Thursday, July 26, 2007

a conversation with DODIE BELLAMY on writing through the object, the body, Kathy Acker, and more

This e-mail conversation with Dodie Bellamy, CAConrad, Christina Strong, and Erica Kaufman took place in June, 2007

Dodie what can you tell us about writing through objects? Your essay "Digging Through Kathy Acker's Stuff" is digging through my every cell right now, having just given it another read. Not since Maryse Holder's Give Sorrow Words (later given life on the screen by Jackie Burroughs in A Winter Tan) have I found a writer as open to explore the consciousness of THINGS pressed as vulnerable against observant, awakened flesh. Where you write of Acker's Gaultier dress sitting on your dresser while you masturbate nearby creates a watermark for this, freeing you, getting you into your own juices and breath, your pussy and hands your ship and rudder. What did the power of this act ultimately make for you? Were you internalizing information along the way? It's a finger on the way to epiphany, "writhing and grunting" a larger part of yourself loose in order to build a newer frame. At the point of orgasm you hear the dress -- contact finally made, and something's made more whole along the way. I feel like the School of Dodie Bellamy is all over this essay while discussing the School of Kathy Acker, taking our human need for knowledge and making flesh and mind work together. When did you first know Acker's clothes were going to push you into writing this?

Your question is so big and so awesome I feel humbled before it. Objects are, indeed, important to my writing. I love to sit down with an object and write a sort of meditation on it. There's an eroticism to that—the object as a fetish—but more in the sense of its magical hold rather than some simplistic Masters and Johnson drivel. I do believe that "things" have energy. Writing is so abstract—writing on an object is a way to hold onto the world, to insert the world into the mental zooming about.

What you got out of the Kathy dress/sex sequence is interesting to me. The wording of the dress/sex sequence is "I have sex," and I was thinking about sex with Kevin, not the I am woman/I am strong masturbation interpretation—but I like it. In this segment of "Digging Through Kathy Acker's Stuff," I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too. I keep trying to stage these interactions with the dress that would be fun to write about—such as having sex while the dress sits on my dresser—but nothing happens—the dress refuses to open up its meaning for me. By putting in the failed stagings, I still get to write about them. The point of that section emerges when I go to hear Alicia Cohen's talk on orphic poetry:

Then I find my notes from Alicia Cohen's talk on orphic poetry at Small Press Traffic. My journal is dated March 24, in green ink. Beneath that is written:

Levinas—the philosopher never attempts to reveal/penetrate/grasp otherness. Then more fragments about how orphic poetry implies an openness to listening, to what speaks through you. The point is to greet rather than capture and contain the self.

It's at that point I stop trying to force a narrative onto the object/dress and to allow myself to be open to what the dress is trying to tell me. There's a big difference to being open to something/someone and claiming to "understand" them. Understanding is a colonizing position, always reeking of ownership. I see the whole Acker piece as me trying to have sex with the dress, but not in a limited orgasm-goal-oriented way. It's a more pervasive realm of arousal, allowing myself to be possessed by the object, by its emptiness and its embodiment. I wasn't planning to write about the dress—I had plenty of other projects that were higher priority—but the dress wouldn't let me alone, so I went for it, and since it was summer break, I did little else for a month but write this piece. It was glorious.

I've been going through a similar humbling process with my own body. I'm not seriously ill, as far as I know, but my body has gone haywire. I've been obsessing and spending tons of money and doing all sorts of interventions, but nothing would solve the problem. This semester's been a disaster in that I was losing it and getting behind in everything, but finally I became broken to the point where I had no choice but to begin accepting my body on its own terms. Getting to that acceptance has been frustrating and painful, but it's opened up amazing possibilities. I've read the online excerpts from Kathy's last journal over and over again: That last year of her life, she was kicking and screaming, her body was pulling her under, but she opened up to ecstasy. A while ago I went to the de Young museum here in San Francisco to hear an artist's talk by my friend Elliot Anderson, and he began by quoting Edmund Burke on the sublime: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror." Again, the tearing away of the ego, the link to horror. Writing for me is a portal to otherness. It's all consuming. I wish I were one of these people who could say, here I'm blocking out 2 hours to write and then I'm returning to the necessities of daily life. I can't do that, and figuring how to stay with that otherness in my overbooked schedule is driving me crazy.

