Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics co-edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg
(Saturnalia Books, Philadelphia, 2010)
Since the Gurlesque is a concept, theory, politics, poetics and controversy as much as it’s an anthology, I’ll review the anthology-manifestation with an anthology of my own, called “A Brief and Unintentionally but Inevitably Incomplete Auto-History of the Gurlesque, in Two Parts. The First Gathered by One Particular Middle-Class Professional Heterosexual Whitish Oldish Male Person. The Second Consisting of Some Brief Comments of His Own”.
a. “I’m developing an aesthetic theory which I’m calling the Gurlesque … a theory which emerged organically from my reading a steady stream of books by women poets published in the last several years: women who, like myself, were raised during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. I began to see a commonality among some of these poets, … the poetry regularly incorporates and rejects confession, lyricism, fragmentation, humor, and beauty: poets who act as the charm bracelet to bring all of these styles together. Like many other contemporary young poets, each of these women was veering away from traditional narrative, and each employed a postmodern sense of humor, invoking brand names and cultural ephemera. This is not terribly unusual among young contemporary poets, but what struck me was a tone that was tender and emotionally vulnerable but also tough, with a frank attitude towards sexuality and a deep, lush interest in the corporeal, and that this came through in poems that were “dolled up” in a specifically girly kitsch: this work seems to share an interest in the “femme” side of feminism. … This combination of the serious (“the conspiracy”) and the frilly (“shimmer”) seemed to me a particular way of writing through and about gender, and one that seemed to permeate work by poets with vastly different backgrounds. It also resonated with my own work, and I recognized its trimmings—the fashion copy jargon stolen from Vogue, the Disneyfied fairytales, the jokey melancholy—from my own history and my own poetics. …” (Arielle Greenberg, “On the Gurlesque” [“This article was written in April 2003 based on an outline for a talk delivered at Small Press Traffic as part of the New Experiments series in November 2002.” Article published at SPT])
b. “Don’t deny the unicorn lover inside you. Doubt it, fear it, laugh at it, but don’t deny it. Embrace it. This message seems central to Zirconia, the debut collection by Chelsey Minnis and first winner of the Alberta Prize, launched last year by Fence Books. It’s not a message limited to this work or this author, because the particular brand of sensuality/sentimentality at work here is one which I believe is in the zeitgeist: a “gurlesque” aesthetic, a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy. It owes much, of course, to the work of Angela Carter and other feminist writers who relished a baroque masochism as they simultaneously sought to deconstruct the rape culture fairy tales all around them. Rikki Ducornet and others have continued the practice, and the recent Gothic-influenced poetry by Laura Mullen is another outgrowth. But I’d suggest that Zirconia is representative of a new generation of women artists working in this vein, and that a particularly deadpan sense of humor and an attention to childish fantasy—to Americana girlhood in place of elaborate exoticism—is what sets this work apart. …” (Arielle Greenberg, review of Zirconia, by Chelsey Minnis, © 2002 Electronic Poetry Review)
c. “I read the word “gurlesque” mainly as “grotesque” - as such my ideas what it represent goes through my canon of grotesque writers (Bakthin, Deleuze & Guattari, Bataille and the Documents group of Surrealists, Artaud, Aase Berg etc) and artists (Bellmer, Artaud, Hannah Hoch, Grosz etc). … - Kara Walker is key to my understanding of this idea. … a great example of a post-heroic (or post avant-garde) idea of subversion—they’re not going to take over the welfare state, they don’t speak from a grandiose outside position (as imaged by many contemporary American poets); rather they are going to find the grotesque inside the idyll, use the bodily metaphors of the welfare state to create zones of “lemur”-attacks. …” (Johannes Göransson, at Exoskeleton, 8 Jul 08)
d. “ … shock is very important to Minnis, Reines and Glenum—but it’s not Ron [Silliman]’s idea of a first shock, the shock of bringing up a repressed reality. Rather it seems to me a self-consciously played-out shock, what happens to shock after the shock, almost a kind of boredom. So when Ron is disappoined that Minnis’s shock is not frank but “coy” I would say he’s right but that she’s already a step ahead of him: she’s playing with the notion of a played-out shock, a highly aestheticized (not “raw”, not “true”) shock. Sylvia Plath does something similar in the “striptease” that is “Lady Lazarus”—with its violence, pornography and tasteless genocide reference.” (Johannes Göransson, at Exoskeleton, 10 Jul 08)
