Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Nada Gordon's Folly

Nada Gordon’s Folly may be the most essential theoretical statement of what the flarf aesthetic might be said to be about and include. Given the flarf groups’ resistance to the creation of conventional manifestos to explain their intentions, this point may seem paradoxical, but paradoxes present no problems for the author of Folly. With all its whimsy, winking, flirtatiousness, porousness and irreverence, there’s finally a very steely center to this book, even while that center is in many ways the opposite of what we usually mean when we say a book has a center.

The concept of folly, and the way that concept plays out through the poems and dialogues and poetic plays collected in the book, reveal that Gordon has a convincing theory of folly that links the often disparate strands of the marvelously energetic writing she has gathered here. If her book is not a comprehensive elucidation of all the possible elements of that theory, that’s mainly because folly laughs at the idea of comprehensiveness (or maybe just giggles) while at the same time implying how much strength there is in its own breadth. Gordon’s earlier books of poetry had an often scattershot yet compelling structure and energy, as if always threatening to fly apart. While Folly has a similar feel, everything here seems more thoroughly grounded in a sense of why it all belongs together.

As a word, folly was originally named folly by reason, of course. Everything that reason considers not to be itself it considers folly, whether it considers the folly in question disastrous or merely silly. The idea of folly contains not just playfulness, artifice, the slothful, the ornamental, the excessive and the wasteful; that is, not just the daily behavior that always sober seriousness rejects as extreme. It also includes marginalized cultures, histories, and genders, as well as everything that reason, and the various types of reason that pass as reason, tell us can’t or shouldn’t be said. When no longer seen from behind the veil of reason, folly turns out to be no fool, to know that in the moral realm reason is not often reasonable, that much of the time what gets called wisdom is not. Folly wants payback for the fact that reason named it. A payback party perhaps, but payback nonetheless.

In another essay I once called the concept of the avant garde, at its most progressive and least static, “the rejection of Western cultural rejection,” not an affirmation, although sometimes it contained an affirmation, but a double negative. A refusal of the historically acceptable standards for Western Art in a way that also refuses to accept the desire of Western Culture to determine who can be part of it and in what way, who is outside of it and not able to reap its benefits, who must work in poverty so that others can prosper, who must die so that others are allowed to live the way they want. But also a refusal to create even a new, rewritten centrality, a new canon, that would return us once more to the old game of folly and reason. It’s remarkable that Gordon’s Folly manages to refuse to rewrite centrality while at the same time highlighting a concept of what that centrality might be.

The poems in Folly often depend on incongruity, placing together things that, according to reason, ought not to be placed together. The book is full of unexpected juxtapositions, whether between vulgarity, satire, and lyric gracefulness, or between images of older and more contemporary outcasts, shapeshifters, jokesters and freaks. Vocabularies, histories, mythologies and much else are shaken loose from their expected contexts and interact with each other. Charles Bernstein’s back cover comment is exactly right, I think, when he says that Gordon is “on her way to inventing a new type of poetry in which Pre-Raphaelitism meets Zeppo Marx while doing the hokey pokey in a fox trot beat.” Right also in saying “on her way,” since the goal is not to determine who can or can’t belong but to fight back against, and laugh at, all those moments that readers might want to say “you can’t get away with that.” The result is not a coalition but a carnival.

Essential to Gordon is playing around with, and unraveling, the often assumed dichotomy of feminine and feminist.

Lovetta: You look real cute in that ninja getup.

Brianna: And may I say you look delicious in that sari, you wicked thing. The original exposed midriff, how very charming indeed.

Sheptanya: This makes me look like Queen Victoria on a bad day.

Lovetta: Are you kidding? You look totally shaggable in that. I mean, you look cute in that “OMG, that girl has got some BALLS to wear that in public” way. At least you didn’t have to wear elf ears.

Brianna: Does this make me look fickle? Or versatile?

Lovetta. Versatile. Does this make me look two-dimensional? Or careerist?

Sheptanya: Careerist. Does this make me look gelatinous? Or like slightly less of an awesomely intimidating authority figure?

