Monday, May 18, 2009

Female Grotesque and Female Pleasure: An Interview with Lara Glenum re her book of poems "Maximum Gaga"

To follow is the transcript of an email interview I’ve just concluded with Lara Glenum regarding her wild, monstrous and terrific “Maximum Gaga.”

Here’s the Bio that Lara provided:

Lara Glenum is the author of The Hounds of No (2005) and Maximum Gaga (2008), both from Action Books. She is the co-editor, with Arielle Greenberg, of Gurlesque, an anthology of women's poetry and visual art (Saturnalia Books, 2010). Her translations of Czech poetry with Josef Horacek have received an NEA Translation Fellowship. She is currently collaborating with sound, digital, and visual artists on Meat Out of the Eater, a multi-media installation piece.

RK: It’s no secret that you’ve sucked some of the marrow (and swallowed some of the bone even) out of Aase Berg’s work. But, quoting Maximum Gaga here, “there are a variety of ways to become a monster.” And there are a variety of monsters too. And the ways to become a monster are complicated and intertwined sometimes. Your work, though it owes something of a debt to Berg, is clearly a different monster from Aase’s. When I read Aase Berg (especially With Deer, her only fully translated book available in English) I get a similar feel to when I’m reading Sylvia Plath. I feel as though at any moment the “voice” of the poem (the “person” behind, around, and inside it) is about to jump up and cut my head off. Or, perhaps more accurately, cut its own head off. I feel as though I’m always about to open a door and find this “voice” stretched out, pale, in a bathtub, bled to death. With Maximum Gaga I feel as though the “voice” is going to grab me, blindfold me, tie my hands behind my back, spin me round and round and drop me into a never-ending strobe-lit decadence of linguistic and erotic excess. Of course I’m not saying anything real clever here because in a way this is what the poems are: Berg’s a kind of Ecstasy of Dismemberment (Goransson’s term) and yours an orgy of empowering Eros. Can you talk a bit about your experience with Berg? What you’ve taken from her work? Differences, etc? A pretty open question. Take it where you want. Or don’t want.

LG: I came to know Berg’s work through Johannes Goransson several years ago, and by the time I came across her, I was already, more or less, my own variety of monster. I think the difference in our work that you’re pointing to is really a difference I have (more noticeably) with Plath, to whom I owe a great debt. I read Plath not as a Confessional poet but as a practitioner of the female grotesque, which places her closer to poets and artists of the historical avant-garde.

In “Lady Lazarus,” for example, the speaker is performing a female burlesque, a “strip tease,” that ultimately “unwraps” the female body not as an erotic object but the site of grotesque mortality and non-compliant subjectivity. In this poem, the speaker ironically wields her body as a souvenir of her own death-drive, both performing and mocking the idea of souvenir as a trace of authentic experience. Authentic experience, after all, always involves a myth of origin, and every time Plath goes back to access origins, she finds herself trapped inside a performance of Romantic Sublime, which spells the death of the female subject. Thus by the end of the poem, as in so many of Plath’s poems, the speaker feels compelled to disembody herself. I, on the other hand, insist on embodiment, and on getting a specifically female pleasure into the text.

Berg doesn’t disembody herself either, she dismembers bodies, fuses them anarchically with all order of animal bodies, with the landscape. There is a very palpable source of ecstasy in this melee. Berg is somewhere between Plath and me with respect to pleasure and embodiment. In the end, we are all attempting to inject a mortal, non-erotic female subjectivity into the poem, and it’s an almost impossible task—a task, according to Plath (in “Lady Lazarus”), nearly as impossible as reversing history or raising the dead. Thus Plath’s extensive use of grotesque figuration (i.e. there’s a female body/subject here, but it’s anarchic, diseased, covered in worms, houses a mechanical heart, etc.). Thus mine.