e. “I briefly wanted to remind people of Ariana Reines’s wonderful poetics statement “Sucking” in Action, Yes awhile back. Here are some of my favorite quotes: “To make a book capable of humiliating itself, capable of arousing itself inside its own violence and difficulty, like a Marina Abramovic performance.” “I wanted to write poems that an educated person would feel embarrassed to read, poems that sound like Goth girls with feelings, except for sometimes they are “smarter” than Goth girls with feelings are supposed to be.” “Every time people say something is raw and simple and tells it like it is and gives you the unvarnished truth and everything, people are playing themselves. People want to have an experience of the raw truth, and some things are more intense and greater than others, but nothing is wholly raw, nothing is the plain and pure truth. Style in literature can make itself sound like it is the plain and pure truth and this is because the author wants to clobber you with the authority of the plain and pure truth he or she is emitting. Urgency and sincerity are real. But when people start talking bullshit about “a style stripped of artifice” they are talking bullshit. Style is by definition artificial. Much more importantly, writing’s artificial. Eating and talking and crapping and fucking and dying are natural.” (Johannes Göransson, at Exoskeleton, sometime Jul 08)
f. “… the Gurlesque is an entirely descriptive project, not prescriptive. In other words, Arielle and I are describing a set of aesthetic strategies/tendencies being engaged by a fairly disparate set of poets. We are not spearheading a movement or branding a product. The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists who, taking a page form the historical burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends. The theoretical tangents germane to the Gurlesque that I’m exploring in my critical writing include burlesque and camp, girly kitsch, and performance of the female grotesque. Many people associate burlesque with its 1930s incarnation, the strip-tease, which was a far cry from the early years of the burlesque theater—the 1840s to the 1860s—which were pioneered almost exclusively by troops of female actresses under the direction of other women in Victorian London. Their dance hall repertoire was an antecedent of vaudeville, only much more socially explosive. Robert C. Allen, in his seminal work on burlesque, Horrible Prettiness, surmises that burlesque “presented a world without limits, a world turned upside down and inside out in which nothing was above being brought down to earth. In that world, things that should be kept separate were united in grotesque hybrids. Meanings refused to stay put. Anything might happen.” Emily Lane Fargo writes: “Burlesque performers also literally usurped male power by taking on male roles onstage.... However, female burlesque performers were never trying to present a convincing, realistic portrayal of a man onstage. Instead, they were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with markers of masculinity… These practices, of course, ultimately emphasized the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves.” The effect of such “unladylike” conduct led at least one critic to deem burlesque performers neither men nor women but “creatures of an alien sex, parodying both.” And parody, as Baudrillard tells us, is the most serious of crimes because it makes acts of obedience to the law and acts of transgression the same, canceling out the difference on which the law is based. The work of early burlesque performers embody Judith Butler’s insistence that we “consider gender as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.” … In Gurlesque poetry, human bodies and human language (and thus identity) are not closed, discrete systems. They are grotesque bodies/systems—never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, and porous. The body, as the nexus of language and identity, is a strange borderland, the site of erratic and highly specific (and language-mediated) desires. … There is no experience of “pure” culture or language available to us, no “pure” identity, no unmediated desire. The concept of the pure lies at the heart of Western aesthetics—the word “catharsis” comes from the Greek verb “to purify”—and women, non-whites, queers, impoverished, or disabled persons have historically been labeled as social contaminants. Gurlesque poets deny catharsis because they deny the aesthetics of the pure.” (Lara Glenum, at Exoskeleton 12 May 09)
g. “Having wrapped up another round of revisions on my critical paper, which I have titled “Disturbingly Charming: On the Appeal and Practice of a Gurlesque Poetics”, I keep going back to the thought that the poems in the Gurlesque mode are primarily written by women for women. But my very unscientific research so far has shown that to be faulty thinking. There are a lot of men out there who are blogging about the Gurlesque, or blogging something that includes a reference to the Gurlesque, and many of the Gurlesque’s reviewers are men. But maybe I’m only noticing that because the men stand out? I don’t know. And what does it matter, anyway, who is reading this sort of work? It’s not like any of these women poets are writing for an audience. They’re (presumably, and I think it’s a safe enough assumption) writing to satisfy something in themselves. On Delirious