“I’m wearing my dad’s pajamas to the suicide party”: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE GURLESQUE
Who put that mask on your face? Does it hurt? Can you get it off? Can you get it off? Are those your real eyes? Who designed the mask? Did it cost a million dollars? Is it made of wool? Someone had posted the photograph on facebook with the heading: “The death of riot porn?” Do you think this was a reference to Pussy Riot, who wore those masks during their protests? What do you think of Pussy Riot? What do you call that phenomena when a cluster of young girls scream and chase you around? Do they riot against your body? Did they pull that mask over your pretty white face?
I’m not joking. There is something porny about those girls. There’s something deathy about those girls. That must be why they frighten so many people. They are totally “under the influence.” They have no human core, no soul: they are all clothes, make-up. Violence moves through them. Like in all those Japanese horror movies. Young girls are so violent with you, you must be constantly hurting, smarting, aching. Do they hurt you with letter openers? Do they re-enact the French Revolution with your body in Tokyo? Why do I always think of letter openers when I think about you in the bathtub? Why are the girls always leading the French Revolutions?
Why are they always listening to New Order while the revolution is filmed? Why am I so sad? Should I ask Freud? Does it have something to do with the riot porn? With the death of riot porn? Isn’t there always something deathy about riots? About porn?
Have you read that poem “Primrose” by Chelsea Minnis? The speaker’s mother is raped and then the daughter goes on a vast killing spree of “gentlemen rapists.” But instead of the grief – that emotion which for a whole generation of “quietist” poetry was the key to creating a sense of interiority – Minnis’s speaker seems to feel elation as she kills the rapists, turning the entire poem into a kind of gothic fashion show, complete with gaudy candelabras and red velvet. The lines are not set aside by line-breaks but with long long elipses… As if she’s savoring the fashion display… When in the final line, she makes “corsages” for the rapists by shooting them with a silver revolver, the show is complete.
Justin, I thought about that poem when I saw the picture of you. When I read about the death porn of riots. When I read about your comments about Anne Frank. How do you expect she could have survived the Holocaust? Perhaps by wearing a different outfit. If she were alive, would she have shot you a corsage of blood? Would she have used a silver revolver?
Dear Valerie Solanas,
What is death like? Is it like a disco but without the slaughtered lamb messing up the floor? Is it dark? Have you smashed out the spotlights? Are you married to the night? Are you married to a swan? Did you mangle the swan? Did you fuck the swan? Did the swan disturb your death with its death?
When I think about you trying to break into the Factory, I think about homeless Basquiat trying to sell postcards to Andy Warhol? Warhol, the most famous artist in the world, famous for being famous, for loving fame – why was he so vulnerable? To women, to black men. Why was his body so pale and leaky?
I love Basquiat’s paintings. They seem to be acts of self-mutilation. Aren’t they all self-portraits? Aren’t they all elegies? To be a black man in America is to be marked for violence. To be is to be marked for violence. That’s why in my book Haute Surveillance, the very image of the black man generates a surplus of violence.
In Poems for the Black Object, Ronaldo Wilson writes: “There are ways to evade abuse, some of which have to do with finding a replica of your abuser. One face becomes another face.” In a strange way, this re-writes Plath’s “Daddy.” The vampire (“black man”) is a copy of “Daddy,” but it’s how the speaker is able to “kill” Daddy, even though he’s already dead. She makes a copy and kills the copy… In Ronaldo’s poems, there are all these old white men, sexy because they are bleeding… Copies kill. It’s what we’re always told… Kitsch is murderous…
I think of Kim Hyesoon’s poems. For example, “Silk Road,” which begins: “I paid a visit to my fever during my break.” Everything – including the fever – seems to move through the speaker’s body:
“Suddenly the fever came for me and pounded my insides and left
leaving a few words on a think piece of silk that could melt
but later… later… as I ripened to mush
Out of the blue, after many decades, I went to visit my fever.”
Things happen both suddenly and after many decades. Everything happens again:
“In the terribleterrible hydrogen bomb that is still going off
after it exploded in the year of my birth
pours out the shards that still glow from red to dark.” (Translated by Don Mee Choi.)
It’s like that Rihanna video, “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place,” where when the cutting and the noise and the intensity gets too profound and Rihanna just begins to puke out a pink foam, puke out “silk”: the video comes out of itself.
Violence is always surplus, always excess. In Haute Surveillance I also write about the foreigner’s body as kitsch. I explain why we must throw stones at the foreigner’s body while we videotape it (it must be video, not digital, because the video is made of a matter that drags).
