June 9th, 2011 / 1:09 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Dodie Bellamy}

Dodie Bellamy’s most recent book is the buddhist (Publication Studio), an essayistic memoir based on her blog, Belladodie.  Her most recent chapbook is Whistle While You Dixie (Summer BF Press).  Time Out New York named her chapbook Barf Manifesto (Ugly Duckling) “Best Book Under 30 Pages” for 2009.  She usually teaches 4 classes a semester in the grad writing programs at Antioch Los Angeles, California College of the Arts, and San Francisco State.

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

The body is a central concern in my writing—sexuality, of course, but also illness, death, and the uncanniness of physical sensation.  I’m excited and delighted that so many other women these days are inserting the body into the cerebral heights of experimental literature, are subverting the Western mind/body split.  In the heat of writing, the text becomes a sort of lover, and I fall in love with it with the same passion and obsession that I would bring to a human lover, raging hormones included.  Whomever or whatever I write about I fall in love with, and so my body is very much involved in the process, that dissolving of boundaries and being totally open to what’s being revealed to me.  I think we all should be as dirty and abject and visceral as possible, but also celebrate the wonders of embodiment.

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

Given the position of experimental writing in the U.S., meaning its non-position of pretty much total disregard, experimental writing obviously doesn’t have much power as far as making concrete changes in our environments.  It’s not going to stop the assault on unions in the Midwest, for instance.  Experimental writing is not going to spark a worker’s revolution.  But it can have powerful impacts of a smaller scale, that smaller scale where we tend to live our daily lives.  One example that comes to mind was the revisioning of gay male porn—in writing and in film—in response to the AIDS crisis.  Men were dying from unsafe sex, but who really likes safe sex—for many, sex was becoming a site of terror—so in the late 80s/early 90s there was a call to create pornography that made safe sex hot.  People were creating “art” in an attempt to save lives.  That’s beautiful.  It’s unlikely that experimental writing is going to make anybody rich.  With few exceptions, the most an experimental writer can hope for is an occasional grant or a teaching position that will gouge away at their time to write.  Devoting one’s life to an activity with little chance of bringing any sort of significant cash reward is a revolutionary act within the virulent capitalism we inhabit.

When I moved to San Francisco in the late 70s, I did not develop on my own an awareness of the political implications of writing, I was indoctrinated into one—first through my involvement in the Feminist Writers Guild, and later through the queer experimental narrative scene, a scene fizzing with not only gay, but feminist, race, and class politics.  There was still an aura of Marxism, but I entered the arena too late to receive the full brunt of it.  Foucault was very much present, both as a theorist and as an active participant in gay bathhouse culture.  I have a friend who will tell anybody who wants to listen, how he fisted Foucault.  I was taught that writing about gay and women’s sexuality was first and foremost, a political act—giving voice to what has been denied voice.  So my personal take on narrative was incubated by people who were dealing with an otherness that wasn’t just imagined, people who’d experienced otherness from the inside out, the glories and horrors of that.  Lots was being said at the time about how conventional narrative was dead, that it had been corrupted by the language of corporate speech and advertising.  We agreed that narrative was dead, but we also were aware that people on “the margins” still had stories that needed to be heard.  How to address these important needs in a manner that isn’t clichéd, that opens up our understanding of the world in fresh ways—that’s where experimental form came in.  There was a strong belief that in using conventional forms, we would inevitably be reinscribing the patriarchal master narrative that was oppressing us all.  Look at the basic sentence structure of English:  subject-verb-object.  The subject operates upon the object.  This is a syntax of domination, colonization.  New experience, we idealistically believed with all our hearts, needed new forms.  The glibness of some recent experimental writing frightens me, especially when the work addresses the grotesque and human suffering—I think of those smiling GI’s—especially the woman—giving the thumbs up in photos of Abu Ghraib.

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

The beauty of literature, as of art, is that it affirms that there are important aspects of human existence that have no “practical” use.  That there’s a huge population engaged in experimental writing here in the U.S., where there is little support or value given to it is one big F-you to capitalist commodity culture.  In the 90s, when I was director of Small Press Traffic, a literary arts organization in San Francisco that promotes experimental writing, on grants I constantly had to grapple with this notion of use value.  Literature is the hardest art to fund, and what many funders want to see is that an organization is providing some sort of measurable social work function—how there are fewer pregnant teens because of our programming, or whatever.  I soon learned to avoid the word “experimental.”  Instead, I’d say “innovative” writing, to put us on the side of Western notions of progress—nothing kinky or lazy about innovative; Horatio Alger was innovative.  Writing grants, I always felt like a dirty corrupt bullshitter, but the worse was this one big city grant application for which I had to include a paragraph on how our events increased tourism in San Francisco.  Fortunately, people from Berkeley and Oakland were considered tourists, so I’d have to come up with all these statistics about what percentage of our audience was from out of town, and talk about how they frequented neighborhood restaurants and bars and generally increased neighborhood revenue.  It was ludicrous.

