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.”