Friday, October 29, 2010

OMG I think I like Flarf....

This post started out as a rant about why flarf is inane and a waste of time. I still think it's inane and a waste of time, but at some point I realized that I like a number of inane, time-wastey things; and why shouldn't flarf be one of them?
Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

This ode to flarf reminded me of Dylan Thomas's stated MO:
What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I must try to reach and realise.
I lean heavily towards this kind of writing, this view of language as lovely stuff. Dylan, though, sees himself as a grown-up and a professional, while the flarfistas are gleeful, bratty kids.

What I like about flarf:

1. It's childish. It's very much in the spirit of the rude songs and word games that gave us such pathetically all-consuming joy on the playground. (Okay, maybe some of us enjoyed singing "Here comes the bride, undressed and wide" more than others.) And to become a poet today, you are expected to put away childish things when you go to grad school and undergo initiation into theory. (I imagine it must be like training to become a geisha.) Eventually, poets were bound to snap and go back to making mud pies and eating paste. That's sort of what I get from this interview with flarfista Sharon Mesmer: can throw into the mix the inevitable influence of the New York School and its various generations, a dissatisfaction with certain LangPo products, a crying need for humor, and the creeping realization that American poetry overall was a bit lacking in life. To me, this lack of life can be blamed on the over-reliance on theory that leeched into the work. Now, that said, I'm certainly not suggesting that everything theory-related is bad! Or that these responses should never have happened. Questioning reader involvement, authorial hierarchy, what the page constitutes – all very necessary. I'm just saying it might be time to come up for air now.
I agree with that last sentence, and I think a lot of people would. What we do after we come up for air may differ. Some write poetry about lolcats.

2. It's humorous. Most contemporary poetry wants to be one or more of the following: ironic, honest, smart, disorienting, everyday, conscientious, or experimental. It's not often trying to be funny. You can't help snorting, though, at titles like "Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas," "The Swiss Just Do Whatever," and "Chicks Dig War." The humor ranges from sweet lolcat silliness to 4chan-like trollery - many of these poems are just dying to be called "inappropriate."

3. It's a true vernacular art form. The flarf poets were not the first people to make poetry out of spam. Remixing, auto-tuning, meme-seeking, googlewhacking, refrigerator magnets - all of this comprises a thick leafmeal of pop collage in which flarf can bloom. I'm not a die-hard democrat when it comes to art, but American poetry has become academic, and any poetry movement that might actually appeal to ordinary smart people who read xkcd or the Onion comes as a relief.

So flarf is fun and fun is good (saith Dr. Seuss), but combine the word "Flarf" with "Poetics of," and you murder the joy. You would think that flarf poets would succeed in keeping anyone from taking them seriously, but that underestimates the zeal of grad students with dissertations to write. Flarf has a dark side - or worse, a beige side. From Poets & Writers:

Edge Books publisher Rod Smith, a poet himself, says he feels the collective is prompting a bit of anarchy in the poetry world by widening the vocabulary of what is permissible. "Aesthetic judgments about what's bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege," he says. "So for a bunch of poets who are very well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry to take what's considered bad and throw that at people is a very interesting maneuver. It's not simply bad poetry; it's quote-unquote bad poetry written by people who know how to write poetry."

Yeah, down with skill! Beauty is oppressive! I agree that the loudness and rudeness of flarf are a tonic to the hyper-academic or virtuously workshopped poetry that has ruled for the past few decades, but a little violence and inanity goes a long way.

My main problem with flarf as the future of American poetry? It's lazy. A poetic form that robots can excel in as easily as I can does not set the bar very high. Look at this piece of ready-made flarf from my own combox:

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Is it not gently, hypnotically rhythmic? Is it not devastating in its campy glorification of avarice? How uncomfortably intimate that "Let`s take this option together." You may argue that it's not flarf; it's the stuff that flarf is made of. Okay. But my work is literally cut out for me (cut and pasted out of a combox), and I can dash off something in minutes. I just can't respect that as my life's work. Exegi monumentum AOL perrennius.? Please!*

The humor of flarf, as I mentioned before, is uncommon in modern poetry; and a lot of poets (and poet-wannabes) are simply unable to cope with such impropriety. This sometimes results in real-life Monty Python sketches like this: writer for Jezebel goes to a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, and hears a flarf piece which catches her fancy. She is not a big poetry fan, but this absurd, obscene poem makes her laugh. "But then," she says, "I was informed that I was loving it all wrong, because I laughed at the funny parts."

