The beautiful is always bizarre. —Charles Baudelaire
My first time with the postfeminist, burlesque lit girl culture—pasties, G-strings, audience clapping to jiggling booties—I was in a fun little Brooklyn bar called the Way Station. I had, minutes before, read from my own work, what I thought was a wryly humorous and oh-so-literary postfeminist exploration of time, culture, and relationships. I knew the term “burlesque” had been thrown around on the billing, but to my Midwestern sensibilities, burlesque meant feathers and brief flashes of almost breast, the inner curves of almost vagina, with the full monty saved for fictional accounts. This, on the other hand, was a literary reading. So you can imagine my reaction to the dancer’s G-stringed ass shaking so close to my face I felt an instinct to throw up my hands in self-defense. I don’t think she meant to shake her booty in my face. Not mine particularly. It was coincidental. But it felt so personal at the time, in the moment so intentional, that I was certain something must be happening creatively. There were the dancer’s pastied breasts on my author page, alongside my book, compliments of my publisher’s well-intentioned marketing attempts. Cosmic. There was a message in this. I wasn’t quite sure what the message was except that it involved pasties and butt jiggling. All I knew for sure was that it was disconcerting to an oh-so-serious, postfeminist, gender explorer.
If one is to take a Second Sex approach, the existentialist act of body on words or words on body would gather rave reviews from the Beauvoir and Jong camps. But there is a divide when it comes to dancing sex and pasties. This is not a pure body-centric expression; it is the hiding of sexuality for the purposes of the reveal, the tantalizing aspects, which is not to be dismissed. Tantalization is a very real and necessary art of the fiction writer, the poet, the creative nonfiction writer; however, the reveal of gender parts alone cannot be a purely feminist or postfeminist exploration. Still, let it be said, the reveal can be fun for those willing to put aside modesties for modesties’ sakes. And it is most certainly a good step on a more cerebrally engaging path, one toward body expression versus genitalia jiggling.
A few months later, I was asked to read again, this time at a bar in Chinatown named Happy Endings. The series, titled Derangement of the Senses, included literary excerpts, multimedia projections, musical interludes, and yes, young beautiful women strutting in pasties and G-strings. And yes, again, the dancer found me. I will tell you this with all certainty: this time, it was personal. The girl feathered me in a very specific way. I recall her sitting on my lap and it was strange in a What do I do, stuff bookmarks in her G? kind of way, but it was not entirely off-putting. In fact, it was enjoyable. If you’ve never had a pastied woman stroke you with a feather, you should try it. At least once.
Perhaps it was the darkness of the room or the breadth of media that added to the comfort level of this burlesque. It was a little bit carnivalesque. Or maybe I’m a two-time mark. (I’ve often held that everyone should try things at least twice; once simply doesn’t provide enough experiential data.) Or maybe it was because this dancer was far less a jiggler as she was a strutter. Her movements felt more complementary to a literary spirit—graceful, sultry, but still raw and vulnerable. Then again, I’ve always preferred a hard and elegant sexing to a quick and bouncy one. Ballet versus cheerleading, if you will. And this dancer had elegance. Or it could have been the feather.
If a writer holds the pains and joys of a topic at arm’s length, cloaks the experience, the reader will sense cowardice. And the cowardice will undermine the words. Hemingway had it right, in my opinion. “Just open a vein.” With that said, full-on buff while reading on stage, in front of strangers, is a risk. Naysayers condemn the brazenness, or the competitiveness of focus. How, they ask, is one to dedicate all attention to the words when faced with nipples and labia?
The Naked Girls Reading Series began in 2009 in Chicago. Later that year, burlesque performer Nasty Canasta started the New York City branch. She hosts readers/performers with porn names such as Gal Friday, Sydni Deveraux, Sapphire Jones, and Velocity Chyaldd. I attended their most recent performance, the Naked Girls Drinking show, at the Kraine Theater, on the first floor of KGB Bar. The Kraine is a cozy little theater space with velvet seats and an underworld setting. You walk down into something of a dungeon where, at the bottom, the girls sit side-by-side and robed, in five high-backed chairs. Nasty Canasta opens the book and the robes come off, and there they are, nude, wine in hand, books at the ready: Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk,” Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, Bukowski’s “Beer,” Philip Greene’s To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, Reverend Jen’s Elf Girl, a drug epic about hipster, tripping youth in a sea of rednecks at a Charlie Daniels concert.
