Sunday, March 29, 2009


This week, the magic 8-ball stops on Flarf. While I read a number of Flarf-ish blogs regularly (one of the most articulate and entertaining of which I find to be K. Silem Mohammad’s Lime Tree), I haven’t stopped and really surveyed the field.

For a sort of Present-at-the-Creation summary, Flarf could perhaps be encoded in Gary Sullivan’s recounting of a Flarf-ist response to 9-11:

The list had ground to a chittering halt in mid-summer 2001. By September 11, there hadn’t been a new post in more than a month. On other e-mail lists we were getting touchy-feely post-9/11. But not on Flarf. The dead silence continued for two weeks after the attacks, then, Katie Degentesh sent what was possibly the list’s most pivotal post:

“WAX in my STAR-SPANGLED UNDERPANTS!” the subject line read. The post itself consisted of a single word: “uh-huuuuuuuHHHH.”

Elsewhere, this might have been grounds for reprimand—if not expulsion. But on the Flarf list, it was the very breath of life. Soon, we were all posting, but instead of inside-jokes about minor annoyances, the target was The New Era. If irony, sarcasm, and general un-Americanism had tanked when the Towers fell, the Flarf list was too drunk to read the memo. Everyone posted reams of the most offensive rewrites of New York Times “think” pieces, hand-wringing blog-posts, and other well-intentioned public statements this particular reader had ever seen. I was in love. I had found my tribe.

As to what Flarf is specifically, Wikipedia says,

The term flarf seems to have been coined by the poet Gary Sullivan, who notes that it variously "has been described as the first recognizable movement of the 21st century, as an in-joke among an elite clique, as a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing"

Critics of flarf point to its hodge-podge assortment of Google searches and grammatical inaccuracies as evidence of a movement not to be taken seriously. Fans of flarf believe that it is a new, edgy, and clearer representation of our culture by poets and artists. It bears many similarities to the spoetry - also known as 'Spam Poetry' - movement, which appeared at a similar time.

Or, for a less stodgy perspective, Joyelle McSweeney enthuses in the Constant Critic thus:

Jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories … I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems’ self-aggrandizing, sentimental, bloviating, or sexist tendencies.

As I said before, I find Mohammad to be a good commentator/participant/combatant, as he seems to have (from my extreme layperson’s point of view) an excellent sense of the aesthetic issues and implications therein (and is even-handed and humorous without being snarky or abstruse--a rare quality in the blogosphere):

JS: Using the links from the piece, I saw lots of hilarious videos from the Flarf Festival 06 (mostly contributed by Jordan), including your own, and you know ... I laughed a lot. Really. They were mostly very, very funny. (But can there be a "bad" Flarf poem?)

KSM: Flarf gets judged good or bad for the same reason other poetry does: because it succeeds or fails at what it sets out to do, whatever that might be. And that, like lots else, is generally a matter of opinion and/or mechanics. It gets interesting (for me) when there's disagreement over what it is that the work's trying to do, and therefore over what the standards of evaluation ought to be. I think most of the past controversy over Flarf--e.g., Mike Magee's "Glittering Asian Guys" poem--stems from disagreements about what the poems' intentions are, or from firm convictions about certain forms of reference always being unacceptable regardless of context, and not really from any coherent theory of aesthetic goodness or badness. An exception would be people who look at the work and just can't get past the surface "badness": readers who say, wow, that's not very good, and who aren't really concerned with the purposive impulse behind that surface affect. And this position is unimpeachable. No one should have to value badness if they don't want to.


JS: Could Flarf exist in Gaza? Afghanistan? For people who have lost their jobs and homes? Whoops, getting too earnest again, gotta stop.

KSM: Black humor exists in almost any crisis-ridden social situation you can think of that still somehow retains the vestiges of human consciousness (viz. concentration camp humor, etc.). But of course Flarf is a culturally specific form, like anything else. "Annoying Diabetic Bitch" isn't going to seem very relevant to someone whose children have just been bombed, and that's as true here in the US as in Gaza or wherever. But neither will most other poetry (or art of any sort), beyond a very small subcategory of genres (mourning songs, war chants, etc.), and it's unfair to assume that it should. I don't know why you keep invoking earnestness in the way you do. I don't think any Flarfist ever claimed there was anything wrong with being earnest. I can think of lots of Flarf poems that exhibit varying degrees of earnestness, and lots that don't--again, just like any other kind of poetry.

JS: Actually, even though Sharon's lines were often a scream, the most hilarious line of the review for me was that her flarf "exposes cracks in the culture of banality"--I guess I didn't realize that particular culture needed an exposé.

KSM: Like I said, I didn't write the review. But I can make sense of that statement, I guess: "the culture of banality" is one that doesn't know it's banal, and that tries to present itself as non-banal. The "cracks" occur along those fault lines where the effort to assert non-banality, at its most degradedly heroic, meets the most resistance from the opposing obviousness of banality. I see why you think it's funny, but even though the cracks are already obvious to most intelligent observers, the ways in which the culture tries to cover them up can be insidiously complex, resourceful, and/or pathetic.

Flarf has even splashed over into radio, making an appeareance on Studio 360. How often does that happen for a poetry movement? Luminaries aside, the last thing I remember on NPR was Foetry (which now has a podcast...?) back in 2005.

Anyways, my spelunking in the reference section was spurred on by a recent kerfuffle around these matters, summarized here by David Hadbawnik of Primitive Information.

Apparently, some of Dale Smith’s musings on the subject have been taken as a shot across Flarf’s bow. After much reading, I was still unsure what the smoking gun was, so I hereby include this, because it seems apposite:

Part of what I want to say is that conversations in the blogosphere or elsewhere about the practice of poetry and ethical or social situations that give it definition and shape for others are necessary for the ongoing fluidity and movement of poetry as an art that straddles the practical and theoretical, the experienced and imagined, the felt and the thought. Insofar as we learn to speak with others about what we do—applying pressure when necessary and conceding the value in other practice when it is so recognized—then we are able to expand the capacities of our ability to advance new work into the world. This is not a formal problem—it is essentially an ethical one. The formal surface of a poem can be “inappropriate” (though it better bite), or it can be something else entirely. The thing is that it must open boundaries and not reinforce them; poetry must provide possibility and not foreclose on phronesis with theory; poetry must enhance theory by showing its practical value. We can say that poetry does not do these things—that it is not responsible for anything but itself—and this is absolutely true, too. And yet, as our lives interact within various disciplines, our sense of poetry moves over lines defined from without, and we can’t help responding in various ways to the influences of our working life, or professional life, our domestic life, our political life, and so many other intersecting claims on poetic attention, practice, ethics, and theory.

Mohammad responds hilariously here:

1. Flarf appropriates the discourse of many persons, many of them undoubtedly disempowered, by scavenging the traces of their utterances on the internet for use in the composition of poems. Since no credit is given to these persons, and since some of said discourse is extremely stupid, it is evident that Flarf is mocking the underclasses.

2. Flarf deploys a wide sampling of sometimes tasteless and insensitive language under the guise of social critique, but in ways that make it difficult for some readers (particularly those who are ignorant of the use/mention distinction, or who reject flatly on moral grounds anything that resembles irony) to tell the difference between said critique and the injuries perpetrated by the original subjects who are the source of that language.

3. Flarf sometimes takes advantage of the media attention that is focused upon it (a relatively small amount of attention compared to that enjoyed by more commercially viable art forms such as music, customized T-shirt design, or those plastic testicles some people hang from the tailgates of their pickup trucks, but more than is usually focused upon the work of Dale or his friends, and therefore enough to throw into disequilibrium the fragile economy of all the poetic communities concerned), thus making no attempt to hide its complicity in the Spectacle.

4. Flarf commits the dual error of a) resorting to humor as a means of engaging its readers, in a social climate where humor must be considered a grossly self-indulgent bourgeois barbarism; and b) not always bothering to make sure its jokes are funny.

5. Flarf fails to provide a coherent theoretical apparatus with which to contextualize its disruptions of sense and syntax as acceptable modes of political intervention, and so leaves itself open to the charge of willful obscurantism. This failure is exacerbated by the apparently total lack of interest exhibited by most Flarfists in answering its detractors' demands for such an accounting.

What seems at issue here is, among other things, the fallacy of imitative form (as my fiction professor used to say). Namely, that a poem about boredom must be boring, a poem about tedium should be tedious, etc. Andrew Neuendorf (of Ape and Coffee) encapsulates this particular critique so:


I’d been thinking something similiar lately, regarding one of your above questions, which I will rephrase as, “Are flarfistas (flarfists? Flarfers?) merely imitating the problems of internet speech or are they actually critiquing it and thereby undermining its influence?”

