Introduction to Flarf vs. Conceptual Writing|
The Whitney Museum of American Art, April 17, 2009
When the Whitney approached me to put together an event in conjunction with the Jenny Holzer exhibit, I wanted to organize a reading of poets whose works I felt were every bit as contemporary as the art shown in this museum. Now that seems like a no-brainer but it's actually quite a bit more complicated. Poetry is an extraordinarily conservative world. In fact, there still is an avant-garde in poetry. Unlike in the art world where, since the dawn of modernism, the mainstream has been the avant-garde, there are still two separate flows in poetry: the mainstream and the avant-garde. And the dividing wall is very big. The mainstream in poetry is very visible: every time you pick up the New Yorker and see poetry snuggled next to the cartoons, it's mainstream poetry; every Sunday when you peruse the New York Times Book Review and see what books of poetry are reviewed, it's mainstream poetry. If you picked up a book of that poetry at its most adventurous, you'd get pretty much the equivalent of early modernist painting: a bit disjunctive, slightly dissonant, but with representation and sincere emotion fully intact. It's usually competent and fairly academic stuff that neither challenges nor offends anyone. It would be like, instead of filling up this museum with the likes of Mike Kelley, Kara Walker, Matthew Barney and Jenny Holzer, you plastered the walls with that strand of still-vigorous but utterly irrelevant academic figuration that haunts the ad pages of magazines like Art in America. Can you imagine the next Biennial comprised of that? Well, now you get a sense or what the many anthologies of Best American Poetry and so forth look and read like, year in and year out. No wonder poetry doesn't have an audience anymore.
Which brings us to that old chestnut by Brion Gysin where he stated in 1959 that poetry is fifty years behind painting. Well, I'd like to reframe that by saying that the critical reception of poetry is fifty years behind that of painting. All along, poetry has been exploring and expanding in ways that are just as adventurous as in art, it's just that you never see it. The avant-garde in American poetry has been marginalized to the point of invisibility but that doesn't mean that it isn't being written. Adventurous poetry is alive and well in America.
So, my idea tonight is to present two strains of truly contemporary poetry, Flarf and Conceptual Writing. Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the internet age? These two movements, formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else's? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity and recycling: there's a sense that these words aren't meant for forever. Today they're glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to webpage, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.
Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past 100 years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve... yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one's really written a word of it. It's been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete and start all over again. There's a sense of gluttony, of joy and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we're delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let's just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
And yet because language cannot be divorced from its semantic content, this writing embraces a difficulty quite distinct from what the previous century termed "difficult." This work is often wildly political, explicitly sexual, ethically troublesome and socially questionable. It's been referred to as a waste of paper and dismissed as a leg-pull, yet often times, the authors agree: they are disgusted by the sentiments they express and revolted that they would have "written" such drivel. When the machine takes control, we passively -- and happily -- acquiesce.
Yet for as much as the two movements have in common, they are very different. Flarf plays Dionysus to Conceptual Writing's Apollo. Flarf uses traditional poetic tropes ("taste" and "subjectivity") and forms (the stanza and verse) to turn these conventions inside out. Conceptual Writing rarely "looks" like poetry and uses its own subjectivity to construct a linguistic machine that words may be poured into; it cares little for the outcome. Flarf is hilarious. Conceptual Writing is dry. Flarf is the Land O'Lakes butter Indian squaw; Conceptual Writing is the government's nutritional label on the box. Flarf is Larry Rivers. Conceptual Writing is Andy Warhol.
No matter. They're two sides of the same coin. Choose your poison and Embrace your guilty pleasure.