Monday, July 14, 2008

gurlesque

When Arielle Greenberg (whom I was in school with during my MFA) recognized the elements she construed as the gurlesque aesthetic, to be honest, I didn’t feel my work qualified. I’m still not certain that it does, although—as with inclusions in movements (or whateveryoumaycallthem) that exhibit themselves across a spectrum—you could make the argument. I was raised in the 70’s, with Free-To-Be and unicorns, but I did not revel in the girly trappings of that era—mostly due to an intense ballet schedule (20-30 hours a week from 11-18) that eschewed glitter nail-polish, ribbon barrettes, friendship pins, then jelly bracelets, funky eyeshadow, and ankle-tights. (Our flesh-pink ones had to cover our feet.) With hair pulled back and a penchant for black, I was mildly, mildly gothic—or perhaps just prematurely lit major. With a difference. The dance thing plus the fe-male, fie-male, fo-mentation plus the sexual revolution none of us escaped made me always always writing from the body—even before I was. Sexuality is part of my aesthetic, but not I think in the way that AG uses the term.

What I mean to say is that when I read Sexton in high school, her metaphors were a revelation, and at Yale, when Bishop was offered as one of the only recent female poets (this was the early 90s!) worth looking at in depth, I saw her restraint only as the calcification holding back what I thought must be seething underneath. Very Freudian. My reading of contemporary poets was non-existent until my MFA, the exception being poets in translation, strangely enough. I knew confessional and beat poetry and Frank O’Hara, but the freedom to combine the ubiquitous body with a mythic Now! was not a freedom I ever felt. In my work, the body is everpresent and thus unselfconsciously indicated: but Now is something I’ve never gotten my teeth around.

I am elliptical though. Certain that association was the way to write good poetry, I came to that knowledge from reading Paz and Transtromer (these in translation) and Simic, not Stein (who came much later for me). Surreality was what I loved, and science fiction. My poetry rarely talks fabric or fashion, and indeed, in a room full of gurlesque female poets, I’m the one with the eight dollar haircut or no hair at all. It is particularly the freedom to include pop culture and daily happenings that I am fairly unable to do. But why haven’t I ever taken this freedom as my own (since the lack of those references in my work is I think the most notable difference between myself and the other poets noted by AG as gurlesque)?

Certainly, the poets mentioned by Arielle and Danielle are wonderful company, but it would be disingenuous for me to claim much sense of an aesthetic fellowship with the poets named there. I do feel fellowship with the women poets I’ve known and spent time with because of that time. The ones I’ve been in class with have influenced my work, assuredly—but in a way that promotes kitsch and cutesiness and a gutsy insistence on the details of a specific brand of girlhood? Not so much.

What does it mean to be included under a rubric of any kind? I don’t know, this being the first moment I have had that pleasure. I do know, that in an era that seems insistent on the fact that individuals are free to present themselves as women any way they choose and that such freedom should be celebrated, I dissent. I would not limit anyone’s self-portrayal, but neither do I glory in each and every. I am not at all Whitmanesque. I am much stodgier. I do not see performed sexuality as power or proof that “we’ve arrived” in the way many women of my generation and younger do; instead, I see the way this era promotes such sexual expression as power to be the duping of an entire generation, a telling of only half the story. Sex is power until it is not—until it no longer offers you a way of achieving money or a man. (Yes, a man. My college freshpeople still speak of an MRS degree. Color me agog.)

And as for “girls”—no one really likes this term without the double r or the -friend, do they?—have they gained “freedom” in sexual performance and expressivity? I can't read this movement as grotesque no matter how hard I try. Wanting glitter to be important doesn't make it so. I get the implied violence to the cute... but don't masochists already own their fetishes? Why is claiming victimization as an identity any better than passively being victimized? Isn't it in fact worse to be willing and complicit in the violence? This isn't power, in my estimation, it's throwing in the towel. If girls have gained a sense of center-ness in the past 20 years, and maybe they have, it seems to me concurrently our boys (as a mother of three of them) have lost some ground. Can they (I'm talking cultural acceptance here) wear pink? dresses? braid their hair? any more than they could twenty years ago? I cannot believe that any gains in girl-land not echoed in the other gender-space (or god-forbid even crossing over into it!) could be real gains.

I do not believe that today’s girls experience their more blatant sexuality in a wholly empowering way. And I think that crafting a nostalgia-laden, pre-hung up idea of what my body was to me at eight would be false. I had shame at eight. And six, and five. Shame was as ubiquitous in my early life as unicorns. In fact, I knew since I first began idolizing the white phallus-beasts, that they only came to virgins, and since my mother was enlightened enough to answer such questions honestly, I knew at six exactly what a virgin was. And by fourteen I knew I’d done enough to ensure I’d never see a unicorn (confession lives!).

In other words, sex may be power, but power once-removed and intricately linked to shame and usable for only ten to twenty-five years of a life. Danielle sees this as a substantial chunk, me--not so much. Like a career in ballet, the advantages of treading this road to influence rarely survive into the next stage of a woman’s life—whether she procreate or not. I find it difficult to embrace as my own any term that lives inside this youth-centered illusion without consideration of what is beyond its borders. I can no longer in good conscience carry a Hello Kitty lunchbox. It infantilizes me, and as I will not shave myself to pre-pubescent levels I will not lurch toward any previous incarnation of my self. I want to be woman. I want to revel in the Now I cannot include in my poems. I am a box of hypocrisy in that way. Forgive.

