‘That is some crafty bite’: Trisha Pender Interviews Melinda Bufton

By and | 1 May 2019

TP: Terrific, and if we pop back to covers for a minute, you could say that Superette is sibling not only to your own Girlery but also to the Gurlesque collection. Superette brings the glitter eye to Gurlesque’s glitter tongue!

I’ve just finished reading Arielle Greenberg’s introduction to the book, where she describes a similar process to the one you narrate, of gleeful discovery and recognition on finding a whole raft of girl poets out there writing and publishing. Greenberg writes: ‘These poems were silly and scary, pretty and dirty, wild and demanding. Wow, I thought, this is a kind of women’s poetry I can really get behind! I feel like I know this poetry’. And her co-editor Lara Glenum describes Gurlesque poets as ‘irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends’. It does sound like a movement was building in disparate places throughout the noughties that revived riot grrrl aesthetics and politics for a new millennium (among other things). Who are some of the poets you respond to most in this movement, not just in this collection, but beyond it as well?

MB: First of all, Chelsea Minnis. Once, years ago, Fiona Hile (who is a close friend) wrote a blog post for Jacket2 where she discussed the idea of contemporary troubadour/trobiaritz poetry (as well as bats and Kurt Vile etc.). She wrote this exciting thing about Girlery, in the discussion:

These poems are coming onto you and they’re not going to desist until they get what they want. At the same time, they’re waiting for the reader to make the first move. Power and powerlessness. We’re used to this insistence in poems by men. As a Sydney poet recently noted, Keats’ “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain!”, as stirring as it is, can read a bit like a series of what the Urban Dictionary describes as ‘Low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances.’ This ‘negging’, though it presents as the inverse of the elevation that is the mainstay of courtly love, shouldn’t surprise us. As Clemens points out in Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy, what Lacan takes from troubadour poetry is its emphasis on ‘staging’ the impossibility of the sexual relationship to distinguish psychoanalytic ethics from a more generalized ethics of the good.

Now, the first thing I want to say about this nugget of quality Fiona Hile-thought is that I once spent an afternoon reading The Game by Neil Strauss, so I have a reasonable working knowledge of early-2000s pick-up artist concepts. When reading Fiona’s piece, I realised that she was right…my poems do ‘neg’ the reader a bit. This is what Chelsea Minnis’ work does for me; for example, in her book Baby, I Don’t Care (2018) she has these lines in the poem entitled ‘Business’: ‘Let’s settle our accounts. / Let’s conduct our interviews from the bathtub. / Now hand me my robe. / There’s a pretty good chance I love you, / but I’ll have to take it up with my board of directors’. The other important thing in the above passage is the idea of troubadour poetry ‘staging the impossible’ as a way of distancing this from a broader ‘ethics of the good’. Because I’m not interested in my poetry behaving itself, this appeals; I’m not looking for my poetry to ‘do good works’, but for it to expand the categories of feminist poetry. I’m not setting out to be a trobiaritz (though, I really love the way Fiona wrote about this) but I am interested in seeing the poems operate as they please within a ‘staged’ space.

Dorothea Lasky’s poetry also excites me for her use of run-on text, and the way her humour can slice in like the punchline you had no idea you were expecting. Perhaps she’s always ahead of us, and I do like poetry that is a bit out-of-breath. This excerpt is from one of Lasky’s poems included in Gurlesque, ‘The Moss Play*’:

Biography: I called Maggie Sullivan, the little girl I used to babysit and tomorrow we are going to meet for lunch and at 1 o’clock and I lied I did not call her because her mother hates me.

This poem is so breathy, and I think it invites you to read it fast, but that second ‘and’ (‘and I lied’) changes the rhythm just slightly, just enough to take this from a sentence that could have been written by a teenage girl in a text message (for example) to a line of poetry. The detail of the tripled-up r’s in ‘tomor /rrow’ also does something of this work; of reminding you that you’re in a poem, of reminding you it’s not a text message. There’s also a ‘cuteness’ of tone. This poem is twirling its hair with a finger, as it tells us that it lied.

Returning to Lasky, for punchline genius, here is the opening five lines from Lasky’s ‘Boobs Are Real’, also published in the Gurlesque anthology:

They stole my tires
They knocked down my house
They killed my father
They cut off my fingers
And I thought, “And I did like those fingers.”

The poem goes in a slightly different direction after this, but those opening lines set up the terms. The first four lines of this poem, if read alone, would be replicating a whole lot of other things; maybe confessional poetry of the 1970s, maybe country music lyrics. The fifth line suggests a more mouthy negotiation with this whole catastrophe (not the catastrophe of the poem’s imagery … the catastrophe of subjectivity or voice in poetry by women being conflated with their real and actual selves).

