"When the doll-game flips out": Anna Hallberg on the Gurlesque

by on Jun.27, 2013

Maria Margareta Österholm published a book called A Girl Laboratory in Selected Pieces a while back (we published this summary), in which she wrote about, among other things, the gurlesque. The book has had a huge impact on Swedish literary and cultural discussions, having been reviewed in all the major papers and on countless blogs. I was over in Stockholm a few weeks and participated in a panel with Maria Margareta and sometime Montevidayo contributor Aylin Bloch Boynukisa.

I thought I would just translate/link to some of these articles.

In her essay “In the Darkness of the Girl-Room Grows the Gurlesque” in Dagens Nyheter (something like the New York Times of Sweden), Anna Hallberg discusses Maria Margareta’s book, as well as Aylin (and the awesome press that publishes her, Dockhaveri) and another sometime Montevidayo-an, Sara Tuss Efrik, whose novel Mumieland was also recently published to a lot of acclaim. Hallberg writes (I’m just excerpting):

…The social rules stream in through doll games and doll cabinets. The representation and the roles. The imitation and copying. The National Encyclopedia writes: “Doll games have a pedagogical purpose. Through the games, the girl is taught her future role as mother and wife.”

But what happens when the doll-game flips out? When it takes over? If the roles it stages are pedagogical and sound, but grotesque , perverse and violent?

In Feminist theory this form of artistic expression is called the gurlesque.

The large number of dolls and doll games in contemporary Swedish literature may frighten some readers. The gurlesque aesthetics are both sugar-sweet and aggressive, volatile and clever. But most of all it’s full of power. An energy that makes the text dynamic and forces the reader to react. It creates the feeling of continental plates put in motion. The game rules change and a new order becomes possible. When Aylin Bloch Boynukisa writes in “The Girl Organ’s Genealogy”, “I change course with my porcelain eye/my blinking gigantic doll eye,” it’s a change of course I can believe in.

When I searched for Anna’s article, I found an interesting discussion (also in DN) of “Spring Breakers” and “Bling Ring”, “Disney Princesses Become Armed Rebels,”in which Kristoffer Ahlström refers to Aase Berg’s articles on the gurlesque, noting “The gurlesque woman is always threatening.”

There is a lot of interesting dynamics at play in this discussion. For me, it’s important that the Swedish authors didn’t just import and American canon of authors. Rather the word/concept gave them a way to discuss a whole host of young (mostly women) writers and poets, as well as a way to “recover” a lot of great writing from the 90s that was at that time dismissed as “anorexic literature.” Normally American poetry tends to export itself abroad in a more imperialistic fashion. Also, it’s interesting to me to see a literary culture that is still part of a kind of mass culture. So that the Swedish papers cannot simply ignore the phenomena – as most American tastemakers, journals and professors have done – but are forced to recon with it.

Comments Off on "When the doll-game flips out": Anna Hallberg on the Gurlesque more...

The Actuary: On Seth Oelbaum, The Necropastoral and "Accessibility"

by on May.30, 2013

Things have been pretty sleepy here in Montevidayo, but The Actuary has been posting several great posts.

For example, Drew Kalbach applies some recent media theory to Joyelle’s concepts of “bug-time” and The Necropastoral.


This space of urban-meets-nature-mingles-death is a space of failure, decay, and mutation, a space that proliferates more than it moves forward. It’s a model of time that is uninterested in a nice linear gesture, but wants a swarming thrust. It is very much this hypertrophic image of counterprotocol Galloway and Thacker begin to map out. McSweeney’s necropastoral is itself a shape, a site, for these potential exploits to take place, or maybe it is an exploit in itself. It takes advantage of a networked system’s ability to replicate quickly and efficiently by going through massive amounts of data, of creation, of artworks, many failures and successes and deaths, uninterested in posterity or futurity, in order to create something pushed beyond the confines of typical artistic practices. The necropastoral is a space of art, death, politics, mutation.

Go here for the full thing.

