Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AWP 2010: Flarf & Conceptual Poetry Panel Intro

Katie Degentesh, Christian Bök, Vanessa Place, K. Silem Mohammad, Mel Nichols, & Mathew Timmons (photo by Lisa Howe)

Flarf & Conceptual Poetry
[AWP panel, Denver, CO, 4/10/10]
K. Silem Mohammad

It’s been remarked that Flarf and Conceptual Poetry are the poetry of our time because they are the poetry we deserve. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, a mysterious airborne event causes huge segments of the human population to do away with themselves in horrific ways, and at one point the main characters hole up in an exclusive residential complex with a billboard outside that says “You Deserve This.” Kind of like that. But at other times I think of another film, Unforgiven, in which a vengeful Clint Eastwood growls down the length of his gun barrel, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Flarf and Conceptual Poetry are just what we get, which may or may not be the same as what we’ve got coming.

But what is it exactly that we get? The origins of Flarf are well-rehearsed: Gary Sullivan tried to write a poem so awful it would get rejected by online vanity press Poetry.com and failed. Drew Gardner added Google to the mix, and a movement was born. Conceptual Poetry, as imagined by Kenneth Goldsmith, includes the attempt to create texts so dry and tedious no one could possibly read them straight through. Flarf’s badness and Conceptual Poetry’s boringness are some of their most salient features, and they are what much of the critical (and uncritical) response has focused on.

In practice, it is often difficult to demonstrate intra-movement aesthetic coherence across the work of different poets in either group. Katie Degentesh’s skewed version of “confessional lyric” in The Anger Scale, a book composed by feeding questions from the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory (MMPI) test (used for gauging the mental fitness of persons applying for government and military positions) into Google, is a far cry from Mel Nichols’ aggressively shapeless poems about Ben Franklin’s man-boobs and Smurf-fisting. Mathew Timmons’ compilation of credit card offers and dunning notices entitled Credit—a book so unlikely to be actually read, and so costly to acquire ($199.00 a copy), that it barely even exists—bears little resemblance to the elegant modernist stylings of Vanessa Place in Dies: A Sentence, a prose piece consisting of a single, 130-page sentence, which in turn is very different from many of Place’s own more blankly transcriptional or appropriative writings. At times, the distinction between Flarf and Conceptual threatens to dissolve: Christian Bök and I both work with Oulipian procedures such as lipograms and anagrams: for example, Bök’s Eunoia, whose five main chapters each contain only one vowel, and my own Sonnagrams, wherein I anagram Shakespeare’s sonnets into new, formally traditional English sonnets. On another scale entirely is Bök’s ambitious Xenotext Experiment. Bök plans to encode poetry into a sequence of DNA and implant it into a bacterium which will become capable of producing further poetry and, eventually, wiping out the entire human race.

Flarf and Conceptual Poetry share a capacity to irritate. Some critics object to the movements’ engagement in group identification, self-definition, and self-promotion. Some resent the idea that work produced with a minimum of the kind of effort associated with traditional notions of craft might receive more attention than expressivist work that is painstakingly shaped and polished. Some protest the techniques of wholesale appropriation often employed by both groups, either because of intellectual property issues, or because they feel such a practice is condescending to those whose language is sampled, or both. Some argue that appropriating language steeped in racism, sexism, and homophobia perpetuates the destructive potential of that language rather than critiquing or neutralizing it. Some argue that writing methodologies which avail themselves of Google and other corporate sources thereby subscribe to the capitalist logic that underwrites the technology in question. Some avant-purists take exception to the groups’ willingness to take advantage of “mainstream” organs of publicity such as Poetry Magazine, which hosted a Flarf and Conceptual Writing feature edited by Kenny Goldsmith last summer, or this Conference. Still others just think Flarf and Conceptual Poetry are fucking stupid.

It has been pointed out that where Flarf and Conceptual Poetry tread, movements like Dada, Language Poetry, Oulipo, Fluxus, and others have trod long before, and indeed, not much is original about either group at the level of technique or general aesthetics. Like Dada, Flarf is anti-art and willfully absurd; like Oulipo, Conceptual Poetry involves rule-based chance operations and language games; like Language Poetry, Flarf draws on the materiality of language as a way of challenging notions of referential transparency and “naturalness”; like Fluxus, Conceptual Poetry attempts to destabilize the framing devices by which we distinguish art itself from its external contexts. Neither movement fits the expected mold of avant-garde poetics by being invested in innovation as such. Instead, they recognize that the innovations of previous formations have not yet had their full impact. Whatever the case in the spheres of visual art and music, in poetry, the lessons of the historical avant-garde have still to be internalized. Contemporary poetic avant-gardes merely recycle the gestures of past avant-gardes because, the first times, they didn’t take. Flarf and Conceptual Poetry perform the opposite of damage control: they try to do the damage that didn’t get done enough before.

