Friday, January 09, 2009

Flarf Q&A: Responses to Joe Safdie

Joe Safdie posted some questions about Flarf in response to my last post, pointing to D. J. Huppatz's review of Sharon Mesmer's Annoying Diabetic Bitch. I will do my best to answer them below.

JS: Is Flarf really "one of the most challenging creative responses to contemporary American culture"?

KSM: Yes. I mean no. I dunno.

JS: Is Flarf "a literature of critical engagement"?

KSM: Little bit?

JS: Haven't you been arguing against any necessity for engagement and relevance lately?

KSM: I don't think so, no. Even taking into account my numerous annoying qualifiers and self-ironizing follow-ups, I think it would be a misreading to characterize what I wrote as an argument against either of those things. Rather, I was trying to break down some of what I see as the sloppy or dishonest ways those concepts get applied to poetry.

JS: (Not that writers of a collective need to write like each other--that would be too "earnest").

KSM: Does it follow from the irony implied by your scare quotes that you think writers in a collective really should "write like each other"? To what extent? I must admit, I wonder often myself about what makes certain movements or collectives hang together definitionally: what, for example, is the common "conceptual" thread connecting Christian Bök, Kenny Goldsmith, and Kim Rosenfield, say?

JS: And what do you think about what Huppatz writes is an ambition of Flarf, to "undermine any attempt to establish a clear polemical position"? Any position whatsoever? Are all positions equally absurd? "[T]he absence of transcendence in contemporary American culture” ... well, sure. Maybe Thomas Friedman was right after all: the world is flat. Sometimes. But what about when it's not?

KSM: Without saying that I think Huppatz is wrong here, I will just reveal that I am not, in my own writing, particularly concerned with undermining anyone's attempt to establish any kind of position, unless by that we just mean that I like my work to test the limits of certain tendencies toward overcertainty about various inherited attitudes--which I would think is the same thing any self-respecting author would say. Do I think all positions are equally absurd? No; all are absurd, but some more than others. As for transcendence, in contemporary culture or elsewhere, that's a matter of personal superstition, um, I mean belief.

JS: Using the links from the piece, I saw lots of hilarious videos from the Flarf Festival 06 (mostly contributed by Jordan), including your own, and you know ... I laughed a lot. Really. They were mostly very, very funny. (But can there be a "bad" Flarf poem?)

KSM: Flarf gets judged good or bad for the same reason other poetry does: because it succeeds or fails at what it sets out to do, whatever that might be. And that, like lots else, is generally a matter of opinion and/or mechanics. It gets interesting (for me) when there's disagreement over what it is that the work's trying to do, and therefore over what the standards of evaluation ought to be. I think most of the past controversy over Flarf--e.g., Mike Magee's "Glittering Asian Guys" poem--stems from disagreements about what the poems' intentions are, or from firm convictions about certain forms of reference always being unacceptable regardless of context, and not really from any coherent theory of aesthetic goodness or badness. An exception would be people who look at the work and just can't get past the surface "badness": readers who say, wow, that's not very good, and who aren't really concerned with the purposive impulse behind that surface affect. And this position is unimpeachable. No one should have to value badness if they don't want to.

JS: And what about the times when life isn't funny? Does Flarf have anything to say about that...?

KSM: It seems clear to me that that's what Flarf has the most to say about. Flarf, maybe even a little more than most poetry, wouldn't exist if it weren't for unhappiness. Of course, it depends on how you define "say."

JS: Could Flarf exist in Gaza? Afghanistan? For people who have lost their jobs and homes? Whoops, getting too earnest again, gotta stop.

KSM: Black humor exists in almost any crisis-ridden social situation you can think of that still somehow retains the vestiges of human consciousness (viz. concentration camp humor, etc.). But of course Flarf is a culturally specific form, like anything else. "Annoying Diabetic Bitch" isn't going to seem very relevant to someone whose children have just been bombed, and that's as true here in the US as in Gaza or wherever. But neither will most other poetry (or art of any sort), beyond a very small subcategory of genres (mourning songs, war chants, etc.), and it's unfair to assume that it should. I don't know why you keep invoking earnestness in the way you do. I don't think any Flarfist ever claimed there was anything wrong with being earnest. I can think of lots of Flarf poems that exhibit varying degrees of earnestness, and lots that don't--again, just like any other kind of poetry.