And Evan Bryson has an incredibly thoughtful post on Seth Oelbaum, the prince of darkness and fashion who has been terrorizing so many people on HTMLGiant over the past month or two:

His collapse of all hope to a point of bitter dismissal is, in its way, a thrilling move, and its trajectory is defined no more starkly than in the history of queer writing itself. (Only looking at the spines to my right, I see American Sympathy by Caleb Crain, Policing Public Sex edited by Dangerous Bedfellows, Samuel R. Delaney’s The Motion of Light on Water, and Tiresias: The Collected Poems by Leland Hickman. Each volume has that Cepheid pulse of gay agony and gay ecstasy.) Snuffling in this abyss, Karlie Kloss‘s editor is a kind of martyr, a cutthroat priss, freighting his stigmata. He is a disgrace without shame, a boy who trespasses to be caught; he acts out his misguided zealotry before an audience he hopes will punish him. “[The stigmatized] is generally warned against fully accepting as his own the negative attitude of others toward him,” notes Erving Goffman in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. “He is likely to be warned against ‘minstrelization,’ whereby the stigmatized person ingratiatingly acts out before normals the full dance of bad qualities imputed to his kind, thereby consolidating a life situation into a clownish role.” Karlie Kloss‘s minstrelsy is the absurd consolidation of gay bad press.

But his discussion also makes some apt observations about the Gurlesque and Artaud:
(continue reading…)

Comments Off on The Actuary: On Seth Oelbaum, The Necropastoral and "Accessibility" more...

What is Contemporary Poetry?

by on Apr.05, 2013

Recently a lot of people – a lot of them younger, a lot of them people with a fiction background who apparently used to think poetry was boring and a lot of Swedish and foreign poets – have asked me to tell them what contemporary poetry I read or I think they should read. Well, people often ask me to talk about contemporary US poetry, but so much that I love is in translation and I prefer to see US poetry in connection to other places. So here are some books of contemporary poetry I feel you need to read. I’ve excluded all Action Books and books that I have translated (all of which it goes without saying, you should read and read and read until you vomit!), but these are the books that really matter in contemporary poetry in my opinion:

The Drug of Art by Ivan Blatny (Ugly Duckling) – selection from a Czech poet, whose work ranges from Eastern European modernist poetry to the great late stuff, a glorious interlingual mish-mash. Read some poems here.

Raul Zurita, Dreams for Kurosawa – amazing visionary dream poems by one of the world’s great living poets. I love all his books: Prugatory, Songs for his Disappeared Love, Anti-Paradise etc. Here he is reading at Notre Dame.

Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney – Seth Oelbaum recently called Joyelle one of the three greatest living US poets, and that’s probably right. This is Joyelle’s best, most rambunctious, radical and necropastoral jam. (Also check out her new prose book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics.). Here’s something Joyelle recently wrote about the play, “Contagious Knives,” which is part of the book. Here’s a recent review in HTMLGiant. And another.

Chelsea Minnis, Poemland – Contemporary American poetry who blends fashion and ultra-violence. I love all of her books. This one is didactic in the best possible sense. I think she was also in Seth’s “top three.” It was also Minnis whose work first prompted Arielle Greenberg to coin the phrase “gurlesque,” a controversial and insightful concept that is now being hotly debated all over the Swedish newspapers, journals and webzines (here for example) due to Maria Margareta Österholm’s book of criticism, The Girl Laboratory in Pieces: Swedish Prose 1980-2005 (we published a translation of the intro here).

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette – It’s of course notoriously impossible to say who’s the “top three poets” in any country, but Notley has certainly been one of the best US poets over the past 20+ years. I love most of her books, but for me Alette – a feminist, visionary epic set in the subway of Reagan’s America (thus increasingly realistic, correct) – is probably still the best, the one I teach most often and the one I always recommend to people from other countries who want to know about the best contemporary US poetry.

Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object – African-American poet writes brutal, grotesque, gorgeous poems in prose and in pretty lyrics. I wrote this post about him a while back. This book really moved me.

Maroosa di Giorgio, The History of Violets – Aerie, mysterious necropastorals saturated by art, flowers and violence by the late Uruguayan super star (in the Warhol sense of that word). Swedish readers might see the incredibly close connection to Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund, the superstar of Sweden.

