Case Study: Flarf

One day I recorded an interview with my friend (and VCU colleague) Jonathan Fedors, whose Master’s thesis at NYU had to do with avant-garde Flarf poetry. I am still working on salvaging the audio file, which my computer ate <shakes fist at tech>. But Dr. Fedors was kind enough to transcribe his recollections of the conversation, which I will add to within brackets in the non-italicized portions below. UPDATE: I’m excited to note that the new (and only) anthology of Flarf poetry, Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, has just been published (May 2017). Here’s a review:

And now, my interview with Jonathan Fedors:

1. What is Flarf?

Flarf was an avant-garde movement in the first decade of the 21st century that was born as an online collective of the type known at the time as a “listserv.” Most members of the group wanted to respond to the sense, at the dawn of the Internet age, that the language we use and the lives we lead are increasingly shaped by the amount of time we spend on this Internet and the functions we delegate to it. This is another form of the Romantic idea of the poet as conduit for the Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age.” At the same time, Flarf wanted to perform the avant-garde role fashioned earlier in the century by movements like Dada of shocking and confusing socially respectable readers. As a result, many combined procedural constraints on the language from which they constructed poems with highly provocative social and cultural statement and reference.

[A “listserv” is a noteworthy discussion-board relic of the dark days of modem dialup connections: they were moderated, and you needed to request and be accepted into it in order to receive email communications: no real-time editing here. We also discussed how the specific “effect” of the internet on our language is the evacuation of meaning (and the rapid, radical shift in more traditional associations) of words has been abetted, if not totally caused, by the search engine, the anonymity of internet avatars, and the hyperconnected space the internet affords. This is perhaps best seen in Mohammad’s “Spooked,” in which the multiple responses a google search spit out when he typed in “spooky” help illustrate the excessive variety of ways in which the term can be used nowadays. I personally would say the poem starts off by ironically stipulating that none of the examples are very spooky; but then by the end the whole exercise is haunted with the ghost of previous associationality.]

2. How did Flarf differ from other digital poetries?

Flarf differed from other digital poetries in the relative looseness of the constraint and the degree of human intervention for which it allowed. Flarfists tended to copy and paste the preview (“capture”) or site language of Google search results into Word documents to edit down and rearrange, like a verbal collage. The degree of continuity (or disjunction) in the resulting poem differed from poet to poet. Flarf also was one of the groups that positioned itself as the inheritor of Language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) Writing, one of the two major American poetic avant-gardes in the last quarter of the 20th century.

[Since Flarf poems all result from a specific set of parameters, which are in some ways arbitrarily set by the poet, I asked Dr. Fedors if we needed to know about those parameters in order to fully understand the poem. He responded that, as with all poems, if it’s impossible to get something interesting out of the result, then the process would be relatively worthless (as would be the poem) — although it’s true that if you follow the link I provided to “I Sometimes Tease Animals,” or look at Degentesh’s page on the Poetry Society of America, both of them do mention the constraints of her process in an acknowledgment that her readership will be curious about how all this came to be.  As far as the relationship between this type of poetry and the decreative poetry of elegy, the posthuman poetry of computer design, or image-dependent visual poetry, my own response would be that Flarf is of the internet (you couldn’t have Flarf without the world wide web), but represents an attempt by a human being to make sense of the leveled playing field the internet age has left to the creative mind. It’s an acknowledgment of the evacuated authorial role in 21st-century poetics, not necessarily an attempt to reclaim it by putting some stamp on the reorganized and edited hot mess of words that are left over after the poet’s process of selection. For example, in “Spooked,” Mohammad at times seems to have a logical progression through the images in his stanzas, while at other times he doesn’t. At those times the poem seems totally random, or at least more random than the mind can contemplate without discomfiture. More on this below.]

3. Give two examples of Flarf poetry.

K. Silem Mohammad and Katie Degentesh produced what are generally regarded as the best books of the movement – Deer Head Nation and The Anger Scale, respectively. Here are “Spooked” and “I Sometimes Tease Animals.” Both explore themes of violence and exploitation in American culture. Mohammad tends to place these themes in geopolitical and Culture Wars contexts, Degentesh in the more familiar settings of modern subjective lyric. The second stanza of “Spooked” injects the safe, fun, cathartic experience of fear conventional to horror films with the destabilizing and altogether different “scariness” of the outsourcing and economic depression brought about by free trade agreements such as NAFTA. Degentesh’s poem takes its title from one of the true/false questions posed to subjects of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test, which is still used to diagnose social pathology. “I Sometimes Tease Animals” depicts the maternal character in an unsettling family romance in which suggestions of unhealthy attachment and domestic abuse are implied but never stated in lively demotic language. Degentesh clearly desires greater linguistic continuity than Mohammad, and the effect is of hearing a variety of “ordinary strangers” speak.

[so, for example, in Degentesh’s poem the opening couplets seem to carry a coherent thought over the lineation of enjambed lines; later in the poem the two coupled lines seem completely unrelated, and at other times of course they are triplets instead of couplets. We suspected this might have something to do with the uneasy (and possibly maladjusted) coexistence of the three persons in the nuclear family unit. In one sense, adding so many assertions ripped from psychological surveys (never a genre that represents the face we would wish the world to see) makes this family seem pretty screwy: even from the first couplet, in which the speaker “allows” her partner to stay alive, as if that were some big concession. In another sense, this is perhaps an aberrant look into the same existential phenomenon that surrounds any attempt to live with other people — and perhaps not just to live but to live lovingly and happily.

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