Let’s talk about alternative forms of production and distribution, and the new realms of publishing being created online.  This past year I decided to push the personal memoir aspect of my blog, and center it on a romance I had with a Buddhist teacher that had ended.  The more I worked on the project, the more writerly my postings became.  Eventually, Colter Jacobsen suggested that he and I produce a book based on my blog posts.  Colter runs the San Francisco branch of Publication Studio, a print on demand press that was founded in Portland by Matthew Stadler and Patricia No.  I thought about Colter’s proposal for like 2 seconds and said yes, and named the book to be the buddhist. As soon as a book loomed on the horizon, issues of “real” writing versus blog writing came up for me, and by extension, “real” publication versus print on demand publication.  How real/valid was my book, and therefore how much work should I put into it?  Does my Publication Studio book count as much as my university press book?  On the Publication Studio website there’s a video by Matthew Stadler that astutely addresses these issues.  He talks about publication as a political strategy, involving the creation of a public.  He argues that due to the plurality of conversations made possible through affordable publication technologies and digital distribution, the old dichotomies of underground and dominant no longer hold, that we need to dispel “the power of the myth of the mainstream.”  Matthew is a visionary.  His arguments are radicalizing and empowering, and I love being part of this endeavor.

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.? What about representations of race and racial Others? Can we talk about that?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

I think all forms of otherness should be addressed in writing—groups othered by whatever dominant culture the writer is dealing with, as well as individuals who are simply too fucking strange to fit into that culture, for whatever reason.  As writers we have to remember that we can never dispel another being’s otherness.  In order to avoid that dreadful colonizing gaze of understanding, we need to honor the mystery of others.  For writing to be alive it needs to look at what’s consciously or unconsciously occluded from the now.  Transgression in art isn’t necessarily about finding a weird pocket of extremity.  It’s about shedding light on what’s all around us that nobody dares look at.  Though everything seems pretty extreme these days, like we’re entering a century of pure hysteria.

I don’t believe there should be rules about what any particular writer should write about.  We each should address what calls out to us, what attracts us on a gut level—whether we’re writing confessional narrative or performing procedural collages.  Otherwise we risk turning our writing into the dead space of a panel discussion.  As far as racial diversity goes, I think it’s better not to talk about race than to say dumb ass things about it, and I’ve seen plenty of dumb ass things written about race by white people.  Maybe I’m doing that right now.  All writers can benefit by reading and listening to people of other races, no question about that; it deepens our work, our world.  I’m working on a piece at the moment that’s centrally concerned with race, and this makes me very nervous, but I think that nervousness is a good thing.  Many white people are leery of writing about race because they’re afraid they’re going to get it wrong.  But what if that’s the point—there’s no way to get it right.  It’s not easy to write from a position of wrongness, of imminent failure, but there’s an energy there, a realness.

I do have an issue with this question being posed in terms of talking about race instead of feminism.  So often when feminism comes up, the response is that there’s more important things to discuss.  There’s war, there’s our toxic environment, there’s the collapsing economy—all more important to address than the position of women.  It’s as if talking about the position of women were a luxury, as if women weren’t still being violated physically and psychologically all over the globe.  I don’t see how discussions of race can be separated out from discussions of class, gender, sexual preference, ableness, age, and many other categories/social constructs.  Please note that I’m not accusing Alexandra Chasin of taking any of these positions—but I believe you are setting her up as a strawman by isolating her remarks as you have above.  Sorry, Chris, but you asked.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

This is a loaded question, for to name one person means you’re leaving out like 20 others.  So for this reply, my constraint will be who’s been on my mind lately.  Eileen Myles, always Eileen, and Kathy Acker—both of whom, in very different ways, explore the self, not as a truth, but as a performance.  I’m very much interested in the personal essay right now, which, when done right, is a sort of prose poem.  David Wojnarowicz’s “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” from his book Close to the Knives, is pretty much a perfect piece of writing, as far as I’m concerned.  I loved Dana Ward’s Typing Wild Speech and Tyrone Williams’ Pink Tie, recent chapbooks that each deal with a friend’s suicide, written in Cincinnati, and published in San Francisco, by Summer BF Press and Hooke Press, respectively.  Other poets who’ve been dipping their toes in narrative in interesting ways include Stephanie Young, and David Buuck and Juliana Spahr.  Juliana and David’s ongoing collaborative text, An Army of Lovers, is wonderfully kinky and destabilizing.

I’ve been much inspired by women bloggers, especially Bhanu Kapil, Ariana Reines, Bett Williams, Jackie Wang, and Nada Gordon.  It’s been said that in our age of Twitter and Facebook, blogs are over—so it feels like a perfect time for poets to seize the form, as poets have often seized the discarded—the way they’ve kept the letter press alive, for instance.  Blogging is a wonderful forum for writers to interact with and address the needs of a community.  The women I mention above are not only writing about literature on their blogs, they’re creating it, turning the blog into a literary form—“queering that space between private and public,” as Liz Latty, a writer who studies with Bhanu at Naropa, wrote to me in an email.  The blogs of these women were instrumental in my writing of the buddhist. I’ve always been interested in the disenfranchised in writing, and my project of writing from the position of a woman whining on a blog about being dumped by some guy—even a Buddhist teacher—is about as disenfranchised as you can get.  If you look at the hierarchy of experimental writing, at the top you have maybe Ben Marcus, and at the bottom you have me grubbing around on Belladodie.  I was committed to exploring that position of utter weakness, valuelessness—but without the brazenness and brilliance of other women bloggers, I wouldn’t have had the strength to push on.

