July 13, 2008

Gurlesque, part 3

Part 1
Part 2
Responses elsewhere

[An aside from Lara Glenum, Greenberg's coeditor on the Gurlesque anthology, due out from Saturnalia in 2009.]
To me, the gurlesque is very much about performing the female grotesque. In “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Sianne Ngai rolls out an astute theory about how violence implicitly lurks in the aesthetic of the “cute.” Ngai notes, “The formal attributes associated with cuteness—smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy—call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.” And further, “In its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.”

There are currently a number of women poets who locate “cuteness” in the realm of the female grotesque and, in extended poetic sequences, actively perform the dialectic between “cuteness,” violence, and female monstrosity (think Aase Berg’s guinea pigs, Ariana Reines’s cows, Anne Boyer’s “Dark Deer,” Danielle Pafunda’s peek-a-boo violence). These poets redefine female “cuteness” as a trope of self-willed (or culturally-willed) deformity. By appropriating and violently animating stereotypes attached to desirable female behavior, these poets are attempting to make an register of derogatory signification to collapse. (There are certainly male counterparts to this project of gender-bending violence: Johannes, Tao Lin, Joe Wenderoth and Jon Leon, for example).

Cuteness, though, is prototypically the realm of pre-pubescent girls and their small, furry companions, which is the territory of Aase Berg’s guinea pig poems. Berg’s work radically upends the notion that women, young girls in particular, are free from sadistic compulsion and cruelty (Chelsea Minnis and Cathy Wagner’s poems often do this, too). The term “cute” also surfaces when teenage girls (and even grown women) talk about men they’re aroused by. To call a sexual object “cute” thus expresses a linguistic deformation – girls and women have traditionally been forbidden to speak about (or even experience) the stirrings of sexual desire. The demotion a sexually arousing man to the status of a puppy or a cupcake represents a phenomena of stunted female sexuality (which is only achieved through a kind of cultural pruning and binding through which women are divorced form their own sexual response). Cuteness, then, reveals a state of deformity or monstrosity.

All this is something that gurlesque poetry plays with and attempts to reverse, though not through Sharon Olds-style confession. Gurlesque poets, on the whole, don’t believe in a stable, unified self, which is why their work is performance and not confession or persona (persona implies a person/self behind the mask). The gurlesque acknowledges its own artifice as well as the radical artifice of gender. The gurlesque is also very much about paratactic identity: saying I am X *and* Y *and* Z, when all these identity categories (X, Y and Z) seem to contradict one another. This kind of monstrous amalgam not only upends assumptions about gender, it also radically distorts the stability of the speaking “I.”

To close, I wouldn’t say the gurlesque is strictly limited to the cuteness and violence thing, but it’s certainly a place that Arielle’s original theory and my interest in the female grotesque overlap. (Hence, the birth of the Gurlesque anthology, which is due out from Saturnalia in 2009.)

[Danielle & Arielle continue...]

Well, then I've got to ask what’s happened to the Gurlesque poets you originally noticed? Are they still Gurlesque? How have they developed, or recalibrated the aesthetic? How is the larger poetry community responding to this work?

I think it’s a bit too soon to say. Brenda Shaughnessy’s second book is about to come out, and when Becca Klaver, one of my graduate students, presented on Shaughnessy’s work in the fall of 2006, there was evidence that Shaunessy had undergone a pretty dramatic shift in aesthetic and content. She gave an interview in which she talked about casting off the loveliness and connected obliquity of her first book for a much more straight-forward, even tough, voice. And I know she’s pregnant now, so I wonder if motherhood will change her work again.

Chelsey Minnis’s second book, BAD BAD, is just out and is wonderful, a definite continuation and furthering of what was going on in Zirconia; I’m very excited. Brenda Coultas has a book of ghost stories coming out from Coffee House this fall which I think will be a masterpiece—and certainly, with its interest in the romance of hauntings and the instability of storytelling, it has Gurlesque overtones, but I don’t know how female, or feminine, the book will ultimately be.

Devil’s advocate: Have any of the Gurlesque poets grown up? Has anyone rejected girly, sweet, or flirty, opting for more womanesque tropes? Does the link to girlhood compromise our standing as serious poets, or does it serve to undermine the conventional literary hierarchy wherein avuncular older men usher in virile young boys, and women poets (hard old crones, delirious sex kittens, drag-geniuses) are granted honorary membership?

Well, of course, these are things the Gurlesque poets risk: the potential limits of a girly world of images, the desire or need to outgrow such a world, and the chance of not being taken seriously with girlhood as your subject matter. But, I mean, I’m sorry, if the world does not think that girls and girlhoods are important and serious, fuck them! That’s the whole point. Girls are serious, interesting, and their development and childhood experiences impact the whole culture and the whole world. I also think the presumed limitation of girly images is something of a fallacy: why would girlhood and the girly be any more limited than, say, tropes of nature, or of romantic love, or of any number of other traditional poetic subjects?