Brianna: I think it makes you look “published.” (38)

There’s play here with the implications of clothing, obviously, and the social roles regarding sex, gender and power always implied by it. Certainly Gordon takes the supposed feminine/feminist dichotomy far beyond early evocations of the feminine as a set of traits revealing powerlessness and the idea of feminism as an assertion of group or individual action (whether separatist or assimilationist) designed to take power back. She goes past the step beyond as well, the idea that the feminine is or can be powerful, a discourse that can not only change in and of itself but in relation to others, spinning magic circles around conventional masculinist notions of power. Instead there’s a flamboyant game playing in Folly that suggests identity and relation and power and sexuality are found in how all of us play together, play even with the idea of playing. The characters note how quickly their relation to the game can change and how easily such changes can be signaled. In Folly the feminine and the feminist turn out to be interconnected roles that players might take up, both for the revel and the sheer pleasure of play as well as for the power at stake. Not so much play as a way to obtain change, but change as a means to more enjoyable playing.

That said, Gordon consistently signals her awareness of the sociopolitical conditions that not only limit choices for behavior but make play seem at times an impossibility, as in “Viagric Importunings:

God: For fuck’s sake, I despair at some humans, I really do. Gods, I am so angry. I wish there was something to be done, I feel so impotent.

A star-shaped pillowcase: I am able to convey so many things through nonverbal communication, why is it that I feel so impotent using tools that others use with ease?

Fat Thing: And the worse part is that I cannot do anything about it—except go on being a part of it. My god, why do I feel so impotent? When will we ever learn?

Rusty helmet: I’m scared. Everything has changed. I feel so impotent. There’s nothing that can be done but to sit here and watch.

Earthquake: I feel so impotent when I can’t think of the right words to describe the sound of an individual band or maintain an erection. (59)

It’s not surprising that feelings of helplessness are common in the face of the foibles of human behavior, the power of contemporary social institutions and the conditions of complicity that come with being inevitably part of them or at least subject to them, as well as the frantic pace of change that often overwhelms individual and even group response. Still, what this particular short sketch also shows is that the feeling of impotence has itself become a ritual, a social game people play in relation to each other. It’s a ritual that’s both ludicrous and paradoxically energizing. In “Viagric Importunings,” while reflections on impotence might in private doom us, the ritual of displaying it to each other comes with a sexual energy that must certainly be the ground of getting beyond it. Not that we will necessarily get beyond it in this or any other given instance, just that if we could, that would be where the impetus would have to come from. No resistance without sexuality.

In fact, Gordon also wants to make clear that the ultimate human folly is human belief in our own centrality in the universe, as in the opening to the poem “Nothing Is Untitled”:

Dear universal hominid ancestor:

Do you think you’re special because you have

It’s not easy to mix an often harsh critique of contemporary social conditions and human limitations with a good time party, yet Gordon manages to do just that, as in the two poems entitled “Why America Sucks” and elsewhere as well. Much of the book’s satire comes with a lush, sensual prose that certainly recalls 19th century verboseness without ever seeming actually retro. The book is a carnival of real and imaginary animals, human beings in strange, voluptuous costumes, sadness and cheerfulness and a thrilling celebration of the perverse in character, sexuality, and language.

The dialogues and poetic plays present characters expressing a wide range of emotions: depression, ecstasy, embarrassment, loathing, longing, horniness and many others. But Gordon doesn’t use the poems in Folly for direct confession or blatant exploration of her own subjective state, at least beyond the fact that the totality of the statements in the book might be said to map a whole arrangement of thought and feeling that’s uniquely her own. These are impersonal poems full of personal revelations, and also the opposite: personal poems displayed through the impersonal methods of characters and role players who serve as objective correlatives of emotions and social conditions. The poems refuse conventional notions both of subjectivity and objectivity, revealing both to be a play of physical surfaces while never turning the point into a purely theoretical suggestion. In fact another remarkable thing about Folly is that the poems never seem controlled by the idea of folly or written with the advance intention of proving a point. Instead they seem to revolve around and return to key ideas without seeming pre-mapped and while still coming together in a way that feels convincing as theory.

