Flarf turns poetry up to 11 – Flarf Collective
First of all let’s try to define flarf:
Flarf poetry can be characterized as an avant-garde poetry movement of the late 20th century and the early 21st century. Its first practitioners utilized an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of “the inappropriate” in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet with odd search terms then distil the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts. – Wikipedia
The term was coined by the poet Gary Sullivan.
Now, when I first read that I imagined that flarf poetry would turn out to be something trivial if not downright stupid. And some of it is. But there is a helluva lot written about it online and its popularity seems to be growing. If I was to explain the success of flarf I would pinch part of the title to Dan Hoy’s long article in Jacket 29 because he hits the nail on the head: Flarf is what happens when “poets spend too much time fucking around on the Internet.”
Flarf has been described as the first recognizable movement of the 21st century, as an in-joke among an elite clique, as a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing. The act of writing flarf has been described as collaborating with the culture via the Web, as an imperialist or colonialist gesture, as an unexamined projection of self into others, as the conscious erasure of self or ego. Individual members have been described as brilliant, lazy, and smug, as satirists, fakes, and late-blooming Dadaists.
But what started the ball rolling?
The seed for flarf was planted in New York City in 2000, soon after … Gary Sullivan learned that his dying grandfather had been scammed by the International Library of Poetry, the now-defunct organization that purported to hold poetry contests, yet accepted every poem it received, asking "winners" to pay fifty dollars for a copy of an anthology featuring their poem. As a prank, Sullivan submitted the worst poem he could write. The poem, titled ‘Mm-hmm,’ began:
Yeah, mm-hmm, it's true
big birds make
big doo! I got fire inside
gonna be agreessive, greasy aw yeah god
wanna DOOT! DOOT!
After receiving the obligatory embossed letter telling him he'd "won," Sullivan passed the poem around to a group of his poet friends, who in turn submitted their own terrible poems to the site. Before long, they started penning and sending these "bad" poems to one another, more poets joined in, and a private Listserv was born.
The word flarf itself comes from a poem by Sullivan entitled ‘Flarf Balonacy Swingle,’ so, in much the same way as Dada chose its name, this form of poetry could have been called anything really but it’s easy to see why it might be regarded in the Dadaist tradition since it clearly thumbs its nose at the establishment. Dada didn’t last very long though (basically 1916 – 1922) and was superseded by Surrealism which continues to this day. Flarf hasn’t changed its name but it does seem to have grown up. It might have started out with a bunch of well-read poets having a lark but one can only do that for so long and it gets boring, so what’s kept the thing afloat and why is it growing?
I looked at all the links, but I couldn't find a set of directions on how to flarf. I mean, just in case I wanted to try it. Is it like, you just keep googling words and throwing them at each other until they make a bunch of words, preferably perky?
In fact I got a grand total of 9 results in 0.26 seconds. Very disappointing. Surprisingly the best answer I came across with was at Yahoo Answers, not a site I’m usually that impressed with but ObscureB’s answer to ‘How do I write flarf poetry?’ was quite informative. He begins by outlining the origin of the term as above and then adds:
At a fairly early point, some flarfists began using the Google Internet search engine as a generative device for their poems.
A fair amount of critical attention was given to Mohammad's use of the Google-search procedure in Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises Press, 2003), which may have been partly responsible for a general misconception that "flarf" means any and all poetry written via such a method. It is true that Google-derived text plays a considerable part in many flarfists' works. Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat (Roof Books, 2005), for example, combines collaged Google search results with word-substitutions and other procedures.
"Flarf" has, as just mentioned, also become a catch-all term for any poetic composition that makes use of Google or other search engines. This implies a retroactive application of the term to authors who were using such devices well before the Flarf Collective, such as Robert Fitterman, Alan Sondheim, and others.
K. Silem Mohammad is a poet who has taught literature & poetry at Stanford & the University of California, Santa Cruz. One would have to imagine if someone of his calibre is continuing to practice flarf that there might be something in it. This practice of using Google to provide the raw material from which a poem can be assembled has been given the euphemism Google sculpting. Here’s an example of one of his poems:
The Led Zeppelin Experience
what are you retarted making fun of dead people?
if your popin shit like that i don't even know you
man I swear I would kick you're a$$ if I ever saw you
you or knew who the f*ck you are cuz no play?
you can't even make sense when I'm REALLY drunk
are you retarted serious question
not doing homework, thats for sure
go to a library! just look up Henry James duh
re: Dumb & Dumber: are you retarted, that movie was great
you sound excited about it. . . .