By the poem’s end, ‘they’ have created a lot of ruckus and pain for the ‘I’ of the poem, but ‘… At some point what was taken away / Was given back / In the form of boobs’. Good deal? Bad deal? Well, that will depend on individual perspective. But it’s like a whole Caitlin Moran memoir in one poem. So that is some crafty bite, when it comes to delivery.

TP: Ah ha! Your reference to Caitlin Moran brings up another set of intertexts for Superette, the myriad texts of popular culture and celebrities. The poem ‘Ms Alterity’ alone stars Frances Bean, Debbie Harry, and Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, among others. These figures clearly signify beyond their real-life referents; they are bigger than themselves. There are sooo many pop culture references in this book. The ones that I got, I loved. References to Saturday Night Fever, Sylvia Plath, and Dana Scully resonated for me and made me feel part of something, included in a generational joke. But those same references were the ones my students had to Google. And I had to Google ones that they understood but I didn’t. Personally, I don’t mind doing this, but it raises the question of accessibility (always a tricky one for poetry, and not necessarily necessary). But I was interested in the way you are setting your reader a set of intertextual challenges. Is it important to recognise all the references?

MB: No, it’s definitely not important to recognise all that’s there. That kind of mixed experience you describe above – that, amongst a handful of readers they will likely recognise different things – is what I would expect, and I’m happy with that. But I guess I hope that there may be a reader one day who understands none of the references but still enjoys the poetry. It could be a vain hope. It also pleases me that you and the students were reading the poems in this way, with Google open, ha! Because, sometimes that’s how I write them. A few years ago I did a guest lecture to the creative writing studio students at RMIT about my poem ‘Goddesses, The Bomb’, and I opened by telling them that I knew nothing about classical mythology, and wrote the poem anyway, as though I did. This is because ideas jostling up against suggestions, rubbing up to aesthetics are more important to me. Accuracy, not so important. Anyway, it was great because, I was telling the students that you don’t need to know all the history to write poetry, concluding with ‘I can’t even tell you about Persephone, to be honest’, and as I spoke a few students were checking their phones and one called out: ‘here it is … Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and she did go to the underworld!’ It was so great; everyone got excited, at this Googled history-check for me, in-situ. I thanked them and said I was glad it worked out, poem-wise.

Having said that, there are many categories of histories to consider, with varied weights; I work with pop culture because it’s full of constructed elements. When I use public figures, or characters from film, TV, books, it’s because they are in the public domain and they already come layered with imagery, grotesquery, myth; they are already beyond any kind of stable site. Using elements of pop culture from the past further blurs the edges and allows me to make comment via homage. The poem ‘Stephanie, Saturday Night Fever, Assistant Editor Virago’ is me creating some fan-poetry storylines for the character Stephanie, post the film’s ending. Remember she has that creepy older boyfriend who’s Pygmalion-ing her into a Manhattan woman? And she’s expressing to Tony that her boyfriend ‘tells her what to read, where to go out’, stuff like that. And she works in publishing, or he’s just got her a job in publishing? This scene is about class – Tony’s also trying to escape Brooklyn – but in the name of intersectionality why shouldn’t she get a proper feminist awakening – because, it was on tap, all around her, it’s 1977! – and maybe get to London. Why not? It’s better than imagining her fate with Manhattan guy. However, there’s another thing going on when I curate pop culture material, which is a montage in my mind of encountering all of the texts I used to make this poem, except I rely on my memories of a text as a source. A rough set of notes towards a poem might look something like this (with date of my encounter following title of text):

  1. Saturday Night Fever dir. John Badham, 1977 – watched a dozen times, at least over 1990 – 1993 (approx.)
  2. The Last Days of Disco dir. Whit Stillman, 1998 – watched twice in 1998 (they work in publishing/they go to discos).
  3. The Women’s Room Marilyn French, 1977 – read in 1997 (not as exciting as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, but better for this poem)
  4. Big Women, Fay Weldon, 1997 – read in 1997 (all the feminists argue with each other)
  5. The Little Match Girl Hans Christian Anderson, 1845 – no doubt watched or read in multiple versions during childhood, dates unknown (for fable feel)

Much of what I’m taking from these memories of reading/watching these texts is a kind of mood, rather than specific details. However, the details will then find their way in, which is how we have Stephanie acting out parts of The Women’s Room. It’s always a mash-up.

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