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Poets on Pop Culture: Three New Feminist Poetry Books that Deal With Reality TV, Shopping, and Rihanna

a line from nicole steinberg's poem: women have been washed out for generations

April is National Poetry Month, a perfect excuse to spend a few minutes today reading some interesting new feminist poems.

Like many young feminists, I fell in love early on with formative activist poets like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa. Those poets’ best known works foreground women’s experiences and personal politics in unapologetically direct narratives, and this work helped inspire me to become a poet myself. At first, I thought that this type of directly political writing might be the only way to bring feminism into my own poetry, but Gurlesque poetry, avant-garde women “Language” poets, and female Slam poets like Jessica Care Moore quickly proved to me that there are far more than just one way to write a feminist poem.

Certain contemporary poets have put a fresh spin on the evolution of feminist poetics—their work uses pop culture references as a means for addressing gender issues. Three new poetry collections featuring socially conscious pop culture poems include Jennifer Tamayo’s YOU DA ONE, Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, and Nicole Steinberg’s Getting Lucky.  

kate durbin's book e!

E! Entertainment - Kate Durbin (Wonder, forthcoming May 2014)

Poet and artist Kate Durbin’s latest collection, E! Entertainment, brings a poetic lens to publicly broadcasted women’s lives. She delves into terrain from the Real Housewives franchise to The Hills and the Amanda Knox trial. Known for pop culture-focused performances like the Bad Princess Poetry Walk—wherein women poets read their work dressed as gone-bad versions of Disney princesses—and projects highlighting teen girl Tumblr aesthetics, Durbin is also the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, a site for critical essays about Lady Gaga.

Conceptual in nature, E! Entertainment is made up of meticulous transcriptions of scenes from reality TV programming about women—capturing every detail from designer clothes and luxury furniture to lipstick shades and carefully garnished cocktails in straightforward prose vignettes. By placing scenes from various reality shows alongside one another, Durbin calls attention to the female character tropes and formulaic narratives that so frequently make up reality TV shows: cattiness, competition amongst women, archetypes for female friendships, etcetera. But far from the snark of most tabloids and celebrity gossip blogs, Durbin considers these women with respect, taking them seriously.

By recounting the actions of women from Lindsey Lohan to the Basketball Wives in matter-of-fact, objective language, Durbin actively does not make judgments about them—and in doing so calls attention to the types of criticisms regularly lauded at women in the public eye. Durbin’s book reassesses a culture that at once fixates on public images of women—voyeuristically watching their lives for entertainment—while simultaneously mocking, dismissing and condescending to them.

From E! Entertainment by Kate Durbin:                   

              As the Wives wind through the canyon, up at the estate, Wife Camille stands in her kitchen with two brunettes. One is The Medium and the other is Wife Camille’s Best Friend and Makeup Artist. The setting sun spills peach light into the vast, beige and green, Mediterranean-tiled room. The women gossip about the Wives. They sip from giant pink cocktail glasses, blueberries and raspberries swimming in vodka and cranberry juice.

         “To old friends,” toasts the Medium, grinning. Her hair is red, her skin porcelain. She has on a turquoise Celine tank top and loose white Stella McCartney silk pants.

         “And to my new friends that you’ll meet tonight,” says Wife Camille. She has on a black lace Chloe dress and a thick diamond necklace. Her hair is bleached and thin and grazes her bony, tan shoulders.

         “To new friends who may end up being old friends,” says the Medium, sipping her cocktail, grinning.

“Well yes, some of them are already out the door,” says Wife Camille. Her forehead is smooth, her eyes popping, the skin around them tight.

YOU DA ONE - Jennifer Tamayo (Coconut Books, forthcoming July 2014—the book's cover is not final, so the photo above is a still from a video-remix reading from the collection)

Taking its title from the Rihanna song by the same name, Jennifer Tamayo’s forthcoming book YOU DA ONE uses references to pop songs and other elements of mainstream media to explore her relationship with her biological father and extended family as she prepares to visit them in her native Colombia. Tamayo writes in an intentionally jarring style that incorporates English, Spanish, and Spanglish. She also includes snippets taken from songs by Rihanna and Britney Spears, Tamayo’s emails with her family, and ads for online dating sites.

YOU DA ONE’s speaker attempts to sift out a meaningful blueprint for father-daughter relationships. While lyrics like Rihanna’s “You are da one so I make sure I behave” and lists of famous daughters from Chelsea Clinton to Cinderella suggest popular archetypes for well-behaved daughterhood, the speaker’s inability to connect with this definition highlights the ways in which conventional roles for girls and women are often unattainable and unrealistic. Tamayo connects pop-song messages about how “good” women should “behave” once they find “the/da one” to her own attempts to connect with the daughter role and with her father.

