June 24, 2008

Gurlesque, part 2

Part 1

[Danielle & Arielle continue where they left off in Part 1...]

That makes me wonder if Gurlesque happens in poetries other than US American. Lyn Crosbie, a Canadian poet, comes to mind. Pam Brown’s review of Kate Lilley’s Versary compares her tactics to the Gurlesque. And Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hyesoon or Johannes Goransson’s of Aase Berg might speak to the more grotesque end of the Gurlesque spectrum? At any rate, it seems there’s a potential for dialing out in Gurlesque, for the strategy morphing across communities, perhaps precisely because of it’s identity play—it’s reanimation of the lyric I—that post-avant poetics might benefit from. Or so I’ve been thinking of late, but that’s a whole other volume of worms!

Let’s back up a bit. Originally, you link Gurlesque tendencies to the influence of Second Wave mothers (and their conflicted relationship to feminism), and to the images of women on television and in movies in the 70s and 80s. How do the shifts in feminist practices and theories as of 2007 inform the work of Gurlesque poets? Are we resolving our mothers’ conflicts?

No, I don’t think we’re resolving our mothers' conflicts. I think all you have to do is look at the recent spate of books on the issue of motherhood—the work/home debate, the rise of the parenting expert, the “anxiety of motherhood,” etc.—to see that women’s roles and the question of how to be a fulfilled and balanced woman in this culture are still very much at issue. (I am only using motherhood as an example here; I don’t mean to suggest it is the sole or most vital issue within feminism.)

But I think we are at least giving voice to those conflicts, engaging in them, and a poetry that avoids linearity is a smart way to do this, to recognize the complexity and weirdness and variability of our experiences. I do think our generation—or perhaps the one just behind us—is more able to see gender as a fluid or unstable, to recognize the importance of race and class on issues of sexuality. Many of my feminist students simply accept gender as fluid, recognize it as such, rather than being stuck in many of the dualities under which the previous feminist movements labored. It seems to me that this acceptance of instability and fluidity is the fertile ground for the next wave of art-making, and that it will appear not only through content, but through form: art that is more conscious of breaking genre conventions as it moves toward a hybridity we are only starting to see emerge in our lived experience.

Wait, let me interrupt--it's exciting, but how can you tell your students have more fluid senses of gender? What does that look like in the classroom or on the page?

In the classroom, it’s rooms full of students who see themselves as queer, polysexual, who identify not as any one label or thing but as humans dipping in and out of various gendered experiences. And I have young women poets who are writing very frank poems about their vaginas, for example, using all sorts of words I personally have never used in a poem. On the page, too, my students shape-shift through first person narrative, enacting various sloppy personas that do not stand still. I guess what I’m saying is that it would have seemed brave, when I was in college or graduate school, to “come out” in a poem as a lesbian or gay man and write about those experiences, but my current students would think that was pretty banal or sentimental. They’re beyond that kind of confessional narrative, into something more hybrid, more shrugging (as in, “so what if I do this or don’t do this?” and all-encompassing (as in, “yes, I’m this, but I’m also this”). It is really very exciting.

And this isn't all twenty-somethings in America, right? In more conservative environs, I've tripped over such rotten chestnuts as: feminism is dead, feminism is for baby-killers, men really are smarter than women, men and women are already totally equal and we don't need feminism, etc. Your students, young adults who experience gender as fluid despite the desperate national insistence on static roles: do you think they feel driven to represent? To express a lived experience that so obviously contradicts the party line?

I don’t know that they’re even aware of the party line. It’s a blessing and a curse to exist in a progressive bubble like Columbia College, a downtown arts school in a major metropolitan area that typically votes Democrat. Their whole world--at school at least--is extremely accepting of the further reaches of lived experience. Though of course I know some of their families of origin or hometowns are much more typically American in ideology. So maybe my students just feel free to be these people at Columbia. Maybe they have that twenty-something immortality/invisibility going on, or maybe they know how lucky they are. I know how lucky I am to teach them.