Saying that Folly is a central theoretical statement of the flarf aesthetic isn’t to suggest that the book can account for all the different types of writing that the flarf group has produced. The flarf group has usually resisted defining themselves through manifestos or other statements of its own importance, replacing such statements with ironic, self-undermining commentaries meant to make fun of the manifesto-issuing tendency while simultaneously turning the manifesto into another flarf game. Gordon herself somewhat notoriously refuses to define the flarf aesthetic, sometimes claiming that flarf is nothing more than a particular set of writers working in all their various ways in attempts to instruct and delight—the kind of claim that can make stance takers white-knuckled with annoyance. All that said though, the concept of folly that plays out in Folly seems to me a crucial ground for understanding the flarf group’s essential obsession with impropriety, with doing in poems all sorts of things that others say they cannot and should not do. One of the things that makes flarf so controversial is that it doesn’t just explore the improper as it’s defined in mainstream capitalist culture. It also takes on the improper as it appears in the tightly-interlocking social mores of the world of poets themselves who, in an age when society-at-large doesn’t pay attention (although if it did, it would inevitably disapprove), seem to make a tremendous effort to tell other poets what they shouldn’t do. If the world will not police our work, we will do it ourselves.

Frankly, I doubt that Folly is going to convince people who dislike flarf that they should change their minds. Though the book seems to me a statement of purpose, it hardly proselytizes for its cause or attempts to win converts across any of the well-worn aisles of contemporary poetry debates that one can read about every day on the Harriet or Ron Silliman blogs. It has more of a chance perhaps to reach some readers of mainstream verse who are trying to look beyond the most commonly asserted divisions in contemporary poetry. Gordon picks and chooses from various literary and cultural traditions, avant garde and otherwise, and restlessly unsettles many commonly accepted critical distinctions about literary language. In fact the book seems very connected to Arielle Greenberg’s ideas about the gurlesque. Still, Folly isn’t any kind of middle ground poetry. The poems never reach to define a middle but celebrate and juxtapose extremes. There are no linear narratives, no concluding lines of heightened emotion for lovers of traditional lyric, no descriptions of current events for those who like relevant of-the-moment protest poems. Folly is an important book not because it doesn’t offer such moves but because it shows us that all sorts of things which people think should not be part of poetry are actually crucial to it: all the impurities we’re always trying to cast out in order to remake the universe in our own image.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Great review of a fabulous book, Mark. Viva la Folly!

Stan Apps said...

Yeah, what a great review! It got at a lot of things about the book that I had known in some sort of emotional and inarticulate way. . . the notion of the work "rejecting centrality" seems right on, and the reading of Viagric Importunings does a great job of making the pathos of that poem legible, distinguishing the pathos from the schtich.

Anonymous said...

I posted this on Dale Smith's blog just now, and thought I'd do so here, as well. Sorry, just being honest.


Funny (and surprising, to me) that you should say that, Joe. And you know I love your mind.

I don't want to sound gratuitously dismissive, and know I might, given the context of past week. But in all honesty, I found Wallace's essay terribly weak and tedious: a largely banal regurgitation of commonplace critical platitudes (you can take my redundancy as intentional), transparently meant as a *defense* of Flarf in-the-main, in light of the recent critiques directed against it here. There is a kind of anxious earnestness that drips from the piece in large white drops. Is this what passes now for "close reading"?

Can you tell us what you think is new in it, how exactly it "raises the stakes," as you put it? So far as I can see, there is nothing there that hasn't been said before-- about Flarf or about most kinds of "avant" writing.

And a couple of Wallace's claims are downright humorous: 1) the suggestion that Flarf, for example, more or less supercedes the notions of position-taking and self-promotion (Wallace proposes they do this through a rejection of the "manifesto"--as if manifestoes need be written out on paper, when they can be written all over postures and faces). And 2) [and here I just have to quote] his suggestion that Flarf stands as a kind of ethical guardian against "improper mores" and behaviors in the poetry world. I'm not kidding! Check it out:

"[Flarf] also takes on the improper as it appears in the tightly-interlocking social mores of the world of poets themselves who, in an age when society-at-large doesn’t pay attention (although if it did, it would inevitably disapprove), seem to make a tremendous effort to tell other poets what they shouldn’t do. If the world will not police our work, we will do it ourselves."

