Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lara Glenum on Gurlesque

[I asked Lara to add something to the discussion]

To me, the gurlesque is very much about performing the female grotesque. In "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," Sianne Ngai rolls out an astute theory about how violence implicitly lurks in the aesthetic of the "cute." Ngai notes, "The formal attributes associated with cuteness – smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy – call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency." And further, "In its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is often intended to excite a consumer's sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle."

There are currently a number of women poets who locate "cuteness" in the realm of the female grotesque and, in extended poetic sequences, actively perform the dialectic between "cuteness," violence and female monstrosity (think Aase Berg's guinea pigs, Ariana Reines's cows, Anne Boyer's "Dark Deer," Danielle Pafunda's peek-a-boo violence). These poets redefine female "cuteness" as a trope of self-willed (or culturally-willed) deformity. By appropriating and violently animating stereotypes attached to desirable female behavior, these poets are attempting to make an register of derogatory signification to collapse. (There are certainly male counterparts to this project of gender-bending violence: Johannes, Tao Lin, Joe Wenderoth and Jon Leon, for example).

Cuteness, though, is prototypically the realm of pre-pubescent girls and their small, furry companions, which is the territory of Aase Berg's guinea pig poems. Berg's work radically upends the notion that women, young girls in particular, are free from sadistic compulsion and cruelty (Chelsea Minnis and Cathy Wagner's poems often do this, too). The term "cute" also surfaces when teenage girls (and even grown women) talk about men they're aroused by. To call a sexual object "cute" thus expresses a linguistic deformation – girls and women have traditionally been forbidden to speak about (or even experience) the stirrings of sexual desire. The demotion a sexually arousing man to the status of a puppy or a cupcake represents a phenomena of stunted female sexuality (which is only achieved through a kind of cultural pruning and binding through which women are divorced form their own sexual response). Cuteness, then, reveals a state of deformity or monstrosity.

All this is something that gurlesque poetry plays with and attempts to reverse, though not through Sharon Olds-style confession. Gurlesque poets, on the whole, don't believe in a stable, unified self, which is why their work is performance and not confession or persona (persona implies a person/self behind the mask). The gurlesque acknowledges its own artifice as well as the radical artifice of gender.

To close, I wouldn't say the gurlesque is strictly limited to the cuteness and violence thing, but its certainly a place that Arielle's original theory and my interest in the female grotesque overlap. (Hence, the birth of the Gurlesque anthology, which is due out from Saturnalia in 2009.)

Thanks for giving me the mic, Johannes.


Blogger ariana said...


ariana here. i was supposed to send lara a "bio/pic" for the gurlesque anthology many weeks ago, but i still haven't because all of the pics of myself that i have are unsuitable because i don't look charismatic or beautiful enough in them.

i want to say thank you to johannes for mentioning my hero marina abramovic. i have written love letters to marina abramovic. what i said in "sucking" did not begin to describe what i think marina abramovic does or why i think she has so much power.

i want to say that i refuse to live or die by any single thing that i said in the essay "sucking". also even if i wanted to i could not. i will not defend what is indefensible in it. i will not defend what is defensible in it. i will not defend anything. i refuse. also i am incapable of defending it. i can exceed it. i do exceed it. as any living person exceeds any written thing, any made thing, no matter how excellent that thing is, or how mediocre or indifferent.

i believe in explaining and perhaps i will someday become capable of explaining. i might try right now because i feel moved by things that are happening in my real life, things that have nothing to do with this, and i feel like getting some feelings out.

explaining and defending are not the same thing. i could try to explain what i meant about goth girls but that would not defend me or goth girls or anything. oh shit does this mean i am going to spend my life on blogs picking fights or getting into them, defending myself, trying to make anybody think my shit doesn't stink. what i meant about goth girls is they're people whose feelings are visible on them because the girls make them visible because of how they look, makeup clothes etc.

i love fashion. i love looks. i am not trying to be cute or trying to be cute by accident. i really do love looks. i love feelings. intelligence is something that can be trained to house, decant, transmit, and perhaps explicate feelings. i think that might have been what i meant about goth girls and "smarter." one thing that i can say from my personal experience of the biographical details that make up my personal life: until i was seventeen everytime i had a lot of feelings i was treated as though the having of them proved that i was both stupid and insane. avital ronell's _stupidity_ suggests that our feelings in face of "the other" make us all both stupid and insane, but that does not necessarily mean we are not at the same time geniuses. although it might.