A couple of weeks ago I was again staying in Los Angeles with Matias Viegener, Kathy's executor, and I got really sick—was running to the bathroom for hours—and Matias was into taking care of me, which I couldn't handle—I was all, leave me alone, let me crawl into a corner and die. But, ultimately I did let him take care of me, and he was so caring, so tender. I couldn't help but think back to his caring for Kathy when she was dying—and that resonance, when he'd pat my back, for instance, was so intense, eerie even. Back to the dress: my inability to understand, possess the dress comes to mirror my inability to posses Acker and ultimately death itself. It's a return to incomprehensibility. The irrational. From Acker's novel My Mother Demonology: "In my first school I had been taught that through rationality humans can know and control otherness, our histories and environments." Of course, Acker's whole writing project was against this stance, creating uncontrollable texts that at every turn subvert impositions of rationality. Acker doesn't allow us to rest in the safe ladylike distance favored in of much experimental women's writing. She submerges us in the shit of the primal; she taints us.

Christina Strong:
What a great response and you made me think more about "the body" and specifically your body, which you write about in Academonia, your bulimia, for example, and your essay "Body Language" and how do you juxtapose the theory behind what we speak/say/write/think and our physical presence and how one incorporates the two. I thought of two things: Kathy Acker's tattoo, a now hip form of body modification, but at one point in history was relegated to sailors and the "underbelly" of society. It wasn't ladylike at all. The second thing I thought of was your conversation with Kevin and Chris Stroffolino after seeing the movie Fahrenheit 9/11. I too have been in many conversations after watching movies like that, or been to many readings after where we have avoided "the thing" and talked obliquely about the subject by using references that are abstracted from the subject. Our current culture subscribes to this. Many of us are on the computer so often we think of ourselves as machines. And emotions, or even having a spark of an emotion is a shame in itself. And yet, in spite of all this dishonesty and outright lying and corruption in our culture, I still prefer, as you mentioned about Acker's writing, "uncontrollable texts" or the "horror" and is writing poetry really a way to make sense of it all. I can see where one would say that but I'm more interested in "failed stagings". Could you say more about this?

I'm so uncool, I don't have any tattoos, but I was planning to get one on my 30th birthday—a heart on my hip. Back then tattoos were still déclassé and I'd have had to go to North Beach to a place sailors and bikers went to. Unfortunately by the time my 30th birthday came round, I was feeling down and isolated, and the tattoo was forgotten about. I wish I'd gotten it, it would be like a note from my younger self—an uncontestable sign that she did in fact exist. A student recently told me how when she was 10 she wrote a letter to herself when she was 25, and she kept the letter and waited until she was 25 to open and read it. I thought this was beautiful, but at the same time I was a bit frightened by her—like what kind of person has that kind of self control? Acker talked about her tattoos as a form of writing—inscribing the body. I keep trying to think of something to say about that—but nothing comes to mind. It was Kathy's thing. Though she and I are polar opposites in so many ways, her pursuit of the body in her writing continues to be an inspiration to me. Because her texts are so open, my understanding and appreciation of them keeps shifting and growing. This is true for everything—but particularly for her—when I'm reading Acker's texts I'm also reading myself. Her texts create a portal for that self reading.