Hem the title of the interview with Arielle Greenberg, the coiner of the term Gurlesque, is “Disarming, Destabilizing and Creeping Out the Patriarchy.” One of the questions posed to me by my mentor was, is it? Is it really? And is it or is it not a truly feminist mode of writing? Granted, I am not an expert on feminism. I identify with feminism, appreciate all that first and second wave feminists have accomplished, and agree that there is still more work to be done. But I fall squarely under the third wave umbrella, and even at that I not gone out of my way to educate myself on what it means to be a feminist. (As an aside, there’s an interesting offshoot of Delirious Hem called Delirious Lapel with a series of posts called “This is what a (pro)feminist man looks like”; I suspect that many — maybe most, or even all — of the men who are interested in the Gurlesque fall into this category) When I started reading about the Gurlesque I initially identified it as writing unabashedly about girlish subjects. You know, the tendency for the girls of my generation to obsess over barbies, unicorns, and sparkly things. But there are a lot of elements that go into making a Gurlesque poem, and it’s not all sweetness and light (unless it’s in a highly ironic way). There is so much darkness in the Gurlesque, a brutality, and a viciousness and a desire to reclaim our identity as females without sacrificing any of the power and momentum that the feminist movements have granted us.” (Cati Porter, “Is the Gurlesque a Girls-Only Club?”, at Cati Porter, 28 Oct 09)
h. “Oh, thanks, Cati for the detailed response. I see what your mentor’s asking, but I do think, more generally, it’s a dangerous way to frame the question, as it ultimately suggests there’s a way not to be a product of the patriarchy. Oh! Such a big topic, …” (Danielle Pafunda, comment appended to Cati Porter post, above)
i. “I can’t help it. I keep saying I won’t write this post. It’s not worth it, I’ll appear rude, my knowledge is limited, etc. But I’ve decided to put it out there, after a cursory read and setting the book aside in annoyance. The Gurlesque anthology, GURLESQUE: THE NEW GRRLY, GROTESQUE, BURLESQUE POETICS, by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum, despite including a number of poets I admire and some I count as friends, has sufficiently gotten under my skin today, and to be fair, without giving it more than a few hours’ read. Perhaps I’ll regret it all and delete this rant later because, truly, I love a good number of the poems within. What bugs though? Well in brief, Greenberg in her introduction parallels the Gurlesque with the Riot Grrrl movement. My memory of that movement, which I peripherally participated in by attending shows and working on a short-lived zine in the Baltimore/DC scene, “Shrill” (& listening to avidly), made efforts to include the queer. In fact, a large number of those bands were shout-out-loud queer and those that weren’t celebrated various permutations and manifestations of queerness, in fact, relied on it. This inclusion, I imagine, was predicated on the multi-cultural women’s movement of yore that imagined women who weren’t sexually beholden to men had something to offer. And that’s what’s getting under my skin. Despite similarities, in part, I don’t see the true parallel to the Gurlesque here. Content-wise, much of the poetry within this anthology is about straight women dealing directly (and sometimes sideways) with the push-pull of being romantically/sexually-invested in men while simultaneously being under their thumb/the symbolic as well as real power of men — I know several straight women who frustratedly deal with the issues that arise out of their desire for men that goes hand-in-hand with the power those same men hold over their heads. How does one navigate that? It’s hard, I know. I’ve been there. But I’m also somewhere else now, and this anthology doesn’t venture into that kind of experience. From what I can tell, I guess I don’t write the Gurlesque, nor do any other lesbians/queer women, despite Eileen Myles’ blurbage, “I like these dirty poems.” Yeah, but where’s the *real* dirt post-not-just-in-relation-to-men, just what are those pink claws and cute guns gonna do (as conjured in another blurb), you know, once the men go to sleep. What are these riot women going to rock then?? I guess this isn’t *that* kind of book, unless I’m missing it somehow…” (Amy King, “My Visceral Thought”, at “Amy King’s Alias”, 22 Mar 010)
