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'Corean Music' part 6: The 'Swedish Gurlesque,' Sara Tuss Efrik and Stina Kajaso

As most people who read this blog might know, “Gurlesque” is a word coined by Arielle Greenberg in 2001 as a way of describing Chelsey Minnis’s first book Zirconia, as well as a larger contemporary trend of poetry: “... the particular brand of sensuality/sentimentality at work here is one which I believe is in the zeitgeist: a 'gurlesque' aesthetic, a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.” She continues by describing this as a poetry of “a sensibility which walks the line between outrage and laughter, sexuality and innocence, raw and frilly. Chelsey Minnis's Zirconia is a thrilling example of this style.”

In 2010, Saturnalia Press published an anthology, edited by Greenberg and Lara Glenum, that sought to begin to map out the terrain that this gurlesque poetry opened up. Rather than the accepted lineages of contemporary poetry, to me the Gurlesque is an aesthetic that dares to be fascinated by "Corean music"; that radically re-reads Sylvia Plath through Kathy Acker and video art, the gothic and surrealism, glamour and violence,  queer theory and feminism; that inhabits and parasites the troubling and spectacular imagery of mass culture.  And importantly, it immediately seemed to me that the gurlesque was both very American and in touch with a lot of foreign poetry I was reading (Lara Glenum’s first essay on the gurlesque was about Swedish poet Aase Berg.).



At the end of last year, the young Swedish scholar, writer and editor Maria Margareta Österholm wrote a great book, A Girl Laboratory in Selected Parts, which brought together a lot of strains of feminism and queer theory—Julia Kristeva, Valerie Solanas, the Swedish SKAM Manifesto, Judith Halberstam – with ideas of the gothic and the notion of the Gurlesque in order to bring attention to a line of Swedish writers—starting in the late 80s and up through today.


The book does the important work of providing a provocative and inspiring context for a lot of writing by women who had been dismissed by mainstream Swedish culture (for example as “anorexic writing” or “bulimic writing”) as well as giving a new context for some more established writers (like Monika Fagerholm and Sara Stridsberg, even Ann Jäderlund). But most of all, it has given people a way of reading a slew of brilliant young writers, many of them published by new, small presses like the feminist presses Rosenlarv and Dockhaveri.

[I published Österholm’s English summary of the book on Montevidayo. As well as her friend Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s article that used the gurlesque to discuss the queer Finland Swedish poet Eva Stina Byggmästar.].

The book has stirred a powerful reception in Sweden, generating a lot more high-profile discussion of the word “Gurlesque” than happened in the U.S. (while in the U.S. there has been a lot of blog discussions, it seems the gatekeepers of high culture have done a good job of keeping it out). There have been articles in pretty much all the major Swedish newspapers as well as a bunch of web journals and blogs. The prominent web journal Ett lysand namn recently published a special issue devoted to the Gurlesque (an essay by me appears in this volume, in English).

In an extensive essay on the gurlesque in Dagens Nyheter (what might be called The New York Times of Sweden), which partially responds to Österholm’s book and partially to new books by the writers like Lidija Praizovic, Lina Hagelbäck and Sara Tuss Efrik, the prominent Swedish poet Anna Hallberg writes: “But what happens when the doll game flips out? If it takes over? If the roles it stages are not pedagogical or constructive, but grotesque, perverse and violent? In feminist theory, this form of artistic expression is called Gurlesque.” She concludes: “When Aylin Bloch Boynukisa writes in 'The Geneology of the Girl Organ': 'I change course with my porcelain eye/my blinking gigantic doll eye,' it’s a change of course I can believe in.”


I’m going to give a couple of quick forays into what I see as the “Swedish gurlesque” of the moment.

First up: “Swedish Summer” by Stina Kajaso. Kajaso translated this for me so that I could include it in Action, Yes a while back. I had long read her blog, Son of Dad. The blog is Kajaso’s brilliant performance as text (she is also a performance artist). She writes about her supposed life as well as Eurovision and things she watches on TV and reads on the Internet. But it’s not exactly commentary on what is happening (like I am doing right now, though she does write on Eurovision for a newspapers); it is part of the on-going world, it is immersive and addictive; it’s both a fan fiction and a guerilla attack in/through/with pop culture. Through her ridiculous blog-persona, Kajaso pushes all the inane, violent nonsense of the Internet out of itself—ecstatically. Like I wrote in my last post, excess is violence:

Icebear from Action, Yes online quarterly on Vimeo.

Action, Yes online quarterly.

We got IT:
Sinking and dancing and feeling great.

But it feels a little wrong to read her writings as works of literature. They are part of the on-going performance of her blog. I just read this on her blog today:

Gaga is naked again.

A skeleton with two balls on it.


I want to be a masquerade.

You want to as well.

You want to fly away with me above all the suffering, make sense and have fun outfits.

In clubs. But without all the douchebags.

(to Katy Perry’s Roar crescendo)

Write a diary like Grizzly Man.

With “great” “curiosity”

The world is tres weird.
I want to be Edward in Twilight.


I sit on the train every day with fake blood in my hair because we don’t have a shower at work.

I love how the girly world of Katy Perry somewhere becomes connected to the deathly ridiculousness of Herzog’s visionary fool. Kajaso’s writing moves through these sudden shifts and outbursts. I love how suddenly she is no longer in the world of Twilight, but on the train from work with blood in her hair: the poem as the violent spasm between the world of Twilight and work. But these two “worlds” are infected by each other: the fake blood from Twilight is in her hair! The fake blood is a moment that feels “authentic” (the job, the train, the hair) but though this line is in the position of an epiphany, it won’t bring Kajaso’s speaker back together again, as queer scholar Robert McRuhr has described the epiphany in his work on disability theory. Kajaso never becomes whole, but remains sloppy, pathological and kitschy. Sick with the necroglamour of mass culture.

