Less than 24 hours after Barack Hussein Obama was elected 44th President of the United States, Americans began to declare irony dead.
“How is one cynical and ironic in front of President Obama?” Ray Bianchi asked in a post to his Web log, “Irascible Poet.” Bianchi, true to his blog’s moniker, had an ax to grind. “You see this in so many poets today [in] the irony of Flarf. How do we engage now with a new and better world where our irony and cynicism don’t really compute?”
This wasn’t the first time in recent memory that Americans had, without a trace of irony, declared irony dead. Remember the days and weeks following 9/11? Unlike today, no one was decrying the death of Flarf then, as September 11, 2001, was practically Flarf’s birthday.
The Flarf e-mail listserv, launched by half-a-dozen poets in March of 2001, was a kind of joke, or anyway a space where people who liked to tell jokes—inside jokes, about the poetry world, mostly—could hang out and dish. And write awful poetry, often parodying the kind of earnest sludge we’d all had poured into our ears at our favorite venues while dutifully waiting for the poetry to happen.
The list had ground to a chittering halt in mid-summer 2001. By September 11, there hadn’t been a new post in more than a month. On other e-mail lists we were getting touchy-feely post-9/11. But not on Flarf. The dead silence continued for two weeks after the attacks, then, Katie Degentesh sent what was possibly the list’s most pivotal post:
“WAX in my STAR-SPANGLED UNDERPANTS!” the subject line read. The post itself consisted of a single word: “uh-huuuuuuuHHHH.”
Elsewhere, this might have been grounds for reprimand—if not expulsion. But on the Flarf list, it was the very breath of life. Soon, we were all posting, but instead of inside-jokes about minor annoyances, the target was The New Era. If irony, sarcasm, and general un-Americanism had tanked when the Towers fell, the Flarf list was too drunk to read the memo. Everyone posted reams of the most offensive rewrites of New York Times “think” pieces, hand-wringing blog-posts, and other well-intentioned public statements this particular reader had ever seen. I was in love. I had found my tribe.
As the months dragged on, more poets joined. Members were now focused on Googling odd word combos and phrases—and riffing off each other. When K. Silem Mohammad wrote a poem from the results of a search of “peace” + “kittens,” Rodney Koeneke responded with a poem written from a search on “pizza” + “kitty.” (A YouTube video of Koeneke reading “Pizza Kitty” at the 2006 Flarf Festival is, by poetry standards, a genuine hit, having been viewed more than 5,400 times.)
Michael Magee wrote a Flarf anthem of sorts, suturing some of the list’s favorite search terms into one of Amiri Baraka’s most famous poems: “Poems are, like, total bullshit unless they are/squid or popsicles or deer piled/on elk in the trunk of David Hasselhoff’s/cutlass Sierra.”
Then, in August 2003, the inconceivable happened: An upstart press in California, Tougher Disguises, published Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation, the first cover-to-cover book of Flarf; the next year, “Mars Needs Terrorists,” a poem from DHN, was included in the 2004 edition of Best American Poetry:
:.:.:.:.: 1.tn t. (terror
:.:.:.:.: grind 1.monkey business 2. slave
:.:.:.:.: 1.dead & bloated 2 sex
:.:.:.:.: pie 9.plus 10.wet
:.:.:.:.: mind-controlled slave
:.:.:.:.: affirmative vote regarding the wet
:.:.:.:.: to malign fathers and teenagers
:.:.:.:.: few goofballs hauling their wet
:.:.:.:.: breasts plump and round such that
:.:.:.:.: needs more focus on sex
:.:.:.:.: a nation of former slave
People liked this stuff? Normal people? While we recognized Mohammad’s brilliant updating of classics like Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and John Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath, we hadn’t banked on immediate approval from the outside world. Were we being co-opted? Defanged? Or, horrors: genuinely understood?
Well, not really, probably not, and definitely no. It was a full year-and-a-half before the next book, Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat (Roof, 2005), saw publication, and with it came the first serious Flarf blowback.
A glowing review of Gardner’s book by Joyelle McSweeny in the Constant Critic compared one of his poems, “Chicks Dig War,” to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “More women than men are enjoying the war […] Phallocentric chicks:/They dig guys with big wars.”
This did not go down so well with some poets, for whom Ginsberg is a kind of Christ figure. On a listserv based in North Carolina, one poet railed against “Chicks Dig War,” likening Flarf, generally, to “gang-bang pornos.”