Your mention of the shame of emotion is so poignant. The disenfranchisement of emotion in intellectual circles leads back to the body. Emotion, like porn, operates on the body—those hormones squirting, pupils dilating, blood pressure raising, those changes in heart rhythm are very messy in a system that privileges abstraction. When I was a kid, writing's abstraction was what drew me to it—it was a way to escape my hatred of my body and the pain of my social dysfunction. I didn't want to be in my body. I wanted to be in fantasy land. I clung to the intellect as a state of rarified, disembodied arousal. James Joyce with his spectacles reading Greek, how thrilling, how not nerdy girl in Indiana. But these days I'm obsessed with my own embodiment. I've been getting Chi Nei Tsang treatments, which is a form of deep organ massage. During the treatment, while this woman is poking around in my abdomen, I go into a trance and all these images from my past, fragments of memories, many of which I've forgotten, flash before me rapid-fire. Emotions also well up, but they tend to not be connected to any particular content. And, like I said, all this woman is doing is pressing on my belly, sometimes only with one finger. For years I've heard all the New Age-isms about how we hold trauma in our bodies—but I never really believed it. A lot of the stuff that comes up for me is traumatic, but today I also remembered the red dotted swiss curtains in the kitchen of my apartment in 1980. I found them at a vintage clothing store and I liked their redness and their dots and their ruffles—that's it—nothing intense about those curtain, yet there they were—bubbling out of my body. I'm fascinated by this fusion of viscerality and memory. I don't know what I'll do with it in terms of writing, but it's got to have an impact.

I copied a quote into my journal the other day—from Donna Eden's Energy Medicine—a book I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I'm reading: "When you watch a log burning in a fireplace, you are seeing the congealed energy that is the log transformed into the roaring energy that is the flame." Perhaps this is a metaphor for the connection between embodiment and writing—lived experience/the body would be congealed energy and writing the roaring flame.

Failed stagings. Failure is certainly healthier than perfection. I still struggle with the belief that somehow my writing should be perfect—that belief is so inhibiting—not only does it take the play out of writing, it can stop me from writing anything at all. When I was a student, and a teacher would point out something I could change in a poem, I always saw it that I had done something wrong, made a mistake. Now I'm trying to focus on simply keeping it interesting, in engaging the reader, in riding the interplay between form and content. Messiness and flaws—in people as well as writing—can create openings for tenderness.

I'm really enjoying your responses, Dodie. I too have been thinking a lot about the "body in words" and how emotion plays a role in this triangle as well. I admire your comment that, "Acker doesn't allow us to rest in the safe ladylike distance favored in much experimental women's writing." What is the "safe ladylike distance" and is that a place of disembodiment (because it is easy, because it is not challenging)? This also raises a question I think about all the time—how does one define or characterize a contemporary "feminist avante garde?" Is there even such a thing? In your piece "Delinquent" (from Pink Steam) you write, "Feminism failed because women are thieves. Never having owned anything, not even their selves, they filch texts…souls…dreams…space. The text has no power over its own violation, thus its name is WOMAN." I find this passage to be phenomenally empowering. I'd be curious to hear more about the idea of seeing text as WOMAN, as well as any comments you might have on the idea of physicality of a text.

Ladylike is a pejorative I sometimes sling around mostly because of my frustration with a surface primness in the predominantly hetero middle class white experimental women's scene I encountered in San Francisco in the 80s. I, the working class raunchy bull, sometimes horned my way into the china shop, sometimes the shopkeepers invited me in, but it was an uneasy fit all around. Kevin recently came home with Erica Jong's Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, a how to write manual/memoir. "You have to read this," he demanded, "it is so fantastic and so demented." So I got about halfway through it before I hurled it on the floor. Erica basically says that if she writes something and it doesn't piss some people off, she hasn't done her job. I wish I had her gall. You have some of her spirit, Erica. Were you named after her? While it's always been important to me to make people (including myself) uncomfortable in my writing, when someone does act uncomfortable with it I get all wounded. That said, the safe ladylike distance is not necessarily easy and it can be challenging—and one could argue that it really isn't all that safe.

