Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Arielle Greenberg
Some (of My) Problems with the Gurlesque

1. The Problem of Narrowness

Someone was talking to me recently about how the Gurlesque anthology I co-edited with Lara Glenum is unusual as an anthology, because its scope is narrow and illustrative, rather than broad and inclusive. This is true: Lara and I were trying to present the evidence of an aesthetic in progress, an aesthetic defined by very particular historical, cultural and stylistic parameters. The goal was not to show a wide range of voices: it was to try to pinpoint a very particular vantage point from which art was being made. In this way, it’s a strange thing to anthologize.

2. The Problem of the Problematic

After the book came out, it was criticized on poetry blogs and elsewhere for being too heterosexual, too biologically determined, too white, too middle-class, too suburban in its focus. I don’t disagree: the first edition of the book features poets who are most often (though not exclusively) writing from these points-of-view. And as a theory of Third Wave feminist poetics, that’s a problem, because part of the idea of Third Wave feminism is abandoning those ideologies and binaries for a more complex notion of gender, one which intersects more thoughtfully with queer, working-class, non-white and other identity politics.

I’m glad for the theory to have been problematized in this way. I’m glad to have the chance to talk and think and write more about this, in essays and in a new edition of the anthology Lara and I are working on. I believe that the new edition will do a better, more carefully considered job around these issues. For one example, I’m planning to write about how I wish I’d used the term “femme” instead of “feminine” in my earlier writing, because I now see the performance of femininity to be just that—a queer, intentional performance, rather than a culturally accepted mode of being.

But in terms of whose work gets included, there’s still that whole tricky “narrow” thing from Problem #1. As much as we expand on our concepts of the aesthetic, and as many new poets are making work that could be deemed Gurlesque, it’s still gonna be a pretty focused little subcategory of a subcategory—a very particular kind of formally innovative feminist poetry by people of a certain age.

3. The Problem of Coming Up with a Theory People Actually Use

The whole point of coming up with a theory is that it will be usable. Theories are only as good as they are applicable. (Right?)

But it’s a weird—and amazing—thing to come up with an idea in your head, while alone in your tiny house, reading books at your rickety kitchen table in Syracuse, New York, and then some years later find out that this idea is being used in dissertations and at festivals and in classes taught by people you’ve never spoken to or met.

The Gurlesque has a life that extends far beyond me. People talk about the Gurlesque and write about it and sometimes (often) I don’t even know that this is happening. (As I write this, Lara is in Sweden for a conference on the Gurlesque, reading alongside artists from around the world.) I try to practice Buddhist non-attachment about this, but it can be difficult. Sometimes I am very grateful I really don’t read poetry blogs and am largely removed from the discussions that take place around this idea. And sometimes I just want to sit down and talk to every single person who is working with the theory, just to have that conversation and feel like I know what’s going on, and because I love this work, and am passionate about feminist art-making, and I like getting to talk about it with others. Mostly I feel proud to have made something useful. Sometimes I feel a little left out, like I threw a party and then went home to bed, and others are still dancing around without me.

But tough luck for me. I need to get over it. It’s a good thing that other people are dancing. In the new edition of the Gurlesque, Lara and I plan to corral some of the wonderful burgeoning scholarship being done by others on the theory into a section of critical work. (And then at least I’ll get a chance to read some of it!)

4. The Problem of Time vs. Ideas

The truth is, I did kind of go to bed after the anthology came out. Well, no, I didn’t—I did a ton of other things. I wasn’t sleeping. But I certainly did not dedicate the time or energy to touring, speaking or writing about the Gurlesque as I might have liked to do.

I wish I had time to write more about the Gurlesque and women in rock music. About the Gurlesque in the movies. About the Gurlesque and sex positivity and queerness. I know Lara wishes she had time to write more about the international Gurlesque and Gurlesque visual art, among other things. We will write about some of these topics, for our next edition of the anthology and other outlets, but we’re busy. We have teaching jobs, and young children. We have poems to write. Speaking for myself, I’ll say I simply don’t have the free hours needed to dedicate to developing the theory as much as I wish I did. I have more ideas that I can possibly find the time, at this stage of my life, to fully consider. Which is why it’s fantastic that other people are working on it (see above).

5. The Problem of I’m Not a Gurlesque Poet

Let me repeat: I am not a Gurlesque poet. I don’t make work that fits my own definition (or anyone else’s, for that matter, as far as I’m aware) of what Gurlesque poetics does. My own creative work is not particularly performatively girly, nor is it discomfortingly grotesque. Until very recently, it wasn’t particularly outlandish or sexual (my most recent--though mostly as yet unpublished—work is sexual, but still not in a Gurlesque way: it’s too linear, too narrative, too focused on consensual pleasure). But because I came up with the term and have written about it, and was an editor on the anthology of it, people want to think of me as doing it. I don’t.

Fortunately, my anthology collaborator Lara does make Gurlesque poems. Her poems are fabulous examples of Gurlesque poems. Unfortunately, sometimes I think this makes it all the harder for people to remember that mine are not. Lara and I chose, as many editors of anthologies do, not to include our own poems in the book. But if we had, I would have argued strongly that hers should be included, and my own should not.

6. The Problem of Monogamy

Listen, I think Gurlesque work is compelling. I think it’s important. I think it’s fun to read. I think it’s exciting. That’s why I write and think about it. But that does not mean I think it’s the only compelling, important, fun or exciting poetry out there. It doesn’t even mean it’s my personal favoritest best. It just means I think it ought to be valued, and studied, and read. I think there’s a lot of poetry that ought to be valued, studied and read. I don’t personally have time to make anthologies of it all. (Thank goodness, for example, for TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson making the much-needed anthology on genderqueerness and trans poetics, and for Aldon Nielsen creating an anthology on innovative African-American poetics.)

I can love more than one kind of poetics. You can love more than one kind of poetics. You can study, write about, write more than one kind of poetics. No one has to feel left out or lesser than. If you don’t see an anthology out there of the kind of poetics you most feel needs championing, make one! The more the merrier! Let’s have an abundance economy of poetry! An abundance economy of poetry anthologies!

(Though you know what that will require, right? It will require small presses to publish those anthologies, which means we all have to buy poetry anthologies and other poetry books, to keep those small presses alive and thriving.)

Arielle Greenberg, December 2013