j. “ … this is really interesting! I think you’re spot-on about the relationship to sexuality in a lot of these poems. I definitely interrogate my position in the heterosexual matrix. And if that were all I ever did, it’d probably be enough for me, since I am a feminist breeder living in hetero town, often thinking, huh? well, how did I get here? But even beyond the literal cunt-to-cock, doesn’t male gaze construct our cultural understanding of (life inside) the female form no matter who we have sex with? It’s not just the hetero lover that constructs the girl/woman. It’s the parents, the doctors, the teachers, the reception of queer women …. And most of those things construct a person before she gets anywhere near the first boyfriend. I wonder if the female/feminine grotesque can ever be performed without reference to male gaze and heteronormative sex acts… I mean, does a woman ever get to take her body out from under patriarchy? That’s a sincere question. Seriously–is there a place to go? I dunno, I wasn’t in the right place at the right time for real Riot Grrrl scene (baby doll dresses and combat boots aside), but I do think that Gurlesque poems can do similar violence to the viewer (or vindication of the viewer if she’s identifying with the performance). They lock the gaze and exploit the stare. The Gurlesque reaction to the medico-sexualization of female bodies is worth getting fired up about. And the reconstitution of “girl” as viable subject position. Lately, I’m really interested in the way we market things to girls that we then denigrate them for buying, the way the “girl” is always/already a vulnerable, gaping wound, a burden on her people, ripe for demonizing. We don’t want to be called “girls,” we want to be called “women,” but when we distance ourselves from girl so aggressively, I think we’re buying into girlhood = disease. What’s less important than a “girl”? Or more vulgar than an old girl? And it’s not like a person gets to identify as “girl” or not solely on her own say-so. Woman & girl, both categories created by patriarchy, both labels applied willy-nilly, yeah? And another thing that just occurred to me–Gurlesque tactics must also be about the relationship of straight women one to another, or the relationship straight women have to queer women? Hmmm.” (Danielle Pafunda, comment appended to Amy King post above)
k. “Hi Danielle, Boring? That was one of the risks I knew I was taking simply by critiquing this anthology and speaks to my hesitation: that I would somehow be read as going against what the poems within those pages are doing: I’m not. As the project stands, I think it’s a fine one and there certainly should be poems out there that address those heteronormative structures/contents/images/symbols and fuck the hell out of them, to make a poor pun. I’m all for you and the women included interrogating the hell out of the hetero-matrix! And some of those poems give delight, cause pause, etc in many good ways. I wouldn’t deny you that neighborhood because I know it’s a liberating one and I want the option to visit too sometimes bc I don’t only inhabit a queer sensibility at all times (nor have I historically)… But the implications set forth by Glenum and Greenberg imply a scope that I don’t think this anthology reaches. That’s where my disappointment lies. A few of the Riot Grrrls wore baby doll dresses; many did not. Many played naked, wore attire across the board, mixed and matched, took punk and feminized it on their terms, … etc. This anthology does not cover that range, in my humble estimation. But it seems that sensibility, or a nod towards it at least, was part of the project … And yes, I agree, we all grow up being pushed into those “girl” subject-hood positions (the princess-soon-to-be-fuck-doll); but not all of us remain within its confines exclusively (though we are certainly aware of its maw constantly trying to consume us – two lesbians get it on for men, anyone?), but that’s not the point. The point gets at Cixous’ notion of writing the “feminine,” that it hasn’t happened yet and is only beginning to emerge because it has been suppressed/unarticulated/stuck-in-the-structures-that-be for so damn long. So how do we get at writing the feminine, the as-yet-unheard? How do we even begin to recognize it? Well, in my book, the queer is one route full of promise. What does it mean to live a daily life loving, and all that entails, another woman? Women? And all of the questions that fall in after… just as you point out at the end of your comment: what about relations between straight women and with queer women? I’m totally for exploring those! How do we feed off of each other, energize, etc. What do we end up creating together? Is it even fathomable to go past the patriarchal coding/discourse/positioning? What happens if we succeed? What then? …” (Amy King, response to Danielle Pafunda, above)
l. “Amy, I think this discussion raises the very relevant question of how the countercultural, grotesque, autre and queer intersect, where they overlap and borrow from each other and where they don’t. Can one queer language/imagination without queering life? There is an element of danger to being queer: to female lovers holding hands in a Southern diner, to hailing a cab or boarding the subway in drag, to a FTM trans boi in a gay-male bar — all open up the possibility of being not just sexually mocked and exploited but of physical harm. When the pressure/violence of that harm is deflected onto the language to the point where its muscles rip and then expand: that, in my mind, is when language is queered. And god/dog knows women are always in the danger of being harmed. Harmed as a somewhat known (though dangerous) Other — but is that the same as being Monster, part of no binary? … From Lara Glenum’s guest post on Johannes’s blog: “[Female burlesque performers] were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with markers of masculinity. The effect of such ‘unladylike’ conduct led at