Cover of Nada Gordon's Folly
(Roof Books, 2007)
Since coming together on private Listserv exchanges in 2001, the writers of the Flarf Collective have attracted critical attention—oh, and readers—more rapidly than is deemed seemly for contemporary poets. The group’s recent reading at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (alongside a mock-rival cadre of “Conceptualists”) and supplementary inclusion in Poetry magazine have raised their already high profile, which may have resulted from the collective’s self-styled (and half-joking) status as a genuine avant-garde. Flarf, as it is usually practiced, takes as its raw material the results of Google searches on words or phrases chosen by the poet. The writing that emerges, though heavily edited and reconfigured, typically bears the stamp of its sources, with a special affinity for the “junk language” of online chat rooms, forums, and blog comment streams—everything that passes for the national conversation of a polity in disarray.
The flarfists’ work can be wildly funny, goofing on giant squid and Sesame Street’s Grover, unsettlingly abject, or both—but it’s nearly always immoderate and inappropriate (or, as poet Gary Sullivan calls it, “flarfy”), especially relative to established models of both mainstream and experimental poetry. As you might guess, the movement’s antiliterary leanings have drawn fire: Some detractors find flarf patronizing and covertly elitist, while others dismiss its methods as a threadbare update of Tzara’s Dadaist hatful of headlines. These criticisms deserve a hearing, but so does the poetry itself, which has grown more individuated and ambitious since the group’s inception. Much of flarf’s energy still manifests online and in little magazines, and some affiliated writers haven’t yet published a full collection under its rubric. The eight books below make the best case to date for the movement’s fecundity and variety.
What could be less poetic than the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychological-assessment test designed in the 1930s? Titled after the test’s items—ranging from “I Very Much Like Hunting” to “I Am Not Afraid to Handle Money”—Degentesh’s poems are, as a rule, less openly disjointed than some of her peers’. But their surface cool provides cover for unruly intimations of family romance (“I loved my father and I loved Jesus / What was I to do?”) and recurrent strains of visionary animism (“a black bird and then a sparrow flew in / through my bedroom window / to loot my life clean”)—moments made all the more outlandish by their clinical surroundings.
“Chicks Dig War,” included in this collection, is a damning display of the psychosexual anxieties lurking behind both militarism and pacifism: “by following / their natural proclivity to breed with / John Ashcroft / women are an anti-civilizing force.” The poem is one of flarf’s most discussed, but it’s not entirely representative of Gardner’s subtle associative logic and attentiveness to rhythm and sound. The poems here can be scabrous (see his parody of former NEA head Dana Gioia’s poem “Money”) but also oddly rueful, especially when he reflects on his and his contemporaries’ aims and methods: “let’s make something ugly / let’s enjoy the games.”
“A woman will be a woman, i.e., a fool, whatever disguise she takes up,” wrote Erasmus, whose In Praise of Folly supplies Gordon’s overarching structure. Taking the sixteenth-century churchman at his word, Gordon’s Folly pursues a feminist argument about the limits of reason and propriety, decorated in opulent, clashing textures: “Would you, could you, learn to felch / deceitful Beauty’s steely meany?” Other recent poets have explored this rococo stylistic territory, but few match Gordon’s music, which is “as minefield-y / as it is unwieldy.”
Despite its title, taken from a San Francisco emporium of outmoded arcade novelties, Koeneke’s collection is distinguished by its squishy, cartoonish biomorphism—a Google-eyed look at a distorted toonscape ruled by “Squirty the micro stooge” and the notorious “Pizza Kitty.” The opening line of “White Like Me,” which yokes together Wordsworth and gratuitous gross-out humor, is the very model of flarf’s vaunted “wrongness”: “I wander’d—by mistake—into this anal monkey oyster bar.” Taken in bulk, the book turns expected responses upside down, with scatological lines (“Today’s colonoscopy went swimmingly”) registering as cheerful, and innocuous ones (“Better than your grandma’s clam chowder”) courting nausea.
Playing on Susan Howe’s influential critical study My Emily Dickinson, the animating conceit of Magee’s sequence can be read off its title. Each poem retains the Belle of Amherst’s formal and orthographic earmarks, while importing a rather different order of content: “Jo Van Fleet and Cybill Shephard / Play the—disembodied—Voice / Synonym for Crimson Crowbar, / Carol—whispered our fuck increase.” (“Rat Pack chick pal Angie” appears only at intervals.) Magee’s juxtapositions play havoc with both nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of femininity, while their irreverence serves to return the formal innovations of Dickinson’s own verse to something like their original strangeness.
In constant battle with “Clubhouse Fustyness,” Mesmer’s hilarious poems often take the form of confrontational rants: “I’m a seventeen-year old female from Ohio, US / confident and competent, with a lot of energy, / and I am fucking sick and tired of ppls Y2K shit.” (In an afterword, the poet allows that flarf freed her to write in the voices of “people I didn’t necessarily like.”) As her composite narrators riff on bodily functions, religion, and poets (“Mary Oliver is the dead people who live on our eyelashes”), their irreconcilable needs and desires begin to seem like only slight exaggerations of our own: “I love lemonade, panties, old folks, skinny-dipping / and my small hairy hermit in K-Mart.”
This 2003 collection was the first flarf work to appear in book form, and it may be the darkest. Staring unblinkingly into “the flat face of war,” Mohammad is a pitiless anthropologist of found language, piling up connections between, say, “alien teenagers in 1950s Florida” and “rabbit valley slave labor” until the links seem inevitable. The book’s air of grotesquerie is complicated in its final section, where the titular deer heads—real or fake, “fresh cut” or “mounted on a plaque”—take over, rec-room icons–turned–spirit guides sent to restore some mystery to a hollowed-out America where “9/11” is just another search string.
Though some of Sullivan’s plays have been staged, this volume draws on the tradition of barely performable “poet’s theater,” favoring geysers of language (“the Ballistix Balloon Raid Ballyhoo Ballz Banana Drama Bandana”) over narrative order and consistent characterization. Sullivan is a deft juggler of multiple registers, as in “Mozart & Salieri,” a kind of translation of Pushkin’s verse play, set in a Red Lobster. The sharpest pieces make cogent satiric points: In “The Separation of Church and State,” an angel shows Thomas Jefferson a future America where laws are passed in accordance with chat-room postings about the kinds of people who “should be shot.”
Franklin Bruno is the author of Armed Forces (Continuum, 2005) and Policy Instrument (Lame House, 2008) and the chief songwriter of the Human Hearts.