Friday, May 15, 2009

There doesn't need to be an approved by Lorraine (or anyone) historical trajectory to make Gurlesque legit

However, I'm unsatisfied with something about Lara Glenum's fascinating and enlightening description of the Gurlesque on Exoskeleton. So I'm going to try and think that through. My interests and concerns are really quite similar to those that Glenum describes: I'm very interested in a poetic practice that

1. is interested in gender--especially femininity
2. challenges and investigates traditional gender roles
3. messes with gender binaries and all sorts of other assumptions about power and hierarchy that stem from those gender binaries
4. is concerned with the relationship between performance and gender
5. uses camp
6. emphasizes/investigates corporeality and materiality--i.e. bodies--in relation to all of this
7. and so is also interested in the grotesque and the abject

And yet, as I'll readily admit, these particular concerns that I share with Gurlesque (as described by Glenum), don't seem especially new. Not that everything has to be new, and not everything has to have precursers--and someone with any energy will perhaps criticize me for wanting to even construct a Gurlesqueish lineage...but these concerns have existed in various forms of writing since at least Comte de Lautréamont, who is a rather obvious and easy starting point, and certainly before. Marie de France wrote a werewolf-romance poem!

So, what really leaves me unsatisfied? Maybe it's the potential for theory head that I feel? Where are the other inspirations and precursors for Gurlesque? I love Bakhtin, but I'm not satisfied with Bakhtin and (again, fascinating) description of Victorian London burlesque performances. How did we get to them? Bakhtin's description of the grotesque is, yes, incredibly helpful, but he doesn't define the grotesque, he just describes it--using specific literature. Even now when I hear the adjective "Rabelaisian" I'm more likely to assume that someone's been reading Bakhtin, not Rabelais. Snotty and whiney of me, I know.

I manage to lead just about every conversation about Feminism and the grotesque back to my feminist Modernist power trio of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and the Baroness Elsa, but I do wonder why their names--and others--don't come up more often in conversations about the Gurlesque. There seems to be a really thriving list of contemporary referential points.

There doesn't need to be an approved by Lorraine (or anyone) historical trajectory to make Gurlesque legit; that's not my point at all. I confess, though, that I like to make lists. One such list I've been working on--not yet finished, includes a very roundabout description of how I actually arrived at all of those poetic concerns listed above. For example, my interest in camp, performance and gender has a lot to do with Mae West and Star Trek.

More later. I need to take a shower.

Peace out.


Lara Glenum said...

Just a quick note to say that I also think the Gurlesque originates with Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa, and Djuna Barnes. Also, Stein, Hannah Hoch, Spohie Tauber etc. - the women of the historical avant-garde. I say as much in my intro to the anthology, where I try to sketch a Gurlesque lineage. Must run.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Lara,

Thanks for your quick comment. I'm looking forward to reading that introduction (and the anthology, too, of course ; ) Though I think that just about every contemporary American and European Feminist avant-garde poetics at least partially originates in the women of the historical avant-garde.

I'm currently rather obsessed with the way I/we/people trace influences and lineages and define reference points and how all of this is very social.

I keep thinking about something Stan Apps said on his blog a while ago after a roundabout discussion of the relationship Nancy Cunard and Louis Aragon (pause to find it). Ah yes:

"Gossiping about past writers is surely a better way to relate to them than building a "tradition" upon them--gossip articulates more complex relationships than a narrative of influence and inheritance ever could."

et said...

Have you found Mae West's two novels & autobiography, published by Vintage, yet, Lorraine? I am rereading at the mo, but could pass along! Cheers Gurle!

K. Lorraine Graham said...


Yes, I know about them, though have not read them. They are on my birthday list.

jeannine said...

Thanks for this, Lorraine - I'm fascinated by the discussion, because I feel like so many women poets of my generation are writing Gurlesque poetry - depending on how you define it...

Kraig Grady said...

I can't help think of the work of Joanna Went in this regard. the breaking apart images of the feminine in often comic yet confrontational performance. Also as a counterpart to much traditional japanese drama including even/especially Butoh . I am referring to the process of men portraying women. possibly it is here that this work might be of greatest meaning/impact.
I am curious that you want to do this in poetry. I just question if this is the best medium. Myself i have been lead outside of music to deal with certain things as other mediums seem better. possibly it is the best and i welcome poetry being expanded in this matter more so than in wars between fashions. i don't think poetry does well where everyone is looking, and this area is not that. but i did have to pose the question. if only to understand.

K. Lorraine Graham said...


Hi! Yes, I also feel like Gurlesque could be used to describe, as you said, so many women poets of our generation--and yet I also think there are significant differences between some of these writers. That's interesting, and hardly cause for concern, just thought. Danielle Parfunda has been recently thinking through (on her blog) a more specific, or at least different, description of the Gurlesque.

D said...

Gail Kern Paster's The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England does a nice job of unpacking Bakhtin's (creepily gender-blind) description of grotesque, particularly in relationship to the female body. It's been a touchstone for me.

She also has great chapters on leaky ladies peeing in early modern drama, and the early modern practice of getting puppies to suck colostrum (considered Devil's milk) off recently post-partum women before the regular breast milk came in. Puppies. Sharp sharp little teeth. And then do you get devil puppies? Fascinating...