Commentaries - June 2013

[In the 1990s I composed a series of thirty-three “Lorca Variations,” systematically drawing vocabulary, principally nouns, from my previously published translation of Lorca’s early gathering of poems, The Suites.  I later made use of this method of composition for homages to Jackson Mac Low, Octavio Paz, & others as a step beyond translation but with an idea of translation – or what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation” & I called “othering” – as one of the defining characteristics of poetry as a whole.  The obvious difference in the variations presented here is that I apply the same procedure to an earlier work of my own, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, a series of eight poems (not seven) drawing themes but not specific images from ancient Japanese painted scrolls of that name & their accompanying verbal descriptions.  As with other variations – other translations for that matter – the procedure, if it works, doesn’t so much annihilate the original version as bring it into a new dimension, where both versions can lead an independent if interlinked existence.  The fifty year gap between them adds its own strangeness to the mix. (J.R.)]


THE FIRST HELL: of measures, where swindlers measure fire in iron boxes (1962)


How can any of you know

what it feels like

to count coins in Hell


You have the rest of it to keep you busy

Your eyes are troubled enough


But down here

the nights are longer

& the days are senseless

Down here

the rain falls


from iron boxes


The smoke inside the narrow room

pulls back

It winds around the bedposts

like a colored cloth

around a leg that’s bleeding


Violet & green

with pain


What should we say to our fingers?

Should we remind them

of the cool silk yards

they handled behind counters


The healing lotions

rolled between the palms


Should we tell them that the earth

crawling with black grief

at least was wet





Blue coins of disaster

are ringing in the night

The distant call of metal birds

is like the rhyming

in bad poems

before your birth


You would not know me now


The fire at my ribs

has emptied me of flesh & words

I stand here with the others


letting the numbers fill my head

An outlaw








I want to turn aside

but Hell won’t let me

Hell is the outraged customer

who slams the cashbox

against my hands


A candle drips

along the sidewalk

Wax covers the windows of a small store

& blurs the sun


A darkness full of crates

through which I walk

thinking of other hells than this


The skin cries under the brand

of intellect

Deceit of numbers

raising questions in the mind

that’s helpless

The fevered brow


Smash it to hell
You have a right to it



The white eye watches

through the window

Where we live is where

we always lived

The sea of death





     Hell has windows as the skin has numbers, & the sun flashing on the sidewalk blinds the little customers who bathe in it.


     In my head as on my flesh the poems appear, responding to my call.


     My palms turn violet & blue, smoother than Chinese silk.


     My room is filled with rain, as Hell with fire, while an eyebrow slightly raised signals deceit.


     The other Hells are kept in store.


     A Hell of numbers follows one with rhymings.


     Ribs grow heavy.


     The night is meant for grief no lotions over legs or fingers can assuage.


     Lost in the smoke we wait for day to come, for coins to burn the swindlers who demand them – like a brand.


     Crates pile up. 


     Windows break.


     Death makes the mind turn white.


     Hands open Hell for others.


     Let its fires trap the birds who fly through them.


     Let disaster make them all turn black.


     Let them cry out with pain, the counters filling up with cloth in boxes, broken open in the night, unmeasured, boxes smelling of the sea, the intellect imprisoned in their darkness, knowing the right questions but afraid to ask.


     Make it pliable like wax & let it drip over the outlaw’s’ cashbox.


     Words have their birth in it, & metals drawn out of the earth & melted give us coins.


     The years ahead are green.


     The bedposts where we rest are iron.


     Our eyes are iron too & blind us.


     Call it Hell.


                             * * * * * * *



             One should be able to rework an old work at least once – to make
            sure that one has not fallen victim – to one’s nerves or to fate.
                         Henri Matisse to Gino Severini


And again:


            When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when

            you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you
            must, when the time comes, change course, search for something

Photo credit: screenshot taken from video made by Konrad Steiner

On February 8, 2003, performing at the Bowery Poetry Club without prepared text or notes, Steve Benson improvised a long poem composed entirely of questions. His transcript of this performance later appeared in his book Open Clothes (Atelos, 2005) as "Did the lights just go out" [text].  Later, Steve McLaughlin created two excerpts from the full audio recording:

Excerpt 1 (2:55): MP3
Excerpt 2 (2:37): MP3

Three nights later, then at the Kelly Writers House, Benson again improvised a long poem composed entirely of questions, and then he responded to questions from the audience. His transcript of this performance also appears in Open Clothes as "If you stop to listen to yourself think" and "Is your thinking about the words." A full audio recording of the event can be heard here. Again, Steve McLaughlin created excerpts:

Excerpt 1 (2:25): MP3
Excerpt 2 (1:42): MP3
Excerpt 3 (2:27): MP3

Disaster: not thought gone awry

when all this first started
            my body broke out into real bad rashes
                        my eyes my face my neck my chest my back my shoulders
big giant holes on the back of my legs,
            holes the size of a #2 pencil
                        looked just like the holes
                                    in the fish
                                               in the lab
                                                on the slab

Gulf: from Greek κόλπος (kólpos) m. [masculine], a bosom, From Proto-European *bheu-ə- :“to swell, bend, curve”


What have you done to know disaster?

            we went to detox —December 11 to January 12

                        the children feel much better now
                                                Alina still has bad days
                                                             she may never be 100%
my little boy is doing fantastic,
                                    my husband’s better &
                                                I’m feeling better too…
            I’ve shelled out $40.000

Gulf: A hollow place in the Earth


Disaster is on the side of forgetting

we did blue crab before BP
            but since BP
                        we don’t blue crab anymore

Gulf: An abyss, a bottomless or unfathomed depth


Disaster: care for the minuscule

            all of a sudden we had shrimp

                        with what they call black gill disease
                                    if they were blue would it be blue gill disease?
we’ve had shrimp
            with growth on them
                        we’ve had had fish with growths on them

Gulf: A deep Chasm, a steep-sided rift, gap or fissure, a large difference of opinion


Disaster: sovereignty of the accident

the Vietnamese & Cambodian communities had
            a really tough time getting hired on
                        to help in the cleanup because of
                                    the great language barrier:
                                               90% of the information put out
                                                in the first 60 days was English only

Gulf: A basin, from Latin “bacca” wine jug, Welch “baich,” load, burden, Irish “bac,” hindrance


In relation to disaster, one dies too late

            the herring came in to mature

                        dropped on the seafloor dead
compromised immune system couldn’t
            fight off a parasite, a natural bacteria

Gulf: A rock formation scooped out by water erosion


Disaster disorients the absolute

            grey amberjack, king mackerel, red snapper, mangrove snapper,

caught offshore when gutted
                         had black sludge in their stomachs
            crossed stomach walls
                        made holes in the flesh
                                    you could see it with the naked eye

Gulf: (obsolete) That which swallow, the gullet


[AUTHOR'S NOTE: “Dis/aster” is the third poem of a sequence of three with the general title Rigwreck — The Gulf (between you and me).  If the opening section was a write-through of Stéphane Mallarmé’s shipwreck poem Un Coup de dés, (forthcoming in issue #17 of Golden Handcuffs Review) the voices that emerge in the second & third section are those of live witnesses of the BP Gulf disaster. Among these, Sheri Revette (the widow of drill operator Dewey Revette, who was among the 11 dead on the night when the Deepwater Horizon blew up) with phrases taken from interviews with her by Antonia Juhasz in the latter’s book Black Tide (Wiley, 2011) and, throughout the final section, excerpts from my February 2012 interview in New Orleans with Kindra Arnesen, the fisherwoman, mother of two, & activist. The hasard / chance compositional strategy persists at another different level via the etymons for disaster & a writing through of that term via Maurice Blanchot’s L’écriture du désastre.
               This work was commissioned by The Crossing, Donald Nally conductor, for their Month of the Moderns 2013, with Funding from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project. This sequence will premiere with a score by Gabriel Jackson on Sunday, June 30, 2013 @ 4pm.]

'I Love Men,' the Flarf Poetry Festival at the Kelly Writers House, February 8, 2007

Nada Gordon at the Kelly Writers House, March 2013
Nada Gordon at the Kelly Writers House, March 2013

There are so many fantastic events catalogued on PennSound, but one that I find myself coming back to time and time again is the 2007 Flarf Poetry Festival at The Kelly Writers House. And I’m not the only one — PennSound Podcasts featured the event in an episode, and PoemTalk featured Sharon Mesmer's “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I’m in Love with Harry Whittington” back in 2010. But one poem in particular that I can't seem to tear myself away from is Nada Gordon’s “I Love Men.” I can’t even remember what made me listen to the poem in the first place (I think it was the title — simple and irresistible). But over the years it has become the poem that I often use to introduce people to 21st Century poetry. It's almost impossible to talk about this poem, though, without some discussion of Flarf.

