Monday, July 30, 2007

confessions of a young flarf: Rodney Koeneke

Hello Rodney:

I had fun reading both of your books, Rouge State and Musee Mechanique. Reading them together made me consider the issue of pre-flarf influences on what became flarf. Unlike some other people (and I say this neither for better or worse in comparison to them) your pre-flarf book Rouge State, with its whimsical, consciously exaggerated and often satirical lyricism, suggests that you were already moving in flarf directions before you became involved with the methodology. What that fact implies for me is that flarf didn’t come out of nowhere but to some extent involved a coalescing of ideas that were already floating around before the methodology became more definite.


Hi Mark,

Thanks for your note about my books, and for noting the connections between them. It's funny, when I joined the flarf listserv in Jan '03, I didn't have much of a sense of what flarf was supposed to be. It was still in the "giggle word" category, a kind of crepuscular rumor ... I don't remember anyone, for instance, calling Deer Head Nation a "Flarf" book at the time. I mean some may have, but it didn't seem to occlude or determine the reception of the book the way I think the term would now. What attracted me to the list then was the sense that things were still being explored, and all was permitted (esp. attractive during the lingering moral hangover of 9/11). I didn't feel like I was taking on any extraordinary aesthetico-political baggage by pushing the language and sensibility of Rouge State through the cyclotron of Google and this group of twelve-plus friends.

The attempts to define, critique, and/or defend flarf are so widespread and public now that I think it's hard to recapture that original sense of play, except as a kind of nostalgic re-enactment of the phase when it was play. (It doesn't help either that there are, like,10 flarf books in print now, though they don't seem much consulted as a rule in the, ahem, growing literature on the subject.) I have the sense that most readers who approach the work now labor under a notion of what flarf's already supposed to be; meanwhile, the participants themselves (though there's not much explicit discussion of this, on or off the list) seem to be reaching toward something like 'post-flarf'; a writing that keeps the core sensibility and collaborative bonhomie that brought us all together in the first place, but plays down the Google and the flashier cut 'n' paste disjunctions of an earlier era.

I'm not sure what this will look like yet. Gary's Elsewhere series seems like one instance; Nada's Folly reads as rather 'post-flarf' to me in its seriously playful suggestion that everything's Google. I'd thought to make Musee Mechanique an instance of "lyrical" flarf, to see how, or even if, the aesthetic could accommodate gestures toward the sincere, "finished," and feelingful. I've kind of amped up that exploration in the work I've done since, in way that I don't think would be recognized as what's currently thought of as flarfy. Personally, when Bush is out of office I think flarf will have lost its raison d'etre, and what's left of the practice formerly known as flarf will move in a different, if cognate, vein.

Send a nice short email, get punished with a long response! Please take it as a mark of how much I appreciated your note.


Friday, July 27, 2007

this is where I'll be this weekend, but where will you be?

Please join us for


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Susanne Dyckman
K. Lorraine Graham
Dana Ward

247 S. Main Street, between 2nd and 3rd St, downtown Los Angeles
(enter in the alley in the back)

Doors open at 6:30 pm

Susanne Dyckman received her MFA in Writing in 2003 from the University of San Francisco, where she is now one of the program's graduate thesis advisors. After being named co-winner of the Five Fingers Review 2003 Poetry Award, she was invited to join the journal's editorial staff. She has been a panel moderator at the 2005, 2006 and 2007 AWP conferences, and in 2006 presented a Creative Writing Pedagogy paper at the RMMLA annual conference in Tucson. For the past three years she has hosted the Evelyn Avenue Reading Series, which features experimental poetry, prose, and, on occasion, fine art.

K. Lorraine Graham is the author of three chapbooks, Terminal Humming (Slack Buddha), See it Everywhere (Big Game Books), and Large Waves to Large Obstacles, forthcoming from Outside Voices' Take Home Project. Dear [Blank] I Believe in Other Worlds was originally a pamphlet from Phylum Press. Narrowhouse Recordings recently released Moving Walkways, a limited-edition chapdisk of her work. Lorraine has just completed the extended manuscript of
Terminal Humming.