My "safe ladylike distance" jab—I didn't intend it to be about embodiment or its lack. There are few women (I wonder if there are any) whose writing doesn't somehow address their own bodies or embodiment in a broader sense. But I do think that younger women writing in the experimental—what a horrible word, "experimental," but I'm using it because there is no good word—when I was director of Small Press Traffic, I wrote grants and given the aesthetics of funding organizations, which tended to be towards literary social work, few places I wrote grants for would fund what SPT stands for, so how to kind of whitewash our programming without out and out lying—I came up with the term "innovative" writing. Innovative is wonderfully vague—"experimental" sounds downright scientific beside it—plus innovative sounds so American pick yourself up by the bootstraps, like Henry Ford was innovative. Anyway, from what I've seen, the younger generation(s) of experimental women writers have rebelled against the whole ladylike thing and are producing work that’s more in your face.

In April I participated in CalArts' Feminaissance Women's Writing Conference, held at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with "WACK!" the epochal exhibition of women's art from the 1970s. The presenters were a mixture of academics, poets, and a dash of fiction writers. The poets included Caroline Bergvall, Wanda Coleman, Bhanu Kapil, Tracie Morris, Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young. What I saw there was really exciting—lots of sex, body, abjection—and a privileging of misbehaving as an aesthetic strategy. I felt that my writing project was accepted and valued, like there was a community out there that I made sense in. It was thrilling to experience radical female aesthetics outside of the queer/transgendered scene. The queer/trans scene has been vital to my survival as a writer, but it's had little overlap with the experimental writing scene. (That's why Tim Peterson's recent "Queering Language" issue of the on-line journal EOAGH was so exciting, such a breakthrough.) Feminaissance made me hopeful for the new wave of a feminist avant garde. Women certainly weren't shying away from using the word feminism, from coming out as pro-feminist. The feminist stance we saw emerging was one of inclusivity—that while addressing political concerns in writing is vital, it is not a requirement for feminist writing, that it's also valid for a woman to play around with language if that's what she's into. Proscriptiveness damned 70s feminism, maybe this time around we can do better, go further. Les Figues, the LA-based poetry press, is publishing a book of the conference proceedings that should be fabulous, and I urge my readers to look for it.

Feminaissance had a refreshingly egalitarian spirit. I didn't see much of that dismal posturing for dominance that can happen in groups, and at the end, the organizers arranged an old school session of consciousness raising, and it had a theme, the mother. We approached this session skeptically, with a post -ironic "whatever" stance. There were three tables set up in the main gallery of LACE, the alternative performance and art space in downtown LA. Eileen chaired one, Bhanu another, and the novelist Chris Kraus the third. Kevin and I sat at Eileen's table. Anyone could come, male or female, young or old, published or not, audience as well as speakers. We began by going around the table and stating our names as well as our mothers' names. The longer we talked—and we talked for hours—the more moving the experience was, and the more we escaped what I see as the trap of "she's this kind of writer," "she's that kind of writer." I found, for instance, that hearing about Caroline Bergvall's complex multi-lingual relationships with her parents, opened up the multi-lingual polyvocality of her writing, and what's more, gave it heart. We all walked away at the end of the day saying there should be a consciousness raising after every poetry event.

Now on to your question about the passage from "Delinquent." I was writing in a rather ecstatic, oracular voice, so I don't want to hammer it down too much. For one thing, I was analogizing the instability of a text's meaning—the Barthesian idea that the reader reinvents the text—with the instability of the female persona. Thus the text is WOMAN. I had in mind Acker's project of collaging together other texts/selves, but also my own inability to project any consistent persona. In the experimental poetry scene I've been seen as crass. Among the wild grrrls of the queer scene, I'm kind of staid and conservative. I walk into a faculty meeting, there's yet another projection. So what am I—a bull or a lady? Maybe I'm the whole fucking china shop. And then sometimes, thank god, it hits me that people aren't thinking of me at all.

