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Lara Glenum

Welcome to the Gurlesque:

The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics


The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s who, taking a page from the burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.


In what follows, I’d like to briefly outline some of the theoretical tangents germane to Gurlesque poetics: namely, burlesque and camp, “girly kitsch,” and the female grotesque.

“Creatures of an alien sex”: The Burlesque


Many people associate burlesque with its 1930s incarnation, the strip-tease, which was a far cry from the early years of the burlesque theater — the 1840s to the 1860s — which were pioneered almost exclusively by troupes of female actresses under the direction of other women in Victorian London. Their dance hall repertoire was an antecedent of vaudeville, only much more socially explosive.


Scholar Robert C. Allen, in his seminal work on burlesque, Horrible Prettiness, surmises that burlesque “presented a world without limits, a world turned upside down and inside out in which nothing was above being brought down to earth. In that world, things that should be kept separate were united in grotesque hybrids. Meanings refused to stay put. Anything might happen.” [1]


Emily Layne Fargo writes:


Burlesque performers also literally usurped male power by taking on male roles onstage… . [H]owever, female burlesque performers were never trying to present a convincing, realistic portrayal of a man onstage. Instead, they were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with markers of masculinity… These practices, of course, ultimately emphasized the constructed nature of both genders, calling into question accepted gender roles themselves. [2]


The effect of such “unladylike” conduct led at least one critic to deem burlesque performers neither men nor women but “creatures of an alien sex, parodying both.” [3] And parody, as Baudrillard tells us, is the most serious of crimes because it makes acts of obedience to the law and acts of transgression the same, canceling out the difference on which the law is based. [4] The work of early burlesque performers embody Judith Butler’s insistence that we “[c]onsider gender” as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.” [5]


How, then, does all this relate to the practice of contemporary Gurlesque poetics? Take, for example, Danielle Pafunda’s ventriloquization of a male character called “the fuckwad” in her poem “Advice Will Be Heeded Even As You Attempt To Head”:


The fuckwad says, my dear, my doughy dewy doe-eyed dimple,
you mustn’t attempt to think while you Sphinx. You
mustn’t leave the room now, for you haven’t ever yet.
And what will Odd Job think? What will he odious
pus in the empty nest with a piddle of wire and a prong?


If her ventriloquization of “the fuckwad” seems ghastly, it is no less so than the female speaker’s description of herself in the poem “I Am Now Your Own Private Spook Brigade”:


Check me, fun wig candy spun ringlet red to ultra,
a peignoir smocked breast tattered ladder stitch ribbon
greased up hem, reflective glasses from the chop cop.
Nothing, though, ‘til you see my stickware.


In these poems and others, Pafunda shows up the constructedness of gender through extreme hyperbole. What is unique about these ventriloquizations — and what marks Pafunda and other Gurlesque poets as Third rather than Second Wave feminists — is the simple fact that these are not persona poems. To engage in persona is to assume there is a face beneath the mask. Gurlesque poets, on the contrary, assume there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self.


This is one of several things that potentially separates Gurlesque poets from female Confessional or Neo-Confessional poets. For the Gurlesque poet, the use of the lyric “I” does not confess a self, but rather a raucously messy nest of conflicting desires and proclivities that can be costumed this way or that. Disjunctions in identity are not to be worked through or resolved but savored and tapped for their cultural power.

“Love of the Unnatural”: Artifice & Camp


The burlesque, of course, is closely related to the realm of camp. Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” writes, “the essence of Camp is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” [6] And further, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style— but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” [7] Here, by way of example, is an excerpt from Tina Celona’s Sunday Morning Cunt Poem”:


In my dream we were hitchhiking to Iowa City, but later when I looked at myself my cheeks were pink and so were my labia. Like a bird I discovered I had wings. I flew higher and higher, but when I got near the sun the wax melted and I fell into a poem by Auden. It was then that I wrote the poem “The Enormous Cock.”
For a while I hushed. Then I started up again about my cunt. Some said it was a vicious swipe at feminism. Others said it was a vicious feminist swipe. It was the only word I knew.


“To perceive Camp in objects and persons,” writes Sontag, “is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” [8] And while Sontag defines camp as an apolitical sensibility, I propose that camp is rather the political posing as the apolitical, a tactic that aims to make the reader complicit in the poem’s political subtexts by initially feigning that the poet’s hyperbolic performance is nothing more than self-parody. For the Gurlesque poet, all gender-inflected performance is essentially “camping” and these performances are never divested of political subtexts.


