Dodie Bellamy is the kind of writer one knows all or nothing about. When friends asked what I was working on and I said, “Reviewing a collection of essays about Dodie Bellamy’s work,” they responded with either a blank stare or sudden, excited recognition. Tempestuous conversations about Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker arose, along with nostalgic memories of the poet Kevin Killian, Bellamy’s late husband, and the archive-like San Francisco apartment they shared. We discussed the beginnings of New Narrative, a literary movement started in San Francisco in the late 1970s in which Bellamy, Killian, and Acker were key figures. Pornography was a common topic, as was queer identity, transgression, cults, gentrification, and New Age. If someone didn’t know Bellamy, then it was up to me to explain how she strings such topics together and to impress upon them why her writing is still so influential.
Dodie Bellamy Is on Our Mind aims to address precisely this. It is a collection of essays written in conjunction with a yearlong celebration of her work by the Wattis Institute at California College of the Arts, presented with a previously unpublished project by Bellamy and Killian. For the past six years, the institute has chosen one artist annually to consider in relation to the question “How does this single artist’s work speak to broader questions about art, culture, and society today?” From September 2018 to August 2019, a group of academics and peers held a select reading group to discuss Bellamy’s work, a discussion which was later opened to the public through a series of monthly events. These included a stage adaptation of a book of e-mail exchanges between Acker and writer McKenzie Wark, an evening of films by legendary underground filmmaker Mike Kuchar, a “manifesto on nothingness” by writer and professor Jack Halberstam threading Bellamy’s work to women’s writing about the domestic, and a reading by Bay Area writers who have studied with Bellamy.
To open the first event, a reading by poet and novelist Andrew Durbin of his essay “Tiny Revolts,” Wattis Institute director and chief curator Anthony Huberman read a selection of Bellamy-specific questions painted on the space’s back wall. “What is new about narrative? Is art ever honest? What is barf art? What does the vulgar have to do with the poetic? Where are the tiny revolts?”
From the resulting essays and events, it’s clear that Bellamy’s work continues to inspire many writers, artists, and filmmakers with an interest in sexuality, progressive politics, and vulnerability. “Even the way that people talk about female desire…. We take it for granted now. In the ’90s we didn’t take it for granted,” recalls the writer Diana Cage, formerly Bellamy’s assistant at Small Press Traffic, the San Francisco bookstore where New Narrative was born. “Dodie is the first place where I actually understood that [female desire] was a thing that needed to be described.”
The three essay authors in Dodie Bellamy Is on Our Mind take distinct approaches. Megan Milks asks, “How does one profile someone who has so thoroughly examined herself?” Milks spends time with Bellamy and others who know her well, including Killian, Cage, the artist Matias Viegener, and Bruce Boone, one of the first New Narrative writers, to define what her work has meant for this creative community. Durbin writes in the collection’s second essay about Bellamy’s use of the personal “I,” a New Narrative strategy that centers the writer’s self and body, and how she places herself within a community to bridge the divide between the personal and political. In the third essay, Kaye Mitchell considers Bellamy’s embrace of vulnerability and vulgarity to examine how her work questions why women are made to feel shame for their femininity and sexuality.
All three circle around crudeness, discomfort, and human imperfection and the way Bellamy’s frankness in probing such topics makes her writing so enticing. Even more enticing is her ability to include gossip, an inherent aspect of the New Narrative writers that, as Durbin observes, presents the author “not only [as] a self, but a self among selves, a self constituted by—and constituent of—a community.” This community is one of gay and queer artists, people from working-class backgrounds, feminists, and activists. By centering the importance of relationships within these largely noninstitutional communities, her work takes a political stance against systems that rely on social assimilation, and alongside those who challenge the norm through even the smallest, most personal acts. Tiny revolts.
Born in North Hammond, Indiana, in 1951, Bellamy grew up in a poor working-class family. A rebel from the beginning, she writes in her memoir the buddhist (2011) that she was precocious as a child.
Over and over on my grade school report cards, one snooty teacher after another wrote “Doris has a bad attitude.” These comments were a source of shame for me, and threats from my mother to stop my damned pouting and behave myself.
In multiple essays, she revisits her strained relationship with her mother and how she felt from a young age that she did not fit in. In Milks’s essay, “Dodie Bellamy’s Crude Genius,” Bellamy uses the word “horrible” to describe her relationship with her father, saying that he was verbally abusive and sexually inappropriate, and that she traces her relationship with obscenity to him.