A short video component of YOU DA ONE explores the poet’s mental conflation of her absent father with actor Alfred Molina. In the video, George Michael’s “Father Figure” plays over google image search results of Molina—and images of Tamayo mimicking the actor’s pose in each image­­­—while lines like, “I PICTURED YOU AS ALFRED MOLINA/ why are you not alfred molina?” float across the screen. This poignant piece adds dimension to Tamayo’s overall commentary on searching for meaningful connections through the consumption of celebrity culture and mass media.

From Jennifer Tamayo's poem “WHERE ARE THE SOUNDS FOR WHEN YOU ENTER AND I ENTER AND ME AND MY FOUR AND A HALF LEGS COME TRAMPLE ON YOUR HEART WHEN I’M 28":

[I am your almost fully grown abortion]

The first morning in this new country, my lover attempts to learn the language from the local

newspapers but can’t look anyone in the eyes

I remember my dream of the books in the bedroom flapping their skewered lips at me

soaking me in the theory of the PAPA (or so I believe), so I can behave; I had a dress on

& when I lashed the good book against my bottom, my breasts, it was like the Madonna 

video where she pretend-fucks the TV --- oh! and I shout MEDIA, MEDIA caress me too!

the cover of getting lucky

Getting Lucky - Nicole Steinberg (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013)

Nicole Steinberg’s debut poetry collection, Getting Lucky, is composed of sonnets constructed solely using language from Lucky magazine—the self-proclaimed “Magazine About Shopping.” By repurposing Lucky’s glossy, commercially driven copy, Steinberg’s poems question and re-envision traditional standards for beauty and femininity. Titled after “It Girl”-esque women’s names like “Serena,” “Lindsey,” and “Coco,” these poems try on different fashion personalities, turning traditional, corporate magazine-approved narratives of femininity on their heads.

Getting Lucky sometimes highlights the ridiculousness of rigid fashion trends and guidelines—with lines like “I’m constantly striving to be cupcake-like” and the simply stated, “Ankles are sexy!”—but at times humanizes the experience of trying to make a fashion statement: “How fun to make a comeback, edgy and bold./A defiant debut! (I worry no one will notice.)” Steinberg overstates the goals of fashion choices, drawing attention to how often nebulous they are in the first place. Pointing to the gendered implications of dressing, for example, what might be “borrowed from the boys” or “boyfriend style” in a fashion magazine, Steinberg transforms poignantly into “You’re trying to fit in with the boys.” Through forming her poems solely with words pulled from Lucky’s pages, Steinberg also calls attention to the artful craftsmanship of fashion magazine writing—a form that’s both looked down on as unsophisticated and primarily associated with women readership.

From Nicole Steinberg's poem "Claire": 

I want to paint in sculptural peep-toe heels and

a vibrant headdress–a flawless, timeless,

body-conscious silhouette. Uptown-lady plaid

is my can’t-live-without-it staple: all natural

with a seriously slouchy ‘90s grunge feel.

Women have been washed out for generations.

Even a total Greek goddess like Lauren Bacall

is a prim flower-girl in old-timey packaging.

I keep grabbing for the fashion holy grail; I grew up

wearing ballerina booties with arty army parkas

and streetwise pencil skirts. At the end of the day,

I’ll spray makeup all over myself to feel special,

then unravel in the home stretch: beat-up and beautiful,

versatile putty against the bare skin of my lovers.

• • • 

Beyond the three poets focused on here, there are countless others that use pop references for feminist commentary. The poems of Becca Klaver, Jenny Zhang and Melissa Broder include tongue-in-cheek uses of popular slang and references to commercial brands in order to speak to women’s experiences as creators and consumers (as in Klaver’s Nonstop Pop: “I was so… Geico/ And you were so… Activia/ And together we were so… GlaxoSmithKline…/ In an effort to be so… Ann Taylor Loft.”). With their books Dear Lil Wayne and Letters to Kelly Clarkson, respectively, poets Lauren Ireland and Julia Bloch write poems in the forms of letters to celebrities that explore the intimate connection of being a fan (Bloch writes, “Dear Kelly, […] I can’t see any of your pores; I know I shouldn’t but I want you to be a real girl...”).

By bringing pop culture images alongside religious, political and literary figures, poets like Geraldine Kim and LJ Moore call into question distinctions between high and low culture (From Kim’s Povel: “My avoidance of reading The Death of Denial on my desk. For his birthday, I got my ex a Jesus nightlight and seventy-five dollars worth of stickers.”). LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ poetry collection TwERK inventively weaves languages including Japanese and Swahili with pop icons from racially charged Dragon Ball Z characters Mr. Popo and Jynx to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the list of pop-influenced poets goes on—bringing fresh takes on mainstream poetry and proving the diversity of feminist poetry with every page. 

Marisa Crawford is a Brooklyn-based writer, and the author of the poetry collection The Haunted House. Find her online at marisacrawford.net


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