A Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry

Written by

Gary Sullivan
Contributor Page

Year

2011

Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."

Flarf (2): The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of "flarfiness." Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based. Community in the sense that one example leads to another's reply—is, in some part, contingent upon community interaction of this sort. Poems created, revised, changed by others, incorporated, plagiarized, etc., in semi-public.

Flarf (3) (verb): To bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text.

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."


A couple of years ago, if you'll remember, on the Women's Poetry listserv, a number of people began posting in horror at finding their names, with poems they hadn't written, on poetry.com. I remember going to the site and realizing immediately it was one of those "poetry contest" scams. A year or so before that I had spoken on the phone with my grandfather, not many days before he died, and he had told me then how proud he was that he had won some sort of poetry contest, and that he had ordered the book, etc. I had always felt bad about that, and once I was on the poetry.com site, I wrote what I thought would be the most offensive poem I could manage, and submitted it to the "contest":

Mm-hmm
Yeah, mm-hmm, it's true
big birds make
big doo! I got fire inside
my "huppa"-chimpTM
gonna be agreessive, greasy aw yeah god
wanna DOOT! DOOT!
Pffffffffffffffffffffffffft! hey!
oooh yeah baby gonna shake & bake then take
AWWWWWL your monee, honee (tee hee)
uggah duggah buggah biggah buggah muggah
hey! hey! you stoopid Mick! get
off the paddy field and git
me some chocolate Quik
put a Q-tip in it and stir it up sick
pocka-mocka-chocka-locka-DING DONG
fuck! shit! piss! oh it's so sad that
syndrome what's it called tourette's
make me HAI-EE! shout out loud
Cuz I love thee. Thank you God, for listening!

To my amazement, I received, about three weeks later, a letter from poetry.com, with my poem fully visible through the cellophane window of the envelope. The letter, in part, read:

Gary, over the past year, we have conducted an exhaustive examination of over 1.2 million poems that have been submitted to us. Only a small percentage of individuals whose poems we have reviewed were selected to be part of this distinguished project. 'Mm-hmm' was selected for publication because it sparks the imagination and provides the reader with a fresh, unique perspective on life. We believe it will add to the importance and appeal of this special edition. Of course, Gary, as always, you are under no obligation whatsoever to submit any entry fee or subsidy payment, or to make a purchase of any kind. Your poem will be presented in the most elegant way possible. This coffee-table quality book will feature an 'Arristock leather' cover stamped in gold and a satin bookmarker...

And it went on like that. I can't remember if I said anything about this on the Women's Poetry listserv (I might have unsubscribed by then), but I was on the subpoetics list at the time, and posted something about it, and encouraged others to submit poems to poetry.com. There were a few takers, including Kasey Mohammad and maybe Drew Gardner. Meanwhile, Nada, Mitch Highfill and I began writing more of these awful poems, and submitting them to the site under a variety of different names.

Somewhere in all of this, the word "flarf" materialized—it may have been Mitch's word, or Drew's, or Nada's, I'm not sure. But somehow, "flarf" began to take on a meaning: "having the quality of flarfiness." We now began to look at other things and to see them as "flarfy." I was never 100% sure what it meant—something akin to "campy," but with somewhat different resonances. More awkward, stumbling, "wrong" than camp. The flarf "voice" in my head was that of my father, a transplanted southerner, who likes to pontificate, and who has a lot of opinions that kind of horrify me.

I liked being on the subpoetics listserv, but at times it felt a bit stifling—very P.C. So I began using "flarf" on the list as a way of keeping my own tendencies toward repression—which the listserv seemed to help foster—at bay. During a reading in New York, I read one flarf I'd sent to the list, "New Year's Post," and surprisingly, it went over incredibly well. My notions of what might be "bad" or "wrong" were being questioned by the response. (I wound up publishing it in How to Proceed in the Arts.)

Meanwhile, I think both Drew and Kasey were doing a fair amount of flarfing of their own. Drew began to do odd word-combo searches on Google for things like "Rogaine bunny" and wrote poems using the results. I don't think, at least at first, that he thought much more of these poems than that they were kind of hilarious monstrosities. Drew and Nada and I used to send a lot of three-way e-mails back and forth, often with poetry-related jokes, parodies, and—increasingly—flarf.

In or around May of 2001, a number of us started the flarflist—I'm not entirely sure who all was on it then: me, Nada Gordon, Drew, Mitch, Jordan Davis, Carol Mirakove, Kasey, Katie Degentesh. Soon after, Maria Damon, and Erik Belgum came on.