OK, I said I was going to ignore Action Books, but really I can’t talk about contemporary poetry without mentioning Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who is really one of the greatest living poets. She’s got two books out with Action Books and a few more on the way, and one chapbook from Tinfish, all translated by Don Mee Choi. Here’s something Lisa Flowers wrote about her. She too partakes with some of the gurlesque/necropastoral vibes I’ve mentioned above. THere’s a whole bunch of awesome poets in South Korea right now, though they have not yet been translated to English (we’re working on it).

OK, that’s my quick post for the day. I’ve no doubt missed some great ones but this is a pretty good image of my idea of the greatest “contemporary US” poetry, or at least a start.

6 Comments more...

No Lineage: Sylvia Plath's Influence

by on Jan.08, 2013

[I wrote this a couple of days ago:]

Lo and behold, there’s a poetry review in the NY Times today…This is what the reviewer writes:

This powerful poetry is a heart offering by way of Ms. Cruz’s ancestor-sisters Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. In “Kingdom of Dirt” she seduces the reader like this:

Meet me in the love-
Burned orchard
Where the beautiful doomed
Meet at last.

This book is her charred orchard.


And, as the reviewer points out, Cruz’s book does seem to be operating under the influence of Sylvia Plath. I just read Danielle’s discussion of Plath and feminism in The Volta, where she quotes Susan R. Van Dyne:

Few critics have liked the tone of “Daddy.” Commenting nearly a decade apart, Irving Howe calls it “monstrous” and “utterly disproportionate,” and Helen Vendler finds it adolescent and unforgiving. Even a sympathetic ear like Margaret Dickie’s hears it as “hysterical.” […] other critics have been embarrassed, as Vendler is, that a woman of thirty reverts to baby-talk in her fury at parental injuries. The critical disapproval of Plath’s tone, it seems to me, indicates doubts both that the speaker’s excesses are altogether appropriate to the occasion and that Plath is entirely in control of her tone […] I grant the tone that critics have heard in “Daddy” is indeed present, but I believe its excesses are part of Plath’s conscious strategy of adopting the voice of a child, of creating a persona who is out of control […] The child persona dramatizes a woman writer’s powerlessness; it mirrors the cultural allegation that woman is child, and it gives form to her experience of being treated like one.

(continue reading…)

20 Comments more...

"The Girl Laboratory": The Gurlesque and Swedish Literature by Maria Margareta Österholm

by on Dec.14, 2012

[When scholarly books are published in Sweden, the authors tend to include a summary written in English. This is the summary of poet/critic Maria Margareta Österholm’s book A Girl Laboratory in Chosen Parts: Skeva Girls in Swedish and Finland Swedish Literature from 1980 to 2005, just published by the brilliant Swedish feminist press Rosenlarv.]

Girlhood is a recurring theme and problem in contemporary Swedish and Finland Swedish literature. The writings of Monika Fagerholm, Mare Kandre and Inger Edelfeldt and many other authors are full of girls not wanting or not being able to be Proper Girls. The literary girls I am writing about do not sit well with heteronormativity and try to tell other stories about girlhood. In my dissertation I explore some of the notions of fe- mininity in literature from 1980 to 2005. In this summary I will mention some of the most important aspects, starting points and elaborations of this book.

This thesis, its thinking and writing, is inspired by a wide range of feminist, queer and aesthetic theory, focusing on femininity. Because of this the very first part is an attempt to situate both the books and theories I use in Swedish debates about literature, fe- minism and femininity from the 1980’s and forth.

A crucial point of departure for me is the collaboration between literature and theory and especially how literature can be seen as theory and a way of creating knowledge. The literary texts in this thesis bring to mind Teresa de Lauretis’s views on feminist writing:

[T]hey also construct figures, at once rhetorical and narrative, that in resisting the logic of those concep- tions, point to another cognition, a reading otherwise of gender, sexuality and race. This is the sense in which these texts »do» feminist theory and are not simply feminist fiction.

I use a variation, hybrid and/or translation of queer – skev in Swedish – in my exploration of how gender is subverted and called in to question. The word skev draws on the original me- aning of queer, strange or twisted; its coinage was influenced by Norwegian and Danish attempts to translate queer. Using skev as a variation and translated hybrid of queer I also hope to capture forms of normativity not strictly tied to sexual desire – taking queer one step further but also back to the original meaning of the word. Skev, as I write about it, is a way to talk about subversive or uncomfortable girlhoods that are not easily pinned down. To elaborate skev as a theoretical notion is one of the aims of the thesis.