In America, violence is ambience, saturative; it moves through us. Art is a kind of violence. Or haven’t you noticed that the Nazis staged a fashion show? That the pro-life movement stages their acts of terrorism like a B-movie? I love b-movies. My favorite one is “Invasion of the Bee Girls.” A bunch of women with bee-insides go around California killing men. While fucking the men, the sound track fills up with bee-swarm noise, and the men die. These women have no interiorities. Just bee swarm noises. They also have some kind of doughy substance that sticks to their faces like masks.
That movie makes me think about the Swedish poet Aase Berg’s poems about guinea pigs, little girly-animals that become ferocious and insect-like in the poems swarming all around the speaker and her Beloved. At times the poems imitates the kitschy high diction of love poetry, at other times it’s pure bee-swarm-sound. The sister is a mannequin. Or the sister has a smeared mouth like the cannibal played by Beatrice Dalle in Claire Denis’s entrancing movie Trouble Every Day. When the cannibal played by Vincent Gallo finds her inside her house, where she has been locked up like a 19th century woman (she has blood all over her face and hands, she has smeared it all over the domestic walls), the film catches fire as Gallo’s cannibal chokes Dalle’s cannibal in a scene that could easily be confused for an erotic. It’s like the film has nowhere to go but to burst into flames, to eat itself.
In America, poets don’t want to be cannibals. Ugh. This country is eating itself but nobody wants to be violent. They want to be responsible, ethical. What does that mean? I’m not sure, but I think I understand. They want to remove themselves from the violence but they don’t want to be escapist. I’m not sure it’s possible. What do you think?
In Sara Stridsberg’s Drömfakulteten, every scene of your biography seems like a movie set that has maybe been evacuated. You and your mother seem like real people in abandoned sets. The sets are beautiful. In one scene you are in a trailer in the desert and there are animals-sounds all around and your mother talks about her abusive lover and that’s me over by the open fire, the extra wearing the pajamas.
I should have gone home by now, but I can’t leave this place. In another fairytale, my evil twin brother steals my voice and becomes a famous singer.
Are you palely loitering?
I just read on Facebook someone named Carleen Tibbbetts write:
“Hung over and there’s frosting in my hair and blasting New Order. Also, I am in love with not giving a fuck about anything. It’s totally liberating. This is my version of the Office Spcae cubicle demolition scene. Also I stole 8AA batteries and a wad of envelopes.”
And someone named Tara Boswell wrote: “Damn it feels good to be a gangster.”
Dear Beatrice Dalle,
Are you still painting the walls with teenage-boy-blood? Did you see the movie Hunger? Is your husband – Herr Doktor, the black man – still keeping you locked up in that house in the suburbs? If Trouble Everyday is yet another copy of Heart of Darkness, are you “the Intended”?
Have you read Daniel Tiffany’s book Silver Planet? In it, he finds the origin of the concept of “kitsch” in the Romantic era, in a rejection of “the poetic.” That explains a lot to me. Why for example, Keats’ beautiful young corpse (covered in feverish butterflies, smelling of rotten fruit) is so frequently hauled out for anti-kitsch polemics. Or why kitsch seems to coincide with orientalism. Or why Wordsworth hated the graveyard poets, claiming that their latin-influenced verse was kitsch because it was manneristic, foreign-influenced. Poisoned. It wasn’t just men speaking to men. You’re speaking to men from behind your bars. You’re drawing two teenage boys into your lair. They’re bringing a garland for your head. You will fuck them and lick the blood from their throats and ears. It will be sexy. You will paint the wall in the blood from their heart. It’s Romanticism all over again.
It’s not a critique, it’s a collapse, an erotics, an amplification. It’s fascinating. It’s over. It’s starting over. The bodies are piled up in the shower. The amphetamines are made of sugar in Los Angeles. Joyelle and I live in Los Angeles in that photograph where we are doing the twist. In the showers. In the balloon room. In the wipe-out. In the riot. The sugar is on our lips and in our hair. Cue gothic pop from the 1980s.
Dear Maria Margareta,
Great to see you in Stockholm last weekend, great to drink rosé at the Doll Wreckage Party, great to see all those alternative girls dancing to the Wu Tang Clan. You smoked such thin cigarettes, as if to both minimize and foreground the act of smoking and its visual appearance. A naked squid hung from a tree. I did not think we would find such a forest in Stockholm. I was nursed to a chair and the “display of burning orange white” reminded me of Olivia Cronk’s poems in Skin Horse. For example, the one that ends “I thought I could find some Boschists out back.”
