The Flarf Files
|Michael Magee provided this response to my requstion about "Flarf". Magee is the editor of Combo, whose #12 issue is devoted to (or anyway realted!) to Flarf. His own Flarfesque works can be found at "My Angie Dickinson". For furhter readings, check out Mainstream Poetry. --Ch.B. (August 2003)|
As for Flarf, I'll give you as much stuff as I have in the way of statements. First, here's what Kasey [K. Silem Mohammad] and Gary Sullivan have written on the origins of Flarf:
KASEY: Flarf came about a couple of years ago when Gary Sullivan submitted a deliberately bad poem to Poetry.com, one of those vanity companies that lures the unsuspecting with lavish praise of their poetry and then offers to "publish" it for an exorbitant fee. Theorizing that no submission, no matter how heinous, would ever be treated with anything other than solicitous fawning, he sent in a poem titled "Mm-hmm":
Yeah, mm-hmm, it's true
Sure enough, he received a full invitation to have his timeless piece of literature enshrined for all posterity, etc.
Gary shared his poem, the style of which he promptly dubbed "Flarf," with members of the Subpoetics mailing list, and before long a few other participants began posting poems to Poetry.com, including myself, Drew Gardner, Jordan Davis, and a handful of others. Eventually, we formed a separate mailing list.
The initial aesthetics of Flarf went largely unarticulated, but they can probably be approximated by the following recipe: deliberate shapelessness of content, form, spelling, and thought in general, with liberal borrowing from internet chat-room drivel and spam scripts, often with the intention of achieving a studied blend of the offensive, the sentimental, and the infantile.
Flarf has largely become stylized out of existence, made inseparable from the usual writing habits of its practitioners, as Gary and Nada and others have pointed out.
Maybe the problem was ever announcing "Flarf" as a concept, suggestive of a movement, etc., in the first place. There were those among us who shrewdly warned about the dangers of such a move-Katie Degentesh, for example. The truth is, Flarf is not a movement, never was, because it has no principles as such, beyond some characteristic compositional techniques that developed along the way (collaging Google search-engine results, etc.).
There is no such thing as Flarf. Useless to declare that now!
Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness."
A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of
control. "Not okay."
The (unbearably) long answer [and my apologies to readers, especially
flarflisters, who have heard this 4,000 times already (you're free to
link elsewhere!) is:
In the spirit of the upcoming season, hot hatred and business coital attire will begin on Monday, May 21 and end on Friday, August 31, 2001.
As hot approaches we are pleased to remind all employees that we will be milking a condensed milk week. During the hot months, there will be extended office hatred Monday through Thursday, allowing for a * day on Friday. Please see the guidelines below:
Regular office hatred will be 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday
and 9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. on Friday. In order to accommodate this schedule,
lunch periods, which are unloved, should be limited to 45 pieces of popcorn.
Department heads may allow an individual to adjust his/her core milking
hatred while still milking the full weekly hatred. All employees
The office will remain open on Friday afternoons for those of you who wish to complete pregnancies or have regular milk to finish, however, there will be no mailroom or reception services beyond 1:00 p.m.
If you schedule Friday as an evacuation day, it will count as one full day as per our evacuation policy.
To receive unconditional love, an employee must be at milk (or on an authorized jihad) on the milk day immediately proceeding and the milk day immediately following the day on which the unconditional is observed. If an employee is absent on one or both of these days because of sexual activity or illicit affairs, the Company reserves the right to verify the reason before approving unconditional love. [ ]
People on the list would respond to each other's posts with other posts
picking up on words, word-combos, themes, forms, etc. But by September
2001 the list became relatively silent. Not too long after 9/11, people
began posting again, though now all of the flarfs-many of which were parodies
of AP News items-in some way shape or form addressed the aftermath of
9/11, including media portrayal of same. I remember, for instance, Katie's
"We'll rebuild the Twin Towers-on your Pizza" (which I think
was published in the latest online edition of Arras). I started a "sadness"
series-doing searches on "The horrible sadness," "the awful
sadness," "the unending sadness," etc., in response to
what was becoming a kind of stifling national(ist) mourning.
