The Gurlesque Poetry Movement
Updated: Jan 8
The Gurlesque movement is a movement that, according to pioneer Gurlesque theorist Arielle Greenberg, evokes "Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, burlesque theater, and the feminist punk movement riot grrl," (Greenberg, On the Gurlesque) and, of course, the grotesque. These four movements are all different in scope – Bakhtin carnivalesque revolves around the idea of a community that revolves around the celebration of the grotesque and weird. The burlesque revolves around performers perverting and constructing personas that debase traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity. The riot grrl movement focused on reclaiming female bodies and reinforcing female independence. Lastly, the grotesque revolves around the celebration and inhabitation of the bizarre, the weird, and the gorily beautiful – according to Greenberg, "Gurlesque poetry takes its cues from all of these things: subversive and angry but flirty and sweet, owning and critiquing sexuality in candid ways" (Greenberg, On the Gurlesque). Greenberg posits that the movement birthed itself from the 1960s to the 1980s, making it a relatively new movement that closely coincides with third-wave feminism. Gurlesque is still a practiced form of literary theory, with the idea of Gurlesque itself being first voiced as a theory of poetics by Greenberg at a talk for Small Press Traffic in 2002. The Gurlesque movement has fallen under fire from some critics for being tinted by its most prominent theorists – Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum – white, middle-class status and viewpoint, something that seems to contradict the third wave feminist inclusivity that the Gurlesque movement claims to embody. Greenberg has acknowledged this criticism, and has focused on making subsequent editions of her and Glenum's anthology pioneering the theory of Gurlesque poetics "Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics" more reflective of third-wave feminism goals of inclusivity regardless of racial, sexual, or economic status. Overall, however, the movement has been well-received as an exciting new form of feminist poetry.
In order to become acquainted with the Gurlesque movement, a reader may wish to invest in knowledge of third-wave feminism, as well as the four movements: carnivalesque, burlesque, riot grrl, and the grotesque, that were earlier discussed. Additionally, literary practices of girly kitsch, camp, the female grotesque as a specific form of grotesque, and the centralization of female pleasure in Gurlesque poetry, are all essential aspects of the Gurlesque.
Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum argue in their anthology of Gurlesque poetry that the Gurlesque movement has roots easily traced back to the days of old burlesque dancing, and perhaps back even further (they write about "ur-Gurlesque" archetypes such as Shakespeare's Ophelia inhabiting arguably Gurlesque traits, for example). This, however, is not the burlesque that many of us were told was a watered-down version of strip clubs for men who wanted a classier excuse to get away from home. No, this is the burlesque of the mid 19th century, in which female actresses focused on absorbing male power by inhabiting male roles onstage, not to fetishize masculinity, but rather to empower their own femininity by contrasting it with caricatured manhood. These were performances that constructed a new face for the performer, a new self for them to inhabit. According to Lara Glenum, this is reflected in Gurlesque poetry by Gurlesque poets assuming that "there is no such thing as coherent identity. There is no actual self, only the performance of self" (Glenum, Welcome to the Gurlesque). Through their anthology, Glenum and Greenburg also posit several additional defining aspects of Gurlesque.
As mentioned above, the Gurlesque is an amalgamation of ideas, theories, and creative practices. These ideas are better left for the section of this article on literary goals, but their mention here does serve a purpose. That purpose is to demonstrate that Gurlesque is a wild, tangled ball of poetics, aesthetics, philosophies, and historical influences that all converge on arguably two major points – the idea of the self as a conscious performance that may be put on for others, and the idea that this performance is, in the case of the Gurlesque, intimately intertwined with ideas concerning feminine psyche, pleasure, definitions, conceptions, and empowerment.
Gurlesque, hypothetically, is the ideal poetic companion movement to third-wave feminism. It eschews traditional ideas of female sexuality and identity, shedding them for a space of wild, unabashed exploration which anyone can join regardless of racial, sexual, or economic status. As long as a writer follows in the footsteps of its components, Glenum and Greenburg would argue that the writer is Gurlesque, making Gurlesque a movement of writing that has no real rule-set or 'look.' However, the lack of any particular identifying style for Gurlesque, a movement that instead revolves around poetic, aesthetic, and philosophical theories, means that the Gurlesque movement occupies a sometimes frustratingly ambiguous space as a feminist writing movement. It is both a perfect reaction to an exceedingly hetero-normative and masculine society and a confusingly amorphous concept that can be almost impossible to pin down, relying more on its writing taking an individual 'feel' or 'atmosphere' from the reader as opposed to being identifiable due to the thematic or poetic literary restrictions many other movements in writing impose upon their constituents.
