Thursday, May 14, 2009


Just a brief note: I don't think of "gurlesque" as a group or a movement or anything like that, but as a certain campy/gothic/grotesque sensibility. That's why ultimately you can find it in all kinds of places.

I know Arielle's original essay included a lot of poets who are very different from say Lara and Ariana. And to be honest I don't particularly like (or dislike) a lot of them. Some of them just seem too tasteful, middle-of-the-road.

It makes no sense to me to make lists of definite qualities or lists of who is in and who is out. Besides, those kinds of discussions don't really interest me.

However, I do think it's important to recognize differences in various figures. For example, if one wants to include Kim Hyesoon or Hannah Höch or Aase Berg, I think it's important to pay attention to the very different circumstances, cultures etc so that we don't make the same mistake many scholars are doing right now when defining a "global poetics." I'm for making the kinds of connection Lara is making but I'm also for noting crucial differences.

Also, my interpretation of this sensibility is not all about gender, as it seems to be in some of the discussion below; and especially not about creating new and improved gender roles. To me it has more to do with refusal and abjection. It is part of wider grotesque/gothic strategies/tactics/tantrums. I don't want to make a space for Antigone in the city. Lets drag our blood-splattered dolls around campus. I don't want to feel good about poetry.


Blogger UCOP Killer said...

OK, I'll bite here, Johannes. . .

What you say is provocative, and intriguing, but I'm troubled by the tendency in your recent formulations of the grotesque or abject toward a kind of miserabilism, a nihilism, one that to my mind at least risks reifying and absolutizing the forms of violence--misogyny, exploitation, exclusion, normalization--that produce the abject. It really raises the so what? question. . . If poetry is useless, and purposeless (and this, it must be noted,, misinterprets Bataille, for whom sacrificial and ritual expenditures were useful in that they warded off the necessary expenditure that would otherwise emerge in the form of wars and financial crises like the current one), then why do you continue to make claims for the political work, for instance, that the foreign does, "opening up" insular American poetry to the outside? This seems to be one of the contradictions of a good deal of the theorizing that goes on around the gurlesque--a wish, on the one hand, for an irrecuperable, propositionless negativity, and then the attempt, on the other hand, to make positive claims for it as a kind of cultural work? These aren't easy questions, they are perrenial in the archives of the avant-garde, and if anything, aside from much of the poetry being excellent, the value of the grotesque or gurlesque or the new abjection is that it formulates them.

PS: Have you read Yedda Morrison's Girl Scout Nation? I think it gets at a lot of this stuff, but it operates according to slightly different principles.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I don't think I've ever argued that poetry is useless (though I am, I admit, drawn to the ideas of useless expenditure and sacrifice; whether I "misread" anybody doesn't really concern me). And clearly I see poetry in political terms. "All I do is protest," as Bob Dylan said.

However, I get uncomfortable when poetry gives us some place to stand. When the answers get constructive.

If this discomfort is part of some moral failure, then I supposed I am morally failed.

As for my discussions about the foreign, I have often repeated that I don't think anybody should read foreign poetry out of some kind of moral duty. It's true that I flirted with Lyn Hejinian's notion of the barbaric, but I backed away from that. For the same reason some of the discussion about the gurlesque makes me uncomfortable. It instrumentalizes translated texts. I read foreign texts because I read texts that interest me.

Also, I'm in no way speaking for the gurlesque. Not an international spokesman. I have my ideas and others have theirs. About this and many other subjects. But probably none are without contradictions.

Except Lana Turner's...


10:00 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I've read some of that Morrison book and I really liked it. I believe it's published by the same press that is publishing my next book of translation.

10:04 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

I'm referring to this post, from a few days ago:

"I would add to this, that I see in it also Lacan's pal Bataille's notion of useless "expenditure." Poetry is not progressive, useful. This makes it paradoxically powerful. This is in part why it needs to be reigned in and be craft-ified."

The problem here is that you've spent so much time articulating an anti-formalist, anti- new-criticism poetics on this blog. Against the autonomy of the modernist object in Greenberg and Adorno.

Can you see how this statement puts you in bed with these folks? It's the same claim they make. Poetry is useful because it's not useful. Poetry does stuff because it does nothing, etc.

I'm not saying Adorno or Bataille are completely wrong, just partly wrong. But one has to at least try and avoid getting into a self-contradictory muddle here Few succeed, admittedly. These are the questions which never go away. They'll go away once art does. Long live the end of art.


10:12 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't think this puts me in bed with New Criticism because the New Critical idea, as I understand it, is that through refinement, through a capacity to properly "read" (or "admire") we fight the crass wave of modern mass culture. That is, we turn inwards, to a private experience of contemplative immersion.

I don't believe in locking up poetry in a refined wax museum; I actually think it's incredibly powerful, and it's the powerfulness of it that the New Critical paradigm locks up.

If I can't seem to articulate what that power is, well, that's just a shortcoming.

As for Bataille, perhaps a better essay dealing with this is the one about Fascism where he talks about heterogeneous vs homogeneous matter. When I read this it seemed to explain a lot to me about this need to restrain and homogenize in not just the poetry world but in the greater culture.


