Some Thoughts About: The Gurlesque, Plath, Olga Ravn, Kim Yideum, Matilda Södergran and Sara Tuss Efrik

by on Oct.16, 2013

I’m supposed to write an essay about the gurlesque for the upcoming issue of the Swedish journal 10-tal. One thing I want to talk about is the importance of Sylvia Plath. Of course not the cleaned-up Plath that various scholars have tried to make into a master craftswoman over the past few decades, but the “problematic” Plath who blurs life and art, mythic suicide with art, the sleazy Plath of b-movies and fashion magazines, the Surrealist-influenced Plath, the ekphrastic Plath, the Plath of holocaust kitsch, the Plath beloved by teenage girls, the Plath quoted by Francis Bean Cobain in a recent tweet. In short, a gurlesque Plath.
Maybe I’ll talk about Judy Grahn’s amazing homage to that kitschy Plath, “I Have Come To Claim Marilyn Monroe’s Body”:

… They wept for you
and also they wanted to stuff you while
you still had a little meat left in useful places
but they were too slow.

Now I shall take them my paper sack
and we shall act out a poem together:
“How would you like to see Marilyn Monroe,
in action, smiling, and without her clothes?”
We shall wait long enough to see them make familiar faces
and then I shall beat them with your skull.
hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba.

Maybe I’ll talk about my meeting with the scholar who didn’t think Plath had any influence on contemporary poetry. I wrote about this some time ago: how he put all of Oppen’s work on the PhD comps list but had taken Plath off. Didn’t know about the gurlesque, didn’t know about any of the myriad of contemporary poets influenced by Plath. When I told him that’s because the field of contemporary poetic has become – post-lang-po – so narrowly defined that Plath is not part of it, he got upset and accused me of conservative populism a la Poetry Foundation. The truth is of course that the gurlesque is a word that points out the larger move toward maximalism and the grotesque, the kitschy and over-done (“too much”) that I at least find the most interesting poetry going on today.

An important features of this maximalism, this gurlesque is how international it is; how it’s not really a movement (which suggests a center, organization) but incredibly widespread, it’s really part of a kind of maximalist movement (that also is not limited to women). And it’s important to me that we don’t see it as an American thing. Even when Arielle Greenberg coined that word there were things that could be called gurlesque happening all over the place – from my point of view, most notably in Sweden and South Korea with people like Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon. The word “gurlesque” does not function for me the way say “language poetry” did – it’s not a set America export (where the US is undeniable central) but a way of calling attention to not just an aesthetic but a connection, a conversation across language boundaries and cultures.

One of the things that people rightly get worried about with labels like the gurlesque is that it might homogenize and stabilize poetry – making it all about one thing, making the boundaries too intact – and I feel that. I think this word is a way of calling attention to poets, to their relationship; it should not seek to overdefine them. Ie the gurlesque is x, y and z. Which is why I’m increasingly using the more generic word Maximalism, though that word is not as much fun as gurlesque…

One poet I might write about is Kim Yideum, someone who has written about feminism and Plath. Incidentally, she has a bunch of poems (translated by Montevidayo’s own Jiyoon Lee) in the new Asymptote.


In the casket of a white bathtub: through the red hole with a broken mesh strainer, jelly-like eyeballs, four of them, drain out before the bubbles. They go to the ocean, infiltrating a mammal’s body, now sleek from a thousand years of erosion. The Mother that clings like tangled hair in a drainpipe is the source of the wailing that appears whenever I want to live. I want to go to the Urticate coast to follow the whales. You can go after killing me. Inside the Mother, who is already sprayed into the sea, there are hundreds, thousands of mothers in the midst of their water burial; if she lets me go, the dinner table under the sea will become amicable. So as not to surface again, I must be sealed deep in the sea bottom, like a casket.

Incidentally, yesterday I also came across a couple of great reviews on the blog Bernur of a couple of young Scandinavian poets who might be called gurlesque.

About Olga Ravn, Bernur writes:

“Ravn writes from her own experiences, but is it confessional poetry (she has together with Mette Moestrup translated Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar)? It is experiences that exceed the limits… What is the limit? It’s the go too far, says the poet. And Ravn really tests the limit. She challenges the limit… I don’t get anything out of “beautiful poetry.” Olga Ravn dirties language, commits violence against the tasteful.”

Here’s a little bit quickly translated from her poem “The Advertising Girl Child”:

…the stable hand will always tell a story, all the time I am informed by the authorities: I decide too much, it is a girl-mindfuck, it is a tiny tiny, a tiny in a child voyeur, for a long time I wondered if I had been abused as a child, because I had a vague memory of my dad washing me, for a long time I was scared that I was a pedophile because I kissed my infant brother’s little dick once when I was changing him, it was a girl-mindfuck of pedophile angst which in my memory distorted normal behavior…

Another poet he writes about is the Finland-Swedish (and Finland Swedish) poet Matilda Södergran:

I read the book with both eagerly and thoughtfully. Södergran writes illusionlessly, in a violent relationship to language. She writes with a toughness that I experience as uncompromising. Her voice is at times strong and just as hard to defend oneself against as Sylvia Plath’s, and then I read the book Maror [roughly “Witches”] as a suicide letter, the way a poem can be… This book is… an exorcism that continues to drive out the evil ghost that has taken possession over the poet’s I.

Sara Tuss Efrik, author of Mumieland and several “automanias” we published on Action, Yes just incidentally sent me this video…

Wow. Some serious gothic motherhood.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I should say that Bernur is a really great blog if you can read Swedish.

  2. Johannes

    I would also really like to write about Alice Notley!

  3. Ailbhe Darcy

    This is a really helpful update to your thinking about the Gurlesque, Johannes – thank you!

  4. Johannes

    Thank you. You have to share some of your use of the term in Irish poetry. / J