The Literary Goals of Gurlesque
One of the challenges when separating the Gurlesque movement into separate categories is just how intertwined almost all facets of the Gurlesque movement are. So far, we have already identified several literary components of the Gurlesque movement – namely the carnivalesque, burlesque, riot grrl, and grotesque movements. The idea of self as performance, and the tenants of third-wave feminism revolving empowering the feminine through the removal of negative stigmas concerning femininity; or removing the power of negative stigmas by inhabiting and performing them as a form of unabashed freedom rather than being shackled by those stigmas (staging, for example, 'slutwalks' in which women march proudly under the moniker of 'slut' to remove the acidity of the word in an attempt to destigmatize it, especially in cases concerning survivors of sexual assault) are also historical and philosophical components of Gurlesque that play an integral role in the movement's poetics.
However, there are still some afore-mentioned literary devices of Gurlesque left to discuss, namely the ideas of girly kitsch, the female grotesque, camp, and the centralization of female pleasure in Gurlesque poems. Intimately intertwined with critic Sianne Ngai's ideas concerning cuteness in literature, Glenum would posit that Gurlesque writing capitalizes on cuteness as an elicitor of sadism, as a genuine influencer of aesthetics, as an "acute deformity" (Glenum, Welcome to the Gurlesque). This is intimately intertwined with the idea of the feminine grotesque. According to Greenberg, "[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" (Greenberg, Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics). In other words, writes Glenum, "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" (Glenum, Welcome to the Gurlesque).
This focus on the grotesque, in turn, drives Gurlesque towards a focus on female pleasure, an unapologetic baring of the body, and focus on sexual and general pleasure that both acknowledges the male gaze and then turns that gaze back outwards as a form of empowerment. In the end, we see a cyclical return to the idea of the self as a performance in the form of how camp is applied to Gurlesque, the central hypothesis here being that the act of existence is in and of itself a performance, a role to be played. Gurlesque literature is both an incredibly delicate form of specifically charged feminist writing, and an almost dissipated conjunction of concepts, literary devices, philosophies, and historical movements that makes it frustratingly hard to identify and pin down. This is true even for the pioneers such as Greenberg and Glenum, both having admitted and written about the contradiction of the 'opaque-transparency' that defines the Gurlesque movement.
Major Works of the Gurlesque
Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg.
This anthology, a collection of various works that authors Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg identify as Gurlesque, is the focal (or as Greenberg would prefer, the clitoral) piece of literature for the Gurlesque movement. This anthology gives introductions by both Glenum and Greenberg in which they give their definitions of the term Gurlesque and afterward features a range of Gurlesque poetry.
Giving Godhead, by Dylan Krieger
Although "Giving Godhead" is a very recent addition to Gurlesque canon (it was published in 2017), it has already made waves in the Gurlesque community. An irreverent performance of the female grotesque upon religion and Western sensibility, "Giving Godhead," is an incredible representation of several dimensions of the Gurlesque movement.
Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis
"Poemland" is not a specifically Gurlesque piece of literature, instead acting as the musings of prominent Gurlesque poet Chelsey Minnis on the subjects of poetics and just what exactly it means to be a poet and write poetry. However, Minnis' undoubtedly Gurlesque sensibilities bleed through favorably, allowing a reader the opportunity to gain invaluable insight into how a Gurlesque poet approaches writing.
Wardolly, by Elizabeth Treadwell
Elizabeth Treadwell is a former director of the Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center, which a diligent reader may recognize as the location Arielle Greenberg gave her 2002 talk first positing the idea of Gurlesque as a literary movement at. As such, it should be no surprise that Treadwell's sensibilities fall into the Gurlesque, and "Wardolly," a feminist take on war and home, displays these sensibilities admirably.
The Cow, by Ariana Reines
Out of all these works, "The Cow" by Ariana Reines may be the most holistic representation of Gurlesque poetics. A work that deconstructs and strips bare the grotesque nature of sex, as well as focuses on the identity as a performance communicated through the body, "The Cow" viscerally cuts to the bone of the Gurlesque movement with all the sacrilege one could hope for.
Essays of the Gurlesque:
Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics by Lara Gelnum
This excellent essay, a necessary foundation for this article, lays out what prominent Gurlesque theorist Lara Glenum would argue to be the defining characteristics of Gurlesque poetry. Ranging through subjects from Burlesque to Girly Kitsch to Camp to Female Pleasure to the Female Grotesque, it is an excellent piece of writing that distills elements of Gurlesque and gives the reader a perception of what the movement truly entails.
Some (of My) Problems with the Gurlesque, by Arielle Greenberg
A response to the criticism she and Lara Glenum received for their anthology, this piece by Greenberg does an excellent job of specifying Greenberg's definition of the Gurlesque movement. It also holds an essential place as a well written and thoroughly cogent response to constructive criticism regarding a literature movement in its infancy.
