“Feminist, Unruly, Cheerfully Monstrous”: Highlight on Dodie Bellamy
Mostly, Dodie Bellamy doesn’t care what you think of her writing. Or, that’s not quite right—she thinks that you should respect her writing for reasons that you’re maybe unused to respecting writing for. She wants you to question what is respectable in literature.
As her targets, she takes the academy, the stodgy English canon, and the pretensions and barriers of the world of experimental writing. In Cunt Norton, Bellamy’s 2013 book of poetry, for instance, everything in English literature that you hold to be true or important is made to tart up and spread its legs. She sentences Blake’s spirituality and Poe’s taciturnity to the same crude abjection as her own body, as puking, as weird, gross sex. “With perswasive words, impregn’d with Reason, I promise I’ll fuck thee like I’ve never fucked,” says Bellamy’s version of Milton. Because isn’t that what he was really saying all along?
In Cunt Norton she is committing a double sacrilege: not only is she mocking Shakespeare and the whole English literary canon with their own words, but she is using the form of the Burroughsian cut-up to do it. In Bellamy’s ‘cunt-ups,’ as she calls them, the sacred is made profane and all the respected fathers of English verse are shown as the horny, self-conscious dorks they really are. As Ariana Reines says in her intro to CN, all that the entirety of Anglophone literature is saying, anyway, is “you are late in fucking me.” By cutting up and mixing in some of her own raunchiness, Bellamy is simply sluicing away the coded language.
Bellamy’s writing is feminist because it brings lived female experience and female sexuality onto the same literary stage as academic writing and hardcore critical theory. Why is my cunt any less worthy of writing about than Lacan’s mirror stage or Foucault’s panopticon, she asks through the text. By pulling the English canon and the academy down into the gutter, she is simultaneously raising up the marginalized voices and opening our minds to subject matter that we would typically think of as less serious or unimportant. She treats women’s lives and women’s bodies with the respect they have always deserved and never received in the history of literature.
In Academonia, Bellamy’s 2006 collection of essays, she describes her own writing thus: “I rip the language of the academy out of context and force it into my own writing, so it can turn up its nose at my noisy corporeality. My vulgarity surrounds it on all sides, with huge slimy cunt teeth ready to snap elitism in two.” Her vulgarity, as she says, her confessional and sexual subject matter, sidle right up next to high theory in Academonia. She abhors traditionalist values and the policing of aesthetic expectations in academia, she abhors the notion that sexual content has no place in “real literature,” but is “outcast to the degraded arenas of trash novels and porn.”
If we are to take the opening piece of Academonia, “Lady Jane,” (which takes Paul Delaroche’s painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Day Queen,’ as its focus) as a somewhat autobiographical allegory of Bellamy’s own experience with academia, then it becomes apparent that she has faced this content policing in a real way: “These are the things that are wrong with me. I’m a woman. I write about sex. I’m too old, I’m too weird. I’m white. I’m a white woman who’s too old to write about sex.” Why are academic writing programs so prudish—especially when it comes to women writing about sex and about bodies? Her own work—especially the more narrative, less essay-like pieces—pulses with sex, with corporeality.
Bellamy is unflinchingly confessional in content and sporadic in form, nodding to the feminist poetic essay format popular in the 80’s—specifically to the tendency to say what it is doing, while doing it. She does this admirably in her 2008 chapbook Barf Manifesto, a sort-of essay composed of two different lectures she gave at two different occasions, a work which defies genre and format, quite intentionally. Barf takes Eileen Myles’ poem-essay “Everyday Barf” (which I wrote about briefly here) as its starting point and inspiration, and discusses the merits of spurning convention in writing, of embracing formlessness, and of self-reference. “The essay is a form I’ve always found oppressive, a form so conservative it begs to be dismantled,” Bellamy says, then proceeds to dismantle the essay form:
“I’m inaugurating the Barf as a literary form. The Barf is feminist, unruly, cheerfully monstrous. The Barf comes naturally to women because women like to throw up fingers down throat one two three bleh. The Barf is an upheaval, born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ.”
Reading Bellamy’s work is like a healing balm after all the terrible writing advice we’ve all gotten in school; if nobody teaches Barf Manifesto in writing programs yet, they ought to. I know I’m sick from all the Western Civ. I’ve swallowed over the years, and I’m more than ready to puke it up. Bellamy is a terrific ally in this unlearning; she’s the friend holding your hair back as you barf up a hedonistic night, saying “there, there, sweetie, get it all out.”