I cannot see this poetic clinging to pre-adolescence (not just as content but as marker of difference) as substantially removed from the popular idea that the majority of prostitution acts or strip clubs or the cultural imitation of strippers (Brazilianed, tanned orange, capable with a pole, having less than 15% body fat but size C+ breasts) empowers women. Using what you've got for a short period of time for less than it is worth is NOT real power unless you have a REAL choice about it (privileged few). It also echoes the tendency to cosmetic surgery (done for the woman's self-worth of course, not for her value on the open market or to prolong youth... the most recent incarnation is the "Mommy Job" [a combo of breast-lift, liposuction, and botox to reclaim the pre-pregnancy shape]). Ever see Brazil? Have you looked at Mickey Rourke lately? Clearly, cosmetic surgery disasters do not limit themselves to women. Or idiots. I think the overeducated and the artistic feel the same cultural pressures as everyone else. To help us cope with our choices, we develop theory around them.

I am not denying that girlhood happens and it IS important. It just isn't all-important to me, or necessary to represent artificially in conjunction with my current being. Girlhood is my previous existence, a rite of passage, a source, the well from which the woman Kirsten sprung. Note the past-tense. And then, but then, there are other (equally important) parts to a life. It doesn't seem to me that girlhood needs anymore validation or extension, especially anything that casts Lolita as emblem. That's been done by men for women for a longtime. The sexually precocious nymph. The supermodel. And no, I don't think Valley-speak is an act of resistance. Sorry. I admit, this railing I'm doing is all from a perspective a bit removed from the heart of girlhood. I once may have been attracted to donning the Catholic school uniform poetically--but if and when I did, I don't think it creeped anyone out--titillated them maybe. Maybe it's the same. I don't think so. Poets who incorporate childhood into their poems (god knows I do) are legion. I think what I don't understand is the defense of this tactic as a strategy of power. I don't want my childhood to be my armor. Maybe I still am (although there is no I in Xnnovative poet, is there?) partly my childhood and its trappings, but I can think of other non-linear aspects of my poetic "self" better suited to skewering the patriarchy. Like my mind.

As far as wanting people on the street to want to have sex with me—I did want that once. I am happy to not want it now. And as far as my cunt getting loose or smelling… I’d have to say that I hope I can learn to love aging. Admitting to loving youth—that is nothing. Saying I will accept my aging—easy. But loving the aging, really loving it, that I see as difficult and immensely worth my poetic while, and decidedly avant-garde.

6 comments:

Radish King said...

Thank you. This is the most sense I've read in this whole mess of messiness.

Rebecca, not in a can

kirsten said...
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D said...

Hey Kiki!

Missing you, and enjoying the exploration here...I admit to some confusion, myself, about how nostalgia and grotesque mingle in the Gurlesque...I think L & A cover that in the anthology...but I also think that's a part of the aesthetic where some valuable friction exists.

I do have some new-hatching ideas about the victimhood as identity biz. I've been thinking a lot lately about the extreme internalization of misogyny in USAmerican households, and the complications of loving , respecting the self-same folks who teach you your subaltern place in the world. Hard, in such circumstances not to grow up with a case of false consciousness. I'd argue we're always already complicit in performing girl as victim, disappointment, unimportance, and that the transition to womanhood hardly advances one. In womanhood you get, what?, bounced culturo-hierarchically beyond the girls? And only in certain ways...middle-aged women aren't fairing so much better than teenage girls in the media, by my watch...Glitter, chardonnay, same diff. maybe?

I'm not eschewing age or womanhood. Many of the tropes that read as "woman" read simultaneously "girl," anyhow, eternally conflating the two positions. I'm just not sure these Gurlesque poets are claiming victimhood so much as playing with a subject position they (we) already occupy, were cultured into.

And I don't think sex (the act, the attractiveness) is power. I think it's violence. Assuming the violated agent can also conduct violence, as in Plath's or Sexton's work, she can fix the gaze with a swish of her tail before rolling out the disturbances. Compel the reader to bear witness through the wrong eyes; an existential seasickness and vertigo... Yeah, maybe a person can't impress upon bankers the importance of glitter (or the post-natal vagina, for that matter), but there's something to be said for creating a field that values the very markers a market-based, enlightenment-riddled cultural sausage party reads trivial, useless, invalid.

You've read the Deleuze and Guattari on girls, molecules, etc. in Thousand Plateaus, yeah (is it ch. 6?)? What do you think of it? I can't quite get my head around it, though admittedly only read it the once...

Sian said...

Have you and Danielle read, by chance, Ariel Levy's FEMALE CHAUVANIST PIGS? It's not scholarly or theoretical, but it does meditate on some of the recent culture phenomena where women embrace formally male-dominated terrain, e.g. stripping b/c "we want to"?? Her thesis, in a nut shell, is that when women embrace stripping as the like as a psuedo-power strategy we're still participating in a sexuality created by and for men (thus, how exactly is this power?).

Like I said, it's not mind-bending on a theory-like level, but it is a quick read and one that might well participate in the discussion of the gurlesque (that is, as I'm understanding it from having read only a few posts).

kirsten said...

so good to talk today, sian. I'm thinking much on these issues as I enter into dance writing (the exhibiting of the body for entertainment art and profit?...) All the relationships I have with art are failed relationships and I am always just trying to learn something new for the next. no one wd ever hold me responsible for my thoughts, I hope. Or actually, I wish we all did.

sexy said...
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