least one critic to deem burlesque performers neither men nor women but “creatures of an alien sex, parodying both.” I want to read through the anthology to see where and if the poems wear that male attire–does it actually happen? (Nota bene: I’ve only glanced at the anthology so far.) A poet who achieves boy-drag to stellar effect in her poems is Stacy Szymaszek, see “Homo Sailor King in Emptied of All Ships,” … Or is the project of the anthology really to sing the “horrible prettiness” of the femme dentata who may or may not be venturing into the truly queer? All this is really wide open for discussion and I do hope people who talk and think about Gurlesque engage you without holding back. I’ve thought/read a lot about Gurlesque, its embrace of kitsch resonates with me … and so I look forward to sitting down with the anthology this weekend and seeing (with my queer third eye) where it takes me.” (Ana Božičević, comment appended to Amy King post, above)
m. “**Embracing a Field of Cocks as a Performative Mode** I have been somewhat unclear. I will try again. About a decade ago Arielle noticed (as did I) a set of emerging tendencies in younger female poets who were very interested in using high artifice and formal exaggeration to unsettle gender norms, often by toying with the male gaze. This is a very limited description, of course. The anthology itself is a larger description. The anthology is only one of many possible descriptions of the Gurlesque. * * * Amy, I think you and Ana have misunderstood what I initially meant by “embrace.” By embrace, I mean a very specific, physical embrace. The embrace of the cock. Of a field of cocks. As a performative mode. One can do this whether one is queer or straight, as evidenced by the anthology. That is certainly not all the Gurlesque is. But it’s kicking around in there pretty hard. You have a problem with all the cock in the book. One can/should have a problem with it. You were initially saying you felt there was no queer subjectivity in the book. Then you started claiming that there were no queers. Given that there are queers, bis, and straights in the book, it makes me think you are missing a very specific performance of queer in the book. I think this is totally valid. But I will say it again: my sense is that the Gurlesque is about queering heterosexuality. My sense of this is intentionally provisional. I’m open to anything anyone else wants to say. But our discussion also raises the question of who gets to call queer. Who polices what/who gets called queer and what does not. I personally find this a very rich and useful discussion. One that is long overdue, particularly in feminist circles. … Gurlesque is an inherently unstable term, and I have no interest in further stabilizing it or in defining who can and can be “in” it. It’s not a movement. It’s a fraught nest of questions, even more than it’s a fraught nest of claims. Thanks, Amy and Ana, for bringing yours to the table.” (Lara Glenum, comment appended to Amy King post, above)
n. “… I’ve been taking notes. I have noticed that women over 50 are basically ignored in the gurlesque feminist conversations going on here and about unless we are footnotes or quotes from the previous generation. I wonder why that is? Are we not lifting our voices? Or are we too old to dress up like broken dolls or Little Red Cap or whatever the hippest look is to be taken seriously that is with the correct amount of glitter and pointy hats? No one wants to see our bottoms when our bottoms have shifted their attitudes correct? Imagine the horror were we to show up arm in flabby arms at AWP all attitude and pink sparkle! Hahahahahaaa. I know I’m not alone in this. Maybe I am. So much of it is about beauty our bodies our façades how we look more than what we think or write. More importantly our collective experience counts for nothing not really. Not if we can’t wear our underpants at a reading and look goddamned yeah hot in them to please each other and to please of course the boys who will post pictures of our nipples on their blogs and our ideas as well! For instance if I look a certain way (young) I am going to be take seriously. If I look another way I’m going to be cuddled coddled kissed on the palm and sent my way. I get the idea the young Jesusettes think we the elders are invisible. I may be wrong but I doubt it.” (Rebecca Loudon, at Radish King, 3 Apr 010)
o. “Pop Questionnaire for the Poets: How many of you grew up in the suburbs and left them for the city. And when? And many of you didn’t grow up in the US at all, which is great, and I wonder how/if a suburban/urban tension might be relevant for you, too. I think one (not the only) underlying element of recent debates about queerness and the Gurlesque anthology is a suburban/urban dynamic. Still thinking this through, though, and still waiting for my copy of the anthology to arrive. I’m slapping my head a little here about, for example, how riot grrrl music and culture can be a reference point for many of us, but have it mean very different things (duh). I’ve always associated queer with riot grrrl--but a lot of the people that love Sleater-Kinney, for example, don’t know that Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are gay. Or they don’t, maybe, care. I find this telling.” (K Lorraine Graham, “Pop Questionnaire for the Poets”, at Spooks By Me, 30 Mar 010)
