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

By and | 1 May 2019

TP: There is also a strong sense in several poems, and cumulatively throughout the collection, that these are poems about poetry, an Ars Poetica, if you will, from the first poem ‘Heartstarter/New Project’ to the penultimate ‘Gingerette,’ which echoes the title. And this metatextual aspect emerges despite, or – I want to say partly because of – the dazzling surface play, the wit, the urbanity, the indubitable charm of the poems’ persona and her preoccupations. She almost dares us to dismiss her as superficial, as fleetingly fashionable, as ‘girly,’ but there’s also a defiant structure that supports her pursuits, and your poetic pursuits. The reader would dismiss them at their peril. It’s almost like you’ve written your own Defense of Poetry – of the kind you want to write. A mandate for it, a manifesto. This feels urgent, and exciting, and contagious. It makes me want to be part of it. Can you talk about that?

MB: This is the juiciest question ever, and I want to work up to it a bit!! What you’ve written above describes exactly what I’m attempting … yes, it is defiant in its intent. One thing I’ve attempted throughout my work is a poetic recovery of that which is often dismissed as trivial, kitsch, outdated, overly (or overtly) girly.

In fact, recovery is not accurate … it looks like recovery but it’s just a bringing-to-the-surface of what I’ve archived in my mind’s eye. This is what I believe some of the poets in the Gurlesque collection are doing also: making statements that ascribe value to what others may ‘dismiss at their peril’, as you say! My poetics work from a universe of the girly, and everything I’ve interacted with over my life that has been catalogued away. I also have a fierce impulse to refigure content that may be relegated to the category of nostalgia. Even as I type, I’m thinking of a lamp I had as a child. The base of the lamp was the doll, then she held a parasol that was the lampshade itself, with globe inside.

They’re called Bradley dolls, they were most popular in the 60s and 70s. When you Google for an image, you can see all the captions that begin with lines such as: ‘I had this …’; ‘My sister had one but …’; ‘Ours had the parasol as lamp shade’, and phrases such as like ‘I hated …’ and ‘I loved …’. Barbie dolls also have a long history of inciting polarised reactions. The personal is political, in doll land. Sianne Ngai’s theory of the ‘cute’ positions the concept of cuteness as a critically neglected aesthetic category. Ngai writes of ‘cute’ aesthetics creating a dual response of wanting to master or be in control of the cute object / subject, at the same time as provoking feelings of tenderness. But she also speaks of cute as an alternative entry point to understanding our relationship to art in a late-capitalist, consumerist culture; In her article ‘The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde’ (2005) Ngai writes: ‘… while one does not necessarily have to have an aesthetic relation to artworks, one can very readily have aesthetic relations to entities which are not art and to the artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandise that surrounds us on an everyday basis in particular.’ When I read this, I’m imagining the Bradley doll as an entry point to ‘feminism’; that is, you don’t have to have an aesthetic relation (or reaction) to feminism, but you can certainly have a relation to the doll (who is also a consumable product). By which time you might be engaging with some feminist concepts anyway.

From there, it’s not much of a leap to consider my poetry as a style of feminist work that suggests a ‘consuming’ of feminism rather than a style that ‘lives’ feminism, or is somehow in pursuit of a feminist zenith. So, my poems contain this image of the Bradley dolls as much as they try to contain many other depictions of women via the act of representation.

For example, do a browser search for the Rennie Ellis photograph entitled ‘Working Girl, Kings Cross 1970-71’. It could be right up alongside the Bradley doll, in the same poem. This second image that came up in my Google image search is the above image of a woman’s foot with a barcode tattooed on the her ankle, in ballerina-like high heels. It’s another image of a woman’s body for sale (scan her barcode for a quick transaction), but we don’t know if it’s figurative or literal; a meme, advertising material for self-employed sex worker, or an illustration for an investigative report on sex slavery? I am considering all of this, as I look, because the internet makes assumption impossible. For me, these are equally weighted poem ingredients to be placed in proximity and when I write I’m attempting to use these ingredients (my experience of visual materials) to activate imagery that takes the reader into a kind of shared collective imagination; it’s always an attempt to get closer to the impactful, saturated experience of the visual. I love the feeling that I can never quite get there, with words alone, because it sets up an in-built and, perpetual constraint. A poetic urgency comes from the potential that this combination of aesthetic and affective content be seen by others as suspect: ‘when I was a [wo]man I [should have] put childish things away’… to paraphrase The Book of Corinthians – and my need to counter that with my poetics. The Bradley doll is gauche, she is from another era, she is made of the most combustible, flammable (earth-destroying) materials, she’s a little trashy and she’s a toy, both literally and metaphorically just like the above quoted images. So the Bradley doll is breaking lots of rules of good taste, and ethics, and in a variety ways. But it feels retro to me to just ignore her because of these reasons, as I write a poem. Why not show respect and announce her instead? Why not put her with the adult women such as the sex worker, the disembodied bar-coded feet? Not that any of my poems contain an actual Bradley doll, or a bar-code tattoo … they stand in for all the other Gurlesque, girly, overly feminised content, for the purposes of my argument.

This is all a very long way to get to my position that feminism contains all the things that are awkward, or well-meaning, or bursting at the seams, or creative, or ill-thought out that all human endeavours contain. Whether you were allowed Barbie dolls as a child, versus not allowed them, you’ll likely have a perspective on this kind of form. My point is this; show me the Barbie doll wielding child and I’ll show you the rebellious or conforming woman. Relax, people, strike out whichever one is not applicable! Because you can find examples of both outcomes. I recently watched a Barbie doll documentary on SBS, and Jennifer Baumgardner (co-author of Manifesta: young women, feminism and the future [2000] and third-wave feminist scholar) was interviewed saying she wasn’t allowed Barbie as a child because her mum was involved in the early 70s women’s movement, and so Jennifer reacted by organising a lemonade stand and then bought her own Barbie with the proceeds. Which she said was one of her earliest feminist lessons, that to be independent you need to make your own money.

This being said, my position when it comes to feminism and poetry is the only way you can demonstrate what poetry can be, is to create enough examples. Then, you have something to point to that can’t be repudiated. People can disagree with its propositions, but the poetry exists nonetheless; it’s not always a stack of dolls triggering wild ambivalence … but this is a viable active ingredient. That, or any other glitter bomb that can stage a question mark for poetic purpose. Bring it, stare them in the plastic eyes and see what shakes out.

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