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.

Broke Poets and Spring Fashion: Things More than $1

by Ana Božičević

I've been reading with delight all the poets' fashion-takes here on Delirious Hem, in wake of Oprah's poets-wear-spring-fashion piece, where beautiful poets were depicted wearing thousands of dollars in clothes. (Full disclosure: I was one of the, apparently, dozens of poets who did the casting call for Oprah's fashion thing, and witnessed the pristine cafeteria of the Hearst building.) Some poets (bless their hearts!) may be able to afford pricey duds, but I have a sneaking suspicion many are more like me -- self-sustaining and modest of means. It's interesting to be this in a city/culture that is all about ka-ching. What came of this casting, after the novelty and the gentle humiliation of the brief experience wore off, was I started paying more attention to how much $ I was wearing -- a closer consciousness of the monetary and thus cultural value of my clothes. Simultaneously I've been reading Eileen Myles's "Inferno," which champions (poet-style-wise) this devil-may-care I-found-my-shirt-on-a-stoop one-dollar-in-my-pocket downtown carelessness -- awesome but also quite conscious.

In the spring, I revisit dresses. This winter I've been on a menswear kick (mostly mental), but with the sun I've begun rooting around for dresses. I have a love/hate relationship with femme attire -- I can never just wear it without analyzing its implications to death -- but the spring endorphins are helping and this week, I'm enjoying just wearing a dress. Since I don't want to spend money on clothes, I dug deep for some outfits from my existing trove. Here are two (the one on the left is today's):

And here's the rundown of how much these duds cost:

glasses: $3.50, H&M
scarf: gift from India (thanks, Priya!)
jacket: gift/loan from Amy (thanks, Amy!)
bracelet: $3.50, H&M
dress: mother's or grandmother's? -- found in a drawer at the farmhouse
belt: $6, H&M
tights: $4, H&M
shoes: $19, Payless
purse: gift from sister-in-law (thanks, Zoe!)
book bag: free with free NYer subscription (gift from sister-in-law -- ditto)
TOTAL outfit: $36

jacket: gift from Amy
dress: $25 or something like that, H&M
belt: $6, H&M (same)
raincoat: ancient hand-me-down
tights: $4, H&M (same)
shoes: $19, Payless (same)
purse and book bag: see above (free)
TOTAL: $54

The only item purchased "this season" are the sunglasses. The old ones broke. Boringly + busily, over the years I've picked up quite a few items from H&M, two of which are conveniently located on my walk to and from work. No mystery there. But what I've really enjoyed about this exercise was noting all the hand-me-downs & gifts. People have given to me and I'm wearing them, in a way. It's ... how to say... priceless, my friends.

What kind of dollar-store treasures are you wearing? Speak to me of the people (Grandma is the best brand!) you're sporting. There's a store close to our house called "THINGS MORE THAN ONE DOLLAR." I love how it could be two or a thousand. It could be anything.

Bio: Ana Božičević is a poet and translator. Her Stars of the Night Commute (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2009) was a Lambda Literary Award in Poetry finalist. She is a PhD candidate in English & Program Manager at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she helped found Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, and the Annual Chapbook Festival. With Amy King, she co-edits the journal esque.

