On Reading and Teaching “Gurlesque”

A simple scan down the table of contents of Gurlesque provides a snapshot of what the movement/aesthetic/poetics is all about. Some of the titles include:


dream life in a case of transvestism

First Date and Still Very, Very Lonely

This Is a Fucking Poem


Boobs Are Real

A Thousand Virgins Shout Fuck Off

Damsel In Undress


Surly Piggies

A Window the Size of Granny’s Forehead

Sunday Morning Cunt Poem

Gurlesque (2010), edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, who coined the term at a 2002 talk at Small Press Traffic, features the work of 18 poets and eight visual artists–all producing extremely exciting, invigorating work.

As Glenum and Greenberg describe it, in introductions to the book as well as in Greenberg’s 2002 talk, the “Gurlesque” is an aesthetic theory exhibited in the work of several contemporary young women poets that blends a “postmodern” sense of humor, burlesque, camp, kitsch, and performance to comment on gender, sexuality, and the body in today’s society. Think third-wave feminism in glittery red combat boots. Greenberg writes that Gurlseque poems are:

“…tender and emotionally vulnerable but also tough, with a frank attitude towards sexuality and a deep, lush interest in the corporeal, and that this came through in poems that were “dolled up” in a specifically girly kitsch: this work seems to share an interest in the “femme” side of feminism.”

In short, the messages/themes/ideas/commentaries in these poems take the form of feminist performances, flirtations, middle fingers, stripteases, and peep shows. While the artists share a similar aesthetic in the tone and “attitude” they adopt in their work, their approaches vary widely: from the tender, surreal narratives of Matthea Harvey to the fragmented family narratives of Geraldine Kim to the “female grotesque” (Glenum’s words) of Ariana Reines.

As a poet, I admire how these artists reappropriate the gaze and harness its energy and power in the form of performative poems, and how their humor and irreverence toward the female body makes it “safer” by becoming less sacred. The body is on display in these poems, but at a cabaret, not on a male-constructed pedestal. These poems are decidedly contemporary, focused on a feminism of the RIGHT NOW, and interested in the deeper implications of the mass-produced “kitschiness” they often channel stylistically.

As a teacher, I find Gurlesque useful for a number of reasons. When I taught Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a year ago, I ran into problems with my students’ conception of the feminist movement. Though I provided them with context on the feminism of the 1980s—the context in which Atwood was writing—I could not convince them of a contemporary feminism that is fun, funny, irreverent, pro-sex, or just plain playful. My students’ stereotypical conception of (and reaction against) “feminism,” as a whole, was limited to the attitudes, names, and ideas of the second wave.

Although I’m not currently teaching a literature course, the next time I teach women’s literature and/or The Handmaid’s Tale, I would consider Gurlesque (and Jane Sexes It Up, which I reviewed here) to be the perfect teaching tool for representing (at least one aspect of) the current third-wave climate. I recommend it to any other professor or poet, as well.

Poets include: Ariana Reines, Brenda Coultas, Brenda Shaughnessy, Catherine Wagner, Cathy Park Hong, Chelsey Minnis, Danielle Pafunda, Dorothea Lasky, Elizabeth Treadwell, Geraldine Kim, Heidi Lynn Staples, Kim Rosenfield, Matthea Harvey, Nada Gordon, Sandra Lim, Sarah Vap, Stacy Doris, Tina Brown Celona.

Visual artists include: Lauren Kalman, Lady Aiko, Kara Walker, Hope Atherton, Dame Darcy, Alessandra Exposito, Audrey Kawasaki, E.V. Day.

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