In camp performance, the stress is on artifice. It is akin to Matei Calinescu’s theory of kitsch as a form of semiotic ambiguity in which “objects are intended to look both genuine and yet skillfully fake.” [9] This interest in artifice is one of the hallmarks of Gurlesque poets who rail against classical canons of “the Natural.”


One of the many axioms of “the Natural” is the overplayed association of women with the natural world, a trope in which women are allied with fauna and flora, representing fecundity and a predilection to submit to masculine authority. Ironically, women are also alleged to be “naturally” given over to the false and artificial, given to make-up and costuming, to overvaluing useless trinkets, to deceit. Listen to how poet Chelsey Minnis sets these convoluted terms and stereotypes reeling in her poem “Uh,” which begins:


uh / I want to wear hot pants / and rest my boot on the back / of a man’s neck / and / take a sharp cane / and / stick my heart / like / a piece of trash / in a park / and / rise out of arctic waters with curled icicles in my hair and a speargun / and / buy a lazy game cat with claws / that scratch me / and / uh! / someone should knock me down / and press me against blue tile /and shuck / a gold sheath dress / off me / and push / a shiny buzzer / to make me slide down a glistening chute


The way in which Minnis mobilizes various discourses against each other — woman as petulant child, woman as monster, woman as inviting violence — is a choice example of what Bakhtin calls “carnivalized writing.” [10] The lush, often kitschy imagery of Minnis’s poem— hotpants and spearguns, leopard pillows and cat-eye glasses— makes a parody of aesthetic consciousness, and yet it also forges a new zone of consciousness, which is the poem itself. This is accomplished through sheer stylistic overdetermination.

“From cosmos to cosmetics”: Girly Kitsch


Theodor Adorno may have famously pronounced kitsch “the realm of artificial imagery,” [11] but other critics have been even more vituperative, calling kitsch a parasite feeding on the production of “true art.” Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, an early theorist of kitsch, deplored Romanticism’s “susceptibility to a disastrous fall” from cosmic heights to kitsch: what Daniel Tiffany ironically calls “a Luciferian swerve from cosmos to cosmetics.” [12] And the explosive dialectic between specifically “girly kitsch” and masculine “high art” is one that Gurlesque poets repeatedly exploit, recognizing that, as Tiffany puts it, kitsch’s resemblance to art “only enhances its catastrophically destructive challenge to the [traditional] values of art.” [13]


The proper name for the domain of “girly kitsch” might be, in critic Sianne Ngai’s terms, the domain of “the Cute.” While things cute may seem the least harmless, least provocative of aesthetic categories, Ngai thinks otherwise.


In “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Ngai suggests that violence lurks implicitly 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.” [14] 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.” [15]


Cuteness is, of course, the realm of pre-pubescent girls and their small, furry companions, and if cuteness speaks to an exaggerated difference in power — names an aesthetic encounter with a socially disempowered other [16]— the relationship of owner to captive pet is the relationship par excellence that illustrates this phenomenon. In Nada Gordon’s flarfist poem “She Sure Likes the Cream, or The Pink Rabbits of Emilienne d’Alençon,” an excess of cloying sweetness belies the S & M dialectic in which the aesthetic of cuteness is lodged, burrowing into the heart of the relationship between cuteness and violence:


Sayonara fleurdelys.
Adieu, cherry twinklemall.
Human hair and glass EYES princess –
mischief kreme.

Come pet my kitty sweet kitty
Yes, those with Empathy you like kitties
you’re nice you care Kitties are nice electric ferret
WHEN ASKED TO OBEY? My Little Kitty (40)


The preoccupation of pre-adolescent girls with all things cute, perhaps, speaks not to their attraction to things that mirror their own innocence but to things that mirror their own abjection and fear of further deformity (“human hair and glass EYES”); it reflects the degree to which they have already found themselves stripped of significant social agency. Cuteness, then, far from being a harmless aesthetic category, reveals a state of acute deformity.

The Female Grotesque & the Aesthetics of Contamination


Make no mistake, though: there is a palpable quest for pleasure at the heart of this excessive poetics, an utter delight in the grotesque. As Arielle Greenberg noted in her original talk on the Gurlesque given at Small Press Traffic in 2002, “[The] honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror — even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression — is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque.”


