May 4, 2008

Gurlesque, part 1

Give us an abstract of the aesthetic category Gurlesque as you conceived of it in 2002?

The whole thing came about as I was reading through first books by young women and noticing what seemed a new and widespread approach to femininity and feminism. I noticed this, of course, because it was something I was interested in doing in my own work—giving myself permission, for the first time, to be unabashedly girly, to talk about things like ponies and sequins, while also trying to be fierce, carnal, funny, political, irreverent…all these things at once. Chelsey Minnis,[1] Brenda Shaughnessy,[2] and Matthea Harvey[3] were some premier examples of what I was seeing then.

Though the poets could in some ways seem very different—for example, I would say that Minnis’s tone in her first book is dark and brazen and employs Gothic tropes, while Harvey’s tone is a much more effervescent and whimsical one, and Shaughnessy's somewhere in between—more domestic and interior in its details than either of the other two—I wondered why these women seemed to be tapping into a similar vein.

My theory is that it has something to do with our collective girlhood in the throes of Second Wave feminism: we are the first generation to access and receive the privilege of our foremothers’ successes. Most girls I grew up with (and I want to recognize that these were mostly middle class white girls) did, I think, feel like they had many choices and possibilities ahead of them. We had Sesame Street, which provided a slightly more egalitarian representation of girlhood, and the idea of “mommies are people” from Free to Be…You and Me[4] we had Jodie Foster and Ramona the Great.[5] But of course we also had problematic depictions of “strong” womanhood, like Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels and we had stuff like those busty Hee-Haw gals and Barbie dolls hanging around, too.

Throw into that heady mix the super-saccharine romance iconography of a 70s girlhood; unicorns and rainbows socks and sunsets painted on vans, and then don’t forget the popular culture whispers of sexual “swinging,” or the trickle-down androgyny chic of glam and disco it all combined to give us a very new foundation for what “female poetry” could be; one that draws simultaneously from senses of empowerment and marginalization, carnality and innocence, cuteness and toughness.

And I should say here that the term Gurlesque came from three socio-historical strands that I see unite in this poetry: Mikhal Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque,[6] in which commonly accepted roles and ideologies are turned on their heads for pleasure and humor; the teasing glamour and self-conscious parodies of sexuality in burlesque performance (which is itself enjoying a revival among young feminist artists right now[7]); and the riot grrrl punk/political movement of the early 1990s,[8] in which young women reclaimed both misogynist language—writing “brat” or “cunt,” on their bodies with markers—as well as “girly” costuming—knee-high socks and plastic barrettes—to call attention to the ways in which the mainstream and punk cultures dismiss girls.

There’s an interesting relationship to irony here: My generation (Gen X) was known for being cynical and glib, but I think a lot of what seemed posturing nostalgia—the way riot grrls, for example, carried kiddie lunchboxes—was an actual longing for the (complicated) promise of a 70s childhood, which itself was overshadowed by our parents’ cynicism, Watergate, Vietnam, the recession, etc. I think perhaps the reasons we return to these images from girlhood have to do with a longing for sincerity, for passion.

So how do these Gurlesque poets construct poems that have room for so many ostensibly contradictory elements?

I think a Gurlesque poem is interested in confronting the issue of narrative, both as an arcing line that needs to be punctured and in its use of a stable speaker. A linear narrative poem imagines the world to have order, and since a Gurlesque poem is most enamored or obsessed with the world’s utter chaos, linear narrative doesn’t make much sense as a mode for a Gurlesque voice. Pandamonium should reign in a Gurlesque poem—this is the carnivalesque part of it—and this happens best in a poem where the speaker(s) and story are constantly shifting.

Likewise, a Gurlesque poem understands gender as something unsettled, to be worn or removed at will or whim, rather than something set in place. Sexuality, too—fluid and morphing. This, of course, is oppositional not only to our culture’s view of gender and sexuality, but also to mainstream poetry’s representation of these constructs. A Gurlesque poem fucks with the traditional notion of the love poem, the muse, all the trappings of romance and gender. The less linear, less narrative modes that many young poets are working in now—grounded in, but departing from semi-autobiographical experience—are well-suited to this ambiguous gender and sexual performativity.