Dennis Cooper’s blog is also of major importance—for being a great educational site and model for the fusing of the personal with the critical—and for the generosity of Dennis’ dialogue with his readers.  Lawrence Braithwaite is much on my mind, as I’m writing the intro to his posthumous novel, More at 7:30: Notes from New Palestine, which Nightboat Books is going to publish.  Another posthumous manuscript I often turn to is The Book of Medicine by Bob Flanagan, whose Re/Search book Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist was popular in the 90s.  Somebody needs to publish The Book of Medicine—whenever I teach from it, the room crackles with excitement—it’s a seminal work in the politics of the body and desire.  Other poets I’m excited about include Anna Moschovakis, Tonya Foster, Dorothea Lasky, Donna de la Perriere—and Ronaldo Wilson, who I just recently discovered.  I’m so smitten by the clarity and spaciousness of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I want to drop my long-windedness and to copy her discrete prose blocks, one to a page, luxuriating in all that room for personal and cultural resonances.  It’s impossible for me to compile such a list without paying tribute to my writing mentors, the inestimable Bob Glück and Bruce Boone.  And last, but not least, always on my mind is Kevin Killian, my husband—especially his latest collections of stories, Impossible Princess; of poems, Action Kylie; and of critical writing, Selected Amazon Reviews, Volume 2. I’ve known and loved so many incredible works of “experimental literature,” I could crash your server listing them all.


  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      She’s so wonderful.

  2. Thomas

      I’m going to have to return and leave a longer comment when I have a bit more time on my hands but for now I just want to say how exciting it is to hear that Lawrence Braithwaite’s last novel is finally being published; such great news! Also, Dodie Bellamy’s books are dizzyingly good. I’ll write more when I’ve get the chance to address this interview more attentively.

  3. Jessehu2003

      I love this. 

  4. Matthew Stadler
  5. Dodie Bellamy
  6. M. Kitchell

      This is so fantastic.  This:  “Devoting one’s life to an activity with little chance of bringing any sort of significant cash reward is a revolutionary act within the virulent capitalism we inhabit.”  is such a straight-forward way to put it, really, that it’s perfect.

  7. Don

      Well, the activities of 99% of humanity give little chance of bringing any sort of significant cash reward…

  8. alanrossi

      that quote is all about the devoting to.

  9. Don

      Sure, but even the hobbies, desires, things people are devoted to are almost always without financial reward.  Religious practice and study, art, reading, building bird houses, etc – almost everyone who does stuff like that does not get paid for it, and I don’t think those are revolutionary acts.  They’re pleasant, nice things that make life tolerable, but they’re not revolutionary.  If anything, I would say that they are vital to the reproduction of the economy because they create diffuse cultural capital and keep people from killing themselves.

  10. M. Kitchell

      I’m curious as to your motivation here, why it is that you seem insistent upon the idea that considering writing a revolutionary act is wrong, or at least why you insist upon limiting the act of writing by placing it on an equal level with a hobby–which is inherently demeaning it, no? a hobby is generally considered something not as important as a profession, which is what the spirit of the original comment implies (the idea of writing as a raison d’etre, that is).  what’s revolutionary is the idea that you can achieve happiness, or maybe within the limited condition you’re offering, a ‘pleasantness,’ without buying into, or participating in, some sort of ‘professional’ or ‘career-driven’ life in which capital dictates what it is that you, as a human being, do.

  11. guest

      I think Don is just trying to point out that it’s a bizarre use of the phrase “revolutionary act” when there is literally nothing revolutionary being referenced. Capital dictates and provides narratives for what you, as a human being, do to no less a degree whether you have a career or are professionally driven or not. It’s great that your life is generally illiquid and involves writing or something, but what does that have to do with revolutionary acts?

  12. M. Kitchell

      The idea is to get as far away as capitalism as possible.  The alternative being to speed it up so it explodes into the void and we can final move beyond a terrible outdated system that does nothing positive for humans ever.

  13. alanrossi

      hobbies are not things people are devoted to.  that is why they are hobbies.  if you were devoted to it, it wouldn’t be a hobby.  a hobby of mine is ping-pong, tennis; i’m pretty good, but it is not a devotion.  pleasant, nice things that make life tolerable are, again, not things to which one is devoted – they are simply luxuries or leisure activities.  a real devotion becomes revolutionary for the individual, whose life is
      changed by the devotion and the doing in and through the devoted thing, giving one a view which is wider, larger, and diminishes capitalism’s effect. 

  14. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      As much as I’ve often been that person who turned up my nose at the idea of writing as a hobby, I also think there is value sometimes in embracing hobby in a politicized way, a lot of the ideologies that support this hierarchy btwn craft or “folk art” and “real” art, “authentic” art are all mixed up with colonization and patriarchy and all that “othering” mess. Maybe claiming writing as hobby can itself be a revolutionary act, is maybe what I’m trying to say.

      I think, though, with this whole thing about claiming experimental or avant garde writing as a revolutionary act b/c of its lack of profitability within capitalist systems… there is maybe a degree of privilege that needs to be acknowledged in the ability to consciously renounce the systems lots of folks or either shut out of in one way or another against their will, or else have to function inside in order to meet daily survival needs? I don’t think that means claiming a life and occupation counter to the culture and its systems can’t be subversive… I hesitate a little bit to use the word “revolutionary,” because as a supporter of grassroots organizers, I hesitate to call anything that doesn’t have some element of (organized?) collective mobilization “revolutionary.”

      It would also be a mistake, though, to say that writing can’t involve some element of collective practice. I think the (loose/informal) collective of new narrative writers Dodie was a part of got up to some pretty revolutionary shit.

