Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics

There has already been a lot of discussion–and more than a bit of heated debate–about this anthology. Much of it has focused on the identity of the writers in the book: are they too white, too straight, too suburban, too American, too physically abled? The term “Gurlesque” has caused concern also: does its focus on girlhood subtly disempower women? Having read, and witnessed in person, many discussions about the Gurlesque long before the anthology itself was even in print, I was pleased to finally have a chance to read the book and take a look at the specifics of the poems.

The introductions by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum seemed credible regarding both the creation of the term and the fact of the emergence of some suddenly common, but until then undescribed, features in contemporary women’s writing. The Gurlesque involves “writing about and through femininity in a new and exciting way,” according to Greenberg, a way that “brashfully, playfully, provocatively, indulgently” moves away from the “earnestness, sensitivity, and self-seriousness that marked many such poems stemming from Second Wave feminism.”

A great deal of work in the anthology hinges on the idea of self and identity and language as performance rather than essence. Through what Glenum describes as “hyperbole,” much of it seeks to break out of notions of proper behavior and language through which American women’s lives and writing still often remain closely guarded. While the degree of newness that the anthology represents may be an open question, a point that Greenberg herself acknowledges, both essays also find many historical and literary sources for the development of the Gurlesque approach, suggesting not so much an absolute break with the past as an intensification of some key concerns that more widely asserted themselves in the 1990s.

In reading the collected pieces, I noticed myself deciding which ones interested me more along several lines: level of energy (often intense); sense of rhythm and line; and description of the world with which the performed self is interacting. This last one was crucial, and surprised me a bit: I was most interested in those pieces that described others intriguingly as opposed to those that dwelt more absolutely on performance of self. Brenda Coultas, for instance, was represented by some of my favorite work in the whole anthology, and highlighted self as a performance within a dizzying array of social and family concerns (“I remember our pigs without the aid of hypnosis or memory drugs”). The more thoroughly interactive the self was with the world, and the more complexly that world was explored and exposed, the more I seemed to care how the self was performed. I suppose I could try here to assert some mainly specious distinction about social art vs. confessional art, as if discussing the self didn’t always also require involvement with things beyond the self. But my reasoning was probably simpler: in literature, as in life, I’m more interested in people who talk about things other than themselves.

I often especially enjoyed those poems that had more twist and surprise and kick in the lines. It’s difficult to think of someone doing more with rhythm than Catherine Wagner (“shudder out the little-girl/legs with a little/girl head mostly eyes, no ears,/bug brain, aimless/Send her to school”), and the tremendous movement in Dorothea Laskey’s work (“Instead no one is so weird/They have muscles/I write these poems instead of sitting in a bed/Sweaty all day/With men who are truly fuckable”) makes her pieces practically jump off the page. While some of her poems were a little rhythmically safer, Danielle Pafunda (“Slow me and fence it. I hock shop I gold play I leaking/valuables. There is a window, a roll call, a vile plastic stack.”) also worked in some pieces with an especially unique set of rhythms for which I can’t think of any immediate predecessors. Cathy Park Hong’s poems, not really possible to recreate well in blogger, had a precisely clipped sense of phrasing and spacing.  And Nada Gordon was represented well by some typically ragged, watch-this-fall-apart-but-not-quite flarf (“Sweet Kitty kiss my ghosts Kitty doesn’t like/the soup, Mama, but she sure likes the cream.")

Gurlesque is without doubt a hybrid anthology, making no significant distinctions between those writers whose work draws more on the history of avant garde poetics, or confessionalism, or from backgrounds in narrative prose. Much of the work also collapses distinctions between high, low and pop culture and art, while other pieces undermine distinctions between poetry and prose, or poetry and drama. Stacy Doris (“An ember falls from the chandelier onto the marquise’s (MARQIUSE “A”) bouffant and—poof—she’s burnt to a crisp”) and Kim Rosenfield “Miss Wiggles is a sensitive/large quantity of limpid urine”) had particularly unique approaches. There were also some very effective, primarily prose works: I loved the keen, psychologically disturbing descriptions of family and intimate others in the work of Geraldine Kim (“My parents were going to name me after the patron saint of fertility. Then when I came out they saw that I didn’t have a dick”) as well as the medieval carnival gone wild in some of Elizabeth Treadwell’s prose pieces (“dedication to giant grotto recreation of ussong the camera xo.”). The anthology also features a collection of Gurlesque visual art, which highlighted the range of cultural contexts in which Gurlesque work has appeared.

Overall, the energy level in the book was remarkable. The work of Ariana Reines (“Being a night inside of the mouth of a loved boy. Red black and shiny teeth with a tongue. The world of a loved boy has sense.”), less intriguing to me in terms of the world around the self that it describes, nonetheless has the power of a very high speed something or other whose path it would be dangerous to be in. Yet much of the rest of the writing here was only barely less intense. Some other pieces that I liked less, poetry or prose, felt a bit more wordy or leaden. Still, if one of the things that has haunted pretty much all anthologies promoting so-called hybrid work (a term which for me means something else than it may for others, which you can read about here) is a distaste for overly crude imagery and energy, there’s no shortage of that in this anthology.

Despite the debates about identity that surround the anthology, as crucial as they are (debates about which I’m not nearly as capable as others will be of offering a well-informed perspective), what readers will find in Gurlesque is a very impressive, often powerful collection of literature. It’s a much more impressive collection, in fact, than other recent anthologies of contemporary work that include poetry, from whatever place in the always contested world of literature they have come.

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