The Gurlesque Deformation Zone: Kim Hyesoon, Maria Margarete Österholm

by on Apr.30, 2012

I’d like to say that I’ve been working on the gurlesque for ten years now – in essays, in my own writing, and in this dissertation. But I hadn’t heard the term until recently. A big girl of flesh, a Baby Wonder, stepped out of the closet and received a name.

(Maria Margareta Österholm, dissertation on “the gurlesque”)

It seems a lot of US discussions about translation get stuck between strategies of domestication (rendering foreign poets into US poets, erasing the process of translation) and foreignizing (emphasizing the foreign-ness of the translated text). I have a problem with both of these models: the first because it tends to lead to the kind of translations that wash out difference, and the second because it keeps the translated text in a kind of quarantine, as if we can’t truly be engaged by a foreign text, as if the foreign text might contaminate (it’s exotic! We don’t have the proper contexts! We’re “appropriating”!). The end result of both seems to be to maintain an idea of US literature, of US literary lineage, and of a certain idea of the text as self-contained.

For example, although I thought it was a really fine close reading of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (and I’m very interested in a lot of the things she talks about in it), I couldn’t help but find in Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s reveiw a strangely striational urge to emphasize that Kim Hyesoon is not an American poet:

Though there are incredible transformations in Kim’s poetry, I found it to be nothing like the neo-American-surrealism that is so popular among mainstream-ing contemporary work. And whether we are attuned to it or not, there are terrifically resonant historical sub-terrains in this mode of writing. There are genuine, deeply dire consequences to the transactions Kim describes in her engagements with the world. She is not trying to be trendy—she is trying to live.

In many ways this quote re-states the rhetoric of Carolyn Forche’s seminal anthology “Against Forgetting,” where she basically makes the point that European poets could write Surrealist poetry because their world had been so overwhelmed by suffering and war, implying that it would be immoral for US poets to be influenced by them (though she herself clearly was in The Angel of History). Here, US poets are merely “trendy” if they write like Kim, while she is “trying to live.” They would be hipsters, people whose lives are ruled by art, style, not necessity, not real “life.” (They’re passing, they’re drag queens, they’re counterfeits, they’re artifice, they traffic in exoticism and kitsch.)

Now, I don’t (again) know who she means by “surrealism” here, and it’s most certainly true that there are cultural/political differences between US (or US-Korean) poets and Korean poets such as Kim Hyesoon, but it’s also most definitely true that she shares a lot of artistic sources as a lot of American poets, which could in loose terms be called “surrealism.” I think it’s important to move beyond seeing all foreign writers as static “representatives” of their culture which US poets may or may not be able to “access.” For example, when Kim Hyesoon was here at Notre Dame, we talked about Aase Berg, “Let the Right One In” (which she thought was a Norwegian movie), David Lynch (her favorite director) and, yes, Surrealism and Rimbaud (whose work she has obviously read). In short, Kim Hyesoon is a highly international writer as well as being a Korean writer, an international writer who actually shares quite a bit with American (and Swedish!) poets and artists. That doesn’t mean we should remove her Korean-ness, or the act of translation.

I view the very act of publishing Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim’s work as a very translingual collaboration with both of them; and my own work has been incredibly influenced by this collaboration. Add to that the fact that Joyelle has collaborated on art/writing pieces with Fi-Jae Lee (Kim’s daughter) and wrote the essay for an exhibition catalog for Lee’s Seoul exhibition; and that Don Mee (it’s notable that Don Mee is not included among Korean-American writers that Lee lists, perhaps because she provides a more translingual, transnational idea of the Korean-American writer, one who has too-close, too-alive ties to the traumatic “past”, ie Korea) quotes Joyelle’s “Necropastoral” in her introduction to her translation of Kim’s poetics chapbook “Princess Abandoned”; and we can see how national boundaries can get really murky. Or rather, they start going all over the places (certainly across national boundaries, but also boundaries of the self, language, lineage).

