Karyna McGlynn’s Hothouse (Sarabande, 2017)

Camp, Gurlesque, and New Sincerity in Karyna McGlynn’s Hothouse: Review as Digital Collage

by Jen Town 

I have been working on this review since September 2018. And by working on, I mean I talked to everyone I know about it but didn’t lift a finger until February 2019. I knew this inventive book called for a strong visual representation but was struggling with the execution. I started building a house made of cardboard and optimism which quickly—because I didn’t measure anything—leaned noticeably to the right. Despite the haphazard technique, my perfectionist streak couldn't brook the slant and I started over. And by start over I mean, I sat the house framework in the corner of my living room, let another month go by, and decided to build this digital collage house instead.

In the end, this made more sense—or just as much. Karyna McGlynn, the author of Hothouse, is into collage. I know because I stalk her on Instagram. Not in a scary way. In the way we’ve all become stalkers and voyeurs. Her collages, like her book, are an assemblage of camp, color, high and low art, a mishmash of movies, theater, heartbreak, and joy. McGlynn’s work falls into the camp—pun intended—of Gurlesque and of New Sincerity. Gurlesque, like burlesque, centers around the performative aspects of femininity. New Sincerity represents a turning away from the hyper-aware ironic post-modern aesthetic and towards / back to, well, sincere feeling. But in a deliberate, self-aware way. Got it? 

The recent Met Gala brought a new awareness to Camp. As elucidated in Susan Sontag’s seminal essay on the subject, Camp is performative, Camp is self-aware, Camp is crass, Camp is evocative, Camp is artifice. Camp is a woman dressed up as a man wearing lipstick. Camp is a man dressed up as a woman. Camp is, like porn, something you know when you see it. Some porn is camp. And some camp is pornographic.

That’s a big preamble. You don’t need to know about Camp or New Sincerity or Gurlesque to love reading Hothouse. But like Camp, the book is performative, humorous, and self-aware. Hothouse is divided into sections each with the name of a room. In each “room” there are poems that are loosely thematic. Bedroom poems have a skosh more sexy time. The library, more books and poetry professors that say things like “the phonoaesthetics of cellar door.” In the parlor we dress up as Sally Bowles and dance in costume with Michaels and Steves who try to strangle us with our own feather boa. (If I had a nickel.)

All the images in the house have direct references to or allusions to lines from the book. The rooms are square because of the poem “Square Rooms.” (“Have you ever been in a perfectly square room? You feel you’ve arrived at the center of yourself.”) The dolls cavorting under the purple bedspread is a coy homage to the several sex scenes in Bedroom: “I’m crawling across the bed, over the comforter plashed with huge purple flowers—to you, but not / for you—for my fourteen-year-old self reeking of controlled heartbreak and watching me do it.” 

Liza as Sally in the Parlor is a direct reference to “Costumes Required”: “Me doing / my best Sally Bowles act again. // Wearing little more than a wig, / a tuxedo vest & a good sweat…” Much of the Bath’s imagery is taken from “Bomb Threat”: “The drained tub ticks with mollusks and lobsters,” and “What should I do about it: the stopped clock / in the corner & its giant grandfather clause.”

The dramatic utterance “Le Sigh,” framed on the Library wall, is from “Caretaker.” (“...a small monkey swings down from the chandelier and chips my vase with a ball-peen hammer. Le Sigh”). The nearly nude lady sitting on the pink chair is “Natasha in her underwear on an old floral chair. / Feet on the armrest. Look at her. Little sensual snail.”

If you’re looking for a romp, if you’re looking for a good time, if you want the allusions piled high, if you need to please your inner theatre kid and her patina of cool surrounding a core of loneliness, if you want to “mermaid up in [someone’s] cultural memory,” if your clawfoot tub ticks with mollusks and the t-strap of your vintage shoe popped and your lips shimmy with blood-red lipstick with a name like Victory, then find your “big rococo key,” and sashay into Karyna McGlynn’s Hothouse.

Jen Town's poetry has appeared in Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, and others. She earned her MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University in 2008. Her first book, The Light of What Comes After, won the 2017 May Sarton Poetry Prize from Bauhan Publishing. Jen lives with her wife, Carrie, in Columbus, Ohio. You can find her online at jentown.com.