Five years ago I pitched an essay to the editors of a new edition of Gurlesque – an anthology of women poets that was central to Roddy Lumsden’s teachings. I wanted to use the essay to highlight Roddy’s incredible influence on a generation of UK poets. The essay was accepted and they asked me to write it in the style of a ‘postcard from the UK’. The updated edition of the anthology however, never seems to have happened, so for what its worth I’m publishing it here, because this story is really important to me. The writing in the essay is a bit awkward and I wouldn’t write it in the same way now – its almost five years old – but I’ve left it as is. I’m glad to say that since writing it i’ve met Chelsey Minnis, but have now lost the incomparable Roddy.
I wonder if it would surprise you to discover that poets from your anthology Gurlesque have become very important to a group of early-career writers in the UK. Emily Berry, Sophie Collins, Sam Riviere, Camellia Stafford, Matthew Gregory, Sarah Howe, Heather Phillipson, Mark Waldron, Chris McCabe and Crispin Best are just some of the poets who come to mind. I don’t imagine their names are too familiar to you, but I hope they will become more so.
How did this happen?
I am going to load two chance, and somewhat mundane, events of the early noughties with great significance. Both involve the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden. The first was the time he found himself in an LA airport bookshop, browsing the poetry section. He bought a stack of collections, which included Interior with Sudden Joy by Brenda Shaughnessy. The second was a trip to New York, where he visited the now-closed downtown branch of Strand, with the poet Cate Marvin. She was handing him books she thought he’d like. Among them was Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis.
Back in London, Roddy ran two weekly poetry workshops. In one of his classes, sometime in 2006, he introduced three poets totally unknown to everyone in the room: Chelsey Minnis, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. He told us these poets were loosely known as ‘gurlesque’ writers. I can’t remember who was in the room, but around this time a few of the names I mention above were in this group with me. It was common for the poems Roddy brought to class to be taken apart—this happened most often when we were looking at work from UK poets, ones that might be defined as mainstream. The week he brought the gurlesque poets was entirely different. The room was split, but those on my side—the side of the poems—were blown away. To this day that poetry class remains the single most memorable and important I’ve ever been to.
Chelsey’s poem was “Cherry,” from her collection Zirconia. I felt I was on my knees, licking the floor of this poem. As soon as I got home that night I ordered her book. The Brenda Shaughnessy poem was “Project for a Fainting” from Interior with Sudden Joy. I loved it with a sort of feverish intensity; it came with full-blown theatrical staging in my head of a woozy, peculiar world. Matthea’s poem was the brilliant “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of.” It was so weird and playful and charming.
Within a few weeks I was telling people these three made up my “favourite poets.” No other poetry mattered at all. With Chelsey I had that teen feeling of wanting to play everyone my favourite song. My Amazon buying history shows me that in this period I bought three more copies of the book to give to friends.
In a pub after class one night, we even made a handbag of her book BAD BAD, by threading a long pink ribbon through the middle of it and wearing it cross-wise over the body. We’d fantasize about getting to hear Chelsey, Brenda, and Matthea read their poems. Scraps of biography about them were shared. We always used their first names, in contrast to referring to UK poets by their surnames. They were our imagined friends; we had to be on first-name terms.
Facebook allowed that to happen a little. Roddy made friends with Brenda and Matthea, and so when Brenda was invited to come over to London to read at a birthday celebration for the Poetry Library, by the poet and librarian Chris McCabe, Roddy suggested that she meet up with a few of us and maybe do a reading. We organised a secret evening for people in Roddy’s classes who, of course, had all come to love Brenda’s work. It was all a bit Dead Poets Society. The reading was held in the top room of Roddy’s local pub, and he and I were her support acts. Before the reading we had a dinner—me, Roddy and Sarah Howe—where I squealed at her “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE HERE.” “I’m just Brenda,” she said. “We’re friends now.” She was quite taken aback by the fandom she found.
The following year, Matthea Harvey was in the country for a family wedding. One of our biggest magazines, Poetry London, invited her to read at the Southbank Centre. Their editor, Ahren Warner, had also been a student of Roddy’s. After her reading I rushed towards her to tell her how much I love her poetry and pulled out a very dog-eared copy of Sad Little Breathing Machine for her to sign. Sarah was there again, as was Mark Waldron, and we all went for dinner, where Matthea excitedly wrote down the names of UK poets we suggested she read. Later we swapped our Instagram names so we could share photos of our respective rescue cats.
We haven’t yet found a way to meet Chelsey, though I often joke I’ll do a Kickstarter to fund flying her over here to do a reading. She’s almost a mythic presence and, as such, is a sort of cult figure for a few of us. For example, Roddy and London poet Tim Wells put on a tribute night for her a few years back—a gang of London poets, in love with Chelsey, reading Chelsey-inspired poems to each other. Roddy has the cover of BAD BAD as his Facebook profile picture, and last year I had a replica necklace made. I want to wear Chelsey Minnis button badges so other fans can easily identify me and make themselves known.
Over time I have begun to see evidence of how these three poets have influenced the UK writers I have mentioned. The cool, clever, strange poetry of Matthea shows up in Mark Waldron’s poems. The spell-like quality of early Brenda Shaughnessy poems is audible in Emily Berry’s and Sarah Howe’s work. The scepticism and daring of Chelsey Minnis is there in Sam Riviere’s poetry. These are four of the most interesting poets in the UK and their poetic gaze is more often than not turned on contemporary women American writers. That focus has been in no small part to a Scottish male poet buying books in the US, sharing the poems from them and being excited about the work. It is hard to eat a plain avocado when you know what it tastes like with salt, lime and chili on it. Discovering Chelsey, Brenda, and Matthea, then going on to discover more poets through the Gurlesque anthology sort of killed UK poetry for me. Everything read as bland and generic afterwards.
Chelsey’s Preface 1 is ‘Poetry should be, “uh huh” like …“baby has to have it…” I want to read poems that are sweet, sour, brittle, decadent, clever, cool and strange. A new generation of UK poets are publishing poems and books that have these qualities. They are writing critically about poets from the gurlesque in magazines. I am among them, writing recently about the affinity between the deceased English poet Rosemary Tonks and Chelsey Minnis for Poetry London. My knowledge of contemporary women American poets outstrips my familiarity with the dominant poets of the UK by some stretch. I’m left thinking about how some young British poets will be raised on a diet of Morgan Parker, Sara Peters, Wendy Xu, Dorothea Lasky, Dominique Christina. Then maybe they’ll read Chelsey, Brenda and Matthea. Then Noelle Kocot, Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde… I wonder how this will shape the UK poetries of the future. It’s exciting to think about..
I hope you’ll consider this my love letter to the Gurlesque, from London, England.