Okay, now for my own thoughts:
The "separate mailing list" Kasey mentioned came to be known by its members as the "flarflist" - a sort of ad hoc listserv whith remains active with about a dozen members including myself. It's heavily weighted toward new poems rather than discussion. Most members took out hotmail accounts and invented pseudonyms for the occasion. One joins the list by being "invited" by someone already on the list (really, simply given all the email addresses) and sending a poem along. My own understanding of it went something like this: "Flarf" is a collage-based method which employs Google searches, specifically the partial quotes which Google "captures" from websites. In its early manifestations it was VERY whimsical and went something like this: you search Google for 2 disparate terms, like "anarchy + tuna melt" - using only the quotes captured by Google (never the actual websites themselves) you stitch words, phrases, clauses, sentences together to create poems. To me, it's interesting for a number of reasons -- its collaborative texture, its anthropological implications (the sampling of an enormous variety of public speech based on a single word or phrase shared in common), its comic (not to say unserious) frame. Gradually people got more ambitious both in their use of the technology (somewhat) and in the poems themselves.
My own contribution was to invent the "Mainstream Poetry Movement." It is, first and foremost, a perhaps ludicrous attempt to appropriate the term "Mainstream Poetry," which as you of course know has come to mean any poems running the gamut from new-formalist-but-not-too-strident-from-respectable-press to MFA or post MFA-generated autobiographical lyrics in a free (though basically iambic) verse structure. I had the epiphany that nothing could be stupider than labeling this "mainstream." In the mainstream of what??
As you can tell by going to the www.mainstreampoetry.com website, the poems can seem positively juvenile and silly. But this to me is not at all to its detriment - sometimes it's a scorchingly ironic silliness, sometimes a frantic post-9/11 silliness or a wonderful gender-bending silliness, like Carla Harryman meets Bugs Bunny. And given the relative stability of the method the variety produced and dare I say uniqueness which each poet brings to these compositions is to me quite remarkable. In a statement for the recent Poetry Project Newsletter, I had this to say about my own motivations for turning to the comic and even the stupid in this work:
The war is the first and only thing in the world today.
The state has always attempted to co-opt the language of dissent and so de-fang it, and the democratic-capitalist state (yes, I know) does it better than any other because it can couch the very act of co-optation as either "dialogue" or as the marketing of a revolutionary new product (cool). Or, worst of all, can simply adopt the symbols of dissent and none of its politics: hence Nixon's flashing of the "peace" sign. Peace or victory? No matter, the collapse is/was precisely the point.
If "younger people are unable to sustain utopian visions" as Hejinian suggests, it's because the language of utopian visions goes from our minds to our voices to the street and the magazine and finally to the advertisement (for Old Navy or for The Marines, no matter) in the blink of an eye. I suppose Barrett Watten's argument is that the Berkley Free Speech and Vietnam Anti-War movements identify this problematic and address it, and that Language Writing likewise addresses it. True. But Kerouac, Miles and Ginsberg in their khakis? Or more to the point "the revolution will not be televised" -- until it is, in a Nike commerical, where, incidentally, we are informed not that "the revolution will be live" (Gil Scott-Heron's closing words) but that "the revolution is about basketball and basketball is the truth" (KRS-One's words, as dictated by Phil Knight). Ugh. I don't believe that we lack our defining big bad political moment -- it's here brothers and sisters. But like a crafty virus, the problem of language has mutated.
I reject out of hand the notion that poets of my generation are practicing mere experimental aestheticism. Of course there's some of that, there always has been; the mere imitating of a style for whatever gain. But to say that Rodrigo Toscano, Heather Fuller, Mytili Jagannathan aren't writing vital poetry both political and experimental to its very bones? C'mon. And I could name two dozen others off the top of my head. If you ain't seeing it you ain't looking in the right place.
As I say, the problem seems to me to have changed and so the solutions will be different. One can at least propose that Nixon and Kissinger were able to perpetrate their crimes because they were devious. George W. Bush is an utter dumbfucking fool achieving the same effect. Amazingly, everyone seems to understand this, even many of the people who vote for him. I feel compelled in the face of this to interrogate dumbness, ridiculousness, stupidity; to work undercover in the middle of it, to pretend to be it if necessary, all the while reporting back to the reader. I have in mind, always now, Frederick Douglass's words, "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed" (1852). I've been composing a series of poems called "Fascist Fairytales." In one of them, a poem-play, Margaret Thatcher has a dialogue with The Sphinx, who is initially skeptical of her politics but eventually falls in love with her. It closes with a nuclear catastrophe, a loving embrace, and Thacher's proclamation, "Bomb Turks, I'm in love!" Isn't that precisely what she meant?
Kasey followed up my "Mainstream" idea with this statement:
Want to take seriously [Pixar-esque weasel/clown-faces behind me fleer and moue] for a bit here Mike Magee's reconfiguration of the poetic Mainstream.
