on the gurlesque

Arielle Greenberg

This article was written in April 2003 based on an outline for a talk delivered at Small Press Traffic as part of the New Experiments series in November 2002.

I’m developing an aesthetic theory which I’m calling the Gurlesque (I’ll explain why a bit later), a theory which emerged organically from my reading a steady stream of books by women poets published in the last several years: women who, like myself, were raised during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. I began to see a commonality among some of these poets, women like Catherine Wager and Chelsey Minnis, both of whose books were published by Fence, and Brenda Shaughnessy, and others who appear in magazines in which the poetry regularly incorporates and rejects confession, lyricism, fragmentation, humor, and beauty: poets who act as the charm bracelet to bring all of these styles together. Like many other contemporary young poets, each of these women was veering away from traditional narrative, and each employed a postmodern sense of humor, invoking brand names and cultural ephemera. This is not terribly unusual among young contemporary poets, but what struck me was a tone that was tender and emotionally vulnerable but also tough, with a frank attitude towards sexuality and a deep, lush interest in the corporeal, and that this came through in poems that were “dolled up” in a specifically girly kitsch: this work seems to share an interest in the “femme” side of feminism. In the poem “Your One Good Dress” (the title itself conjures up teenybopper angst), from her first collection of poems Interior with Sudden Joy, Brenda Shaughnessy typifies this style with the stanza that reads

There is an argument for the dull-chic,
the dirty olive and the Cinderelly. But those
who exhort it are only part of the conspiracy:
“Shimmer, shmimmer,” they’ll say. “Lush, shmush.” (30)

This combination of the serious (“the conspiracy”) and the frilly (“shimmer”) seemed to me a particular way of writing through and about gender, and one that seemed to permeate work by poets with vastly different backgrounds. It also resonated with my own work, and I recognized its trimmings—the fashion copy jargon stolen from Vogue, the Disneyfied fairytales, the jokey melancholy—from my own history and my own poetics. I began to ask myself what happened to spur this poetry into being? What, if anything, is new about it?

The Gurlesque Girlhood

I have come to believe that the particular, and particularly strange, historical moment in which I was raised gave birth to this aesthetic. I see my girlhood, and the girlhoods of the poets named above, as part of a post-feminist moment, in that we were raised during an era in which feminism was part of the discourse but in which traditional notions of femininity and women’s roles still held great power. My mother gave birth to me, her first child, in 1972, and as she reared me she was negotiating between her own 1950s girlhood experiences—petticoats and typing classes—and the politicization she underwent in college in the late 1960s. Thus, like many other girls my age, I was in the first generation to both wear aggressively patchworked overalls and play with Barbies. My mother made sure I was exposed to Zoom and Free to Be You and Me, media that promoted progressive, egalitarian ideals, but when I got sick and stayed at home, she let me watch soap operas and Hee-Haw, and I had as big a crush on the cleavage-bearing blondes on that show as I did on the girls in pantsuits, Afros aglow, shooting down slides on The Electric Company.

Jodie Foster was an icon for girls of my era—tough talking, street wise—but so was the fragile but nubile Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon: suddenly, sexual agency was a viable reality for young girls. The 1970s provided me with Martina Navratilova and Maude, but there was a simultaneous backlash towards figures like Farrah Fawcett and the Charlie’s Angels, superheroines in hot pants who were mass-produced as life-size heads so that my friends and I could practice feathering hair and applying blue eyeshadow on them. In the decade following the 60s counterculture, American femininity was resurgent, reifying the patriarchy through an almost Victorian longing for romance. This was embodied in cultural artifacts easily accessed by young girls: the emergent genre of women’s fantasy writing (I had a favorite young adult novel in which the princess heroine had to choose between her unicorn companion and losing her virginity to her goofy boyfriend), the sparkly iron-on tee-shirts decals and air-brushed sunsets on the sides of vans, and the camisoles, petticoats, and lace-up boots featured in fashion magazines.