OUR STYLE: A Collage

by Becca Klaver

I win Most Original Style, but I get it all from you.
The shock, the prank, the glamour.
The British spelling, the American, our own secret.
A freak & I learn how to use it.
How else would you know me in a square of blonde?
Four heads bobbing & bleaching.
I pick the box reads Wild Fire.
Rinse thoroughly, alternateen smirking
straight into the principal’s office.
He says wipe that lipstick off she says
is that underwear
or outerwear. She thinks she knows.
Later I’ll love
that word liminal. For now I ask to see the handbook.
Shimmy around
in the highlighted phrase, or otherwise distracting.
It’s an offering,
a tagline. A freak & I learn how to use it.
They make me rub
with toilet paper & soap or wear my gym clothes.
Too late,
I’ve already posed for the video yearbook.
My mom drops off
a cardigan. A lawyer, no time for frivolities.
She asks to see the handbook.
I learn how to promqueen, to pirate, to play
mermaid with just a smidge of
It isn’t costume, it’s myth. A way to bring inner to outer
& then go back in again.
Words do, too.
There were slanting avenues. Farwell, Melrose, Milwaukee.
If we went anywhere, there.
Mostly I just took what you gave me.
You gave me your makeup, your made-up words.
Your trailing vowels, your hand-me-downs.
We traded.
I confess, I never liked shopping. Bad lights, hot brain,
stranger yap yap yap.
You gave me an excuse. A surplus of good good goods
in the local economy
called BFF, in the barter-or-bribe stall called Sisters.
I asked you
what you remembered & you told me. Shirts, shoes, scripts.
You used
such great verbs. You told me—

The local bridal shop was having a huge sale to commemorate the royal nuptials, so I made a last-minute appointment and wouldn’t you know! I feel like it’s “our style” so I knew you’d approve. We shared a preppy J.Crew charcoal gray sweater during high school that you would wear over your vintages dresses in the wintertime. My grandma sweaters complimented your grandpa pants. Your side ponytail was pretty fresh. We share a love for side-ponytails at Packers games. Your painted jeans in 8th grade made me decide we needed to be friends. And then I tried to make you over into a hippie, and in your apartment in Milwaukee years later I realized that you are the real authentic hippie. In high school you wore slip dresses before I ever dreamed of becoming an exotic dancer. In high school plaid was super cool so I used to rummage around Dad’s closet to find shirts that were too small on him but not too big for me. After a while, I started grabbing his old t-shirts too. You and I always had diverging memories of who had which shirt first. Teen Wolf was the most coveted by you and we used to trade back and forth (though I’m sure you remember it differently). Ironic t-shirts were coming back but most of them were knock-offs: Cheap Chinese shit, as Dad would say. Small Is Beautiful was always a bit too small (“I can’t tell them apart but I know they’re stacked”). And who could forget Take a Chance on Romance—the shirt I coveted most, not only for the sing-song value but because it was about romance languages. We had to buy all our clothes from those resale shops while Dad put all his money into Ace Video and Jorgy’s. We always looked better with a cigarette pressed between our lips, or held like a cigar. I think we were more enamored with the style than the nicotine, at least for a while. I close my eyes and I see you in a short black nightgown in your LA apartment wearing platform sandals as slippers—I’ve never worn enormous flip-flops as house shoes, but I like to hang out late into the morning hours in pajamas, and every time I do I think of/pretend to be you. The blue velcro tennis shoes you eventually made your own after they didn’t fit in my move-and-fit-everything-in-two-suitcases first trip to Holland. Our hands are the same but our feet are different so now it just makes me happy to see you wear them. Fingernail painting and blue platform shoes. Fingerpainting with fresh ground pepper on New Year’s Eve. Of course we have handwriting and voices in common, and I am not talking about our “language” which is a combination of Heather’s “native” valley girl and strawkerrrs, but our schizo voices. My handwriting has never been as beautiful as yours, but I remember in high school thinking that if I used a gel tip pen, or held my pencil like so, or if I drew tiny drawings below my thumbnail, I’d have pretty handwriting like you, or maybe even pass a history exam. Bee chasing and sick-note writings at a picnic table outside school with great mom-handwriting flourish. It coulda been a cottage industry. I think we all learned to type on AOL IM. At least I did. What I’m getting at: I have ripped off your style—down to the nubby tights and the obsessive application of lip product. Getting back to the wedding gown. I was seized by a sudden and Becca-esque desire to “go big or why bother.”

