Flarf — another view

The following is K. Silem Mohammad’s five-point summary / response to the recent “charges” made against Flarf. I’m just about done with this carousel ride, but there’s actually a pretty good back-and-forth as well in the comments box of Dale’s recent post.

Enjoy (and, as always, let me know what you think):

1. Flarf appropriates the discourse of many persons, many of them undoubtedly disempowered, by scavenging the traces of their utterances on the internet for use in the composition of poems. Since no credit is given to these persons, and since some of said discourse is extremely stupid, it is evident that Flarf is mocking the underclasses.

2. Flarf deploys a wide sampling of sometimes tasteless and insensitive language under the guise of social critique, but in ways that make it difficult for some readers (particularly those who are ignorant of the use/mention distinction, or who reject flatly on moral grounds anything that resembles irony) to tell the difference between said critique and the injuries perpetrated by the original subjects who are the source of that language.

3. Flarf sometimes takes advantage of the media attention that is focused upon it (a relatively small amount of attention compared to that enjoyed by more commercially viable art forms such as music, customized T-shirt design, or those plastic testicles some people hang from the tailgates of their pickup trucks, but more than is usually focused upon the work of Dale or his friends, and therefore enough to throw into disequilibrium the fragile economy of all the poetic communities concerned), thus making no attempt to hide its complicity in the Spectacle.

4. Flarf commits the dual error of a) resorting to humor as a means of engaging its readers, in a social climate where humor must be considered a grossly self-indulgent bourgeois barbarism; and b) not always bothering to make sure its jokes are funny.

5. Flarf fails to provide a coherent theoretical apparatus with which to contextualize its disruptions of sense and syntax as acceptable modes of political intervention, and so leaves itself open to the charge of willful obscurantism. This failure is exacerbated by the apparently total lack of interest exhibited by most Flarfists in answering its detractors’ demands for such an accounting.

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4 Responses to Flarf — another view

  1. Dale Smith says:

    David, thanks for posting this: I think Kasey misses entirely the significance of the conversation at Possumego these last couple of weeks. And he delineates, in typical Flarfist fashion, boundaries in an ongoing us-against-them dynamics. First, I’ll respond quickly to his soi-disant claims here, and then leave a few words regarding my motives in this ongoing conversation:

    1: Nothing is “evident,” but there is plausibility. Specific claims would have to be worked out.
    2: All depends on the “said readers.” If you’re talking to the readers of this blog, you risk offending their intelligence and ability to discern strategic writing.
    3: I think the “media attention” focused on Flarf is exaggerated here–and who cares. This has never surfaced in conversation at my blog–pure projective display of a guilty conscience?
    4: Flarf did not invent humor. Others laugh too. If you need a pat on the head and something sweet to suck on, go ahead, get misappropriate.
    5: Flarf plays by old and disputed models of avant-garde social constructions. It is wise to protect the poem from poetics and critical and social conversations and worries; it is a massive failure of good will, however, to create an atmosphere that laughs at cooperation, smirks at the community of authors with whom one engages, rewrites the social history to fit one’s agenda, etc. Mocking one’s critics with mildly disguised hostility in a cloak of faux vulnerability exposes the meanness of spirit and the self-promoting heart of Flarf’s primary motives.


    This, from a post at Possum Ego, attempts to show some of my motives in this, uh, whatever-it-is (thanks for letting me eat up your space here, David):

    “We all need each other so much–to act upon what we hear from the other. You describe Slow Poetry perfectly, because I imagine it as something that can never be approached individually: it is a communal registration of diverse practices that opens the world to further investigation and meaning–a flowering. The world–like you, I believe in it–even as it’s claimed and ordered by the symbolic–there still surfaces these enormous moments that are beyond one’s ability to immediately orchestrate.

    It’s a great effort to make a community of any kind, and I don’t use that word cheaply or easily. We reinforce one another’s capacities to see the world. And that’s one reason why I have been so hard about this recent flarf thing–we have to make ourselves as playful and purposeful as need be, but above all else, to help each other apprehend our various perspectives–our awareness of ourselves in the world–as well as its claims on us through language.”

