not where the disruption is happening.”

At the core of any feminist (or any other politically inspired) writing project is the impulse to shed light on that which has been hidden or denied. Thus, my ongoing devotion to discarded or degraded subjects.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured Image: Provided by interviewee Dodie Bellamy.