Pink Steam. Suspect Thoughts Press, 2004; 190 pages; $16.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Pink steam rises from the vats of melting goo in the Vincent Price 3-D horror classic, House of Wax. Railroad buffs know "pink steam" as the first blast from a newly christened steam engine, which appears pink as it spews out rust. And now Pink Steam, the book, reveals the intimate secrets of Dodie Bellamy's life -- sex, shoplifting, voyeurism, writing. Like L. Frank Baum's Dorothy, in Thel Wizard of Oz, Bellamy grows up in a dreary Midwestern town. She's a bossy, queer child who identifies with the freaks she watches on The Twilight Zone. Her father's a carpenter obsessed with Kipling's The Jungle Book -- the only book he's ever read. Her mother is a pragmatist who longs for a normal daughter. Eventually Bellamy hurls out of Indiana and tumbles into Oz -- San Francisco's bohemian Mission District. As she attempts to reconcile her working-class origins with the privileged insanity of her arts community, everything crackles and blurs. True confession bleeds into high theory into trash cinema (soundtrack provided by David Bowie and Oliver Messiaen). Kathy Acker, Diane Arbus, and Bernadette Mayer are the fates who guide Bellamy as she searches for a voice in a whirlwind of sizzling images and strange encounters. In this world a woman can turn into a giant reptile, fuck a demon, lust for King Kong -- and still feel repressed, constricted. As she battles on the frontiers of über-female vision, Bellamy tries on genre after genre -- horror tale, essay, letter, academic novel, the fortune cookie tags of daily life. But, like off-the-rack clothing, no form fits exactly right. Pink Steam barges beyond the clichés of gendered experience. Unafraid of the personal, unabashed by politics and sex, Bellamy makes confusion her OK Corral. "When the legend is greater than the truth, print the legend." Dodie Bellamy is the girl who shot Liberty Valance.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publisher's Weekly: Dodie Bellamy sows poetic bedlam in Pink Steam, an introspective collection of bits of fictionalized memoir and reflection that explore everything from sexual desire to the temptations of shoplifting. Bellamy deconstructs Barbie's Dream House, recounts a run-in with "Venus," and reports from "the field" (read: her mother's couch in Indiana) on the 2000 Republican National Convention. Her offbeat, flirtatiously subversive prose puts a fresh spin on countercultural life in San Francisco and the Midwest from the 1970s to the present.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dodie Bellamy has written a novel, The Letters of Mina Harker, and an epistolary collaboration on AIDS with the late Sam D'Allesandro, Real. Her book, Cunt-Ups, a radical feminist revision of the "cut-up" pioneered by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in, among others, the anthologies Pills, Thrills, Chills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person, The Best American Erotica 2001, High Risk, The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets, A Poetics of Criticism, The New Fuck You, Primary Troubleand Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Woman. In 1998 she won the San Francisco Bay Guardian "Goldie" Award for Literature. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle, Bookforum, Out/Look, the San Diego Reader, Nest, as well as numerous small-press literary journals and websites. She has taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, UC Santa Cruz, University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Antioch Los Angeles, San Francisco State, and CalArts. With her husband of many years, Kevin Killian, she has edited over 100 issues of the literary/art zine Mirage #4/Period(ical).
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Dodie Bellamy, who has lived in San Francisco for almost three decades, told me that she was born in North Hammond, Indiana, right outside of Chicago, "which is kind of like what they call the 'rust belt.' I was born in '51, so I'm a baby boomer."
Her mother, Ms. Bellamy went on to say, "was a cafeteria lady in my high school cafeteria. You can imagine how much status that gave me. She also worked part-time as a janitor. We weren't poor, because my father was a union carpenter, but we were comfortable with having low expectations by not being materialistic."
As a child, Ms. Bellamy "read voraciously. I was interested in science. I read children's science books. Lots of archaeology books, lots of biographies of the first women doctors, that kind of stuff. As I got to junior high and up, I started reading more literature."
"Who was the first author you loved?"
"I loved Jane Austen."
Ms. Bellamy was the first person in her family to go to college. "Indiana University was cheap. I lived off campus. They paid for everything. My initial undergraduate years I worked part-time as a grill cook, but I told my parents I couldn't maintain a straight-A average and work, so they said, 'Okay.' They paid for part of my graduate school as well. I stayed at Indiana University. I should not have gone to graduate school when I did. I basically went so I could get student loans. It was funny. I'm a Phi Beta Kappa. But I ended up working in the dorm cafeteria -- the same job, basically, after I graduated, that my mother had. I went to graduate school to get student loans and a better work-study job."