On the Gurlesque, by Arielle Greenberg
This essay is unique for its oldness. Written in 2003, shortly after giving her first talk on her literary theory of Gurlesque, this essay stands as one of Greenberg's first attempts to define the movement in writing. As such, it is an invaluable essay for understanding Gurlesque poetics and aesthetics, as well as a valuable resource for tracing the roots of Greenberg's theory concerning the definition of the Gurlesque movement as a whole.
For More on the Gurlesque, See Also:
As a feminist form of literature, the Gurlesque is intimately intertwined with many other feminist literary movements and movements in general, including but not limited to:
- Third Wave Feminism
- The Women's Liberation Movement
- Feminist Realist Fiction
- Feminist Nonfiction
- Feminist Poetry (Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson to name a few particularly Gurlesque inspirations).
However, one of the defining aspects of the Gurlesque movement is its originality. There's nothing quite like Gurlesque writing, and this is further emphasized by how hard it is to really even define specifically what Gurlesque writing is, even for its most prominent theorists and practitioners.
Further Readings On Gurlesque Poetry:
Darcy, Ailbhe. "Dorothy Molloy's Gurlesque Poetics." Contemporary Women's Writing, vol. 8, no. 3, Nov. 2014, pp. 319-338.
Greenberg, Arielle. "Hybridity in Gurlesque Poetry." The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, Mary (ed. and introd.) Biddinger and John (ed. and introd.) Gallaher, U of Akron P, 2011, pp. 133-137. Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics (Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics).
Fischer, B. K. "Hello Kitty." Boston Review, vol. 36, no. 2, Mar/Apr2011, pp. 67-69.
"Gurlesque Tribute Concerts Set." Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain), 27 Nov. 2013.
Rooneg, Kathleen. "GURLESQUE." Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, no. 49, Winter2010, p. 22.
Pafunda, Danielle. "Gurlesque: The Visual Arts." Gurlesque, Jan. 2010, p. 135.
Glenum, Lara. "Theory of the Gurlesque: Burlesque, Girly Kitsch, and the Female Grotesque."Gurlesque, Jan. 2010, p. 11.
Simmons, Thomas. "Primal Wounds." The New York Times Book Review, 2017, p. 10.
PATRICK, McDONALD. "Beyond Burlesque." Advertiser, the (Adelaide, Australia), 19 Nov. 2009.
Claire Zulkey, Special to the Tribune. "A Real Kick for Dancers; Burlesque Performers Revel in Stripping That Is Often Comic, Satirical." Chicago Tribune (IL), 30 June 2004, p. 3.
Greenberg, Arielle. "Feminist Poetics, in Waves: A Two-Part Column." The American Poetry Review, no. 1, 2013, p. 15.
Greenberg, Arielle. "Feminist Poetics, in Waves (Part 2)." American Poetry Review, vol. 42, no. 5, Sep/Oct2013, p. 39.
Greenberg, Arielle. "Some Notes on the Origin of the (Term) Gurlesoue." Gurlesque, Jan. 2010, p. 1.
DAHL, ULRIKA. "Queering Femininity." Lambda Nordica, no. 1/2, Jan. 2016, p. 7.
"Fiction Book Review: Poemland by Chelsey Minnis, Author . Wave $14 (126p) ISBN 978-1-933517-41-4." PublishersWeekly.com. Publishersweekly, n.d. Web.
Greenberg, Arielle, and Glenum, Lara. Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics. N.p.: Saturnalia, 2010. Print.
Glenum, Lara. "Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics." Jacket 40 - Late 2010 - Lara Glenum: Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics. Jacket, n.d. Web.
Greenberg, Arielle. "On the Gurlesque." On the Gurlesque. Arielle Greenberg, n.d. Web.
Greenberg, Arielle. "Some (of My) Problems with the Gurlesque." Evening Will Come. Thevolta.org, n.d. Web.
"Gurlesque Poetry." Riffle. N.p., n.d. Web.
Intern. "The Cow." Boston Review. Boston Review, 09 Jan. 2013. Web.
Simmons, Thomas. "A Poetry Collection Born of Fury, Sex and Trauma." The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Aug. 2017. Web.
Snyder, R. Claire. “What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay.” Signs, vol. 34, no. 1, 2008, pp. 175–196. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/588436.
Treadwell, Elizabeth, Dusie Press, Molly, Eileen, M., Sarah, Shannon, Heather June Gibbons, Stef, Opal McCarthy, Heidiologies, Abcdefg, and Melissa. "Wardolly." By Elizabeth Treadwell. GoodReads, n.d. Web.
Waxman, Simon. "Hello Kitty." Boston Review. Boston Review, 09 Dec. 2014. Web