JS: Actually, even though Sharon's lines were often a scream, the most hilarious line of the review for me was that her flarf "exposes cracks in the culture of banality"--I guess I didn't realize that particular culture needed an exposé.

KSM: Like I said, I didn't write the review. But I can make sense of that statement, I guess: "the culture of banality" is one that doesn't know it's banal, and that tries to present itself as non-banal. The "cracks" occur along those fault lines where the effort to assert non-banality, at its most degradedly heroic, meets the most resistance from the opposing obviousness of banality. I see why you think it's funny, but even though the cracks are already obvious to most intelligent observers, the ways in which the culture tries to cover them up can be insidiously complex, resourceful, and/or pathetic.


Joe Safdie said...

Quick work, Kasey! Thanks for these. Just a couple of explanations: I was quoting Huppatz’ frequent use of the word “earnest,” so didn’t mean any irony; likewise, I was using Friedman’s sense of the word “flat,” so didn’t mean to imply that transcendence was common (though there were certainly times in my life when I thought it was). I do disagree, certainly, with the proposition that all positions are absurd, some more than others: for one thing, it would be impossible to conduct any sort of dialogue with someone who thought that. Which leads to the question of judging individual pieces of Flarf: do you really think that the success of a work depends on what the poet intends? Isn’t that some sort of fallacy? And isn’t an intention a “position”? The ground is always shifting, of course, which is part of the point, but it does seem as if Flarf (the very small quantity of it with which I’m familiar) has set itself up as immune to criticism, because it’s always possible to say “You just don’t get it; it’s not serious.” So it’s good to hear that some Flarfists are earnest -- or, to use a word I prefer (since Oscar Wilde), serious -- even in varying degrees. Finally, I’m shocked (shocked) for you to say that poetry can’t do everything: what in the world are we all doing then?

Gary's comment would seem to agree, that it is possible for poetry to do everything (and thanks for the recommendation, Gary -- I'll check it out). I actually lived in Central Europe in the early 90s, and can vouch for the strong taste for black humor among the Czechs (they called it "sour-ass" humor). Living in a police state will greatly increase one's capacity for irony: it was, after all, a necessity never to clearly express what one meant. Which isn't to say that I'm a fan of "direct earnestness" -- I do think, though, that some times, and some conditions, call for more than silliness.

Lemon Hound said...

Could Flarf exist in Gaza? What does exist in Gaza? What can we make of the logic of constant bombing to make peace? It's precisely this kind of linking of tone and earnestness to any kind of notion of sincerity and well-meaning that makes me cringe...

I keep thinking that Flarf may be the most honest form of poetry we have in our time.

Lemon Hound said...

Sigh. Well, one should probably not respond to posts at 11:23pm on a Friday night.

Thanks for the exchange Joe and Kasey.

D.J. Huppatz said...

Thanks for the engagement Joe, Kasey, Gary & LH - earnest, critical or otherwise - there's some great dialogue happening here. I just realized that my comments box has been out of action for the last few posts (not sure when I turned that off - not on purpose! It's back on now).

On Gary's point above: "I'd be interested in someone's taking up an argument with Huppatz's take who had read her book, too."
Me too. There are some good points and worthy criticisms of my review here but it would be good hear more in relation to Mesmer's work.

D.J. Huppatz said...

I'll have another bite here as I've been thinking about Joe's questions, specifically: And what do you think about what Huppatz writes is an ambition of Flarf, to "undermine any attempt to establish a clear polemical position"?

Yes, this is a good question - I don't think it's an ambition of Flarf, but it is manifest in some work in Mesmer's book. For me, much of Mesmer's work in ADB certainly makes a clear position difficult (though it was generalizing on my part to say that this is common to all Flarf, point taken).

