Flarf Is Dead, Long Live Post-Flarf
September 11, 2001 was a hell of a thing in New York City. In the weeks and months that followed there was a gentle frenzy of getting-together: with friends, with family, with just about anybody, and that impulse extended, of course, to poets. Oddly, though, we weren't discussing poetry at these meetings. Poetry seemed superfluous at that moment. Together, we admitted we didn't feel right discussing poetry; instead, we talked about our feelings. Which was quite surprising, actually, because while that might seem like something that poets just naturally do, it's actually not what New York poets naturally do. Most times, we just bitch about the (fill in the blank) that we didn't get, the (fill in the blank) that somebody else got, the crappy (fill in the blank) that we did get, or real estate. And so, for a long time afterward — about a year, really — when you came in contact with a shell-shocked fellow poet, one party always asked the other the inevitable question: "Where were you on ... ?" This went on for quite a while, and concurrent with the aftermath of 9/11 and its navigation poetry seemed to take a wait-and-see position.
It reminded me of something I observed while taking the Berlin subway in 1986, three years before the fall of Communism: the U-Bahn, built many years before the Wall went up, took the same course under the city it always did, which meant it by-passed the stations on the east side of the Wall, which had been closed to prevent underground escapes. The feeling I got when the train passed through those stations, with their benches coated in 25-year old dust, was a very vivid mixture of sadness, expectation, and hope. There was a feeling of held-breath; of waiting for that wonderful thing which everyone knew would happen again, someday: normal life. That's pretty much how the New York poetry scene felt in the weeks after 9/11.
Then, an interesting thing happened.
I don't remember what the occasion was but there was a reading of poems about September 11 at St. Mark's Church-the Poetry Project a couple of months after the attacks. It might've been a benefit for the local firehouse. My friend Edwin Torres read a poem about the towers, and in his poem he noted that his last name means, in Spanish, "towers." The last line of the poem was something like, "All of us towers have to stick together." This poem was a definite departure for Edwin in terms of style and content: it wore its emotions on its sleeve, and it had narrative. Narrative! That ultra-forbidden concept in some late 20th century poetry! In fact, many — if not all — of the poems read at that event contained narrative, told a story. It was like a return to the familiar, the trusted, in the midst of the terrifying. Which leads me to flarf . . .
In the post-script to my flarf collection, Annoying Diabetic Bitch, I wrote about how, at a party in my apartment in 2003, a poet named Gary Sullivan asked me if I wanted to join a poetry listserv: a handful of poets — all mutual friends — were entering outrageous and/or inappropriate word combinations into the Google search engine and making poems out of the results, then emailing them around to each other. Lines from the emailed poems could then be reworked in equally outrageous and/or inappropriate ways and sent around again for further recombining. Gary said the poems were called "flarf." I was delighted with the invitation, and the prospects: I'd been collaging text material in poems almost since I first started writing, in 1978, and had always been drawn to running funny, vulgar, non-"poetic" language — the beef-tongued, stockyards parlance I grew up with on the south side of Chicago — up against "beautiful" words (after all, as a poet I am attracted to "the Beautiful"). It seemed like a generous, wabi-sabi kind of poetry that could inhabit bodies very different from the poet's own and allow them to speak. Plus a certain amount of control (i.e., ego) would have to be surrendered, allowing the word-image to come under the influence of chance. Who knew who would be speaking? People I didn't know, certainly. People I didn't necessarily like.
The community aspect of the project appealed to me as well, since so much collaborating had begun in the aftermath of 9/11. The listserv poems — which I quickly, delightedly raced through — seemed to have been written by a meta-mind: I could see traces of poems in other poems. By constantly incorporating bits of the posted poems into new poems, the content of each subsequent poem reflected the collective sensibility, while still containing the indelible stamp of its lowly origin. And while the original poem might remain inviolate, one could watch it morph again and again, creating hilarious, outrageous fractal integers of itself, as if composed by a team of comedy writers in the Darwinian TAZ of tin pan Googleland.
When I began writing my own poems — and by that I mean taking a phrase I liked from someone else's poem, putting it through Google and then collaging off the search results — I noticed a funny thing rising organically from the word-mass to organize all that language: that funny thing was narrative. When the voice of the Internet spoke to me, it was vulgar (naturally), surprisingly "poetic," and in almost every poem it told a kind of story — its own story, and whether I agreed with that story or not I facilitated it. This wasn't the case for all members of the flarf collective, of course, but personally I felt like I was using the ancient race-memory of Story to navigate the unfamiliar territory of InternetLand, and learn — and speak — its language.