Dana Ward is the author of New Couriers, The Wrong Tree, and other chapbooks. He has new work available or forthcoming in The Recluse, string of small machines, the DC Poetry Anthology and seconds. He lives in Cincinnati, where he edits and publishes Cy Press.

The SMELL LAST SUNDAY READING SERIES is co-curated by Teresa Carmody (Les
Figues), Ara Shirinyan (Make Now Press), and Stan Apps (Insert Press).


The energy, talent, and range of activities that I've found among the poets of Los Angeles has been one of the most attractive features of living in southern California. At least on the east coast, Los Angeles didn't have a reputation for having an active alternative poetry community, so to find out about everything that was going on there, and to be part of it at times, has been great. I've been getting up there about 5 or 6 times a year and wish I could go more. But, you know, I'm working for a living, and etc.

Part of this liveliness has to be attributed to the Cal Arts program, and the Otis College program also, which help expose young writers to non-mainstream poetries. These programs help Los Angeles continue to have a variety of young, well-informed writers who can contribute to the city's literary community.

In Washington, DC, where I used to live, we had a great poetry scene too. But I always felt we struggled with the fact that there were very few MFA programs in the area which took much interest in non-mainstream poetries. George Mason University played this important role for a time, while Carolyn Forche taught there, and helped introduce to the DC poetry community any number of fantastic young writers who have had significant success since: Heather Fuller, Jean Donnelly, Leslie Bumstead, Graham Foust, Carol Mirakove, Susan Landers, Mel Nichols, Ethan Fugate, Chris Putnam, Allison Cobb, Jen Coleman, and Kaia Sand, to name only a few. That's quite a track record, but with Carolyn now gone from George Mason, it's not clear that the connection between Mason and DC has remained. These kinds of connections really are fragile, and one person can make all the difference.

Even when new people were flowing in, though, I always remember being concerned that the audience (which is also to say, the participants) for what we were doing could dry up at any moment. I could imagine us very easily having the same 10-15 people at readings for decades, all of us staring at each other and saying, "Oh, it's you again." But I've been hearing that the DC non-mainstream poetry community continues to do well, and that's really great news.

Still, if I have a point here, it would be not a very original point, but still an important one: having a place to go where people share your literary interests is a fantastic thing, and not everybody has it. It requires that people make an effort, and even a few people making an effort can help fun and interesting things happen. If you know somebody that's doing this kind of work in your area, how about thanking them? And then helping them out?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

a poet to look out for

An up-and-coming poet whose work has remained on my mind since I read it for the first time this year is Elisa Gabbert, whose 2007 chapbook Thanks for Sending the Engine was published by Kitchen Press. Her work resonates for me with a number of other outstanding women poets who have been around a little longer: K. Lorraine Graham (towards whose work I’m understandably partial), Stephanie Young, and precursors by only a few more years like Nada Gordon and Catherine Wagner. All of their writing shares a few things in common; restless energy, a willingness to turn the expected upside down, and an ability to bluntly startle with things usually supposed to remain unsaid. There’s a relationship between sexual desire, anger, and an exploration of the dynamics of power in specific human interactions that appears in the writing of these women and that strikes me as different from what came before it. But I’m not sure I can define that difference just yet. Maybe it’s a kind of aggressive femininity, an active contradiction that challenges the common definition of femininity in cultural studies contexts as a passivity born of powerlessness.

Thanks For Sending The Engine has a number of really memorable poems, funny, insightful and daring. Gabbert is eager to put the more intense aspects of human behavior on display, even and especially those things that we all know we’re supposed to keep to ourselves: contradictions, blindspots, neediness, annoyance, the desire to act badly just so we don’t have to listen to somebody drone on about everything that’s safe to say. An exhilarating chaos runs through her poems, one that’s aware of itself as performance at the same that the performance collapses distinctions between what’s playful and what’s serious. The metaphor/image game poems like "What The World Was Like" or "Blogpoem W/Epigraph" show a flexible, wide-ranging, but also relaxed ability with language. But as fun as they are at moments, they’re a little less down and dirty than my favorite poems here: "Blogpoem w/Ellipses,", "Lousy Day Blogpoem," "Blogpoem @Sea," to name just some.