Bellamy had her first sexual encounter at age 11 at a sleepover with another girl. She was a “predatory girl who was coming on to all the girls at all the pajama parties,” Bellamy tells Milks. The girls’ relationship morphed into a 15-year codependence, and they eventually joined a cult together, which Bellamy writes about in the essay “Cultured” which appeared in The TV Sutras (2014). “It was a really fucked-up, unhealthy relationship,” she says. Bellamy tried to get out of it for years, and after she finally did at 26, she realized the relationship had stunted her emotionally. “I had never individuated in certain ways,” she says. “If I was upset, I had no inner resources on how to take care of myself.”
In the late 1970s, Bellamy left for San Francisco, where she became a core member of the Feminist Writers’ Guild, a group of mostly middle- and upper-class women living in Marin, Berkeley, and San Francisco. She describes meetings on sunny decks where the women fought over how to edit a group anthology, and members burst into tears. “These arguments bored me at the time, as I sat on the floor drunk and stoned, but now I look back on them with awe, the overtness, the trying to work through differences, the belief that classism was bad.”
She started attending classes taught by the feminist poet Kathleen Fraser, who encouraged Bellamy to look into a writing group led by the poet Robert Glück at Small Press Traffic in the Mission District. These weekly workshops became a place for writers who were disillusioned with the then-popular Language Poets, whose work emphasized a stark division between the writer of a piece and its voice. This new group challenged that division, inserting subjectivity into the text and playing with, as Milks writes, “the possibilities of loosely autobiographical storytelling to produce an exploded and unstable ‘I.’”
Bellamy often uses this “I” to blur the boundary between writer and subject. The most fitting visualization of this is her explanation in the buddhist:
Intradiegetic refers to the reality that exists within the narrative of a movie or fiction. The plot, characters, dialogue, etc. Extradiegetic refers to elements that exist outside that narrative. A first person narrator would be intradiegetic, whereas an omniscient narrator would be extradiegetic. The musical score to a film, which presumably the characters can’t hear, would be extradiegetic. If a work is based on something from “real life,” the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the events would be extradiegetic, as would the audience’s familiarity with the life of the actors…. New Narrative…[is all] about problematizing and confusing the division between intra- and extra- diegetic.
Breaking down the divide between what lies inside and outside a text creates “an illusion of confession,” as Bellamy writes in the essay “Incarnation,” to create “intimacy, sometimes discomfort, in the reader.” She blurs this divide to implicate the reader in a form of intimacy, like a friend trusting you with closest-held secrets.
Gossip plays a similar role as a literary device. It disrupts the divide between the text and what lives outside it, playing with levels of knowledge, intimacy, community, and control. Engaging with gossip places New Narrative works in conversation with one another while destabilizing any “true” course of events. It also knits people together by building a narrative that is told by and for the community. In his essay, Durban cites a definition of New Narrative that Bellamy and Killian provide in their introduction to the anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: “It would be a writing prompted…by community; it would be unafraid of experiment, unafraid of kitsch, unafraid of sex and gossip and political debate.” Durbin ties this definition to the activism that came out of the US government’s failure to respond adequately to the AIDS crisis, which intimately affected many New Narrative writers, and the community bonds that were forged for survival.
As Boone wrote in his seminal essay Century of Clouds (1980), a kind of handbook for New Narrative, “A relation is achieved between the one telling those stories and her or his audience and history…. Let’s say these ‘themes’ become power, friendship, ideology and so on. You want what you write to actually cause these to come to exist, you don’t want to just describe them.” New Narrative writers aimed to bring friendship, power, and community off the page and into the real world. By incorporating gossip, Bellamy’s works move beyond a simple description of a community to the construction of an inclusive organism that is being constantly negotiated and reformed—offering space for writers and artists, even decades later, to engage with..
For Bellamy, gossip went hand in hand with sex, because both offer ways she could locate herself within the world. Huberman writes in Our Mind’s introduction, “She doesn’t write poems or novels about sex but imagines ways the writing itself could contain a sexual force.” Sex and bodily scenes often act as visceral moments that bleed into layers of self-reflection. In one of her best-known essays, “Barf Manifesto,” included in the collection When the Sick Rule the World (2015), she intertwines a critique of her friend Eileen Myles’s essay “Everyday Barf” with an episode in which Bellamy horrifyingly clogs Myles’s toilet with paper towels.
