The world according to Flarf
After I posted about the strange poetry of search yesterday, I was happy to receive an email from my friend Alex Davis, a poet and former classmate in the MFA program at University of San Francisco, with some clarification about the realm into which I had stumbled. Turns out there is a whole literary “movement” built on search engine detritus. (Of course there is.) It’s known as Flarf. It dates all the way back to the beginning of the millennium.
Apparently the method of the flarfists “was to mine the Internet with odd search terms and then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.” This was hardly a new artistic impulse. But its digital extension — a kind of Cut-up 2.0, if you will — certainly seemed to capture the tenor of these times. According to flarf’s Wikipedia entry, “Early or ‘old-school’ flarf is marked by a certain distinctive tonal ‘dialect’: it is often peppered with phrases like ‘aw YEEEAHH,’ intentional typos, mildly offensive language (e.g., childish references to bodily functions), oblique political ‘statements,’ and incongruous animal imagery.”
Indeed. Or, as one early practitioner put it, the dominant tenor of flarf could be described as “a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.'”
(Lordy, I don’t really even want to touch the later breaking phenomenon of Twitter poetry: “Situations of stimulation often climax I just cant handle your seed Love is held like hidden treasure – 3:41 PM Aug 16th from web”)
But let us leap from the realm of theory. Back in 2006, issue 3 of Switchback, the fine literary publication from USF, featured “The Ways to Switchback,” which made flarfingly grand use of phrases that people had entered into search engines to reach the publication’s site. (The image to the left, featured in that issue, is “Eventual Slide,” by artist Jeremiah Stansbury.) See such points of departure as “japanese toilet noise disguise” and “addicted to picking ear wax” and the essay-inspiring “does a chimpanzee dream?”