Upon reading Kim’s work, I couldn’t help seeing it in connection with a lot of contemporary work, not just Joyelle’s and my own poetry and theories, but also the so-called “gurlesque” – what with Kim’s invisible cats, silk-puking, baby-hauling, rat-infestations, garbage-gathering and her “abandoned princess” flinging herself off buildings. I’m not saying “gurlesque” defines all of Kim Hyesoon, but I am saying that it’s a context worth thinking about, and Kim’s own work challenges a lot of observations about the gurlesque. In fact Princess Abandoned might be the most important publication of the gurlesque. (In fact, the most interesting thing might be not to read Kim Hyesoon “as an American poet”, but to read all of the gurlesque as Korean poets, or to read Swedish poets as Korean poets translated into American.) In short, the gurlesque provides an interesting “context” for reading works written in other languages: it brings together foreign texts rather than – like many “contexts” – emphasizing the national lineage.

This might be the topic for another blog (or not, I must admit I’ve gotten pretty sick of the gurlesque in large part because paradoxically it’s become so striational – this not that, only girls, only Americans, how the violence is made sense of as resistance of gender norms etc – and somewhat moralistic), but for now I just wanted very quickly to say that the eerie passivity that Lee finds so strange in Kim’s work is I agree one key facet of Kim’s poetics, and it most certainly will prove weird to a lot of US feminists who are much more invested in a model of agency. But this stance – what Joyelle has called “possessed by media” – is also a key feature of a lot of gurlesque writings, for example Swedish writer/scholar Maria Margareta Östholm’s Confessions of Young F., which follows a kind of Virginia-Wolf-like girl who drowns and then emerges with a hamster in her purse.


One of the interesting things about the idea of the Gurlesque is how international it is, how permeable the concept is. You can for example see it in Kim Hyesoon’s violent girls (“abandoned princesses”) or, as Lara pointed out a long time ago, you can see it in Aase Berg’s guinea pigs. As Swedish writer-critic (and friend of Österholm) Aylin Bloch Boynukisa pointed out on Montevidayo a while back, “the gurlesque” can be used to read Finland Swedish poet Eva-Stina Byggmästar’s work. One interesting thing about both these Swedish examples is that they precede the American examples of the gurlesque by many years (Berg’s first book was written in the early 90s, Byggmästar started publishing in the 80s), suggesting a challenge to the traditionally American model of US as center from which ideas spread around the world. (One might also add that Aase entered literature and art through the radical Stockholm Surrealist Group, thus read Plath through a much more radical lens than most American poets might have.). That is to say, it’s a zone where differences can exist but not serve to quarantine the text; it becomes an international “context” for reading works, but not lineage, not national literature, not even “schools” of poetry. Something more like a zone that brings together very different writers and artists.

It’s interesting how the name “gurlesque” – like the word “Dada” or “Surrealism” – has elicited so much outrage, controversy, heated discussion, but also such incredible mobility. So that for Österholm the name becomes important – a coming out of the closet for this concept (see epigraph of this post). And like Dada it seems already translated. Interesting how the academic establishment of US poetry seems so defensive against it -as if to maintain a very American lineage of modernism/postmodernism against the threat of the girlish, the decorative, the kitschy, the “passive” (or “han”) attitude towards media (the body permeated by, possessed by media).

In her dissertation on the gurlesque in a Swedish context, Österholm includes a translation she and Boynukisa made of Arielle Greenberg’s introduction the Gurlesque anthology. But, as she notes, it’s not so much a strict translation as a “cultural transfer”, as Aylin and MM add all kinds of particular examples to the Greenberg “original,” expanding the text into a gurlesque “hyperspace” with Swedish local terms (names of actual local places as well as local references – Swedish pop bands etc).

Österholm also makes the interesting argument that it seems the “gurlesque” poems and stories do not exemplify; in the gurlesque, the art is the theory so to speak. So it’s really more fitting that I translate a little from her novel/poem Confessions of Young F. rather than write about her dissertation:

I write spectacle along the inside of my thighs cuddling with the hamster
in the purse

(flower child
a bouquet: girl
I wanted to cover you with other names but I could not
come up with anything better
forgive me.)

and glide along the floor with chafed feet and sloppy heels
there was apparently a stage here
a rumor flowed across the floor and The Young F walked there too

hello has anybody seen my attack which is
flowery and pink


I have a pink purse my melody kisses a rat and birds
with flowers in the sky
it was a ridiculous rat
and the attack is afterall a hamster
maybe a sable-toothed from the holocene era
or totally totally wonderful

like The Young F when she walks across the floor and I acrosss the floor as Young F that is how I cross the floor as Young F and it doesn’t matter if it’s make-belief that’s the way it is

[Also wanted to say that this post might act as a sequel to my post about Sara Tuss Efrik, as MM and Sara are connected in a number of ways, through the feminist journal Läcker etc. You can also read Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s story “I have nothing to do with birds” (in my translation) here. It’s kind of a mash-up of Lee Edelman, Kathy Acker and Hitchcock.]

