Search for a New Poetics Yields This: 'Kitty Goes Postal/Wants Pizza'
Google-Inspired Verse Gains Respect; Shakespeare Meets the Anagram Generator
By GAUTAM NAIK
Oooh yeah baby gonna shake & bake then take
AWWWWWL your monee, honee (tee hee)
If those lines sound like utter nonsense, it's because they are. They belong to the world's first "flarf" poem. Penned a decade ago as a lark, it has spurred an experimental poetry movement that's become surprisingly popular.
"We wanted to use language that people don't usually use in poetry, so we grabbed it off the web," says poet Gary Sullivan, who wrote the poem from which those lines are taken.
Flarf is a creature of the electronic age. The flarf method typically involves using word combinations turned up in Google searches, and poems are often shared via email. When one poet penned a piece after Googling "peace" + "kitty," another responded with a poem after searching "pizza" + "kitty." A 2006 reading of it has been viewed more than 6,700 times on YouTube. It starts like this: "Kitty goes Postal/Wants Pizza..."
"Flarf is a hip, digital reaction to the kind of boring, genteel poetry" popular with everyday readers, says Marjorie Perloff, a poetry critic and professor emeritus of English at Stanford University. "You used to find it only in alternative spaces, but it has now moved into the art mainstream."
Flarf verse has appeared in America's pre-eminent poetry magazine, Poetry. Some 15 flarf books have been published, and there's a 400-page anthology coming out later this year. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Whitney Museum in New York have held flarf readings. Two Manhattan theaters have showcased flarf poets.
In a sign that further establishes flarf's literary cred, practitioners of a rival poetry movement called "conceptual poetry" are now taking on the flarfists, hoping to establish their approach as the true avant garde challenger to mainstream verse.
The Written Flarf
Excerpt from "I Used to Believe"
I thought UPS trucks were driven by Oompa-Loompas. I thought that birds switched on the street lights as it became dark by pecking the little knobs on the top of them.
I used to believe that stethoscopes could hear your thoughts, if pressed to your head.
I used to believe that you wouldn't die unless you got married. I thought that when married couples went on their honeymoon they were actually going to the moon.
I used to believe that your life was a dream and when you died you would wake up as a baby and start your life again as the same person but different things would happen. For example: If you were poor then when you woke up you would be rich.
I was convinced that your clothes would grow right along with you.
I thought that exactly halfway through your life you turned into the opposite sex.
* * *
Your brain is eating my precious Bea Arthur!
Also effluvial duct tape
and Quality Entertainments.
And your flowers and leaves of spring and fall.
And your ham-hams.
But not your fwuffy bunnies.
Or your freaking uncontrollable
ickle wickle prawn kittens,
as bitter as that may sound,
and it should
to Olivia Newton-John
over a tiny fire
with 20 Malboro lights
and cool riffing.
--Sharon Mesmer (from Annoying Diabetic B----, Combo Books, 2008)
At a faceoff between the two groups last month at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles lawyer Vanessa Place read from her work, "Why Conceptual Writing Is Better Than Flarf." That later provoked a response from flarfist Drew Gardner, who penned a poem called, "Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism."
Experimental verse is nothing new. After World War I, the Dada movement inspired "found poetry," whereby phrases taken from existing texts were refashioned into poems. In the 1970s, "language poetry" was founded on the idea that language should dictate meaning instead of the other way around.
But while painting and even music have seen dramatic post-modern upheavals, much of poetry printed in popular magazines can be mainstream: non-alienating, often easy to parse and respectful of meter and even rhyme. A small group of poets hopes to change that.
Flarf started as a joke. In 2001, Mr. Sullivan set out to pen the worst poem he could write. His creation, "Mm-hmm," took just took 10 minutes to concoct. One line runs, "pocka-mocka-chocka-locka-DING DONG."
But after Mr. Sullivan sent his poem to an online community of fellow poets, they decided to outdo him, penning their own rubbish verse. They plugged random phrases into Google and emailed the "poetic" results to their colleagues. That group, in turn, Googled the new lines of poetry, and massaged the results into verse—a poetic pyramid scheme.
The joke took off. The poets began to discover that random Google searches often threw out odd juxtapositions and intriguing collages that revealed—at least to them—new poetic possibilities. The poems were so bad, they were good. A terrible beauty was born.
"I found the word flarf online on a police blotter where some stoner had described marijuana as flarfy," says Mr. Sullivan, who appropriated the term for the new poetic style. As his day job, he edits a magazine published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in New York.
Soon, 30 poets were flarfing on a poets-only email list, and contributors eventually joined in from Finland, Holland and Iceland. Their poems—"A Copy of the Koran Written in Root Beer," "The Swiss Just Do Whatever," and "Why Do I Hate Flarf So Much"—were subversive and rude.
After a handful of such works got a good response at public readings, more poets turned to Google searches, often trying weird word combinations, such as "anarchy + tuna melt."
Then things turned more serious. After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Sullivan wrote several poems based on Google searches for phrases such as "the awful sadness." He later described this effort as a "response to what was becoming a kind of stifling national (ist) mourning."
Flarf had competition, though. "Conceptual writing," a movement that also emerged a few years ago, is based on the notion that the concept behind a piece of writing is more important than its literary execution. Thus, poet Kenneth Goldsmith created a work that was a literal transcription of 24 hours of weather reports in Baghdad. Last year, he read part of that work at the Whitney Museum.
In an article in Poetry magazine last year, Mr. Goldsmith suggested that both movements were efforts to adapt to the digital age.
"This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book," he wrote. "It continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab."
Flarf has blossomed into an anything-goes style no longer restricted to Google searches—so long as it is novel and edgy. Flarfist K. Silem Mohammad, who teaches writing at Southern Oregon University, is rewriting Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, while retaining their meter and rhyme.
He first takes an individual line from a sonnet and runs it through an online "anagram generator." He uses the resulting words to pen a new sonnet. His poem contains exactly the same letters, in the same distribution, as the original.
Mr. Mohammad has so far written 68 such poems. His flarfy version of Sonnet 13, "O! That you were your self; but love you are," starts like this:
Wise fools who rub the curly heads of state,
Sweet Monsters who sell honor out for fun:
Now by my learned counsel be set straight,
And board a flying saucer for the sun.
Write to Gautam Naik at firstname.lastname@example.org