So is this post-confessional poetry?

Most of the poets I see as Gurlesque are also those who get called "elliptical"[9] or “post-Language” or “post-Confessional” or all those terms, which means their fundamental aesthetic is one that calls the Confessional—or, at least, the first person autobiographical linear narrative—into question. But one could also ask what the Confessional was in the first place, as enacted by Sylvia Plath [10] and Anne Sexton [11], its two poster girls. Sexton, who I admittedly know less about, seems to have dressed her autobiography up in mythos and fairy tale, subverting it, and Plath likewise rarely told a story straight, so caught up was she in assonance and allusion. So I think, in some ways, the Gurlesque poets are harkening back to Plath and Sexton in this, while rejecting—though nodding to—the work of someone like Sharon Olds[12], whose work is most in line with what I think we want to mean when we use the term “Confessional.”

In your essay, you smartly site the riot grrls as agents of a nascent Gurlesque. You say of them, “these young women transported themselves back to a time before they felt constrained by behavioral norms and body image disorders.” Whether reading Judith Butler[13] or watching my child interact with other toddlers on the playground, I wonder if there actually is a time before which we’re constrained by behavioral norms. Likely, young children feel less pressured to perform frigid tableaus of femininity or masculinity, but don't we risk sentimentalizing life before puberty? Are the girly tropes for which we feel nostalgic at all dangerous or limiting to the real-time little girls who must still traffic in them?

You’re right, of course—there is little hope for a pre-gendered experience in this culture. But I do think that in my own 70s childhood, I was as aware of my ability, or privilege, or need, to change the status quo. I was raised with feminism in the home. Others were not. But I don’t think I’m lying or misremembering when I say I wasn’t aware of the pressure to, say, shave my legs until I was deep into middle school. I remember thinking about my “figure” for the very first time when I was twelve. That means I had a lovely long decade before I was aware of my body as a cultural commodity—not that I wasn’t sexual or aware of sex before then. I was. But it was my own sexuality.

I was a fortunate girl-kid, in many ways. I was given tremendous agency within my small sphere, and my family prioritized my academic talents and performance over my social graces or physical appearance. I was also, biologically and culturally, a sexually happy kid (meaning I saw myself as sexual, I was in contact with my sexuality in a self-driven way, and also that I was taught not to fear or be ashamed of my sexuality. No one ever abused me or made me feel anything less than proud, sexually).

I wish to give the same, or better, to my daughter, but I do think that her generation faces even more early sexual commodification. I consciously avoid buying her clothing that looks like miniaturized versions of hipster-sexy—she’s two!—and it’s hard. This is what is sold in mainstream America. Therefore, I choose clothing that looks vintage, or retro, in its simplicity or androgyny or girliness—my child wears a big 1920s-style bow to keep her hair out of her eyes. I think I want her to look like a child of an earlier time, and that this kind of nostalgia is a simulation, to reach for the Baudrillard sense of that word. There’s been a lot recently written on the phenomenon of my generation enacting its 70s childhood dreams on its young children in a very Gen X ironic sort of way—the whole “alterna-dad” thing that Neal Pollack[14] writes about. As riot grrls/Gen X punks we attired ourselves in sneering-cum-sentimental bowling shirts and lunchboxes and now these same folks who collected action figures from their own childhoods are passing them on to their actual children as if to say “Here, have my predigested childhood, nostalgia already included!”, and I am definitely not interested in that. But I’m getting a little off-topic now.

That's funny—I think about how fucked up I felt trying to figure out sex and gender as a kid. When I started dissecting and/or flaunting girly tropes in my writing, it was, in large, an attempt to catalogue my shame and my complicated relationship to gender performance. Also an attempt to turn those feelings on the gazer (the geezer)—that is: here, I'll turn you on and then gross you out in quick succession; I'll leave you vertiginous, nauseated, panicked, and how do YOU like it? I wonder if overwriting, seizing control of those darker childhood moments doesn't appeal to some of these retro-nostalgic parents, too. All the fun, none of the schoolyard humiliation. So, I guess the question is: Is there a Gurlesque spectrum? Do you see some of the poets celebrating these tropes and others eviscerating them?