There's nothing safe about you. And recently I was thinking "WHAT WOULD DODIE SAY?" while watching a video tape of an old interview with Gloria Steinem. It's maybe ten (maybe more?) years old. But at one point she says "the one group who gets more radical with age is women." She then explains that after a certain age women are no longer considered important, meaning they can no longer produce children, are no longer attractive to men, and so on. She says it's a freedom. What do you have to say about this Dodie? What's your experience, and what are your thoughts and feelings about this? You took interest in my recent CALL TO ARMS for Baby Boomers to rise up and make aging SEXY without Botox and surgery, so I'm wondering what you might think about this statement from Steinem.

I had your question in the back of my mind when I went to see the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution show at LA's MOCA. When I walked past Faith Wilding's 1972 "Waiting" video I stopped dead in my tracks. Wilding was dressed school-marmishly, her hair pulled back, and she was rocking back and forth, droning, "Waiting for my body to break down, to get ugly. Waiting for my flesh to sag." When you watch the video from the beginning, Wilding's critiquing passivity in all eras of a woman's life from birth on, but I walked in on the aging woman section, and I was reminded of your desire for images of aging that make aging sexy. It sounds good on the surface, but when one is confronted with a body that's breaking down, sexy can feel beside the point. Aging is scary, Conrad, there's no way around that. I get excited by women writers who stare that scariness in the face—Catherine Lord, for instance in The Summer of Her Baldness, a really smart, multi-layered examination of her confrontations with mortality and the psychological and physical disfigurements of chemo. And Eileen Myles in her as yet unpublished novel, The Inferno. Eileen recently read from it in San Francisco while I happened to be in LA teaching. But Kevin went, and on the phone he was raving about her blunt portrayal of her own aging. "Eileen said she was ruined!" Kevin said he wouldn't be able to approach the subject with such honesty. So I emailed Eileen and by the following afternoon I had a copy of what she read. The "ruined" it turns out is something Jane DeLynn once told her: "Let's face it, Eileen, we are ruined." Eileen then riffs magnificently on her own ruinedness:

But probably she [Jane] was just being contrary or ironic. Or wanted to tell me that I was ruined and she didn't think I could handle it alone. I was actually pretty hard working and nervous in my forties and still thought it was possible to be good, to get it right, to win.

Nope, I am destroyed. A shattered boat of a person. A broken window here, a lousy bell there. An old crappy dyke with half a brain leaking a book. A drippy excrescence. A schmear. [ . . . ] I wrote the first chapter of this book, fucking my inferno, and New York blew up. If I died tomorrow I could really care less. I'd be relieved. Look at me: My face is an old catcher's mitt. Blam. Thunk. Reactions and dents. A cold bent lighthouse. Brrr. A melancholy lava lamp. A woman. A man. A butch. A bitch. Rots of ruck. Watching the fragments float by for years. I'm done. . . H'wo. It's me.

Eileen, of course, is totally sexy and much of that sexiness comes from her in-your-face-ness, a presence so uncompromising, it's like a fist. It takes your breath away.