18 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    “…it becomes an international “context” for reading works, but not lineage, not national literature, not even “schools” of poetry. Something more like a zone that brings together very different writers and artists.”

    Yes, absolutely. A zone. Permeable, flexible, borderless, unstable.

    In my dream version of the anthology, it would be international (both the poets and the visual artists). It would also include boys.

    And the notion that the foreign poet writes the way she does because she is trying “to live,” while we are all just merrily plucking our own assholes for the fun of it, is, well, condescending and disgusting.

    Who is not trying “to live.” Who does not find the circumstances of their lives totally crushing and impossible.

    Thanks for this rad piece of intelligence, Johannka. Who is putting out Princess Abandoned?

  2. Johannes

    Tinfish put it out, it’s a chapbook of poetics.

  3. James Pate

    Really interesting post, Johannes.

    My reaction to certain parts of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s review was similar. I agree she does a very good with the close reading, but there is almost a sociological dynamic going on here. The review in some ways is like an act of containment (which is exactly what I didn’t want to do in my review of Kilpatrick’s book).

    It takes the challenging and excessive and makes it all-too-familar with the usual worn-out notions of authenticity, the dangers of supposedly superficial surrealism, and how some and not others are truly trying to live, with the reviewer herself of course being the judge…


  4. Danielle Pafunda

    Yes, great post, J!

    I read that piece of Juliette’s review inversely. It didn’t strike me that she was trying to contain Kim Hyesoon or All the Garbage, so much as examining the containment of the US American or Korean-American poet. All the garbage out there, us contained in here! There are worlds to which we don’t have access, or we’re caught in (necessary) refrains, we’re the ones quarantined & sterilized. Am I totes off there? & I’m not saying that’s an unproblematic construction, especially in league with the bit about surrealism, but it’s very different…

    I and agree the dismissal of US American surrealism has some lousy effects, but I don’t think it’s meant to sound as snarky as it does. I get the sense from the phrasing–“the neo-American-surrealism that is so popular among mainstream-ing contemporary work”–that we’re discussing a particular thrust. I would like to know what she means, but ultimately LIVING vs BEING TRENDY strikes me false opposition. This isn’t a competition wherein the poet whose life is most at stake wins the privilege of a surrealist strategy, or wherein the trendy should be condemned to a life of institutional realism. Which, to be clear, I don’t think Juliette intends to say–I just think that’s where such a dichotomy leads.

    Western feminism gets a bit similarly shortchanged/strawman (ha!), in the review–I think we’re talking about our governing and familiar type of liberal policy feminism–all about individual agency, progress via improving the system, etc. It’s important to note that plenty (if still the minority) of western feminists would get what’s going on in this book & why it’s a productive tactic. Maybe the majority get it too, and just reject the tactic, I dunno. Gender studies scholars have been, in my experience, receptive to and enthusiastic about gurlesque poetry and the various takes on it, for whatever that’s worth. They’re far less resistant to it than poets (which resistance I admit to still not getting my head around). Of course, they don’t have a horse in the poetics race, and perhaps don’t see poetry as quite the same vital, charged field I do…

    I love the Swedish gurlesque lineage lesson! Can this all be translated faster & now?!!! Can someone download Swedish to my brain? But if we look at what’s happening in English language writing around that time, would we find early examples of US American or British gurlesque: Kathy Acker! Angela Carter! Valerie Solanas! I’d make a strong argument for Blood and Guts in High School or “The Snow Maiden.” Plus all the visual artists of the era…

    Me, I like examining the gurlesque striations. Striations don’t strike me sterile divisions or dogmatic reductions–if you look at soil striations, infiltrated by worms, roots, water, pesticides, stuff trickles & creeps! It’s a great metaphor! & you know, I’ll get all hopped up about my poetry microclimates. Anyone want to help me build a microclimate anthology? We can put everything in it! It’ll be like that SNL sketch: New York’s hottest anthology is BLARRRRRGH. This book has it all: slugs, a night watchman with a baby gopher, light on snow, runaway brides of Frankenstein, seventeen boobs, melted ice cubes,and that thing where you get off the elevator and it’s still going down.