In the term gurlesque I found another way of thinking about and beyond proper girlhoods. Gurlesque is a mix of feminism, fe- mininity, the cute, the disgusting and the grotesque. It has everyth- ing to do with being a Riot Grrrl in the nineties and at the same time it’s not a movement or easily defined, says Arielle Greenberg, poet and literary critic who coined the term. She wanted to put a name on something she saw, a way of bringing girls and girliness to the front in literature:
(continue reading…)

3 Comments more...

"Loaded": Undead Romanticism

by on Nov.29, 2012

[I first wrote this as a response to Teemu’s post about Clark Ashton Smith, but since it’s pretty long I decided just to post it as a separate post.]

This is such a rich post… It seems to really speak to issues of kitsch and modernism in intriguing and new ways.

I love the idea of the heuristic imitation, a kind of anachronistic translation (of course translations are often anachronistic, as Benjamin makes clear in his famous essay). But I’m not so sure that he gets it all wrong so to speak. To some extent Smith is in fact doing what the Romantics and – as you note – Symbolists did. So much of that poetry is totally b-movie stuff (Keats and Baudelaire write about vampire women etc etc). And of course Poe is such an essential poet for both American and European symbolists. As Daniel Tiffany shows in his new book, the origins of kitsch has to do with the poetic, with romanticism, more than anything else.

(From our favorite blog, Runwayward)
(continue reading…)

4 Comments more...

Shanna Compton on Joyce Mansour

by on Nov.14, 2012

Shanna Compton wrote a very good introduction to another of my favorite poets, Joyce Mansour.

Shanna even connects Mansour to this very blog:

So she comes after Mina Loy, before Harryette Mullen, and is of the same generation as Sylvia Plath sans the early exit. She anticipates and perhaps influences (haven’t asked) some of the grotesquer corners of the Gurlesque as in work by Ariana Reines, Danielle Pafunda, Lara Glenum, and others; the Necropastoral as explored by Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, and others; and the flamboyantly femme Flarf of Nada Gordon and Sharon Mesmer. I see her in Sandra Simonds’ work too. I see her, accidentally and by way of these others, in some of mine. It’d be interesting to read Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers alongside Mansour’s Phallus & Mommies. I’m planning to spend a lot more time with her work, figuring out what she’s done (to me, to us, to poetry).

I talk about Mansour in this post from a while back.

Comments Off on Shanna Compton on Joyce Mansour more...

"Vlada's green-eyed superalert face everywhere": Kitsch and the Foreign in Lidija Praizovic's Poems

by on Nov.12, 2012


What makes the metaphysical dilemma special, if not unique, is that it exists in the space just after the effort and before the completion of the tear. The body and soul are not yet rent, but they are somewhere in the midst of that process. What emerges from the ongoing rupture is delicate, baroque vomit, an undeniably human substance, the existence of which is totally outside bodily limits.

I’m reading Lidija Praizovic’s new book “PORR FÖR VLADA/HJARTAHJARTAHJARTA!!!/MITT LIVE SOM MUN” [Or: “PORN FOR VLADA/HEARTHEARTHEART!!!/MY LIFE AS A MOUTH”] (from the brilliant new Swedish press Dockhaveri Förlag (“Doll Wreckage,” very gurlesque, also published first book by Montevidayoan Aylin Bloch Boynukisa)). And in particular how her foreignness (as an immigrant, as an cobbler together of foreign words and phrases) creates undulations in a poem like this:

Belgrade Beer Fest

enorma halmhattar och homofobier
Vladas grönögda superspända ansikte överallt

suck me
lick me
fuck me
(pulseringar inom mig)

koliko kostaju rogovi

Belgrade Beer Fest

enormous straw hats and homophobias
Vlada’s green-eyed superalert face everywhere

suck me
lick me
fuck me
(pulsations within me)

koliko kostaju rogovi?
(continue reading…)

