Elevate Difference

Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics

The problem with books with two introductions is that one can inevitably doom the other and, at worst, the entire book. This just might be the case with the contra(dictory)dance of introductions to the anthology Gurlesque, edited by poets Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg. According to Glenum, Gurlesue poetry “assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.” Both editors relate this poetry to cultural movements like riot grrrl, burlesque, kitsch, camp, and more.

For Greenberg, Gurlesque is “not a movement or a camp or a clique.” (Okay, so what is it then?) It is “just something [she] saw...born of black organza witch costumes and the silver worn-out sequins mashed between scratchy pink tutu netting and velvet unicorn paintings and arena rock ballads…” Her list continues and is reminiscent of the sub/counter culture detritus that has wound up at mall stores like Hot Topic. I really wanted to love the idea of Gurlesque and was looking forward to some in-depth and sophisticated rendering. Unfortunately, Greenberg sounds like a chatty scenester at a party, making the anthology seem little more than a self-serving, self-validating effort.

Luckily, Glenum’s introduction is more intellectually sound and includes some interesting theory; however, both seem resistant to lay any more than spotty groundwork about what Gurlesque is or isn’t, at the same time that they see the selected poems as being exemplary of this “idea”. From Greenberg: “Being in this anthology doesn’t mean anything about the poets in particular: we are just trotting these poems out on our sideshow stage because of what we see in them.” And from Glenum: “I am not insisting that this genealogy forms a common knowledge base for Gurlesque poets…I intend the above merely as a loose sketch of aesthetic tendencies and impulses, an artistic and theoretical heritage from which the Gurlesque draws its manifold, relentless energies.” Yet wouldn’t the artifact of the anthology prove more than a loose sketch?

So what about the actual poetry? What does Gurlesque poetry look and read like? I asked a poet friend who said “pile on the cum, pile on the vomit, heap on the porn.” Poet Ariana Reines doesn’t disappoint with lines like “First he spit on my asshole and then start in with a middle finger and then the cock slid in no sound come out only a maw gaping, grind hard into ground.” While this might seem like a performance of pornographic crassness, it could be seen (and I tease this from the Exoskeleton poetry blog) as skillfully employing the savvy irony of our cultural moment: self-consciously using played out shock-for-shock’s sake.

These aren’t easy poems to read. They aren’t your grandmother’s poems, and they aren’t Hallmark greeting card poems. They aren’t like most poems you would read in a book grabbed off the shelf in Barnes & Nobles, or even the library. If you make it through the bric-a-brac of the introductions, you get a good sense of some very new and innovative (if not all that good or likable) poetics.

Readers might be jarred by Chelsey Minnis’ excessive use of ellipses, to the point of frustration. The visual disorientation of the work gives the reader the sense that so much else is going on around and outside the poems, they become part of a much wider extended dialogue in which the reader is invited to imagine the activity in the pauses. Excerpts from Geraldine Kim’s “Povel” recalibrate our sense of poetry, prose, and the quotable. Lines like “I was barn./I was razed./I was mot this flame with no’s sum else blue’s blame noir yearning down the house” from Heidi Lynn Staple’s “Fonder a Care Kept” are going to test even the most adept readers of contemporary poetry.

There is a great deal of variety in this anthology, and as a woman of color, while I was happy to see Asian American women represented, I was strongly disappointed by the apparent lack of work by African American, Latina, or Native American women. While I suppose it is possible (though unlikely) that such women of color aren’t writing Gurlesque, it seems more plausible that when it depends on one’s field of vision that this is an effect of “just something I saw.”

Written by: L, June 2nd 2010

Hi! Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to read the review.

(I stand corrected on the Native American poet.)

I realize that the introduction is styled as-so on purpose--it just didn't do it for me. It wasn't a standard language issue, the tone just didn't resonate or encourage me as a reader, though it might be more welcomed by other readers.

(I had a word limit as well, this review was initially twice as long and dealt with the art.) The art felt like an accessory, a "by the way here are some visual artists with cool pictures", and it kind of gets the short end of the stick. I found this unfortunate because I noticed Kara Walker and was wondering what the rationale was behind including her as being illustrative of Gurlesque.

I find it really interesting that no Latina or African American poets could be found writing in this style. But maybe with the increased attention to the style we will see this changing.

I'm sorry my intro was not to your liking. I obviously took a risk writing an intro that was "performing the Gurlesque" in a highly stylized voice, but I've been amazed at the number of reviewers who seem to think I was not conscious of this move or that this is the only way I know how to write or that I meant it as a straightforward introduction. One thing this seems to show me is that perhaps we are even more uncomfortable with "academic" or "scholarly" essays that stray from the standard language and modes than we are with poetry that does this same kind of straying.

In any case, Lara and I were also disappointed not to locate more women of color writing in what we consider a Gurlesque style who had full-length books out when we were compiling the book. (There is, however, a Native American poet in the book.) We searched for the most diverse range of poets we could find, specifically for African-American and Latina poets working in this style, but did not find them, though you did not mention that the visual arts portfolio does indeed include both Latina and African-American artists. The book comprises the work we found which most clearly showcased our concept: our aim was to be illustrative of the theory, rather than a large compendium.