After graduation in 1973 (with a degree in comparative literature), Ms. Bellamy lived in Chicago, and then in the 1970s, she moved to San Francisco. "I knew a lot of gay men in college, and they moved either to Chicago or San Francisco.
"I'd been out here and liked it. Friends put me up; they got me a job. For me it was absolutely the best place I could go because I started getting serious about my writing, and there was such a community here to get involved with."
Ms. Bellamy and Kevin Killian met, she said, in 1981 in Bob Gluck's writing workshop at Small Press Traffic (the Small Press Traffic website notes: "Since 1974 Small Press Traffic has been at the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area innovative writing scenes, bringing together independent readers, writers, and presses through publications, conferences, and an influential reading series"). Ms. Bellamy, during the 1980s, served for five years as the director of Small Press Traffic.
The publisher of Ms. Bellamy's Pink Steam, she said, "is located in the Mission. They're a small, queer press. They've been around for a few years, and they're doing more porn and moving more toward literary-type stuff. They're actually going to be publishing a lot of people that I'm involved with. They're going to publish Kevin's Arctic Summer, that's been out of print. They're going to publish a newly edited version of Sam D'Allesandro's collected stories, edited by Kevin because we're his executor. They put out that anthology I Do, I Don't on gay marriage. They're getting a lot of attention because of that.
"I put Pink Steam together for them. I didn't have a book that I was shopping around, but they were interested in the book that I've been writing for ten years that isn't done. I didn't want to do some boring collection -- those books where people have their book reviews. I wanted a collection that actually held together the book. So I pulled the stuff together."
I asked about Kathy Acker's influence on Ms. Bellamy and other avant-garde writers.
"Well, work needs to be done to maintain her status. I'm friends with her executor. People are forgetting. We must have such a short memory. There's going to be an anthology of critical essays about her. She took sex seriously as a topic, you know. Not like Fear of Flying. She took sex as a serious topic, and she also brought sex into experimental writing, like gay men were doing. And she made herself a pop icon. Her personality had a lot to do with it. I have had a long relationship with her work, and I've grown to appreciate her more and more."
Ms. Bellamy, as a young student, with great interest, read Virginia Woolf. "True, I discovered Virginia Woolf when I was an undergraduate. She was considered a 'minor' author at the time. And then her stock, I think, was rising.
"I'm teaching this class at San Francisco State -- Developing the Novel. And we were looking at To the Lighthouse last night. They were amazed by it. Because it starts out -- the beginning isn't very interesting. But I think if you want to think about how to write about interiority, she's a good person to study.
"What was hard for women writing about sex is that in heterosexual culture the women are the object. So how does the object start speaking? So it requires an incredible psychological shift. So many younger women are doing it now, it's kind of exciting. But in the '80s when I was trying to do it, there wasn't a lot of it going on.
"I think the next book I'm writing has a lot of sex in it, but when I finish that, I'm interested in exploring other aspects of the female body. So I want to stay with the body, but I think other aspects."
"You write about the freedom that queer writers gave you."
"Are you wanting me to say something about that?"
"I'm hoping you will."
"It sort of was accidental in a way. I, when I first moved here, I came looking for my home, and I'd gotten involved with this street poet thing -- which wasn't a place for a young, insecure woman. Then I got involved with the Feminist Writers' Guild. A number of the women there were taking classes at San Francisco State with Kathleen Fraser. I took four classes with her at State. She suggested that I go into Bob Gluck's workshop. So that's when they had all that funding for the arts, and Small Press Traffic had free writing workshops.
"I continued to run a low-cost private writing workshop. Because I could always use some pocket change. But also I believe in having a place where people can come to perfect their craft outside the university system. Because MFA programs have taken over writing, and you get this synthesized version of writing.
"I'm kind of making my living off of it, but I'm deeply critical of it too. It would be nice to get in a situation where you could create an alternative, but it seems the structure is so set.
"I show all my stuff to Kevin. I've got this wonderful editor living with me. But anyway, I think what I got from being in Bob's workshop is that I was writing poetry because I was afraid of prose. I felt it was some kind of straitjacket. I could not see myself sustaining a regular story. And also, I think, from writing essays in college, which I might be good at, but I found them against my nature.
"So I was exposed to alternative forms of narrative and shown that I could do everything I wanted to do in poetry but do it in a narrative way. I was increasingly writing these long, serial poems and putting a lot of narrative into the poetry. So I was yearning to do that. I also got a lot of support for writing about sex. And also another important thing; I got a lot of support about pop culture. That pop culture was not this silly thing. It was valid subject matter.
