Thursday, April 01, 2010

Gurlesque, Suburbia, Sleater Kinney

Lorraine Graham has an interesting post asking if the Gurlesque poets are defined by having grown up in the suburbs, which led to them not knowing the queer nature of Sleater Kinney.

At first I just got testy about Patrick Durgin's comment and left a pissy comment on the blog. I'm sure Lorraine is genuinely intrigued by this issue, and, as Mark points out in the comment field, it's perhaps possible to equate a certain "hidden-ness", as exhibited in the Gurlesque, with suburbia (Amy and Any having objected to the lack of overt queer sex in the anthology).

But I'll try to explain the reasonsis for my initial testiness (of course it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I'm a pretty testy person, just google "johannes + Max"), and why I think this post is interesting.

For the record, I don't know where anybody in the anthology grew up, but I do know that Lara grew up in Atlanta as an at-times homeless teenager, so at least one of the editors did not take her cue from suburbs.

My main argument I think is not with Lorraine so much, but with Patrick's comment: I think the key here is that this idea that the Gurlesque is lacking. And what they are lacking is the genuine knowledge, the kind of authenticity you gain by being a member of a community - urban here standing in for a kind of center, the suburbs for a distance from the center, a fakeness, a dilution of the real. This for me echoes a lot of the community-obsessed criticism of contemporary poetry. The gurlesque is a wax museum, in other words. A prosthetic poetics. Again, the fact that Lara was homeless starts to seem important here, in a way I never thought I would think it would be.

While Lorraine makes a sociological inquiry (which I agree, could be an interesting way of looking at the aesthetic), Patrick Durgin equates "suburban" with some kind of aesthetic sensibility, divorced from the demographic. Some poetry is just "suburban" (independent of where the poet grew up). Ie it's kitsch. These poets don't have the specialized knowledge of real Riot Grrls, they are mere suburban imitations. They're not truly Kathy Acker, just weak imitation. Here again we have the kitsch rhetoric of that dude who said that Lara's poetry was like Marilyn Manson and Hot Topixx stores: the fake, the tasteless.

I should also note a curious tendency in these discussions. It's important for Patrick to claim that the Gurlesque is not enough like Acker; a while back someone on this blog commented that it is too much like Kathy Acker, ie just imitation, repetition. This strange dichotomy seems to repeat itself: it's both too much and lacking. It's just like translation: both excessive and lacking. (Just like translation.)

If it's true that the gurlesque poets are suburban and used to shop at Hot Topix, then perhaps we could argue that it has taught them a good deal of skepticism toward High Taste and Good Moral Standing, taught them not to follow the High Modernist/Clement Greenbergians in automatically define the good in opposition to mass culture, something Official Experimental Poetry Culture has long done.

Or - since I know that Lara did not grow up in the suburbs - it might be that what strikes some as "suburban" is in fact a kind of rejection of the "high taste" of authenticity, an embrace of the inauthentic, or - as I argued in my article about the Gurlesque in Calaveras - what Kaja Silverman (discussing Godard's Weekend) calls "anal capitalism." Everything has become shit, exhausted.

In other words: The gurlesque already embraces this inauthenticity. It embraces kitsch.

One thing about queerness and Sleater Kinney: I remember when they became popular. I was in college. It was the 1990s. My ex gave me a tape which had the latest Social Distortion on one side and Sleater Kinney on the other. I wasn't into it (at this point I was abandoning Social D and such, I was mainly listening to hip hop). But here's my point: It seemed like identifying someone as "queer" at that point seemed strangely redundant. At least in Mpls where I was living. Boys were wearing dresses, girls looked like mountain climbers.

At the U of M we had a special department devoted to Foucualt (I think it was called The Department of Sex and Knowledge or something like that, I think it lost its funding in the late 90s). My thesis advisor and a huge influence on my thinking about literature was this professor, Andrew Elfenbein, who mixed a very close close-reading approach (including an emphasis on metrics, which I still bust out when prompted) with queer theory, New Historicist/materialist and Foucauldian explorations of Gender and sexual politics. (When I look at Elfenbein's CV, it alone predicts so much of the direction of my poetry and opinionating - sex, disability, costumes, Romanticism.)

Why does this matter to the Gurlesque? I think rather than 'suburban' influence, I think the influence of 1990s queer theory was probably a huge influence. Then you exit the U of MN and what you find is that gender is not at all fluid! There are in fact very real gender roles and horrific enforcement. It sucks!

So in that sense Patrick may be right in talking about the influence of college rather than suburbs (Of course, Kathy Acker had an MA as well, lets not forget - and this is the problem with a lot of the knee-jerk anti-academy sentiments; it can actually be quite awesome).


Blogger K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Johannes,

I'm running out the door, but one point of clarification--my thoughts about Sleater-Kinney and queer Riot Girrl culture in general do stem in part from the conversation on Amy King's blog, but also conversations with friends who are interested in music but don't know anything about the Gurlesque anthology. I can't possibly know what everyone in the anthology thinks or knows about Riot Girrl music, especially without having yet seen the anthology!

But I do think the debate on Amy King's blog, and this one, has some connection with shared but differently coded? valued? suburban/urban cultural reference points.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

Testy is right. I'm glad you extrapolated on your response to my response to KLG here, Johannes, as I'd figure it would be difficult for most readers to understand how I am guilty of "lame name-calling," based solely on your having thus named the nature of my response to Lorraine. I'll have to extrapolate, myself. Suffice to say, I think you are misreading the scope of my remarks, especially in the implication that I am claiming the experience of others (say, Lara) as evidence for my own claims. I don't, and neither do I project a sense of "lack" thereby. Dude, relax!

