From Cut-Up to Cunt Up: Dodie Bellamy in Conversation
Dodie Bellamy is the author of Cunt Norton (Les Figues Press), a cut-up investigation of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Though she is typically identified with the fiction world, Dodie Bellamy is no stranger to poetry. Her writing is included in the conceptual poetry anthology I’ll Drown My Book (Les Figues Press). Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian also included her writing in the newly published A Guide to Poetics Journal (Wesleyan University Press). Her chapbook, The Beating of our Hearts, is being released as part of a series Semiotext(e) is publishing for this year’s Whitney Biennial. Bellamy has held the position of Executive Director of Small Press Traffic, the groundbreaking San Francisco literary arts organization, and before that she coordinated their reading series for 12 years. For the past 20 years she has run a legendary, much-beloved workshop in her apartment. I spoke to Dodie soon after Les Figues released Cunt Norton, a sequel to her popular book Cunt-Ups, which have been viewed as a feminist reclaiming of the gesture of the cut-up. We sat on the sofa of her apartment on Minna Street in San Francisco, which she has shared with her partner Kevin Killian since 1990, nestled beneath the glowing offices of tech companies and theaters.
Sara: The Norton Anthology of Poetry is one of those books that a lot of people read when they are first starting to learn about poetry in school. What was your relationship to poetry when you first became interested in writing: how did poetry enter into your early practice?
Dodie: I started wanting to be a writer when I was maybe fourteen, fifteen.
Sara: What made you want to be a writer? Was there a key moment?
Dodie: [Laughs] Well, there were two key moments. One, I took a class in public speaking in high school. Like, early high school. And they had us keep a journal so we would have thoughts to speak about. I totally got into the journal, and at the same time my mom would take me to Michigan, to the fat doctor.
Sara: Were you really chubby as a kid?
Dodie: Yeah, but this was intense. They had a cattle scale, some of the women were so big. Basically what they did was they gave you amphetamines, and so I was on speed for most of high school. I would sit and write in my journal, high as a kite, and writing was glorious.
I was always writing poetry in my journals. My art history teacher lent me Vision in Motion, a 1940s textbook for the Institute of Design in Chicago. It was written/edited by László Moholy-Nagy, who was affiliated with the Bauhaus, and the last hundred pages was an anthology of contemporary literature. Contemporary literature according to Moholy-Nagy was James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Antonin Artaud... the writings of the insane and children... and all this experimental stuff. Reading that in high school totally blew me away. I also loved Allen Ginsberg's Reality Sandwiches, which I carried around with me like a bible. I would try to write my own Ginsberg poems. In high school I really wanted to be an avant-garde writer! But, there was no place in Indiana to get reinforcement for that.
In college, I never took any writing workshops, but I did take a sophomore-level poetry seminar. We're talking two hundred people in a lecture hall, and you would learn how to scan poetry, the different types of sonnets, what a simile was. But the guy who taught the class invited us to share our own poems with him during his office hours. So I gathered up every ounce of bravery and showed him my most recent poems, which were coded lesbian sex poems influenced by Gertrude Stein.
Sara: Did you identify as lesbian, at that time?
Dodie: I was in a mostly closeted lesbian relationship, and the poetry of Stein’s “Lifting Belly” offered me a strategy to write about the more secret aspects of my life. So I brought my poems to Professor A., and his response was "Poetry should mean something."
Soon after that I got involved in second wave feminism and attempted these ra-ra feminist poems that weren't all that interesting.
Eventually, I ended up in San Francisco and took some classes with Kathleen Fraser at SF State and I was so naive! I was working as a freelance graphic artist, so I would either be working a lot or not at all, and when I had time off, I would write for six or seven hours a day, everyday. I remember asking Kathleen Fraser, "Do you write for six or seven hours a day?" Because, to me, she was a famous poet and therefore that sort of schedule would be normal. My dedication to poetry was insane.
I didn't start writing prose until around 1980 when I was in Bob Glück's workshop at Small Press Traffic. At that point I was writing long, linked narrative poems. Narrative poetry just wasn't gonna work in San Francisco in the 80s, given the climate of disjunction that was rampant.
Sometimes I think that it's all poetry that I do. I really love Claudia Rankine's book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely. But what is the difference between that and what I do, except that in her book, each paragraph is a separate page? That's called poetry, but then my book The Letters of Mina Harker, which attempts to push language to the breaking point, is somehow not poetry. You know what I mean?
Sara: What felt so glorious about being in your notebook?
Dodie: Hm, that's interesting. Well, I mean, besides being high [Laughs] I think that freewriting effects you similarly to that later stage in writing where you are so focused in it, you are practically hypnotized. Both ends of the spectrum are like a meditation; the writing feels almost effortless. It’s those in-between phases that are the most difficult. Intense writing, be it freewriting or hyperfocused, is like a spiritual practice. You get out of yourself and let the world rush in, you feel an opening in your heart.
