COSTUME DRAMECONOMIES (WHAT THE NEW NEW SINCERITY CAN DO FOR YOU!)
By Carina Finn
My final academic experience before leaving for New York was to give a talk from my Theory of the Ingénue at a conference on Opera and Performance Theory at Notre Dame. I showed up to give the talk in the middle of the afternoon, right before my final thesis reading, in a pretty typical outfit: red-orange lace babydoll dress, white thigh-high fishnets with giant bows, black over-the-knee-boots, a blue satin ribbon from a poet-friend worn as a belt. When I stood at the podium in this room full of old white men and literally one woman and talked about Judith Butler and kind of talked smack about Freud, people actually shook their heads. They refused to make eye contact. No one would ask me questions or even talk to me after I finished. I took a Notre Dame-emblazoned napkin full of M&Ms and went on my way.
I wonder whether my ideas would have been received differently had I worn a black suit, or even a dress that was not bright red, or had eschewed the fishnets and boots in favor of some sensible heels or ballet flats. But, as is always the case when I read or speak in public, my outfit was a major component of my performance. A director wouldn’t send a Violetta onstage to sing Sempre Libera in sweatpants, and I wouldn’t throw myself into a hostile intellectual environment without my fishnets & bows.
In a lot of ways, a costume is the most direct way to convey sincerity. Danielle talks about a “literacy problem” in her post, and I think that’s an accurate assessment; luckily, most people know how fashion signifies. Even if you never watch soap operas, you can tell within five minutes who is the backstabbing bitch, the ingénue, the jealous mom, the miser, the rake. Try watching a telenovela if you don’t speak any Spanish – you’ll still get it.
The great thing about costuming in Minnis’ poems is that it ensures that even if you don’t “get” it, even if it’s not your “thing,” the reader is still thrust into the physical/visual space of the poem, whether or not they want to be there. It’s Artaudian theater; it’s Ke$ha; it’s Kim Kardashian’s ass. You’re entitled to feel uncomfortable but you have no choice but to look.
Especially in poems like Skull Ring or P-irate, there is the sense that the quality of necessary utterance that makes the poems great comes directly out of the costumes, set-dressings, and accessories that populate the poem. There aren’t even bodies, probably – in Sunburn, the body and the costume are a singular, shiny, stage-light-crispy entity that gets to lie in a hotel bed and feel bratty while the rest of the family eats dinner.
The state of the speaker at the end of Sunburn, reveling in self-aware petulance the way Genet gets off on excrement (this is really apparent in P-Chelsey, too), is one of absolute transparency. In a version of Mink that she read at The Left Hand Reading Series (you can hear this audio online), she cites “the faux-invisible Lucite heel everyone sees through;” that other sincerity, the Poetry magazine kind, with its “disappearing” form and narrative ambition. That is not the sincerity of the Brat, or if it is, it’s only because the Lucite heel is filled with dollar bills.
In Johannes’ very adorable recent post about sincerity and melodrama in Dear Ra, he talks about the wasteful inflation of Art, how stupid it is to live, especially in New York City, probably, just to make this thing that has a negative economy. That sense of tangible hopelessness and abjection is part of what makes Dear Ra both a good book and a Cute/Bratty book – as with Minnis’ speaker, you kind of feel like you shouldn’t like him, but you do. They both get wrapped up in trappings and things that function as talismans for their angst; they throw very fashionable temper tantrums because there is nothing else to do.
The problem, of course, is that fashion has a very definitive economy; a costume carries with it an implication of status, and part of the fashion-economy relies on the concept of making money off of the same kinds of negations and disjunctions that appear in JG & CM’s poems: think Madonna’s daughter Lourdes’ fashion line, Material Girl, which is standard 90s grungewaifwear mass-produced and sold for middling prices at Macy’s.
So, what do we get from calling costuming sincere? Economic power. Leverage. We can take all kinds of circuitous routes to apply it to the Metaphysicals and “legitimize” the concept, or we can look at the state of contemporary American poetry (as a self-interested American poet, this is my primary concern; sorry J <3) and its wasteland of debt-ridden MFA graduates who will never make a cent from writing but have amazing wardrobes, great poetry on small presses that barely break even – even with a BEST-SELLER! (800 copies?), gutless poetry on commercial presses that still doesn’t make any money (but lets a Big House feel kind of noble), and the internet the Internet. Walking out of a poem in a great outfit that didn’t cost much, or that cost your very ability to live in a room and eat food, or that cost a superbroken heart, or a limb, or your Academic Career, and calling it Poetry and calling it Fashion without reserve or apology is ballsy, and Bratty, and sincere.