If Second Wave mothers helped produce this generation of Gurlesque poets (whose presentation and performance of gender differ from those of women poets in the Second Wave generations), what happens to the Gurlesque when these poets begin to take on childbirth and/or motherhood from the first-person perspective?

Again, I think it’s a little early to say, but the place to find the answers will no doubt be in Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff’s Not for Mothers Only. The anthology is just out from Fence Books, a press that, under Rebecca’s editorial direction, has been at the forefront of bringing out the most exciting Gurlesque literature, I think. I might also look toward Cathy’s recent poems themselves.

Another good press to look at is Action Books, which, in its first year, brought out three books, all by younger women and mothers: my second book My Kafka Century (which, as I’ve said, is not too Gurlesque, though I think some of the pregnancy poems in there get closest), the Swedish poets Aase Berg’s terrifying and hysterical Remainland in translation, and, most importantly here, Lara Glenum’s book The Hounds of No, which, in its manifesto bravado and fascination with the grotesque and voluptuously monstrous female body, is a great place to start. At the time these books were published, Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson found it odd that they’d rather randomly chosen to publish three books “about” motherhood, but now they are themselves parents, so I wonder how this will impact the press.

So many interesting young women poets are choosing to become mothers now, which is very exciting for poetry, and for the Gurlesque—and for the world! Not for Mothers Only documents this in a thrilling way.

How does Gurlesque disarm, destabilize, or creep out the patriarchy?

Oh, in what ways doesn’t it! At its best—I mean, if it is doing the work I imagine—then it should be completely directed toward disarming, destabilizing and creeping out the patriarchy: by owning a sexuality that is at once “innocent” and very dark; by positing girl-childish ephemera as important and central to the culture; by taking on a tone that is flirty and coy and also angry and potentially violent. Hell, just by positing a woman’s voice which is unapologetically girly, and which views girliness—a weird, conflicted, desirous, callous, fantastic, strong, mean, sweet, loud girliness, which to me is the only true girliness there is, because little girls are indeed all these things—as a legitimate mode for art-making. Unfortunately, I think we are in a place where that alone is still radical.

I do, though, worry about a trend I am seeing in poetry of a sort of second-tier, bland Gurlesque; one that takes on the imagery and motifs of girlhood, Victoriana, the burlesque, etc., but simply reifies its prettiness without risking anything. Perhaps now that these Gurlesque poets, and other Gurlesque artists, have been around for a decade or so, there is a trickle-down effect, or perhaps it’s just that other women who grew up in the same historical moment are bringing the same flotsam—mermaids, sparkles, unicorns, petticoats, etc.—into their work without the attention to politics or avant-garde practice. And that seems a real shame to me. I am reading a lot of work by young women poets these days that traverses a very pretty—and, at this point, very familiar—landscape that ultimately seems rather hollow, because I don’t see much vulnerability, either on the part of the speaker or in how the work functions.

Does the Gurlesque produce a corporeal female subject that reinscribes or reclaims the conventional literary female body? How does this differ from the corporeal in work by Plath, for example?

I’m not sure of the answer to this, but my hunch or hope is that the female body in the Gurlesque is a less victimized—though no less endangered—one. Or, that if it is victimized, it takes a more sado-masochistic/pleasured view of this, if that makes any sense. The body in Plath is a literal battleground: in those poems, the body is often dissected, dismantled. It is, to use standard feminist theory jargon, the object of the Gaze. The body in a Gurlesque poem is just as likely to be enacting the Gaze, or the violence, or the objectification, as receiving it, or might possibly reassemble as soon as it’s been disassembled, magically and monstrously.

For example, in Plath’s “Tulips,” the speaker says “I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses/And my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeons” and “…I have no face,/I have wanted to efface myself” but in Minnis’s “Big Doves,” “wrath spills out” of the speaker’s “heart” and the speaker “want[s] to be…flexed…thrashed…spiraled…and neurally lathed.”

