Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Rick Snyder

The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf

This is what you should know--this is not like any other POETRY reading. I mean people heckle and wisecrack and shout and wear bunny ears and pee themselves while crying and screaming ‘Awwwwwwwww Yeah!’ and ‘Cid Corman!’ Bruce Andrews actually laughs in the audience.

—Anne Boyer, “A Draft: What Happened at the Flarf Festival”

Anne Boyer’s account of the activities at the three-day Flarf Festival, held in April 2006 at a Chelsea theater space, highlights the ways in which Flarf performances differ from both those of more mainstream poets and from those of the Language and post-Language poets who constitute the Flarfists’ most immediate avant-garde predecessors. Boyer’s specific reference to Andrews’ presence in the audience may cast him as a type of éminence grise, but her overall description resonates most strongly not with accounts of readings by Andrews, Charles Bernstein, or other well-known experimentalists, but with tales of Dada performances, such as Hans Arp’s portrayal of a night at the Cabaret Voltaire: “Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Bruitists” (cited in Gale, 30).

Indeed, while some Flarf poems derive obvious inspiration from Language and second-generation New York School authors, on the whole, Dada and so-called Neo-Dadaist groups may be more relevant forbears for Flarf. Not only does the non-sensical and purposefully puerile name “Flarf” call to mind the baby-ish “Dada,” but the Flarfists have also demonstrated a commitment to techniques and approaches strongly associated with Dada, such as chance procedures, collage, humor, and virulent social critique.[1] Perhaps more important, just as the work of the Zurich and Berlin Dadaists, in particular, cannot be understood outside of the context of World War I and its painful aftermath, many works of Flarf can only be read within the context of the wars perpetrated by the U.S. following 9/11.

Not all works of Flarf exhibit all of these qualities, of course. The earliest works, in particular, written well before the U.S. invaded Iraq, evince very different concerns from those written later. That these early works have their origins in the heyday of the neoliberal pax Americana that characterized the Clinton administration is evident in both their content and tone. It could be said, in fact, that the tensions between the more playful poetics of a coterie dedicated to producing, in the words of Gary Sullivan, “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness” that flouts the standards of “politically correct” critical discourse and the much graver concerns of a larger and perhaps less cohesive group have underwritten much of Flarf’s development to date (“The Flarf Files”).[2]

The poets who initially participated in the Flarflist, founded by Sullivan in May 2001, can be seen, like many incipient groups of writers and artists, to constitute a loose constellation of poets united by similar aesthetic and political tendencies. For some of the Flarfists, these concerns revolve around ideas of poetry as both play—as a form of entertainment and a source of pleasure, rather than as an adjunct to theories of discourse, identity, and power—and as an art form whose content is not secondary to its performance, its enactment by the embodied poet him- or herself. The three poets whose friendship and collaboration predates and carries into the development of Flarf—Sullivan, Nada Gordon, and Drew Gardner—all make concerted efforts to emphasize the performative aspects of their poems, with Gardner, a jazz drummer, performing his works and those of others with a jazz ensemble, Gordon singing and sometimes belly-dancing on stage, and Sullivan giving readings that resemble madcap stand-up routines as much as recitations of traditional lyric poems.

As this brief description may indicate, Flarf poets can also evince an obvious concern with poetry as excess, as burlesque, as a practice that needn’t conform with the mannered conventions and niceties of both mainstream and experimental poetries. Importantly, however, such tendencies can only be presented loosely, because the Flarfists have never issued a manifesto.[3] This absence of clear critical self-representation likely speaks to the desire of certain members of the group to not subordinate poetry to critical discourse, and in this regard, the Flarfists also distinguish themselves from their most immediate avant-garde predecessors, the Language poets.[4]

It is worth noting, however, that some articles and blog commentaries critical of Flarf, such as Dan Hoy’s “The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf: What Happens when Poets Spend Too Much Time Fucking Around on the Internet,” level their attacks not against any particular Flarf works, but against the rhetoric surrounding Flarf.[5] While there has been no shortage of this rhetoric, the situation is made all the more confusing because the poets, at present, lack a central or uniform “platform” of aesthetic and political concerns and methods.[6] Accurately, it seems, Flarf is now strongly associated with Google-sculpting, in which a poet uses the internet search engine to generate results that are then collaged into a poem. Hoy’s article largely operates on the presumption that Flarfists are ignorant of the ways in which Web tools such as Google work and asserts that poets who use Google demonstrate an uncritical reliance on a profit-driven corporate tool designed to steer viewers in certain directions. According to Hoy, the Flarfists’ use of Google-sculpting techniques “exposes a lack of rigor in their process, as well as a tacit disregard for their own cultural complicity as something maybe worth exploring, or at least being aware of.”

By this logic, Tzara is guilty of the same shortcomings for not knowing (and tediously explaining) how every article, editorial, and ad made it into his daily newspaper, but such attacks are facilitated by the claims of some critics and Flarfists themselves regarding the poets’ use of Google collage techniques and their ironic deployment of offensive or otherwise inappropriate language. The traction that Hoy’s article manages, in fact, derives from these claims of political efficacy on the behalf of Flarf, such as Tony Tost’s assertion that “for the contemporary poet’s imagination, technology is a democratizing force” (cited in Hoy) or Michael Magee’s strong claims for his Flarf work:

I feel compelled in the face of this [support for Bush] to interrogate dumbness, ridiculousness, stupidity; to work undercover in the middle of it, to pretend to be 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’ (“The Flarf Files”).