RK: “Maximum Gaga” is a world of its own. The language, images, characters. It takes a bit to get tuned in. You have to learn to read it. Have to learn to breathe in a very different atmosphere. But then, for me at least, the rewards are great. Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” come to my mind as works in which I also felt, with great excitement, that I was in a strange, wondrous place. A real world of its own. (For some reason, here, I feel like bringing up Coleridge’s quote about Shakespeare that goes something like this: Shakespeare’s greatness is that in reading him——in the act of reading—— you become a poet.) Can you respond to what I’ve said and tell us, if you like, what other works of this sort are important to you and/or were a real influence on you (and of course I’m not talking about how no two snowflakes, or people, are exactly alike)? If you want also, make this more of a generic tastes-and-influences question and talk about other sorts of work (other arts even) that have been and/or still are important to you.

LG: Octavio Paz claims that poetry is an act of magical intervention that redeems us out of the constraints and delusions of linear time. For him, the poem does not stop time but “contradicts and disfigures it,” producing what Paz calls “anti-history.” “The poet,” he says, “is the geographer of heaven and hell.” Each new poem is a code for a reality that is being unraveled as the poem proceeds. The poem is what he calls “the universe’s double: a space covered in hieroglyphics.” It is an act of deciphering the universe that produces a new cipher, the poem itself (which is, as you say, a world of its own).

In terms of structurally totalizing works, I’m an enormous fan of William Blake and all his world-germinating apocalyptica. Ditto for Rimbaud. Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette is another such work that’s important to me, as is Stein’s Tender Buttons, which rattles along nervewrackingly between cute, cloying domesticities and toothed monsters. And then there are poets like Paul Celan—though he writes shorts lyrics, the sum total of his oeuvre exists entirely in its own aether. One has to, as you say, learn to read it entirely on its own terms.

I’m generally under the spell of the historical avant-garde, especially the work of Blaise Cendrars, Mina Loy, and Vladimir Maykovsky, but I’m also heavily influenced by the visual arts as well: Hannah Hoch’s gender-bending Dada collages, Hans Bellmer’s ball-jointed creepfest dolls, Duchamp in drag, Baroness Else von Freytag’s proto-punk performance art, etc. And then there’s film: I’m a massive Hitchcock fan, and I love Goddard. Their wry, exceedingly dark humor is simply invaluable to me. Silent horror films (and only the silent ones) have a huge place in my aesthetic, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its rad German Expressionist sets.

And yes, absolutely, Joyce, and really, so much fiction in general. I eat fiction like cake. Right now I’m reading Can Xue’s Five Spice Street and nearly breaking my ribs, I’m absolutely rolling with laughter. I wish I’d written it!

RK: Help from editors (publishers). A lot of presses (contests, etc) give pretty much a yes or no on a manuscript. Or perhaps a yes with small edit requests/suggestions. Blake Butler, in my first interview on this blog, talked about how Derek White at Calamari worked really closely with him and was instrumental in bringing his book to its final form and structure. Because of Blake's help the book, according to Blake, changed radically. And for the good. Can you talk about how and to what extent your editors helped you in small and large detail (In the back of the book Johannes and Joyelle of Action Books are two of the four people you thank “for their invaluable feedback and support”)? And if you want any other thoughts on publishing in the small press world?

LG: It’s no great secret that I’m quite close to Joyelle and Johannes. I’ve been friends with them for a number of years (long before they became my publishers), and our aesthetic affinities run very deep. Their role as editors is augmented by their role as compatriots, vandals, and fellow rabblerousers. Their influence on my work is quite osmatic in that I am in near-constant conversation with them, even when I’m not writing.

I don’t give Joyelle and Johannes my books until I have a near-final draft (as they can tell you, I am an obsessive reviser), but by that point, their imprint is already all over the book, not from any overt discussion or editing but because of our ongoing conversation about poetics, aesthetics, and art in general. And then, yes, they’re fantastic editors of my work. They have a sort blinding clarity about cuts, edits, and what Baudelaire calls the secret architectonics of the book, that I find really invaluable. They don’t want to publish anything that resembles anything they’ve ever read before, which is a fantastic challenge and invitation to a writer. For example, I gave them a totally half-baked manuscript (a proto-version of Maximum Gaga) some time ago, and their immediate response was, “Why are you wanting to publish another collection of discreet lyrics? You’ve already done this.” This lit an all-consuming fire in me to forge the longer, interlocking sections that comprise Maximum Gaga. This kind of clarity, the clarity to question not only the work itself but also my conceptual moves, is a real gift.

