Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fluidity, hybridity and the modern poem

I’m going to start by saying that I know nothing. What I mean is, each issue of Poemeleon I produce out of a desire to explore a particular topic that has captured my interest. Working on prose poems? Put together an issue on the prose poem and see what people are doing with it. Investigating ekphrasis? Put out a call for ekphrastic poems. Realize you have two metrical left feet? Invite submissions of formal verse. Then wade through it all, and by the time you’re done you’ll know a heck of a lot more than when you started. Maybe this isn’t the conventional way to run a journal, but I’m not one for convention. 

In my own studies I’ve been reading a lot about Gurlesque poetics. The term was coined by Arielle Greenberg, and is used to describe works that combine elements of the grotesque, the gothic, the burlesque, the carnivalesque, and the riot grrrl movement. I’ve written a bit about it over at my personal blog, and wrote my short paper (about seven pages, a precursor to the long paper, which will be about twenty-five when it’s done) on Gurlesque poetics. The Gurlesque interests me because it is so firmly rooted in the body, third-wave feminism, and the exploitation of the ultra-girly and the frou-frou. But because it shares some -- in fact steals some -- qualities and tactics that are already being explored within these other movements, how to distinguish it from the pack? In my paper I write: 

“...Greenberg cautions that not all grotesque girly poetry can be considered Gurlesque. In our exchange, Greenberg elaborates: “There are also younger women poets who write about the grotesque and girly -- things like freak shows, mermaids, Victorian poisons, etc. -- but in ways which still feel ‘safe’ or decorous, rather than genuinely disturbing”. So, then, is it not enough for a poem to be grotesquely girly? Apparently not. If it is too crafted, too decorous, then it is not Gurlesque; to be so is to do all these things while also “stretch[ing] one’s notion of ‘the poem’”. The poem must feel “... relatively messy, sloppy, genuinely uncomfortable.”
I do realize that there is significant overlap between the movements, and to try to apply a definition that would box a poet in as being part of the Gurlesque movement is futile -- many of the women who've fallen under this heading weren't deliberately setting out to do so; they just happen to be writing work (not all the time, but at least some of the time) that fits (generally) under this umbrella term. And how to write something that is messy, sloppy, uncomfortable, and still be a poem that one wants to read? 

I suppose it's all in the craft(wo)manship. I recently read Chelsey Minnis' Bad Bad, and I have to say there were sections of the book I had trouble getting through. So many little.................... Lines and lines of them, just ................................................................................................................. ...............................................................................................................(You see what I mean? What do you do with that, for line after line? .................. Scan it .................................... is what I ended up doing ........................................... and skipping to the juiciest parts............................ -- which were, incidentally, worth the time and effort to excavate.) 

This “stretching one’s notion of ‘the poem’” is something that interests me greatly, in that there seems to be a general trend toward hybridity, toward innovation that incorporates various modes seamlessly, toward a synthesis of experiment and tradition. In the Gurlesque, there exists an impulse to ‘“regularly incorporate and reject confession, lyricism, fragmentation, humor, and beauty” while also “... act[ing] as the charm bracelet to bring all of these styles together.” 

I may be drawing from too many different sources today, but I was recently reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s book of essays (which are all drawn from lectures at Warren Wilson), finding myself especially drawn to the title essay from the book, “The Flexible Lyric.” There is much overlap between genres, and the notion of lyric poetry has come to incorporate other modes within itself as well. And as for labels such as “prose poem” and “flash fiction”, Voigt quotes Auden as saying “it is a sheer waste of time to look for a definition of the difference between poetry and prose.” Some people will try to define the two, argue they are two different animals (admittedly, I am one of those), but when it comes down to it, is there really that much difference? Boundaries are constantly being pushed out, and innovation outranks tradition in many courts. The essay contains a quote by Carl Dennis, “the impulse to modify the tradition... is built into the tradition itself.” It's Darwin's theory of evolution applied to poetics.

I’ve read a book recently that seems to be genuinely “stretching one’s notion of the poem”: Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, which was described by Arielle Greenberg as a “ text on absence, love, ontology and identity -- minus the text”. The book consists solely of footnotes at the bottom of blank pages. The publisher, Essay Press, publishes (no surprise here) essays -- yet this book was recommended to me as a book of poems. Boully, who’s body of work is primarily concerned with genre fluidity, sat on the “Genre Bending” panel during this year’s AWP, the intro to which read: 

“Nonfiction capitalizes on the formal structures of poetry and fiction, drawing energy from hybridity. How do the genres inform and influence each other? What does it mean to write against—both in opposition to and in dialogue with—the expectations of genre, the conventions of form?”
I've also been reading lately from the American Hybrid anthology, also on my Antioch reading list. From the Amazon entry: 

"In their introductions, editors Swensen and St. John, both accomplished and forward-thinking poets, outline the contention that spurred this anthology: for a long time, poetry has been divided, or has divided itself, into two basic camps, traditional and experimental. In contemporary American poetry, the editors argue, and the poets collected here demonstrate, these distinctions no longer make sense, as poets now draw equally from both traditions, often in the same poem."

The notion of hybridity and fluidity is not just limited to genres. During my last residency period at Antioch I attended a lecture by Dodie Bellamy on gender fluidity. This is something that is also explored in some of the Gurlesque works. Which brought me to thinking about gender and how it informs our own poetics, not just the obvious fact of our being one sex or another, but how preconceived notions are exploited, acknowledged, ignored, or otherwise busted out of. No surprise I suppose that Bellamy has also expressed an interest in the Gurlesque. And that she is also a groundbreaker within the New Narrative movement...

Which brings me back to a discussion I had recently, primarily on the Gurlesque, but also on New Narrative, with Catherine Daly at my reading at Skylight Books. I believe she’s getting ready to teach a course on this? (Catherine, if I’ve mis-remembered please correct me!)

I’ll end this by re-iterating: I know nothing. Or, maybe more accurately, I don’t nearly know enough about any one thing to call myself an expert. But I’m not afraid to tell you that. (And don’t be afraid to correct me when I’m wrong; I’m all for learning new things.) 

So much is going on in poetry -- a constant evolution with an occasional revolution. So much overlap -- between genres, between movements, between the circles we move between; a venn diagram cluster that is beginning to look suspiciously like an organized cluster of cells.

No comments:

Post a Comment