Flarf, Amiri Baraka, paranoia, and cultural memory
Could it be a coincidence — that two Flarf poems inspired by Amiri Baraka both contain the word “popsicle”? There is Benjamin Friedlander’s “Somebody Blew Up America” (2011), a response to Baraka’s poem of the same name: “if you leave your popsicle in the sun, / you have to expect the pages to get sticky. // It’s one of the reasons Lynne Cheney is careful with any book.” And Michael Magee’s “Mainstream Poetry” (2003) flarfifies Baraka’s “Black Art” through a series of Mad Libs-style deformations:
Poems are, like, total bullshit unless they are
squid or popsicles or deer piled
on elk in the trunk of David Hasselhoff’s
Cutlass Sierra. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. MAINSTREAM poems
and they are USEFUL — Great if you like
having a Popsicle stuck in “I love George Bush,” like,
the popsicle squid goes “gong” when all the other
dishes run out of toilet paper, how far can Bush go
with a squid up his motherfuckin ass — see what I mean?
It turns out that “popsicle” — like “squid” or “kitty” — is not an uncommon term in the Flarf canon: see Katie Degentesh’s “The Popsicle: An Essay.” Given Flarf’s penchant for intragroup allusion it is reasonable to read Friedlander’s text as an intentional extension of Magee’s engagement with Baraka. But what kind of engagement is this?
Flarfists, to be sure, are no strangers to goofing on canonical poems. Nevertheless, Friedlander’s and Magee’s poems are more revisionary tributes than parodies; they are, in my reading, appreciative acknowledgements of Baraka’s extreme testing of the limits of bad taste. Flarf, indeed, is a belated answer to Baraka’s 1959 demand for a poetry made “out of all the garbage of our lives” in acknowledging that much of that garbage now circulates online. Does not Gary Sullivan’s definition of “flarfy” — “To be wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent, fucked-up, un-P.C. To take unexpected turns; to be jarring. Doing what one is ‘not supposed to do.’” — well describe one of Baraka’s signature styles? It is a complex transgenerational and transracial transaction — a thorough analysis of it goes beyond the scope of this essay — but I assert that Flarf has inherited and transformed Baraka’s combination of vile diction and leftist invective. Though less programmatically ideological, especially in terms of Baraka’s Marxism and Black Nationalism, a significant amount of Flarf attempts to rearticulate for a digital age Baraka’s distasteful poetics of protest. This poetics insistently clowns on celebrity and political culture, from Baraka’s call for “[b]lack poems to / smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches / whose brains are red jelly stuck / between ’lizabeth taylor’s toes” (“Black Art”) to his image of “Shirley Chisholm & / Charlie Rangel entwined in the come of dead capitalists” (“Literary Statement on Struggle!”) to his playing the dozens against “Jungle Jim,” likely a coded reference to an actor-turned-politician such as Arnold Schwarzenegger: “When Clarence Pendleton passed gas it painted your / face all over the room […] You uglier than zombie vomit […] You ugly as devil doo doo, white supremacy and you / Is identical. You ugly as the brain emptiness of a / cracker lynch mob” (“Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test”).
So too is Flarf’s interjective noise — from Sullivan’s “wanna DOOT! DOOT! / Pffffffffffffffffffffffffft! hey!” to Magee’s “higosdhgosidhgosidgosihdgoishdgoihs / doignsinxconbxlbkncblx” — firmly in the lineage of Baraka’s sound effects: we can think of the “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr / rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh” from “Black Art” to the “diry jsolekks eoo fjoel fjkks ei OO dkkle;pspekl”mels;;a;;sll” of “Trespass Into Spirit.”
According to Philip Metres, the “comic-gothic” qualities and “libidinal excess” of Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” which noisily ends “Who and Who and WHO (+) who who / Whoooo and WhoooooOOOOOOooooOooo!,” suggests an affinity with Flarf poetry, particularly Magee’s “Political Song, Confused Voicing,” which Metres calls a “comic-furious catalogue” of “grievance” and a “vital counterpoint” to Baraka’s inflammatory poem. Metres’s perceptive reading is a welcome refinement of typical genealogies of Flarf that position it as an inheritor of Bruce Andrews, the Language poets, and Dada; the New York School; or a general post-war American sensibility.
Flarf poetry and Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” both respond to a crisis of cultural memory, to the fact that, according to Andreas Huyssen, it is becoming increasingly difficult “in the wake of the information explosion and the marketing of memory” to distinguish “between usable pasts and disposable data.” Magee’s “Mainstream Poetry” gropes for what is “usable” and/or “USEFUL” from Baraka’s 1960s Black Arts anthem in an age of George W. Bush and David Hasselhoff, when we are constantly convoked to “Check it out! Photos, Soundtracks, Video Clips, / Fan Boards and More!,” and when most modes of social protest have been thoroughly appropriated by the culture industry. That Magee’s poem is titled “Mainstream Poetry” indicates that even the incendiary force of Baraka’s classic call of cultural nationalism risks being drowned out and resorbed within a mainstream informed (and deformed) by a deluge of digital detritus. In a kind of perverse homeopathy, Flarf conflates the usable and the disposable in hopes that its bizarre juxtapositions might somehow jog our memories by way of an associational logic. If, according to Rodney Koeneke, the Flarf poem aspired to be “a kind of miniature version of the way we talked […] in the years after 9/11, a time when one kind of America dropped away and another, more unhinged one emerged,” then Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” channels an unhinged sound, as if to create a mnemonic that obsessively remembers our own amnesia. In its blistering interrogation of history, it asks “whether forms of collective consensual memory are even still possible today.”
In the specific context of US politics, Baraka’s poem and much of Flarf’s post-9/11 corpus challenge the bad taste of George W. Bush’s rhetoric as well as his selectively bad memory in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks; Gary Sullivan notes that “September 11, 2001 […] was practically Flarf’s birthday.” In short, these writings protest against a common political antagonist through an overlapping poetics of often comic disgust. On September 17, 2001, Bush ill-advisedly drew on martial language informed by Hollywood cliché: “I want justice […] there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” And the day before: “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” Through critical parody, Flarf suggests that Bush’s historical consciousness — which indiscriminately invokes medieval European aggression and American Westerns — creates the same sort of ill-informed combinations produced by arbitrary internet searches. Indeed, Magee describes an important Flarf strategy: “to interrogate [Bush’s] dumbness, ridiculousness, [and] stupidity; to work undercover in the middle of it, to pretend to be it if necessary, all the while reporting back to the reader.”
Bush’s September 20, 2001, speech to Congress — though, to be sure, better manicured than his off-the-cuff remarks on September 16 and 17 — problematically dictates which pasts are usable and which are disposable. Bush anaphorically invokes present perfect tense verbs to contrast the enduring memory of past American traumas with an exceptionalism of the present moment: “Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941 […] Americans have known surprise attacks, but never before on thousands of civilians.” In identifying “thousands of […] terrorists in more than sixty countries,” Bush returns to the present perfect tense to create a genealogy of generic extremism from which — through an “us/them” rhetorical address — the US is mythologically exempted: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century […] they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.” Perhaps alluding to the fact that the unmarked mass grave is a typical fascist strategy to dispose of enemies, Bush draws on a prophetic rhetoric of eschatological reversal.
Yet the phrase “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies,” cobbled together by multiple speech writers, is incongruous and, one might even say, excessive in its strained metaphoricity. And Bush’s tricolon of isms generalizes discrete historical examples under the reductive banner “murderous.” In short, there is something flarfy — something “wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent” — about the way Bush’s speech employs techniques of collage and crowdsourcing, the way it stuffs keywords into a rhetorical crescendo of empty signifiers; his scare words “fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism,” I suggest, are on par with Magee’s “popsicle squid” and “Viagra mushrooms” as indeterminate but charged images to loathe, ridicule, or abject. Ultimately, Bush’s speech calls for both a simultaneous remembering and forgetting; to use Huyssen’s phrase, it is a nationalist “marketing of memory” that disingenuously excises important historical contexts and details in favor of screen-ready clichés. “Some will remember an image of a fire or story or rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever,” says Bush. But most significantly, the examples of “fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism,” now joined by “Islamic extremism,” that Bush assumes will terminate in history’s unmarked grave need to be marked in order for the US to separate its Western liberalism from its illiberal others and, in the process, encrypt its own instances of extremism — the murder, enslavement, internment, and displacement of non-Europeans on nonforeign soil — into oblivion.
In response to Bush’s hygienic cleansing of US liberalism from the stigma of foreign atrocity, Flarf presents not so much a more accurate history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but a messier one that exposes the representation of the US’s putative adversaries, past and present, as incoherent caricatures that have rhetorically justified American militarism; this is why so many of Flarf’s political poems feature not only ridiculous terrorists (see, for example, Drew Gardner’s “Guys Like Terrorism” and K. Silem Mohammad’s “Mars Needs Terrorists”) but also absurd versions of totalitarian dictators. Nada Gordon’s “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas” gives us an image of “a tiny Abe / Lincoln boxing a tiny Hitler magic unicorn.” Sharon Mesmer’s “Fascist Girlfriend” ends with confused, sexualized language fitting for a macho president associated with crassness and historical ignorance: “Look — this is Saddam, this is Mussolini, / and this is your girlfriend’s crack. / Or maybe her dad’s.” (When asked at the 1988 Republican Convention what he talks about with his father when they’re not discussing politics, George W. Bush replied “pussy.”) The cast of Magee’s “Fascist Fairytales” series includes such preposterous characters as “Poppy Franco,” “Josef ‘Strangers / With Candy’ (Buddah) Stalin,” “an Iraqi Pinochet,” a “Deposed Zairean dictator and / also a cousin of Richard ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon.” This last example — contra Bush — references a long history of the US’s complicity in oppression overseas; indeed, “Fascist Fairytales (8)” suggests “why dictators like / President George Bush” while also implying that Bush’s “axis of evil” is straight from Mother Goose.
Likewise, Baraka concatenates the specter of totalitarian atrocity and American conservativism with a proto-/para-Flarf impropriety. In “In Memory of Radio” (1959) he says, “I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight.” And in “Jungle Jim” (2003): “You uglier than Papa Doc, Hitler, and Mobutu / You uglier than Mussolini Franco / and the Swedish Angel / Is yr twin.” Although it is commonplace to mention the various shifts throughout Baraka’s long and winding career, offensiveness has been a consistent through line. Given that the longevity of Flarf has been a critical concern — Brian M. Reed asks of Flarf, “Can an adolescent mode of writing mature gracefully?” — I interpret Benjamin Friedlander’s revision of Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” a text contemporaneous with the beginning of Flarf, as an homage to the fact that Baraka has practiced, without compromise, anti-establishment impropriety for so long.
“Somebody Blew Up America” is an extreme response to a range of historical extremisms, a text that, in turn, produced an extreme legislative reaction. Baraka’s poem contextualizes the 9/11 attacks within a longue durée of colonial and neocolonial violence in order to shock an already shocked nation out of the amnesiac stupor of American exceptionalism: “All thinking people / oppose terrorism / both domestic / & international … / But one should not / be used / to cover the other.” Bush, after all, had stated in no uncertain terms: “Either you are with us or with the terrorists.” “Somebody Blew Up America” not only challenges the hypocrisy of US nationalism and protests against egregious acts of material violence but also confronts an epistemological violence enacted throughout modernity. In taking up what Pierre Nora calls the “conquest and eradication of memory by history,” “Somebody Blew Up America” repudiates the “terrorism of historicized memory.”
The anaphoric “Who,” the poem’s main structuring device, is at once an angry questioning and an accusatory interjection. The poem is, thus, a sequel to Baraka’s Wise, Why’s, Y’s (1995) as the questioning of “why’s” morphs into the question of “who,” a mimicking of the sound of the supposedly “wise” owl:
Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo
Who invented Aids
Who put the germs
In the Indians’ blankets
Who thought up “The Trail of Tears”
Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
While many of the questions have clear-cut answers (from Leopold II to Andrew Jackson to William McKinley) and many are contested (in the case of the USS Maine’s destruction), the illocutionary force of much of the poem suggests a variety of conspiracy theories — for example, that HIV was part of a US biological warfare program. Erroneous facts that Baraka culled from Al-Manar TV, Al Watan, and other dubious online sources informed what are now the poem’s most infamous lines, suggesting Israel had foreknowledge of the World Trade Center attacks and warned Israeli nationals employed in the buildings to take the day off:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
to stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Baraka circulated the poem via the internet, at poetry readings, and in a limited edition chapbook before he read it at the Dodge Poetry Festival in September 2002. After the widely attended festival, the Anti-Defamation League charged the poem as anti-Semitic — citing the above passage as its main piece of evidence — and requested that Governor James McGreevey fire Baraka from his post of New Jersey Poet Laureate. McGreevey asked Baraka for a public apology and resignation. Baraka refused and accused the ADL of running a “smear campaign” against him. According to Baraka, the ADL, in its “insulting, non-interpretation” of the poem, was confusing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and misunderstood the poem as a whole, which also expresses outrage against the Holocaust and other violence against Jews. Nevertheless, the state government abolished the laureateship in 2003 after attempting to pass legislation that would allow the governor to remove Baraka.
Because of the scrutiny placed on a fraction of the poem, it is worth noting that the litany of questions that asks “who, who, who?” begins with the framing line “They say (who say? Who do the saying).” What is at stake here is nothing less than a questioning of the historical archive: who controls and produces it, who has the rights to its access, to its use and interpretation. We are reminded of the Greek archons, the magistrates who, according to Jacques Derrida, both house the archives and impose the law. Indeed, Derrida’s Archive Fever can illuminate the “trouble” that Baraka finds in the archive, the trouble of what he calls, through a clever pun, the “scribe”: “I was of people / caught in deep trouble / like I scribe you / some deep trouble.”
Building on Metres’s claim that “Somebody Blew Up America” “enacts the intoxification of conspiracy theorizing,” I argue that “Somebody Blew Up America” is a feverish performance of paranoia that reflects what Derrida calls a “trouble de l’archive.” The genuinely high stakes of Baraka’s poem, while dismissible as bad history, behoove us to reckon with “the archive fever or disorder we are experiencing today, concerning its lightest symptoms or the great holocaustic tragedies of our modern history and historiography.” Baraka’s burning search for historical causes, culprits, and explanations and his recourse to conspiracy theory manifests the failures of our cultural memory and our lack of adequate documentation of traumatic histories. He suggests, along with Derrida, that “[w]e are en mal d’archive: in need of archives.”
“No Black Ink in Fax,” the wry subtitle of the postscript to Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems, indicates there is a disconnect in our modes of communication, but also, through the homophonic play of the words “fax” and “facts,” Baraka suggests the lack of black agency in the creation of the historical record and a need to counter — to quote Harryette Mullen’s ingenious torquing of the famous phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson — a “history written with whitening.” The blanks and gaps in “the facts” are symbolized in the idiosyncratic punctuation that riddles the online text of “Somebody Blew Up America.” Baraka’s deployment of the caret sign (caret literally means “there is lacking” or “it is missing” in Latin) — precisely where the poetic voice is asking “who?” — performs his fervent impulse to fill in the historical record:
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who ^
The plus sign — which indicates the presence of variant words and phrases in Dickinson’s holographic manuscripts — implies the need for alternatives, additions, and interventions; it implies that the facts don’t add up.
While I don’t wish to minimize the issues which the Baraka controversy has sparked within public debate — issues concerning free speech and the possibility of a non-anti-Semitic anti-Zionism — I believe understanding “Somebody Blew Up America” as a text deeply engaged with a contemporary crisis of cultural memory advances the poem into more productive discussion. In this context, the second most inflammatory passage of Baraka’s poem comes into focus as an anxious questioning of documentation:
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
What is at stake in this “meta-archival” description is not only the privilege (because of the alleged foreknowledge of the attack) of having “the scoop” on a momentous and fleeting event but also the power to enlist the archived instant of witness not for mournful commemoration but for gleeful celebration. The “notion” that Baraka finds so troublesome is as much the privileged point of view of the documentary eye as the “explosion” itself.
When asked at a press conference by a CNN producer, “Do you know who?” regarding his catalogue of interrogations, Baraka responded, “I don’t purport to be a statistician. I don’t have a mainframe. If I had a staff, like you do at CNN, I could answer these questions.” Implied in Baraka’s answer is that it is not his job to “add things up” nor to engage in the journalistic activities of reportage. Rather, Baraka suggests his duty is to act as a vatic vector of affective memory, which is necessarily messy and unreliable.
“Somebody Blew Up America” is both antidocumentary in its substitution of evidence for speculation and counterdocumentary in its reliance on unreliable documentation. In defending his poem, Baraka said, “it is everywhere on the Internet that not only was the US warned repeatedly by Germany, France, Russia, England but also Israel.” The internet, for Baraka, is a kind of prosthesis for vernacular memory, an alternative source to official public accounts represented by the figure of the CNN mainframe. The risk of Baraka’s wholesale rejection of the bourgeois public sphere — and the broadcast media that help constitute it — is a loss of credibility and a dulling of the poem’s cutting edge. “Everything said about Israel in the poem is easily researched,” said Baraka. However, any document is potentially researchable — from a political speech to a Flarf poem — and not all claims to verification are equal. Baraka’s poem, which indiscriminately mixes the credible and incredible, is surely warped by paranoid thinking. According to Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, Baraka “is not using his paranoia ironically in some way as an indictment of paranoia. This is a very straightforward poem.” Nevertheless, what Weingarten fails to understand is that paranoia itself is not straightforward. Paranoia has been an important mode for contemporary artistic production and theoretical inquiry, and despite its various problems, “Somebody Blew Up America” deserves consideration alongside these intellectual and creative practices.
For Hal Foster, paranoia can drive what he calls “an archival impulse,” which is “at work internationally in contemporary art.” Foster chooses Thomas Hirschhorn, Sam Durant, and Tacita Dean as representative artists and argues that “[i]n the first instance” they “seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present” retrieving “obscure” sources “in a gesture of alternative knowledge.” We can detect this archival impulse, what Hirschhorn calls the desire “to connect what cannot be connected,” within both Flarf and “Somebody Blew Up America” as well. Some of the sources that Baraka queries are indeed obscure — either because there is no consensus about historical causes (“Who blew up the Maine”), because they suggest conspiracy theories of various credibility (“Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin”), because they are of unmanageable scope (“Who murdered […] / […] all the good people iced, / tortured, assassinated, vanished”), or because the questions themselves are periphrastically obscure (“Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie”).
Conspiracy theory, moreover, is an “alternative” mode of apprehending the world and the way it functions. Foster says:
[archival art’s] will to connect can betray a hint of paranoia — for what is paranoia if not a practice of forced connections and bad combinations, of my own private archive, of my own notes from the underground, put on display? [...] Might archival art emerge out of a similar sense of a failure in cultural memory, of a default in productive traditions?
In this sense, Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” is a paranoid aggregation of bad combinations (in the way it suggests that the assassinations of Malcolm X, JFK, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln are linked or in its mentioning of “Princess Di” and “[Patrice] Lumumba” in the same sentence) in the service of “disturb[ing] the symbolic order at large.” His poem strives to activate cultural memories of injustice so that the 9/11 attacks can be connected to different frameworks besides the presentist confines of an exceptional nationhood.
Baraka’s contradictory statements about the poem suggest that its paranoia was what troubled critics as much as its purported anti-Semitism; he told the New York Times, “Everything that was flowing into my mind at the time flowed into the poem […] I can understand people being excited and outraged, but the point is that you have to investigate.” According to one reading, Baraka is casting his text as an investigation in the tradition of what Ed Sanders calls “investigative poetry,” but, at the same time, he treats the poem as a transcription of automatic writing, as if he were accessing or channeling some kind of transhistorical and transnational unconscious of the oppressed. “Somebody Blew Up America” highlights the slippage between the private delusion of conspiracy theory and the documents that buttress our sense of a shared and consensus reality; this paranoid confusion between inner and outer realities is what Elin Diamond is referring to when she says, “Someone who has been in the political furnace as long as Baraka has knows how to go for the jugular. But this poem is deeply confused about what it is trying to be.” Such confusion, nevertheless, exposes the fact that what we may call “consensus” might actually be a bourgeois construction that excludes as much as it creates the illusion of a shared community.
Craig Dworkin endorses “the sense that a poet can be disturbing and not necessarily comforting or consensus-building” even if he considers Baraka’s poem to be “not […] particularly interesting.” Dworkin’s disinterest in Baraka’s poem is surprising in light of his interest in the linguistic paranoia of Lyn Hejinian. In a creative piece of scholarship on Writing Is an Aid to Memory, he says, “paranoia, in linguistic terms, would be defined by the equation — or the integration — of different semiotic systems, so that it concatenates signifiers under the regime of a single system of meaning.” He goes on to advocate for a paranoid hermeneutics: “The paranoia of writing requires paranoid readers […] the question, of course, as you read, is never whether you are being too paranoid, but whether you are ever being paranoid enough.” “Somebody Blew Up America” raises the question of whether one can be paranoid enough when reading history, when reading one’s own subject position within an oppressive network of power relations.
I’d like to suggest, pace Dworkin, that paranoid knowledge is of intellectual interest in the way it attempts to account for abstract structures of power. While Foster suggests that archival art points to the fact that “the symbolic order no longer operates through apparent totalities,” “Somebody Blew Up America” mobilizes paranoid modalities in order to interrogate totalizing systems of power and control. Baraka describes such power in ever-expanding concentric circles, as a totality of global capitalism that can be identified but whose ultimate scope eludes comprehension. With an assonantal and polyptotonic panache (as if the resources of verse and rhetoric could bolster a “forced connection”), he asks: “Who own what ain’t even known to be owned / Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners.”
Sianne Ngai proposes that conspiracy theory, a mode of thinking that is generally considered illegitimate if not pathological, can act as “a viable synecdoche for ‘theory’ itself.” Ngai uses the example of Frederic Jameson invoking “the system” in his critique of a pervasive anti-intellectualism, but a cursory review of twentieth-century philosophy and critical theory will demonstrate the extent to which thinkers have formulated models based upon a “dysphoric apprehension of a holistic and all-encompassing structure”: from Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry to Althusser’s state ideological apparatuses to Deleuze’s societies of control. And because paranoia is “an exigency in a world where any analysis of power at the transindividual level increasingly requires a language capable of dealing with ‘the system’ as an abstract and holistic entity,” Ngai is careful to point out that
the fact that any attempt to think beyond local and particular circumstances currently seems to bear a ‘paranoid’ inflection, even if only by default, makes it important to note that paranoia can be denied the status of epistemology when claimed by minority subjects, though valorized as such when claimed by the status quo […] particularized subjects are increasingly denied the right to a fear grounded in their own cognizance of power’s abstract and holistic structure.
Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” raises crucial issues about how minority subjects can legitimately express fear and disgust and how such subjects can articulate their conditions of being caught in the political furnace. To deem Baraka’s poem uninteresting is to deny it its epistemological status and the significant stakes of its disturbing concatenations.
Friedlander’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” like Baraka’s poem, goofily attempts to reckon with American violence with its image of “Snoopy’s F86E Sabre / dropping napalm on Korea.” Friedlander’s revision brilliantly ends with a set of suggestive instructions:
[…] Now make a fist
and place the thumb side of your fist
against Amiri Baraka’s upper abdomen, below the ribcage
and above the navel. Grasp your fist
with your other hand and press into
the upper abdomen with a quick upward
thrust. Do not squeeze Amiri Baraka;
confine the force of your thrust to your hands.
Repeat until the terrorists are expelled
It is, to be sure, a polyvalent passage referencing the source poem’s image of “the acid vomit of the fire of Hell” as well as Baraka’s Black Nationalist purging of his past, which brought with it an aggressive anti-Semitism and homophobia. So too might it allude to the state of New Jersey compelling Baraka to cough up an apology. But perhaps this ending is also a recipe for poetic extremity in the twenty-first century: giving Baraka a Heimlich maneuver is a flarfy method that can let issue forth zombie vomit, George W. Bush, napalm, Jungle Jim, along with our most unheimlich histories.
1. Benjamin Friedlander, Citizen Cain (London: Salt, 2011), 3. The title of Friedlander’s book perhaps references Baraka’s poem of the same name from his “transitional” collection Sabotage (1961–1963).
5. LeRoi Jones, Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961–1967 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), 116; Amiri Baraka, Hard Facts, 1973–75 (Newark, NJ: Revolutionary Communist League, 1975), 24; and Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems (Philipsburg, St. Martin: House of Nehesi, 2003), 25–26.
6. “The Flarf Files,” Electronic Poetry Center; Magee, 48; Baraka, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, 219; Jones, Black Magic, 152.
8. See Andrew Epstein, “Found Poetry, ‘Uncreative Writing,’ and Appropriation,” in The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, ed. Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, and Brian McHale (New York: Routledge, 2012), 318; Barrett Watten, Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016), 177; Maria Damon, “Between Friendship Network and Literary Movement: Flarf as a Poetics of Sociability,” in Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry, eds. Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013), 131; and Brian M. Reed, Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 91.
13. Gary Sullivan, “Flarf: From Glory Days to Glory Hole,” Brooklyn Rail, February 4, 2009.
14. “Bush: Bin Laden Wanted Dead or Alive,” ABC News, September 17, 2001.
15. “Remarks by the President Upon Arrival,” The White House, September 16, 2001.
17. “Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation,” Washington Post, September 20, 2001.
18. For a detailed account of the speech’s creation, see D.T. Max, “The Making of the Speech,” New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001.
22. Jake Tapper, “Prodigal Son,” Salon, April 9, 1999.
30. An early typescript draft of “Somebody Blew Up America” indicates that Baraka added the inflammatory lines “Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / to stay home that day” midway through the composition process. That these lines replaced the suggestion that a conspiracy was ultimately responsible for the 918 deaths at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 (“Who let Jim Jones kill them negroes in guyana”) suggests Baraka’s interest in a general accumulation of paranoid thinking — especially pertaining to suspicion of US meddling in world affairs — over and against any conspiracy theory in particular. Amiri Baraka Papers; Box 67, Folder 20, MS#1482; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. For an account of various conspiracies about Jonestown, see Rebecca Moore’s “Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown,” Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (November 2002): 200–220.
38. I am quoting here the more typographically adventurous version that was available on Baraka’s website. The URL is now defunct.
40. Amiri Baraka qtd. in Nick Paumgarten, “Goodbye, Paramus,” The New Yorker, October 14, 2002.
41. Amiri Baraka, “The ADL Smear Campaign Against Me,” Counterpunch, October 7, 2002.
42. Amiri Baraka, qtd. in Matthew Purdy, “New Jersey Laureate Refuses to Resign Over Poem,” The New York Times, September 28, 2002.
43. Gene Weingarten, “Chatological Humor: Monthly with Moron (Updated Nov. 23),” Washingtonpost.com, October 26, 2010. Friedlander’s “Somebody Blew Up America” begins by ironically putting the question of irony on the table: “The poem you just heard was ironic and this one is sincere. / How can you tell? Because it was written in ‘my’ voice” (3). The conspicuous apophasis suggests that Friedlander is not so much worried whether Baraka was being sincere or not in recycling bad information (“Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / to stay home”); rather, Friedlander is more interested in exploring the reception of the absurdly objectionable: “a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar / of flies devoured by vermin has 4000 listeners / a huge audience by poetry standards” (4).
51. Amiri Baraka, qtd. in Jeremy Pearce, “When Poetry Seems to Matter,” New York Times, February 9, 2003.
54. Craig Dworkin, “Parting with Description,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, eds. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 249.