Sara: Yeah, there's a lot of awareness and unawareness that happens when we write. How did you decide to stick with narrative prose writing after Bob's workshop? It seems like, at some point, you made a choice, whether consciously or unconsciously, to focus on a given form and let yourself remain open to moving in a kind of cross-genre mode.
Dodie: Having written all these college papers which were so fucking rigid, I became intimidated by prose, saw it as constrictive. I have drafts of novels that I was writing when I was young and the writing is okay, but they don't offer the kinds of pleasure that poetry can give you: of language play and close attention to the sentence, or the line, or the word, or surprise.
Eventually I figured out how to insert the pleasures of poetry into prose. This is a different approach than many experimental prose writers take, where narrative is the major site of the experimentation. I am not interested in playing with narrative; I am interested in playing with language and form. I include narrative bits, but my organizing principle is more conceptual than plot-based, similar to what I was doing in my linked poems. For instance, I wrote this one long poem called "Split," in which each section examined the word "split" through a different lens. Moving to linked prose pieces was actually a pretty small movement.
My early prose pieces were simple. I didn’t understand prose enough to do what I wanted to do, so I kept things minimal and added flourishes as I developed my skills. The Letters of Mina Harker represents me learning how to write over the course of ten years.
Sara: What were you doing over the course of that ten years, for work?
Dodie: I was a graphic artist. There was this whole cottage industry where all the weirdoes could make lots of money making corporate slideshows.
Dodie: Yeah. This was pre-computer graphics, using animation cels. I would work on $100,000 slide shows! Banks of projectors flash smiling employee heads in synch with a popular, upbeat pop song, with the lyrics changed to reflect corporate values. They were really vulgar and gross. I started out in Chicago, where the they did a lot of work for McDonalds. I would paste up slides that said stuff like "Turn patties, now"
Sara: Oh no! [Laughs]
Dodie: By the early 90s that occupation had pretty much been wiped out by personal computers and corporate downsizing. The next several years were rather listless. I temped, I dabbled in journalism, I worked in the office of California Poets in the Schools. Then in 1995 I was offered the Executive Director position at Small Press Traffic. I took a number of classes on non-profit management, because I had no idea what an executive director did. I didn't have any clothes to wear at these things! I had thrift store striped t-shirts and shrunken cardigans—or I had party dresses from the 1940s and 50s. All the other non-profit professionals looked like regular workers. So I went to Macys and charged these horrible pants suits. I couldn't figure out any way to not look like a freak in work clothes.
Sara: Vintage clothes were totally in, in the nineties!
Dodie: Yeah, but these weren't just vintage clothes, they were party dresses. Eventually, while I was at Small Press Traffic I started teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, one class a year. They offered two creative writing classes for undergrads—Prose and Poetry. One semester Leslie Scalapino would teach Poetry, and the next semester I would teach Prose.
Sara: You started writing Cunt-Ups, around this time, right? Through that class?
Dodie: In the prose class we read William Burroughs’s instruction for how to write a cut-up and then the students wrote their own cut-ups. I was impressed by their results, so over winter break I wrote Cunt-Ups.
Sara: In a month?
Dodie: Yeah, but that was a month of doing nothing else. I really love to binge write.
Sara: When you’re writing, do you always begin with freewriting? Do you ever approach writing and say "I'm going to write a poem," "Now I'm doing a cut-up"?
Dodie: My writing is usually project-based. Sometimes I'll agree to write something for a stapled zine to create an assignment for myself. I’ll start playing around with a topic and at a certain point the form will reveal itself to me. I was recently one of several poets who were commissioned by SFMOMA to write a poem in response to their Mark di Suvero exhibit. No matter how hard I tried, I could not make what I was writing into a poem! It wanted to be a memoir/essay and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Sara: Oh I remember that! We posted about that on Harriet!
Dodie: I had very specific ideas in mind that I wanted to get across and it didn't seem like a poem was a good vehicle for that! And then I started thinking, "What would a poem be a good vehicle for as opposed to what would prose be a good vehicle for?"
Sara: Did you come to any good conclusions?
Dodie: I did come up with some conclusions! Because I was REALLY frustrated, I really wanted to write this fucking poem and I couldn't write the poem. For me, prose involves talking about moments, while poetry is more geared toward creating a moment. That would be the difference. Does that make sense to you? It makes YOU experience the moment, as opposed to prose which presents ideas relating to another moment. This conclusion was influenced by a poem talk Lindsey Boldt gave this summer at n/a gallery in Oakland. I presented that evening as well. It was part of a series curated by Sophie Dahlin in which two poets would each talk for an hour about one poem they had written.
Sara: What did Lindsey talk about at her poem talk?