While Magee’s comments may be seen as self-aggrandizing, it should be noted that such hyperbole seems part and parcel of the ongoing evolution of Flarf from a poetics of coterie to one increasingly identified as a movement driven by larger aesthetic and political concerns.[7]

“Mm-Hmm”: The Close Reading

That Flarf did start as a coterie—and that the original intent of the Flarf poets was neither to democratize the world via the Web nor to go undercover as a stupid person who reports back to readers—is clear from Sullivan’s account of the group’s genesis, which also underscores exactly how difficult it is to present Flarf as a viable political intervention. Central to any account of the genesis of Flarf is Sullivan’s poem “Mm-hmm,” which he characterizes as “the most offensive poem I could manage.” Sullivan submitted “Mm-hmm” to the poetry.com website, which is essentially a vanity press that accepts anyone’s work and then seeks to sell the poets bound copies of their work and that of other “winners” (“The Flarf Files”).

Yeah, mm-hmm, it’s true
big birds make
big doo! I got fire inside
my “huppa”-chimp(TM) 5
gonna be agreesive, greasy aw yeah god
wanna DOOT! DOOT!
Pffffffffffffffffffffffffft! hey!
oooh yeah baby gonna shake & bake then take
AWWWWWL your monee, honee (tee hee) 10
uggah duggah buggah biggah buggah muggah
hey! hey! you stoopid Mick! get
off the paddy field and git
me some chocolate Quik
put a Q-tip in it and stir it up sick 15
fuck! shit! piss! oh it’s so sad that
syndrome what’s it called tourette’s
make me HAI-EE! shout out loud
Cuz I love thee. Thank you God, for listening! 20
                                                               (“The Flarf Files”)

Despite (or because of) its deliberate awfulness, the poem displays some clear affinities with well-known avant-garde poetry of the early 20th century. Aside from the intentional misspellings and phonetically rendered flatulence, which calls to mind some of the more puerile typographical devices used by Marinetti, the poem derives much of its comedic force from a common trait of Dadaist poetry—its rapid shifts of subject matter—with the “stoopid Mick” references coming from nowhere after a line of nonsense that evokes, perhaps intentionally, some of the facile appropriations of “African” speech rhythms in poems by Tzara and Huelsenbeck. While the poem bounces around semantically, trying to pick up whatever easy and offensive target it can, it is held together by Sullivan’s sense of pacing and prosody, particularly in the second half of the poem, where the six nonsense elements of line 11 balance those of line 16, and the intervening lines are cobbled together with rhymes (Mick, Quik, sick) whose vitality complements their willful inanity. The closing turn to a formal address (“thee”) to God, no less, ends the poem with a nice bit of silly seriousness, and frames the poem as the earnest effort, perhaps, of a lunatic outsider.

Such an effort, it is worth noting, doesn’t challenge conventional expectations of what constitutes a poem, but is simply filled with execrable content. If “Mm-hmm” is no poetic equivalent of Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the poem’s similarities to early works by Tzara are more compelling. “The Dada Review,” for example, as translated by Lee Harwood, contains such memorably bad lines as: “somewhere there’s a young man who eats his lungs / he farted so brilliantly that the house became midnight,” before moving into some African rhythms, “zoumbai zoumbai zoumbai di,” and concluding with the precious “there is my heart / my heart I’ve given it a tip heehee” (22).[8] (One wonders if Sullivan’s “tee hee” isn’t a conscious echo of Tzara’s “heehee.”) It seems clear that both poets, though operating in vastly different environments, sought to command attention by playfully exceeding or undermining traditional expectations of poetic content.[9]

One might speculate as to whether Tzara’s poem aimed to amuse fellow performers at The Cabaret Voltaire or to shock the complacent bourgeoisie who increasingly became his target after his move to Paris, but it seems clear that Sullivan’s poem—while designed, on one level, to offend potential readers at poetry.com—was also composed for the amusement of his friends. As Sullivan notes, the poem spurred some of those who had read it to compose and submit their own awful poems to poetry.com. Such activity, it seems, blossomed into an ongoing prank of sorts, and this prank became Flarf:

Drew and Nada and I used to send a lot of three-way e-mails back and forth, often with poetry-related jokes, parodies, and—increasingly—flarf.

In March or May of 2001, a number of us started the flarflist—I’m not entirely sure who all was on it then: Me, Nada, Drew, Mitch [Highfill], Jordan Davis, Carol Mirakove, Kasey [Mohammad], Katie Degentesh. Soon after, Maria Damon, Erik Belgum came on. (“The Flarf Files”)

The coterie nature of Flarf’s genesis is inescapable in this account. If Dada was largely born in the cafes of Zurich, Flarf came into the world in the multiple office buildings and apartments in which the poets worked and lived—and the online virtual worlds connecting them. This difference, perhaps as much as anything, represents the democratizing force of the Web, as one no longer needs to be wealthy, lucky, or desperate enough to live as an expatriate in Zurich waiting out a war to participate in a new movement, but simply needs access to a computer and an internet connection—or, just as likely, needs to have an employer who will provide one. An important aspect of the electronic genesis of Flarf, moreover, is the speed with which members could communicate, and many early Flarf efforts were largely collaborative, as “people on the list would respond to each other’s posts with posts picking up on words, word-combos, themes, forms, etc.” (Sullivan, “The Flarf Files).[10] If cafe life has moved online and become collaborative for Flarfists, however, it remains to be seen how the group activity developed into “political” works that arouse such competing claims by Tost, Magee, and Hoy.