Ah, yes, thanks for telling us, Mr. Wallace, that none of the Flarf poets ever, *ever* act like Cops.

Curiouser and curiouser,


Anonymous said...

Won't someone at least point out my typo?



Anonymous said...

Meant to add just a note to that: I don't mean my comments on the essay by Mark as disparagement of his critical acumen and eloquence, which I've been impressed by numerous times in the past. It;s just this particular piece I'm talking about.

For whatever that's worth.


Arielle said...

Hey all--Just wanted to say that we are indeed including Nada and FOLLY in the Gurlesque anthology I'm currently at work on with Lara Glenum, and which is forthcoming from Saturnalia. We're particularly amped about including Nada because her work does not tend to show up alongside some of the other poets in the book, but it's such an important point on the spectrum of Gurlesque, as we see it. Also, Mark, I'm so personally happy to see you picking up the term and making some use of it--I use your work and terms in my classes A LOT, so it's very satisfying to see you writing about this.


Matt said...

Kent, if anyone around here is a cop...

Sorry, just being honest.

Rhode Island said...

Hi Mark,

Just wanted to say I'm interested in where your headed regarding the poetry world's self-policing
function, placing it in the context of poetry's marginalization. This
could be taken a step further, I think: that flarf's impropriety is
less about "political correctness" and more a sort of side effect of
it's refusal to occupy a marginal cultural (language) position. This is sort of what I hoped to convey with "mainstream". That's not the last word on impropriety in flarf by any means, but its helpful.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of folly, I thought I'd share a link to this Beckett-like "dramatic interview" I conducted with Gabriel Gudding some six years ago. I reveal my hand in it here, officially, for the first time. (Not that the revelation matters much, since everyone by now has forgotten about the piece.)

My questions to Gabe are in voices of diverse personages, including those of a number of the Flarf poets, though they weren't yet really known as such. The interviewers are Silliman, Perloff, Sullivan, Gordon, Mohammad, Davis, and a few other people who were more "prominent" on the blog scene than they are now.

All answers are Gabe's (his remarks are really quite brilliant); all questions, settings, instructions to actors, etc. are mine.

Pornographic, violent mayhem erupts at the end...


Anonymous said...

Oh, I see I forgot to take the "Beckett-like" reference out of there. I know that sounds silly. When I posted a slightly different version of the comment at Possum Ego right before sending it here, I led off by saying, "While we are waiting for the Flarf poets to show up..."

Thus the reference to Beckett, so clever, you see. Though the stage setting is sort of in his spirit...

All in good fun. Thanks for accepting my comments, Mark.


Anonymous said...


I'd missed your whistle report, there.

Fair enough!

We'll both be right, then.

Though I see your charge is grammatically proper, unlike mine...

Man, I need to start proofing my tickets!



Nada said...

I really don't get why Kent is so snotty to me. I put him in the goddamn book, after all! And I even gave him a job!

Steven Fama said...

Dear Mark,

Nice essay, I appreciate you sharing it.

May I make two formatting suggestions or comments?

1. Try the "block quote" feature on blogger for quotations from poems. That'll set 'em off from your own words. It looks sharp (breaks up the monotony of the left margin), and makes it easier (to me at least) to know what's what.

2. The narrow column blogger page-format you've chosen, and type (font) size, makes your paragraphs look very long (even when they aren't). That can make it hard, in the screen-glow, to absorb your words.

Paragraphing on the web, I've come to find, is far different than on the written page.

The web seems to punish long paragraphs, by which I mean it makes them look particularly reader-unfriendly. That bugs the heck out of me, as I love long digressive paragraphs (Tristram Shandy anybody?).

