Tuesday, October 2, 2012

excerpt from my interview with Dodie Bellamy

My interview with Dodie Bellamy is out in the Denver Quarterly. You can read the first two pages below.

Elizabeth Hall: While the Buddhist charts the dissolution of an emotionally abusive relationship, you often use humor as a way of navigating an array of highly personal, often embarrassing and painful experiences without overwhelming the reader, or losing emotional intensity. The first time you fuck the buddhist is in a kabuki hotel. “There’s no lube, so it hurts like hell,” you write. “I’m reminded of the lecherous Buddhist teacher I read about who fucked his students without lube, and I wonder if it’s a Buddhist thing to do, to fuck without lube, something about not wanting to gloss over an experience.” Humor serves a similar purpose in your chapbook Barf Manifesto, especially in the scene where you overflow poet Eileen Myles toilet: “So I’m pumping and pumping...I’m begging her, this isn’t working, jiggling breasts, pump she says, that same trip her ancient pit bull Rosie pissed on the dining room floor, and Eileen cleaned it up so tenderly, petting Rosie, telling her it was alright, and I hate that she’s treating a dog better than me.” Can you talk a little about how you see humor operating in the Buddhist, and your writing as a whole?

Dodie Bellamy: Humor creates a crack in our resistance to threatening subject matter—when the reader guffaws the ground opens for a moment, and she/he tumbles into the writer’s eager, subterranean hands. In my writing I’m drawn to the horrific, the ostracized, the disenfranchised; I seem to have a compulsion to dive into the center of what many people would rather turn away from. After I finished the Buddhist I found myself watching Richard Pryor videos on YouTube and Netflix; the fearlessness of his comedy is still amazing. Live on Sunset Strip (1982), filmed not long after Pryor was burned badly while freebasing cocaine, veers off his usual topics of race and sex, and directly addresses his drug accident. One extended comic riff is about being in the burn unit of a hospital and the excruciating pain of being bathed when you have 3rd degree burns over a large portion of your body. Pryor’s candor comes across as both generous and aggressive. I remember when the freebasing incident happened, and everybody was making jokes about Richard Pryor—but Pryor’s unapologetic flaunting of the experience onstage is so surprising and destabilizing, nobody could laugh at him. The situation is too uncomfortable to laugh with him—it’s more like the audience is laughing at his command. Pryor, in his vermillion suit and gold lame shoes, is leading us through a rite in which we are forced to contemplate the extremes of human frailty, and that close attention is a form of celebration. In his stand-up routine, Pryor is as unflinching as those holy men who meditate in charnel grounds among the putrefying corpses, but way more fun.

the Buddhist was not a work produced in retrospect. It was written in the heat of loss and rage. Humor was a way for me to obtain enough distance to make the writing process bearable. Similarly, immediately following my mother’s terrible death from lung cancer, I wrote a long piece about her passing, and finding a humorous angle is what allowed me to do so. I had an assignment for Brian Pera’s and Masha Tupitsyn’s anthology, Life As We Show It, to consider how we live our lives through the movies. My mother and I watched E.T. during the final weeks of her life, so in “Phone Home” I used the silliness and joy and grandeur of E.T. as the crack through which to tumble myself and the reader into my relentless mourning.

On another note, I was raised in the Rust Belt, and the working class sense of humor there is pretty sick and brutal. One of the first things I learned when I moved to California was to be careful making jokes for people were appalled by what would have been simply funny in Indiana. Humor in my writing is a way for me to glory in the vulgarity of my heritage.

EH: One of the most striking aspects of the Buddhist is the graphic and honest depiction of the aging female body that still desires and is desired. The book literally opens with a physical description of your naked body, mid-fuck, “ass up in the air, cunt pointed towards the ceiling.” You then tell a story of a colleague who fantasizes about a body suit for older women who take on lovers with two holes for the breasts, big enough for the nipples to poke through but not the areolas, which spread as you get older, just as the labia begins to sag. “Nobody wants to see that,” she adds. However, in a way, the entire text can be read as a rebuttal to “nobody wants to see that.” What role do you see the nonperfect female body playing in your work? How has your approach to writing about the body changed over the years?

DB: I love your reading of the text as a rebuttal to “nobody wants to see that.” Isn’t that the privilege of being a hag—to point a crotchety finger at what nobody wants to see, and then open your toothless maw and cackle with laughter, your wild white mane burning like ice beneath the full moon?

When I was in high school I wrote in my journal that the three things that interested me most in the world were sex, literature, and religion, and I’m happy to say that my writing has stayed true to my teen vision. I explore the sexuality of nonstandard bodies in my writing, mostly because that’s how I’ve experienced sexuality, through my own nonstandard, chubby body. At one point in The Letters of Mina Harker, Mina says, “The monstrous and the formless have as much right as anybody else.” To be female in America, with few exceptions, is to have a fucked up relationship with your body. Though I’ve always been compelled to present imperfect bodies and imperfect desires in my writing, that’s such tender material, I’ve had to approach it slowly over time. As I’ve honed my writing skill I’ve been able to work with a more nuanced touch rather than bludgeoning the reader—or at least have more nuances when I bludgeon the reader. The idea of presenting a glamorous big screen version of my life where I was normatively gorgeous always seemed pathetic to me. I’d rather embarrass myself by acknowledging my painful sense of otherness. Since I first became aware of my sexuality as a child I knew that I wasn’t supposed to own sexuality, that it was the providence of perfect-bodied souls. American culture—from high to low—inculcates us with images in which desire in the overweight or aging or otherwise nonstandard female body is depicted as predatory, pathetic, monstrous.