“A Necessary Ethical Parry”

As much as Flarf changed soon after the establishment of the Flarflist, the world in which Flarf was being written changed. Indeed, the original, prankish impetus for the establishment of the list seemed to be wearing thin after a few months, by Sullivan’s own account:

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 the same. (“The Flarf Files”)

While one could question how soon is too soon to be parodying coverage of the attacks on 9/11, the relentless nature of the onslaught of mediated disbelief, anger, and fear in the wake of 9/11 no doubt necessitated these parodies, which allow the reader and writer a way to talk back to all the authorized sources of mourning and outrage. If Flarf provided those already associated with the movement with a ready means of response, the Bush Administration’s subsequent attack on Afghanistan and, particularly, the dishonesty of the President and his cabinet in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, as well as the undeniably tragic consequences of these lies for so many Iraqi civilians and American service people, ensured that Flarf poets would find no shortage of topics to write about and against. It is this transition, no doubt, from a group dedicated to the “cute,” “cloying” and otherwise deliberately offensive and awful to one invested in responding to war and governmental deceit that leads some Flarfists and critics to assert the political relevance of the work.

While such relevance is difficult to gauge, it is clear that many post-9/11 Flarf works have engaged overtly political issues. Whether such Flarf pieces are still awful—and whether such awfulness would represent a debasement or detournement of poetics as usual in the U.S.—depends on a reader’s own sensibilities, of course, and his or her assumptions regarding what makes a poem politically and aesthetically viable. Given the number of Flarf works presently available, moreover, it is difficult to assess the “movement” as whole. In an attempt to provide some kind of overview of the types of works included under the rubric of Flarf, however, I will briefly consider works from three well-known books of Flarf: K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation, Gordon’s V. Imp, and Gardner’s Petroleum Hat.

Although blurbs are notoriously unreliable guides, Charles Bernstein’s comment, on the back of Deer Head Nation, that the book constitutes “a necessary ethical parry” raises lofty expectations. Deer Head Nation appeared in 2003, and it is, perhaps, only against the unremittingly bleak background of the U.S.’s buildup and invasion of Iraq that such poems as “Cosmic Deer Head Freakout” can be seen as necessary or ethical:

a black prostitute is decapitated by her drug dealer
her disembodied head is continually sensitive to diverse ways of “seeing”
there are aspects of deer: pregnancy / bizarre throat-slitting
decapitation / disembodied-head / Jeri-curl-hairstyle       (18)

Conflating the death of black prostitute with that of deer, as this poem would seem to do, may serve as a statement about the ways in which the underprivileged suffer brutal treatment in the U.S., but the poem, notably, withholds any sympathy or concern for the underprivileged, who simply seem like grist for the poem’s mill, a lame joke on par with the disembodied head of Smashing Pumpkins’ singer Billy Corgan, which appears later in the poem. In this way, the poem is considerably more disturbing than Sullivan’s “Mm-Hmm,” but contains none of giddy joy of the originary transgressions of Flarf, no doubt, at least in part, because it was written in a very different moral climate than Sullivan’s poem, which, retrospectively, seems almost an unintentional paean to the perverse distractions of the Clinton era. [11]

In the stanza immediately following the one cited above, a decapitated head is presented as type of disturbing toy:

the disembodied head spoke to her in a deep, authoritative voice
it’s a disembodied head called the Silly Slammer, it’s ugly as sin
also, its eyebrows are purple: when punched it yells “get a life” or “get
“lie back and fast asleep”        “if you could see what I could see”
“drip drop a lovely dream”        (18)

Whether this head is that of the prostitute or a deer or someone or -thing else is unclear, but the movement from the brutal to the parodic is emblematic of Deer Head Nation, which frequently presents such distressing images but filters them through different voicings that are difficult to locate. As a result, the book can become a nightmarish mixture of kitschy violence. The following passage from “Experience in Bakeries,” for example, presents a brief scene of American imperial aggression as if spoken by The Simpsons’ Millhouse:

oh yeah. the good ole US (ack ack)…
a chopper swoops in low, spitting
machine gun fire: shadoom, shadoom!
AcK! A-Dak! Ack! Ack! a hairball!        (50)

While the stanza’s opening, “oh yeah. the good ole US,” clearly signals a type of casual yet sardonic approach, whatever residue of seriousness remains after the phonetic enactment of an attack helicopter launching rockets and firing machine guns—perhaps an echo of the Urinals’ anti-war song “Ack Ack Ack Ack”—is completely undercut by the exclamatory “a hairball!” This exclamation not only changes the “chopper” into a cat but also calls to mind the book’s earlier “Peace Kittens,” which, with its celebration of kitschy gore, constitutes one of the book’s most challenging poems.