  5. don mee

    “That is to say, it’s a zone where differences can exist but not serve to quarantine the text; it becomes an international “context” for reading works, but not lineage, not national literature, not even “schools” of poetry. Something more like a zone that brings together very different writers and artists.”

    I really love this! It opens up far more possibilities and fascinating connections.
    Your (and Joyelle’s) deformation zone and Kim Hyesoon’s blackened realm, which I talk about in MOMMY’s introduction, definitely overlap and may even be conjoined twins. In the twintwin zone the logic of hierarchy (patriarchy and neocolonialism) breaks down, and this is why Princess Abandoned is able to move horizontally across space, from life to death, showing us the same things that we see in everyday life in death, as well. This may be why it appears that “Kim continually concedes to these violent intrusions… Kim barely fights them or escapes” as Juliette Lee has astutely observed in her review.

    I also really liked what you said about the act of publishing Kim’s work “as a very translingual collaboration.” This is what keeps me going with my translation work and my own writing. Thank you!

    A while back, I met a Korean American who was a graduate student at Harvard (also a Fulbright Scholar) and he told me that I wasn’t Korean American because I spoke with a strange accent. Who could argue? I certainly couldn’t, especially not with my blatant deformity. Something happened to me somewhere across the way from Korea to Hong Kong then to the U.S. (also Germany and Australia in between for some years). Something also happened to my English. This is all I can say about my Korean American-ness or not.

  6. adam strauss

    “I wasn’t Korean American because I spoke with a strange accent”–this dude’s comment strikes me as wonky–akin, maybe, to arguing I’m not Gay because my voice is rather low and, more often than not, “masculine.” Now, phew, depending on the moment I’m a deepthroated Queen (ok, logic flaw, the Queen is not inherently feminine) Or perhaps better yet it’s like arguing someone doesn’t have a Patrician voice even though they/the family have lived at the “right” address for ever!

    I am fond of this very not long-term legal definition of nationhood: if one is in a country, one is that nationality by virtue of consuming that country’s pollution etc, and eating food packaged there etc. There are like at-least two huge critiques of this I’m sure, but I think it’s a friendly lens not skirled through with a conquest attitude.

    I may have gone way off: I;’ve skipped over that DM’s comment references not being cited as Korean American, and the “hyphenized” strata to the comment seems well weird but specific and a jet I missed/am curious about.

  7. Johannes

    I wrote a response yesterday on my iphone which apparently didn’t make it through, but basically it seems you agree with most of what I say.

    About Gender Studies: yes, I was thinking more about Modern Lit scholars. Of course gender studies has a lot to do with the gurlesque – in some ways the very creation of that term/concept/meeting ground comes out of an interaction between queer/gender studies and contemporary lit (Jack Halberstam’s book on the Gothic for example, which I first encountered b/c I was trying to think through my love of the gothic in contemporary as well as historical writing).

    About striation: yes, as I noted, I don’t want to erase differences, but I also don’t want to quarantine them, and I don’t specifically want to speak about lineage – whether a Swedish or american lineage. Something that the gurlesque “context” makes clear is that there is much traffic across national boundaries. In part b/c the gurlesque is not a strictly literary context – it is in interaction with pop culture, movies, fashion etc. And also my point: not the linear lineage model but something that moves anachronistically. The Big Baby comes out of the closet.


  8. James Pate

    But Danielle, who is to say so simply what worlds “we” do not have access to…who exactly is this “we”? Who has the right to speak as “we”? Some would argue we don’t even have the right to speak as “I”…

    I agree with most of what you say, in fact you seem to agree with most of Johannes’ argument, but these totalizing gestures that you mention in your first paragraph toward “we,” “us,” “them,” etc. strike me as being incredibly didactic…

    Not that your comment is didactic — I mean the approach you discuss there and seem to partly endorse seems highly didactic.

    To echo what Johannes and Lara have said, we need more zones and less worlds. And maybe a world is only a zone that mistakes fiction for truth…

    I’ve been rereading parts of Greil Marcus’ brilliant Lipstick Traces, his book about punk rock, and it strikes me as very Deleuzian in spirit, bypassing the usual lineage-making arguments, the usual social-historical arguments (tho. he does situate the movement in the zone of late-70s England), and cross-cutting to the dadaists, to secret societies of the middles ages, to the Situationists, the scattered gestures and ghosts through which punk temporarily cohered…

    It’s a good example of an approach that disperses instead of contains…


  9. Lara Glenum

    “…a world is only a zone that mistakes fiction for truth.”