If I were to name the icon I feel embodies this moment most fully, it would be Stevie Nicks, the Fleetwood Mac singer ubiquitous in the 70s—sexual, womanly, fiercely her own person, but also girlish, with scarves and fairy skirts and Celtic iconography that hinted at something darker, something having to do with magical powers. This is what I feel comes across in Gurlesque poetry: something dark, frilly, strong and coy all at once, which shows strains of both feminist outrage at injustices and also an (ironic?) embracing of the most feminine parts of a self. Both of these aspects can be seen in another dress poem, a section of “Excelsior Reflector” by Kim Rosenfield, author of Good Morning—Midnight—:

Pressed crepe underwear options
(Brown being the new black)
(Red being the new neutral).
Backless, strapless
sheer net bra
slash-front
bust-boosting bodyslips.
Cotton briefs are like meeting in the rain forest
no longer just for girls being killed going to school
An American Classic
The future never looked so
re-affirming. (39-40)

Here, as elsewhere in Rosenfield’s work, fashion is made central, adored and fetishized while criticized and deconstructed. The two attitudes coexist in ragged harmony.

The Newness of the Gurlesque

So how is Gurlesque poetry different from work produced by women who came before—Leslie Scalapino’s identity-stripping Language poetry or Sharon Olds’ spit-out confessions? In Gurlesque poems, the words luxuriate: they roll around in the sensual while avoiding the sharpness of overt messages, preferring the curve of sly mockery to theory or revelation. Gurlesque poets are unafraid of making poems that seem silly, romantic or cute; rather, they revel in cuteness, and use it to subversive ends, complicating the relationship between feminism and femininity. Gurlesque poems own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful. And, like glittery snowflakes, no two Gurlesque poets are exactly the same.

So whereas Brenda Shaughnessy (raised in California, educated at Columbia, of Japanese and American descent) writes a lot about art and myth, and Kim Rosenfield (a therapist and mother) writes often of advertising and science, Brenda Coultas (from Indiana) is mostly concerned with class, and her poetry is marked by the clear declaratives appropriate to that subject, yet a comparison can be drawn. In “Dream Life in a Case of Transvestism,” an early broadside by Coultas, she furthers the love-hate relationship with glamour and fashion we saw in Shaughnessy and Rosenfield. In this series of dream imagery, gender is blurred, but the accoutrements of femininity remain as neat as a literal pin:

5. Since I became a woman dressed as a man dressed like a woman, I lost my virginity. There are sixteen types of hymens. I had thirteen of them.
My hymen was a chameleon that hung from a chain on my sweater and changed shape constantly.
“What is that on your sweater?”
“It’s just an old maidenhead that I spray painted gold and glued some sequins on.”

The politics in a poem like this is subtle, tricky. Through humor and childishness, it pulls away from what we think of as a typically political poem, but it is political: it hints at confession but denies a satisfying answer about the speaker’s own relationship to gender by undercutting the “real” with abnormal syntax or surrealist juxtapositions. Again, this move is not unique to Gurlesque poets, but what is unique is that the Gurlesque prankishly celebrates the same cultural trappings it seeks to critique: it has fun with the idea of the feminine, makes fun of it, jokes and laughs about it. At the same time, it can be almost shockingly straightforward about the dark areas of sexuality.
A poet I consider central to the Gurlesque aesthetic is Chelsey Minnis, whose poems, in her first book Zirconia (a name which implies both charm and falsity), are consistently violent and pretty and terrifying and ridiculous, as in “Primrose”:

when my mother was raped a harpsichord began to play red candles melted and spilled down the mantle there was blood in the courtyard and blood on the birdbath and blood drizzled on brown flagstones as a red fox bared its teeth white harts froze and snow-hares fled and left heartshaped footprints in the snow that melted in the spring when I was born and it is torture for my mother that I am now luscious and she is dead and that I have bare shoulders and a flower behind my ear as I beat the gentleman rapists with bronze statuettes so that the blood oozes down their handsome sideburns or give them a poisoned mushroom or corsages and corsages of gunshot (41-42)

The substance of this poem—the abuse, the violence, the rape—is of course disturbing, but without the almost shocking beauty here (“a flower behind my ear”), without the morbid humor, the poem would be another victim’s tale. Instead, the poem mocks the very notion of victimhood in a way which is even more disturbing than a straightforward version of the same tale, because the speaker seems as taken by the melodrama of the scene as she is wounded by the pain. This honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror—even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression—is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque.