You know, in my original thinking about the Gurlesque, I was so taken with the move toward unabashed prettiness that I think this overshadowed the parallel importance of darkness in the work: of a sort of Goth delight in the bloody and macabre. I am feeling more now that something nauseating or panic-inducing, to use your words, is central to this aesthetic, and is what separates it, crucially, from something that feels merely like decorative Victoriana.

One very recent book in the grotesque vein is Ariana Reines’The Cow.[15] It’s truly scatological, so much so that I don’t know that there’s a pretty, girly moment in it. Maybe this is where the Gurlesque is next headed?

In general, US poetry presents a disturbingly white face for a lot of nefarious reasons, but it strikes me that there may be an intriguing explanation for why so many white women writers take up the Gurlesque in particular. Perhaps this aesthetic helps us to define and deconstruct whiteness as an actual quality, something other than a point of pseudo-normalcy from which all else is deviation?

This is an interesting thought. I do think that in its interest in performativity, the Gurlesque plays with and around all sorts of dynamics of privilege and power, including femininity/masculinity, straightness/queerness, victim/perpetrator, etc., and perhaps whiteness/nonwhiteness is another level of performance/playing that goes on in some of this work.

But I would also say that we should maybe reframe this question not as "why so many white woman writers take up the Gurlesque"—because I don't think it's an enormous number or percentage—but more "why Gurlesque strategies or aesthetics may not be as useful or relevant to innovative women writers of color."

In answering that question, I would have to remind us first that the Gurlesque is still a relatively small, emergent, subversive, nonmainstream strand of American poetry, and so it doesn't seem fully appropriate to talk about those in its ranks too much: the ranks are so few and so new in general. They are still in formation. But in theory, I speculate that in the same way that the Gurlesque poets use a kind of Third Wave[16] feminist privilege to engage in scatological, frilly, or otherwise irreverent modes of gendered representation, a privilege and vantage point which could not be afforded in the same way during the heyday of the Second Wave feminist movement or before, that perhaps nonwhite poets don't feel the same access to privilege that would allow them to be "frivolous" in quite the way that Gurlesque poets are. There are still much larger battles to be fought for women poets of color, important battles, and so perhaps not as much room for coy playfulness in this particular way.

But also, there are, no doubt, nonwhite Gurlesque poets. Brenda Shaughnessy is bi- or multiracial. I love a Tinfish chapbook by the Hawaiian poet Kathy Dee Kaleokealoha Kaloloahilani Banggo[17] called 4evaz Anna which I think could be called Gurlesque. There are poets like Dawn Lundy Martin[18], Cathy Park Hong[19], CM Burroughs[20], and Geraldine Kim[21] whose recent work might be looked at through this lens. There are several other Gurlesque poets whose own racial identity I frankly just don’t know. It can be hard to know all the identity politics underpinnings of a Gurlesque poet, because, again, so much of the Gurlesque is about subterfuge, mask wearing, and play-acting. And because these poets might not choose to self-identify in these ways. Fluidity across identities is key in this poetics.

When I think about the Gurlesque happening in other art media, though, I do think women of color are making some amazing Gurlesque works which are also very much informed by race. One of the singer/songwriters I’m most interested in thinking about as Gurlesque is Kimya Dawson, who is multiracial, I believe. And I would even argue that Kara Walker’s acclaimed silhouettes[22]—which often feature scatological and “cutesy” elements as well as really graphic and disturbing images, all done in a form (the silhouette) traditionally thought of as decorative and craftsy (and therefore female and lesser)—are Gurlesque, and her work is all about race.

One might well ask similar questions about class, ethnicity, ability, and other issues of power and privilege. Where are the Gurlesque poets writing about these things, or where are the _____ poets who are writing the Gurlesque? Again, I’d say much of this is about the coquettishness of the Gurlesque that only a certain kind of privilege affords, and that, on the other side, there are poets of all kinds writing the Gurlesque, as well as Gurlesque poems about these and other issues. (One example: Brenda Coultas, whose most recent work I find among the most interesting contemporary poetry about class issues, earlier in her career wrote poems I think of as very Gurlesque.) The one area for which I do not think this is so much an issue is sexual orientation: I think of the Gurlesque in general as a queer vantage point, because of its close relationship to issues of androgyny and performed femininity and masculinity, and of perversion or kinkiness (and I mean this in the best sense!). I don’t think of Gurlesque poetics as straight, even if the poets themselves are in heterosexual relationships.