Or maybe this is an unfair position in which to place poetry? Either way, because Flarf poems often use profane and crude language and mimicks the sometimes brash discourse of, say, youtube comments (man, if want to lose IQ points, spend five minute reading those), they take on a bigger burden, because they could merely replicate the damaging, demeaning, deadening nature of such language, thereby lowering the discourse, not, as we seem to expect from poetry, raise it or complicate it.

On the other hand, Flarf is read merely as a reflection of the nihlism of our discourse, the meaningless and utter stupidity of life in America, then merely replicating such langauge is the point, and placing it within the context of poetry is like setting off a bomb in our sacred halls, to, it seems, announce the end.

And when it comes down to it, as with any movement, no two flarfists probably agree on the function of flarf. Looking forward to hearing Kasey weigh in some more. His blog’s snazzy and smart.

For those of you who want to weigh in on the side of “Art shouldn’t be able to do these things, because its speakerhood/position/tools are compromised, and yet it does,” Joe Safdie is for you:

On the other hand, I can't speak for anyone else, but part of my problem with Flarf (and for that matter langpo) was always its uncertain connection with the world, for all that might mean. Someone a few days ago said that there's always a gap between word and world, signifier and signified (thought I'd throw in some semiotics for you Lanny), and if that's true, I'd have to say that the poems that I've always found most important are the ones that have tricked me into not believing that.

For my own part, I’d say that I usually enjoy the formal tension in a piece. Is there a sense of architecture and inevitability about the progression of the piece? Is the voice structured in such a way that there is a pleasing coherence (even in the incoherence)? Are the propositions that the piece sets out fulfilled?

I don’t have any issue per se with poems that do not seem compelled to solve a formal problem (and I’m not talking about meter here), fail to feel any urgency about working through a difficulties associated with a technique, or which derive the majority of their power from the violation of my expectations, rather than any complexity within the piece itself. I don’t think these are questions of “morality” or “immorality.”

[I do have a soft spot in my heart for transgressiveness, but generally when it is a strategy in a piece, and not the strategy.]

However, I usually have limited interest in them, simply because I don’t find their particular ambitions to be very engaging. (Especially when those ambitions have to do with my expectations of a poem. I know what my expectations are, and I don’t derive any particular thrill when they’re tweaked. [Unless you’re really really clever about it.] Literature is an artificial form. You know it. I know it. Any time you sit down to write something new, you are reminded all over again just how artificial your activity is.)

But I like thinkers who make some effort to transcend the artifice through strategy or sheer cleverness, and I tend to prefer elegant architectures or speakerhood that look for new ways to disable or illuminate that artifice. I’d like to have the sense that the writer had at least a complex experience writing the poem as I did reading it, simply because a complex thing tends to bears up under repeated examination better, and pieces that have a number of different concerns and techniques tend to have something to offer you at different points in your intellectual and writing career, as your tastes and most deeply held artistic principles tend to (or should) change over time. Someone said that Bertrand Russell was such an impressive philosopher because he held, at various points, every possible belief, which is not the worst intellectual epitaph in the world (especially since such a career would tend to enrage the critics].

I don’t want to limit anyone’s aesthetic ambitions, nor cobble together some sliding scale of artistic utility. I’m just a restless, finicky, and perverse reader, so poems that rely on instant gratification (though this is a very American device) tend not to hold my attention. (This may seem contradictory but it’s not: I am easily bored, so poems that do a lot of stuff and have a lot of different stuff in them hold my interest better.)

Plus, it’s more useful to talk about writers rather than hordes anyway. C.D. Wright, David Berman, Jeff Clark, Ada Limon, Jennifer Knox, Noelle Kocot, Anne Carson, April Bernard, Dorothea Laskey, Maureen Seaton, Tory Dent, Matthew Zapruder, Thomas Heise, Lyn Hejinian, Lynn Emmanuel, Arielle Greenberg, John Gallaher... these are writers are often claimed by one avant-garde school or another, and it always seems to diminish rather than enhance their work. They’re on my bookshelf, and I come back to them over and over again regardless of how narrative or non-narrative they may be. Raymond Chandler said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull minds.” I think this holds equally true when you substitute “styles” for “subjects.”

Though, as Dale says above, discussion is always a good thing, even when it does not make for an especially thermodynamically consistent intellectual universe.

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