Joe's next question with regards to, "[T]he absence of transcendence in contemporary American culture” - this was qualified on my part by beginning the sentence with a "perhaps", but I won't cop out there. More importantly, the phrase was followed by the word "performing" - ie. Mesmer's poetry "performs" (evokes? makes "present") the absence of transcendence. This is probably still not quite clear enough, but I think the poems perform this flattening without falling into Friedman territory. In this way, Conceptual poetry and Flarf are step-sisters.

phaneronoemikon said...

with the proposition that all positions are absurd, some more than others: for one thing, it would be impossible to conduct any sort of dialogue with someone who thought that.

what is the "absolute weight" of absurd you are using? Absurdism and also nihilism are venerable modes of Modernism.. The Modernist canon may not openly admit some of the more exoteric readings of dada, but without Dadaism which is patently an image of layering

trojan horse


These kinds of huffy statements like "it would be impossible to conduct any sort of dialogue with someone who thought that" are just silly baloney.. Try having a conversation with eternity sometime
which is basically what the poet or artist is doing, or is what the Modernist poet thought she was doing, peering ever deeper into the connections between things until some state like viveka emerges.. now one might argue that state is tantamount to subjectivity
with a small s, but the surface remains.. I would rather keep own view that "all positions are absurd".. than descend into the opposite of whatever that means..

What is a "position".. Is it a little apartment you keep in your neural networld, like a bookmark so you remember who you are?

The Inquisition was just as geeky as that.. Geeks with soldiers.
People who can't accept that the linguistic is an extension of the graphic, and that the graphic is an extension of the somatic, and that the somatic is an extension of the "total hearth of energy"..

Why would I want a dialogue with a person who can't think their way out of a box?

I suppose "position" would be the key term.. and all ironies do extend there.. absurdism is taboo
because your "position" precludes it. Most of the occupational poets will silently nod here, for a priest without a church, is just another amoeba forced into the blizzard of 'desiring-meaning' called the semioverse..

Have a nice tea-party, I would if I were you..

Joe Safdie said...

Lanny (I think it’s Lanny – we haven’t met) asks:

“what is the "absolute weight" of absurd you are using?”

Absurd wasn’t my word, but Kasey’s; he wrote that all positions were absurd, some more than others. My statement in response wasn’t meant to be “huffy” at all; it simply expressed my belief that “positions” (stances, perspectives, views, understandings, apperceptions, all of which have their metaphorical underpinnings, take your choice) were necessary to conduct a dialogue. In that sense, I counted three or four positions in your comment, absurd or not. Also, positions shift, all the time . . . at least, mine do. Sometimes they even change as a result of dialogue.

The absurdity of dada is an entirely different thing: I revere it. In fact, I’ve always felt a lot more sympathetic to modernism than post-modernism. But you know what modernism and post-modernism are? Positions.

“Try having a conversation with eternity sometime, which is basically what the poet or artist is doing . . . the linguistic is an extension of the graphic, and . . . the graphic is an extension of the somatic, and . . . the somatic is an extension of the "total hearth of energy"..

Fabulous, Lanny! Really interesting! I’d be interested in anything else you could say about this, which sounds like your poetics – if that word doesn’t remind you too much of “position,” I mean. It sounds very Blakean to me. And Blake, a pre-modern, I revere most of all.

There’s just one thing missing in your comment that have been in all the others so far (including Kasey’s generous impulse to make my questions to him a post in his fabulous blog for a few days): Generosity. Openness of spirit. I’m not angry at anyone right now. Are you?

Back to eternity . . . tonight, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “To say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.”

phaneronoemikon said...

Dali was fond of "communication through total misunderstanding"
and then there's the TOPY idea of
negating 'understanding' at all
for 'Overstanding'

For me, there is only Semiotics, Flarf, or modernism, or whatever,
pomodoro, is something closer to Hans Bellmer's
La Poupee and all of the Bataillean excess that implies or even

pew pay



like dinnah
like dyne
like din
or nit

these little weldings
and frankenstains


these are all somebody's
"little dress-up dolly"

that's the level of the discourse,


flarf as "sticky"


as beard,ie






wooden nickel

lick it.

Art is so like

cellphone for me right now

can it compare to

laser science?


it is doll play
and it should be told so.

I mean don't get me wrong,
put input into to neural sponges
can be fun, but
it doesn't often yield anything more than potentials for neo-emotional prosthesis..

What is the question
the oracle asks herself?

This is something I pondered today.

mongibeddu said...