  15. deadgod

      Not that Bellamy wanted to refer this broadly or analogously, but what Don might be saying is that it demeans “revolution” to say of it that it’s the result of ‘spending’ any time unremuneratively within virulent capitalism.

      If there’s no sense of connecting one’s “body” consciously to resistance to virulent capitalism, then one’s actions might easily be being folded into political-economic ideologies and relations of production, as (I think) Don and guest are saying.

      Even given the practice of writing intelligently with artistic care – “devot[edly]”, regardless of what one thinks of her artistic success – , was Rowling practicing “revolution” while, as a single mom on government assistance, she wrote the first Harry Potter? did this use of her estrangement within capitalism – this use of her infection by capitalism – contribute to “explod[ing]” capitalism?

      —  that sounds like a show-trial prosecution, but, to me, it’s fair at least to say that “revolutiion” means this and not that.

  16. Don

      Well, you can read my comment and ignore the word ‘hobby’ (which I didn’t mean in a demeaning or dismissive way).  I also said “Religious practice and study, art, reading, building bird houses, etc”, all of which can be one’s raison d’etre.

      I think writing is awesome (why else would I read this site?), but the idea of writing as revolutionary act doesn’t make sense to me, anymore than the idea of studying the Torah as revolutionary act or painting portraits of my neighbors as revolutionary act.

      The economy only dictates a ‘professional’ or ‘career-driven’ life for a
      fairly small portion of the population.  Most people don’t finish
      college, a good chunk don’t finish high school.  In this case, Dodie Bellamy HAS made a career out of her writing if she teaches graduate writing courses.  Which is fine!  I just don’t think it’s a ‘revolutionary act’.

  17. deadgod

      – the key, to me, being spending one’s time in a politicized way.  That’s not necessarily in a dogmatic or proselytizing way, but rather, imbued or at least gently tinted with a resistance both to accumulation and to arguments for accumulation.  (I’m thinking of something as barely-political as gardening:  growing native plants, choosing locally made/grown products, using ecologically rational fertilizers and pesticides, buying from family- rather than corporately-owned businesses, and so on.)

  18. Don

      Maybe the problem here is that we mean something different when we say the word ‘revolution’.  I think the idea of an individual revolution is very much within the ethos of capitalism.

  19. M. Kitchell

      I guess my resistance to your commentary here is more out of a real, honest sense of confusion with what seems to be an insistence that writing should not be considered a revolutionary act?  I think Dodie’s comments about the use-value of writing are important in configuring this idea, because the combinatory effect of these two comments (writing resists a concrete use-value & writing is a revolutionary act) seems to posit the idea of revolution more in the abstract, right?  

      All considerations of writing outside of the hegemony aside, why can a creative act not be revolutionary?  Does a revolutionary act need to carry a use-value?  That insistence seems to root the revolutionary act within capitalism instead of outside of it.  To deny a use-value begs to consider an act without these structural sign-posts, I think.  

      If your neighbors are remarkably Othered individuals, and you are a high-profile painter who displays in galleries, painting portraits of your neighbors IS revolutionary (though there’s a lot more to consider here due to the way fine-arts work, really, a world-apart from, say, teaching at a university).  

      I also think it’s important to separate the idea of the economy & the idea of a world outside of capitalism.  There’s a huge difference here, of course, because the economy is symptomatic of the system.  Most people don’t finish college, a good chunk don’t finish high school, but in my experience most of these people still struggle within a system that dictates their lives cannot be lived unless they are working, struggling, towards some higher goal that is a trickle down from societal constructs that have literally just gotten worse & worse as they’ve developed.  

  20. M. Kitchell

      whoops, I probably should have read this comment before I responded with five paragraphs above:  we are definitely considering what “revolution” means from a completely different place.

  21. deadgod

      I think “hobby” has an amplitude of equivocation that includes leisure activities becoming tranformative, even politically transformative.  I also think it’s a necessary aspect of ideology, of the incorporation of ideology, that political transformations are not always “revolutionary”.  Many teabaggers are not professional operatives; they’re – many of them – people who made a kind of hobby of their political attention, and that hobby or ‘hobby’ has become, in the last couple of years, a concrete, collective suite of political practices.  “Revolution” is a particular change, and, to me, “devotion” is not a differentia between it and capitalistic reinforcement.

  22. alanrossi

      definitely so.  and i see where you’re coming from regarding revolution.  but then here’s this: the type of revolution you’re talking about is also very much within the ethos of capitalism.  so then if nothing is outside (it’s the ‘nothing is outside’ thing from grad school) we’re basically saying everything is infused ideologically by capitalism, but one time, on this river, there was just water and trees.  really though, if revolution doesn’t begin with self where does it begin?

  23. alanrossi

      or: claiming folk art or craft as a devotion rather than a hobby or leisure activity or, the worst, a money-maker. 

  24. alanrossi


  25. Brent C.

      I wonder if Don could give us some examples of things that WOULD qualify as properly revolutionary acts, since I’d like to get on those as soon as possible.

