Against Easy Answers: Eating Pho with Dodie Bellamy
The meditations of Dodie Bellamy’s The TV Sutras occur amidst urban bombardment and oscillate between past and present, spirit and body, and silence and voice. Though much of The TV Sutras navigates Bellamy’s fascinating – and often profoundly painful – memories, it is just as thoroughly invested in the present moment, renouncing the easy epiphanies we are all too conditioned to expect from autobiographical writing. Instead, Bellamy’s poetry delves into experience again and again, resurfacing to remind us that these – and our own – attempts to decipher it are rarely easy and always incomplete. I met Dodie at a Vietnamese Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood to chat about the book.
LT: I loved the book. I didn’t know about the second part of it, I just sort of assumed it would run the whole way as the sutras, I didn’t realize it would have the memoir/essay component.
DB: Originally, it wasn’t going to have all that, but then it became clear that the sutras needed contextualizing. For me, the second half is the heart of the book.
LT: I wasn’t expecting the prose going in, so a lot of the questions that came up [about the poems] were addressed directly later on: particularly things about process – for instance, an epiphany vs. a sutra, or how the voice evolved, and the anxiety that this particular meditation and writing practice might become numbing over time. I really appreciated how candidly you reflected on those issues, even though it meant crossing out some of my questions!
DB: I’m glad those questions came up for you though!
LT: Structure came up again and again. I guess I sort of took the form of the sutras as an attempt to dismantle or make sense of memory – which does not always seem structured in particularly sensible ways. Was that initially the project: to come up with a form whose constraints would enable you to understand your experience in the cult in a more systematic way?
DB: I began the project for Second Avenue Poetry. They were running a special issue on the occult and poetry, so there was a call sent out to generate some text using occult methods. I did the first sixteen sutras for that, and then I just kept going. I don’t know why I kept doing it, I just did it. I had two followers: Marcus Ewert and Colter Jacobson, and I would send them a sutra each day over email. At a certain point, you do something and you decide it’s a book. I’ve had a couple of books like this, where I wasn’t planning to do a book and it just happened.
One of the main issues in the book that comes up, outside of cult issues, is who owns meaning. Who’s valid to produce meaning? Living in a hierarchical poetry scene, I’ve often felt silenced in the Bay Area.
LT: Why do you think that is? Do you think there’s a specific quality in your work or the work that is offered more exposure [in San Francisco]?
DB: I guess I shouldn’t be moaning about my life. But I think maybe staying where I was raised as a writer is part of it.
LT: I definitely held certain assumptions about Bay Area poetry going into The TV Sutras. I’m from New York, and I knew the book had a spirituality to it, but it was so much more emotionally complicated than I expected it to be, and far less about one specific spiritual practice.
DB: That was important to me. I did so much research for this book. I wrote it over a five year period, and wrote another book in the middle of writing it. I kept putting it off… It was not like I was hard at work for five years on it.
I read a lot of cult memoirs, and the problem with cult memoirs is they blame the cult, like the specific cult did this to me and the specific cult is bad.
LT: I didn’t think you demonized the cult too much.
DB: I became more and more interested in the process of cults, and I read this one book – it was kind of a pop psychology book – on the psychology of charismatic leaders, and that was the real game changer for me, where I started seeing patterns rather than specifics. It’s called Prophetic Charisma, by Len Oakes. Oakes he doesn’t just stick with religion, he discusses people like Winston Churchhill.
LT: Did he say with great power comes great responsibility? I can never remember if it was Churchill or FDR or Dumbledore or Jesus… Such a famous quote.
DB: Well, I think all of them Oakes would characterize as charismatics. Hitler was in his book. Jesus would totally be in there.
And, also, I also became interested in reading online cult stuff. I would read scandal after scandal after scandal, and from that material I created a collage piece called “Rascal Guru” that I was going to put in the book but didn’t. I’m doing a collection of essays for Semiotext(e) and I think it could go in there…
After a while the scandals were the same—horrible sexual abuse and stealing money, over and over and over again—and what started standing out were the followers’ rationalizations. This language of rationalizing became much more interesting to me than the scandals themselves.
