“I Love Men,” The Flarf Poetry Festival at the Kelly Writers House, February 8, 2007
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.
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 due...in 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.”