In her essay “On the Gurlesque” (QAE 17), Arielle Greenberg proposes that there is a new sub-genre of poetry, the Gurlesque, making waves in contemporary writing. She describes this sub-genre as poetry that:
…incorporates and rejects confession and lyricism, veers away from traditional narrative, and employs a postmodern sensibility invoking brand names, cultural ephemera and dark humor.
None of that is terribly unusual in American poetry right now—in fact, it kind of defines Stephen Burt’s own aesthetic term, “elliptical poetry”—but what strikes me as distinct in this work is a specifically girly, kitschy tone that is emotionally vulnerable but tough and crass, with a wry, perverse take on sexuality, a dark interest in the corporeal, all haunted by the ephemera and attitude of girlhood: this work puts the “femme” in feminism.
In Gurlesque poems, language wallows in muck and menstrual fluid, but also in sequins and ponies: Gurlesque poets risk reveling in both cuteness and grossness. The Gurlesque prankishly celebrates the same cultural trappings it seeks to critique: it has fun with the idea of the feminine, makes fun of it, drags it around by its neck, puts it on and takes it off like drag. As a means of conveying the visceral experiences of gender, Gurlesque poems are non-linear and conversational, dreamy and campy, and they can be discomforting, often shocking, about sexuality and the body.
As fun, riveting, and evocative as her examples of this poetry are, Greenberg’s literary criticism raises important aesthetic and political questions. Greenberg herself opens up the conversation with the following questions:
Can male poets be Gurlesque? …
How does the Gurlesque play out in other global cultures with their own histories around feminism—for example, what’s the relationship between the American Gurlesque and the Gothic Lolita subculture in Japan, or the fairytale-inspired writing of younger women poets in Sweden?
Will the Gurlesque have lasting power as an aesthetic?
Has the aesthetic already peaked?
What does a Third Wave feminist poetics look like, anyway?
Do you have answers? Additional questions? Share them here.
Quarter After Eight is an annual literary journal devoted to the exploration of experimental writing in all its permutations. We celebrate work that directly challenges the conventions of language, style, voice, or idea in literary form. This blog is a place to engage in conversations about the work we publish, as well as the work that inspires us.