do you wanna see me puke? What are you retarted?
no (than whats your fucking problem)
well unless you are retarted like this dumb ho
then you know what napster is
so here is a list of some hot songs:
fuck i don't know any songs. . . .
you are an anus mouth , are you retarted
this has damage bonus fruitcake
fuck up u are obviously have some kind of obsesion wit me
it's a wonder why your husband left you and you're all alone
you venture into my valley and you then ask for your life??
you will not leave this valley alive little dwarf
In his essay on Mohammad, Tony Tost has this to say about the poem:
One of the most appealing poems in the Combo “Flarf” issue is Mohammad's ‘The Led Zeppelin Experience,’ which cultivates a dreadful authority that is only accentuated by its often child-like use of language and comical/frightful misspellings, most notably of the word “retarded.” […]Part of the poem's appeal is its juxtaposition of phrases that illustrate a general state of some type of obliviousness (cultural, emotional, political, linguistic) with phrases like “it's a wonder why your husband left you and you're all alone” that reveal a full and sinister awareness. Mohammad's Flarf poems use the outsider language as an entry point to emotions, social situations, and value systems that are usually not represented or given voice in contemporary poetry.
Google Sculpting is now being used in classrooms. In his post ‘Teaching Google Sculpting at Purdue’ Eric Goddard-Scovel gave his class the following exercise:
Exercise: Google Sculpting
Open a new document in a word processor and then open a web browser. Using the two poems by K. Silem Mohammad in your course packet as examples, type a phrase (or phrases) or a list of several search terms* into the Google search bar. Now look at the excerpts from each search result (the text beneath each link), copy words or phrases from it, and paste them into the document open in your word processor. You will continue in this fashion until you have a fairly long list (a page or so at least) of selected phrases to work with.
Finally, sculpt a poem out of these phrases, changing whatever you wish so that it “fits together” (or make/leave it disjunct if it pleases you). Look for themes and multiple meanings of the search terms you used. Try to create strange, amusing, or serious narratives and statements. Try to find a tone or voice in the poem as you sculpt it, either coming from you or from voices present in the search results that you selected. Once you feel you have “finished” the poem, save your file. Return to it if you like, expand on different themes or ideas that come up, or do whatever else you feel you need to do to make it into something that you enjoy and want to share with others.
This process is very flexible, so feel free to open search result pages if you want more material, to change search terms as you are making your list of phrases, or even to abandon what you started with for something more interesting that comes up as you are working. The form of the resulting poem is entirely up to you and the needs of your poem’s style and content.
Have fun with this and enjoy the process of writing itself. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you get something meaningful out of it, chances are that somebody else will, too.
* Note: The more different the terms are from each other, the more varied the results should be
Not all seats of higher learning have been so accommodating. “At least one literature professor has been denied tenure for supporting it.”
Question: Is the end result here poetry or collage? Robert Fitterman (mentioned above as a poet whose work predated that of the Flarfists) had this to say in Identity Theft:
We have all heard it said many times in the poetry world that there’s nothing new about plundering texts—we have examples in collage, found text and even readymade. Firstly, one important distinction to note is that in the practice of using appropriated texts today, the materiality, the found sources, are fore-fronted often in large, unmodified chunks—a paragraph, a page, a whole book. These found materials take on new meanings and new social affronts in their new contexts. The strategy is to reframe works that already exist in new contexts to give them new meanings. This distinction is closer to the one between readymade and collage. Collage brings appropriated material together, via the craft of the artist, to a singular expression invented by the artist. […] The choices of how one composes with the found texts, how one conceptualizes these choices, determines the success of this poetry. For poets, this is a new prosody, a new way to think about how we write and read.
Poets now have access to the language of seemingly everyone’s feelings and ideas from any historical moment. It could be similar to how Pop Art artists benefited from the new vocabulary of images offered by television around 1960.
Of course when we start to talk about “found materials” and “readymades” we are immediately reminded of Marcel Duchamp's description of “R.Mutt's” submission of a urinal to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists:
Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
Why use Google search results as the basis for poetry? Perhaps because some view what Google spews out as a true reflection of the society we are a part of. The argument is not without some merit. "Since flarf uses the Internet to gather its material, flarf basically holds up our words to ourselves," York University professor Andy Weaver says. "If people find flarf shallow or offensive, I think flarfists would be quick to point out that they are only reflecting our society back to itself by focusing in on what we print on the Internet."