2 Comments more...

"The Violent Pollution": Carl-Michael Edenborg's Parapornography

by on Sep.04, 2012

The thing about all this talk about hipsters and/or kitsch is that it’s about art: all poetry can be kitsch (and is according to many people) and all poetry-writers can be viewed as hipsters. I’m not interested in pro- or anti-kitsch poetry, or anti-hipster or pro-hipster poetry. I am interested in dealing with kitsch in a way that doesn’t fall back on these binaries but I also don’t want to move beyond them (to some pleasant world of American Hybrid or whatever), I don’t want to remove this trouble, this anxiety that is part of Art; an anxiety about looking, about uselessness, about excess, about Art’s occult powers and its drug-like “influence” that may ruin our identities as good, stable, progressive subjects with agency. As I noted in my last post I want the forms to rub up against each other, to chafe, to spasm. I want that excessive “foreign body lodged in the overall system of art” to continue to friction in the “system,” to turn it into a horror movie, a B-movie, a “phantom pregnancy,” a spasming necropastoral, a “parapornography.”

One genre that is often compared or made synonymous with kitsch is pornography: Like kitsch it’s too much about affect, too much about effects, too immediate, not properly mediated etc. And most of all, it’s got the “frenzy of the visual.” I think maybe porn can be a way of thinking about kitsch. Or vice versa. Maybe this is why so many people enjoy porn videos from websites like So they can compare and contrast kitsch with porn.


Carl-Michael Edenborg

Just yesterday I read Carl Michael Edenborg’s “Manifesto of Parapornography.” I should mention that C-M runs the important Swedish press Vertigo, which publishes de Sade and Apollinaire as well as contemporary writers like Nikanor Teratologen and Dennis Cooper and Samuel Delaney. He was also once a member of the same Surrealist Group of Stockholm that Aase Berg used to be part of). In this manifesto Edenborg argues is a move away from the rhetoric of both “pro-pornography” and “anti-pornography,” the two prevalent stances on pornography in our “post-pornography” society.

Edenborg argues against the system underlying both anti- and pro-pornography:

According to both, pornography is devoted to men’s fantasies of omnipotence, of a limitless access to and power over women, to never having to take no for an answer. Over and over again, it reassures men that they are phallic. Men will not accept that the very fact that they require this reassurement shows that they are already castrated, because that would subvert their pleasure. Women, on the other hand, are expected to react in the opposite way to pornography: with loathing and disgust.

According to Edenborg: While the pro and the anti depend on uncovering/defending a secret/truth/genitals/interiority, parapornography rejects this model and instead creates something that Edenborg compares to “quantum mechanics”: it can “extract endless excitment from the same skin flap” and “the mucous membranes are prismatic.” Instead of exteriority/interiority we get an undulating figure that admits poisons, a necropastoral pornography of the “spasming membrane” (Joyelle’s quote). This is Edenborg’s list of qualities of Parapornography:

Mechanical repetition
The infinity of revealing
The exploded affection theory
The critical will to power
The violent pollution
Protesology and displacement

(continue reading…)

18 Comments more...

The Embarrassment of Art: The Gurlesque, Thåström, Fröding, Aase Berg

by on May.08, 2012

Kim Göransson wrote an interesting comment to Feng’s post about Skin Horses:

Interestingly, I went looking for the book some odd years after having read it and couldn’t find it at first, because it had been tucked away in the Young Adult section. I wonder if this was an intended location, or if the gurlesque in general, with its fairy tale angst and glitter often finds itself in this kind of sub-category of “real” literature? Something we”re eventually suppose to grow out of?
I don’t know. The Metamorphosis would make good gurlesque.
I like the stein quote in that it suggests a purging of emotion by way of concrete imagery located in the “real” world but, by way of obsessive repetition, becomes fake, unreal, artificial.

I’m interested in this sense of embarrassment. Certainly I think there’s something insistently embarrassing about the gurlesque; but embarrassment is also the key way that Taste is established: it’s embarrassing to like works of art that are tasteless. That’s how anti-kitsch rhetoric works: liking kitsch not only shows that you have not become an adult, grown up, but also that you lack “class” in every sense of that word, you lack education. You haven’t learned not to take such pleasure in art: in the “too much” of art. You have not sworn off the pleasures of “too much” imagery, or the use of the word “I” etc.