"I think the kind of gay attitude toward pop culture -- that was a double-edge thing. No matter how playful people will be with it, there's always this acknowledgment that you're also deeply impacted by it. I hate that, when writers act like their subject matter is beneath them. I often felt sorry for the characters in some books. They need an advocate."
"Sometimes it seems to me," I offered, "that what we speak of as popular culture has become what Nature was in Wordsworth's day."
"I think that's true, and it's also very hard to separate this 'I' that you carry around. How can you separate it from the TV and movies and the media?"
We talked a bit about the Bay Area writing community.
Did Stanford professor and poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900--1968) leave his stamp on San Francisco poets?
"He hasn't had much of an influence. That era has had an incredible influence for me, though, because I never wanted to be a hippie. I wanted to be a beatnik. The angst."
"And the black tights."
"In some ways my ideal life would be wearing all black and reading poetry in a coffeehouse. And in some ways I've fulfilled it, because I do.
"Kevin [with Lewis Ellingham] wrote Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and The San Francisco Renaissance, a biography of Spicer [1925--1965]. [Spicer, together with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, were sometimes known as the Berkeley Renaissance group.] Spicer, Duncan, and Blaser were the 'intellectual queers' of the post--World War II period. Spicer actually kind of hated the Beats, and the Beats kind of hated him. I know a lot about that period through Kevin, and I've met a lot of the survivors. I see my writing as coming out of the San Francisco history from the late 1940s. I like the sense of being a San Francisco writer.
"I really, really wanted Mina to be published by City Lights, which it wasn't. I wanted it to feel grounded as a San Francisco book. That's one of the appeals of Suspect Thoughts, that it is a San Francisco press.
"I think there's a lot of admiration for Allen Ginsberg, among writers that I know. He and Kerouac opened things up. They were important. Maybe not like a direct influence, but certainly they created an atmosphere where this type of writing that we do is possible."
"And," I suggested, "they created an atmosphere in which writing was more public."
"Totally, totally. Yeah, the big open readings. They always say that the reading [in 1955] at 'Six Gallery' [on Fillmore Street in San Francisco] is what started the many open readings in the '60s."
"If you were going to explain the sort of the history of San Francisco's writing, where would you go after the Beats?"
"Well, hmmm. I moved here in the '70s, so all these San Francisco street poets, that whole lineage, was in place. And there's always been a fair number of academic writers because of all the schools here. And the language poets sort of came to prominence in the '70s."
"From where did the language poets come?"
"A lot of them went to Harvard and Berkeley. They were kind of Ivy League -- there were some working class. But I think Berkeley and Harvard would be the origins. So then there's a lot of writing that either was following that or reacting to that."
"And there's Gary Snyder..."
"Oh yeah, the nature. I don't think of him so much as San Francisco. It's kind of definitely a California thing. Robert Duncan was at New College when I moved here, and that created an enormous impact, and that was a great loss.
"I know more about poetry or know more poets than I knew fiction writers. Fiction writers have this whole other layer of success. I did know Dorothy Allison [Bastard Out of Carolina] before she was Dorothy Allison, hanging out in the Mission."
"Now," I said, "Dave Eggers [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius] seems to have taken over the San Francisco literary world."
"Yeah, he totally has, I think. But even though he's affected it -- I guess because of McSweeney's, I think of it all as in New York -- it feels like an implant or something."
"Do the McSweeney's people ever get together with your people?"
"No. There's no crossover."
"Is there much crossover with the East Bay?"
"Well, yeah, because there's lots of poets in the East Bay. I know almost more writers living in Oakland than in San Francisco now because of the rents. There are interesting reading series in the East Bay. Like 21 Grand in Oakland."
"You write in Pink Steam that the writer is the top, and the reader is the bottom."
"Some people probably would argue about that. Because once the reader gets hold of the book, they kind of re-create it."
"But the writer is directive, is 'topping' the reader."
"Yes, that's one of the great pleasures. When I read at night to go to sleep, and I'm tired from the day, I love giving my world over to somebody else and having them create this world for me."
"Can you cook?"
"Yeah. I don't cook as much as I used to because I've gotten caught up in finding time. I'm actually a good cook. I was raised in an atmosphere where a woman who couldn't cook was freakish.
"I used to crochet with my grandmother and embroider, and I've been thinking about taking up crocheting again. I was looking on the Web at instructions for making granny squares the other day."
"I was thinking it would be fun to read you on the subject of clothes and sexuality -- the tiny buttons and the tight seams."
"It's certainly something that I'm into. I like clothes a lot."
"Yes, you do. You write about them as if they were another skin."