    Beautiful, James.

  10. adam strauss

    To constellate to D’s response; modifying feminism with Western has long struck me as freaky: it seems to, perhaps inadvertantly, imply non western feminism is minor or secondary or derivative or, perhaps even more confusingly, massively different; I’m not sure discourse–especially feminist discourse–won’t wreck notions of borders/territories. Too, and perhaps, for me, most importantly, I’m guessing this modifier may make it absurdly more difficult to constellate to some feminist authors and discourses, and this strikes me as a major disservice to the non-western feminist. Note: I don’t think my stance has to inherently be in-line with hegemony maintenance (aka westerners whlod not shy from global discourses), and I don’t think the review means the adjective to be so loaded; “Western,” even among the uber-sophisticates of academe, still frequently plonks up as a basic marker at times, almost like stating someone, literally, is Albanian, or American, or Chinese, a simple fact. Even Amartya Sen I believe uses the modifier sometimes, and he has gorgeously shown what a crock it is: byebye algebra and even I’m pretty sure the minus sign as Western etc.

    Autobiographical context: a dear friend of mine, in college, majorly felt like a postcolonial traitor for being so invested in feminisms/theories etc stemming, ostensibly, from a European or American topos and although I think it’s good to work through knots, I also wish she didn’t have to feel so “criminal.”

  11. Danielle Pafunda

    Hey, guys,

    Thanks. I’m a little confused by your response, James… Sorry if I don’t make this explicit above: when I talk about “we” or “us,” I’m using the rhetoric of the review (quoting the review in places), not advancing my own theory. Juliette opens with a discussion of Korean-American poets and how their perspective might differ from Korean poets. Later, she talks about neo-American-surrealists, and suggests they’re quite different from Kim. There’s a pretty clear “we” and “them” or “us”/”other” set up by this review whose audience is US American poets, no? We even get a list of names! I’m just trying to figure out who gets contained in Juliette’s rhetoric.

    & I still do read it as a contained/restrained “we” who hasn’t got access to what “they”/”Kim” knows. As I said, not an unproblematic construction, but a rather different kind of totalizing that I don’t think comes up in Johannes’s read.

    Otherwise, sure. I agree with a lot of what Johannes has to say. Just exploring the nuances.


  12. Johannes Göransson

    About feminism: I know that Kim has been a very prominent feminist in Korea, starting the first gender studies program there. So in fact it might be feminism that is very translingual. That would mimic the way communism once worked: lots of the first Mayakowski translations etc were often via commies.


  13. James Pate


    That’s exactly my point, as I stated in my earlier comment. The “we” and “us” is all too clear, all too positivistic…and obviously therefore containing….This kind of approach has a yearning for good old-fashined humanist plentitude (“we” are X, “I” is Y, “they” are Z) that I have to admit, I don’t really understand…

    I’m more interested in how the ghost of X might haunt the building of Y or how the echo of voice Z might be heard in corridor X…plentitude is boring. And yes, containing. The ghosts are exorcised out…


  14. James Pate

    A counter-example to the positivistic, humanist use of “they” and “we,” etc. is Pynchon’s monstrous (in all sorts of ways) Gravity’s Rainbow, where there is a “They” but this “they” is shape-shifting, amorphous, sometimes even sitting up corridors in “we.” The counterforce (“us”) even gets wound up in the same games as the They– they both have the same yearning, for example, for ecstasy, oblivion, but the They moves more toward control and nihilism whereas the we is the excess, the problem that can’t be solved (the we is always “problematic”), the Marx brothers at a dinner party, the secret history of the kazoo, the film that disintegrates after we watch it…

    Even the characters are frequencies…not firmly clarified entities…


  15. adam strauss

    Yes, feminism as translingual, transnational, as dynamic which exists numerously and which cannot be deduced from halving the world!

  16. Lara Glenum

    Absolutely, Adam.

  17. don mee

    Johannes, Maybe you know about this already…
    Ruth Williams has published ““Female Poet” as Revolutionary Grotesque: Feminist Transgression in the Poetry of Ch’oe Sŭng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yŏn-ju.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 29.2 (2010): 395-415. I think this paper may come close to what you have in mind in terms of feminism as translingual.

  18. Johannes

    Wow that sounds awesome. I’ll have to check it out and report back to Montevidayo.