JULY 22, 2018
“A PROTEST POETRY intended to induce funks of ambivalence.” That phrase appears in Stan Apps’s “Free Dolphin Radio,” the opening poem of Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf. While its placement may have been fortuitous (given the book’s alphabetical arrangement by author), it seems a fitting motto for the entire collection, as well as for the movement the book presents as a whole. “Flarf” refers to a self-styled avant-garde collective that sprung up around 2000 and was devoted to exploring the web, then in its “wild west” phase, as a resource for making poetry. On a private email list, its members developed a technique they refer to as “Google sculpting,” which calls for the poet to trawl the internet for preexisting language, usually by putting combinations of intentionally silly or offensive keywords into a search engine (“pizza” and “kitty,” “Rogaine” and “bunny,” “pussy” and “turtleneck”) and then creatively arranging the results into strange, funny, and unsettling collages. Voilà: “Arthur Treacher grabs my assclown / Assclown grabs my squid / Squid signs me up for the NOW Action Alert list.” (This is from Sharon Mesmer’s “Squid Versus Assclown.”)
The name “Flarf” is a neologism, which one of its founders, Gary Sullivan, defines as describing “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’” It is also, he explains, a verb, meaning “to bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text” (thus, one can “Flarf” any unsuspecting piece of writing). Flarf, you might say, is what poetry would sound like “if pirates pumped the stuffed-up airwaves full of dolphin hymns and rat speak,” to quote another line from that same opening poem.
In the early 2000s, Flarf was a big cartoon thumb stuck in the eye of the poetry establishment. Pumped full of “rat speak” by pirate poets sailing the high seas of the internet, Flarf poems were disjunctive works made from the ugly feelings, vulgarity, and raucous surreality that colors our everyday experience in the digital age. With language extracted from chat rooms, message boards, and the underbelly of our online lives, the poems were deliberately messy, abrasive, and distasteful. But Flarf was also ostensibly “a protest poetry”: from the start, the Flarfists explained that they were supplying a subversive response to the nightmarish absurdity and deceit of contemporary culture in the post-9/11 era. Mostly, though, it seemed custom-designed to provoke misgivings from arbiters of taste and to induce “funks of ambivalence” about its aesthetics, its politics, and its worldview from both staid cultural gatekeepers and other avant-garde poets.
The funk continues to linger over Flarf, now more a period style than a going concern. While it has been claimed as a powerful and enduring intervention in the development of American poetry, some see it as little more than an extended prank; others insist it was only a tired retread of Dada and other earlier avant-garde experiments. Some claim its practice of borrowing language from “ordinary” people on the internet (often riddled with misspellings, stupidity, racism, and xenophobia) is ultimately patronizing, elitist, a form of punching down. Flarf has been dogged, too, by ethical questions about whether the reproduction of hateful, offensive language perpetuates rather than critiques harmful stereotypes and prejudices.
This anthology will probably not put such questions to rest. For one thing, it’s not clear why the Flarfists decided to publish this collection of their work (co-edited by five of its members) now, at a time when many of the poets themselves have moved on, and the more heated debates about the movement have subsided. Is the anthology meant to provide a snapshot of a vital and ongoing phenomenon, like Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry? Is the timing of its appearance intended to suggest that Bush-era Flarf is now newly relevant in the dark age of Trump? Or is it more a bid for canonization, an enshrinement of a now-defunct avant-garde in poetic history?
It’s even harder to answer these questions because, unlike many such collections, Flarf is completely devoid of scholarly apparatus and critical framework: it has no preface or introduction, no manifestos or statements of poetics. There’s no effort to define Flarf or trace its origins or goals, no attempt to explain its methods or sketch out its intellectual or poetic investments. It is nearly impossible to tell when the poems were written, or whether any of the material in the book is new or recent, or if it all dates from Flarf’s heyday, over a decade ago. Of course the editors’ decision to remove all context and helpful framing is probably deliberate, in keeping with the anarchic spirit of the movement, which is as allergic as Dada was to high seriousness, “official” institutions, the canon, and so on. But if that’s the case, then why produce an anthology at all? At the very least, a few signposts would have helped orient a younger generation of readers who missed the Flarf moment the first time around.
What we are left with, of course, are the poems themselves, giving us the opportunity to take stock of Flarf’s achievement, as it gathers in one place many of its best-known, and best, works, including Drew Gardner’s “Chicks Dig War,” Jordan Davis’s “Pablo Escobar Shopping T-Shirt,” Michael Magee’s “Mainstream Poetry,” Sharon Mesmer’s “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” K. Silem Mohammad’s “Mars Needs Terrorists,” and selections from Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale. Left to fend for themselves, these poems do make a sort of argument for Flarf’s value, and relevance. From the vantage point of 2018, Flarf can be seen as a compelling extension of the long, vital tradition of avant-garde collage, appropriation, and remix, updated for the internet age in intriguing ways. The best Flarf poems use the resources of search-engine technology to capture the exuberance, the strangeness, and the cracked beauty of what Anne Boyer calls our “electronic vernacular.” Jordan Davis suggests as much in one poem when he writes, “‘What I love about the chat rooms / Is that they’re already halfway to poetry, / What’s poetry but lines, what’s a chatroom,’ / He started rubbing the squid.” Where else can one find a poem titled “Humanism Is Cheese” or another with lines like these: “Phoenix is the land of milk dowsers, / and I’ve always been / a wolverine bunny cage xenocide forum asshole”? The poems teem with a density of reference, evincing the strange magnetic power of labels, names, and data in a culture drowning in signifiers: “Dag Hammarskjold rolls off our lips as easily as Lassie,” Boyer writes. “I just killed the Pillsbury dough boy,” the speaker of one of Gardner’s poems announces, before quickly bouncing off toward Terry Gross, “Charman” Mao, Shelley Duvall, Wallace Stevens, Minnie Driver, and Dan Rather.
