May 23, 2011

“We Feel Sartorial Joy”: Last Thoughts on SEAM RIPPER

We would be walking down the street in the poetrycity. Gauze would be everywhere. The day would be big, halting, gracious, revocable, cheap. We’d be the she-dandies in incredibly voluptuous jackets ribboning back from our waists, totally lined in pure silk, also in pure humming, and we’d be heading into the buildings with knowledge – that is, ephemeral knowledge, like leafage or sleeves or pigment. The streets are salons that receive abundantly our description. The buildings are charming. And our manners are software. We feel sartorial joy.

—Lisa Robertson, “Lucite (a didactic)”

We wanted to enact revenge. We knew there were both mean-spirited and high-spirited ways in which to do this. As an effort toward the latter, SEAM RIPPER stands primping smartly as an attempt to get back at some of the superficial, dull-edged treatments of the relationship between poetry (and femininity) and fashion (and women’s bodies) that were coming at us full force.

We said, Uhhh, nooo. We scoffed, Fuck fashion shame. We trilled, We feel sartorial joy! We thought, Oh, you have no IDEA how it really is for us! We thought we’d better tell you.

When I wrote to Kate Durbin with the spark of a revenge fantasy, the idea was that we would get back at O: The Oprah Magazine for stealing Kate’s ideas without giving her compensation nor credit, and get back at The New York Times for allowing one of their small slots reserved for poetry coverage each year to be devoted to David Orr’s belittlement of fashion, femininity, and poetry in one fell swoop. (This is the same prestigious publication that somehow only managed to devote 35% of its book reviews to women authors in 2010. For some terrific, much more in-depth responses to Orr’s article, see Emily Warn, Jessica Winter, and Kate Zambreno.)

Poetry & Fashion & Performance: Together 4Evah

It may be said that poetry, which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller’s shop, is a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage.

—John Stuart Mill, “What is Poetry?” (1833)

Our goal was to put women’s textual and sartorial style together in a complex way that left no room for simple equivalences. The pieces we’d receive for SEAM RIPPER, we hoped, would help demonstrate how masks, personae, costumes, performance, painting, etching, and scribbling are acts that cross between bodies, pages, canvases, screens, and genders. There was no way to separate these terms out, but there was a need to show just how fascinatingly they could be mixed and remixed.

The response amazed us. Not only were women eager to create works for SEAM RIPPER on very short notice, but they were able to do so because they already had poems, essays, sketches, or visual art that spoke directly to these issues, and yet were idly sitting in some subfolder, waiting for the right venue. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of these pieces were available yet unpublished. When the response to the VIDA Count turns toward the question, “Why aren’t women submitting?” we should remember that the fact that certain topics and styles are seen as frivolous by certain editors (one more time: The New York Times said fashion + poetry = girly + silly merely two months ago!) has an effect. It is internalized.

What Is Existence?!

Two of the charges most frequently levelled against poetry by women are lack of range—in subject matter, in emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor. And one could, in individual instances among writers of real talent, add other aesthetic and moral shortcomings: the spinning-out; the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life—that special province of the feminine talent in prose—hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is. . .

—Theodore Roethke, from “The Poetry of Louise Bogan”

There will always be people who feel threatened by women saying and writing and making what they really care about. They will criticize it, and they will even say it doesn’t exist. I’m not kidding. When discussions of the Gurlesque first started cropping up on blogs, this was a common criticism: “I don’t buy it,” or “it doesn’t exist.” Some people are waiting for genealogies, for critical frameworks, for perfect-bound anthologies to appear in order to legitimize exciting aesthetic tendencies that others see plainly. Gaga Stigmata catches the same flak, as Kate knows well: critical art and writing about Lady Gaga can’t be real, can it?! Last year, AWP rejected a panel proposal with Kate, Arielle Greenberg, Danielle Pafunda, Elline Lipkin, and me called “I Was a Teenage … Girl: Writing Girl Culture.” Why? We’ll never know, but probably because girls don’t exist. We’ll just have to hold the alternative sleepover-séance we’ve been joking about, the one where we make ourselves invisible. Invisibler. Ghosts in skanky slip dresses.
Poetry and Girls and Beauty, Conflated Again!

Somehow poetry and the female sex were allied in my mind. The beauty of girls seemed the same to me as the beauty of a poem. I knew nothing at all about the sexual approach but I had to do something about it.

—William Carlos Williams, I wanted to write a poem: the autobiography of the works of a poet
Now that we slip dress sluts have enacted our revenge—and now that we have the delight of seeing that revenge-in-practice tends to look bloodier and dirtier and more glittering and varied than revenge-in-theory—I am much less interested in sticking my tongue out at the Oprah-machine and the NYT-machine and much more interested in looking at just what it is we have here, exactly, in an alternative space operating under unconventional guidelines. Unlike O magazine, we did not ask for your bra size; unlike O magazine, we said it was up to you whether you wanted your body in your piece; unlike O, we in fact simply published everything we received, including some pieces we solicited.

What these pieces know can tell us something about other ways of knowing. We should keep making a language for these ideas and keep using it, and, with Lisa Robertson, keep “heading into the buildings with knowledge,” knowledge that sometimes goes unsaid but is in real need of articulation. I know that what is true for me—that my writing style developed alongside my sartorial style, self-fashionings laced up in one another—must be true for Kate and for so many other women writers. The ways style and writing relate to one another seem perfectly obvious to all of the women included in SEAM RIPPER, but we now know even better than before that this sort of knowledge is trivial, inscrutable—or, yes, possibly invisible—to the wider culture, even in publications devoted to women or literature.
Fooled Ya!

The poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs. . . .

—W.H. Auden, from the introduction to Adrienne Rich’s first book, A Change of World, 1951
But we feel sartorial joy, and although there may be some freedom in inscrutability, we’d rather you read and look at what we’ve made. We’ve strung some words. We’ve made some images. We’ve tried to bring a whole vocabulary that women have, and sometimes share, into the light.

The quotations from men poets (wait, don’t I mean “male poet”? Nope. See Delirious Lapel’s note on the use of “man poet”) scattered throughout the piece have been offered as a sort of proof for the fact that women, femininity, beauty, decoration, fashion, and poetry have been jumbled up in some lame analogies for quite a long time now. The ways contemporary poets are disrupting these correspondences (see again Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics, and of course this and other features on Delirious Hem), seems to me much more interesting than reinscribing-via-airbrush an equivalence that puts equal signs—or dollar signs!—between these terms. So, I’d like to end with a different equation, one that’s meant not only to mess with received notions of the likenesses between these terms, but is interested in asking you to insert your own symbols, to decide for yourself what the relationship between these terms is, and to write, and make art, about it.

women ≈ femininity ≠ beauty $ decoration ∞ fashion ≤ poetry

Bio: Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost, 2009). She attended the University of Southern California (BA) and Columbia College Chicago (MFA), and is now a PhD student in English at Rutgers University. A founding editor, with Hanna Andrews and Brandi Homan, of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books, she is also editing, with Arielle Greenberg, Glow in the Dark, an anthology of poems for teenage girls. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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