Olivia is someone who seems maybe second generation Gurlesque in the American context. Once she and Feng Sun Chen, another great poet of this generation were on a panel together and someone asked them what had inspired their first books (Skin Horse and Butcher’s Tree) and Feng said, “I was just trying to imitate Aase Berg’s With Deer.” And Olivia said, “That’s what I was also trying to do!” (“Also” is the most gurlesque word.)
Lara Glenum, one of the editors of the Gurlesque anthology, has an essay about Aase’s poems about guinea pigs and kitsch. You have a whole book in which a drowned Virginia Wolf-like girl walks out of a lake with guinea pigs in her pretty purse. The Gurlesque is a word. Maybe it’s just a word. Arielle Greenberg came up with it in a review of Chelsea Minnis’s book Zirconia back in 2001, but it already seemed to describe both the future and the past, both American poets and poets from other countries.
Now gurlesque poetry is the zeitgeist in America, like guinea pigs swarming through the plague ground contemporary poetry; but nobody wants to admit it. It’s not ethical, it’s not original, it’s not responsible. They are someone else, as Rimbaud might have said if he was a girl with rabid animals, if Verlaine was shooting him with a silver revolver.
Even a friend of mine: the other day I read an interview with her and she sought to distance herself from the gurlesque (afraid perhaps of its influence, of being seen not as a heroic individiual but part of a swarm, a riot of Bieber fans being marched off by soldiers) precisely by emphasizing her own love of artifice and make-up and performativity which is what distinguishes the gurlesque in the first place. It’s as if the gurlesque was also its own opposite, its murder and its crime scene, its victim and the victim’s diary… The gurlesque might be Laura Palmer “wrapped in plastic” as if in a fashion shoot… A fashion shoot called “Daddy.” Or “Patriarchy”… Or “Capitalism”... In that fashion shoot I’m clutching Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star to my chest… I’m the weakling… who is beat up… whose feverish eyes are covered with bugs that I think are butterflies… The television shows the puff bellies of third world children… Or guinea pigs.
The gurlesque is about art. In American poetry people are always suspicious of art, or poetry: aestheticization is immoral, art is luxury, art is irresponsible. The gurlesque realizes that those are escapist fantasies of moralists. The gurlesque girl is out of time, anachronistic. Or as my wife Joyelle writes about the Necropastoral: “Another name for it is Death, or Media.” People want to ascend from it, to develop, to become empowered, to become an individual, to be free. Art clogs up the path to agency. It drags you down in the water. Like Leslie Fiedler said about the gothic: instead of assuming adult responsibilites, the heores of the American Gothic escape by going on homosexual adventures in violence and catastrophe.
Of course they uncover the racist fantasies that always structured American genocidal culture. America was always art, from the first time a poet compared his naked mistress to the newfound land, to the time Justin Bieber wanted to bring Anne Frank’s ghost to a teenie orgie. The excess was never in excess, it was always real. The beautiful noose around our throats in America. Lets paint the town with nail polish.
I hope you are doing better than the birds in America. American discussions about “faux naïve” voice of the gurlesque inevitably conjures up a kind of portrait in negatives: luxury, pathological, sick, fucked, diseased with artifice. I think about your hair. I think about birds. I think the book we are going to write about Hitchcock must star that girl they all hate. I think she will maybe beat Justin Bieber on the head with a golden candelabra. A fake golden candelabra. She must have lured him out of the glitz of Hollywood into the decay of an old hollywood western set, where Charlie Manson got syphilis from his girls, where he taught them how to do the “creepy-crawlies.” Where he taught them how to write poetry on refrigerator doors. Where he taught them how to make the most artistic crime scene. Where he taught them genocidal fantasies.
The girls are playing footsie with your ghost. Poetry is a kind of ham we’re feeding back to the pigs. We’re wearing the wrong kind of lipstick for such an event, but at least we’re here. On the beach. Reading Alice Notley to the dolphins. LA Diggs is doing the Twerk.
Dear Francis Bean Cobain,
I like your grotesque, skateboard-influenced art. And I like your tweets. Like when you said you were going to a suicide party in your dad’s pajamas. Often you link to 90s music videos that I don’t remember. Like one with the group Placebo. I don’t like the song but the video is evocative of a certain grotesque sensibility – legs in a bathtub, mouths like bullet holes, the all-around insect-like take on anatomy. It makes me think about how the grotesque is almost always about gender. And it makes me think about how much the gurlesque aesthetics owe to not just 90s alternative music videos but also to David Lynch and his saturated rooms and bodies.