Dodie: Lindsey’s process is about observing a moment and then drawing material out and shaping it. She begins by situating herself in an environment—the example she gave was an irritating coffee house—and freewriting about it. Then she goes through and underlines bits that are interesting, copies them out, then adds in other parts of the journal that resonate. Even though the journaling is all about the moment, in the finished poem you would not know this. Her process involves taking word units and moving them around until something clicks. It’s like sculpting, as opposed to writing about sitting in a cafe and there's that irritating person over there, that I don't like. Similarly, my book Cunt Norton was about creating this experience for the reader. It doesn’t directly address the politics of representation or academization, even though that's what the book's about. The poems themselves are about moments... moments of language.
Sara: There are so many moments, and so many points of meeting too. Tell me, I don't know why I'm backstepping a teeny bit, but I really want to know what you said in your talk, too. Did you talk about Cunt Norton?
Dodie: Yeah, I did, I read the Artist Statement that accompanies Cunt Norton. Then I handed out a packet that included a copy of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” then “Fern Hill” with its line breaks removed to create a prose block, then my “Cunt Thomas.” All the poems in Cunt Norton are based on poems in the second edition of in the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I removed the line breaks from each poem, then cut the resulting prose block into quarters. I passed around some taped-together cut-ups I worked from, which each contained two quadrants of a Norton poem and two quadrants of porno-erotic text. I also brought in some sample pages of the porno-erotic text.
Sara: What's the porno-erotic text?
Dodie: It was a collaborative piece that I wrote with another poet over email.
Sara: How did you decide to incorporate the collaborative piece into something that was your own writing?
Dodie: I went through months and months of these playful emails and pulled out every dirty line, from both of us. Then I alphabetized them.
Sara: By first letter of each line?
Dodie: Yes. It starts out with "A cave..." "A few drops..."
Sara: Wow, you would never know that.
Dodie: I did the alphabetizing manually, and some of it is not quite right. [Laughing] So it creates this rhythm. I used the same text when I wrote Cunt-Ups, which was published in 2001.
Cunt-Ups was supposed to be a chapter in a novel that remains unfinished. I didn’t conceive of it as a book. But I read from it in New York, and afterwards poets Julie Regan and Lee Ann came up to me, and Julie said, "Lee Ann, you should publish that" and Lee Ann said "Okay." And so then, Cunt-Ups came out from Tender Buttons.
Sara: How did you decide after Cunt-Ups that you were going to use the same procedure for the Norton Anthology.
Dodie: Five or six years ago I was invited to contribute a poem to a local art zine, so I just grabbed “Bunt Norton” by T.S. Eliot and cut it into the erotic text, and I called it “Cunt Norton.” The title made me think of the Norton Anthology, and I thought to myself, "I should make my own Norton anthology." Then one day I had this ah ha experience—Les Figues would be a perfect place for a new Norton anthology. So I contacted them and I sent them the “Cunt Norton” poem and they accepted it. Then I had to write the whole thing.
Sara: How long did that take you?
Dodie: I worked on it for a few months casually, then summer break came and I worked on it intensely for another month. It was an enormous task! I was whimpering, it took so much effort to stare at gobbledygook and then try to figure out how to make sentences out of it that flow.
Sara: You can really trace the progression of the English language throughout Cunt Norton too.
Dodie: Yeah, I arranged them in chronological order.
Sara: Do you position yourself within the narrative at all, or is it a being unto itself?
Dodie: No, I just see the speakers as "The Lovers." They go through different moods in each poem.
Sara: Yeah, yeah. And there's always different activity going on too.
When I read Cunt-Ups and Cunt Norton, I think that part of it, maybe a big part of it, has to do with your identity and your politics, and bringing that into the gesture of this cut-up.
Dodie: I was never really interested in the cut-up as a form. I was already doing collage and I knew lots of other people who were using collage as an intuitive gesture. It seemed to me that only someone who had no access to an intuitive sense of reality would need to cut the text up and tape it back together to get to this non-linear place. It seemed, in my reductive view of things, a very male thing to do a cut-up.
Sara: What about it?
Dodie: Just that you would need to physically and violently rip these texts up and tape them back together in order to transcend logocentrallity. So, I used pornographic material for my cuts-ups and renamed the form “cunt-ups.” It's a joke, but it’s also a feminist re-claiming of the cut-up. I'm sure Burroughs would have no problem with that. Burroughs doesn't seem to dislike sex, right?
This past semester I taught Burroughs and Gysin’s The Third Mind, and now I’m thinking it really does make a lot of sense. Their position is that no matter how much you may want to get past pre-programmed existence, it's impossible for your mind to really think in new ways. So the literal cutting of texts forces your mind in new directions, allowing you to transcend the false logic that we live in. The cut-up reveals the truth behind the crap that's being fed to us. The illogic behind the logic. So, I'm appreciating Burroughs more and more.
Sara Wintz was born in Los Angeles and studied literature and writing at Mills College, Oxford University (BA), and Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard (MFA). Her first book, Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012) is an epic poem...