10:22 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Well, what's the difference between poetry locked up in a wax museum, and poetry refusing to enter the city?

What is the politics of the temper tantrum but a wish for punishment? I mean, really, what's the point of gathering a bunch of outcasts --ones who refuse "instrumental" action--on the outskirts of the city? What can we expect from this display of wounds? I think we can expect, largely, that the city's troops will come out and give the outcasts more wounds. . . Rather that Antigone--to mix my metaphors--storm the Bastille. . .

I realize that this is not the only way we can read such poetry--and therefore isn't necessarily a critique of the poetry itself--but it does seem the implication above. And the anxieties about constructivism or instrumentality force this position, I think.

I prefer the constructivist definition that Lara gives, but I especially think it's helpful to imagine a constructivism that involves determinate action on (negation of) the gurlesque's other--that is, patriarchy. Danielle's formulations about a dialectical negation of the male spectator, I think, get somewhere in this direction. . .

But that's just me. I wish people would be a bit less afraid of the constructive and instrumental. The politics of indeterminacy and anti-instrumentalism has failed, determinately. It's now an "instrument" of domination.

10:53 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I've always been uncomfortable, and remain uncomfortable, with any suggestion that it's the goal of literature to get with any particular program and say any particular thing that somebody else demands that it say.

To make such a point, in whatever context, is to demand that literature conform to the uses to which we might put it. It becomes an attempt to coerce literature to say what we think it should be saying.

Instead, I would argue that it's the goal of literature to say whatever it damn well wants to say in whatever way it wants to say it.

Does that do harm to those of us who feel we have or need defined political and social goals in order to improve the world of the future? Actually I don't think so. Because if the world of the future doesn't have room in it for all the things that literature might be saying--all the kinds of truths that writers want to tell, and the way they want to tell them--then I doubt,as a future, that it's going to be much better than our present.

So some might see this as a rejection of the value of social and political movements, but I don't think so. In fact just the opposite: it may be that we need the perpetual anarchy (or at least the possibility of it) of literature to remind us of the limitations inherent in all attempts to make literature say only what others would like to hear. I don't think, for instance, that a work of literature showing all the ways that politically radical social organizations fail--or one that even finally rejects them outright after showing all the ways they might fail--is to nihilistically reject the "good work." Instead, it's saying something that the "good work" damn well needs to hear.

Is that "cultural work"? Yes. Even when it says nothing on which we can all stand together. Is it the same kind of cultural work as, say, organizing a voting drive? No. But does it need to be? I would also say no. It's the goal of the voting drive to organize the voting drive and to say the political things one needs to say to organize the voting drive. It should not be the goal of literature to be no different than a voting drive or an elaboration of the means of production that supports the voting drive.

Political action? Sure. The anarchy of literature? Sure. The contradiction, if you ask me, is made a contradiction only when you demand that it shouldn't exist.

Let the people in weird costumes dance and damn well waste whatever time they want to waste. If the program can't include them, then the program has work to do.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Okay, I'm so broken record. If Gurlesque isn't about gender, why even call it Gurlesque? Why isn't it just Burlesque Poetics or something?

Gurlesque doesn't create (or try to create, I'd argue) new & improved gender roles (gak). Whether on purpose or as side effect, it simultaneously eviscerates and reaffirms the binary via the feminine. The poems don't improve our lot as gendered subjects, but emphasize how deranged that lot, induce shame via what's normally advertised as "good" or "natural," queer the hetero, reveal our indenture to the binary, and yes, negate--or I'd say, at their best, irrevocably damage male gaze, etc. It is constructive, perhaps regardless of the poets' intentions. I've got no problem with that. But in a grim and plodding (and often hilarious) way. An often accidental way, lacking cohesion, internally contradictory, unfriendly. And it makes plenty of feminist poets twitch--you've seen the talk about Gurlesque being the "same old shit" or not "moving us forward."

The spectrum Arielle & Lara create interests me because it houses the seemingly tasteful and the baroquely repugnant, but all with a clearly recognizable (if ambiguous) relationship to the performance of prescribed feminine gender roles. There's plenty of great abjection work that doesn't truck exclusively with gender, but that, to me, ain't Gurlesque. I'm all for micro-climates, here. Why collapse everything?

I'd add that when Arielle wrote that first essay, we'd a dearth of grotesque and tasteless coming from the new-on-the-scene poets. But we did have Chelsey Minnis, and she's always letting 'em down with her uncouth behavior (can't even be a bad girl right).

11:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Not *only* about gender, Danielle.


11:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, Danielle, I agree that the policing reaction to "gurlesque" has been strangely strong: it doensn't exist or it's half-baked or insubstantial etc. Or maybe not strangley.


11:51 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...


I guess I struggle to recognize myself in your comments. Who, precisely, is being coercive? I'm not arguing with Johannes about what poetry *should* do, I'm simply querying his claims about what a certain poetry *does* do, and suggesting that there are alternatives, other ways that poets *might* conceive of their own work. There's nothing programmatic here.