RK: Decadence. Maximum Gaga is a call to decadence. “Run headlong into Maximum Gaga!” “Ferocious states in which your brain would luxuriate in fields of wiggity-wack.” Many authors lament the fact that one can’t say exactly what one feels or thinks (Neruda, famously, “between the lips and the voice something goes dying”) but that’s nothing to cry about in Maximum Gaga. The linguistic decadence (not to mention the erotic decadence) at play here is “the glorious cage of language from which we never hope to escape.” Some of my favorite parts of Maximum Gaga are where it seems the speaker is completely caught up in the rush of erotic and linguistic excess. “Minkycore” (pages 23, 24, 25) is poetry I’ve read over several times just for the sheer pleasure of it. Just to roll in it. Here the speaker is “riding the rat out,” “eye flaking” into, again and again, “rococo spasm.” These bits, in a way, feel like a woman on a mechanical bull waving her hat around, screaming. But, at the same time, these Minkycore decadences feel very organized. Feel very much like set pieces. And “Maximum Gaga” as a whole, for all its indulgences and excesses, is very organized and structured. Presented in dramatic form. Characters and all. Maximum Gaga is dancing wildly but dancing still on a dance floor in a dance room in a dance house. The structures you use (small scale and larger) are ways, it seems, to keep energies contained and to direct them. It is also, of course, very helpful to the reader. Gives him/her footholds. Railings to hold on to. Can you talk about the interplay of structure and decadence? Of organization and wildness? And, again, of course, take this in whatever direction you want or do not want.

LG: Decadence, in many ways, begins with Baudelaire. Baudelaire is the first to say that modern art has an essentially demonic character because it aims to negate the fatuous delusions and working values of the bourgeoisie (i.e. the doctrine of universal progress, claims of rationality, humanism, etc.). He describes what he calls the new modern subjectivity: in a perpetual nervous state, the modern subject’s nerves are stretched wide to take in a near-constant cavalcade of sensory input. Intensely sensitized, and totally disoriented. Baudelaire links this new subjectivity with the impulse to discard art as the traditional arbiter of moral truths; modern subjects don’t seek moral elevation, they seek only intensification of their perceptual capacity.

My writing is often labeled decadent because of the shocking nature of its contents, but that’s not really the decadence I’m interested in. I’m interested in formal decadence, which in my work surfaces in my use of characters and a kind of hyper-stylized staging that occurs across my books. While lots of narratives that drive contemporary culture have been discredited by critical theory (narratives about sex and gender, for instance), they are still massively afloat in popular culture. Like it or not, they still shape who we are. I don’t try to critique these narratives directly. I try to engage them in a way that reveals them as already crumbling structures, as monstrous in what they presume, what they dictate, what they ask of us.

Decadence, of course, is always linked to the unnatural, and I am all for railing against the cannons of the natural and realism. To be decadent is to announce a disobedience to classical aesthetics, to refuse to enter into a contract with mimesis. Lyotard wonderfully says, “Those who do not examine the rules of art [handed to them by their predecessors] pursue successful careers in mass conformism by communicating by means of the ‘correct rules,’ the endemic desire for reality with objects and situations capable of gratifying it.” For Lyotard, realist art is simply the name for art that refuses to examine the rules of its own construction, its own artifice. He goes on to say, “If they do not want to become supporters of that which exists, the painter and novelist must refuse to lend themselves to therapeutic uses.” Exactly.

Lastly, I would say that my work is an instantiation of yet another turn in the long history of decadence, the post-human turn. The post-human is essentially anti-humanist (the human subject is no longer the center of things) and puts forward a new paradigm of subjectivity in which the human body and mind are totally permeated by any number of technologies. In other words, Baudelaire on speed. The body is no longer a sensitive organ with which to perceive modernity but is the site of modernity. In the world of my poems, our bodies our not only permeated by technology but by other bodies as well. Thus the post-human automatically evokes a vision of the monstrous body, a monstrous subjectivity, which is so central to my work.