The Gurlesque’s appropriation of the grotesque, like its appropriation of burlesque, camp, and kitsch, stands in outright defiance of classical aesthetics and their masculocentric practices. If the burlesque is always about the body on display (i.e. the gendered surface of the body), the grotesque engages the body as a biological organism. To Bakhtin, women represent the quintessential grotesque: they are “penetrable, suffer the addition of alien body parts, and become alternately huge and tiny.” [17] Grotesque bodies, male or female, are no longer “clearly differentiated from the world but transferred, merged, fused with it.” [18] Mary Russo writes,


The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture… with the rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture… , and with social transformation. [19]


In Gurlesque poetry, human bodies and human language (and thus identity) are not closed, discrete systems. They are grotesque bodies/systems — never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, and porous. The body, as the nexus of language and identity, is a strange borderland, the site of erratic and highly specific (and language-mediated) desires. Here is an excerpt of Ariana Reines’s “Dear Marguerite”:


I want a world to live in. I want a world to live in and I am vomiting cause there is no world. There are vessels that have had their innards emptied out, sliding around in the lube. Boinking her potato face with his thick stuff and she put a disease on his meat so it oozes green.


In Reines’s poetic schema, we are all slaughterhouse animals, “vessels that have had their innards emptied out.” Grotesque bodies also abound in Cathy Park Hong’s poetry, which vocalizes a monstrous “not-belongingness.” In her two books, female multilingual speakers are stranded between languages and diverging cultural views on how they, as women, are expected to behave. In “Zoo,” for example, the speaker’s descriptions of her own body are disturbingly inflected with a racist and sexist critique that has been deeply internalized, offering up “a mute girl with the baboon’s face” and “piscine skin,” who speaks in a “voice like the flash of bats” or “hyena babble” or “apish libretto.”


In Hong’s poems, there is no experience of “pure” culture or language available to us, no “pure” identity, no unmediated desire. The concept of the pure lies at the heart of Western aesthetics — the word “catharsis” comes from the Greek verb “to purify” — and women, non-whites, queers, impoverished, or disabled persons have historically been labeled as social contaminants. Gurlesque poets deny catharsis because they deny the aesthetics of the pure.

The Quest for Female Pleasure


While the grotesque may seem a radical aesthetic, what is perhaps even more radical is Gurlesque poets’ insistence on placing female pleasure at the center of their poetics. bell hooks has repeatedly critiqued Second Wave feminists for seeing their desire for political change as a separate entity from the longings and passions that are the stuff of their everyday lives. The desire for radical social change, hooks asserts, is intimately linked with the desire for pleasure and erotic fulfillment. [20]


With a nod to hooks (and writers like Gertrude Stein), Gurlesque poets put the unabashed quest for female pleasure at the center of their poetics. This, along with their disavowal of persona, is one of the primary things that separates them from poets of earlier generations, such as Sylvia Plath.


In Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” for example, the speaker is performing a female burlesque, a “strip tease,” that ultimately “unwraps” the female body not as an erotic object but the site of grotesque mortality and non-compliant subjectivity. The speaker ironically wields her body as a souvenir of her own death-drive, both performing and mocking the idea of souvenir as a trace of authentic experience. Yet by the end of the poem, as in so many of Plath’s poems, the speaker feels compelled to disembody herself. This stands in stark contrast to Gurlesque poets, who insist on the multiple pleasures of female embodiment. As Cathy Wagner quips: “I’m total I’m all I’m absorbed in this meatcake.” Compare Plath’s famous “Fever 103˚” — which conflates illness and physical ecstasy and ends, once again, with her “selves dissolving” — to an excerpt from Wagner’s long sequence “Imitating”:


My greed was outrageous
I felt all better & feverish
My braincase was

I was mine & I was going
To dig myself a jewel.
I dug a little bone in me
I dug a little boneshaped
hole in me, I loved it
Hello you fuckers!
Dug around in there making
my emergencies go off
I thought they were lovebells
or runaway truck ramps

I’m hungry.


The speaker in this poem ranges between one corporeal craving and another, unfazed by the “emergencies” of ecstatic experience. Nor does she feel the need to call herself a “whore,” as Plath does in “Fever 103˚.”


Despite these contrasts, it must be acknowledged that Plath was one of the first poets to understand the risks of female self-display in poetry. It is simply not possible for a female poet to claim, like Whitman, that she intends to “go by the bank of the wood and become undisguised and naked” [21] without immediately becoming vulnerable to the male gaze. It is, in fact, very difficult for female poets to speak of their embodied experience without being misread as positioning themselves as erotic objects.


In Wagner’s poem and elsewhere, Gurlesque poets are deploying an aesthetics of spectacle. The staging of spectacle, as theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord have noted, is invariably motivated by a political agenda; engaging in spectacle inevitably risks the aestheticization of politics and, even more problematic, the aestheticization of violence. The Gurlesque’s relationship to violence is deliberately ambiguous: while condemning barbarity, many of these poets draw on destructive energies to perform their social critique. Their work swerves between parodies of violence to its enactment, which, in the hands of women, becomes strikingly transgressive. Gurlesque poetry thus investigates the collision/collusion of fantasy and ethics at the core of Western cultural battles.