Honestly, I truly don't get half of you peopl.... If you are not all finger happy with the thumbs down button... You confuse the reviewer with the pot! I dont t find the work confusing at all... I am very much inclined to dispense with the review altogther! I love Mesmer.... It was perhaps a huge mistake to call her flarf.... It become her too visibvl... and so shre got killed off... leaving no scope for her to be flarf. This whole theorizing the internet stuff is getting too much now... As much as I champion the internet 100% reading time... sometimes the online doesn't fit with the rest of the poetry, obviously other times it works! Just my opinion too folks!!!! OK...... All done ... Now, on the count of 3.... all go for your negative thumbs .... Let's really negative here!!! :D :D :D

Meg said...

What a fantastic book title:

Annoying Diabetic Bitch

If there's one thing I can tell you...yes...some of the most annoying people on the planet but not after the insulin pump. Revolutionized the way diabetics think and act.

I know. Superfluous as all get out.

What bothers me and impresses me at the same the Sontagian like morphing of image and word.

The book cover and titles...that seem to be "Flarf" like...tend to have this advertisement type of acknowledgement of how incredibly important image has become in the media aka arts. What bothers me about that is the whole betterment of the poetry world through marketing a name brand.

Escaping the polemical...well. I guess that is fitting for those who abandon causes, abandon hopes.

Or do they?

I am not sure and just an observer here who likes to know alot of things about the world.

Like the prophet advised:

"Acquire knowlege even if you have to go to China."

The Inaugauration poem by Ms. really grand. It's too bad she won't be reading it to the whole nation.....

"There are no cats in America." -An American Tale (which was if you remember, a children's animated movie in the mid eighties).

Joe Safdie said...

This post has been frozen for over a week now, an eternity in blog-time, so in an attempt to get Kasey to post something new, I'll add a few more things.

First, a Guide to the Perplexed regarding Lanny Quarles' two comments here: "The conventional humanistic understanding of subjectivity -- the individual agent, writer or reader possessing a mind of his or her own and exercising free will through thought and action -- [is] superficial and self-serving. . . . anti-humanist iconoclasts argue for the primacy of semantic sign systems, cognitive structures and texts. We don't think our thoughts, they think us; we are but the bearers of discourses, our selves are discursive constructs. . . . idle teleological myth[s]." (Flesh in the Age of Reason, Roy Porter.

I hope that clears that up.

Second, a further word on the proposition that "all positions are absurd, some more than others": there's a really good short essay in the February 2009 issue of Harper's called "A Quibble" by Mark Slouka, dealing with the alarming ignorance of most Americans. In it, Slouka writes: "Although perfectly willing to recognize expertise in basketball (Kobe coolly sinking a three-pointer as I type), for example, or refrigerator repair, when it comes to the realm of ideas, all folks (and their opinions) are suddenly equal. Thus evolution is a damned lie, global warming a liberal hoax, and Republicans care about people like you." This, I'd submit, is the result of the "flattening" of American discourse and any attempt to undermine the taking of a clear polemical position: I see it in many of my students all the time.

I even see it, in a small way, in Gary's comments to this stream: I'll look forward to reading, and viewing, Zograf's Regards from Serbia, but as I said, I actually lived in Central Europe in the 90s, and Gary's summary of the history of that time leaves out a few important things, like the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Srebrenica. I haven't read the book (nor read Mesmer's book, because as Gary and Drew Gardner seemed to miss, I wasn't writing about Mesmer's book, only a review of it), but it's at least possible that any irony or black humor in it is a result of a consciousness of history and its inevitable paradoxes.

Finally, I want to commend (again) D. J. Huppatz for writing a really smart and engaging review, which started these particular speculations, and recommend one more recent publication, an essay called Ed Dorn & the Western World by Amiri Baraka, available from Effing Press ( In it, Baraka writes about his 30-year friendship with Dorn, one that survived numerous differences of opinion, because they were aware that what they were engaged in transcended merely literary ambition: "We wanted an exchange of information, new facts, new registrations, reinforcement of some stances, permission to abandon others" (6). I'd hope for a similar commitment to friendship with everyone I've mentioned here.

Please save a thought in your poetic hearts for Duncan McNaughton, seriously ill in San Francisco tonight.

phaneronoemikon said...

