Interview with Dodie Bellamy
Author of Cunt Norton
Interview by Kallie Falandays
In the biography at the back of Cunt Norton, you say that you first got interested in cut-ups after you taught them to undergraduates. What exactly is a cut-up and what kind of projects did you assign to your class?
A cut-up is a form of collage developed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, where you cut a page of text into four quadrants and rearrange the quadrants. It was a means of unveiling the true meanings behind the apparent logic of systems of control. Burroughs felt our minds were too programmed by pre-determined logic systems to see beyond those systems without some sort of radical intervention, such as the cut up. The cut up project that I assigned my students at the SF Art Institute—if I remember correctly—was to use quadrants from two different texts, to create a hybrid.
How long did it take you to write Cunt Norton?
I worked on Cunt Norton casually during spring semester of 2013, then intensely for a month afterwards, during which I rewrote all the poems I’d worked on previously. It was an intense, exhausting process, but that intensity was needed to enter the mindset where I could create new narratives out of babble.
What other books were you reading during the creation of Cunt Norton?
I was reading Villette by Charlotte Brontë and, since I was looking forward to working on my book The TV Sutras—which will be released by Ugly Duckling Presse this May—I was reading lots of material about cults and charismatic leaders. Because of all the “thee”s and “thou”s in Cunt Norton, I also was doing a little crash course in the grammar of Middle English and the second person singular.
In your first poem in the book, “Cunt Norton,” you reference Eliot's Four Quartets. Why do you reference Eliot here?
Several years ago when I was asked to contribute a poem for a local art zine, I didn’t have anything available, so I took a couple random quadrants from a pornographic source text I used in Cunt Ups, and cut them into Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” and I called the resulting poem “Cunt Norton.” That title inspired me to make my own Norton Anthology. I’ve always loved Four Quartets, the hypnotic sound of it.
How did you choose whom to write about?
For the older poets, I tried to stick to poets I would have been familiar with as an undergraduate. For the more contemporary poets, I chose the white guys who have had the most impact on the poetic community I’m involved with—with the exception of Ted Hughes, who was included because of my love of Sylvia Plath.
I love that you combined Shelley and Keats into one cunt-poem. If you had to cunt-up some other contemporary poets (besides the ones already included), who would you choose and why?
Since John Ashbery is the only living poet I “cunted,” I wouldn’t say my book reflects contemporary poetry. Ashbery has been a prince concerning his inclusion in the book, even allowing us to use an excerpt from an email he wrote to me, as part of the book’s promotion: “My poem(s) seem to take to the new medium quite well.” If I were to do contemporary poets, I’d do my friends, some of whom have already eagerly volunteered themselves. Or—a while back, the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles held a marathon reading in which people read from the work of the 47 poets who were in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (1994), but were left out of the second edition (2013)—maybe I could do those “decanonized” poets, call the book Cunt Abandoned.
How long did it take you to write each poem in Cunt Norton? Was it important for you to have been reading the poet you were writing about?
Each poem took four to six hours. I would read a selection of each poet’s work from the Norton, in order to get a quick feel for them. I tried not to let this influence me too much, as my strategy for writing the Cunt Norton poems was to deal with, rather naively, what I found, to make something that sounded coherent out of gobllety goo.
Where were these poems written? Did you write them in one specific place?
Early drafts of some of them were written in cafes, but ultimately, they were all written in my apartment, moving back and forth between the iMac in the office I share with my husband, Kevin Killian, and the MacBook on the kitchen table.
What are you currently working on?
I haven’t written much the past couple of months due to being insanely busy and a need to clear out after having finished The TV Sutras. In spring 2015, Semiotext(e) will be publishing a collection of my essays called When the Sick Rule the World, and I’d like to write a couple of new pieces for that, so I’ve been brainstorming, gathering material, etc.
What are five contemporary poetry books that you can't live without?
What a painful question! I could name dozens. Here’s six:
Kevin Killian, Argento Series
Ariana Reines, The Cow
Eileen Myles, Sorry Tree
Dana Ward, Typing Wild Speech (chapbook reprinted in This Can’t Be Life)
Dorothea Lasky, Thunderbird
Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
What is a day-in-the-life like for you?
I now make my living teaching creative writing, which means my schedule is erratic—some days I’ll work twelve hours straight, other days I’ll spend in bed. Regularity—or “life rituals” as Lindsey Lohan’s sobriety coach calls it—is a challenge for me.
Where do you see yourself and your writing in five years, or where would you like to see yourself and your writing?
I think about this a lot. I’d like to be doing less institutional teaching and more private teaching. I fantasize about moving into a higher paying visiting writer circuit, but I don’t know if I have the personality for it. The older I get the more of a hermit I’ve become, and there’s something gross about public performances of intelligence, hipness, hyper-friendliness, and togetherness. Intimacy is the only social register I’m really comfortable with. In five years I hope the writing is still going strong and that I’ve completed a couple more book projects I have in mind. I don’t care as much as I probably should about my books being more popular. I already have a wonderful, sharp readership whose affection humbles me. But if Penguin said they wanted to reprint all my books, I wouldn’t say no.