The bigger the better the tighter the sweater, the girls
depend on us.
Frilly, frivolous, indulgent, impossible,
over-the-top, to feel physically as if the top of my head
were taken off.
Frou-Frou print on the easel when you
first walk into our shared apartment, Los Angeles, 2001.
You gift me things pink fuzzy & aglimmer, you mail me
a swirly red dress, rubber stamp with my name on it.
Just today you send two unicorns charging on yellow,
KNOCK YOU OUT. You stare at my shirt & ask if you
gave it to me. No, we each bought it separately at our
favorite store back home. (O Moxy, sayonara, adieu.)
I go back to LA seven years later & what I really want
to see is your shoes. I take a picture & post it online.
You break your neck & I buy us the same blue velvet
scarf, think it’s kind of a shame we don’t have the same
neck brace. Screenwriters want to know why I’m so
short, where are my platforms. In some cities, we walk.
In some cities we carry. Alls I need’s traction & access
to other people’s closets. Now we live far away, only see
slivers of wardrobes. Now we live close enough to share.
No, I will not bring my own shampoo: I wanna smell like
you. I like when old stuff hands off, buffs up, turns new.


Four Klaver sisters in ascending age order: Fro, Becca, Annie, Jessie.

Scan of original map of my plot to become prom queen.

Success: me as prom queen, Milwaukee, 1998.

Self-portrait for Feminist Media Art class, Los Angeles, circa 2000.

Me in my black-haired "Snow White" phase (left) and my sister Annie wearing Take a Chance on Romance, a t-shirt mentioned in "OUR STYLE."

Me and my high school BFFs (L to R: Jeff, Jenny, Heather, me, Austin), who contributed to this piece, in Los Angeles, circa 2001.

Self-portrait from hand-drawn invitation to my 21st birthday party.

My current Facebook profile pic: me after the Destroyer show at Webster Hall, April 3, 2011.

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.

fabric girl

by Jillian Mukavetz

face figured masks. of disaster. of laughter
ordinary cloaks, roast grass.
seed blend weeds
and shy pleurisy.
weaves the wind, metal detectors and missing keys: fabric girl
love is sartorial.
sheared mascara
split time, wrists, and sealed plethora
puzzled palms
review only to view
meanings in syllabus.
smeared, trust, letters. a girl audition in moral expletives.
fabric girl
trusts cuts and mends, couth labels. fabric ends

jillian mukavetz asks: how you would like me to define. what i perceive. define decreation? my eyes will never mirror yours. image and language and sound and idea negotiate space. everyone owns free will and behavior. from this perspective, maybe “I” means i love animals. i love my friends. i love bees and horses. i believe in human justice and feminism. i play the fiddle. i record cinepoems. i have a personal blog and a blog that interviews 21st century women writers and their aesthetic diversity. i take pictures. i write poems and essays. i volunteer. i am getting my MFA in poetry at New England College. maybe this is “about me.” or maybe just cracked shards of a dream.

An Abridged History of Costume

by Stacy Gnall

II. Ancient Greek

To move as through a bloom:
the mode by which bodies are draped.

IX. Baroque

Look at this beribboned bird, his indoor richness.
See how slow he swaggers, his asymmetry casual.
You will have heard his myth:
Oh, oh! His thrust. And oh! His plume.
His ego. His garland halfway to Apollo.

X. Rococo

A fishing for rocks and shells
from the frothy shores of heads.

XII. French Revolution

Incroyable. The body
as propaganda. Fear
of the blade
worn on sleeves
as cockades. Lapels
propelling rebellion
from eve to garnet eve.

XVI. Gay Nineties (& 1920’s)

Your shoulders stood at attention before the century,
and your daughters in wait beneath your boning.
The size of pearls, like pearls. Waiting to be swung.

Bio: Stacy Gnall is from Cleveland, Ohio. She earned her BA at Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA at the University of Alabama. Her poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Indiana Review, The Laurel Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is currently working on her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles, and her first book, Heart First into the Forest, is just out from Alice James Books.