LT: I think you really tapped into that in the book: it became less of “oh this cult fucked me up or fucked other people up in these certain ways” like, why do people feel connected to this kind of language or experience? What about it is meaningful, and what part of that meaning is or isn’t damaging, and how can you redirect it to non damaging things?
DB: And all this feels uncomfortably familiar to my job of teaching creative writing—my book Academonia critiques that whole system, which is constantly something that I feel implicated in and violated by, especially when students end up owing eighty to a hundred thousand dollars for a degree that doesn’t mean anything. It starts feeling like a real scam.
But, also I’m troubled by the way certain aesthetics get fetishized. It starts feeling like an indoctrination and can end up producing the worst god-awful writing, unless you somehow subvert it. Entering an academic program feels very cult-like: the hierarchy, specialized vocabulary, pressure to conform.
LT: Connecting the cultist vocabulary with the sort of indoctrination of the MFA writing, I really liked what you wrote about the narcissistic aspect of religious language. Too, it made me think about how poets might have the same tendency, or see everything as a metaphor for their own life or experiences.
DB: Well that’s a risk with a certain vein of poetry, the lyric thing. I know a lot of people for whom that’s the last thing they’re going to do in poetry. I do think it’s all about narcissism. That’s the one thing I come up with at the end of the book: can you have spirituality without narcissism?
LT: I love that question.
DB: But also, could you write without narcissism? I don’t know.
LT: Or could you even try to be a good person without narcissism? Whether or not you believe you are chosen in the eyes of a specific entity, isn’t it self-centered to have any ‘special’ valuation of your moral compass?
DB: Some people are raised with a sense of entitlement and can generate their own sense of specialness, but I had such a low self-image when I came to San Francisco in my mid-twenties and finally committed to writing, I really needed a group to be that ego for me, and that support, and to constantly tell me I was good. I couldn’t do it for myself.
But then again, at a certain point, I started feeling heretical. I developed enough confidence to have my own viewpoints—and then I had to break from the group. Narcissism[CM1] ’s a hard one because it’s such a negative word. But it’s something that’s unavoidable. It’s a continuum, don’t you think?
LT: I hadn’t thought of the word narcissism specifically until I read the book, but I’ve been thinking a lot about selfishness lately: bad or good. I told a friend to stop feeling sorry for himself in a real hoity way, said that “self-pity is not a form of humility, it is just a form of selfishness.” It felt very true in that moment but now just seems totally selfish: like, using myself as the good example, or somehow qualified to diagnose another person’s problems.
DB: We live in such an extreme late capitalism or post capitalism now—we’re so consumerist and self-centered—it’s really hard not to get totally swallowed in that.
Believe it or not I’m actually taking a meditation class, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that struggle to kind of see other points of view—a larger picture, and not just my little narrow perspective—because that’s what you talk about in meditation classes.
Sometimes I feel so grossed out by my consumerism and internet addiction, but it feels unavoidable, this awful fragmentation. Since I’m an adjunct, my hiring is based on student evaluations. The tenor of student evaluations—I try not to read them if I don’t have to—has really changed over that past dozen years. Now people are fucking yelping you, like it’s an Amazon product review. It can be really brutal. Someone was telling me that one student criticized her for her hair! The current model of education is one where the student is the consumer and the person that’s “teaching the class” is the product that’s being consumed. Customer service.
LT: My favorite page in the book was when you compare watching the cult leader speak to the sad fat Elvis: watching him and wondering if any sort of meaning or fulfillment is possible. That moment was so cathartic and intense: feeling disillusioned with something that initially seemed so whole, and taking an even greater, general sense of failure out of that.
DB: That moment was taken from a San Diego Reader cover story about the cult. I finally sent the book to the cultbuster guy. He emailed me back that he really likes it. He’s like my ideal audience.
LT: What kind of work is that, busting cults?