The Etymology of “Gurlesque”

I came up with the term Gurlesque because of the word’s evocation of three different ideas: Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, burlesque theater, and the feminist punk movement riot grrl.

In Bakhtin’s book Rabelais and His World, based on the medieval carnival, he creates the term carnivalesque to talk about literature or art which, like the carnival, brings together both leaders and laypeople in one crowd, delighting them with costumes and grimy beauty and jokes; carnivalesque literature savors the grotesque, savors the action of both creation and destruction, and promotes a chaos which inverts the status quo, forcing the bourgeois to laugh at representations of themselves.

Likewise, burlesque theater is a kind of parody, a performance of femininity and sexiness where the falsity and charades become part of the act. As the strippers sing in the musical Gypsy, “you gotta have a gimmick”: unlike other forms of sexual entertainment, in the burlesque, sensuality is turned onto itself as comedy, exaggerated, so that the performance becomes a critique of the notion of femininity itself.

Riot grrl were also interested in reinterpreting the markers of femininity through apparel and gesture. In the early 1990s, as a response to the machismo of the punk music scene which often led to female punk fans being groped in the mosh pits at shows, women-only mosh pits emerged, which led to a movement of bands, zines, record labels and other women-led efforts to create a safe, and feminist, space for women in the punk scene. The riot grrls also had their own look, which sought to reclaim girlhood as a time of spontaneity and strength. By seizing the word GIRL and giving it a growling twist, writing playground messages like YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME or BRAT on their bodies with magic markers, wearing plastic barrettes and carrying tin lunchboxes, these young women transported themselves back to a time before they felt constrained by behavioral norms and body image disorders. Riot grrls published zines with names like Sparkly Kitty Stickers that taught other grrls how to make their own guitar straps or talk back to harassers on the street, and the names they gave their bands (Bratmobile, Huggybear) evoked a more innocent time that nonetheless was one of potency and pleasure.

Gurlesque poetry takes its cues from all of these things: subversive and angry but flirty and sweet, owning and critiquing sexuality in candid ways. Its origins in the turbulent years after the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s make it a poetry which documents a psychic schism; if, as John Berger wrote about depictions of women in art in Ways of Seeing, “the social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living…within such a limited space…at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two,” then the Gurlesque poet watches herself and is herself at once, both punishing and promoting what she sees, rejecting the notion of herself as object while trying it on for size. This performative quality has no better outlet than in the work of Nada Gordon, a self-described troubadour whose image (velvet dresses and long black curls) and operatic vocals are integral to her poems, as both seek to undermine the standard notions of beauty as they adopt them. In the poem “Vulval Implosion” from her recent collection V. Imp., Gordon mixes dictions and languages from across multiple selves in the lines:

Here’s wool in your eyes. “Still hungry,
songless pundits?” taunt the cheeky chorines.
Whenever I hear the voice of extremism,
it has a very strong Brooklyn accent.
Tonight, son et lumiere at 81 Ocean Parkway.
Oh shit, I forgot to sterilize the sexism
scrimshawed on my gleaming rump.
Scherzo. Warbling. Tra la la. (82)

Here, as elsewhere in Gurlesque poetry, the desire for light-heartedness and romance and Romance clash with a down-to-earth, gum-popping candor that can never completely “forget” to “sterilize the sexism.”

The Aesthetic Lineage of the Gurlesque

As I’ve mentioned, Gurlesque poetry never strays too far from the kind of personal narrative one sees in Olds, or even Plath (whom one could argue is a direct predecessor to this movement), but it skirts it, delves into stranger waters, upends it, parodies it. Gurlesque poets are as likely to dip into a mannered formalism as they are into the fragments of Language poetry or the gritty kineticism of the New York School, crossing aesthetic boundaries freely and loosely. In “I Am Darling You,” by Catherine Wagner, the syntax is disrupted but the signposts are still standing:

let me king around
you king all over, mighty
Bring a town in, okay,
add a country,
slavish all over me, please.
Darned mighty, sleeping,
oyster eyes.
Feel little. Little my head to sleep.
I suffer you, you basic.
Deign down, lean at me, chosen.
Judas Icarus.
He made enough for me to take to lunch. (31)

The petulant sexiness of “slavish all over me, please” and “little my head to sleep,” sultry pleas for attention, are cut by the direct insult of “I suffer you, you basic.” The speaker is both in and out of control, and seems to relish and damn both positions.

I hope to address the issue of aesthetic lineage further in future papers, and welcome ideas on other foremothers (and, possible, forefathers) whose ghosts haunt these contemporary poets. For example, I would be interested to talk about the Gurlesque as it relates to writers like Kathy Acker, whose embrace of violent sexualities is never clean or simple, but always compelling. Where does a poet like Eileen Myles fit into this constellation? Who else has laid the groundwork for this poetry?

Why Create a Term like Gurlesque?

Well aware that none of the poets I’m discussing sought to be grouped together or thus defined when writing their work, I have struggled with the politics of defining a group that does not seek such definition. I do not want to limit or pigeon-hole these writers or the ways they are read; nonetheless, I find it useful and important to name this phenomenon, because it is spear-headed by young women, and thus in danger of being written out of history, and I seek to validate it by calling attention to it as a real force in contemporary poetry.

I also see the Gurlesque signifying an exciting turning point in American poetry: the Gurlesque could not exist without the means to disseminate it, and I would argue that many of the most influential, exciting new poetry journals, reading series, presses, etc., are run by women who are themselves Gurlesque poets, or sympathetic to the Gurlesque: Rebecca Wolff of Fence and Fence Books, Aimee Kelley of CROWD, Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr of CHAIN, and Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson at Small Press Traffic. Their efforts to promote a poetry which so defiantly traffics in the kind of girliness that is usually considered cultural detritus—sequins, schoolyard antics, kiddie slang—and is dismissed as superficial because of this have been integral to the emergence of the phenomenon.

Gurlesque poetry is important because writing about cupcakes, dresses and sofas represents fundamental parts of the human experience—food, clothing, shelter—that are often written out because they are part of the woman’s sphere, normally considered trivial or shameful. There is power in this. When I spoke at Small Press Traffic, I told the audience how hard I worked to find a good outfit that day, describing my rejection of certain shirts and my anxiety over lipstick shades, while fully aware that this was not something I should do, because such admissions could lessen my authority as a speaker (and a feminist). My friend, the fiction writer Maile Chapman, and I often talk about how we enjoy the part of our friendship that revolves around shopping, talking about clothing and style, and yet how none of this energy or imagery enters into either of our work, as if it’s a secret that shouldn’t coexist with our serious, intellectual, literary selves. As Treadwell Jackson said about Carol Mirakove’s “barrette” poem in her discussion of recent works with Sarah Ann Cox on How2, “it’s not merely (demurely?) about cuteness, thought that tendency has its place…which strikes me as legitimate.” This legitimizing of girlishness is an assertion of a certain kind of language, demure language, to stronger ends.

The Luxury of the Gurlesque

The Gurlesque allows me to reinsert this language, and thus those parts of my self, into the whole of my poetry, or to sense those “juvenile” parts in others—and from this I draw community, a sense of “we” even as I write my poems in relative isolation. I am fascinated by the zeitgeist of the Gurlesque, that it’s happening widely but in singular voices, from poets of very different backgrounds and from all over the country, a kind of spontaneous community through aesthetics. But a question I have yet to answer for myself is how thoroughly does the Gurlesque cut across boundaries? Certainly I have found the Gurlesque in poetry by Asian, Native American and white women, lesbians and wives, urban and rural poets. Kathy Dee Kaleokealoha Kaloloahilani Banggo’s chapbook 4-evaz, Anna (whose cover is decorated in the swirly handwriting and doodles of a teenage girl) is almost entirely written in Hawaiian pidgin, with the exception of the last poem in the book, “Angel Days,” which feels resolutely in keeping with the Gurlesque, a sister to the poem by Chelsey Minnis above. From “Angel Days:”

