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Flarf poetry: From the outhouse to the art house

How do we arrive at our judgements about "good" and "bad" in art, music, and writing?   Are matters of aesthetic judgement in certain respects objective and a priori (as some philosophers would have it) or are they a posteriori and the result of social and cultural conditioning?  Is there "no disputing about tastes," as the Latin phrase de gustibus non est disputandum suggests, or is cultural "taste" normative and determined by "difference" and social class?
These are among the questions raised by the controversial phenomenon known as "Flarf" poetry.  Flarf, which originated a little over a decade ago as a series of pranks orchestrated by a cell of experimental poets but has since emerged as a full scale insurgency, is a sophisticated attempt to challenge our assumptions about reading in general and what counts as "good" poetry in particular.  It's by no means the first effort to create a body of writing that deliberately violates the standards of "good" writing and good taste, but it is the first 21st century attempt to lay a preemptory claim to the avant garde critique of late 20th century capitalism and postmodernist culture advanced by "language-centered " poetry and Critical Theory.  (In a future posting, we'll look at "Slow Poetry," which also has its roots in Language poetry's critique.)
Of late, Flarf is everywhere.  In April, New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art hosted its own "Flarf  vs. Conceptualist" poetry reading and panel discussion.  "Can Flarf Ever Be Taken Seriously? " asks a feature in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.   Chicago-based Poetry Magazine--long considered the pantheon of American prosody--includes a special section on Flarf and Conceptual Poetry edited by Kenny Goldsmith in its July/August issue.  This fall, Washington, D.C. based independent publisher Rod Smith's Edge Books will release a 400 page anthology, Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, featuring the work of over thirty poets including the five most closely associated with the term: Drew Gardener, Nada Gordon,  Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, and Gary Sullivan.  It's no longer a question of being taken seriously, Flarf has arrived on the threshold of widespread cultural notoriety.

Not every literary trend has an interesting back story, but the origins of Flarf are instructive.  Late in the 1990's, New York City based cartoonist and experimental poet Gary Sullivan discovered that his gravely ill grandfather had been swindled by the nefarious International Library of Poetry, a Maryland-based con operation that played on the ambitions of amateur poets and the margins of the law for several decades by holding periodic poetry "contests" in which every contestant who agreed to purchase its annual faux leather-bound anthology for $50 would be declared a "winner" and have his or her poem published.  Leafing through the volume, Sullivan wondered how awful a poem could be and still be awarded the "Golden Poet" prize by the anthology.
Sullivan set out to write the worst poem imaginable, and in the now legendary "Mm-hmm," a poem voiced by a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer celebrating the auditory gratifications of flatulence, succeeded beyond his most vaporous dreams.  He submitted the poem to International Library of Poetry and was, not surprisingly, declared a conditional winner of the "Golden Poet" award.  Soon Sullivan and a cabal of his experimental writing friends on a LISTSERV were bombarding the International Library of Poetry (which in 2004, changed its name to with their own worst efforts. "Flarf Balonacy Swingle," one of Sullivan's kitschy, word salad compositions from this era, gave the emerging collective its eventual name, which has now migrated into general usage in the arts community to describe any kind of intentionally bad art or nonsensical expression.
But what began as a kind of avant-garde prankster "sting" operation flaunting the exploitative practices of one popular "mainstream" poetry publisher rapidly evolved into a larger project that took aim at other perceived hypocrisies in the culture as a whole.  Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many mainstream media sources and much of the literary world trumpeted "the death of irony" and "The New Sincerity" (see Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America).  Amid all that liberal hand wringing, the Bush administration engaged in several of the greatest semantic bait and switch operations in the history of political discourse. 
It was a target rich environment for Flarf, which not unlike the Dadaist movement of World War One (another "unnecessary" war whose outcome set the stage for further conflicts), appropriated the dominant technologies of its era to develop a kind of anti-aesthetics incorporating "the inappropriate in all its guises," from the tasteless and the juvenile to the disturbingly "offensive" and politically incorrect.  As the U.S.A. Patriot Act gave the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies authority to engage in complex "data mining" operations against its own citizens, Flarf poets Drew Gardener (Petroleum Hat) and K. Silem Mohammad (Deer Head Nation) incorporated randomized Google search results into data mining operations of their own to generate virtual narrative content with altered, redacted, and phantom correlations to "reality"
As was the case with Dada in the early 20th century,  Flarf has evolved as a means rather than end--Charles Bernstein referred to Deer Head Nation as a "necessary ethical parry"-- that aims with its "corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness" (Sullivan),  its crude parody, and its general disregard for the entire belletristic tradition--to puncture the bubble of privilege, complacency and mediocre thinking that has come to dominate both our popular and intellectual discourse over the past three decades.  Nada Gordon, in whose own work the juxtaposition of pre-feminist and post-feminist linguistic registers are interspersed with depictions of graphic violence, recently quoted Flaubert in her blog ~~ululations~~: "Irony never takes away from pathos. On the contrary, it can enhance it."
Much as Dada shocked the art and literary establishment of its time ("For us, art is not an end in itself, but an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." wrote Hugo Ball), Flarf has made more it than its share of contemporary enemies.  Not only is its basic intent viewed as anarchic (Sullivan still routinely refers to his work as "garbage," by which he means cultural detritus) and its tone deemed offensive by many who teach what they purport to be "good" writing, but several of Flarf's most articulate practitioners (notably Kasey Mohammad in his blog {LIME TREE}, have developed a penchant for ridicule and rhetorical provocation that takes them outside the politesse of most academic literary debate. 
What those critics fail to consider is that  Flarf is essentially a performative critique of contemporary culture.   It enacts a kind of mimesis of spoken and textual language at the turn of the 21st century by going places that mainstream poetry and fine art, with their predisposition toward that which is aesthetically pleasing, can't or won't go. 
Flarf doesn't actually propose an inversion of literary values so that "good writing" (i.e., writing that gives us pleasure) be considered as "bad" and "bad writing" (i.e., writing that gives us only perverse pleasure or no pleasure at all) considered "good."  Despite the upcoming anthology, it will likely leave behind no "canon" of essential works.  In order to be consistent, Flarf needs to be anti-canonical.
That said, the subversive potential of any guerilla art movement is inversely proportional to its visibility in the mainstream culture.  Flarf's newfound respectability is an indication its moment as a cultural irritant has nearly passed.  Dada's heyday lasted from Hugo Ball's first Dadaist Manifesto in 1916 until the split between Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton (who went on to write the first Surrealist Manifesto) following a Paris theatre riot in 1923.  As of this writing, there have yet to be any known riots attributed to Flarf. 
While we are likely to hear a good deal more from many of the individual voices associated with Flarf--especially Gardener, Gordon, Mohammad (the ironist-in-chief of Flarf to Gary Sullivan's clown prince) and Michael Magee, whose My Angie Dickinson (both a tribute and a take off on Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson) was the first work associated with Flarf to clearly identify with the legacy of the Language poetry--the movement's mainstream debut and its obituary will likely be written in the same sentence.
--R.D. Pohl



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