RK: Maximum Gaga is a call to decadence (a call to rush headlong into maximum gaga) but it is also a call to (or enactment or engagement of) “Gurlesque” action. There are, of course, many kinds of Gurlesque writing and the type that interests you (according to what you say on Delirious Hem) is the grotesque sort (violence and cuteness). Can you talk a bit about your interest and involvement in “Gurlesque”?

LG: To start off, I should say that the Gurlesque is an entirely descriptive project, not prescriptive. Arielle and I are not spearheading a movement or branding a product. The Gurlesque describes female poets and artists who draw on burlesque performance, kitsch, and the female grotesque to perform femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.

Several years ago, I read a transcript of Arielle’s original talk on the Gurlesque, which she gave at Small Press Traffic in 2002. At the time, I was totally intrigued by Arielle’s take on the Gurlesque, but I was leery of the whole burlesque trope. There’s a branch of feminism that posits self-initiated female exhibitionism as empowering, and it makes me want to throw up in my boots. It’s freaking appalling. I knew that was not what Arielle was getting at, but still the whole burlesque trope made me wary.

All this to say, I thought Arielle brought up a number of fantastic things, particularly the way she linked the Gurlesque to Bahktin’s carnivalesque, and I began to study the history of burlesque theater, which was far more intriguing and radical than I’d suspected. For a long time, I’d been steeping myself in theories of kitsch, camp, the gothic, and the female grotesque—all of which are so important to my work—and I started to see my interests and Arielle’s as complimentary halves of the same line of inquiry. And while Arielle describes the Gurlesque in terms of female empowerment, I provide a (seemingly contradictory) reading of the Gurlesque that embraces the grotesque and the abject. Despite this, our readings of the Gurlesque really do overlap in many places—much more than they diverge—and I’m so happy that, via our multiple readings, the anthology has become a many-headed hydra.

For me, the Gurlesque has its roots in the women of the historical avant-garde—Mina Loy, Baroness Elsa, Djuna Barnes, Hanna Hoch, Gertrude Stein, Sophie Tauber, etc.—who first used their heightened sense of gender as performance to deconstruct gender binaries in their work. This tendency can be traced down the 20th C. through the work of Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Marina Abramovic, Kathy Acker, Alice Notley, Bjork—the list goes on and on. And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson, the original Goth girl.

And while I do enjoy tracing out a Gurlesque genealogy, the Gurlesque is a set of descriptive terms, it’s not a club. The poets in the anthology happen to be salient examples of Gurlesque poetics, but we’re not trying to corral them into a herd or an exclusive group. Each poet’s work can (and should) be read totally independent of the Gurlesque framework, and there are scores of poets and poems that can be read as Gurlesque and that aren’t in the anthology.

As to whether or not men can be Gurlesque (a question I am often asked), I tend to say yes. Look at Vladimir Mayakovsky or Matthew Barney or Johannes Gorannson or Marilyn Manson. As to whether or not it means something different for a man to queer heterosexuality, I don’t know. The question itself is perhaps more productive than any actual answer.

For my drive-by take on the Gurlesque, you can go here:

For ruminations on the Gurlesque and kitsch, look here:

RK: Something on Delirious Hem really stuck out for me: the title of the interview/conversation between Danielle Pafunda and Arielle Greenberg. “Disarming, Destabilizing and Creeping out the Patriarchy.” This could be a subtitle or description of Maximum Gaga in which the central feminine voice and pleasure force refuses to be “manicured” (a rich and wonderful word, by the way) by the Normopaths who believe “A central component of maintaining and reproducing social order/is the management of woman.” In Maximum Gaga the King is “impregnated... with ’coochie sight’” and “18 breasts” are “surgically implanted on his torso.” (reminds me of a 3 or 4 thousand year old pre-Greek statue I saw in the Louvre recently.) Etc, Etc. Can you talk a bit about how you think the Gurlesque is present (or engaged) in Maximum Gaga?

LG: The first section of Maximum Gaga, “The Normopath,” is a dialogue between a female character and her lover, Mino, who happens to be a monster. It’s Minky Momo’s defense of why she prefers Mino to the Normopath, a male character who is “pathologically normal” (and thus the really freakish monster).

