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

Posted by @ 1:09 pm on June 9th, 2011

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.