At the end of the day, though, I have a curious reaction to this response. I mean, your position here has been the *dominant* one with regard to art for a couple of centuries now (at least since Romanticism). So who, in the end, is being coercive? In fact, the unspoken implication of these claims about art's necessary freedom from the programmatic or instrumental seems to be discourage poets who might be interested in working that way from even trying. It's what, after Marcuse, we might call "repressive tolerance." Yes, let poets do what they want. But one of the things that poets might want to do is query the terms on which poetry gets constructed, elaborated, written, theorized. One of the things poets might want to do is oppose the conventional assumption that poems must refuse to stake claims, make assertions, demands, arguments, investigate contradictions, articulate programs etc. Finally, it's simply false to suggest that their are only two options here: an aestheticist refusal of all committment, on the one hand, and on the other, some kind of dominating, dictatorial set of formulae for producing art. There's plenty of middle ground here, Mark. I think that a poetry that articulates all the ways in which past social organizations have failed would be excellent. But for the most part that's not at all what we have. For the most part, we have a poetry that assumes such failure from the start.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Oh, sorry, J, I overreacted! I'm feeling a little cop-ish.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


What I find absolutely confusing about your arguments throughout is that you are the one that seems incapable of seeing more than binary points.

Clearly I am not for indeterminacy, ambiguity etc.

Clearly I'm incredibly interested in: "query[ing] the terms on which poetry gets constructed, elaborated, written, theorized."

Clearly I am not interested in poems that "refuse to stake claims, make assertions, demands, arguments, investigate contradictions, articulate programs."

I have to go, but I just wanted to say I am utterly perplexed at how you can make that argument about me, Jasper. Absolutely confused.


12:49 PM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...


I think you're partly mixing up stuff I was saying to Mark with stuff I was saying to you. I realize that you've been critical of indeterminacy--and I agree with your critiques. It's hard, in my book, though, not to associate positions about an anti-instrumental (or non-"progressive" or non-"constructive" art) with claims about indeterminacy. That's to say, I have a difficult time seeing how your views of poetry aren't, at the end of the day, a different kind of formalism, but a formalism nonetheless. Maybe this is a deficiency of mine, I don't know. In any case, please read the stuff on indeterminacy as voiced less at you than at a larger ethos. . .

Lastly, everything I say in the post to Mark is directed at Mark, not at you.

1:04 PM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Or rather, to clarify: that's a bit unfair. You are often *not* a formalist, but a certain formalist way of looking at things sits uncomfortably alongside a tendency to talk about poetry in terms of its effects, or its function. Maybe it's not a contradiction and I just don't get it. Or maybe you accept such contradictions. Which is fine. But it should also be fine to point them out. And I mean this with full respect. I know I have my contradictions as well.

1:11 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Hi Jasper:

Actually, in my response I wasn't attempting to describe you or your position specifically. I was more trying to come up with an answer to the conundrum you suggested, and trying to suggest that I don't think there's automatically a contradiction between supporting a variety of leftist political positions and supporting an art that doesn't uphold those positions. My apologies if it seemed to be directed as a critique of your own writing and commitments, etc. I agree with you that a great deal of middle ground is possible, and I don't think I really said otherwise. Still, I think it's a problem that many literary critics stumble on--as we both know, there's a long history of what happens when social movements (or, worse, governments or corporations, as we often have now) start deciding that art has to uphold the values that "we" believe in. "We" don't believe in them, that's the thing.

And of course much of my writing has very specifically explored political and cultural questions with connection to changing the social dynamics of the present, nor am I interested in discouraging active group formations among writers and anybody else. I just think that there are other things one might also do.

As to my ideas about the anarchy of literature being old, sure. Liberty's not a new idea either, but as we both know, that too is easier to imagine than to achieve.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I'm packing to leave town tomorrow morning so I don't have time right now to respond to these comments right now. Both Mark and Jasper raise good points however, and I will try to address them when I get a chance.


6:10 PM  
Blogger becca said...

I've been thinking about the "policing" of the Gurlesque as a theory (women and men eager to dismiss and/or recontextualize it so it fits with other cultural/poetic theories they feel they "get") -- or at least the "explosiveness" of it (always garners lots of comments, many of them heated), and it reminded me of Anita Harris's book, FUTURE GIRL: YOUNG WOMEN IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. This quotation sums up one of her major arguments:

"... it is young women, rather than youth in general, who are now the subjects of this scrutiny and regulation. Displaying, tolling, and inquiring into young women and girlhood, rather than adolescence, serves many of the same purposes in a contemporary context. Young women today stand in for possibilities and anxieties about new identities more generally. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the creation of the contemporary social order and citizenship is achieved in part within the space of girlhood. That is, the appropriate ways to embrace and manage the political, economic, and social conditions of contemporary societies are demonstrated in the example of young women..."

10:39 AM  
Blogger The Primes said...

This has all been very interesting to read, but what I wonder is what this particular discussion would sound like, say, in a bar...

I'm a low class kinda guy. I would love to hear some really bad jokes and some friendly mocking in these comment sections.

8:21 PM  

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