“Peace Kittens” presents rather graphic references to killing and eating kittens, with the caveat that “… no language on Earth has ever produced /… a joke which can’t be taken out of context” (37), and concludes with a section, “Going to War with Iraq,” that resists easy analysis, like much of Deer Head Nation, but seems to convey a cynicism about peace movements and misgivings about the ways in which activists, or perhaps Iraqis or Arabs at large, can be effectively criminalized, or made into potential terrorists, by the Bush regime:

… hard for kittens
… if we could get everyone to close their eyes
… and visualize world peace for an hour
… imagine “Free Kittens”
… make it look like a peace sign
… I could see us taking our kittens
… their threat to peace, stability, and the state
… find the right moment to leave the kittens behind
… kittens rustle in false peace in the form of a fragment
… “they’re Klingons, not kittens”
… there was no context
… just killing time between wars
… the code phrase is “extra biscuits”
… we’re safe as kittens       (39)

The reference to Klingons, in what constitutes a critical moment in the poem, as the kitschy and already brutalized kittens are resignified as villains, but ones from Star Trek, rather than the New York Times, may indicate that science fiction is only genre through which to convey the madness of a foreign policy predicated on “pre-emptive strikes.” Regardless of its intent, however, such a (con)fusion of science fiction with grim reality is a device Mohammad deploys with some frequency:

the waterfall, the meadow
the White House and the dragon
White House       motorcade, sirens
White House       smoke in the sky
pharmaceutical plant they bombed in Sudan
finish destroying the robots
and most of the management staff
“some of those might be real”        (“White Mhouse” (sic), 52)

After setting the White House in the type of fantasy landscape—complete with a dragon—that might be painted on the side of a van or on velvet, the poem moves from a quick reference to the U.S.’s bombing of a factory in Sudan, one of the most overtly aggressive acts of the Clinton administration—and one that caused consternation on both the left (for being too aggressive) and the right (for being an alleged attempt to distract attention from the Lewinsky scandal)—to a reference to the destruction of robots and “most of the management staff.” The stanza’s concluding line, in quotations, could serve as an appraisal of the concepts and sentiments presented throughout Deer Head Nation, if not a critique of information in late late capitalism: “‘some of those might be real.’”

If these poems, to their credit, attempt to undermine the legitimacy of American aggression by placing it in some fantastic landscape, a liminal dystopia likely culled from the internet, they also, to their detriment, run the risk of evacuating the specificity of American violence by leveling it on some free-floating plain of fractured and frightening—yet often glib—discourse. That said, Deer Head Nation can perhaps be read as an infantile response to leaders who seem to treat their citizens as infants and to believe that they can say or do anything with impunity. At their best, Mohammad’s poems present a type of inchoate, violent rage (“Ack ack ack”) against the incoherence, idiocy, and violence exemplified by American domestic and foreign policy under the Bush Administration. Moreover, the book’s willful mixture of the “real” and fantastic, not to mention the pornographic, which also appears with some frequency in the book, dramatically portrays a sense of the present as a nightmare, as something too overwhelming, psychologically, to be represented without some type of grotesque manipulation that bears all the trappings of farce and parody, yet is rarely funny.

While I sometimes feel at a loss when reading the work in Deer Head Nation, Jordan Davis’ comment, in a 2004 Village Voice article, that “Mohammad’s game is to put together a string of words that will yield socially stupefying results” may offer some insight into Mohammad’s efforts. One wonders, however, if the socially stupefying can be equated with the ethically necessary—or if, in fact, Bernstein’s blurb can be seen to imply that the ethical necessity of Mohammad’s work resides precisely in its socially stupefying aspects. Regardless of whether one seeks to entertain these questions, Mohammad’s reference, in an interview with Tom Beckett, to Bernstein’s explication of his poem “Dysraphism” (“mis-seaming—a prosodic device”) certainly sheds some light on his intent in the book:

I don’t think I was actually thinking of Bernstein’s concept when I wrote these poems, but the idea of things wrongly sutured together, like the pathos of a badly taxidermied funny animal or a world falling to pieces being stacked up in clumsily re-ordered columns, was there. (E=X=C=H=A=N=G=E=V=A=L=U=E=S)

Other readers may be able to find more pathos in Deer Head Nation, but such a quality is hard to miss in Nada Gordon’s V. Imp. Interestingly, Gordon herself singles out this quality as something that is distinctive and compelling about select works of Flarf:

I would venture to say that at least some “flarf” is not about irony at all, but about pathos—and pathos, by its very nature, and certainly by its etymology, is a kind of empathy, albeit warped. Not the kind of empathy, perhaps, that lets us say how special we are in our sweet little temporary autonomous zones where we engage in a “genuine” “critical dialogue” with the sickness of society, but rather a recognition of a universal pathos: “aren’t we all a bunch of fools, and isn’t that funny? and bittersweet? and fucked up?” (Silliman’s Blog, Feb. 22, 2006).

Gordon’s comment about “temporary autonomous zones” is a direct response to Standard Schaefer’s earlier claim, in the comments field of Silliman’s Blog, that he thought of his own work as an attempt to set up the types of “temporary autonomous zones” promulgated by Hakim Bey, or Peter Lamborn Wilson, as a counter-hegemonic use of the Web. On the whole, however, her statement provides a primer of sorts for a type of Flarf that retains its coterie roots, especially when one considers her following statement, from the same comment on Silliman’s Blog: “Flarf IS about intimacy insofar as it is the attempt of a group of people to entertain each other” (Feb. 22, 2006).