In June, 2007, when I was teaching in Los Angeles, I went to see WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (1965-1980), at the Geffen branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Walking through galleries packed with feminist-inspired sculptures, videos, framed art, and vitrines displaying ephemera, I encountered the expected images of female drudgery and oppression—but to my surprise and delight there were also all these in your face images of female sexuality. Curator Connie Butler had packed the Geffen with naked tits, cunts, and asses. Ever since I began seriously writing, in the late 70s/early 80s, I’ve been searching for a lineage for my blatant portrayals of sexuality, and at times it seemed like the only female progenitors I could find were Erica Jong and Kathy Acker, and way way back, maybe Sappho. I’ve frequently credited gay men for nurturing my interest in writing about sex, which feels sort of sad, to have had to turn to men for that. But standing in the midst of the WACK retrospective, mouth hanging open in astonishment, I felt like here it was, this art was my lineage. I may not have been familiar with all the women in the show, but I was a teen and a young writer immersed in the same zeitgeist this art was coming out of; I had to have absorbed some of that same energy as Vaile Export, Adrian Piper, Carolee Scheneeman, Lynda Benglis, etc. When I went home all I could think about was the show, and the more I thought about it, I began to be troubled by a nagging footnote. And that was that with few exceptions, the images of powerful female sexuality were of young, thin, mostly white, abled bodies. (Maybe if you did some actual bean-counting of the exhibit, you could prove me wrong, but that was my impression.) Thankfully that’s changed, at least in work I’ve seen coming out of the queer writing and performance scene in San Francisco, where all sorts of “marginalized” bodies are celebrated.

On a mass culture level, the TV show Drop Dead Diva provides a welcome antidote to perfect body fascism. Since some readers of the Denver Quarterly may not be familiar with this Lifetime Network series, I’ll explain the premise. A beautiful fashion model, Deb, dies in a car accident and instead of going to heaven she lands in the body of Jane, an brilliant but obese attorney who also just died. Deb does a make-over on her new Jane body—better hair, chic clothes, etc.—but soon realizes she’s living in a body with appetites and genetics she can’t triumph over, and she has to accept that the body will remain large. Much of the humor of the show centers around airhead Deb having access to Jane’s intelligence, and the surprise she exhibits when something smart comes out of her mouth. She puts a finger to her forehead and says in astonishment, “I know that!” Even though Jane/Deb continues to be ashamed of her weight, men are attracted to her, falling in love with her body as well as her mind. Jane/Deb’s own desires, in turn, are depicted as normal and healthy. She doesn’t need to make herself more attractive; her heroic journey is learning to accept how attractive she already is. Even though it’s dopey and has a Cosmo magazine sensibility, Drop Dead Diva is one of the most radical mass cultural venues in promoting an expanded acceptance of the sexualized female body.

It’s important to remember in life as well as writing that otherness does not merely bring abjection—profound pleasure can be found there as well. As a cheerleader says in Revenge of the Nerds, “Once you go nerd you never go back.” To put it another way, otherness doesn’t inevitably result in disempowerment. The people I’m most drawn to are those I sense some otherness in. Case in point: the buddhist. He once told me that among Buddhists he was perceived as mildly eccentric. One trend in contemporary fiction that irritates me is when the author creates an almost random loser and smugly chuckles over her or him. It makes me want to become a characters’ rights advocate. I sense a desperation in the background of such derisive treatment of marginal characters, a mantra of not me, not me.

Aging has initiated me into a new layer of imperfection. It’s hard to write about it, to not take on the perception that aging is an embarrassment, a failure. If we let it, aging can bring compassion and grace. It’s helped me remove the soft focus gel lens and really gaze into the heart of my situation and of others. For it’s beyond the idealizing gel that the beauty of the world lies. I believe that monstrousness is at the heart of all beauty, and vice versa. Of course there’s no one right or official way to view anything—a constant theme in the Buddhist—but I’m committed to continue to peel away layers—not to get to some truth, for I don’t believe in the concept of truth—but to get to some core honesty that I can live with. I don’t know why I’m drawn to do this, I don’t even believe it’s a necessary thing for art or writing to do. And “honesty” is just as essentialistically problematic as “truth.” Writing is so constructed, honesty is more of a tone than a state of being. Nevertheless I keep going for it. In some ways I’m still that young innocent girl who at one point in her development first caught a glimpse of the hypocrisy of the world and was appalled by it. I have this naive part of myself that still wants to battle hypocrisy and falseness, like a literary superhero.