  26. guest

      just totes write some experimental literature, bro. instant middle class revolution occurs as a result of ///ExPresSinG(e) uRseLF iN tOtaLLY kooKy noN-TraDiTionAL iLLiqUid InnOvAtIVe ExPeRiMenTaL ManNeRs vIa ThE ComMoDiTy fORMs mAdE aVaIlAbLe 2 uR InDiE DiY pUrChAsIng PowEr…… a TOTAL “EFF U” (amirite) 2 VIRULENT CAPITALISM!!!!~~~~~~~~~ gl bro………………… c u after class…… *lowers shades and disintegrates into the communist utopia on the horizon*

  27. Guestagain

      deadgod hit the nail, as he often does once you get through the spiky thicket of his discourse, with the word “transformative”. Revolution moves people/practitioners from a current paradigm to a new paradigm, so I don’t think you have a revolution without a mass movement. What is the line or differentiation across political and cultural revolution? That revolution happens inside or outside of virulent capitalism is incidental, but if it happens inside a capitalist model there is greater chance of adaptation and change. It’s often disappointing that otherwise brilliant people do not understand how markets work or don’t, and miss the almost predictable feast or famine phenomena due to their emotional hatred of the wealthy. The word hobby is troublesome and avocation sounds better although (I think) it’s a synonym; avocation does lend a more formal understanding to an activity done with more seriousness and focus than pleasure, avocation seems an adjunct to ones primary vocation/profession.

  28. Don

      Can’t think of anything.

  29. Kent Johnson

      In relation to “expermental literature” (the endless task of trying to figure it, that is), I must encourage everyone to check out the new issue of Sous les Paves, issue #4: It goes out free if you sign up for the mailing list (though small contributions are strongly encouraged). It also eventually goes up in PDF. (Write micahjrobbins@gmail.com to get on the list, along with about 500 other people, presently.) Issue #4: Correspondence to editor from Rich Owens and Amiri Baraka, poems, prose, art by Brooks Johnson, Rodrigo Toscano, Emily Critchley, William Fuller, Linh Dinh, Roberto Harrison, John Beer, Tyrone Williams, Tim Atkins, j/j hastain, Jerome Rothenberg, Hoa Nguyen, Mary Burger, Sotere Torregian, The Rejection Group, Brenda Iijima, Micah Robbins, Edmond Caldwell, Frances Kruk, Warren Craghead. The two prose pieces by Johnson (on self-immolation, ethics, and poetic resistance) and Caldwell (on the left/avant-garde poetry scene in Turkey) are simply singular, I believe.

  30. Johannesgoransson

      I’d like to know who these “glib” grotesque writers are because I’m writing a novel in large part about the aesthetics of the Abu Ghraib photos.


  31. M. Kitchell

      i bet your life is just fantastic

  32. Kate Z

      I too was curious about the glib/grotesque – as my work as also been inspired by the aesthetics of the Abu Ghraib photos. Your novel sounds fascinating, Johannes.

  33. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I’m pretty sure the type of glibness she’s talking about it something more willfully depoliticized or, like, apolitical than your work — I am guessing writing that gets off on exploring the surface and aesthetics of the grotesque divorced from a context or contexts…. like solely as a fetish object (which to me is distinct from the more complex critical engagement with/celebration of fetish and horror that I experience in your work) although I too would be interested in hearing more what she means. 

  34. MFBomb

      I took this from her comments as well. Like her, I see a lot of experimental work today that is “surface and aesthetics,” and/or straight-up word candy. This is really frustrating to see–writers writing under the guise of “experimental” who aren’t really doing anything truly subversive. They think that self-identifying as “experimental” lets them off the hook. 

  35. Oneiric Bazaar

      Dodie Bellamy: “Look at the basic sentence structure of English:  subject-verb-object. 
      The subject operates upon the object.  This is a syntax of domination,

      Is this comment forming part of your reply to Question 2 encouraged by research performed since the heyday of Sapir-Whorf, or does this belong to the realm of intuition?

      Follow-up questions would be: what comments would you offer regarding the weltanschauung of native speakers of OSV or VSO languages, or even of Piraha?

  36. Oneiric Bazaar

      interesting that you seem sure of deadgod’s gender. What were the clues?

  37. alan

      Which races are the “other” ones?

  38. Chris Roberts

      Experimental fiction is not asking if it experimental. It is best effected and put to paper without such a tag and certainly not marketed as such. Category’s blur. All fiction is experimental if one must use the term: seeking out the storyline, trying to form out the newest, best characters, make it all unusual. It’s called writing. Debra Di Basi’s
      “Drought & Say What You Like” is maddeningly un-experimental with it’s standard, for the past ten years, mix of poetry and prose. “A Clockwork Orange” is experimental to the nth degree. I correspond with Noam Chomsky, famed linguist, and proposed breaking down the novel and he replied he wouldn’t take on such an arduous task. That pretty much says it all.

  39. Guestagain

      s/he – I’m not sure, I don’t know. Thanks

  40. MFBomb

      Lacking in self-awareness, attracted to the Online Devil’s Advocate role, prone to bombast, intellectual-posturing,  logorrhea, Exhaustive Defenses of The Man and The System, and swallowing thesauruses before each post–sounds like a man to me.

  41. deadgod

      “[A]ttracted to […] Devil’s Advocate role” is a quarter accurate, though I don’t take positions I don’t agree with.  (In your experience, is it uncommon for women to be quarrelsome in the face of determined irrationality??)

      Given this profile, if you want to communicate perspicacity in your fiction, staying away from human characters looks to be your ticket to an appreciative readership.

  42. MFBomb

      “[I]f you want to communicate perspicacity in your fiction, staying away
      from human characters looks to be your ticket to an appreciative


      Gramercy for the hortative exhortation of such parenetic, perspicacious counsel.