Joe Joe Joe.. what am I, some garden variety POst-structuralist?
No. Yes, it's a typically clever thing to say that thought is thinking us and not the opposite, but its actually more clever to just see ourselves 'as thoughts' because of our epiphenomenal status as

abstractions out of various materials

let's not quibble
think of any 'meaning' as a 'lensing'
or as a quality of 'the' lens..

there is a funny way i like to illustrate this..

the phoneme 'mean'
which also carries that 'fierce aspect' of mad or angry
is also 'meen'
which is 'fish' in hindi or sanskrt
or somesuch..

now if you connect that
as a joke assembly just there
to the old latin term 'syntaxis'
which means treatise but instead
create an ironic meaning for 'syntaxis' based on a kind of EO Wilsonian understanding of biological 'taxis' ie the motivation of animals by things like light, chemistry, sound
ie the terms


humans are no different than amoebas
but our motivational principle
is 'signs' or syn(thesis)


You can do all sorts of disjunctive analysis this way

here is a funny joke
look at the word evil

if you ask a gnostic if the world is evil she will say no, just that

all e)nergy is vil(e
to live is vile and nothing dead
is evil

When it comes right down to it, whatever we think serves as a sort of timing chart which determines our fate, hence the prescient use of the multiple strings in the ancient myth of the fates

or that scene in
no country for old men
at the end

the car wreck

even modern computers have skeins and strings of logic, and there is a simulatteneity of multiple thought lines occuring..

But let's play your game!

I can drop a writer's name too!

Denise Schmandt Besserat!

Using examples of ancient Near Eastern writing and masterpieces of art, she shows that between 3500 and 3000 BC the conventions of writing—everything from its linear organization to its semantic use of the form, size, order, and placement of signs—spread to the making of art, resulting in artworks that presented complex visual narratives in place of the repetitive motifs found on preliterate art objects. Schmandt-Besserat then demonstrates art's reciprocal impact on the development of writing.

It's very conventional to think
that writing is funny, or clever,
but here is the rub

everything moves in one direction

there is a spherical surface

some folks run around on it

some are sitting reading
while others are riding bicycles

one person
falls asleep at the wheel
maybe this is in


sounds like

Ge Zeus

or Earth Zeus

Earth is an old word for 'is'
or are..

but also Hearth
with the H missing

An Aitch is like two parallel
lines with a little bridge attached
a pontifex

thought is like an aitch i can't scratch

H was almost kicked out of the alphabet! A couple of times..

like a medieval hellmouth

like a unit of resistence
or a french person


Terra-ohms? Massive resistance!

Terra sounds alot like
Tera which is what we use for
monstrous things

how about we just call any language


a monstrously rapt generation

how about

monstrous rapture

or "demonstrating rupture"

or language as a "demon striating our molecular rapture"

which is pretty close
because all division in society is brought about by various polarities brought about in the 'abstraction layer'
or the


din as noise
din as dinner


See Sagan!

you'll notice that 'ab' in abstract..

and what is that joke
the old joke from Bernini or the composer Verdi (so Burningly Green)

the closeness of

abdomen to ab domime'

or some such

God is a stomach
and we are its food..

these things fade..
you hear them on the radio..

all logic
is dream logic

logic backwards looking more
and more like sigil
but then logos itself
structures structurelessly
or is it that its structurelessly structuring or instructing destruction? How about constructing

mist erections?

moose elections?

moss detection!

mass insurrection!

my ass is inflected!

draw written backwards
is ward



word is a dark elf
player character

a charred actor

a black president

a being
lacking presence

Drew said...

Joe, what I'm jonesing for is more critical engagement from people challenging Flarf but who don't actually read the books. What I see here is you asking loaded questions about "Flarf" based on your reading of this review. Your questions read more as opinions than questions. Without having read the books, or at least the book under discussion, there's no way you can critically engage beyond a very superficial level about Flarf in general. It's unsatisfying to constantly read smart people doing weak critical thinking because they can't be bothered with confronting the primary sources and making up their own minds- and there is a lot of this! I'm challenging you to be a worthy opponent, which is a valuable thing.

Joe Safdie said...

