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.