  43. Anonymous


  44. Johannesgoransson

      I actually don’t believe in some kind of interiority of the poem (“subversion” or “ambiguity” or whatever) that will redeem its “surface.” I’m not interested in that kind of distance. But that does seem to be a key feature of a lot of thinking about experimental writing (you can’t go to an academic conference without hearing the word “subverts” at least once per panel, especially when its concerned with contemporary experimental poetry). 

      And historically this is how “the grotesque” has been perceived – immoral, unredeemable jouissance (possibly in league with military torture!! Or the Devil!). That is to say, the grotesque is always “glib”, the way ornament is always “excessive.” They are parts of the same anti-decadent, anti-kitsch rhetoric that has been key to poetry discussions. The grotesque has to be policed, even by someone interested in “the abject.”  I’ve been writing about this on Montevidayo.com (http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1454), and I’ll write more about this matter next week when I’m no longer baby sitting my demon daughters. 
      For now I’ll just say that I see this kind of “taste-making”, disciplining commentary against anonymous immoralists all the time in poetry, and I don’t like it. It seems really defensive. It doesn’t matter if it’s about me or Kate Zambreno or whoever. I like Dodie’s books, so I was sad to see her join into this kind of rhetoric.Johannes

  45. MFBomb

      Fair enough.  Full disclosure: I’m a fiction writer and am not familiar with the writer’s work.  “Interiority”–to whatever degree–is usually necessary in fiction, unlike in poetry.

  46. Kent Johnson

      I can’t quite tell if Bellamy STILL believes the notion below, or not (I hope not). I’ve written, actually, on this long-discredited, but still widely assumed, simpleminded “post-avant” shibboleth:
      >Look at the basic sentence structure of English:  subject-verb-object.  The subject operates upon the object.  This is a syntax of domination, colonization.  New experience, we idealistically believed with all our hearts, needed new forms. 

  47. stephen

      I was reading some of AD Jameson’s posts at Big Other, and there was one (http://bigother.com/2010/02/03/experimental-fiction-as-genre-and-as-principle/) that contrasted Experimental Lit the genre with experimental lit as an innovative principle—writing that is, relative to its context, experimental. Maybe discussion of that would be interesting to some people? 

      Another post by him I found interesting in some ways was one (http://bigother.com/2011/01/27/the-barthelme-problem/) on the tendency amongst academic writers and readers–which (“unfortunately,” based on my preferences, with some degree of sarcasm, as I feel detached from rhetoric-based approaches to thinking/talking/writing) maybe describes many of the people who write or are interested in experimental lit–to value or “overvalue” complicated, highly stylized prose over other aspects of writing.

  48. stephen
  49. letters journal

      It seems indecent to compare colonization (the destruction and enslavement of millions of people), with sentence structure.  At the very least, this seems “out of touch”.

      Could we not also say – “The Subject operates upon the Object.  This is the syntax of painting.” ??

  50. Oneiric Bazaar

      Let’s wait and see what she says.

  51. deadgod

      [The first two links are okay – except that each of them has a close-parenthesis mark at the end of its address.  If one clicks those links and “Delete[s]” that keystroke from the address bar, the destinations you’ve chosen are reached.]

  52. deadgod

      [The first two links are okay – except that each of them has a close-parenthesis mark at the end of its address.  If one clicks those links and “Delete[s]” that keystroke from the address bar, the destinations you’ve chosen are reached.]

  53. Oneiric Bazaar

      Yes, it would seem she still believes this, given the time/date stamping of this interview. Your piece at absent mag was right in taking intellectuals to task for naive pronouncements in the way Miles Davis grew infuriated when Ornette Coleman picked up a trumpet and thought he could blow gems out of it because he was a jazz artist. bell hooks has offered naive linguistic explanations, too, e.g., her whole discussion about “someone” vs. “somebody.” Exasperated critics have often noted that post-whathaveyou writing may have emerged under the perceived threat of increasing specialization and scientism/falsifiability in the academy.

      You wrote something about Chomsky’s “epistemic revolution” that gave me serious pause, Kent. Chomsky and his epigones have never been able to offer a phylogenetic account of grammatical relations. The whole UG/innatist project can only offer recursion at this time (thought that is a subject for another discussion).

      If I may, I would like to point you to the work of Michael Tomasello, esp with respect to the phyllogenetic and ontogenetic emergence of relations between agent and patient, for ex example, in usage-based linguistics.

      David Bohm, who was a serious and brilliant man, tried something with his “rheomode” thought experiment; however, his project was also not underpinned by linguistic research.

  54. deadgod

      But what if that’s the point–there’s no way to get it right.

  55. Kent Johnson

      Hi Oneiric, thanks for the good comment. By “epistemic,” I meant that Chomsky changed the terms of discussion in linguistics–of this there is no question. The Skinnerian model went out the window almost overnight. And the UG paradigm dominated with iron hand for quite some time. I’m aware that key aspects of Chomsky’s model have come under increasing challenge from CL and linked quarters in past couple decades (and that there’s even been something of a revival of Whorf!). So no argument with the skepticism you express (my closest friend, in fact, is a linguist who has a book coming out from MIT, and he tells me that the Chomsky circle has, well, circled its wagons, and mainly talks to itself now, almost never engages in debate with challengers). But still, you wouldn’t have Cognitive Linguistics without Chomsky. Dialectical, I guess… That’s sort of what I meant.

  56. deadgod

      In that second post, Jameson’s maxim seems to harmonize with (what I take to be) the ecumenism of Bellamy’s “As writers we have to remember that we can never dispel another being’s otherness.”:  ‘no art is lousy just because it’s not something else’.