p. “Lorraine Graham has an interesting post asking if the Gurlesque poets are defined by having grown up in the suburbs, which led to them not knowing the queer nature of Sleater Kinney. … For the record, I don’t know where anybody in the anthology grew up, but I do know that Lara grew up in Atlanta as an at-times homeless teenager, so at least one of the editors did not take her cue from suburbs. My main argument I think is not with Lorraine so much, but with Patrick’s comment: I think the key here is that this idea that the Gurlesque is lacking. And what they are lacking is the genuine knowledge, the kind of authenticity you gain by being a member of a community - urban here standing in for a kind of center, the suburbs for a distance from the center, a fakeness, a dilution of the real. This for me echoes a lot of the community-obsessed criticism of contemporary poetry. The gurlesque is a wax museum, in other words. A prosthetic poetics. Again, the fact that Lara was homeless starts to seem important here, in a way I never thought I would think it would be. While Lorraine makes a sociological inquiry (which I agree, could be an interesting way of looking at the aesthetic), Patrick Durgin equates “suburban” with some kind of aesthetic sensibility, divorced from the demographic. Some poetry is just “suburban” (independent of where the poet grew up). Ie it’s kitsch. These poets don’t have the specialized knowledge of real Riot Grrls, they are mere suburban imitations. They’re not truly Kathy Acker, just weak imitation. Here again we have the kitsch rhetoric of that dude who said that Lara’s poetry was like Marilyn Manson and Hot Topixx stores: the fake, the tasteless. I should also note a curious tendency in these discussions. It’s important for Patrick to claim that the Gurlesque is not enough like Acker; a while back someone on this blog commented that it is too much like Kathy Acker, ie just imitation, repetition. This strange dichotomy seems to repeat itself: it’s both too much and lacking. It’s just like translation: both excessive and lacking. (Just like translation.) If it’s true that the gurlesque poets are suburban and used to shop at Hot Topix, then perhaps we could argue that it has taught them a good deal of skepticism toward High Taste and Good Moral Standing, taught them not to follow the High Modernist/Clement Greenbergians in automatically define the good in opposition to mass culture, something Official Experimental Poetry Culture has long done. Or - since I know that Lara did not grow up in the suburbs - it might be that what strikes some as “suburban” is in fact a kind of rejection of the “high taste” of authenticity, an embrace of the inauthentic, or - as I argued in my article about the Gurlesque in Calaveras - what Kaja Silverman (discussing Godard’s Weekend) calls “anal capitalism.” Everything has become shit, exhausted. In other words: The gurlesque already embraces this inauthenticity. It embraces kitsch. One thing about queerness and Sleater Kinney: I remember when they became popular. I was in college. It was the 1990s. My ex gave me a tape which had the latest Social Distortion on one side and Sleater Kinney on the other. I wasn’t into it (at this point I was abandoning Social D and such, I was mainly listening to hip hop). But here’s my point: It seemed like identifying someone as “queer” at that point seemed strangely redundant …” (Johannes Göransson, “Gurlesque, Suburbia, Sleater Kinney”, at Exoskeleton, 1 Apr 010)
q. ““With poem titles such as ‘This Is A Fucking Poem’ and ‘A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off’ and ‘Sunday Morning Cunt Poem’ Saturnalia Books’ new anthology Gurlesque (the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics) certainly doesn’t shy away from what it is: a pure act of anarchy. Indeed, the first stanza of the book includes the sentence ‘First he spit on my asshole and then start in with a middle finger and then the cock slid in no sound come out, only a maw gaping, grind hard into ground.’ Let’s not dick around about it. The Gurlesque anthology is a violation of just about everything that is sacred: ‘A holiday shit stain’ (pg. 32) so to speak. It is especially a violation of poetry itself.” (CT Laity on Gurlesque: “this book is intended to be read and talked about by men”, as excerpted by Johannes Göransson, and posted at Exoskeleton. Originally posted by Laity 2 Apr 010)
Wow. The concept of the Gurlesque certainly strikes a nerve. I say “the concept” because, though my excerpting does distort the record a bit, all the discussion I’ve found seems to focus on something other than close reading. I conclude that poetry, and/or the poetry, is not really the issue here. There are many issues, clearly; they revolve around a number of what all involved seem to recognize as pseudo-yet-effective binaries: in/authenticity, hetero/queer, sub/urban, etc. Perhaps an umbrella phrase that captures what these have in common might be “politics and subjectivity”, or, better, “politics of subjectivity” ... though of course both terms need to be scare-quoted themselves.