And I had actual fun doing that! I never knew what kind of poem would result from a 15-minute writing session (I always limited my flarf-writing time to 15 minutes). One weekend, Gary Sullivan sent around an email asking if anyone had any audio of the voice of Grover (from "Sesame Street"). Apparently many flarf poets were sitting at their computers that afternoon, because a torrent of poems incorporating "Grover" started going around. I described this in an interview with Canadian poet and critic Owen Percy in the online journal Poetic Front.
That was during the heady early days of flarf, when we all just sent the poems around for each other's amusement. In 2006, around the time of the inaugural flarf festival in New York, poet Dan Hoy wrote a rather excoriating article about flarf for the online magazine Jacket. It was this article that sent flarf into the blogosphere firmament, the result of which was denouncements and praises in equal measure. Denouncements aplenty, but also incredible exposure: flarf was discussed on National Public Radio, on Kurt Anderson's "Studio 360" show, in an article by journalist Shell Fischer in Poets & Writers, and a feature in, of all places, the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry magazine. I read with three other flarf poets at the Whitney Museum, and at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. The most recent appraisal of flarf came from the unlikeliest of places: the Wall Street Journal.
I can now say that I've had a poem published in the Wall Street Journal. How many poets can say that?!
Of course, what this all probably means is that now that flarf has broken through the surface of public consciousness, it's dead. If that's true, and it probably is, then long live post-flarf.
There's a scene in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of "Nosferatu" where the citizens of a town gripped by plague dance and sing and carouse among corpses rotting and burning in the town square. In a way, flarf did pretty much the same thing. But without that awful stench.
A selection of five flarf poems from my just-completed manuscript, Earthly Soul Rides This World: Daily Poems January - April 2010
I Am A Lonely Oneironaut, In Need Of Salutary Grounding
I am a lonely mushroom cowboy
lonesome as the winter ocean
lonely cyclonic rag tag tranny
waking from a battlestar
walking lost & lonely
lonely and in love with
this poor city & the whole world
singing "lonely boy lonely girl
suddenly soul searching”
lonely drifter Karen —
lonely schnozz, longest walk —
lord of the living room lonely
professional adult orphan
taking crap on two continents
and always getting rained on
by amateur clouds
Oh, solitary psychedelic alchemist
Oh, twisted oneironaut:
tell me GPS gets lonely
tell me déjà vu is lonely
tell me the antipodean dream
at the end of time
I Am Now Bringing Everything To The Path
Working class, ethnic, hard-hearted and obscure,
I am the Polish church in anguish.
And that’s why I am now bringing everything to The Path.
Granted, Yale’s musical recruitment you tube video
is ludicrous, but no matter where you are, chances are
you can crack a window and hear a cow moo,
a cow who is bringing everything to The Path, too.
I am bringing my see-through green glass typewriter
with its famous trademark of illegal firearms
in curlicue sgraffito, Italian-style, on the spacebar
to The Path, plus eating everything with a spoon
(and secretly looking for a Path with fruit).
Some semioticians say that all the Elvis sightings suggest
the ativistic power of the Dionysus myth in the human psyche,
but I say that’s just Elvis bringing improved spatial orientation
to The Path, as he dances flat-footed with arms raised and palms held flat
in a sea-green merkin,
and curled Grecian wig complete with a wreath
of gleaming copper grapes.
"A nose," he says, "is not manufactured; a nose just is —
thus, too, my art."
Thus too The Path,
to which I am now bringing
extraordinary contortions, including a sort of sideways hopscotch
interrupted by a few seconds of statuesque immobility, on one foot,
as I descend from a nest of shit flies who are reproducing
in a festooned silver circle.
But where is Jesus Christ in all this? Hunting vampires, I’ll bet.
And, uh, did you know I'm bringing Jesus Christ to The Path?
That way, I can be funnier, and even gayer (if possible).
I once had a professor who said it was high time to bring everything together
in one killer — on the other hand, your friends who want to bring their daddies
to The Path just so they can kill Bambi’s mother during rutting season,
should probably stay home.
You say Hollywood whispered your name and said
“Why don’t you bring your big ass on over to The Path?”
I say you are living on one of the moons of Harry Connick, Jr.