You can read more here (warning, gross language): "Let The Laughers Stand Up!": Scenes From The World's Most Annoying Poetry Reading. After she finished reading her poem, the author, Ariana Reines, asked the audience if there were any questions. One woman glared at the unpoetic interloper and said her laughter at the "sexier" parts had made her "uncomfortable." A bunch of other audience members agreed, and they piled onto Jenna like the Spanish Inquisition.
"Why are you mad?" called out [poet] Eileen Myles — again, I think — when my friend repeated that it was a savagely funny satire that we were responding to. The first woman, the one with the nasty look and the somewhat aggressive sense of propriety, said she hadn't meant to imply in any way that she thought laughing was wrong. "Of course laughing's not wrong!" I shouted. I couldn't help myself. I wasn't about to have my feminism impugned by these people — or my manners. "Why are you angry?" said Eileen Myles. "First you were laughing, now you're angry."

"Wait, no!" called out Reines. "We're all having a great time here! Come on, it's a party!"

I know that poets don't care if nobody likes them, but... dammit, this is why no one likes you!!! The red-state folks hate you, naturally, but even your fellow blue-staters find you insufferable. I am reminded of a review I read on Amazon, in which the writer said that reading poetry should be like licking shards of broken glass. He was serious. You can't have a conversation with such people about audience. Even Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to the world, as opposed to a suicide note. What, are we all cooler than her now?

Flarf comes out looking pretty good in this article:
For what it's worth, I went up to Ariana Reines afterwards, and told her I very much enjoyed her poetry. (It's really good! Not that I know anything about poetry.) And, I said, I hope my laughter didn't offend you.

She took my hand in both of hers, and replied, "I thought your laughter was great."

I can't really bring myself to love flarf, though. Flarf is free to be mean, retrograde, un-PC and awful, which can be fun for a while - but eventually one gets tired of being bludgeoned. I was both fascinated and revolted by "Chicks Dig War," which is apparently "something of an anthem for the Flarf Collective and its supporters." It's also a barbaric yawp from the id of a misogynistic liberal douchebag, brought to you by the Internets. There is some criticism of it here, along with a video of Gardner reading it. As is YouTube's wont, some commenters did not appreciate the irony, if that's what it was.

There's also a strain of political agenda in flarf which constrains all the naughtiness along disappointingly partisan lines. Flarf thrived on Bush, but it seems to have died down a little under Obama. From the same interview with Sharon Mesmer:
How might the poets—not just flarf poets—treat Obama? Have you sculpted any Obama poems?
SM: At around 8am on the morning after election Gary sent around a message that read "FLARF IS DEAD!!!!!!!!!!!" And then Rod Smith sent around a response: "o, wait a minute." Later, Gary sent around a fake Associated Press-type news release: "Historic Election May Signal Death of Flarf." And then a few days after that I sent around a poem (and keep in mind that Obama is the first political figure I actually love) called "Sorry, Even Mariah Carey's Dog Has Had Enough of Obama." He'll probably get his share of flarf. But whatever happens, I can say with certainty that I will always be incredibly grateful and amazed that he became our President.

So, no Obama raping a kitten, then. He might be allowed to ride a unicorn though.

*I have raised a monument more enduring than AOL. - Horace

Correction 11/1/10 - After listening to some of Ariana's poem, it didn't sound like flarf; and then I went back to this post, which I had skimmed through for the Jezebel link... the woman who started the row was--gasp!--Nada Gordon! One of the very founders of flarf. How surreal. So the only one who came out looking good was Ariana Reines, I suppose. Read the comment thread, if you dare--the freeze-dried intellectual hauteur on display is downright frightening. Did I mention that poets scare me?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an older post but reading it brought back memories when I was in college and we were studying esoteric programming languages one of which was SNOBOL, a language designed to process language. I recall one of the exercises we did had the program write a poem which, although syntactically and grammatically correct was utter nonsense. It was great fun.