DB: He’s a philosophy professor at a community college. While writing a paper for an undergrad religious studies class he stumbled upon all these plagiarized passages in the cult’s sacred writings, and eventually wrote a whole book about that.
LT: I was surprised that your departure from the cult was not some cult deprogrammer person dragging you out kicking and screaming, that it was more gradual and distributed across time and throughout your life.
DB: Well, when you’re a part of something that’s so global, infusing every aspect of your life, everything is explained in ways that normal life is not explained. I got pregnant in my early twenties, and cult says “the baby’s soul doesn’t enter until after the baby’s born,” so I ended up having an abortion and not thinking dipshit about it. Years afterward, I’m like “oh my god.” I’m not saying that abortion is bad in any way but it’s vital to think about it before having one. I didn’t need to think about it because cult doctrine was so totalizing, it was like I was having a cyst removed.
Leaving a cult is similar to when you graduate from college, that sense of panic and the void that people feel. It’s like that and a million times more. The structure’s all gone and it’s a terrifying position to be in. And it took years to work through. I wrote the San Diego Reader article like ten years after I had left, and I thought I had resolved everything. But writing the article was really intense. It all started coming back, and getting to meet my former master was this perfect culmination for me. I spent a lot of time on cult survivor sites, and I would resonate with the pain that people were going through.
LT: I guess what I didn’t expect to take away from the book and your account of belonging to the cult was the kind of answer [it gave] to everyone’s desire to be loved unconditionally.
DB: And community, wonderful community. I would say the poetry community is far more cult-like than a fiction community. In the broader world, there’s a place for fiction, whereas hardly anybody reads poetry except for other poets, so it’s like this little bubble where you can be a really big fish in a small pond, and with the internet now it’s this small global pond.
LT: Yeah it’s larger and smaller both, in a lot of ways.
In the book you mention different phases of substance use or abuse, which, even if you hadn’t said that overtly – I really connected your experience with the cult to some of my own drug history and relationship with substances.
DB: There’s a whole culture around those, too.
LT: Yeah, and having a period of your life that you sort of recoil when you look at the specific choices you made…
DB: What kind of drugs were you doing?
LT: Mostly, a lot of cocaine. I was like 19.
LT: And sort of cringing when I remember myself then and thinking like ‘Gross’, ‘that’s not me’, but then also knowing that the reasons I was attracted to that drug were a desire to be accepted, or loved, or experience things – and I still feel those longings now, and it almost seems like that particular problem was inevitable, and as much a part of the person I am as other parts I’m more proud of – that all of it comes from the same place.
DB: Totally. I have all my journals since I was like fourteen or fifteen, and what’s so weird is that when I read my high school journals, it’s obvious that I still have the same fucking issues. It’s embarrassing. Except that I have more resources now than I did as a kid to deal with them.
LT: I feel the same way. It seems like that desire to give and receive love, to experience life non-anxiously, or less self-consciously, can make people’s lives fucked up in so many different ways.
DB: Somebody once told me—and this is so vague—but somebody did a study that said the one thing most writers have in common is some sort of fucked up childhood in which they felt isolated somehow, so that writing is a way to reach out and make those connections, if you’re feeling those connections aren’t so accessible to you in person.
LT: I like the kind of experimentation that people can do in poetry – how you can say, what would this feeling mean if I expressed it in this ekphrastic form, or what you did with the television and meditation in The TV Sutras – like “I’m coming into this experience bringing to bear my history and pains, whatever they are, and seeing how this specific form/method or conceptual vocabulary will shape how I express them afterward.”
The term immersion was one I particularly related to: trying to be immersed in an experience or body of work partly because you’re drawn to it for whatever reason, but also to see what your own work that comes out of it will be like. As you were going, did you feel like you knew more of what it was turning into?
DB: From the beginning, I knew what I wanted to do with the voice. I wanted it to begin with this singular, first person autobiographical voice, and I wanted that to devolve into a number of first person voices. I wanted it to be fuzzy as to whether the original voice is any of the voices at the end, and I also wanted the switch to occur in a smooth progression.