Reading Petroleum Hat today, even given titles like “A Copy of the Koran Written in Root Beer,” “I Am So Stupid,” and “Why Would You Listen to That Patronizing Asshole?” I am less taken with the obvious affront such language seems poised to deliver, than with the dizzyingly vibrant, even lyrical, energy the poetry delivers: “it would knock/you off your path, or bend your forks back/like a pretzel if you hit it right or wrong/sorry for the bummer advice.”
Energized language—often boring down through nine circles of contemporary social strife—is a hallmark of much of the work of my peers. As Flarf began to take on a life of its own beyond the list, others noted the energy with admiration—there was clearly something going on here—even while they questioned, at times, the content. For us, it was the world as we experienced it, the language as we breathed it in and out.
In May of 2006, shortly after BlazeVOX Books in Buffalo, New York published Koeneke’s Musee Mechanique and Magee’s Mainstream, Magee gave a reading in Oakland, California. Days later, someone posted an account of the event on their blog. One piece in particular had upset the entire audience.
Magee had written the poem, “Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay,” from the results of searches on the title, which itself was a homophonic translation of a vaguely Orientalist line from Yeats. The Bay Area was not amused. Neither, it seemed, was much of the poetry world on either coast, or in between.
A debate involving more than two dozen poets raged on in the posts and comments fields of numerous blogs for more than two months. Magee was accused of everything from practicing minstrelsy to outright racism. Poets sent letters of protest to various arts organizations, including the Poetry Project, threatening boycotts if Flarfists were given air time. (Magee has only given one public reading since then, despite the subsequent publication of a well-regarded collection in 2007, My Angie Dickinson.)
In retrospect, Magee’s poem—though suturing together language written about a different race—nailed the creepy and insidious way that racialized language would be put to use, in a far more frightening way, by the McCain campaign and the conservative media that supported him. If the McCain campaign freaked out any of the poets who had questioned Magee’s poem, they didn’t bother blogging about it.
The “Guys” debate caused such a stir that non-poetry readers in Magee’s small town in Rhode Island got wind of it; after barely winning a battle in late 2006 to keep his job in the public school system, Magee removed all videos of himself reading Flarf from the Internet.
Surprisingly, Flarf didn’t die. The next few months saw the publication of titles by three of Flarf’s most active women. Magee brought out Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale through his own Combo Books. Degentesh generated each poem from searches for phrases pulled from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory: “When Serbs get mad, they talk/about a small town like Grace/Stop laughing; I’m serious/Grace is all I can afford on my nursing home wages/I pity her for the thankless job of building/A nation of Americans conceived in petri dishes.”
Reviewers, some cautiously noting their general distaste for Flarf, gave it their thumbs-up, and the book made Small Press Distribution’s Bestseller list a couple of times in 2006-07. Combo followed this up the next year with the publication of Sharon Mesmer’s impossibly titled Annoying Diabetic Bitch, another SPD Bestseller, and which earned a favorable review here in the Rail.
In New York, Roof Books published Nada Gordon’s Folly, an imaginative rewrite of Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, one of the most irony-dripping texts ever published. Filled with characters culled from the contemporary poetry scene to Bollywood and beyond, Gordon’s version popped with language that hadn’t been this lively since Breton: “chunk, an eyesore, an invented ice, plop sword and bloblike ice beater. It’s addictive […] in a good way […] like mink thumbscrews.”
Not all Flarf is as caustic as some of the quotes above might suggest. Mitch Highfill’s Moth Light (Abraham Lincoln, 2008) is possibly more lyrical than flarfy: “Spiny oakworm moth love/love songs through the eyes of moths/‘If thou scorch so often the soul that flutters/round thee/like a male equipped to receive/infrared moth heaven.’” And Stan Apps’s Princess of the World in Love (Cy Press, 2007) basks in an almost fairytale-like ambiance: “The technique was just as hollow/as the gurus of the Gluttonous Dictator,/adjusting her one and only knob/in her heart […]”
Time will tell if the end of the Bush Era will render irony and cynicism obsolete. Rod Smith, who sprinkled a few Flarfs into his latest collection, Deed (Iowa, 2008), will publish a Flarf anthology in late 2009 through his own Edge Books. Meanwhile, the popular Flarf list search combo this week is “Obama” + “unicorns.”
Gary Sullivan, who coined the term flarf, lives in Brooklyn with Nada Gordon. His book of Googled plays, PPL in a Depot, was published in 2008 by Roof.