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.