  57. Oneiric Bazaar

      I see what you mean, particularly with respect to the paradigm shift. I was initially thrown off by your use of “epistemic,” as I don’t see Chomsky’s linguistics having anything to say about meaning – and he himself says this, too.

      We’re both in agreement about reckless pronouncements.

      Yes, there’s been a surprising turn back toward some quasi-Behaviorist thinking and some Whorfian thinking in linguistics. Just like indie rock, these things come and go and come again. : )

  58. David Rylance

      Johannes, though I completely agree with you on the grotesque and its
      enemies, I think you’re overleaping Dodie’s point to fit your general
      thesis. First off, in defending the grotesque here, you’re almost
      suggesting that what you and the others do at Montevidayo does not
      directly depend upon a presumption of radical incompatibility of the grotesque with the structure of
      permissions, evacuations of authority and the cultural libertinism
      married to moral puritanism that underwrites all instances of American
      torture. Abu Ghraib derived, of course, from codes of violent propriety bleeding out. Dodie’s focus in her comment is not the tastefulness of the
      grotesque per se – on the bleeding out – but the suturing of the grotesque into a
      compatibility with said torture, as though
      grotesquery weren’t a rupture, both inherent in the event and its
      documents (the aesthetics of the photos) as well as in how it is to be
      interpreted. Or, to put it another way, it would not be so much the
      grotesque she feels that has to be policed – the way it becomes a mess – but that she fears, rather,
      the orderly experimentation with suffering and grotesque of the Police, in Jacques
      Ranciere’s sense of that word. And the experimentation on the part of the police that turns such obscenities into necessities of national security is, I think, allied, in her mind, with what she calls a “glibness” in some recent experimental writing when it comes to parsing a difference between the two things. It’s not so much that there’s a bad and good grotesque, though, as there is the obscenity of the moral authorities and there is the obscene that is obscene to the obscene moral authorities. The problem, then, isn’t with the grotesque’s
      glibness, but with the glibness of Art in its
      dividend-oriented conceptualizing treatments thereof. This is why, I think, she brings up Abu Ghraib at all, and, specifically, the
      image of the thumbs-up, for she sees it as continuous
      with an attitude she detects in certain experimental treatments of
      suffering and grotesquery in which they are, in a sense, cognitively dissonant to the grotesquery that’s there, which becomes, instead, a kind of cheery wholesome humiliation, a thumbs up, an “A-OK”: an attitude which can sell experimental artworks as both moral and transgressive as readily as it can turn beating someone both into a case of simultaneously following orders and into “letting off some steam”. I’m not quite sure
      just what specific examples she has in mind here but I can think of at
      least one example where what she’s saying resonates for me personally:
      Adam Levin’s The Instructions. I’d
      also throw in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist actually —
      which you may have liked, LvT is always contentious, but I think failed
      to be everything you and Joyelle in particular have set out about the
      plague grounds of tastelessness: certainly, to me, it falls completely
      on the Art side of Eve Sedgwick’s list in the post you link to and is
      all the more pernicious for cynically fitting itself out as an epic of iconoclasm toward standards of Taste
      in order to do so.

  59. Anonymous


  60. Kent Johnson

      Oneiric, yes confusing choice of word on my part. Too much “episteme” from grad school back in the eighties, I guess!

      It would be interesting to have Bellamy respond on this…

  61. deadgod

      I think we all should be as dirty and abject and visceral as possible, but also celebrate the wonders of embodiment”.”

  62. David Rylance

      That doesn’t contradict what I’m saying here.

  63. deadgod

      It is, for me, a question for recognition of “difference”, alterity, becoming, inclusion.

      Inclusion is politically self-evacuating, unless there’s this qualification:  in struggles for power, exclusion is not to be included.  Any “body” that impinges on the self-sameness – the ‘dignity’ – of another body is to be policed.  That qualification attaches to every connected “body”; every “body” straddles the inward limen of “difference”, even as self-sameness is a problem for intelligibility.

      How are the tormenting and its picture-taking at Abu Ghraib not “celebrat[ions]” of the wonders of embodiment”?

      A transgressivity – say:  a dirty, abject viscerality – that’s not cynically pre-folded into “moral puritanism” or “obscene moral authorit[y]”–what does it transgress??