Others have pointed this out before, of course, but "mainstream poetry" as usually construed by its opponents is anything but. What on earth, as Mike asks, is mainstream about Robert Pinsky? A mainstream is a forceful, central current that carries in its path all the debris and livestock and entire vacationing families that get vortexed into it. It is not a carefully constructed iron walkway that escorts the effete peripatetic poet safely above a scenic view of the countryside and its filthy horizon. In the mainstream, you have to shout to be heard above the roar of the already-tired water metaphor I'm spinning out here. In the mainstream, the weasels with clown faces have uzis. The mainstream is the scary global video game we live in, everyday, and it has nothing to do with some absurd publishing scam within which a few bloodless surrealists and failed classicists and Tools of the Homespun False Consciousness get to define what is normative.
If you want to break it down by sales figures and numbers of readers, the margins between the Big Names and the small press world are negligible in light of the overall money-losingness of poetry. Most of the poetry read on a daily basis in this country, I'll wager, is amateur poetry circulated between individuals and posted on the internet.
So what would it mean for poetry to be truly mainstream? It would have to be aggressively public, perhaps--distributed via mass mailing or spam messages, say. It would have to be as shameless as television in its bid to engage new readers, and even, potentially, make money. Imagine that: poetry that made money. Do you feel a bristling in your blood at the hint of sacrilege? What shall I do with all the money my new, Mainstream poetry is going to make...? After I pay off my student loans and credit card debts, maybe I'll finance a series of poetry billboards that respond electronically to the radio signals from passing cars and compose digital aleatory compositions designed to influence the way people shop for fabric. Maybe I'll fund a political party whose platform involves the legalization of plagiarism. Maybe I'll pay some high school kids to translate the Iliad homophonically and have homeless people read the results on cable access TV. Although it would make more sense to pay the homeless people, wouldn't it? You see how anarchically irrational and unfair poetry in the real world would be!
Let's start a lo-fi, low residency MFA program dedicated to the advancement
of guerilla Mainstream poetics. As Juliana Spahr recently mentioned, there
are certainly enough unemployed poets with Ph.D.'s out there to band together
and get such a thing accredited. I don't know how that stuff works, but
basically don't you just take out an ad in Poets & Writers
or whatever and then people pay you money to entertain them in the countryside
for a weekend or two? Give the thing some hip jazzy name like the Institute
of Post-Avant Poetics, and you're all set. And stop at nothing--T-shirts,
coffee cups, bumper stickers, mouse pads.... Invite big-name poet-celebrities
to our conventions: Suzanne Somers, Leonard Nimoy, and Jewel alongside
Lytle Shaw, Anselm Berrigan, and Lisa Jarnot. Special musical guests.
Softball games. Cotton candy. And in the background, the weasels with
clown faces, always softly stalking and slavering.
Lastly, I'll include a short thing I wrote a sent to the Flarflist in Oct 2002 - to mixed reviews. Some of the folks on the Flarflist were/are not crazy about the literary critic in me, at least as it pertains to flarf. Anyway, this compares flarf to O'Hara's "Personism":
This will sound needlessly hyperbolic but it seems to me that there's an analogy to be made between flarf and O'Hara's Personism -- which itself was a technology-based/generated poetry: to borrow a formula, the web is to flarf what the telephone was to O'Hara: 1) a way to gather and exchange information very very quickly AS A FORM OF POETRY; 2) a way to undercut and/or render flexible the idea of authorship; 3) a way to, as Duncan said of O'Hara, "restore to poetry its trivial uses."
One might say that Flarf is a radical elevation of the tendencies already there in Personism.
If the occassion called for it I could make this claim in very very very intimidating THEORYSPPCCHHHChhgggccchh ARF ARF ARF.
But anyway it's true.
To steal another formulation from O'Hara, flarf being surer and quicker
than poetry, it is only just that flarf finish poetry off.
I myself am not exclusively writing flarf-poems, but the tone(s) of everyone's flarf poems is already finding its way into the poems written without any use of Google whatsoever.
One of the things which was a revelation to me was the quasi-oldSkool sounds of what I equate to either manic b-boy Instant Message ranting, or manic teenage (grrrl) IM chat (eg "I am soooooooo interested") -- that this was a kind of speech which was everywhere and which had an architecture of its own but was sort of unrecognized too. Flarf brings that to the fore in a way that seems much closer to the lived experience of having to scurry one's self-expression through/into THE MEDIA than any other web-based poetry I've come across. All of this is offered with the simple proviso that a number of the founding "Flarfists" consider flarf itself to be dead.