What a slow swim up! And with what resignation the cut sky fled deep into the red dirt and bottled brown liquid of the sea. There were pills and more pills. I swallowed them all. In wholes or halves. No matter. Albino, blush or amethyst, I swallowed them, to drain myself of color or to pour the color back into the form of the temple to the chin. How magnificent and round, the stain on my undies. How ragged, the blindness in one eye. But my hands were steady. And somewhere far away, the Great Houdini signed his secrets. (23)

But when I have had the chance to speak to audiences about the Gurlesque, I am sometimes met with resistance as to the value of the Gurlesque project. “Can women poets really afford the luxury of writing this way, with the patriarchy still in such power?” one male audience member asked me recently. This reply came from a young woman in the audience: “Yes, but we are the first generation who can, and that’s why this is so exciting.” I agree to an extent—only because of the strides made by second-wave feminists can third-wave feminism exist—but I also remain unsure as to how many young women poets have the privilege to embrace their girlishness. Margo Jefferson wrote about the invention of jazz, “race is not just a series of obstacles, but also a set of possibilities.” Gurlesque poetry opens up possibilities for gender, but I would hope, as it criss-crosses other terrains, it does not ignore the economic, racial, sexual and other factors that complicate the experiences of womanhood.

Furthering the Conversation

There is obviously much more to say, and to debate, about the Gurlesque. I hope to continue speaking and writing about this idea so that my interactions with audiences can help extend and complicate the arguments I’ve begun to outline. Already many good questions have surfaced from the few talks I’ve given on it, including at Columbia College in Chicago, as part of the New Experiments series at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco in November 2002, and at the Rhode Island School of Design in March of 2003: Can male poets be Gurlesque? How does the Gurlesque exist similarly or differently in other cultures, like the cult of cute among teenagers in Japan? Is the Gurlesque a queer, or queered, poetics by definition? Will the Gurlesque have lasting power as an aesthetic, or is it, like its subject, ephemeral? I am also very interested in continuing to think about what I heard Linda Russo once call “the poetics of production,” or how the journals, presses and reading series launched by young women over the past decade or so have furthered or nurtured this phenomenon. I hope others who write and think and talk about this theory will continue this conversation and contact me to discuss these and other good questions.
To that end, I welcome comments, suggestions, and names of other poets who resonate with what I’ve written here. As a means of exploring my own idea further, I have several other Gurlesque projects currently in the works: a discussion-in-print with Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson wherein we discuss the origins and problems of the Gurlesque; articles on how the Gurlesque is simultaneously appearing in visual art and music by women of the same generation, like the painters Amy Cutler and Rebecca Doughty and the comic book artist Dame Darcy and bands like Le Tigre; and a proposal for an exhibition which would feature Gurlesque art alongside Gurlesque music, literature and films (the recent film Secretary, with its heroine’s beloved sparkly ballerina box of cutting implements, felt more Gurlesque to me than anything else I’ve seen of late). It’s been my pleasure to see discussions of this idea already surfacing on blogs and in work by other poets; I hope the theory is a useful way to think about some of the poetry that is happening right now.

Works Cited

Banggo, Kathy Dee Kaleokealoha Kaloloahilani. “Angel Days.” 4-evaz, Anna. Tinfish Network: Honolulu, 1997.
Coultas, Brenda. “Dream Life in a Case of Transvestism.” New York: Boogside number 8:, 1993.
Cox, Sarah Anne and Elizabeth Treadwell. “Negotiations/Interruptions: notes on new chapbooks by women,” How2: an online journal of innovative women’s poetics, vol. 1, no. 3, February 2000. .
Gordon, Nada. V. Imp., New York: Faux Press, 2003.
Jefferson, Margo. Quoted in “Poets Chat: Daniel Kane interviews the poet Harryette Mullen,”
Teachers & Writers April/May 2002. .
Minnis, Chelsey. “Primrose.” Zirconia. New York: Fence Books, 2001.
Rosenfield, Kim. “Excelsior Reflector.” Good Morning—Midnight—. New York: Roof Books, 2001.
Shaughnessy, Brenda. “Your One Good Dress.” Interior with Sudden Joy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Wagner, Catherine. “I Am Darling You.” Miss America. New York: Fence Books, 2001.

Editor’s Note: Look for an SPT anthology stemming from our New Experiments series sometime in late 2004.

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