  2. Andrew N says:


    I’m with you. Just about done myself, though I’ve had fun lurking on the fringes of this debate, and I’ve actually enjoyed and learned from comments made from both sides of the barricade. I can’t really commit to either side, however. I’m just not feeling any partisanship either way (as opposed to my views on Washington…where I think it’s time to ditch the bipartisan charade and ram through some legislation from the Left.)

    Kasey’s #2 concerns me, however. First, I doubt Dale and Company (Community?) were blind to Flarf’s attempt at irony. I think any poetry enthusiast is able to tell Flarf ain’t serious. However, irony (and especially in satire) requires exagerration. The target attack must be turned into somewhat of a cartoon. Swift is the model for me. Anglo-Irish and Englishmen didn’t really want to eat Irish babies….this was an exagerration of their cruelty and indifference toward the impoverished Irish-Catholics. But…with Flarf, isn’t most of this languge beyond parody, already exagerrated and silly. I suppose this is why it’s usually presented as a plagiarism, because it’s already satrizing itself and its speaker…but then what real commentary is being offered? Satire, irony, etc. are generally constructed with a target in mind, with a social commentary and, dare we say, message. This is why you find satire written mostly on political topics. Kasey does use the word “critique” above, so we presume a point to this Flarfing. Is the point, “Here! Look at how crude we are online. Let me show you what I found in this chatroom.” And if this is the only point, can’t we say, “I noticed that yesterday. What should we do now?”

  3. dhadbawnik says:

    Thanks, I woke up today ready to take a crack at this myself. Just read Sullivan’s piece in Brooklyn Rail, too… and watched a bit of the Flarf Festival on youtube (yes, I have better things to do this morning…).

    1) A distinction needs to be made between appropriation itself, which I don’t think anyone has a problem with, and the element of “mocking.” Watch the Flarf fest and tell me what you think. This is a point I raised earlier in a comments thread on Dale’s blog in response to Tony Tost; whatever the original intention of appropriating was or was not, observe the tendency of a flarf reading to veer towards this sort of delivery. I’m starting to think there’s a secret affinity between flarf / late langpo of the bruce andrews variety / and “performance poetry.” all of which i’m equally tired of.

    2) This is part of the problem with Sullivan’s piece, too… And another characteristic strategy of flarf response. Any objections raised by other poets are immediately equated with those coming from “flyover” communities where humorless, confessional, epiphany-based lyrics are still considered the poetic standard. I think we all know better than that.

    3) There’s no dignified response to this. All I can say is I know Kasey and Rodney, and I wish you all success. It’s not taking any food off my table.

    4) Engaging with humor is great. I wish I could do it more, and better, than I do. But I need something more, something to pull me deeper into the poem. And yes, I would prefer if it’s actually funny.
    (Mitch Highfill’s piece is really fucking funny.)

    5) This is a tricky one… On the one hand, I’m apt to agree that I don’t want or need a huge, clumsy critical apparatus accompanying a set of poems or poets. The advent of that sort of thing is part of what’s made poetry such a (deep in the) closet art for the past 30-40 years. On the other, there’s a bit of a “cake and eat it too” going on here, as Dale points out. In no. 2 you claim a “social critique” element for Flarf. Drew Gardner calls for a “close reading” of his poem. Ben Friedlander claims we don’t yet have a critical discourse that accounts for Flarf… So which is it? Don’t need it, don’t want it, don’t have it yet?
    Again, I look forward to hearing more…

  4. dhadbawnik says:


    And if this is the only point, can’t we say, “I noticed that yesterday. What should we do now?”

    Just so. That’s why for me these endlessly long poems (and readings) just get redundant after a while. What else is being offered? If it’s irony, I got it. I think there are more possibilities, but that’s where it tends to go. Anyhoo, I will add that Rodney Koeneke’s approach and style seems to do something different. There’s a tenderness there even with his Pizza Kitty, which is fun but not his best work, imo, not present with Drew Gardner’s Chicks Dig War (see youtube). Likewise parts of Gary Sullivan’s PPL in a Depot I think are just brilliant. But it almost categorically has to break out of pure irony mode to reach me.

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