In her performances, Kajaso takes all those troubling, grotesque signifiers that are brought up by Lady Gaga and other pop music performers (and traffickers of spectacular imagery), and amplifies them, distorts them, parasites them. This is not “critique” as is so common in scholarly discourse, but something else. Something more like Ryan Trecartin’s video work. Something that traverses media, that ignores rules of taste, that fan-fictions pop culture—and by “fan fictions” I mean something violent, something more like Manny Farber’s classic “termite art,” something that

… seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity… The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.

Farber might be talking about Kajaso when he writes:

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.


Another instance of a multi-media, termite-art gurlesque is the work of Sara Tuss Efrik.


Efrik is a sometime member of the transgressive, gender-violenced performance group Teater Mutation, which often restages, termites and blows up classic works like John Ford’s ‘Tis A Piety She’s a Whore and Romeo and Juliet into violent pageants, travesties and farces (that I think the Elizabethan theater-goers would love). In their manifesto, they write:

We want to bring the woman-monster back on stage, we want to create a space for the immoral without ironic distance, we want to allow our desires, we want to subject the woman’s body to violence and let it subject others to violence, want to allow it to sympathize with the apparently evil without moralizing conclusions.

In our contemporary U.S. poetry discussions, we tend to be eager to see works as critiques or subversions, to find in them “moralizing conclusions,” but this is an aesthetic of “Corean music”—an aesthetic that involves us with violence and grotesquerie, that finds both pleasure and horror (they are hard to tell apart) as the art comes out of itself, ecstatically, excessively.


At Action, Yes we published some of Efrik’s “automanias,” her termite-like writing through various movies and artworks:

"To Chin-Chin and Grandmother’s Paintings"

I am the Twin Girl who breeds new degenerate species. I happen to be the Siamese Girl who consists of different parts that come loose. The Puzzle Animals escape from me. I am the Twin Girl or the Siamese Girl. It is impossible to magnify me. I am two girls or many. I have been doubled in all eternity, been polished aglow. I have a necklace around my own throat. I am We.

In our visible breastcage hides the Rabbit. We do not want to release her. We do not want to allow her to wander along the horizon, on the skin-sky; on the path to the fence. Not over the mountain nor up-and-down on the golden frame. We do not want to bury her in the blackest blackness, behind the cloth, at the lookout place or anywhere else for that matter.

The Rabbit that lives in our breastcage is our brand; the symbol of the Siamese.  The Rabbit is our epidemic, the nest of the coal-burning. Above our joined Girl Body fly vulture birds, screaming for food that our mother dropped somewhere along the way.

The Rabbit that hides in our breastcage is the hole into our joined Girl Body. It is the black glowing, staring, gazing, the inward peephole. There is the nest with the bird bones and children’s bones in the bed of body parts. Our Rabbit flirts with the escapee who is the White Rabbit. It is the white one who has escaped from us, who runs outside our body and teases the imprisoned Breastcage Rabbit. The gape opens in our open breastcage. Our narrow tongues move inwards, into the Rabbit’s throat and answer the harangues with a gurgle.

We scream in each other’s Twin-Ears: Stop the attacks! Stop the flow! Stuff the finger into the nothing-hole. Plug up that which hears, which travels in air-drownings. Plug it up! Kill that which is astray in the breastcage! Our Breastcage Rabbit is mute. The Rabbit is the concentrated point in our joined Twin Body. It is the fixating strangle, our lonely destiny.

Like Rebecca Loudon’s poem in my last post, this work is a kind of violent fan fiction (like Loudon’s poem, which is a response to Henry Darger, this piece responds to the paintings of Emeli Theander), and like Loudon’s piece, Efrik generates a kind of “violent ambience” where the foreground melds with background, where the excesses pushes through the body, the poem, spasmodically. It is not the kind of easy, peaceful ego-less-ness imagined by a lot of “ambient” theory, but a horrifying ambience: “We do not want to release her.” As in Teater Mutation’s manifesto, the female body is both subjected to violence and subjects others (such as us, the readers) to violence—like “ambience” it moves in many directions at once.

And as in Loudon's piece, this ambient violence generates a kind of monstrosity. In The Girl Laboratory, Österholm draws on Judith Halberstam's book on the Gothic, Skin Shows, arguing that: "The monstrous expressions are extravagant and boundary-less in both form and content. Both the monsters and the texts they inhabit are too much and a part of the horror experience is the infinite number of interpretations, the sense that the meaning runs amock." We might say that the Gothic is another word for works of art that are not scared of the "too much" that American poetry is constantly trying to discipline (as I talked about in a previous post), but rather tries to inhabit this plague ground.


Like with my other posts here on the Poetry Foundation and on the blog Montevidayo, I've tried to explain why I am fascinated by certain works of art and poetry. This is my last post for the Poetry Foundation and perhaps my last post on Montevidayo as well for a  long time. I'm going back home to Sweden next month to finish my next book, The Sugar Book/Sockerboken. I hope some of you found some of what I've blogged about here to be of value. Thanks to the Poetry Foundation for agreeing to let me inhabit its blog! Goodbye!

Originally Published: August 29th, 2013

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...