I sometimes arbitrarily limit 'graphs to one or two sentences just to make it read better. The blog/web ideal may be the newspaper article, with it's almost universal one-paragraph sentence model. Again, I don't like it, but I do think it helpful, especially when a relatively large font and a narrow column is used for a post.

This of course isn't something particular to you, and these also may be concerns peculiar to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the book?

Well, I've already ordered it, so I'll look forward to seeing what happens to me therein.

And I'm not trying to be "snotty" to *you*, Nada. I'm just offering my thoughts on Flarf and some of the problems I see in its general "aesthetic orientation." I did comment candidly, it's true, on the poem you sent to Possum Ego, and I addressed your poem because (to your credit) you were, with Drew, present in the fray there. I also mentioned in that same comment my ongoing admiration for Swoon, the book you did with Gary, which I think deserves more attention than it's received. I'm not talking about talent or smarts, which most of the lot of you obviously have in abundance. And I'm sure you are all perfectly nice individuals, in the end-- even if your collective behavior has often been brutish and vindictive towards your critics.

So I'm just talking about the work the group has been putting out, which is mostly dull, shallow, repetitive, and often openly contemptuous of its unsuspecting sources.

But maybe Folly will change my mind, let's see.


Steven Fama said...

The change to the different colored text for the poem-quotations look smart!

Anonymous said...

The flarfists haven't been brutish or vindictive, Kent. I read Dale's blog and Drew and Nada were pretty laid back. Especially considering Dale's tone and the irrelevance of huge swaths of his "criticism."

Also, you want to point to the work that is making fun of its source material? I haven't read any of that, either.

Folly's a brilliant book.


Anonymous said...


(Orange? Raworth? Beckett? Cruise?)

I look forward to reading Folly. If my job description there is not too embarrassing, I might review it, along with Petroleum Hat, which Drew Gardner promised to send me.

On the matter of Flarf's near-congenital condescension towards its sources, of selecting, re-framing, and offering- up "declasse" discourse for the knowing hilarity of a "superior" audience, well, I hardly know how to reply to your blanket denial. Am I reading you right?

Because such attitude and tone seem self-evident to me in a good deal of the work. And with a vengeance. The demeanor's a fundamental, even flaunted attribute of the group, and for a critic in this case to deny it is something like a urologist not believing in the existence of the prostate. You've read Deer Head Nation, I assume? I've both read it and heard it performed. In the latter case, the sarcasm in the author's "ventriloquized" delivery was a bit like molasses. Though no one laughed at that particular reading, it was clear we were all supposed to--and nearly non-stop. That would be one example.

But here's a comment from David Hadbawnik (in the discussion at Possum Ego), an excellent editor and superb critic. He's been to more Flarf events than I have. He starts out by quoting Tony Tost, who had replied to a comment I'd made about the problematic ethics of Flarf "sampling." (I replied to Tony that he'd misunderstood, that I have nothing against quotation in principle, that the issue has to do with intent, deployment, etc.) Anyway, below's what Hadbawnik says...


it seems as though you're suggesting that your beef w flarf is that it samples language from outside sources, without those sources' permission. So does this mean you also have similar problems with hip-hop's use of sampling? of kathy acker's appropriations? of poets who use text from politicians to detourn & deconstruct? how bout the hundreds of non-flarf poets who use search-engines as part of their methods & poetics? or is it really only search-engineered-collage done by flarf poets that you have a problem with? why or why not?
TT "

I don't want to speak for Kent, TT, but actually I'd venture that's not nec. what he's saying. I've had the idea that the perfect flarf reading would be one in which the audience was comprised solely of the people whose words were appropriated. Not because of the "plagiarism" issue, for which I give not a damn, but because so much of the laughter generated at such readings derives from the "stupid human tricks" aspect of the approp. language.

Now some in the audience wouldn't care; many probably wouldn't recognize their own words; but overall, I think it would take away the "laughing at the yokels" element of flarf and bring it into confrontation with those problematic questions of language "ownership" that is perhaps at the heart of the matter. (Yes, I realize that no poet will ever admit that they use words to make fun of people, but EVERY flarf reading I've seen tends towards such humor. The claim then becomes that they are just using the material they find in their generation methods, and not making value judgments on it, blah blah blah.)