I’d like to think this umbrella phrase by quoting from an (only?) apparently separate context: philosophy, in its object-oriented-ontology incarnation. This is by Levi R Bryant, over at Larval Subjects:
I have to ask, what in the hell is up with French continental philosophy’s obsession with the subject. … I know that the question of the subject has somehow come to be seen as the crucial and burning question of how change is possible. But to be quite honest, after going through all my Lacanian, Zizekian, and Badiouian escapades, I have to confess that I’m left scratching my head as to how the question contributes anything to producing change beyond providing a sort of pep rally for demoralized leftists living in a neoliberal world.
What sort of theory produces theoretical change? When I reflect on this question the answer seems to be cartographic theory or that form of theory that either provides the tools to or that actually does map collective assemblages. Here I have in mind work like that of Foucault, Marx in Capital, Latour, various feminist thinkers, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. The point is that it’s very difficult to do anything if you don’t have a map of how things are put together, and it’s very difficult to strategize action without knowing the basins of attraction that tend to pull human bodies into particular patterns. It’s difficult to see what the category of the subject really contributes to any of this. And indeed, it seems that preoccupation with the subject actively draws attention away from such work.
One thing the Gurlesque does usefully is to couple “subjectivity” with at least some those forces that tend “to pull human bodies into particular patterns”, even if its critics are correct that it doesn’t address all forces it could. And thus the Gurlesque does point to something Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia asks us to notice:
Bloch urges us to grasp the three dimensions of human temporality: he offers us a dialectical analysis of the past which illuminates the present and can direct us to a better future. The past -- what has been -- contains both the sufferings, tragedies and failures of humanity -- what to avoid and to redeem -- and its unrealized hopes and potentials -- which could have been and can yet be. … history is a repository of possibilities that are living options for future action, therefore what could have been can still be. The present moment is thus constituted in part by latency and tendency: the unrealized potentialities that are latent in the present, and the signs and foreshadowings that indicate the tendency of the direction and movement of the present into the future. This three-dimensional temporality must be grasped and activated by an anticipatory consciousness that at once perceives the unrealized emancipatory potential in the past, the latencies and tendencies of the present, and the realizable hopes of the future. Above all, Bloch develops a philosophy of hope and the future, a dreaming forward, a projection of a vision of a future kingdom of freedom. It is his conviction that only when we project our future in the light of what is, what has been, and what could be can we engage in the creative practice that will produce a world in which we are at home and realize humanity’s deepest dreams. (Dougles Kellner’s “Ernst Bloch, Utopia and Ideology Critique”)
So what if the Gurlesque is not the map? Accepting every criotique [sic] above, I can only reply with: The Gurlesque need not be perfect to be an emancipatory project.
To quote Kellner again:
For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by “dreams of a better life,” … daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature, theater, and all forms of art, political and social utopias, philosophy, and religion -- often dismissed tout court as ideology by some Marxist ideological critique -- contain emancipatory moments …
Which brings us at last to the poetry.
I disagree with Laity’s claim that the poems and art are a “violation of just about everything that is sacred: … It is especially a violation of poetry”. Maybe I just wasn’t raised religious or something. Or maybe he’s kidding. I find the word “violate” particularly inappropriate. In any case, whatever they struggle against (patriarchy, rape culture …) isn’t sacred to me.
But then again, I just watched a video of a USAmerican Apache helicopter crew kill a dozen or so civilians over Baghdad in 2007. Watching that, and listening to the chatter of the crew, which had been driven into madness by the time the video was made …
… and I just watched a few hours of prime-time tv …
… There’s transgression … and there’s transgression. And no, the poetry here’s not one percent as transgressive as the dialogue one hears on the video* or the stuff that passes for normal on television. But after all, we’re talking about poetry. It’s hard for poetry to truly “cross the line” these days**, when “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” [or patriarchy, or rape-culture, or racism, or environmental degradation, or religious fanaticism, or just plain stupidity … the list is sadly endless …]. Nevertheless, and it’s an important nevertheless (cf. something Kafka’s supposed to have said: “Writing is a form of prayer. Even if no redemption comes, I still want to be worthy of every moment.”): these poets do what they can.*** As, I must add, do their critics. As best I can tell, everyone with a horse in this race is wearing a white hat.
As claimed by its proponents, many (thought not all) of the poems of the Gurlesque poets are “envaginated in rhetoric”****. I see their rhetoric, however conflated with performativity, as in fact accurately reflecting our lived nearly-indescribably neobaroque reality. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe these poems as, like it or not, fairly straightforward representations of what it’s like to be a woman alive these days. “Fair [raging] realism” indeed.
