A little more than a year ago, back in February 2007, we hosted a "Flarf Festival," featuring--you guessed it--several Flarf poets. Nada Gordon, Mel Nichols, Rod Smith, Sharon Mesmer, and Gary Sullivan. Sullivan was the first to use the term Flarf to describe this kind of poetry, or, perhaps better put, this anti-poetic attitude. Audio recordings of the whole event and of each poem read by each poet are available on PennSound. I also did a podcast about this event.
What's Flarf? Easy enough to define, harder for some to appreciate, harder still perhaps for some of the flarfists to stay with it (in any particular sense) after the months or years of excitement about the mode has worn off. Then again, a number have managed to keep the excitement up.
Surely a flarfist himself or herself wrote the Wikipedia entry on "flarf poetry"; it's quite a good little essay on all this. "Its first practitioners practiced an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of 'the inappropriate' in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet with odd search terms then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts." Joyelle McSweeney expressed my own relief and delight: "This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems."
Flarf is alive and well, even as its definitions widen. I read Gary Sullivan's blog called "Elsewhere." This very weekend there's a conference being held in lower Manhattan. The title seems to be "2008 Holistic Expo & Peace Conference" but the poster announces "FLARF IS LIFE." Go to flarffestival.blogspot.com.
And Michael Gottlieb has written well about flarf for Jacket.
At left: Drew Gardner performing "Chicks Dig War" at the 2006 Flarf Festival.
No, this--above--is not the chaos I have in mind. The photo here was taken in 1984 at Bennington, at a summer writing workshop: there's Richard Ford at left, and Alan Cheuse at right. If you are an NPR listener, you will know Cheuse for his good radio reviews and other All Things Considered literary contributions. No, the chaos I have in mind goes back to 1960, when Cheuse was a quasi-bohemian figure who'd gotten to attend the Bread Loaf end-of-summer writers' workshop as a waiter, and caused some trouble, at least from the point of view of those who wanted the Old Ways at Bread Loaf to be restored. I've written about this today on my 1960 blog, so please go there and get more.
Whenever I discuss with my students William Carlos Williams' poem "the rose is obsolete" (from Spring and All (1923), we begin with our sense of the rose as it is. Is it just a rose? No, the students say, it's become a huge commercialized symbol. WCW wanted a new rose, the rose that is the rose, the non- or pre-symbolic rose, "Sharper, neater, more cutting..." He wanted an infinite, endless rose, a rose that was somehow not really soft--made of "copper" or "steel." A wonderful adult student in one of my all-online versions of English 88 - a businessman who lives in China and does his business all around east Asia - took some time to create the Hallmark Card image of the poem's position. Here it is, above. And here, below, is the opening of the poem:
The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
itself in metal or porcelain--
whither? It ends--
But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--
Pins and Needles was a hit musical revue in 1937, performed by rank-and-file members of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) who worked all day and then practiced the show three hours at night; it took a year of practice before the show was ready to open.
Until Oklahoma came along, Pins and Needles was Broadway's longest-running show ever. Harold Rome's song - a meta-song if ever there was one - "Sing Me a Song with Social Significance" was a favorite of audiences. Don't keep singing me silly songs; after all, now is a time which "history's making" and "nations are quaking," so why doesn't the popular song try something serious and significant? "Sing me of wars, sing me of breadlines." Editorialize "in syncopation" - sure, go ahead.
Sing me of crime and conferences martial,
Tell me of mills and of mines,
Sing me of courts that aren't impartial,
What's to be done with 'em? Tell me in rhythm.
Most of all, songs should be about "new things." This was a new Broadway song about what's wrong with the old kinds of songs. Here's another verse:
Sing me a song with social significance,
All other tunes are taboo.
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it.
Sing me a song with social significance,
Or you can sing till you're blue,
Let meaning shine from every line
Or I won't love you.
"I didn't realize," Harold Rome said, "that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater."
All the lyrics are here.