The section that’s in a singular voice took fucking forever to write; it went on and on and on. I find that kind of conventional narrative very hard to do. You would think it would be easier, but I find the crazy weavings so much more pleasurable.I kind of plodded through it. I think that if I wanted to, I could write conventional books, but I don’t really want to. There was this anxiety the whole time that I would have to get out of that mode and make the switch to the other mode, and I had no idea how I was going to pull it off.
LT: I may have touched on this briefly when we first sat down, but one of my favorite sections on the book was the part about epiphanies. You said, that – like myself and lots of people – you picked up that terminology learning about Joyce, like I think of the whole “my life is stagnant, I’m stuck in it and it Dublin” schtick, like that girl on the pier or the end of Araby. But you talk about how, for a time, you saw your life as rich with positive ‘epiphaneous’ moments, though you recall it with a sense of skepticism. Is that type of tidy epiphany something you ever feel you have to push off in the writing process?
DB: You mean, some kind of easy, lyric ending as a false epiphany?
LT: Talking about a moment when “it all crystalized” for you, and gave whatever trauma you had experienced a specific meaning or purpose.
DB: Yeah—that’s like what you see in a movie or a cheesy memoir. That’s the Freudian myth, too—you talk and talk and talk, and then you see into it and are forever changed afterwards. It’s bullshit, right?
DB: I’m working against those easy answers. I don’t want anything to be easily summarized: no “a-ha”, no “oh, I get it.” I feel a lot of clarity having written the book, but I still have the same issues. I can’t say I resolved anything, but I do see things differently.
LT: In terms of process, I found myself really interested in your relationship with television as well [as meditation and yoga]. Are you a big TV viewer?
DB: I was raised on TV. It was very much a part of my life. This was back in the days when it was communal experience; everyone was watching at the same time. When I was living alone I didn’t even have a television. When Kevin goes out of town I don’t often turn it on, but part of being married to Kevin is watching TV. We usually watch it an hour at night before bed.
LT: That’s very restrained.
DB: I really love series. I’m a huge gorger.
LT: Oh, me too.
DB: We’re doing House of Cards right now.
LT: Oh yeah, it’s a great show. One of my friend’s dads, John Mankiewicz, is actually one of the writers. At first I had trouble with Kevin Spacey breaking the forth wall but now I find it sort of comforting. How it’s stylized.
DB: I just watched the opening of the British version, and that’s the way it was set up from the beginning.
LT: I’m such a TV addict.
DB: I’m a narrative addict. If we’re watching something at night and it’s 12:30 and Kevin has to go to bed—Kevin has a regular job—turning something off that’s not finished feels like physical pain to me. It’s amazing how addictive narrative is.
LT: At the same time, I need to listen to something while I’m falling asleep, so partly I’m trying to stop listening so I can pass out…but if I don’t listen at all I can’t go to bed either.
DB: I read to go sleep. Those books take a long time to finish. A night of insomnia will totally get you through a book though.
LT: What are you reading right now?
DB: I’m reading the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley. He’s a Black detective writer. Devil in a Blue Dress—which was made into a Denzel Washington movie—is the first in the series. I’m on book five or six. I get them on Kindle and read them one after another. They’re really great. They start in the forties and then progress into the 60s, and reflect the treatments and conditions of blacks in America over time. Mosley is a favorite of President Clinton. There was a photo of Clinton reading one of his books and his sales like tripled. [laughter] So I guess I share something with Clinton.
LT: I’m actually reading a detective novel as well… the Pynchon one… I keep wanting to call it Infinite Jest…
DB: You couldn’t read that to go to sleep.
LT: Inherent Vice!
DB: It’s interesting to read mysteries when you’re going to sleep. I read the Cool and Lam series by Erle Stanley Gardner—all 29 of them. It took a couple of years, but I never knew what was happening. It’s sort of existential. This person’s searching, but you’re falling asleep constantly. You have the vaguest sense of what they’re searching for. You just kind of go with them.