Quickly the nakedness becomes secondary. I will admit to being distracted from Kerouac and Girl Friday’s remarkable reading, time to time, due to the martini tattoo strategically located where pubic hair might be. I couldn’t help wondering if it was a permanent tattoo or a temporary tattoo or maybe one of the other girls painted it on with black eyeliner (it appeared too neat for Girl Friday to do it herself, upside down and hunched over) and how much did it hurt if it was, in fact, a tattoo.
The pinnacle of the show for me was Bukowski. Bukowski goes best with nakedness and stage readings. Sydni Deveraux, a muscled, voluptuous, self-identified “Golden Glamazon,” read with such confidence and form that one almost forgot the outlines of her labia, which was fine, because you could always do a once-over and recount the outlines of her labia. I would not encourage this sort of gawking in a well-lighted space, though. Sydni has the biceps and pecks of a world-class body builder and she will kick your ass. You will likely enjoy getting your ass kicked, but still, she will fuck you up. I wouldn’t risk it unless invited. I believe she may have flexed her vagina at some point during the reading in a more than Kegel fashion; I’ve been trying to recreate the movement but haven’t quite worked it out yet, resulting in a cramp that might or might not have injured my clitoris. As Sydni read Bukowski’s account of drinking and blowing a 2.0-plus on his personal breathalyzer then losing his pants and upchucking his sushi in a self-induced, emasculating drinking competition, laughter and snorting could be heard throughout the audience. And all was good in the world of naked reading. Then came the second half.
The second half lagged a little, except for Sydni’s second reading of Bukowski. When things turned awkward, it was really awkward. The reader began with an understandably nervous air. A first-time unveiling sort of thing. And it should be stated that she was adorable in a Jean Harlow wig and what I remember as a derby hat, though it might have been a porkpie or some other concoction of millinery. What I do remember in finite detail are the socks. Argyles with sock suspenders. She was off to a good start. And then she read Faulkner. Now, I’m as enamored with Faulkner as the next lit nerd, but the Faulkner excerpt from An Error in Chemistry did not strike as powerfully appropriate. Perhaps if the reading had been more confident, the overall effect would have worked. But as it was, the Faulkner reading suggested an initiation: difficult to watch, difficult to turn away from. I’m sure she’ll find her stride in time and I applaud the costuming, a butch alternative to the other four readers, but first-time naked readers and sober literature may not be a good fit. Luckily, Nasty again took the microphone and finished us off with a reciting of Texts from Last Night (@TFLN) written by drunken and disgruntled personalities.
(A particularly entertaining element was the gentleman sitting to my left, a friend of a friend who had come to the city to accompany me to the reading. My date proceeded to interrupt Nasty’s scripted closing to repeatedly commend the troupe, via alcohol-induced slurring, and express his appreciation at witnessing its beauty. It was one of those truly ugly-beautiful moments that felt somehow appropriate to this journey of nakedness and literature.)
I am grateful to the Naked Girls. And more particularly to Baudelaire, Kerouac, Bukowski, Greene, Reverend Jen, and all those late night and drunken texters. Literature and humor and naked women are as kin as any best friends should be. Though I don’t have the confidence to read in the buff, witnessing such an act, as performed by Nasty, Gal, Sydni, Sapphire, and Destiny, made me proud to be woman, as strange as it is to write. I would be honored to one day hear them read my words.
When it comes to the sticky question of modern burlesque, let me say thus: I’ve attended shows I thought were well done, and I’ve attended shows that made me sad, a woman jiggling breasts for animals disguised as ultra-modern pub goers. If I didn’t have an overdeveloped sense of women on stages and what this echoed on a larger scale, perhaps genitalia jiggling alone wouldn’t be such an issue for me. Naked Girls, however, is different. They are all out there for an audience to see, and yet they are more in control, the focus of attention. The body expression exacts a very different reaction because, in this instance, it isn’t about jiggling to get the audience off. The body is a statement and challenge to not only the audience but also the writers and works the readers are reading—Bukowski, Hemingway, Baudelaire. It is something of a middle finger and a stroke, all at once. And it is a turn-on, sure, but you forget about all that because the words really do take center focus until they don’t, but then they do again. It is a sex-cerebellum clusterfuck. But sometimes, clusterfucks can be fun. You have to think in order to navigate them.
Rae Bryant’s writing has appeared in such places as McSweeney’s, Story Quarterly, Blip Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Redivider, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere.