Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gary Sullivan's Ten Years in a Quandary and How Flarf Grew

To this day, wherever I meet Poetry readers they want to talk to me about flarf and what I think about it. Amazing. Well, Gary Sullivan - who coined the term... and who contributed to our infamous portfolio of flarf and conceptual poetry - wrote in with some meditations on its tenth birthday.


“It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
—Robert Benchley

Today, May 21, 2011, as true-believers all over the world await their final evacuation from Earth in advance of the Great Tribulation, I’m spending the morning sucking down a second cup of Bustelo and scrolling through some old e-mail archives.

Why am I futzing through this electronic effluvia when, clearly, I ought to be repenting? Well, to paraphrase one of my all-time favorite writers, why save for tomorrow what you really shouldn’t be doing at the moment? Plus, while I know it’s a big day for God, it’s an even bigger day for me and my closest pals: Ten years ago today, Jordan Davis, Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Mitch Highfill, K. Silem Mohammad and I launched the Flarf e-mail listserv.

The first post, my own, was a play in five acts, “Angry at God,” the entire dialog of which was cobbled together from Google results of searches on “Awww” (with varying numbers of Ws) “yeah” and “God.” An excerpt:

BRITNEY: Awwww yeah! Burning Man was insane, esp with the burning. Oh My Fucking God!! OMFG pretty much sums it up—

BARRY: I want to ask you a bunch of questions and I ... [Opens his arms waiting for the giant bosoms.] ... OH MY GOD!!!!

BRITNEY: Some days I’m like God, and others? I am just plain better ... awww yeah … my DVD movies … Hey God, remember when I said I love you? Forget it to hell! Heh heh whatever! [Applies eyeliner.] HOORAY for me!

SURFER: That shit fuckin’ rocks!

… and so on. In response, Katie posted “Go Grant Day,” written entirely using anagrams of “Angry at God” and then Drew posted a longish poem, “x Denise-isms” (“so i had to find the P-Uter train so I could get to/ Boston cause there was nooo/ way I was driving to Boston cause that would be insane!”).

One would not imagine that, from such humble beginnings, a whole movement would emerge; but somehow, as activity on the list accumulated in ebbs and flows, others started taking notice, fueling our desire to further upset them.

In 10 years, the 30-odd people who wound up coming and going on the list published dozens of books and chapbooks, held a number of festivals in New York, Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore and elsewhere, and put on high-profile readings at the Denver Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center and the Whitney (with our rivals and closest peers, the Conceptual Writers). Collections of flarf appeared in the online magazine, Jacket, and—scandalously—in Poetry magazine, our second and last appearance with the Conceptual Writers before their attempted hostile takeover. We were written about in numerous alt weekly papers, as well as in Poets & Writers and the Wall Street Journal. The BBC, Wired and NPR covered our activities—as well as the anger our very existence seemed to incite.

There are, it’s said, two kinds of people in the world: Those who hate flarf and those who’ve never heard of it. For reasons that were never clear to me, the people who were blissfully ignorant of what we were doing never once rose to our defense; in just about every “trend” piece written about us, at least a third of column space or airtime was devoted to our detractors. (I have at least a chapbook’s worth of pretty rockin’ poems using some of the more colorful things they’ve said.)

These days, having blown our mainstream media coverage wad, things have quieted down dramatically. A few grumpy old poet-bloggers occasionally point a thin stream of piss our way, but the most recent of the 90,000 Google returns for “flarf” involve blog posts by undergrads who’ve apparently been asked to create some of their own, or submission guidelines from various journals and presses.

Looking back at what these friends of mine have wrought, I have to say, despite all of the controversy and the ridiculously elevated claims—positive as well as negative—they’ve left what I think will be an enduring mark on contemporary poetry. A number of their books are, in my admittedly not-very-humble opinion, among the most engaging, inventive, politically on-target—and often funny—full-length collections of poetry published in the last decade. A short list:

Ben Friedlander’s Citizen Cain; Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale; Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat; Nada Gordon’s Folly; Rodney Koeneke’s Musee Mechanique; Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson; Sharon Mesmer’s Annoying Diabetic Bitch; and K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation.

And that doesn’t even include chapbooks by Stan Apps, Mitch Highfill, Rod Smith and others, Brandon Downing’s films, recordings of Drew’s flash orchestra, or neo-benshi by a number of people on the list.

So you see, my scrolling through the flarflist archives on this most sacred of days is not, it turns out, an act of procrastination or avoidance, after all. Because in doing so, I realize that, in a funny way, over the last 10 years, I’ve managed to more than quadruple my own pathetic output, simply by making believe, along with all of you, that something called “flarf” existed and that I had anything—only God knows what—to do with it. [Applies eyeliner.] HOORAY for me!

Drew Gardner kindly supplies these additional sources of information:

Village Voice:, Poets & Writers:, NPR:

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