Have you ever read the poems of South Korean poet Kim Yideum? She has this amazing poem that rewrites the fairytale of Blue Beard as a collapsing woman. At one point this female Blue Beard says:
“Well, stop sending me depilators and mouse traps. And I wouldn’t know what to do with a wig crawling with lice, either. Fruits cut and arranged, all this trash, I’ve had enough of it. Don’t light candles or burn incense at my bedside. It will kill me. And don’t come bringing things like bundles of flowers. Dead roses said it: “‘You are beautiful.’”
As someone who wore your dad’s pajamas to a suicide party, you may recognize the beautiful interpenetration of artifice and anatomy. The depilators (I don’t know what that is, but based on my Internet research it must have something to do with hair-removal) and the mousetrap are strangely equated: to remove hair with a machine is like catching mice. She has no need for them, either because she wants to grow her hair out or because there are no mice in her body… Or because the mouse is running rampant… She wouldn’t know what to do with an infested wig either, the artificial hair is crawling with the too-real lice of real hair. It’s all about sex of course…
She is beautiful because of dead roses, which reminds me of that great song by the Rolling Stones: “Send me dead flowers on my wedding.” The addressee of that song – the “queen of the underground” with her fashion and her men and her grave, dead from artifice – is gurlesque.
The last time I met Kim Hyesoon – in Seoul, drinking sweet, milky wine – she told me to befriend Yideum because, she said (translated by her daughter the brilliant artist Fi Jae Lee) “she is the same as you.” But I had already met Yideum. On my first night in Seoul she had gotten me drunk and helped me back to my room. When I vomited that night I thought about make-up and the live sea-worms I had been served for dinner. In a dream that night, I dreamt that Yideum was Death. It was one of those brilliantly old-fashioned allegorical dreams. Like “Come on over and do the twist.” The walls were smeared with make-up.
Have you ever read Kim Hyesoon’s poetry? It’s my favorite poetry. For example, “Lady Phantom,” where the speaker kills someone in a hotel room and then hits the town telling jokes about it. It ends: “I’m anxious/I can’t stand myself/I who am getting boisterous/I need to grow my fire hair again/I need to go out and kill myself again.” (Translated by Don Mee Choi.) The ending reminds me of the ending of that Chelsea Minnis’s poem “Primrose,” which ends with the speaker shooting “gentlemen rapists” so that the blood forms corsages and corsage of blood. And I guess that reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s infamous “I rise with my red hair and eat men like air.”
I’d like to see your “lime-green hair.” Even if it looks like you went into “a chlorinated pool.” I love pools because they always make me nauseous. The chlorine but also the hair and skin floating around. The pool eats itself. Once I had a vision of a swimming pool made of cattle bones. It was like the hotel in The Shining or Twin Peaks: built on the bones of native americans. Genocidal hotels.
The Sylvia Plath quote you tweeted on Feb 25 – “Everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end. “ – where is that from?
It sounds like it’s from The Bell Jar. That novel always makes me think about my friend Tom who was institutionalized because he was constantly trying to kill himself because he kept thinking he was gay (he was bad at suicide, once he tried to smash his head against a bathroom wall, not very artful). Once he got out I went to see him in Montana, where he was going to college. I went into his room and he was jumping up and down on his bed screaming “Fuck you I’m not going to do what you tell me” along with Rage Against the Machine. Then he got down from the bed because he wanted me to shave his head. Then he turned on PJ Harvey’s “You’ll Never Rid of Me.” It was the 90s.
My favorite rape joke is actually this one: “What is the worst part about fucking a four-year-old? Answer: The blood on the clown suit.” I once told that to two blondes (which is another joke) in a bar in New York and they immediately left me alone. At first my friend was upset; he thought they had been interested in us and he hadn’t had sex in a long time. But then he appreciated the act as an acte gratuit… I’m not sure why I told the joke to them… I might have liked to have sex with them… Though it’s actually quite easy to have sex in New York… For a few months I fucked this woman who repeatedly said about my poems: “You write like a girl.”
It might seem strange that such a similar sensibility should erupt in poets around the world who have not even read each other. Partially I think it’s the influence of Plath. She was translated into Korean in the early 90s – in the wake of the dictatorship – and hit the Korean poets like a wildfire. One might see Plath’s “bee box” in Kim Hyesoon’s “Pinkbox”: “Dented pinkbox. Love has been a prisoner inside me since I was born. Someone has ganed at pinkbox like a cornered rat every time I couldn’t see you…”
Interestingly, at around the same time, Courtney Love helped turn Kurt Cobain’s “heart-shaped coffin” into the much more Plathesque “Heart-Shaped Box”: who would be surprised if bees erupted from the box? Swarmed Cobain? Swarmed and swarmed and swarmed straight through his head.