In fact, it may be impossible to puncture the thick protective balloon skin of today’s poetic establishment: an establishment that is no longer merely stuffy and unadventurous, but that slickly assimilates superficial elements of the non-stuffy and adventurous into its bland, lifeless expanse, where they too become safely stuffy and unadventurous. It’s like fighting the Blob: your fist gets sucked into the corrosive slime, and soon you’re just part of it. After all, here we are at the AWP.

Gary Sullivan’s early definition of Flarf as bad, offensive, or “not OK” has been interpreted at surface level as a simple description of verbal content that exercises a jejune libertarian disregard for social decorum, but really, we were past that stage as a culture before Flarf came along. Practically everything’s “OK” now in mass media. In retrospect, what’s not OK about Flarf has less to do with the language itself (especially in our current post-Flarf phase, when so much published poetry exhibits decidedly flarfy characteristics) than with a perceived bad communal faith. Flarf’s crassness lies not in what the poems say, but in what Flarfists are willing to do to situate their practices as central within a constellation of communities who either try to lay claim to that centrality by ancestral right, or who eschew the very notion of centrality as poisonously chauvinistic.

Similarly, many Conceptualists show a suspect interest in “relevance,” in what positioning or postures will result in the maximum amount of coverage and/or controversy, by any means necessary—even if it means OCR-ing an issue of the New York Times, making a 900-page book out of it, and calling it art. This willingness to violate the implied Categorical Imperative of poetry in its contemporary state as a liberal humanist pseudoreligion (to adapt Kant’s phraseology, “Write only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal aesthetic,” or “Only write things you yourself would want to read if someone else wrote them”) has perhaps some bearing on Place’s as-yet unpublished conception of an unabashedly self-interested “poetics of Radical Evil.”

Cut-and-pasted Google text, poetic bacteria, overpriced photocopies of credit card offers, Smurf fisting—are Flarf and Conceptual Poetry truly evil? Probably not, but they probably should be. That way, we would all get the poetry we truly deserve. As it is, what we get is what we get. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.


Nathan said...

Really enjoyed this panel Kasey. And it was great to meet you!

Henry Gould said...

"This willingness to violate the implied Categorical Imperative of poetry in its contemporary state as a liberal humanist pseudoreligion..."

So what's Concepto-Flarf, then? A radical anti-humanist pseudo-religion?

Poetry is not religion, certainly - but it's human, it's personal. Concepto-Flarf is opposed to a stance which aligns "good poetry" with the idealism of ethical norms & values. It's a form of Decadence. And as such, its range & audience will be limited - limited to fellow Nietzschean rebels against the supposedly oppressive status quo...

what a funny little toy rebellion it is, inside the Log Cabin of American Poetry !

quantum retrocausality said...

Putting aside the complicating issue that we are actually 'post-flarf/conceptual poetry'... in fact, we are 'post-information' ...

Conceptual poetry and flarf are hybridized forms of 'Menippean Satire' and we can always use more !

Henry Gould said...

Ain't it great how the huge fecund Boob of the Academy can come up with these fancy terms from Classical Philology, like "Menippean Satire", & drape that milky mantle over whatever jive is on the table...

but actually it doesn't quite fit... Menippean satirized & satirizes human vice & folly, the world of human behavior at large. Apparently, according to Prof. Kasey, the target of Concepto-Flarf is quite localized - it's an in-house uprising against some other, more temporarily established poets & poetries, who occupy the chairs THEY want... sort of a cabin-fever thing...

so I would call it Masturbatin', rather than Menippean...

Edmond Caldwell said...

Regarding the candidate precursors of Flarf (Dada, Oulipo, Fluxus, etc.), has anyone ever explored the idea of Flarf as a development (and negation) of surrealist psychic automatism, in which a search engine replaces the unconscious in generating the material? (Google as "the cultural unconscious").