I begin by responding to Lorraine's pop quiz by claiming suburban and urban landscapes, or rather the interactions between these psychogeographic loci, as of interest to me in my own work, which I doubt has much to do with the Gurlesque as a framework.

Then (the heart of the matter, I see), I use Acker as a reference point for this framework "insofar as she is a 'maudit'"--which may not be so far at all, except that the relative urbanity of her work is decidedly post-Beat, Beat poetics being post-urban in the classic maudit sense. (Acker does rewrite a version of the maudit tradition in In Memorium to Identity. Her friendship with Burroughs is significant...) I should have warranted "maudit" I guess. I think of it in terms of Baudelaire trudging through the ruins of Hausmann's beautification project, Paris' paradise of original sin suddenly a patchwork of artificial paradises. (Let's not forget the role of the "girl" in The Flowers of Evil, exhibit A in poet vs. bourgeoisie precisely because she is a whore, her very flesh a commodity.) Authenticity loses its lustre the moment it has been shown to be a construct (as the memory of the real Paris is but a "correspondance"). I'm trying to figure the historical framework for gender-trouble within the poetic critique of the democratic republic (still an iffy proposition in Baudelaire's Paris, of course) as monopoly capitalism's not-so-strange bedfellow (voila! the suburbs come to the continent, and to the US after the liberation of Paris). Riot Grrl was nothing if not a concerted attempt to achieve participatory democracy within the punk subculture, right? It emerges from the observation that something is not happening in our prototypical paradise of critical gestures. The anthology, as I have been told, runs in reverse: something is happening and it comprises a critical gesture (or set of gestures) worthy of a new name, its own "category." Maybe the difference is what I mean by "domestication"? Maybe not. Calling me a name-caller won't help us figure that out, though.

(to be continued)

10:26 AM  
Blogger Providence said...


I liked the work I heard read from the anthology, especially for its refusal to authenticate the urbane, to crutch itself on the tropes of the institutional validity of poetic content, what is "proper" subject matter for a poem. I felt, however, that I wasn't yet in a position to assess the work I heard, except to observe that it had a deliberate purview.

Well, the "maudit" framework wasn't getting me very far, though once I see the anthology it might prove a way in, again. I speculate, rather than claim, that Riot Grrrl in the US was a "college town thing" not because it was academic, or became fodder for institutional critique within academia (which it has hardly, though very slightly, done), even an nth-generation feminism (i.e. because it was a youth culture phenom--it had to be). Maybe I should have said "undergraduate"? Because, American Riot Grrrl was smart enough not to confine its ethos to a romanticized (Beat?) urbanity, nor to a pastoral, pioneer, rural spirit (Beat, yes). It was self-consciously suburban, such that its civic borders appear analogous to the Ann Arbors of this world: a queasy refusal to hinge to the town or country. Instead, it hinges to the sex/gender (et al) realms of experience and locates itself everywhere. (Again, this appears less true of, say, Huggy Bear.)

I wish I weren't so "lame" (nice ableist dismissal, by the way). But the backlash does get a little intense whenever I attempt to omit evaluative statements or, indeed, speculate on critical categories I thought would yield currency the more they were debated. Nowhere in my comments on Lorraine's blog do I pretend to speak with any authority to the Gurlesque. My references to it are conditional, but the conditions are beginning to feel ill conducive. I do not use "suburb" in the pejorative, but as a fact of late capitalism (or whatever we want to call it).


10:26 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

P.S. A second read through your post, Johannes, makes me want to add this to the characterization of my treatment of psychogeography as a kind of "anal captalism" or whatever: the inauthentic as an experimental straw man. Specifically, if, as you claim, I am ostentatiously claiming Acker for a sensibility that somehow transcends kitsch, then I clearly know nothing, or not enough, about Acker and how that name is deployed in organizing the anthology. Yet Acker is someone whose work I have read. I have not read the anthology. I reported the full scope of my engagement with the anthology on Lorraine's comment stream. Maybe I should have said so. I'm not really sure how one could conclude even a cursory reading of anything by Acker (except perhaps some of her criticism) and not also conclude that kitsch is one of its fiercest technical flashpoints. I do not appreciate being molded into an example of what I have continuously (in my work, not in blogland) called out as a crude dichotomy. I think the fact that high modernism still registers for me as mitigating influence on contemporary poetics alone suggests that I feel we need to finesse these high/low, authentic/inauthentic, etc binaries.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response; obviously longer and more detailed than your original comment.

However, I am not convinced that your original comment wasn't "evaluative"; why wouldn't you want to "name names" for example if you felt you were merely observing with the mind of winter?

Having said that, I do like a lot of your ideas in this comment, for example the idea about "the undergradute" as a field not much talked about.

I'm sorry to say I'm not going to relax (I'm not happy about being called a "dude" either, but I'm OK with that). I believe in having emotions... Ahrg!


1:40 PM  
Blogger Providence said...

Didn't want to name names precisely because I didn't feel ready to assess the work as exemplary Gurlesque writing, nor on its own terms. But I was curious about both and tried to find some common ground in some matters more familiar to me. I'm not claiming to be disinterested, but I was attempting to engage Lorraine's hunch. It's really as simple as that. Please don't read any accusations into "dude" (i.e. bullying or "flaming"). And, finally, I definitely don't think anybody should have emotions, ever.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No no, I thought it was funny that you used theword "dude", a word I haven't heard for years and years. I'll try to work on my emotions.

And if anybody cares about my argument about Patrick's argument, you can go to Lorraine's blog and make up your own minds.


5:17 PM  
Blogger et said...

or I don't know, maybe do a tiny bit of research and look at the bios section -- not one person in the anthology was raised in a Walmart.

1:26 PM  

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