Much has been written about the influence of the Riot Grrls on the gurlesque: with the diy attitude and the weaponized cuteness. But what about love in her degenerate girl dresses and smeared mouth? I am doll parts, Jew skin, lampshade. I am the girl with the most cake. I rise out of the bee box with my red hair and eat men like air. And then his fans accuse me of killing him.
Dear Sara Stridsberg,
“PUT YOUR DEAD THINGS IN ME,” shouted Steve Roggenbuck in the small bar after Aase Berg had read and I had read and he wanted something as “dark” and “gothic” as what we had read. Valerie Solanas might have been gurlesque, but so was Lolita, especially your Lolita, who seems to degenerate in her girlhood rags from the very criminal atmosphere of your fan fiction. She is still out there in the woods shooting her mother’s clothes into rags with a rifle.
I hear that now you mostly care about porcelain, that you decorate men’s bodies with lipstick named after your mother’s murder fantasies. She was dressed like a little girl but her face was smeared and the flowers were made of lead and arsenic. She wrote letters to the president from the children of Afghanistan. She did not have a gun. You have a gun. In the 90s I carried a bag with your name on it. I carried it through a riot. Your name was written in chalk.
Lets grotto. Lets waterfall. Lets paint our blinders black. Lets blind up the shooting gallery with poetry. Lets hand out flyers for a revolution in 80s style. 1880s style. Lets go to Africa with our children. Lets smuggle. Lets grotto. Lets waterfall. Lets shingle. Lets do the twist. Lets beat me out of me. Lets Duchamp. Lets read ourselves to sleep. Lets make the lines thick. Lets video the evidence. Lets radiate the corpse. Lets ransack California up close. Lets proliferate the glass-stained look. Lets trace the traces with wire to ruin. Lets ruin. Lets exclaim meaningfully. Lets photograph Venice.
Kim Yideum has a book called “A Stain in the Shape of a Heart.” I picture it wrapped in sheets or gauzes. I read it with a glass splinter which may be infected. In America, eveyone thinks “the girl” is privileged, excessive and therefore immoral. America is a country full of shrill moralists. The girl is Art. America hates art. America is always trying to create lineages to make sense of art. America hates being under the influence. It threatens our sovereighnty. Our American Individuality. That may be the most interesting part about you using my lines in your poems: there’s a struggle. Who’s under the influence? Who is appropriating who? I love the name “The Smear.” It’s like he’s already been both fucked and mangled by the book. Why do you think so many people think we have fucked? Why do you think so many people suspect I made up Aase Berg? In other news, isn’t Manhater Danielle’s best book? I like the way she uses the word “Bang” to mean everything from poetry to murder to sex.
I think Johan Jönson is at his most gurlesque when he wipes his herpes-smeared cock on the employer’s children’s towels. That or when he fantasizes about Reinfeldt being assassinated on TV. When the blood and the hair becomes a fashion show. When it’s art. When it’s hysterical. When the critics attack the size of his new book, which he wrote thanks to time afforded by unemployment.
Did I ever tell you about Seth Oelbaum. He’s a former student of mine. He wrote a blog post about the “boyesque” – that male poets need to learn from the violent flamboyance of the gurlesque poets. I have never seen such as anger as in the replies to that post. Tenured professors dressed up in blackface and fake names and threatened to slaughter him, to cut him into pieces, and others cheered them on. It was a slaughter party. Seth had obviously succeeded in dragging everybody into a sacrificial fantasy. It was like Justin Bieber being attacked by girls, except it was gay Seth being mauled by men. It almost made me stop.
Dear James Triptree Jr,
Look, dead daddy. See for instance that rotten
This essay references the following books:
Hos rådjur by Aase Berg (Bonnier, 1997)
With Deer by Aase Berg (Trans. Johannes Göransson) (Black Ocean, 2009)
Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen (Black Ocean, 2012)
Skin Horse by Olivia Cronk (Action Books, 2011)
Twerk by Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (Belladonna Books, 2013)
Pop Corpse! by Lara Glenum (Action Books, 2013)
Gurlesque edited by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum (Saturnalia, 2010)
Haute Surveillance by Johannes Göransson (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013)
All the Garbage of the World Unite! by Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi) (Action Books, 2011)
The Necropastoral by Joyelle McSweeney (Spork, 2011)
Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis (Fence Books, 2001)
Man-Hater by Danielle Pafunda (Dusie Press, 2012)
Drömfakulteten by Sara Stridsberg (Bonnier 2006)
Darling River by Sara Stridsberg (Bonnier 2010)
Poems for the Black Object by Ronaldo
Wilson (Futurepoem, 2009)