“Mourning is a form of madness”: Dodie Bellamy on writing through loss

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André Durbin: Your new collection of essays, Bee Raised, is divided into two sections – “Here” and “Where” – which mark the passing of your husband and collaborator over 30, the poet Kevin Killian. Can you tell us a bit about how this book came to be?

Dodie bellamy: Semiotexte (e) had agreed to publish a new collection of my essays before Kevin’s death. Kevin suggested that I call the collection The Feraltern – a mix of “wild” and “alternative”. I found the term in an essay I wrote in 2013 on the poet Diane di Prima. One of the big issues with this was, even though the title suits my writing practice, the essay on Di Prima isn’t that good, and I was dreading rewriting it to bring it up to standard.

Prior to Kevin’s death in 2019, I had agreed to write a piece of “experimental fiction” for an exhibition catalog accompanying Christina Ramberg’s exhibition, “The Making of Husbands,” at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. It seemed reckless, a month or two after my widowhood, to write anything down, but the project was compelling, so I wrote about my grief in the third person via a character I named Bee Reaved, seen through the lens of Ramberg’s art. In my experience, grief is a form of madness, and I was totally bonkers, an alien creature with one foot on earth. The name was inspired by a visit I made to Los Angeles right after Kevin’s death. I stayed with artist and writer Matias Viegener, and all weekend Matias kept calling me “mourning”. The silliness of it was exactly what I needed to make me laugh.

Christina Ramberg, ‘The Making of Husbands’, 2019, exhibition view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art; photograph: Frank Sperling

A D: How did you develop the voice of Bee Reaved?

Comics: There are three pieces in which Bee Reaved is the protagonist, written over the course of a year, and I was hoping that by coming back to her over time, the writing would follow the progression of my grief. The original ‘Bee Reaved’ is so insane that she can’t even name her late husband. She simply calls him “the other”. In the second track, “Plague Widow”, we’re still in third person, but Kevin is referred to by name. Bee Reaved thrives because his tenderness has been suppressed. The play explores the rage and violence of dealing with it. And, finally, ‘Chase Scene’ is a 60 page intimate letter to Kevin. The first person and the tenderness returns, but it’s devastating. Writing this article, which took five months, almost destroyed me.

A D: Did you revert to writing Kevin while you were working on Bee Raised? As I experienced the book (admittedly, in a tearful emotional trance), I kept hearing it whisper in your prose.

Comics: I went through his writing file on the computer, which contains poems and his biography of Jack Spicer, Poet be like god (1998) – among many other things. His handwriting was the only place I could afford to be close to him. I kept coming back to the cats series in Kylie action (2008) and the poem ‘Who’, which I have seen him read over and over again in that campy, spectacular way he had, and which has never ceased to impress me. Much of his genius came from his willingness to ridicule himself, to assume a sort of visionary monstrosity. There is so much about death in the poems, including imagining his own death, it was like he was telling me about the afterlife.

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Dodie Bellamy, Mina Harker’s Letters, 2021. Courtesy of: Semiotext (e)

A D: Bee Raised coincides with the reissue of your novel, Mina Harker’s Letters (1998/2021). This book now looks like a sort of prequel. In it, Mina Harker – Jonathan Harker’s wife in Bram Stroker’s Dracula (1897) – lives in San Francisco in the 1980s. She looks a lot like you. She corresponds with your friends; she falls in love with (and marries) Kevin. How much did you think about the novel while you were writing Bee Revealed?

Comics: Since it is difficult to generate enthusiasm for reprints, Semiotext (e) offered to publish the books together, hoping that the new collection would help draw attention to Mina. Originally, there was no intended thematic link between the books. When it was first published, Mina had an impact in the very underground literary world I was in at the time, and I still operate there. while not totally forgotten – some die-hard fans still teach it – the book languished in the dark.

Once I decided to focus the collection on Kevin and our marriage, the two books resonated more and more with me, and Mina certainly influenced the decisions I made in the hardware for Bee Raised. Mina is an epistolary novel in which all letters, in their original versions, were written to real people and posted. When I started the project, some people answered me. Kevin and Mina had an intense correspondence, which helped transform our relationship from friendship to romance. So the end of Bee Raised talk to both Mina and these first letters, which are not part of the novel. Mina begins with Dodie and Kevin’s wedding day, while Bee Raised follows his death and its consequences. I used the language of the last paragraph of Mina and integrated it into the last paragraph of Bee Raised, tying the two books together with a small bow.

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Christine Shields, Portrait of Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, 2006. Courtesy of the artist

A D: Can you imagine a future for Bee Reaved beyond this collection? Are we going to hear from her again?

Comics: You never know for sure, but I think I’m done with it. Writing through it allowed me to overcome the terrible numbness and shock of grief and reestablish a bond of heart with Kevin. I would like to keep this private for now. But I’m working with the photographs Alice Shaw took of the hundreds of people who attended her memorial at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In this project, I hope to explore grief from a community perspective..

Main image and thumb: Dodie Bellamy, Bee Raised (detail), book cover, 2021. Courtesy: Semiotext (e)

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