I speak as a relative newcomer to the wonders of Flarf -- maybe what I've said is already old hat, or fur cup.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Edmond, that idea has come up before in one form or another, but I don't think it's been close to fully explored. For me, it's dead on the mark.

Of course, it could be claimed that that's exactly what Dada is too, just with cut-up newspapers and stuff instead of the search engine.

Henry Gould said...

Yeah, it's a return to the vagaries & unpredictability of Nature, a fresh breath of "air" from the global networked sub-mind.

Yet this sort of naturalized Art and artificial Nature only feels like freedom, like a release, in relation to the complex demands of REALIZED art. Dada & surrealism & flarf are fundamentally parasitical - arts of unreason latched onto the thing itself, that is, a labor of reason+love, a reasonable love, a reflective creation.

The Winnipeg School of Media Ecology said...

under 'post-information' conditions, we are ALL Menippeans now !

24-7-365 ...

ReZoom Menippean Phatic Involvement ...

Anonymous said...

With Flarf we don't have the same values the official culture supported at school and in the middle-class home. With Flarf we get low life and high, while the moralistic critics chastise readers for not patronizing what they think we should, poems that would be good for us, where we could learn how dreary life can be. Most readers will take a lot of garbage from the official poetry culture, but it's getting harder to make readers queue up for pedagogy. With Flarf we want a different kind of truth, something that surprises us, and registers with us as funny or accurate, or maybe amazing, maybe even amazingly beautiful.

_poetry is not religion, certainly - but it's human, it's personal. Concepto-Flarf is opposed to a stance which aligns "good poetry" with the idealism of ethical norms & values. _

Henry Gould said...

That's fine. Youthful rebel bohemia... it's a phase. But poetry has something more important to do. Are you going to build an image of humanity & life constructed solely on adolescent rebellion against the supposedly "dreary"? Good luck with that. It's a limitation on human dignity.

Henry Gould said...

i.e., as I said : decadence.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Hi, Henry.

Henry Gould said...

Hi, Kasey. I want your chair & your megaphone by midnight yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Self-improvement and poetry don't belong together. If poetry opens your eyes and opens your senses that's something else. I do think that a great poem makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance.

Henry Gould said...

"Self-improvement and poetry don't belong together. If poetry opens your eyes and opens your senses that's something else. I do think that a great poem makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance."

Speaking as someone quite familiar with LSD & mescaline, I think you might be better off with drugs.
Poetry is something else.

"A Tear is an Intellectual Thing
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King."

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



T'was brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

T'was brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

- Lewis Carroll


Anonymous said...

Menippean Topics

Anonymous Author.
Apologiae for the Work.
Autonomous Author.
Autonomous Pen.
Blustering Narrator.
Catalogs and Inventories.
Descent into the Underworld or Afterlife.
Dialogs of the Dead.
Diagrams and Drawings.
Do it Yourself.
Excess Baggage.
Fake books.
Fake Preface.
Fake Table of Contents.
Forcing the Reader to Think.
Honesty. "I promise you purest truth," followed by whopping lies.
How to Read the Book.
Inability to Edit Anything Out (feigned, of course).
Joco-seriousness--see Spoudogeloion.
Kidding or Teasing of a Female Reader.
Lacunae. Cf. Digression.
Language Strategies.
Learning. Cf. Encyclopedism, Fake Books.
Memory of Time before Birth.
Mock Eulogy.
Musical Notation.
Mutilated Text.
Natural Scale.
Parody of New Forms.
Philosophus Gloriosus.
Printing Conventions Trifled With. Cf. Parody, above.
Projectors as targets.
Simultaneity of Past and Present.
Spoudogeloion. Cf. Joco-seriousness.
Talking Animal.
Universal Schemes.
Whatever enters my head.

Pirooz M. Kalayeh said...

Loved this, Kasey. : )

Joseph Harrington said...

uh, yeah, whatever - what he said.

But really . . . I'm with Edmond on this one - and I don't think it's the same as Dada, precisely b/c of the source material. There are a lot of flarf poets doing Dadaistic stuff, but seems to me the heart o' flarf ("deep flarf" was it) is google sculpting, of one sort or another. That's a conscious (critical?) activity, using found content. Tony Tost did a very good essay a couple/three years ago in Jacket, on flarf (in particular Deer Head Nation) as excavating the cultural unconscious - worth checking out.

Anonymous said...