Although Gordon denigrates Schaefer’s self-serious assertions and privileges a type of communal, if torqued, humor (“funny,” “bittersweet,” and “fucked up”), she also emphasizes the expressive power of poetry as means of address to another person, be it in public performance or e-mail, whom one would hope to entertain. The degree to which Gordon’s performances are both entertaining and full of pathos can only be hinted it at in an essay, but these qualities are also abundant in her printed works, as in these passages from “Foreword: The End of Greed, Imperialism, Opportunism, and Terrorism,” which opens V. Imp.:

Mule and Ostrich took a walk in the vale of tears. Their minds were elsewhere.

“Tread lightly and accurately,” Ostrich reminded Mule. Mule nodded solemnly.

The hoi-polloi stormed around them, rending their garments: Brooks Brothers suits, red suspenders, tallises, green headresses, burkas. Everyone was spewing so much vital fluid that their faces, hands, and chests had gone all viscous.

“No one had a clue,” said Mule, lowering his head and pawing at the rubble, his mane and eyelashes thick with white dust. “I feel so mournful.”

“Don’t you still want to take the language somewhere else?” Ostrich asked, swerving his head around to stare cross-eyed at Mule.

“Of course I do,” sighed Mule, “I’m a beast of burden. That’s all I know how to do. But right now I wish we had hands so we could hold hands.”

“That’s liberal humanism,” said Ostrich, looking ruefully at his leathery talons and Mule’s splayed, yellowing hooves.

“So?” said Mule, his lip quivering.       (9)

Opening with a somber reference to the “vale of tears,” but using phrasing (“took a walk”) that implies the two allegorical protagonists are simply out for a stroll and presenting a somewhat silly mock-aphoristic phrase, “Tread lightly and accurately,” reminiscent of some Language work, particularly Hejinian’s My Life, Gordon’s narrative is at once playful and portentous from the outset. Like Mohammad’s work in Deer Head Nation and much Flarf in general, Gordon’s tale also doesn’t skimp on the gore, presenting a disturbing vision of bodies losing shape, or spewing “vital fluids” and becoming “viscous.”

That Gordon’s description presents a variety of different types of people, however—from those in Brooks Brothers suits to those in burkas—is important. Rather than offering a litany of complaints about how sickening it is to feel betrayed by one’s government, as Mohammad does at times in Deer Head Nation, Gordon’s simple yet precise description, coupled with the mock allegorical charm of her two characters, a mule and ostrich, allows her to convey, both calmly and powerfully, the pathos of being an anonymous individual in the emotional chaos of a post-9/11 world. Equally important, of course, is the idea of the hoi polloi, or simply “the many,” who are what anonymous individuals form in the aggregate, and who storm around the two lonely representatives of the animal world.

This idea of masses storming is redolent, of course, with both the promise of a self-conscious proletariat and the threat of fascism, and calls to mind Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which dwells at length on the potential consequences of a humanity represented to itself through the new technology of the moving image. While Benjamin was no advocate of the avant-garde, Gordon’s presentation—which emphasizes the menacing and self-destructive aspects of such a situation in the hypermediated wake of 9/11—now seems prescient. In Gordon’s version, moreover, there is no clear distinction about the direction from which this threat may come, as both people in Brooks Brothers suits and those in colorful headdresses and burkas are seen to constitute this hoi polloi. Having set such a disturbing yet strangely charming backdrop, Gordon is able to both present open declarations of sorrow through her allegorical characters (“I feel so mournful”) and to represent, perhaps, the task of the poet—if not simply the individual—against such a seemingly hopeless and quasi-apocalyptic background of viscous bodies and rubble, which is “to take the language somewhere else.”

This statement betrays a diffuse yet powerful sense of hope—asserting that some place, some elsewhere may exist outside the mourning, rubble, and shapeless bodies—and also asserts that language is both the object taken to this other place and the vehicle by which one would arrive there. Gordon doesn’t present this glimmer of hope, however, through any rhetorical grandstanding, but implies that it is simply our task as people (or ostriches) and poets (or mules)—to “still want” to go elsewhere. This passage is followed by a quasi-absurd desire for intimacy—“I wish we had hands so that we could hold hands”—that is undercut, at once, by a devastating pun, “That’s liberal humanism,” which speaks to the fact that the characters in the allegory are animals and expresses, perhaps, a type of nostalgia for a time in which declarations of hope and desires for intimacy weren’t seen as naive and hopeless.

While space doesn’t allow for a reading of the entirety of this poem, much of V. Imp. displays the types of sophisticated verbal structures—full of a pathos that is offset by keen self-awareness and a sense of both hope and the futility of hope—that demand such readings. With an irony that lacks bitterness, Gordon presents the poet as filling a role in the contemporary world, “i know the people are always hungry—for words too— / how can i serve you better?” (14), and against the backdrop of a world fractured by strife and littered with service industries, she produces poetry that is by turns didactic and whimsical, and that frequently invokes the body as “a bulwark / against endless experience” (15). On the whole, play, humor, and pathos form a potent and pleasurable mix in V. Imp. As engaging as the book is, it is not radically different, in many ways, from Gordon’s earlier work, particularly that found in 2001’s Are Not Are Lowing Heifers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms. The title itself of this book, which derives from Keats, clearly signals the type of libratory, ludic excess that propels much of Gordon’s work. While Gordon’s poems are often politically savvy—her earlier book, in particular, engages issues of gender and power—her representations of the polis never overwhelm the intimacy of her addresses. This desire to maintain intimacy even in the face of increasingly a de-humanized world may be seen as a hallmark of Gordon’s variety of Flarf—or, as she says in “Virulently Impure”, one of the “Very Important Sonnets” in V. Imp.:

Come live with me, and be my love,
and we will buy a new vacuum (Lao Tzu).
No ideas. Just sensation: popinjay.        (81)

If Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation and Gordon’s V. Imp. inhabit two poles of Flarf, Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat can be said to represent a powerful synthesis of these positions. As Sullivan points out, Gardner was exchanging parodic emails with both him and Gordon long before Flarf officially reared its misshapen head. Gardner’s early Flarf effort, “As Dolphins Languor,” the title of which, in its mock poetic seriousness, seems as indebted to Brian Kim Stefans’ faux-British Roger Pellett poems as to “Mm-Hmm,” demonstrates the same type of humor that distinguishes Sullivan’s foundational effort but is somewhat more restrained in its silly elegance:

awe yea I open a photo album I found under the bed
uhuh, The dusty, leather cover decaying and smelling of the years
awe yeah baby Regrets mingling with my tears
as I methodically turn the pages, you see
I like to dress up in REALLY tight underwater
pumpkin beavers…
and I take a deep, painful breath       (“The Flarf Files”)

Gardner was also, however, one of the first to employ Google searches when composing poems, and his searches on the term “Rogain bunny” have become strongly associated with Flarf, thanks in large part to Jordan Davis’ inclusion of the search term in a Village Voice article about Flarf. Gardner’s poems in Petroleum Hat, while not seeking the type of casual warmth found in Gordon’s V. Imp., present overtly politicized content in structures that are more sophisticated—or re-seamed—than those found in Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation. As Davis has rightly noted, moreover, on his blog Equanimity, Gardner’s efforts, for all their typically Flarfy mixtures of lampooned seriousness, misspellings, and pop culture references, are marked by “a sublime poise and finish” (Nov. 11, 2005):

I made a little mother out of mimes,
old Styx t-shirts,
and a bit of middle-aged llama futures.
I once saw Gary Chandling on TV.
That’s when troubles were too pockmarked
to be resplendent,
awash in gas, but distant enough
to keep me coughing
and rooting for all
the animals on the farm.        (“Joan Houlihan,” 45)

While Gardner’s book, on the whole, seems every bit as interested in leveling devastating social critiques as Mohammad’s, it also demonstrates the type of self-awareness that makes Gordon’s writing so appealing. Petroleum Hat opens with these lines, which set a tone for Gardner’s practice throughout the book:

the whole of mankind
bomb them with a rubber-masked devil
and a blond-bomb angel, literally
a veritable playhouse for
the well-off and ironic poet?
I am searching for something,
I don’t know what it is,
but I am looking for it        (“I Feel I Am Searching,” 7)

The poem’s first lines evince a disdainful yet potent mock-horror at the violence of the post-9/11 world and also demonstrate an awareness of the historical context in which violence continually recycles itself, as “a blond-bomb angel” powerfully evokes the pin-ups placed on American bombs in World War II. The poem shifts quickly, however, into a self-examining, interrogative mode, in which the speaker does not pretend to stand outside the events depicted. Whereas Mohammad’s poems in Deer Head Nation sometimes seem to function as critiques or lampoons that are more or less disengaged from their subjects, Gardner offers more direct engagement, like Gordon, and his poem bears the weight of a “search” that may begin with items collaged from Google but that extends to larger, epistemological questions. At the very least, Gardner is searching for a way to respond to a post-9/11 world, and the poem reaches one of its most powerful moments when he does so by simply re-presenting, in a nutshell, the logic that has been set forth by the powers that be in the U.S.: “bomb them into happiness” (7).

Petroleum Hat contains a number of poems that expose the ways in which a perverse logic can be construed as reasonable, but the most notable instance of this approach is “Chicks Dig War,” a disturbingly sarcastic parody of essentializing psychology that has provoked protests on listserves from readers who believe that the poem is a transparent expression of the writer’s personal beliefs:

The pacifist wanders through life in a state
of psychic castration,
his heart scarred by the talons of female avarice
and flawed psychology. He is a poor fool who has
listened too literally
to women who lie and say that what they want
from men is adoration and understanding.
What they want is war.        (21)

Everything about this poem—from the title itself, with its use of the retro-Beatnik slang term “Dig,” to the reference to “[t]he pacifist,” which seems to come straight out of a psychology text from the 40s, and the bizarrely misogynistic phrase “talons of female avarice”—seems to indicate, even if one is wholly unfamiliar with Flarf, a type of caustic dismantling of the perverse logics leading to war. The poem’s radical shifts in register, moreover—moving from “chicks dig war (especially chicks on the pill),” which conflates a desire for war with conservative outrage at the “sexual revolution” promoted by birth control in the 60s, to “The experience is just magical / Oh, and you can get really awesome war on,” which slams a dated, somewhat fey register against some type of contemporary surfer slang—demonstrate that the poem is serious only about presenting war as a type of omnivorous meme that threatens to consume all speech patterns (20).