I’ll admit that I have a big pet peeve when it comes to Flarf — too many people associate it exclusively with the Google Cut-Up, and I’ve met many people who think that Flarf is a one-trick pony (maybe even a one-trick unicorn) of technological irreverence and neo-Dada. But relegating Flarf to mere cyber-jestering ignores the majority of poetry written under the banner. And so we reach the difficulty of defining Flarf. What is it exactly? There's so many descriptions of the movement, such as the Flarf-insider definition from Gary Sullivan in issue number 30 of Jacket:

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.

Or Rod Smith’is description from an article in Poets & Writers Magazine:

Aesthetic judgments about what's bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege. So for a bunch of poets who are very well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry to take what's considered bad and throw that at people is a very interesting maneuver. It's not simply bad poetry; it's quote-unquote bad poetry written by people who know how to write poetry.

Vannesa Place describes it in “Notes on why Conceptualism is Better than Flarf”:

Flarf is a style, a mode as a la as sliced cheese on pie. Those who write flarf write flarf, or, to use their terminology, they write“flarfy” poetry, to be distinguished from regular poetry. Flarfy poetry makes hay where the sun don't shine. Like baboons copulating in cages at the zoo, flarf fucks inside the glass walls, a show-stopping show, playing to the embarrassed (maybe) or bemused (could be) or the temporarily entertained (probably), it's kind of natural but nature's not in it (who me?). In this sense, flarf is a whoopie cushion in the world of the new & old lyric poem.

While Drew Gardner responds:

Flarf has an anaphylactic shock for every situation. It involves the Spin Doctors or the schmear of interpretation on the bagel of social context, such as is favored by Ken Russell filming spontaneous human combustion as orc lactation. Thus, its sororal underpinnings lie primarily in the conical promise of a radioactively milk fed ethanol-fuled dinosaur, in the sense that the dinosaur as represented must contain a more or less stable relationship to Adderall, with a larger sense of relief at not having to write tortutous prose in an attempt to ascribe institutionally reinforced intellectual authorirty to one's self.

And then there is the description from Ron Silliman's introduction to a reading by Nada Gordon, in March 2013:

[Flarf is] the most significant mode of conceptual poetics, and indeed, the most dramatic and important transformation in poetry in the past three decades. Flarf incorporates everything we know about poetry, a healthy hatred of wage slavery, a sharp wit good part to the perfect-pitch satirical ear of Nada, and a savvy sense that there is much more to Google sculpting than Google. All flarf-based poetry demands a gut feel for the absolute pivot point between good and bad writing, a horizon that is perpetually in motion under constant renegotiation.

If we mix a cocktail from these views, we find ourselves with the Long Island Iced Tea of poetics. Flarf is the poetry of bathos; it's a poetry written by poets and for poets, that doesn't sound like a poet would go anywhere near it. The flotsam of pop culture contribute to a complex network whose axis is an excess of access that accesses excess. Nonsense is sensual, while everything and everyone is arousing. Aesthetics become anaesthetics when social and political criticism enlist irony and satire bound in the authenticity that can only be found in the honest and earnest expression of the lyric poem. Flarf stands up tall before authority, reveling in the anonymity of the 21st century, and yells, “I'M SPARTACUS!

Which brings us back to Nada Gordon's poem, “I Love Men.” It's a poem that combines all of these aspects into an irrestible package. The sultry delivery of the title of the poem at the beginning of the recording immediately transfers to a juvenile tone: “I wrote the meanest silliest thing below about men, I'm sorry, please ignore.” The superlatives cross the high/low registers and private/public divides of passionate confession to childish gossip, immediately blurring the boundaries between “good” and “bad” poetry. Meanwhile, the poem critiques the traditional love poem's representation of women through their physical characteristics, feminine qualities, and willingness to sleep with lyric male poets by simultaneously embracing these qualities (I love men with big penis), turning these standards upon men themselves as objects of desire (I love men for their strength), ridiculing the absurdity of traditional desirable characteristics with scatology (I love the sensation of poo in my mouth), and offering a seemingly-earnest egalitarian leveling to include all men regardless of their physical characteristics (I love men not for what unites them but for what divides them).

In the same way that men are more than men in Nada Gordon's poem, Flarf is more than Google Cut-ups, more than a listserv, and more than neo-Dada. It embraces the differences that come from the cultural homogeneity of the world wide web. As Drew Gardner says, Flarf is life.

 June 15, 2013, video web capture, part of Andrew Maxwell's LIFE SENTENCES: An Afternoon of the Epigrammatic, Los Angeles