Collage, Collaboration & Bookish Beasts


//// Flarf \\\\

What is it? What concepts get batted about in its vicinity? Why does it make some people laugh and other people very mad?

Here's one definition of Flarf, from early Flarfist Mike Magee:

My own understanding of it went something like this: "Flarf" is a collage-based method which employs Google searches, specifically the partial quotes which Google "captures" from websites. In its early manifestations it was VERY whimsical and went something like this: you search Google for 2 disparate terms, like "anarchy + tuna melt" - using only the quotes captured by Google (never the actual websites themselves) you stitch words, phrases, clauses, sentences together to create poems. To me, it's interesting for a number of reasons -- its collaborative texture, its anthropological implications (the sampling of an enormous variety of public speech based on a single word or phrase shared in common), its comic (not to say unserious) frame. Gradually people got more ambitious both in their use of the technology (somewhat) and in the poems themselves.

This comes from a compilation of notes about Flarf and Google sculpting taken from
the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, collated by Charles Bernstein & posted on a course syllabus under the title "The Flarf Files" --

A bit later in those notes is another quote from Magee:

The use of Google being extremely common, the flarf method resembles in some sense: a) the use of a thesaurus; b) eavesdropping and quoting; c) sampling; d) collage / cut-&-paste (for which I can think of many many precedents from Eliot to Langston Hughes to Berrigan and just about every experimental writer from that point on). What makes the flarf methodology different, to my mind, is the willful democratization of the method: the EXTENSIVE and even sole use of Googled material and the hyper-collaborative quality of the CONSTANT exchange -- the SPEED (or seeming speed) of composition.

To explore these claims (and many more) and generally wallow in the  theory and practice of Flarf, you can read an exchange of ideas between Tony Tost (PhD candidate, poet, blogger, & editor of the online literary journal, Fascicle) and Dan Hoy (poet, film critic, and co-editor of Soft Targets). It starts with Tony Tost's essay (in Fascicle) about K. Silem Mohammad's book, Deer Head Nation, continues with Dan Hoy's attack (in Issue 29 of the online journal Jacket) on both the review & the book, & winds down with Tost's reply to that on his blog, The Unquiet Grave. The original review places the practices of flarf collage in the wider contexts of Modernism and even in the context of the Muse -- which is, after all, a source outside the poet, reputed to inject the poet with language.

Here is  a teaser: one screen of Tony Tost's essay, containing what is, to me, its most important point. Links to all three pieces follow this excerpt,

Jack Spicer is perhaps the 20 th century's most insistent proponent of the essential Outside as a source of poetry, though the idea of a generative outside source is an ancient one, from classical invocations to the muses to Milton entering William Blake's foot as a comet to dictate poetry to him. In Spicer's first Vancouver lecture, in June of 1965, he articulates his theories:

. . . essentially that there is an Outside to the poet. Now what the Outside is like is described differently by different poets. And some of them believe that there's a welling up of the subconscious or of the racial memory or the this or the that, and they try to put it inside the poet. Others take it from the Outside. Olson's idea of energy and projective verse is something that comes from the Outside.

I think the source is unimportant. But I think that for a poet writing poetry, the idea of just exactly what the poet is in relationship to this Outside, whether it's an id down in the cortex which you can't reach anyway, which is just as far outside as Mars, or whether it is as far away as those galaxies which seem to be sending radio messages to us with the whole of the galaxy blowing up just to say something to us8

According to Spicer, an essential element of the outside source is its remoteness; the distance a poet (or the source) must travel is a sign of the message's claim to urgency. To illustrate this ideal, Spicer famously referred to the poet as a kind of radio: “essentially you are something which is being transmitted into.”9 The importance of technology is notable here, whether it is the invention of the radio which allows Spicer's Martians to dictate messages to the poet or whether it is the evolution and popularization of the Internet to such a degree that the Google search engine allows Mohammad to access social climates and circles that – whether because of geography, race, class or inclination – he would not otherwise access. For the contemporary poet's imagination, technology is a democratizing force; a poet is pushed to acknowledge the divide between his or her poetic presentation of everyday speech and the actuality of everyday vernacular as it occurs in chat-rooms, personal websites and the like. A poet can offer her or his poems as a respite from the everyday “abuses” of the language or work to more accurately reflect “non-poetic” registers of language, but it's becoming more difficult for poets to ignore what the everyday vernacular actually looks like in the hands and mouths of the people who use it.

The other Outside source that Spicer refers to in the above passage – the id – can also serve as a map for Mohammad's Googled sources, the language of individuals whose values are normally nowhere reflected in the well-considered, carefully chosen lines of (in Mohammad's words) “ the effete peripatetic poet safely above a scenic view of the countryside and its filthy horizon.”10 In one formulation that can be derived from Mohammad's view, the Googled sources create the bubbling subconscious of the language, a subconscious that more directly expresses the fears, desires and prejudices that often are excluded from acceptable and publishable poetries. But in fact Mohammad takes a more radical stance and offers these voices not as marginal or subliminal pools but as the actual main current/currency of the language: “ A mainstream is a forceful, central current that carries in its path all the debris and livestock and entire vacationing families that get vortexed into it. It is not a carefully constructed iron walkway [. . .] In the mainstream, you have to shout to be heard above the roar [. . .] The mainstream is the scary global video game we live in, everyday, and it has nothing to do with some absurd publishing scam . . .” 11 In Mohammad's formulation, the Robert Pinskys and Mary Olivers of the poetry world, poets who often are referred to as mainstream poets, are actually the (self-) marginalized voices. A poetics that truly reflected the “mainstream” would reflect the tensions and excitements of the present as the present is experienced by those outside a poet's (often privileged) peer group; a truly mainstream poetics would perhaps more resemble a chat-room or reality television show than most contemporary poetries.

 <> Here's Tony Tost's essay, in Fascicle --

And here's Dan Hoy's attack in Jacket on the world of Google sculpting, Tost & Mohammed included --

And here's Tony Tost's response to that, on his blog --

You're looking for the entry for Feb 3, with the  opening line "An odd read here. I'm on about my fourth time..." And in the entry for Feb 5, Tost tweaks and clarifies a few of his own statements.

Don't forget to read some flarf poems. Here are some, published by Jacket in Issue 30.

You are on
Susan Tichy's
web page

George Mason University