  64. David Rylance

      Your reply is a bit too orphic for me to place in relation to what I said above, deadgod. I mean, I understand everything you say here, I just don’t get how what you’re saying about inclusion is situated in relation to what I’ve said above. As for Abu Ghraib as a celebration of the wonders of embodiment, in one sense, you’re right. Insofar as it entailed a failure of economy and propriety in terms of the duty of self-concealment, it ventured over the edges of the obscenity permitted (commanded) by the Police and became a scandal for it and to it. It definitely involved enjoying too much. But you’re also abstracting “embodiment” here from the bodies: there’s hardly what you might call celebration in the torment or the photos for the victims and, what’s more, there’s no celebration of the body for the GIs either. I don’t think I’ve seen more strangely sterile pictures than the Abu Ghraib photos: for me, the interesting point is the green medical gloves you see Greiner wearing in the shots and the general cordoning off of contact between torturers and tortured. If you’ve seen Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, it’s also very clear that the images do not document the transgressive aesthetic that it might appear they do. I think Dodie’s mention of the thumbs up goes to the relation between an experimental writing that mistakes the obscenity of the law, or of the Police, for the obscenity of the grotesque that is the target of that law. That grotesque expresses itself in a number of ways and isn’t so much intentionally or posturally transgressive as made so by regimes of order and Taste. The transgressivity not cynically pre-folded into moral puritanism transgresses that puritanism, but it also exists excessively as a kind of uncannily involved degeneracy of style, not a counter-style. It exceeds style, either by failing its terms and not seeming to be possessed of it – being glib or tacky or fake – or by being exorbitantly enamoured of it – decadent, garish, “more is more” as opposed to “less is more”, and so on. But it also isn’t into the reification of form into a formalism of anti-form either – in this key sense, embodiment means inhabiting that zone of imperfection the grotesque indulges in, identifying with it, becoming abject. I’d say this is what Dodie’s pointing to, what the obscenity of the Police finds abominable to its arbitrary but fussy sense of hysteric self-composure. It is the grotesque that is lost to itself that the Taste for blood of the Police can not allow. For the Police, the grotesque cannot be deformed, it is a deformity; while the grotesque proper seeks  deformation even in relation to itself – which does not mean a retreat into Taste so much as the trellissing, or making abject and open, of the obscene. I’d venture that’s the thing Dodie finds disturbing about whatever writing she means. That, as she implies, it isn’t finding new forms for new experiences, or, in other words, is failing to look past the obscenity of a Tastelessness that the Police generates in the service of its Taste for blood and order, and the highly aesthetic abortions that are anathema to this tasteless taste.

  65. Five Questions: Dodie Bellamy « Teaching Creative Writing's Blog

      […] here, a great interview that can be applied to our teaching, the importance of acknowledging the […]

  66. Dodie Bellamy

      David—I love you.

  67. Johannesgoransson


      This is a very insightful comment. /Johannes

  68. deadgod

      “Inclusion” and “exclusion” are signs of what happens to others; the enacted distinction between them is, traced on and into “bodies”, concretized normativity.  In asserting a ‘frightening glibness’, one would discover or impose a limit of and to “inclusion”.

      Let me situate my perspective – perhaps my miscomprehension – by recourse to the vulgarity of translation:

      Dodie celebrates dirt, abjection, the irruption that an erupting of viscera generates or constitutes.  –but the outfolding of the transgressing “body” is a matter, as it were, of abjection and not subjection – of being ‘thrown out‘ and not ‘under‘ (out of oneself and out, say, of a community of taste, of order, of utility, and so on; not under (and still within) that communal regularity).

      Johannes points out that if one imposes “glib” as a no-no for “the grotesque”, then one is regulating “the [authentic] grotesque”:  making “the grotesque” an entailment of proper and erroneous.  What’s uncannily gross about “the grotesque” is canceled out by “the grotesque” having been ruled in as the to-be-policed:  where’s the uncanny misrule in being naughty in a way already regulated??

  69. deadgod


      I think you’re saying that Dodie isn’t presuming a “good” and a “bad” abjection; she is distinguishing a transgression that would disclose regulation in its retention of irregularity from a pseudo-transgression by which the regulators are caught mocking the regulation they ‘print’ onto “bodies” – indulging in a stupefact hypocrisy.

      Maybe it’s too simple or – yikes! – binary of me, but I think the problem obtains for a carnivalesque transgression:  what’s wrong with a glibness that’s merely gleeful and not joissant?  –Not the “suturing of the grotesque into compatibility” that disturbs Dodie (and many of us) about that thumbs-up, but rather, given her objection to it, how is it not “transgressive”?

      – unless one, whether by imposition or by discovery, moralizes.

  70. deadgod


      I’m probably a “moral puritan”:  I think there should be a difference between the “good” abjection of Foucault getting himself fisted and the “bad” abjection of Abu Ghraib, of Chechen guerillas phone-videoing beheadings and putting them on the internet, of Syrian soldiers filming beatings and shootings of civilians and putting them on tv.  (- the principle being the difference between a corporally focused ‘printing’ that stems from the integrity – the unity and coherence – of an other, as opposed to one imposed on that integrity.)

      I don’t think the difference between the ethos of a bathhouse and that at Abu Ghraib is a matter of the mis-formation either practiced or imagined by either practitioner; I don’t think it matters that the suturers of compatibility at Abu Ghraib deformed the conditions for the possibility of their own regularity – that’s “transgression”!  What are the terms for rejecting violation at Abu Ghraib but not in a bathhouse?

      —  All a way of suggesting that celebration of “difference” doesn’t efface or neutralize the impingement that experience of – even mere recognition of – “difference” consists of.

  71. marshall


  72. Joy Lanzendorfer

      Dude. Experimental art is not a hobby. That’s insulting to all the people who do it. You will not find many people who support writers being paid more than I do, but to take something from a “revolutionary act” to a “hobby” is dismissive. Art that makes money is a commodity–doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other value as well, but it does mean that value is not simply defined by how much money something makes. This should be obvious, but apparently it is not?

  73. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Cosign. Think you are getting at something like what I was thinking but did not have the theoretical tools or vocabulary to articulate, having to do w/ the specific relations of power and the body to
      the grotesque and glib as opposed to a moralism abt taste making or any
      kind of reinforcement of this interiority-surface distinction/dichotomy I too find really limiting.

  74. Thursday Treat: Links I’m Lovin’ (mixed) | Limited Edition Love

      […] Interesting interview with Dodie Bellamy from my favorite, HTMLGIANT […]