i am happy to be in the gurlesque anthology because maybe it will be fun to be in an anthology.

i don't want to get in fights about poetics or strategies. i am not strategic enough with anything.

i am not a proponent or opponent of any movement or style.

i don't want to fight the way poets seem to fight about every little fucking thing, about whether saying i or not, making readers smart or dumb, being stupefying or not, is better. i don't want to get old having these fights.

i want to look ok and not starve. i want to keep on looking semi cute even though i don't have any good pics of myself to use as author photos. i want my boyfriend to keep on wanting to have sex with me. i want people in the street to keep on wanting to have sex with me and to keep on saying so every day. i want to keep on loving the person i want to have sex with. i want to be able to talk to people who have ears to hear because i have ears to hear, like jesus said. i want to keep on living on earth, i want the world not to end, i want the government not to spy on me or kill me, i want to not be killed because of anything i am that i cannot help, i want to not be killed because of anything that i can help, i don't want my cunt to get loose and start to smell, i don't want to work in a call center, i don't want to have to be a whore but i want to be able to be one if i want to be, i don't want to live in a world where nobody understands me with their instincts and where nobody wants to touch me with either their body or their instincts or where nobody will let me touch her or him with my instincts and or my body. i want to keep on having friends who are not merely brilliant but who have human emotions and who continue to desire to have them.

i hope you will come to my play this coming winter at the ohio theatre in new york.

i say all of this in a friendly way.


p.s. also right now i want a bactrian camel, but in fairness this desire for a bactrian camel is probably only a passing thing.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Matt Walker said...

Ariana, thank you for this. Do you know how refreshing it is to read a blog comment like this? Well, it's very refreshing.

Thank you also for Coeur de Lion, which is currently blowing me away.


5:08 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Not that I'm at all a proponent of consistency ... but why even write an essay if you have no intention of defending its contents? That's so passive-aggressive. Or actually, aggressive-passive, to be more accurate.

5:17 PM  
Blogger ariana said...

max, i think you're right. someday when i am erudite enough i will write essays that i can defend. "sucking" is a statement of poetics, and i am not sure what poetics are, that johannes asked me to write. so the reason why i wrote it was that johannes asked me to write it and i had told myself i would say yes to writing anything somebody asked me to write. i was late, and i was not very good, but that was my way of saying yes to johannes and of saying yes in some larger way to what i was thinking at the time in some abstract and probably wrongheaded way as "life". there are stupid things in that essay, like what i said about marguerite duras. i have written stupid things in my life. oh well. yours, ariana. ps, matt, how kind of you.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Sometimes you're incredibly annoying. Instead of your knee-jerk negativity, try come up with an interesting take on things.

6:59 PM  
Blogger ariana said...

oh yeah, i just noticed something. lara i like what you wrote. in what i wrote i wrote that i was not trying to be cute in writing but that i want to be cute in real life so that people will want to have sex with me, cute in a sexy way, semi-cute to be precise. do you think that's weird or fucked up that i would employ that deformation on myself or that my desire to embody or perform a sexuality i called "cute" is derriere-garde and anti-feminist. oh shit. again the person fails what is written and what is written fails her.

bow wow

bye bye

p s i will give away ten copies of COEUR DE LION. one per customer . email me: ariana dot reines at gmail dot come.

perhaps i ought to have gone to the taylor mac show tonight but i did not.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Lara Glenum said...


Anti-feminist? No, not at all. I forgot to say in my piece that the gurlesque is also about paratactic identity: saying "I am X *and* Y *and* Z," when all these these identity categories (X, Y and Z) seem to contradict one another. This kind of monstrous amalgam not only upends assumptions about the gender binary, it also radically distorts the stability of the speaking "I" in a way I find very compelling (and which you've performed wonderfully here).


8:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

As always, it appears that "knee jerk negativity" is shorthand for "being skeptical about something Johannes finds interesting." I'm not sure why it is that skepticism can never be part of a conversation, and when it emerges, one is always confronted with the old Bush Administration "Well, why don't you come up with a better idea!" argument.

Perhaps I should have understood the atmosphere of this blog to be about poetics as career-building before I started commenting.

I'll try to come up with/propagate a new theory by the end of next week. Manifesto by August. Anthology in early '09.

See you at AWP!

9:05 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I have always welcomed your participation on the blog, especially when you make insightful comments.

However, at times you seem to descend into the "combat" mode you describe in the Valley Girl Thread.

I find that mode irritating because it just seems about being contrarian.


9:42 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home