Of course, one can find seething, strong poems in Plath as well, but I do believe the Gurlesque poems mark a shift from lack of sexual agency or ownership to intense vying for or owning of sexual agency, even if the Gurlesque poems also acknowledges the difficult struggle therein.

I see what you're saying about the body-as-object in a poem like "Tulips", the abdication of ownership, but I think, too that Plath is doing some fabulous violence to the Gaze. Rather than proffering up the classical female body (all surface, smooth and pleasingly inert), she's locking the Gaze on a seething (to use your term) carapace, a worm and hate and passion-filled paradox. Body the prison and body the vehicle, body the grave and body the birth bag, etc. The germ of dissembling/reassembling and the magical-monstrous female Frankenstein self seem really present in Plath. I think these tendencies have been edited out of too many readings. Plath's not the only contemporary woman poet folks like to look at slant, but you're on the editorial board of Court Green, so she's an ideal inquiry--have you noticed a Gurlesque response to your Plath issue? Are we rewriting our reading of Plath?

We’re still in the midst of that issue, so it’s perhaps too soon to say, but thus far, I’d have to say no, sadly. Most of the poetry we’ve been sent is in tribute to Plath, and if it is out of Plath’s aesthetic, then it focuses on her (wonderous) use of sound, but not the grotesque pleasures you’re mentioning. I just co-wrote an essay on the importance of a new reading of Plath with Becca Klaver, but our focus was on the ways in which teenaged girl readers connect with her (which I’m sure has something to do with the Gurlesqueness!), not on Plath’s use of monstorous female image. Plath, goddess love her, is so endlessly worth reexamining.

Back to the present day poets. Likely you’ve come across more agents of Gurlesque in the past four years. Are they more widely published? Are the first Gurlesque poets influencing others? And has your original essay noticeably influenced any of them?

I’m not sure; it’s only been a few years, really. But I’ll offer these two personal anecdotes: I received Sarah Vap’s manuscript American Spikenard (which features a handmade and rather ominous doll on the cover, by the way) from Iowa Press because they wanted me to comment on it, and as I read it, I thought “This poet has read my essay on the Gurlesque and written a book that fulfills every characteristic I talk about!” It was uncanny, and I was sure that was why Iowa sent it to me. But when I got in touch with Sarah (who is only slightly younger than I am, I think), she said she had never read my essay.

And as a professor, I teach women in their 20s who have read, and are very excited by, poets like Matthea Harvey, Shanna Compton, Olena Kalytiak Davis--poets I’d consider within the Gurlesque spectrum. I certainly didn’t have any poets like that given to me in college classes. Access to poetry like this is no doubt influencing these young poets, but, then, I don’t presume that most college students are accessing these poets as easily as mine, who live in a large city, often consider themselves bohemian and radical, and attend a program that favors innovative aesthetics.

It also seems to me that you, Danielle, were part of a Gurlesque mini-movement at the University of Georgia, with some of the women who were in the Creative Writing PhD program at the same time as you were: Kirsten Kaschock, Sabrina Orah Mark, Lara Glenum and you all make work that is Gurlesque. Obviously your work is all very different, but I like to think that the group of you (and maybe others I don’t know about?) worked in concert, supporting one another as friends and poets, and the result was work that has pushed the grotesque/medical end of the Gurlesque spectrum, which is something I see the four of you as having in common. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Danielle Pafunda responds and offers an aside:

I really cut my teeth at Bard College in the nineties where a senior project might entail traveling to Amsterdam to learn from a revered stripper, and then coming home to perform a political commentary strip show for the faculty and students. I spent years experimenting in perhaps slightly less scintillating fashion (that is, more or less clothed) with the seemingly inarticulable lived experience of dense subject position meets conflicting cultural allegiances meets the multiple layers of gender performativity—in other words trying to write poems that didn’t edit out the incompatible layers. I still felt like a girl a lot of the time, and that still felt spooky, dangerous, explosive. I often felt mannish, and sometimes I just felt like the immune-compromised creature I’ve been from the get-go. Each of these selves was (still is!) thoroughly disgruntled, critical, morbidly optimistic despite, and looking for a way to dismantle and reanimate. By the time I got to Athens in 2002, I’d read and/or seen a slew of startling young women poets. Shanna Compton and I were in the same MFA workshops. Every time I read one of these poets, I thought, “okay, so that’s possible. That’s a tool.”

My first year in Athens, I met Heidi Lynn Staples and Lara Glenum. I remember hearing Lara read for the first time—I’d known her for months, and I don’t think I’d read a lick of her poetry. Hillariously shocking moment for me. I felt almost duped—why hadn’t she told me she was writing like this? And I’d already figured out what a barnstormer Heidi was. These super smart, compassionate, funny women playing fiercely with language and flipping the gaze on its cock-a-roachy back. Athens is a small town; we had a lot of access to each other, a lot of late night dinner party discussions. It wasn’t long before I entered the Creative Writing PhD Program at the University of Georgia. Kirsten Kaschock and Sabrina Orah Mark showed up, as did poet Heather Matesich and fiction writer Kristen Iskandrian. Also, Johannes Göransson, who’s own work may be a complement to the Gurlesque—I think of it as a sort of technological sublime—a post-avant male hysteria of the most gorgeous variety (and that meant we had visits from the inimitable Joyelle McSweeney! [McSweeney & Göransson are married. -DH]). While it wasn’t unusual for me to be in workshop with more women than men, or to have the men be wonderfully supportive and capable of commenting on even the most female/feminine of poems (like, say the ones in which someone’s ovaries multiply exponentially, or a dozen frothy pink ponies flit through), it was unusual to be in a room full of poets pushing the biocultural and socio-historical boundaries in such an aggressive fashion. Plus, we were all reading a decent amount of theory, and my new grasp on postmodern and feminist theories (um, that is actually reading the texts I suspected might be important to my work) gave me the push I needed to scale some of the aesthetic obstacles.

I can’t say quite how each poet ended up invested in the surreal, grotesque, medical, etc. We were selected for this program for rather different reasons, and the body/gender work has been a peculiar coincidence. If you look at the program as a whole, it’s not all alien-pod spinal cords, lactating cyborgs, festooned wooden dolls in the image of the woman cuddling the festooned wooden dolls, etc. (I know, what else is there? Hee hee. Teasing!) So maybe it’s one of those quirks of time and place. I think for Lara, Kirsten, and myself, pregnancy and childbirth reinforced our compulsion to detail the lived female body. Enough strangers pet your belly like it’s a fluffy kitten, and you feel obliged to point out that they are fondling your uterus. Or so I did. And going through pregnancy together gave me confidence to voice the lesser known bombasts of that experience. I remember showing up at the Alice Notley reading on campus. Kirsten, Lara, and I, front row in our black maternity wear. Witches of Eastwick, says Kiki. Indeed, says I.

When I first read Arielle’s first Gurlesque essay—sometime in the midst of all this Athens hoopla—it was a thrill. When Given was picked up by Verse Press, I cornered the publishers at a KGB reading in New York to tell them what a wise decision they’d made (ay yi yi, my youthful enthusiasm!). I felt the same way when SPT put out Arielle’s essay. A curious new phenomenon had its foot in the door. A way to talk about these aesthetic strains—a way to group and explore them, without homogenizing or normalizing them. So, I’d say the essay provided a real touchstone for me as poet and critic—a shifting, complex touchstone, to be sure--while Athens provided a much needed boot camp and sanctuary. And some durned tasty dinner parties.

[To be continued...]

Part 1
Responses elsewhere
Part 3