[To be continued...]

Part 2
Responses elsewhere
Part 3


et said...

I was b. 1967 and raised in Oakland and Berkeley Ca with both feminism and misogyny in the home not to mention the local, media, and international cultures. For every hard-won, hell-bent, chipper cheer that we girls could and must be anything we wanted, such as the book What Can She Be? A Lawyer! (my mom was one, graduating in my 10th year, focusing on kids' rights) there was a strong, strong I tell you, cultural undertow denying girls' (and boys) possibilities and trivializing any interest coded female.

As to Sesame St, it was and remains a hotbed of male protagonists with all the female mups few and far between and rendered as scolds, squares, and ditzes.....Zoe is perhaps an exception.

It wearies me the kid lit, for example Superwhy, the new pretty great PBS show, certainly trucks in gender, and even the Canadian Peep, which is so great with mellow science and math and hardly a stupid stereotype, does, when watched on, show its colors in that typical way still....

But perhaps gurlesqueism has something to do with a bipolar feeling that may've come from our mothers wishes for us and the still immense patriarchy, at the breast, on the schoolyard, everywhere.

Eager to hear more, Arielle & Danielle

xo Elizabeth

Danielle said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! Blech! The mixed messages of the 70s/80s gender norming demanded so much masculine performance (don't have babies, do wear big kooky tie-esque bows on your business shirts, drink martinis etc. etc.). I think a lot of the super-girly hyper-pink and sequined business is a response to having had to squelch one's girly self in order to be that little proto-lawyer. At least in my case. I don't want my speakers to eviscerate as men or neuters. I want their pink to rattle as much as their hatchet.

And, yes, the kids shows! Why, Superwhy, must you always play Rapunzel straight? Elmo gender bends it. I have friends who work in kids' lit and tv production, and the answer always is that girls will watch shows, read books about boys, but boys won't read books or watch shows about girls. If that's not some misogyny getting subtly, deeply's downright frightening that girls are considered of so little interest, consequence to boys.


Arielle Greenberg Bywater said...

It's true that most of the protagonists on the old Sesame St were boy muppets, I guess, but Maria ran the fix-it shop with Luis and was always in jeans and kind of greasy, and I loved Susan in her groovy pantsuits, and I ADORED Buffy Ste Marie, breastfeeding on public television!

As for current tv, my kid and me almost exclusively watch Yo Gabba Gabba!, on which there is indeed a pink flower girl creature my daughter adores, but also a blue cat-dragon assertive girl creature, and also Leslie Hall, wacky perfomance artist, regularly featured, plus Cornelius, a Japanese punk band with a girl drummer! Yo gabba indeed!


et said...

We love Yo Gabba!


UCOP Killer said...

Superwhy is one of Noah's favorite shows. Indeed, he's into all things superhero (which, mostly, I could do without). Still, I have to learn the lingo. After I had claimed for myself some amazing power or another, he recently retorted: "Daddy, you don't have any powers. You only have the power to read!"

I wish that meant I could change the story and save the day. I have big plans for revision.

et said...

Alison Lurie's recent NYT on Rapunzel might be interesting to consider in terms of the Gurlesque. (

My older daughter has cast herself as Superwhy (tho male he's obviously the main) and me as the sidekick Wonder Red, with word power and the power to rhyme. My main problem with Superwhy is the white-ish male main, with the Other Male a pig that's weird, then the cool roller girl and the prissy-ish princess. All of whom have their powers but......and worst offense of all, when you go to make your own superhero on the computer games, costumes, colors, and logos are strictly limited by gender. Most frustrating.

Jeannine said...

It may be a habit of the "X" generation that we (of all genders) include pop culture references instead of classical ones, that pop culture (Charlie's Angels, Wonder Woman, and unicorn lunchboxes, with all their complex symbols and contradictions) has become our touchstone, our mythology...

et said...

Jane Caputi has an interesting book abt how old myths/types/tropes come thru in pop culture, of course many others do as well but hers was informative to me at a certain juncture.