By the time the poem states that “[b]ad boys … are a challenge (meaning that / they don’t instantly fall prey to her Pussy Power)” (22), it would seem exceedingly difficult to take its statements at face value. Yet what ultimately makes the poem more than simply an exercise in irony is the way in which it does, for all its register shifts and obvious nods to the spuriousness of its own argumentation, follow its argument to its bitter end:

Believe that male behavior is the result of
of a breeding experiment run by females?
In case you missed it,
the basic implication is that by following
their natural proclivity to breed with
John Ashcroft,
women are an anti-civilizing force,
actively creating male aggressiveness.
It would seem that a wise society would have an
interest in creating a counter-force to oppose this.        (23)

After inverting the traditional essentializing gender clichés (“Men are from Mars … ”), the poem ends with a statement that is disarming in the degree to which it effectively mimics the type of distanced, seemingly neutral phrasing (“It would seem that a wise society”) that so often marks the bureaucratic language of foreign policy. That the poem, which has foregrounded war as a word and concept that can infect all speech registers and invade all logic, ends with a call to arms, or the creation of a “counter-force,” only adds to its perverse power.

Growing Pains of the Dead

“[I]f you haven’t read the poems, I mean ALL the poems, the hundreds of them churned out over the years by people on the flarflist, how can you make this kind of blanket of statement about what ‘flarf’ is or isn’t about,” writes Gordon, in the comments field on Silliman’s Blog, in response to Hoy’s earlier claim that “flarf isn’t about empathy but irony” (Feb. 22, 2006). While Gordon is matching Hoy’s reductiveness with a demand that, to one not on the Flarflist, must seem nearly impossible (if not unbearable), her question is one that I have attempted to keep in mind throughout this brief overview of the development of Flarf.. Clearly, as Gordon indicates, the variety of works presently included under the rubric of “Flarf” should militate against any impulse to reductively categorize what the works do or don’t do. That said, I believe that Flarf, for all of its manifestations, can productively be viewed as a form of Neo-Dada by virtue of its enthusiastic embrace of humor, collage, and caustic social critique.

In my readings of Flarf works following Sullivan’s foundational “Mm-hmm,” I have resisted the temptation to liken them to works by specific Dada authors or to read them, more generally, through the prism of any earlier avant-garde efforts. However illuminating (or irritating) those readings might be, they run the risk of characterizing the newer works as merely derivative—as homage at best and simple imitation at worst. Likewise, because none of the books discussed include any information about compositional methods or devices used in the poems, I have refrained, in most places, from speculating as to whether the poets collaged specific poems from Google or used other aleatory or machine-based compositional processes. It would be disingenuous, however, to claim that my readings are not affected by the fact that both Mohammad’s and Gardner’s works often appear, because of their shifts in register and, at times, illogical and problematic content, to be collaged from Google searches, while Gordon’s more often present a relatively consistent voice—and one marked, in her words, by empathy, rather than irony or caustic critique.

Overall, just as Dada itself encompasses a great variety of works, Flarf too inhabits a range of approaches to poetry. Whether Flarf has already developed from its beginnings as a coterie poetics based on offensive jokes and playful transgressions into something that would constitute a recognizable “movement” in contemporary poetry, or whether it died several years ago, as Mohammad has asserted, is a question that no one can probably answer at the present time (“Flarf: Towards a Retrospective”). Although a more detailed examination of the development of Flarf at a later date may yield insights into the ways in which the internet has altered or accelerated the reception and institutionalization of avant-garde works, the question of Flarf’s status as a movement is most interesting, to my mind, to the extent that it spurs an examination of Flarf works. Provided that poets like Mohammad, Gordon and Gardner continue to write works as powerful and troubling as Deer Head Nation, V. Imp. and Petroleum Hat, does it really matter if “Flarf” fades or thrives?

Works Cited

Beckett, Tom. “Interview with K. Silem Mohammad,” E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S. 28 June, 2005, 29 April 2006 http://willtoexchange.blogspot.com/2005/06/interview-with-k-silem-mohammad.html.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Boyer, Anne. “A Draft: What Happened at the Flarf Festival,” Odalisqued. 24 April 2006, 24 April 2006 http://odalisqued.blogspot.com/.

Butthole Surfers, Rembrandt Pussyhorse. Touch & Go, 1986.

Davis, Jordan. Equanimity. 6 November 2005 http://equanimity.blogspot.com/2005_11_06_equanimity.archive.html.

———. “O, You Cosh-Boned Posers!” The Village Voice. 24 August 2004, 1 May 2006. http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0434,essay,56171,1.html.

Gale, Matthew. Dada & Surrealism. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Gardner, Drew. Petroleum Hat. New York: Roof Books, 2005.

Gordon, Nada. V. Imp. Cambridge: Faux Press, 2003.

——— Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms? New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2001.

——— and Gary Sullivan. Swoon. New York: Granary Books, 2001.

Hoy, Dan. “The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf: What Happens when Poets Spend Too Much Time Fucking Around on the Internet,” Jacket 29 (2006), 29 April 2006 http://jacketmagazine.com/29/hoy-flarf.html.

Magee, Michael. “The Flarf Files,” Electronic Poetry Center. August 2003, 28 April 2006 http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/syllabi/readings/flarf.html.

Mohammad, K. Silem. Deer Head Nation. Oakland, CA: Tougher Disguises, 2003.

———. “Flarf: Towards a Retrospective,” {lime tree}. 7 July 2005, 29 April 2006. http://limetree.ksilem.com/archives/000608 .html.

