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
a bouquet: girl
I wanted to cover you with other names but I could not
come up with anything better
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.]