Danielle said...

Oh, good, Jasper. Been waiting for someone to solve The Problem those supers keep alluding to.

The power to rhyme is highly prized around here. By partner with pipest pipe dream of MC chops, by self picking up on that dirty joke Vaudeville of the Joyelle McSweeney Heidi Lynn Staples variations, by tyke who declaims "it's rhyme crime time." All that rhyming has got to queer, nudge, slip things.

Christina said...

Interesting ideas. Just one thing:

"The one area for which I do not think this is so much an issue is sexual orientation: I think of the Gurlesque in general as a queer vantage point... I don’t think of Gurlesque poetics as straight, even if the poets themselves are in heterosexual relationships." Just to be clear: does this mean that Gurlesque does not take the diverse representation of sexual orientation into consideration because it is more interested in being queer? Or does it mean that because Gurlesque is largely (?) straight-queer, that an examination of one particular field of sexuality is being undertaken, and thus Gurlesque cannot be accused of having no straight complexity? Queer is a notoriously loaded term & I'm slightly intrigued by its usage here. I'm curious & I appreciate your open-mindedness...

Arielle Greenberg Bywater said...

Hi, q.--

I guess I mean that sexuality in Gurlesque poetry is interested in being performative, subversive, surprising, etc., so that while many of the poets themselves may be straight, the sexuality of the poems is interested in playing with notions of orientation.

When you ask "does this mean that Gurlesque does not take the diverse representation of sexual orientation into consideration because it is more interested in being queer?" are you asking about the poems, or the theory?

I was also using queer in a particular way, I suppose, a way that to me implies a sexuality that is not one of homosexual-bisexual-heterosexual binaries but of more fluidity and blurring than these.

I am not sure what you mean by "straight complexity" and my sense is that your understanding of the term "queer" is more nuanced or updated than my own, so I'm glad to hear you talk more about this!

Christina said...


I'm glad to hear that you're interested in blurring binaries. It's brave and honourable.

I've gotten bogged down in queer literature and discussions to such an extent that when I came across your usage of "queer" I was confused. I used the term "straight complexity" because I didn't know what you meant by "queer," but now that I know, I would say that either term works in this context. (I guess I was saying that you don't have to be gay or bisexual to be a complex human being.) The meaning of "fluidity," like "queer," is also quite contextual. The mixture of "queer" and "fluidity" in your poetics should have cleared things up for me, but it only threw me for a loop.

"Queer," as a mode of identification, can mean: homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, trans and, increasingly, open-minded straight ally...; someone who opposes heterosexist binaries; someone who rejects heterosexism altogether; someone who sees their sexuality as “fluid”; someone who refuses the notion of being attracted to a set of genitals; conversely, someone who will specify their identity beyond the vagueness of "queer"; a person who engages in S&M, leather, poly, &/or other alt-practices; a way of encouraging solidarity with a less cumbersome umbrella term; a rejection of perceived mainstream gayness...

"Queer" vs. gay/bi/whatever can be a binary of its own in some ways. Sometimes "queer" is an absurd and pointless departure from perceived mainstream homosexuality & bisexuality. Some people are adamant about not associating with "straight-acting" queers and/or the LGBT community even though “queer” and LGBT can be hard to separate. Sometimes "queer" is a meaningful departure from divisive identity politics, but sometimes it invokes them and celebrates them. “Queer” is vague in terms of orientation and doesn't give voice to the different kinds of oppression queers face. Some even argue that people who can distance themselves from any kind of label are privileged. Evidently, not all queers distance themselves from LGBT labels. All in all, it's a queer little word.

Sorry to get caught up in semantics. I don't doubt you have a sophisticated understanding. I see the Gurlesque as a poetics that actually addresses diversity and complexity. I guess you've picked up on the idea that “queer” does not necessarily address sexual orientation in all cases. It's kind of absurd and wonderful to how imagine how different a straight-queer anthology might be from a queer-queer anthology. I'm not saying that as a divisive thing, but as an awe-filled thing. We live in a wonderfully diverse poetic climate.

Anyway, I find the Gurlesque fascinating and I can't wait to read more on what the gurls do with gender...