———. “Response to Tom,” {lime tree}. 28 May 2006, 3 June 2006.

Silliman, Ron. Silliman’s Blog. 22 February 2006, 29 April 2006. http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2006_02_01_ronsilliman_archive.html.

Stefans, Brian Kim. Angry Penguins. New York: Harry Tankoos Books, 2000.

Sullivan, Gary. “The Flarf Files,” Electronic Poetry Center. August 2003, 28 April 2006 http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/syllabi/readings/flarf.html.

Tzara, Tristan. Chanson Dada. Trans. Lee Harwood. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1987.

The Urinals, Negative Capability … Check It Out! Warning Label, 1997.


[1] Whether Gary Sullivan’s desire for deliberately awful writing bears any resemblance to the vaunted Dadaist principle of “anti-art”—or intentional defiance of aesthetic and formal principles—is a much larger question, and one complicated by the conflicting degrees to which Dadaists themselves espoused and performed this principle.

[2] Sullivan’s definition of Flarf continues: “Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not O.K.’” (“The Flarf Files”). The vast majority of Flarfists, it should be noted, are white, and most are male, a demographic breakdown that also aligns Flarf with Dada (and many other Western avant-garde groups). Although the desire to produce poems that demonstrate “awfulness” seems innocuous enough, writing that is “[u]n-P.C.” and “[o]ut of control” clearly has the potential to be offensive, especially given the class, race, and gender privileges of many of the writers. Like all types of art, however, works of Flarf must be considered on an individual basis. While some Flarf works have indeed proven to be offensive to many readers, whether this quality effectively undermines or bolsters any purported political intention of the writing will have to be the subject of another essay. What I focus on here is the emergence and development of Flarf, especially in the post-9/11 era, and the ways in which some of the writing can be read as a response to American aggression and the perverse distortion of discourse in the name of “national security.”

[3] “The Flarf Files,” which dates from 2003 and contains statements by Sullivan, K. Silem Mohammad, and Michael Magee, likely constitutes the closest thing to a manifesto for Flarf.

[4] Concerning the reception, among Flarfists, of a written piece that compared Flarf with O’Hara’s Personism, Michael Magee states, “Some of the folks on the Flarflist were/are not crazy about the literary critic in me, at least as it pertains to flarf” (“The Flarf Files”).

[5] As Hoy states, “In fact it’s not my intention to read [Flarf works] as poems at all, but as collage. And even then, the focus of this essay is not a reading of flarf per se but a reading of the reading of flarf (the critical reception of their poems as well as the poets’ stated intentions).” Such an approach, I believe, is disingenuous in its rigid separation of criticism from the poems that, at least in some cases, motivated the criticism in the first place. This approach, moreover, allows for an all too easy distortion of both critical and poetic context and intent and leads Hoy to make spurious comparisons between the procedures used by Cage and members of Oulipo and those of the Flarfists (all of whom, to my mind, are involved in very different projects).

[6] As Standard Schaefer notes, in a discussion of Magee’s poem “Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys Are Gay” in the comments field of Mohammad’s blog {lime tree}, the lack of unity among Flarfists constitutes “one of the great turn offs” in discussions of Flarf. “Someone does a reading of a poem from some flarf site and then is told that poem is not proper flarf. No further discussion. Or someone addresses one claim, and three other flarfsters chime in to say, oh I never said that one. Plausible deniability” (“Response to Tom”). One could easily argue, however, that it is precisely through forums such as {lime tree} and the various online discussions following Hoy’s article that Flarf is coalescing, however fitfully, from a coterie to a movement.

[7] Magee’s claim does have distinctly Dada roots in both tone and content. For an overview of the “Stupids” operating in Cologne in 1920, see Gale 145-149.

[8] The Dadaists’ technique of appropriating “primitive” language, while certainly part of a larger Modernist impulse, may resonate with the Flarfist tendency to employ language that is both offensive and blatantly “stoopid.” Both approaches might be imagined to offer the hegemonic reader and writer a slightly charged, (linguistically) voyeuristic thrill, in the provocative evocation of the Other—be it exotic foreigner or stupid racist.

[9] Other possible influences on “Mm-Hmm” include the intentionally offensive lyrics of punk bands from the 80s, such as the Butthole Surfers: “I’m gonna make the governor write my doo doo a letter child / and then I’m gonna grind me a White Castle slider out of India’s sacred cow (“Moving to Florida” from Rembrandt Pussyhorse).

[10] Perhaps just as important to any understanding of the development of Flarf is an acknowledgement of its original, epistolary nature, which seems intimately bound up with coterie poetics in the electronic age. Before the advent of Flarf, Sullivan and Gordon were perhaps best known, in fact, for the their epistolary collaboration Swoon, which presents excerpts from their correspondence, largely electronic, when Gordon lived in Japan and Sullivan in Brooklyn.

[11] As “Lester” astutely notes in a comment on Silliman’s Blog on Feb. 22, 2006: “But when I consider joy in light of Flarf, I don’t think the later Flarf texts read all so joyously. I mean, Gary’s “Mm-hmm” is a joyous hoot, a fun prank. But when you get to say Dear Head Nation you start to witness a sort of irony that seems to be leveled at a culture, rather than any ambition toward the weightless feeling of joy.”