In his essay ‘Sought Poems,’ Mohammad explains how he Googled the short poems in that book into existence. Sidestepping Eliot's and Emerson's famous takes on authorship (summarized as great poets steal), Mohammad writes of poets who have turned to the Web, where right-wing hate groups become bunkmates with Marxist ideologues, home-repair specialists, and lonely pet-owners, and their discourses sometimes form unlikely chemical reactions in such close proximity to one another.
You've heard of (and maybe even achieved) Googlewhack, the game where you come up with a two-word Google search query yielding exactly one result. In Deer Head Nation, Mohammad's game is to put together a string of words that will yield socially stupefying results; he succeeds time after time. His secret? Just add "deer head":
if the deer are all armoured like that
you may of hit the nail on the head
giant oil companies behind this
Bush scared me, because he always
sniffs at the air like a deer
(‘Not a War Blog’)
On the surface this strikes me as GIGO-poetry – garbage in, garbage out – and it most certainly has that potential. The danger with this method of composition is that bad poets will be able to produce something and who would be able to tell if it was bad by intention or through genuine lack of ability? But I suppose one has to ask whether flarf calls on different ‘abilities’ to those needed to compose poetry in the raw. Anyone can cut out pictures from magazines, paste them onto a backing sheet and call the end result art and why is it not?
In his article ‘Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo’, Kenneth Goldsmith has this to say about why poets should turn away from self-created texts:
With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age?
I’m not going to try to explain the differences between flarf and conceptual poetry. Goldsmith does – I’m not sure I follow what he has to say, but if he’s to be believed then at least flarf involves creativity, a degree of sculpting. I may come back to this subject later. For the moment I’m more interested in the mechanics of flarf.
In an interview Goldsmith was asked about his approach to “uncreative writing”:
Do you see the work you’re doing as reclaiming that vanguard position for literature?
KG: Absolutely. In 1959 Brion Gysin said that poetry was 50 years behind painting. And I think that’s even more true today. Whereas other forms of art accepted sampling, appropriation and tactics like that, literature is still invested in prioritising the ‘true’ and ‘subjective’ self – which of course other artists did away with a century ago.
With that context in mind, to what extent is there a political dimension to your approach to poetics?
Absolutely. It says that anybody can do this. John Cage was attacked. They said: ‘John Cage, anybody can do what you do.’ And John Cage said, ‘Yes. But nobody does it.’ So I think it’s a similar thing: Cage said that all sound is music; I say all words are poetry – to be made by anybody, not just somebody with a Masters in Fine Arts.
In his Uncreative Writing class at the University of Pennsylvania students are directed to transcribe, plagiarize, thieve, and appropriate, all in the name of learning to write. “If we retyped Kerouac,” he says, “we’d learn much more about Kerouac than by writing in the style of Kerouac.”
So why not just read Kerouac? That’s what we traditionalists tell all newbies to do: read, read, read.
Probably the best way to explain how to write a flarf poem is to analyse one. To that end I’m grateful to Thomas Basbøll’s examination of how to write flarf which appears over five posts (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) in which he analyses Katie Degentesh's 'No One Cares Much What Happens to You' in detail. Here are the first three stanzas:
when Serbs get mad, they talk
about a small town like Grace
Stop laughing; I’m serious
Grace is all I can afford on my nursing home wages
I pity her for the thankless job of building
A nation of Americans conceived in petri dishes.
The title was taken from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test, parts of which were then "[fed into] internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages." These are the results that end up being reduced to these three stanzas from which she first removed the MMPI-related material:
No one cares much aboutangering the Serbs; when Serbs get mad, they talk about "human rights" and "European integrations." When Albanians get mad, ...
When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that
no one cares much abouta small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery ...
No one cares much aboutthe UN anymore, particularly since they elected Libyans to chair the Human Rights division. Stop laughing; I'm serious.
Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and
no one cares much aboutsmells there, even though I have to share a bathroom. ...
No one cares aboutSarah Palin… She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working ...
They should go there and do the fine job of building a nation like they think ... I suggest that you keep your dumb comments to yourself.
nobody cares to...
we've gotten used to it,
no one much cares, human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us ...
Basbøll says that what we now have here is “what Robert Duncan called a ‘jig-saw conformation of patterns of different orders ... a pattern of apparent reality in which the picture we are working to bring out appears ... a pattern of loss’, an opportunity for kopóltuš.”
The next stage is to remove all overtly political effects, all overtly poetic material, the reference to nation building, and used material originally situated in a comment on Sarah Palin (you can see this stripped away in part 5) to leave us with something like the resultant poem. The thing about Google is that it changes all the time. Basbøll has had to work back from what Google presented him on the day he did his search. No doubt it will be very different today two years later.