Minky Momo imagines desire as the locus of a haunting peculiarity, a necessary engagement with deformity and the grotesque (the material of real bodies, in all their glorious asymmetry), rather than external glamour. She privileges “kink,” where “kink” is not what is done to the body but an alternate state of mind that privileges the quirky, unsightly detail above concern for the whole. As Naomi Schor has argued, the aesthetic of the detail is an explicitly feminine aesthetic that subverts neo-classical ideology. Classical aesthetics always marks the detail (i.e. blemish, protuberance, aberration, etc.) as a feminine threat to the masculine aesthetic of a perfected, unified whole. Minky Momo’s love is a love of excess over formal symmetry or restraint. Via her desire, she’s overturning entire cannons of classical aesthetics.

Ditto for Queen Pasiphae, a figure out of Greek mythology, who’s at the center of “Meat Out of the Eater,” the second half of Maximum Gaga. In the myth, the Queen lusts after an enormous white bull and has Daedalus build her a machine so she can copulate with it. Out of this union comes the Minotaur (the same Mino that’s in the first section of Maximum Gaga).

The Queen’s preference for an animal over her husband, the most powerful man around, is an act of abjection like no other. To human thinking, the bull comically embodies male virility, so she’s fucking a caricature. It’s an intensely performative act. It’s fascinating to me that she chooses to fuck something that can’t judge her in human terms, that can’t judge her as a woman, that doesn’t care what it’s fucking. Hers is an abject desire, no doubt, but it’s also liberatory. It’s very strange to imagine the Queen strapped inside this machine, as though she’s being subjugated and humiliated, while all the while, she’s the one calling the shots. The poor animal is totally prey to human caprice, to the Queen’s compulsory need for pleasure and provisional obliteration. It’s also an image of the post-human body in which human and machine and animal merge into one monstrous circuit of desire.

RK: In your answer to the first question of this interview you said that the attempt to “inject a mortal, non-erotic female subjectivity into the poem” was “an almost impossible task.” The fight that Gurlesque has on its hands seems also to be “almost impossible.” I’d be interested to know if you feel these near impossibilities weigh on how you’ve chosen to end Maximum Gaga. The second last poem ends with the speaker growing into “a girly empire” where “soldiers (are) “buried in acres of burnt-out flesh.” But the end of the last poem goes back on that (I think): “I said Dahling Shut your cuntbox / I was still veering/to obey/ my not-owned form.” This ending made me think of the ending of Aase Berg’s “With Deer” where things seem to veer back on themselves a bit, strangely: “Now it is time for the cutting to slowly start to heal.” Your thoughts, please.

LG: I more or less think that impossible tasks are the only ones worth taking on. Besides, I’m tantalized by the prospect of reversing or overthrowing orders in a totally naïve and childish way!

As to the “not-owned form,” it’s a challenge, isn’t it, not to be owned by something? And I’m not engaging in liberalspeak here, I don’t mean being owned by corporate interests or the media, etc. (though, that too) but by people and ideas, particularly our own ideas about ourselves and about our relationship(s) to power.

In the end, I don’t believe in a stable or coherent self; I think we all harbor conflicting multitudes. I think we’re all grotesque monsters. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s pretty freaking joyful.


Keith N B said...

great interview rauan.

lara, i’ve read some of your thoughts on the gurlesque via joahannes blog, and elsewhere some. i’m rather intrigued by your particular articulation of it, which encompasses a larger historical and logical scope, and possesses wider implications than other versions discussed. i look forward to hearing your thoughts as they develop. unrelated to that, i was struck by your baudelaire comment regarding the ‘modern subjectivity’, which extends the lineage of information overload, our currently normal way of being, further back than i had anticipated. i’d really like to read more about that. could you direct me to the essay or book in which he talks about that? or also where he talks about the ‘secret architectonics of the book’, which is intriguing and would be helpful as it applies to some ideas i’ve been attempting to articulate. wonderful ideas. thanks for any leads.

Rauan Klassnik said...

thanks for the note, Keith,... i'll pass yr query on to Lara.... best, Rauan

chicagopoetry said...

Check out a review of Gurlesque here