Here’s the opening of "Blogpoem W/DTHWSH”:

Take me to the library: I’m in the mood
to get murdered. Mm, murder in the stacks:
shove the LING shelving over and let those
uncracked grammars in teal and burnt umber
make papery work of the burying. Chris,
this is me courting depression, or it courting
me. I’m not seduced by death, just death’s
techniques—the way it lets me let it buy me
a drink. Then drives me home with the lights
off, in stealth mode. I want that void IN me.

If the casual line breaks seem obviously New York School, the frenetic and fierce perversity feels unique. The lines attack and reveal at the same time. The narrator may care what Chris thinks but that’s not going to stop her from requiring Chris, and herself, to understand exactly what’s on her mind. But the desire for self-destruction expressed here isn’t the same as giving way to that desire. Instead, the bluntness of the sexual metaphor at the end of the passage suggests not so much a giving in to the death drive as a willingness to welcome it and acknowledge its presence, then to go on from there.

In her poems, Gabbert relentlessly turns inside out the daily foibles of personal relationships and people's fucked up feelings, including the narrator's own. And she does it frequently with a frame of reference that understands the larger contexts of social institutions and art. I wonder whether as Gabbert’s writing continues she’ll be able to stretch to more areas outside the interpersonal, or find new ways of exploring it. This isn’t a criticism so much as a way of asking whether her poems can continue to be in the eye of the maelstrom, or whether as time goes on that focus will become a restraint that she’ll feel the need to step outside of. But maybe that’s just a question from right out of the boring drone that Gabbert, and so many of the rest of us if we can be honest, have gotten tired of hearing. If as Frank O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve,” Gabbert’s got as much nerve as anybody. For a first chapbook, Thanks For Sending the Engine is all that it needs to be to make all sorts of things happen. Although I’ve never met her or heard her read, if she’s giving a reading anywhere near you, go see it.

And to see where she’s started to go next, check out even the details have details, a workshop blog of one-a-day poems for poetry month written by Elisa and her collaborator Kathleen Rooney.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

the worst major urban newspaper in the U.S.? Sunday July 22

For examples regarding my last post, here are some of this Sunday's main articles:

Frustrated Supporters Rush to Help Accused U.S. Troops: "Conservative Christians and military veterans are part of an emerging group of Americans who say they are upset by the recent prosecutions of soldiers and Marines on war crime chargers, and they are coming to their defense with words, Web sites and money."

Refineries' woes push price of gas ever upward: 'These mechanical breakdowns, which one analyst likened to 'an invisible hurricane,' have created a bottleneck in domestic energy supplies, helping to push up gasoline prices 50 cents this year to well above $3 a gallon."

Los Republicanos: The author of a new book argues that Hispanics and Republicans need each other, and are a good fit.

the worst major urban newspaper in the U.S.?

Can anybody name a worse major urban newspaper than my own area's San Diego Union-Tribune?

Granted, "major" is an evaluative phrase. But San Diego is currently the 8th largest city in the U.S., and the Union-Tribune is its only newspaper of any significance. So let's compare it, say, to any of the other most significant newspapers in the largest 20-25 cities in the U.S. Which newspapers might be worse?

I don't read this newspaper consistently during the week--what would be the point?--but I do see the occasional weekly edition. Mainly I pick it up on Sundays for some bits of local news that I could only otherwise get in the North County Times, a much smaller, more local publication of no note.

What are its "stand out" features? A front section of minimal news whose best features are articles about how the Republican party feels about California state government. World news reports are minimal and rarely front page. One consistent type of front page news presents surveys showing purported changes in the "values" of Americans; less Americans believe that marriage is a moral good, things like that.

The best sections, though by no means very good, are the local news sections. These are somewhat more balanced, although they usually retain an anti-government, pro-corporate stance if you read between the lines.