Fair enough, Drew. I recently bought Kasey's new book along with Rod Smith's Deed and have been reading both of them, so I'll start there. But you shouldn't assume that I'll automatically be an "opponent," nor that my questions to Kasey were loaded -- they weren't intended to be. I have my prejudices just like everyone else, but I can also be fair-minded about what I see and read, and I try to be. If you or anyone else want to recommend some exemplary examples of Flarf before those two, please let me know back-channel and I'll get hold of them.

Drew said...


drewgardner9 at hotmail dot com

Joe Safdie said...

Got that, Gary -- I just wanted to add to the historical record you had laid out, namely, the "economic sanctions, extreme inflation and unemployment, and . . . literally being bombed by the UN forces, watching parts of his town go up in smoke." Those are certainly extreme conditions, but the Serbian government, and many Serbs, had blood on their hands during those times -- so perhaps (I was suggesting) the "irony, black humor, silliness, dream-logic, etc." that you found in his book was also a result of his consciousness of history's paradoxes, or, as we used to say with somewhat greater regularity, karma. In relation to that, it was a surprise to read that Zograf thought "Serbia had a relatively open media, allowing for free criticism of the govt, during most of the 1990s, and people were quite openly arguing, in public, about what was going on as well." Most of the Serbs I met and talked to during that period denied anything at all was going on, certainly not war crimes and genocide, as are widely understood now.

I know these are words that, as the linguists say, are heavy signifiers; I was simply asking whether Flarf was an appropriate response to those circumstances, like the massive collective punishment we've just seen inflicted on Gaza. Perhaps, as Drew suggested, my question suggested that I'd already reached a conclusion -- if so, I didn't mean to suggest that. But I've also thought, since that initial exchange ten days ago, about Art Spiegelman's Maus and In The Shadow of No Towers, works (if not exactly Flarf) that I admire extravagantly. So I guess, in some works and in some situations, that the answer could be "yes".

I'm moving along in my full-scale exploration of Flarf, though, as Drew asked me to, so I should have some more questions soon.

Meg said...

The non polemia of polemics aside....half empty/full glasses aside....critical non readers aside....when in fact, "Flarf" isn't a style but perhaps, a whole generation of new poets savoring the sweet success of instant recognition by Branding themselves "flarfists". A team approach just like the team approach blog (which I find really curious).

A generation that says "we don't care anymore" when in fact what they mean is "why didn't you tell me this?"

Regards from Serbia....well. In a nutshell....would it have made it had it been titled Regards from Illinois?

I highly doubt it. Serbia as a "brand" name in a world where everything has to be put in a category depending on both its structure and its goals.

Speech doesn't think us Lanny.

Speech does influence what we think in terms of the trajectory we are heading towards ANYWAY. We choose and discriminate based on a tremendous group of variables that we are exposed to.

It's sic poetry, really about SOUL.

Those who believe they don't have them have NO business writing poetry. Haha.

Does Flarf exhibit the Soul?

Of individuals? Of nations?

I'd hate to think that the soul of this nation is based on a google search.

But it probably is.

"Living in a good house with bad neighbors." -Ali ibn Abi Taleb, Lion of Allah

Ryan said...

Modernism and post-modernism are are labels, not positions. Who among the modernists would gush about "being a modernist." I don't see the position taken as being synonymous with the label you're later given to fit into the cannon (sic).

Joe Safdie said...

The canon shot out of a cannon, like Quaker Oats. Yeah, Ryan, sure, I take your point, but when Virginia Woolf wrote "on or about December 1910 human character changed," don't you think she was identifying with the modernist aesthetic that exemplified that change? I always thought so. The point, as it exists at this late date, might not be worth making -- in the heat of the exchange, I was just trying to say that there always has to be a point (in space) from which discourse evolves . . . provisional markers of a sort. It's what makes blogs, in all their uncertain glory, possible . . .

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

I have gotten myself into a dilemma with all conceptional work. it kinda reduces them all to i am not sure what. I actually would like a way out. Here is the question which i cannot get a single answer.

What is the difference between a work of flarf and a piece of work that says it is flarf, but it isn't?

If one cannot tell, why is it significant?
(one can replace the word flarf with any of your other favorites)