Other poems crackle with the upending of clichés (“Same old job, / same old Diplodocus bong water orgy” — Gardner again). They frequently delight in the twisting of expectations, as in these lines by Mohammad, where the hackneyed language of romance is infused with militarism and violence:
love is a Pakistani Mirage fighter jet
like it had, you know, bubonic plague
I’m a bit less crazy about Flarf’s fondness for goofy, supposedly “transgressive” scatology and the sometimes exhausting levels of zaniness — poems where we learn that “I have to conduct snot viscosity experiments / with ass-lint,” (Mitch Highfill) and so on. But although the movement has been maligned for focusing too much on play and hijinks, for being just a bunch of friends “fucking around with google on the man’s dime” (as Gardner himself once put it), Flarf can in fact be fiercely political: poem after poem takes aim at toxic masculinity, American warmongering and imperialism, virulent racism, the intersections between porn and rape culture, and the penetration of neoliberal capitalism into every sphere of daily life. I fully expected to find that revisiting Flarf at this particular historical moment would feel like stepping out of the Tardis into the now distant days of “Shock and Awe,” where John Ashcroft makes jokes about Abu Ghraib over the sound of Howard Dean’s scream and ends up in a spider hole of denial. But many of the poems feel surprisingly timely, very much in touch with our own batshit zeitgeist. “I hate the high levels of jerk war around here,” Gardner writes in “Skylab Wolverine Bunny Cage Nub” (Twitter, anyone?). Benjamin Friedlander’s potent poem “When a Cop Sees a Black Woman” has a different charge in a post-Ferguson world:
is more fragile than most.
It requires TLC
when a cop sees a black women
he can’t think
everything through. She is
the shiznit. She tempts and she taunts.
She speaks in a bold
outspoken manner. But bypassing
a metal detector, his forced
is not a factor
in her arrest.
The same could be said of Gardner’s “How to Watch a Police Beating,” which follows its title with these scathing opening lines: “First off, there should be two sets of laws — / act like an ox and try not to be nonwhite…”
Other poems repurpose gender codes and tropes in ways that resonate powerfully in the #MeToo era. Consider Nada Gordon’s “I Love Men” (“I love men, but they wear me out with all their confusing issues. One day they / say they love you and the next they see someone with bigger ass. // I love men, muscles, sex, porn, and chocolate”). Or Katie Degentesh’s “I Was Horny,” which stitches together a series of found statements, substituting the word “boy” for “owl,” creating an affecting, creepy commentary on predatory masculinity and the culture that fosters it:
Boys are interesting creatures.
The boys tear their prey, swallow it whole, and spit up pellets.
They prey on small things. Boys fly silently. They see well in the dark,
hunt at night and sleep in the daytime. They scare others by fluffing up.
I hope boys never go extinct and I hope they never get endangered. I love boys.
In the decade and a half since Flarf emerged, strategies of appropriation of the sort these poets deploy have spread far and wide. It is worth noting that they have proven particularly useful as vehicles of political critique and dissent for a long list of poets of color not affiliated with the (largely white) Flarf coterie itself, who have seized on such tools to create works that take aim at racism, US foreign policy, police brutality, oppression, and misogyny, often more directly and powerfully than Flarf. In her award-winning collection Look, for example, Solmaz Sharif incorporates euphemistic phrases from a Department of Defense manual but scrutinizes, dismantles, and subverts them, redeploying this found material for both intimate personal reflection and for expressing coruscating outrage at contemporary racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim policies. I would recommend reading this anthology of Flarf alongside other contemporary poets like Sharif, Tracy K. Smith, Robin Coste Lewis, Philip Metres, Layli Long Soldier, Shane McCrae, and Tyehimba Jess to get a fuller sense of the ends to which such tactics have been put in recent poetry.
Faced with the daily calamity of the Bush years, Flarf testified that verbal play, and the creative détournement of our culture’s own language, could be a liberating act of resistance. Its antics were a valuable method of pushing back against what Wallace Stevens called, in another dark time, the almost unbearable “pressure of reality.” Perhaps right now we desperately need art forms that can seize on the language of our time, expose its absurdity, its deceit, and its sinister designs on us, and repurpose it for different ends. But in 2018, the online culture of misogyny, racism, stupidity, and hatred that Flarf exposed doesn’t need much further unearthing: it seems to be everywhere. As we gasp for air and sanity in the depths of Trumpworld, Flarf seems prescient but also somewhat redundant. To paraphrase Man Ray’s famous remark about why Dada could not survive in New York: Flarf cannot live in America. All America is Flarf, and will not tolerate a rival.