As for growing up and out of the Gurlesque, I’ve thought about this in my own work. Certainly My Kafka Century—which is about faith and Jewish ethnicity and the Holocaust—is less attached to issue of the girly, in many ways, than my first Given, which had no such thematic thread in play. But my second book is actually still full of ponies and hair and female anatomy. After that book was completed, I had a baby, a girl, and I became far less prolific and also much more direct and urgent and less playful than I’d been, I think. We’ll see what happens next. But the truth is, now I am mothering a daughter, and I’m going to be writing during her girlhood, so I don’t imagine any of these interests or tropes will be left that far behind, though they will of course be altered by her different, and 21st century, experiences.

Our girls are about the same age, and I'm hoping they see girlhood as a privileged strangeness. When my daughter first started looking more like a girl and less like a baby, it was like seeing my kid in drag. I'd squint and think, can she look like a boy? Can she look like a human? We didn't really use the words "girl" or "boy" with her until her grandparents introduced them a few months ago. We'd say "baby" or "big kid." But, now people make a big deal out of her girl-ness, and I want her to think of that as a desirable quality--one that opens up bizarre realms of subjectivity, rife with existential possibility.

Yeah, girlhood as an option, and an option that is at once strong, weird, fragile, wild, creative—all those things. Willa, my daughter, said the other day, “I be a big boy when I grow up?” and I said, “Sure!” So for a day or two she wanted me to call her “Big Boy” every where we went, but other days she’s a ballerina or a character from a book named Junie—all sorts of people. I want her to feel that ability to morph and identity-shift for her whole life.

On the other hand, sometimes we’ll be passing a construction site and talking about the trucks and she’ll say “big boys fix that street” and I’ll say “well, yes, and big girls, too” and she says, “No, just big boys.” It’s worrisome, and possibly inevitable. You can fight your fight in your own home but the larger culture still exists—we just have to keep working on modeling the critical thinking!

Finally, do you see evidence of a Gurlesque aesthetic in other arts?

One thing I’ve noticed is a trend towards Gurlesque visual art by young women artists. Notable artists like Amy Cutler and Laura Owens play with childlike images of girls in braids and cute baby animals and bluebirds as a way to draw attention to the beauty and magnetism of such images as well as to subvert them, demystify them, complicate them. These artists, like the poets, are unafraid to delve into the dark recesses of girlhood imagination and playacting. I see Amy Cutler especially as epitomizing the Gurlesque visually, and I believe she has already had an influence among even younger artists.

It’s happening in film, too, in woman-centered (though not always woman-directed) narratives. I remember being so impressed when I saw Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures when it first came out in 1994 because here was a film that showed the imaginative games of two girlfriends as being utterly hallucinogenic, brilliant, violent, powerful--so powerful that these very sweet, smart adolescent girls end up killing one of their mothers (and it was based on a true story, of course). The way Jackson shoots the imaginary sequences is so lush, over the top and dizzying, and not just because it’s fanciful, but because it is incredibly potent: the combined mental energies of two girls!

I was likewise taken with Secretary (dir. Steven Shainberg 2002), mostly for the utterly Gurlesque scene of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character lovingly fondling her special box of tools which she uses to cut herself: tools of mutilation and self-loathing, and they are in a pretty, girly box covered in glitter and decoupage. This is just one detail in a film filled with very Gurlesque depictions of desire and lyricism. Most recently, and directed by the marvelous Miranda July, Me, You and Everyone We Know (2005) has such a weird tone that veers from cheery to brutal and is able to be somehow cheery and brutal at once, too. It’s also a film that allows its child characters to possess sexualities that are complicated and perverse (a word I do not mean as any kind of slur--I am all for perversity).

I’m also interested in the connections between the Gurlesque and the freak-folk movement, with musicians like Joanna Newsom who looks and sings like an elf but is also very self-possessed. I think there are other young women musicians who embody the Gurlesque, but I’d need some help on this. One artist I know about, though (as mentioned in Part 2), is Kimya Dawson, an “anti-folk” musician whose album my cute fiend sweet princess seems very Gurlesque to me, as one might expect from the title. (It’s such a Gurlesque title! Rock on!) On MySpace she describes her own music as “happy and sad and scared and brave all mixed up together,” which is a great way to talk about the Gurlesque. I just saw on Livejournal that Kimya had a baby girl recently…interesting considering our discussion on motherhood.

I’d love to curate a show that explored the parallel Gurlesque happening in visual arts, film, music and poetry. I’m hoping one day to get such a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago and tour it around. I dream big.

More broadly, I’m curious about the rise of the neo-Burlesque movement, which is especially prevalent—and interesting—within the queer community. Do young queer women and transgendered people feel safe enough now, finally, to fuck with the performance of gender in this very public and playful and sexy way? It seems to me that using Burlesque, which was historically a marginalized and male-centered subculture, reclaiming it as a space to celebrate female-centered sexuality and gender fluidity, is a kind of frontier for art-making.