A Gurlesque Genealogy


Like the riot grrrls that preceded them, Gurlesque poets enact signs, bodies and psyches in crisis, and do so by making the spectator complicit in their crisis. The minor miracle is that these poets do so with such provocative humor and a great degree of pleasure. Their tactics, however, are not without precedent. Their ambiguous relationship to violence, for example, draws on the energies of Berlin Dada and other avant-gardes. Speaking broadly, Gurlesque poets inherit from the historical avant-garde a suspicion of the arts and culture industry as being complicit with the aims of capitalism and imperialism, as well as a simultaneous love of the bedazzling ephemera thrown off by high capitalist culture.


More specifically, Gurlesque poets inherit Baudelaire’s quarrel with mimesis as the foundational principle of art and Rimbaud’s interest in mongrel identity. They inherit Mina Loy’s provocative humor and her interest in the female abject, Gertrude Stein’s insistence on female pleasure, Djuna Barnes’ baroque eroticism, and Marianne Moore’s sense of the self as a curated collection. With Baroness Else von Freytag, the New York Dadaist poet and proto-punk performance artist, they share an interest in aggressively deconstructing female rituals of self-display and the libidinal economies that encourage/depend on them.


From male Modernists and avant-gardists, they inherit Marcel Duchamp’s gender-bending antics and an interest in deconstructing the male gaze, as well as early T. S. Eliot’s productive use of gender instability. Gurlesque poets also share Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky’s use of camp to unseat gender binaries, a mode of performance that was later revived by Frank O’Hara.


In addition to O’Hara’s use of camp, Gurlesque poets owe much to other mid-century poets: Plath’s engagement with the female grotesque and her ambiguous, politically loaded self-display; John Berryman’s performative externalization of social violence (“We are using our own skins for wallpaper”); Anne Sexton’s inability to respond to repeated insistence that she tone down the explicitly female content of her poems; Amiri Baraka’s sense of the biological body as the limit of the collective social body; Lucille Clifton’s revelation that “There is a girl inside / She is randy as a wolf.”


More recently, Gurlesque tendencies can be located in the work of Kathy Acker, Alice Notley, and Dodie Bellamy, all of whom have an express interest in subverting masculine forms. Gurlesque poets also draw, knowingly or unknowingly, on the work of contemporary theorists, including those mentioned above (Ngai, Butler), as well as Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, Judith Halberstam’s work on the monster as a cultural object, and Donna Haraway’s work on hybrid bodies. And lastly — need I even say it? — Gurlesque poets clearly owe a great debt to Emily Dickinson, the original Goth girl.


I am not insisting that this genealogy forms a common knowledge base for Gurlesque poets; the poets in this anthology may claim few or none of these writers as influences, and each certainly has a rich genealogical tree of their own to offer. I intend the above merely as a loose sketch of aesthetic tendencies and impulses, an artistic and theoretical heritage from which the Gurlesque draws its manifold, relentless energies.


[1] Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 29.

[2] Loose Women in Tights: Images of Femininity in Early Burlesque Performance, ed. Emily Layne Fargo, Ohio State University Online Exhibition, 1 September 2008, <

[3] Allen, 25.

[4] Jean Baudrillard,. Simulacra and Simulation. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995) 21.

[5] Judith Butler, The Judith Butler Reader, ed. Sara Salih (Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 113.

[6] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 2001), 275.

[7] Sontag, 279.

[8] Sontag, 280.

[9] Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 252.

[10] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT, 1968), 19.

[11] Theodor Adorno, “Veblen’s Attack on Culture,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941): 401.

[12] Daniel Tiffany, “Kitsching The Cantos,” Modernism/modernity 12.2 (April 2005): 329.

[13] Tiffany, 320.

[14] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 816.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ngai, 828.

[17] Bakhtin, 339.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1994), 8.

[20] hooks, bell, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1996), 29.


Lara Glenum

Lara Glenum

Lara Glenum is a poet, scholar, and translator. She is the author of two books of poetry: The Hounds of No (Action Books, 2005) and Maximum Gaga (Action Books, 2009). She is the co-editor, with Arielle Greenberg, of Gurlesque, an anthology of contemporary women’s poetry and visual art (Saturnalia Books, 2010). She recently collaborated with sound, visual, and digital media artists on Meat Out of the Eater, a multimedia installation. The main video feed for the installation can be viewed here. She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at LSU.

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