Also, none of the examples you give of other instances of appropriation really hold up. The example of Levertov's quotations, given by Ben I think, doesn't hold up. Hip hop musicians do not type "killer beats" into their computer and plug in whatever the computer finds (might be interesting if they did?). And I realize "there's more to it than that," but we need to make the necessary distinction here. DH <

Anonymous said...

And just to say, and I realize I'm posting too much. I'm not sying ALL Flarf work is like this. Nothing necessarily inheres in the methods, so it's perfectly possible, of course, to produce interesting and strange work from such experiments. And so there are cases of this within the group.

Actually I saw a few weeks ago a sequence by Stan Apps, in a magazine called Work, that I was quite impressed by. Stan once referred to me as "toe-jam," or soemthing flarfy-insulting like that, but that's neither here nor there. Good stuff-- at least it struck me so on that first reading. I'll look again.


Anonymous said...

Oh, and sorry, but I had meant to say, and can't let it go by. When you say this:

>Especially considering Dale's tone and the irrelevance of huge swaths of his "criticism."

I very much disagree. Dale shared with me your (assuming you're the same Tom) long letter to him and Drew, much of which was thoughtfully put, I think. But you misread him on the Tag Cloud thing, when you point out how the matter of "quantity" in Dean's model is not relevant: Dale's only provisionally applying Dean, and he actually makes a point of saying he doesn't see the issue of "quantity" as really connecting to Flarf! He then proposes her model as possibly relevant to certain affective aspects of Flarf-like products.

Go take another look.


Anonymous said...

"Go take another look."

No need, Kent; I've already invested a good 20 minutes of my life on Dale's blog that I'll never get back.

More to the point, I've read both Nada Gordon's Folly and Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat, both of which are something more than just terrific books, I think.

Why would I waste my time reading criticism by people who haven't, as I have, actually read this work?

You're kind of embarrassing yourself here, Kent; it's kind of funny to watch older male poets going out of their way to attack the work of strong women, especially when by their own admission they haven't read it.

But mostly just embarrassing.


Dale said...

Tom, why are you dodging Kent's response to you. That's an easy one: "you old sexist attacking a woman" blah blah. You also offer kind of a skewed dismissal of my recent posts at possego... o well Sorry to see you having to waste time here, too. I'm not at all sure why it has to be that way.... Dale

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you would say that, Tom (it IS Orange, right?), since what I've been hearing, right and left, is how embarrassing it is that the Flarf poets have little-to-nothing to say...

I am fully aware, of course, that the answer would be, "Well, none of the critiques are worth answering, we won't waste our time, etc." I mean, I've been around the post-avant block a few times and know how Silence can be strategically deployed in defensive manueuver, as it is here.

So I'll go on happily "embarrasing" myself, quite confident that something very interesting has happened the past couple weeks. And it's something that LOTS of people have taken note of. The terms have shifted a bit, I'm afraid, and in what I would see as healthy directions.

As for your silly ad hominem remark at the end there, I'll be plain: 1) I AM getting old, and so will you, and 2) I have read a good deal of Nada's work, thank you.

ever onward,


Anonymous said...

Just to be sure:

http://isola-di rifiuti.blogspot.com/

Let a thousand comments bloom.


Anonymous said...

Also this:



Anonymous said...

Why suddenly a review of a 2 year old book? I'll believe Flarf's not dead when I see another Flarfist's book come out that gets reviews like Deer Head Nation.

tmorange said...

dunno who this "Tom" is but it's not me -- i post as "tmorange" and not "Anonymous"...

just fyi,

mark wallace said...

To the most recent anonymous who posted: Anonymous, I don't allow anonymous comments, generally speaking. I'm going to allow yours because you may not know that. But from this point forward, anyone who doesn't sign their name to a comment in this discussion will not have the comment approved.

If you have something to say that you actually mean, you should have the decency to sign your name to it.