The water finally goes down and I flush and the toilet fills up again with my horrible smelly poo, my shame, and Eileen’s in the doorway barking, keep pumping, pump until all the water’s gone, and I argue that it’s not going to work and Eileen argues that’s what she did in New York, and I’m flopping about and sweating and pumping…. Outside grow all these weird tropical plants imported from Hawaii…. Fake is my word for sure, the way my mom called nonindigenous plants “foreign plants,” she said it with a scowl, “those foreign plants,” which so perfectly sums up the conservative Midwestern America I grew up in, for hours I watched my mother gasp and jerk her head to the left, each breath was like this big event, gasp jerk pause gasp jerk pause and the nurses assured me this was a peaceful cancer death and I believed them–gasping and jerking my mother was at peace–I had to believe them.
Her intimate bodily functions—taking a dump in the privacy of her friend’s bathroom—flow into nonnative flora, dialects and class, US geography, cancer, and death. She sets the scene with her “horrible smelly poo” which she calls “my shame,” a shame we all (likely) know. She uses the scene to reflect on other moments of shame, showing that we all live in bodies that engage in similarly vulgar acts, in a society in which we are socialized to be ashamed.
Mitchell argues in the collection’s third essay that vulnerability and vulgarity are the dual forces that Bellamy uses to express her feminist framework. In the buddhist Bellamy writes, “An in-your-face owning of one’s vulnerability and fucked-upness to the point of embarassing and offending tight-asses is a powerful feminist strategy.” Mitchell puts Bellamy’s writing into conversation with works by Chris Kraus, Marie Calloway, Sophie Calle, and Carolee Schneemann, all of whom have practiced radical vulnerability in their work. Rather than hide shameful female desires and anger, Bellamy exposes them:
To embrace the fucked-up, to move towards a maturity and strength that can include and express weakness and embarrassing content of all sorts without shame, to allow myself the full resonance of being a female subject…living in a fucked up nation, in a fucked up world, in the 21st century.
She expresses, as Cage puts it, the need for female desires to be written authentically, by women. “All the experimental poets who are putting blowjobs into their poems,” says Bellamy, “should understand that that wasn’t always the case.” Because of writers like her, it is now so normal to hear sexual content at a poetry reading that it has become a bit mundane. Vulnerability and sexual content are touchstones of younger generations’ use of the Internet, far beyond what anyone would have anticipated in the era of dial-up. On Twitter, raunchy tweets are just a scroll down from political rants and professional updates. Our posts get all scrambled together into one big cesspool, the good, the vulgar, and the vulnerable—a natural extension of Bellamy’s mix of low and high culture writing and a perhaps natural progression of creative expression to deal with living in such an inherently fucked-up world.
The final piece in the collection is the only one written, at least in part, by Bellamy. It is a collaborative project that she and Killian began when he was diagnosed with cancer. They began to alternate choosing a theme every week—say, “Sylvia Plath” or “drawing”—and together would write 1,000 words. They planned to continue for one year, but after only seven weeks, Bellamy was writing from his hospital room.
The pieces read like conversations between two people who know each other profoundly well. They refer to shared people and history, retelling stories they both know and arguing about the details. They do not address Killian’s precarious health until that seventh week, themed “Now.” Kevin discusses chemotherapy (“I honestly thought that chemotherapy was not going to be a big deal”) and the poetry world (“I realize that the struggles of poetry led me into a hideous depression that wound up giving me cancer”). The piece ends when doctors arrive to insert a breathing tube. We don’t hear from Killian again.
The last two passages are naked, raw vulnerability. Bellamy writes in the first person “I” to “you,” Killian, narrating for him their last few days together. In the final passage, the poets Ariana Reines and Julian Brolaski visit their room, and Reines sings them a song.
Returning to the book’s driving question—“How does this single artist’s work speak to broader questions about art, culture, and society today?”—it is clear that Bellamy’s work, along with Killian’s and other New Narrative writers’, continues to inspire generations of artists to produce work that glories in vulnerability, creating its own kind of community. The final Wattis event for Bellamy, in August 2019, was both a tribute to Killian’s life and the relaunch of a magazine that they began together in 1985, Mirage. The revived magazine is called Mirage #5/Period(ical) and is filled with writing by a new generation of New Narrative–inspired artists. They’ve manifested, through their writing, a community that has grown off the page and into the world.