The first post to the list was "Angry at God," a play I'd written doing a Google search on the words "awww" "yeah" and "God" (published in the first issue of Pompom). This was quickly followed by posts from Kasey ("Crucifixion Xing") and Jordan (untitled poem beginning: "wim-o-weh wee-ooh wim-o-weh wee/PARIS SMUH 1967/05").

Initially most everyone was using Google in some capacity, and the work tended to be corrosive, awful, though not so much in a Bruce Andrews Shut Up way; it was more awkward, less self-aware or overtly politically pointed; mistakes were left in as found, and certain "cute" words ("fluffy" "cuddle" etc.) began to pile up in the poems.

Here is an excerpt from Drew's "As Dolphins Languor":

awe yea I open a photo album I found under my bed
uhhuh, The dusty, leather cover decaying and smelling of the years
awe yea baby Regrets mingling with my tears
as I methodically turn the pages, you see
I like to dress up in REALLY tight underwater pumpkin beavers...
and I take a deep, painful breath
Because staring back at me from the tattered oragami licenses
oh baby yea Are black and white visions of faraway hearts uh huh
Mistakes where made and moments lost
But I take the blame all for myself
awe yea You see, somebody's done messed up
my latvian women's soccer team fantasy REAL bad,
oh pagers make of cheese,
Isn't that cute? The fluffy pumpkins I mean
you can't HANDLE the fluffy pumpkins...
If I could just steal away one
tender moment from my past
And trap it in my heart
ohhhhhhh baby It would unravel the regrets
woven deep into the tapestry of awe yea baby
    my life
awe yea the Whiteness glimmers in [...]
Take the love Romeo and Juliet had, multiply
it by infinity, take it to the depths of
forever and you will still have only a glimpse of
    how to
bungee jump outa my moist sitar B.O.! [...]

Katie began taking interoffice memos she received on the job and flarfing them:

TO: All New York Office Employees
FROM: Human Resources Loveroll
DATE: May 8, 2001
RE: Hot Hatred and Hot Business Coital Attire

In the spirit of the upcoming season, hot hatred and business coital attire will begin on Monday, May 21 and end on Friday, August 31, 2001.

Hot Hatred

As hot approaches we are pleased to remind all employees that we will be milking a condensed milk week. During the hot months, there will be extended office hatred Monday through Thursday, allowing for a * day on Friday. Please see the guidelines below:

Regular office hatred will be 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. on Friday. In order to accommodate this schedule, lunch periods, which are unloved, should be limited to 45 pieces of popcorn. Department heads may allow an individual to adjust his/her core milking hatred while still milking the full weekly hatred. All employees will milk their regularly scheduled hatred within a week (barring evacuation or jail time) regardless of starting or ending time.

The office will remain open on Friday afternoons for those of you who wish to complete pregnancies or have regular milk to finish, however, there will be no mailroom or reception services beyond 1:00 p.m.

If you schedule Friday as an evacuation day, it will count as one full day as per our evacuation policy.

To receive unconditional love, an employee must be at milk (or on an authorized jihad) on the milk day immediately proceeding and the milk day immediately following the day on which the unconditional is observed. If an employee is absent on one or both of these days because of sexual activity or illicit affairs, the Company reserves the right to verify the reason before approving unconditional love.

People on the list would respond to each other's posts with other posts picking up on words, word-combos, themes, forms, etc. But by September 2001 the list became relatively silent. Not too long after 9/11, people began posting again, though now all of the flarfs—many of which were parodies of AP News items—in some way, shape, or form addressed the aftermath of 9/11, including media portrayal of the same. I remember, for instance, Katie's "We'll rebuild the Twin Towers—on your Pizza." I started a "sadness" series—doing searches on "the horrible sadness," "the awful sadness," "the unending sadness," etc., in response to what was becoming a kind of stifling national(ist) mourning.

Some list members dropped out and in time others came on board: David Larsen, Rodney Koeneke, Michael Magee, Rod Smith, Daniel Bouchard, Sharon Mesmer. Some are silent observers, others participate regularly. Some consider the list a kind of joke list among friends, others use it to develop longer work (e.g., Kasey, Deer Head Nation, Michael Magee, My Angie Dickinson, and Jordan's series of fairly matter-of-fact "exposé" poems about Senators and Representatives).

While I haven't been very active on the list for the last couple of months, I was using it for about a year or more to generate plays and poems, not all of which necessarily had the quality of "flarfiness" (Bollywood poems, for instance), though each came up initially as an attempt to do something I "wasn't supposed to" do.