But that’s okay,
‘cause once you start bringing that big ass to The Path,
The Path itself is gonna be bringin’ it.
I Want To Expose Myself For Love of the People
I want to expose myself for love of the people.
I want to expose myself and masturbate in public, for love of the people.
In love and resting quietly, I want to expose myself in the grocery store,
eating junk food and cookies right off the shelves as I am exposing myself
for love of the people.
I don't want more opium than Thailand.
I just love myself, and the people, so much that I want to be a better person,
and take pride in the things I can do, because I love me, and so I seek
to expose myself for love of the people, and of me.
I just flew in from Vegas, where I exposed myself for love of the people.
I wanted the people of Vegas to laugh, to cry, to hate, to love, to feel that life
is about reading and sharing
And so I was exposing myself to girls, who are in need and vulnerable.
When a developing girl asked me, "Do you want to have the opportunity
to expose yourself to some laundry?” I had to answer:
Because I don't want to achieve immortality through my work.
I want to achieve immortality through exposing myself.
Invite me over, and one thing will lead to another, and then in the morning,
if you die a painful death and I bury your body in the backyard,
and it’s similar to the way Europeans love to smoke, and I love smoking,
and you love traveling, then I will expose myself to a bus full of people
stranded in traffic.
I want to become a beacon for Maintaining Your Dignity
While Exposing Yourself for Love of the People.
I am not sure who my biological parents are, but I believe their goal was
to become Pokemon masters, and continue to get with baby squirrels.
If Jesus has a pet baby squirrel, and it jumps on me, could I still expose myself
for love of the people?
I want Mexican nuns to be victims of my love.
Also Oreos, Dr. Pepper and Cheetos.
And Mother Teresa.
I want to be Mother Teresa, victim of love, getting exposed to and exposing
myself for love of the people.
If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways
they expose themselves in grocery stores, in Vegas, or at Neverland
or Graceland, for love.
I will write a poem later, but right now I see myself as an intelligent,
sensitive human, with the soul of a clown, and not just a clown,
but a clown deer, who committed suicide after being banished from the forest
after he was caught by other deer exposing himself during a fawn birthday party
on the White House lawn
for love of the people.
Uh-oh: I Think I Just Encountered An Imputed Duality
Oh, generous tiger animal —
I must have one of your whiskers.
I mean, I believe your lawyer,
but 2 minutes of The Pointer Sisters in muzak =
the rhythm of humanity’s cultural ummms and uh-huhs
from a commonsense perspective.
Don’t believe me?
See the 1960 version staring Freemason John Wayne.
Bowling and roller-skating are examples of serious resistance
to plain and fancy sex: a clean/dirty duality since Kurtis Blow occurred
in Times Square during the holidays
and everybody was textual.
When the uh-oh is fun and friendly,
the self continually arises.
But contrast this with the usual rules for negative capability
in over-sweetened breakfast cereal land
and the best we can do is say “uh-oh,”
and let it go.
I Am Cocked-Up From Overpower
The God of the overpowering I AM
is in ME now that I am
cocked-up from overpower.
And it is the I AM of lost promos
and hologram hero cards
that I now am
a cocked-up washer-woman of labial wings
except I wish I weren't so familiar
with the whole cocked-up aporia
of my overpower.
The odd thing is
that I am getting kind of dusty
from licking the moors.
Each sentience of overpower seems
a cocked-up overpowering of the ambient
over power lines
into battle stance.
I am an amateur radio rooster
for cocked-up overpower
using a vampire mayo that is
light in flavor
to eliminate the perplexed logic of all Belizean
warlock action plans.
A rockin’ cock-maid splays
in a room, in a fiery rain
and burns all enemies
into agility aspects of cock.
She is there because you wish to learn about,
or have already chosen,
the dark path of prairie venom
which her cocked-up overpower reveals to be
Amazon cocking-up Kindle’s
body-building nursery school in Canada.
If you love your hog of a oneself
grinding up against a dirty guitar
in negative space
then you are cocked up with lollipops,
Expect toy ATM's next.
"The Poetry Reading" oil on canvas by Kristian Purcell
Sharon Mesmer is a Fulbright Senior Specialist candidate and recipient of two New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellowships. Her most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008); previous collections are Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998) and the chapbooks Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna Books, 2006) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Books, Tokyo, 1997). Fiction collections are Ma Vie à Yonago (in French translation from Hachette Littératures, 2005) and In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000). She blogs at Virgin Formica.