May 4, 2008

On the Gurlesque: Introduction


In November 2002, Arielle Greenberg gave a talk called "On the Gurlesque" at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, which recognized and described what Greenberg found to be a vibrant new tendency in contemporary poetry, a "veering away from traditional narrative" combined with "a postmodern sense of humor, invoking brand names and cultural ephemera," "a frank attitude towards sexuality and a deep, lush interest in the corporeal," coming through in poems that were "'dolled up' in a specifically girly kitsch." Greenberg pointed to the work of poets like Catherine Wagner, Chelsey Minnis, and others, positing that this generation of writers were the first to so unabashedly enact a literary interest in girlhood—such freedom being a significant inheritance from their feminist predecessors—to claim their share of an exciting art-making frontier.

Since its original publication, others have found the critical concept of the Gurlesque useful for discussing contemporary work, including Pam Brown, Joshua Corey, and E.M. Selinger, among others. In the following interview, Danielle Pafunda checks in with Greenberg to find out how the Gurlesque has evolved and where it may be headed next. This exclusive interview was conducted via email and will be published here at Delirious Hem in three installments.

Preliminary reading:

  • The text of Greenberg's 2002 talk, "On the Gurlesque"
  • Greenberg's review of Chelsea Minnis's Zirconia

    Arielle Greenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005) and Given (Verse, 2002), and editor, along with Rachel Zucker, of a new anthology of essays, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections (Iowa, 2008). She is also an editor of Youth Subcultures: Exploring Underground America (Longman, 2006), editor at the literary magazines Court Green and Black Clock. Her poems have appeared in journals including the American Poetry Review and the Denver Quarterly and were featured in the 2004 and 2005 volumes of Best American Poetry. She is the recipient of a Saltonstall Artist's Grant and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is currently at work on Gurlesque, a theory-driven poetry anthology coedited with Lara Glenum (Saturnalia, 2009); and with Becca Klaver, an anthology of contemporary poetry on girlhood (Switchback, 2008). She is Assistant Director to the Poetry Programs at Columbia College Chicago.

    Danielle Pafunda is the author of My Zorba (Bloof Books, 2008), Pretty Young Thing (Soft Skull, 2005), Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies (Noemi Press, forthcoming) and the chapbook A Primer for Cyborgs: The Corpse (Coconut Books, forthcoming). Her poems have been chosen three times for Best American Poetry (2004, 2006, and 2007). Other poems and reviews have appeared in such publications as American Letters & Commentary, Conjunctions, the Georgia Review, and TriQuarterly. She is coeditor of the online journal La Petite Zine and Spring 2008 Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College Chicago. She recently received her doctorate from the University of Georgia's Creative Writing Program.

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Responses elsewhere
    Part 3
  • 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