Last Sunday, I gave a reading out in Bushwick with Julian Brolaski, Adam Fieled, Scott Hightower, Chris Stackhouse, and David Wolach. Adam and I had a brief, and somewhat heated conversation about Flarf and its import or lack thereof. Adam blogged today that at the reading he had his “first chance to talk in depth to a member of the Flarf Collective”; well, first of all, that was ME, Adam, you can say my name!, and secondly, I mean, depth is relative, I suppose, but it didn’t seem to me that our conversation went beyond a skimming of the topic. He says that the conversation (which lasted at most, I would say, seven to ten minutes) didn’t change his mind, but honestly, that wasn’t my intent. I don’t fancy getting rhetorical about things that people have already made up their minds about without a prolonged investigation. It’s not really worth my energy, and besides, it isn’t up to me to make people try to like things that they are not inclined to like.
As he mentions in his post, his position on Flarf is that he doesn’t see how it can possibly be of lasting value. I told him that was not my concern at all, and that I wasn’t in poetry to get a toehold on eternity: “I do it for kicks,” I said. I also told him that I thought the term “post-avant” is ridiculous by definition; he countered by making the cogent point that “flarf “ is a ridiculous term, too, and I came back with this even more cogent point: “yes, but it’s supposed to be.” I remember saying that what gets passed on through the ages doesn’t necessarily do so because of any innate superior quality, but because of the machines or systems that move it along; otherwise, William Snodgrass wouldn’t be a name we recognize. Adam thinks that poetry is “left to later generations to determine what’s what and who matters,” but this strikes me as awfully naïve. It isn’t entire generations that do that, but a struggle between the forces of canonization (and these are complex, with factors like mentors and peer groups and lowest-common-denominators to consider) and individuals who continuously ferret out what has been wrongfully ignored. It pains me, really pains me, to think that I was able to go through college studying poetry without ever learning who MINA LOY was, or BARONESS ELSA. I had to write my thesis on Bernadette Mayer because no one seemed to really be talking about her.
Adam’s primary point of objection to Flarf is that, in his view, he does “not think [it] makes for the creation of very memorable poems.” To that I can only wonder, firstly, well, which of the high modernist poems are terribly memorable, beyond the first line or so? We can all call up a wheelbarrow, some sawhorses, some tender buttons, but beyond that, is memorability really a criterion for the continued influence of modernist poetry? Isn’t it more the GESTURE of the texts that we remember? I certainly remember many key texts of the language poets, but that could be more because I read them over and over again (“fellaheen” “Tashkent” “Relax/ Stand at Attention” “people are walrus, fuck ‘em”) than because of any inherent “memorability” of the texts themselves.
Even so, and even as an insider, my sense is that Flarf poems actually are memorable, although more perhaps because they are “bad” (In the sense of Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to be Evil”) or obnoxious or funny than because they are “good”: once you have heard titles like “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “Chicks Dig War,” or “Mm-Hmm” you will have a difficult time forgetting them even if you want to. They are mindworms.
Adam also made the point that he doesn’t have the sense that Flarf is doing anything new, and that he “fail[s] to see how it adds to the Duchamp paradigm (of the “ready-made”) that was put into place one-hundred years ago.” I couldn’t agree with him more. I don’t think any of us is claiming to be doing anything new, at least not with form or with conceptual gesture. We aren’t motivated by the desire to be at the cutting edge, even though we may be there by default, because everyone else is repeating the same art moves, too; we just have more fun doing it. We write this stuff because it entertains us to write it and to read it, and because it channels, releases, and reshapes energies – notably those of despair and of hilarity.
Adam writes that, “nothing is going to turn me into a novelty freak, because this kind of trend-hopping is anathema to the very slow development of real poetry history.” It strikes me that actually, despite all the media hoopla we Flarfists are enjoying recently, it is not in fact a “trend.” It’s been going on healthily for eight years now. Nor can we even speak, I think, anymore, of “real history” without betraying a very deep conservatism (to which Adam owns up in his post) and willful blindness to the necessity of allowing multiple perspectives and contexts. Maybe Adam is nostalgic for some organized world of poetry he learned about in his Norton Anthology, but it just isn’t like that anymore. In fact, it was never like that. It was all an illusion.