Take Catherine Wagner’s “For the Boys”:
Can you imagine dear men
what it is to be a woman being fucked.
The men installing a new gate –
– ran past them prickling, face
prickling, back of neck
sensitive and tight, and they do
say something to/about me …
Take Brenda Coultas’ “Dream Life in a Case of Transvestism”:
Since I became a women dressed as a man dressed as a women, I lost my virginity. There are sixteen types of hymens. I had thirteen of them. My hymen was a chameleon that hung from a chain on my sweater and changed shape constantly.
“What is that on your sweater?”
“It’s just an old maidenhead that I spray painted gold and glued some sequins onto.”
Take Elizabeth Treadwell’s “A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off”. I quote the whole thing:
to the indie filmmakers carving youth’s particulars with their gnarly todds
while portraying the multitudes
as merely disgusting protrusions of existence & commerce,
even as their own onionskins over their hypnotic guts.
in heaven, a thousand wallflowers shout fuck off across the dance floor,
in heaven, why
because gwyeth paltrow is not that great,
and neither is uma thurman
are you writing your name?
a thousand virgins shout fuck off
to the men of religion
to the men and women of god
Kathy doesn’t read poetry. But we talked about this book yesterday. And we talked about the 2007 Iraq War video. I asked her, somewhat rhetorically, “Do you think it’s as bad for a woman in the US as it is for anyone at all in Iraq?” She said, “No.” Then she said, “Wait a sec … well, I can’t go outside after dark and be sure I’ll get back … there are bushes near work that scare me every time I get near them … “And that was just the beginning of a list went on for a while, and could have extended indefinitely. I asked her if she’d ever felt like a fuck-doll. She got pretty grim and said, “Of course I did.” I asked her if she thought I treated her like one. She said, “No. That’s a big part of why I love you.” I felt relieved. But I didn’t have a good night.
I’m grateful for this anthology. Though it’s completely and righteously focused on a lot of fucked up stuff, it’s the hopeful part of what kept me awake.
*Steven Fama’s transcription of a bit:
Roger received target 15. K. Stay firm. Roger. Oh yeah. Hotel Two-Six; Crazyhorse One-Eight. Fucking prick. Request permission to engage. Roger that. All right, we’ll be engaging. Roger, go ahead. Bushmaster element. God damn it. Just fuckin, once you get on them just open up. You’re clear. Let’s shoot. Light ‘em all up.
Keep shoot ‘n. Keep shoot ‘n. Keep shoot ‘n.
Keep shoot ‘n.
I got ’m. God damn it, Kyle. Ha ha ha, I hit ‘em. All right, I’m just trying to find targets again. Bushmaster Six, this is Bushmaster Two-Six. Gotta bunch of bodies layin’ there. Yeah, we got one guy crawling around down there. We’re shooting some more. You shoot, I’ll talk. Roger. Hotel Two-Six; Crazyhorse One-Eight. Six Beacon Gaia. Sargeant Twenty is the location. Hotel Two-Six; Crazyhorse One-Eight.
Oh yeah look at those dead bastards.
Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight.
Good shoot ‘n.
Uh, location of bodies Mike Bravo five-four-five-eight eight-six-one-seven.
Five-four-five-eight eight-six-one-seven. Over.
This is Crazyhorse one-eight, that’s a good copy.
**though Michael Magee's “The Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay"” made a few waves for a minute some time back …
***cf. Nancy Spero’s “I used to feel that artists have insight, but are powerless as real-world actors … Now I’m more optimistic … And this is utopian, too, the hope that the work might generate a discussion of sorts. I hope that I am not just preaching to the converted, but that I might also reach those who would take exception. But it’s hard to know. Art isn’t going to change the workd so much as … the way we look at it.” (as quoted in Nancy Spero, Torture of Women (Los Angeles : Siglio Press, 2010))
****Nada Gordon, “Vagabond Imperialism”
John Bloomberg-Rissman is the author No Sounds of My Own Making (published 2007) and Flux, Clot & Froth, which he’s currently beating into “camera-ready” shape. His two most recent chapbooks are World Zero (2007) and the collaboration with Ernesto Priego, Inheritance (2008). He edited the international anthology 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’. (2009). His work has appeared in numerous journals and in several anthologies. He is co-editor of Leafe Press. His ongoing efforts can be seen at Zeitgeist Spam.