Friday, September 26, 2008

Lifting Belly High Conference - Reports from the Field

Two Takes on Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry, a Conference in Pittsburgh

Organized by Elisabeth Joyce, Linda Kinnahan, Elizabeth Savage, and Ellen McGrath Smith and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Lifting Belly High: Women's Poetry since 1900” was hosted at Duquesne University September 11-13. The varying panel sessions made up of poets, publishers, and professoriate covered topics ranging from futurism to lyric revival. While not absent from our discussions, gender wasn't often a foregrounded subject. Rather, the talks focused simply on poetry—its range, complexity, and craft.

My interest in going to Pittsburgh was in part spurred by Linda Kinnahan's participation; as I poet working in lyric modes, I read her book Lyric Interventions in 2004, and was happy to discover a compelling interrogation of what constitutes experimental writing. I was curious to see how this line of argument had developed since, and to go to presentations and readings by her colleagues that are also inspired thinkers. Participants included Rachel Blau Duplessis, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, and Claudia Rankine.

Rankine's featured event was a multimedia presentation of new work along with a reading from Don't Let Me Be Lonely. John Lucas, Rankine's husband, collaborated with Rankine, using his photographs of airplane travellers in one of the digital works. Another poem used footage of Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup match, voiced over by Rankine's poem that used pastiche, drawing together fragments from canonical texts on race—from Shakespeare's Othello to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The discussion that followed the reading—and coursed throughout the conference—is a testament to the vitality of poetry's stakes, and the rigorous work happening in women's poetry.

--Charmaine Cadeau


The women of Fence Books traveled to Pittsburgh, PA a couple of weekends ago to attend the first Lifting Belly High conference on women’s poetry. Despite the rain and the grey towers of the financial district, the main room of the conference was fortuitously in the midst of cocktail hour when we arrived, bleary-eyed from eight hours on the highway.

On the drive, we had discussed our conceptions of Feminism and personal feminisms. We agreed: the efforts of first-wave and even second-wave feminists seemed given, raised as we were by strong mothers (and fathers) in atmospheres of occupational possibility. But we wondered at the definition of the third-wave, and our places in it, and the place of Fence, which publishes mostly female poets from an aesthetic and mostly (we thought) apolitical editorial standpoint.

With wine in hand, we asked Joyelle McSweeney, Lara Glenum, and Arielle Greenberg to nail down this elusive term for us. The third-wave, they told us, is defined by its opposition to essentialisms of femininity, and sees gender more as enacted role-play than as a biological determined set of characteristics. Ahhh, we thought, yes.

Our generous educators would later convene for an early morning panel entitled “Radical Remakings: Strategies of Excess.” (It often seemed that panel titles barely fit their content, but in this instance the title was appropriate.) Participants included Ms. McSweeney, who spoke on Hannah Weiner; Cathy Park Hong, who focused on Inger Christensen’s and Harriet Mullen’s use of the ABCeDarius and other methods to “talk back” within the confines of ordered systems; Catherine Wagner, who introduced the little-known British poet Maggie O’Sullivan and her use of text as an object for performance, as presentation of “the face of the world before it was born”; and Lara Glenum, who further distilled the category of “Gurlesque,” coined in 2002 by Arielle Greenberg.

The term Gurlesque was new to me, though I’ve been reading Gurlesque works for some time. It’s a perfectly appropriate name for a style of writing that is perfectly inappropriate, that uses cuteness and youthful femininity alongside and against the physically grotesque, the kitschy, the violent, and the sentimental. “Gurlesque poets are unafraid of making poems that seem silly, romantic or cute,” said Greenberg, “rather, they revel in cuteness, and use it to subversive ends, complicating the relationship between feminism and femininity. Gurlesque poems own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful.”

Hence the Gurlesque as a perfect example of third-wave feminism, with a highly performative and in-yr-face mentality that is refreshing though often disturbing, easily misunderstood for its superficial “bad”ness (see Ron Silliman’s review of Chelsey Minnis’s “Bad Bad”; June 30, 2008).

Here’s an excerpted example of the Gurlesque from Ariana Reines’s “Coeur de Lion”:

Your arms are brown
And have beautiful veins
That you like. I like your hands.
Your eyes are blue but
Because they need so much light
Your pupils are always dilated and
Your eyelashes are nice. You cannot
Cry but sometimes you whimper as
Though you are crying when
You want to show that you are feeling
When you shaved your beard
Your mouth was too big
And I liked it.

To find out more, read Arielle Greenberg’s 2002 talk online at
and visit

Many thanks to the organizers and participants of Lifting Belly High.

-- Colie Collen