I'm not like that—and I think that what I've gained in all these years of surviving as a woman and a writer is to stop wishing I were Eileen or anybody else and to be more okay with who I am—"who I am," that sounds so juvenile and reductive, like Paris Hilton in her post-jail Larry King interview. In New York last winter, Bruce Benderson was advising me on how to pose for photos, and he said it's all about looking at the camera, really confronting it, as if to say, "This is me, take it or leave it." This body, this constellation of drives known as Dodie is as much a mystery to me as anybody else. For instance, as I walked through the WACK! exhibit I flashed back to how obsessed with feminism I was in my 20s. It was startling, almost uncanny, to be immersed in these influences—I knew were there, but I had forgotten their impact. Everywhere I looked I saw blatant politicized bodies and art objects referencing or made out of dismissed aspects of female lives. In Senda Nengudi's formalist sculpture, a series of previously worn pantyhose, panties are filled with sand and the legs are stretched taut, so they become cords that form an array of splayed Vs. In the WACK! online audio tour, Nengudi addresses her materials: "I'm consistently drawn to discarded and humble, utilitarian objects such as pantyhose that 'get no respect' because I believe in the transformative qualities in everything and everybody. I believe discarded humans, like discarded and everyday materials, have transformative abilities and potential that can amaze, that can show their poetry, that can stretch far beyond what seems possible." Even though I'd never seen Nengudi's work before, I felt a pang of recognition. I spun around and thought these images, these values made me, and I felt proud that I had stayed true to them in my work.
In the paper I presented at Feminaissance, I describe a photo of the feminist publishing collective I was a member of in the late 70s: "My eyes are round and vacant, I'm staring but don't seem to be seeing anything, so caught up in my own interiority I'm impenetrable. Such withdrawal is my knee-jerk response to group situations. One therapist told me I had 'reverse charisma.'" My social phobia and outsiderness have been huge areas of pain—to be able to publicly declare them (and to get a laugh from the audience) is big for me. To not be ashamed of what I've gone through in life. In some ways aging is easier for me than a lot of women. I've never been attractive to men in a general way, so I'm not losing much there—in fact since I no longer give a fuck, it feels like a gain. Anytime a woman can remove herself from the tyranny of the male gaze it's great. I love surprising subversions, like the controversy around Kelly Clarkson's new album, My December, the rage expressed over an American Idol winner refusing to listen to her record company and putting out a dark, depressing album. Kelly's darkness scares the shit out of some people—to have this piece of fluff embracing her monstrousness and wresting her soul back out of the bubblegum machine. I don't care if the album's good or bad, I can't wait to hear it. My friend, the young poet Julia Bloch, has been theorizing Kelly's subjectivity in an ongoing poem cycle for years, but I don't know what she has made of this latest turn of events. I suspect she finds it as delicious as I do, especially since her longing practically predicated it!

I like myself now in a way that was impossible when I was younger. We live in a culture that breeds self-loathing in women. Whenever I become close to a younger woman, no matter how beautiful or aggressive or highly functioning she seems, she'll moan about her self-loathing. It's sad—and I can say to her, "you're wonderful," up the wazoo, but I know it's a process she has to go through, and hopefully one day she'll claw her way out the other side. Now that I'm older, I feel less of a need to seek external validation in my personal life and in my writing. I've digested a lot of ideas and I've come to the place where I can just say what I think without having to footnote it with some authority figure.

I've always had problems with the public performance of "sexy." Partially because it was so far beyond my capabilities. Sex has always been a private, problematized thing for me—I suspect sex is problematized for most of us—and I've always felt it important, politically and personally, to allow sex to remain problematized in my writing. In this regard, Kevin's writing has been an inspiration, the way he mucks around with sexual expectations. When I taught his story "Spurt," which involves cutting sex gone bad, one student said that "Spurt" contained all the tropes of cutting porn—such as the person getting cut more than they ask for—but with none of the payoffs. When Kevin writes about sex, you can never complacently slip into the position of turned-on, he subverts that. Or if you find yourself turned on, you feel really uncomfortable about it. Discomfort is powerful.

I hate the mandate that writers, in their public persona, be sexy. Look at Stephen King's creepily groomed picture for his Entertainment Weekly column. Ugh! Writers should be allowed to embody their dysfunctional geekdom, to be frumpy with cokebottle glasses, to hide away in rooms and have sex with rats, be sloppy drunks, to grow faces ravaged as catcher's mitts.

1. Dodie Bellamy self-portrait
2. Dodie Bellamy and Kathy Acker's clothes, photo by Kevin Killian
3. Kathy Acker, photo on
4. Pink Steam jacket photo, published by Suspect Thoughts Press
5. Caroline Bergvall, photo on the Salt Press site
6. Eileen Myles, photo by Jack Pierson
7. Senda Nengudi's exhibit at LA's MOCA, photo from the MOCA site


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