This made me think about a post I wrote about Joakim Thåström (an embarrassing subject matter for me to write about! To keep writing about! I’m obsessed with my own childhood!) a while back:
(continue reading…)

13 Comments more...

Skinned Horses: The Ring, Olivia Cronk and Swedish Poetry

by on May.06, 2012

What lipstick lights.
Through a branch, one creeped to scream.
The pond was a bad window. A turkey frighted.
The ring pulsed maria
all over
a crystal ball flyer in my bag.
I thought I could find
some Boschists out back.

I couldn’t sleep last night so I took the opportunity to re-read Olivia Cronk’s absolutely stunning collection Skin Horse, and then I got back to it a little while ago when Joyelle took the demonic daughters to a birthday party. In light of my recent kvetchings about “context,” I started thinking about Skin Horse and connections to other books, and all my examples were Swedish. So I thought I would scribble down a few notes about that: How again context does not need to be something settling, lineage-making.

What I love about this book is this sense of a murder mystery hidden beneath layers and layers of textures (“crisp muslin,” “lace”) and media (corroded video, mirrors). A part of this textural/mediumistic ambience is the gaps and erasures in the text. Unlike so many erasures, here the gaps seem really important: as if the secret to the poems could be in those gaps. I really feel the gaps reading the text. These gaps may be erased to maintain the secret or from a sense of delapitation: the books seems to take place in an old house. There is something inherently anachronistic about the poems: the secrets but also the nearly Victorian sensibility.

A little how Anna Morgan appears like a Wisconsin Death Trip/Victorian era woman in the cursed video of The Ring (even though she’s from the late 1960s):

Another thing: Skin Horse is definitely not “elliptical” poem, it’s more like “riddle” poetry, with a big splash of horror (the grotesque tends to come in at the end an unravel the poem). If the “elliptical poets” strike me as largely an attempt to maintain Taste, this is poetry that embraces the kitsch of horror – if, as Daniel Tiffany put it in his forthcoming book Silver Proxy, you realize that kitsch means “excessive beauty.” It’s too much, Olivia!
(continue reading…)

11 Comments more...

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.)
(continue reading…)

18 Comments more...

A Thought About Reviews

by on Apr.20, 2012

Today I thought about this (and I’ve thought about this off and on for some time): what is the role of what one might call “artistic context” in reviews? Or blurbs for that matter. When I write them I tend to want to find connections between different writers and artists (hopefully across media, genres etc) because I am interested in seeing how different people work on concepts and ideas, and also because if the reader of the review likes one of the artists, they’re likely to want to search out the others. So for example in my last post I made a connection between Sara Tuss Efrik and Nathalie Djurberg.Or when I reviewed Kate Durbin’s Ravenous Audience for Raintaxi a while back, I referred to the gurlesque, Plath. Judy Grahn and the Rodarte designers.(Though it should be said that someone complained on facebook that I was being a snoozy academic pedant in the Durbin review.)

But it seems this is a no-no in a lot of reviewing and blurbing. Is this because that would mean that the writer was not absolutely original? In fact, I more often find reviews stating: this personal is absolutely original. It oftens seems almost defensive to me: here’s this wild book but don’t you try to expect anything more in this vein. It’s often about a daring writer/artist who explores aesthetic zones that are not usually represented in big presses, or university presses, or not reviewed. Often I come upon these statements of absolute originality for writers I like, and I think, “no actually I can think of a dozen people who are working a similar terrain.” That doesn’t mean that the person in question isn’t original or good; it just means that I can think of people who are similar.

Someone who does do quite a bit of contextual type of readings is Steve Burt (the elliptical poets, the new thing poets etc). Often I find those articles quite perceptive, and they are also articles that tend to generate discussion. My problem with his articles is that they sometimes claim to take into account everything, to capture all of poetry. In some sense that’s why I suppose they generate so much discussion (otherwise people might not care), but there’s also something stabilizing about it, and perhaps this is why people shy away from such readings. Certainly, Steve has received a lot of criticism for his articles.

But mostly this kind of approach seems to be used negatively: This is the heroic poet who is not writing poetry like that wave of soft surrealist (or something like that), read a blurb on a recent book (I liked the book, not the blurb). The genuine writer is one, the one who is part of a orbit of writers is just a follower, imitator, kitsch.

Anybody have any thoughts about this?

8 Comments more...