Nothing stays the same.
Mohammad says we are actually entering a post-flarf era. Flarf itself "was sort of a breaking-down annihilation period," he says. The poets changed the definitions and barriers of poetry by experimenting with poems that were deliberately "bad or offensive or stupid."
But now? His collection The Front seems to have, from where I’m sitting, taken a backwards step. The pieces in this collection – Sonnagrams – are actually scrambled Shakespearean sonnets.
He anagrams every line of a sonnet with an anagram generator and then he puts what he has created back together into a perfect sonnet, of sorts. Whatever letters he has left over after the process he uses to make a title, most of which tended to be submeaningful, filled with Ts and Hs or initialisms like “WTF.”
I don’t think this marks the end of flarf. Flarf, like so many different experimental approaches to poetry from the past like cut-ups, will continue to be a method people will use to get a toehold on poetry. My gut feeling is that most will tire of it quickly and either decide that poetry’s not for them (assuming what they have been doing counts as poetry but let’s not go there) or they will start to investigate what has gone before them. If anyone had suggested in the mid-sixties that Paul McCartney would spend much of his later years listening to let alone actually writing classical music they wouldn’t have believed you but the fact is that not that much of contemporary poetry will stand the test of time. This is not to say it’s all bad (although some of it most definitely is and was intended to be) but we can only carry so much of the past into the future. Beethoven has survived and Bach and Mozart but try listing off any of their contemporaries: you’ll be shocked when you realise just how many of them there were and how few of them are even remembered by specialists.
There seems only one proper way to end this piece and that’s the have a go at a piece of flarf. To my way of thinking the key to a good piece of flarf is what you choose to search for. Clearly something like ‘how to write flarf’ isn’t going to give me much material to work with. What I finally went with was “the maps are wrong”. This was a phrase in a piece of spam I received – actually it said “the roadmaps are wrong” – and so I just ran with it. It seemed to be in the right spirit. Personally I think I’ve tried to hard to make it mean something, to be personal, lyrical even, but it won’t be going in the big red folder.
All the Maps are Wrong
That’s the hardest part of this –
looking back over my life.
I know some people asked not to
but you can't really expect me
to not worry if this upsets you.
It’s easy to get lost in this area.
The casualty reports are wrong,
the liberal media is wrong;
what else could be wrong?
Of course simply saying that flarf equals poetry cobbled together from Google searches is reductive but the poets do seem to want to keep the rules they play by very much to their chests. And, yes, there are rules:
In my case, I can say that my own work seems to be in the throes of a transition: from a period of intuitive, transrational lyricism with a (typically postmodern) tendency to interpolate bits and pieces of found discourse, either whole or distorted, to a period of heavily rule-based assemblage, using principles of collage to work backward from the earlier method, attempting to simulate lyricism (or its related effects, such as antilyricism, metalyricism, paralyricism, patalyricism, FlaRf, turaluralyricism, etc.) via the manipulation of found materials. – italics mine
A broader definition of flarf really seems to be in order these days. It’s certainly moved beyond its roots:
It is probably too late, however, to object to the increasingly widespread use of "flarf" to refer to a wide variety of research-software-based modes of composition. Sometimes the word is used as a verb in this sense to describe any procedural deformation of a preexisting text via the use of a search-engine or other internet mechanism (such as the BabelFish translation engine). – italics mine
To that end I decided to remodel my poem by running it through Google Translate about twenty times and this is what I ended up with which I have resisted the urge to clean up in any way:
All cards, remove yourself
Some people do not know
To say that the organization
We are accidents.
Lost the next day from a convenient location.
Report an accident
No freedom to use it.
Is it poetry? Yes, Jim, but not as we know it.
Issue One Fall 2008 is 3785 pages long and that’s probably more flarf than you’ll ever need in this lifetime. With its "algorithmically generated content" – none of the authors named actually submitted anything – I’m not sure what to say about it other than as an attention-grabbing stunt it seems to have done its job remarkably well.
Jacket Magazine 30 does have a decent selection of real poems however.
 “The Richard Mutt Case” Art in Theory, p.252 quoted in Tony Tost, ‘Blowing Up Just To Say Something to Us: K. Silem Mohammad and the Sub-Poetics of Flarf’, p.2
 Katie Degentesh, The Anger Scale, p.75, quoted in ‘Flarf's Kopóltuš (3)’, The Pangrammaticon, 6 December 2008 (The term kopóltuš is discussed at length in Silliman’s Blog dated 15 February 2005.)