The absolute lowlight is the Insight section (that is, the Sunday opinion page). Pictures of Muslims baring their teeth above articles with titles like "This Enemy Will Stop At Nothing" are the norm. The one politically middle-of-the-road columnist in the section is Ruben Navarette Jr., and although he seems firmly against any lightening of the pressures on immigration issues, he's able to speak against the more virulent forms of San Diego area racism, The Minutemen and the like.

Actually, for awhile I enjoyed the small but readable Book section of the Tribune. But it's been eliminated, replaced with a 2-page Sunday book section in the arts page that typically reviews one historical novel and has several short paragraphs on the latest thrillers.

The Travel section is okay; it's the only remaining section that can actually be a pleasure to read. The Arts section has an okay article on local theater now and then. But finding those sections is easier said than done. Travel, for instance, is usually hidden between multiple sections advertising overpriced and shoddy local housing.

And that's it.

Are there other major urban newspapers out there that might give the Union-Tribune a run for its money?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Essentialism Redux

David Wolach, a writer in the Olympia, Washington area, and co-editor of the forthcoming journal Wheelhouse, writes me the following question:

"I've been writing about justification and art, as part of my collection "The Million Monkey Manifesto." You've written that the existence of art needs no more justification than the existence of persons. This has shaped my thoughts on matters writing, teaching. I wonder, though, if there is a non-collapsing difference between justifying existence and justifying behavior. We might appropriately question another's behavior and expect reasons (not explanations) as (perhaps always insufficient) answers. Do you think that the behavior of a poem, say, is a relevant comparison here? Undermining things, itself too, seems to me morally requisite of any decent work. But if this is so, we may want to give reasons for this--reasons that are always partially self-undermining. So much infinite regress! the conservative analytician would say. So be it, I'd say.

The proviso is this: my query isn't one regarding "justification" in the very conservative (or typically American liberal) sense. When I say "justifying a poem's behavior," I'm talking about the function (or lack of function) of poetics, criticism."

Thanks for this question, David. My claim that poetry “no more needs a reason to exist than a person needs a reason for being alive ” from my essay “Reasons To Write” in Haze has an essentialism about it that might seem troubling in any number of ways. But I stand behind it, while at the same time believing very much in the value of poetics (let’s define one area of poetics loosely for the moment as theories and criticism of poetry).

I think that poetry (which I’m going to define as the basic art of language) and art more generally is not a luxury, but a human necessity. There are the more familiar members of this category: food, clothing, shelter. Yet the list is oddly incomplete: for instance, I’d place sexuality (understood as an activity) on it as well.

As necessities, though, they’re not all necessary in the same way. I’d grant that each human individual does not need literary art in the same way that all of us need food. And sexuality is particularly tricky here: there are celibate individuals, but how many, really, and how many of them have never engaged in sexual activity at any time in their lives?

But even if it becomes specialized in some cultures, something practiced by only a few people, the fact is that the art of language, and using language as art, seems to be a basic component of all human social contexts. Octavio Paz, for instance, talks in his essay “The Few and the Many” about the role of such activity in early human cultures. Poetry is a realization of our capabilities for language that we need to explore and develop. When we become alienated from that possibility, human life withers. And I don’t mean that “in the name of the future.” I mean it hurts us right here, right now.

But the idea that poetry, and art more broadly, is a necessity is one that has been under siege in many ways and many times. As you know, Plato thought poets harmed his idea of The Republic. One essential contemporary example is the war against serious art that globalist neoliberalism has been undertaking fairly relentlessly in the last 25 or so years. Of course, the good news is that neoliberalism can’t win that war. But it sure can cause lots of misery in the meantime (and of course its war on art has hardly been its worst source of misery).

So yes, my insistence is an essentialist one. Human beings can’t do without outlets for expressing their capabilities in language. The attempt to force all language to conform to globalist corporate norms amounts to a war against human possibility and complexity.

But absolutely there remain good reasons to question the specifics or, as you say, the behaviors of a given poem. We all need to eat, but that doesn’t mean that the way we eat is beyond criticism. Food habits are shaped by cultural and individual preferences, and are affected by large scale geographical and social forces. What we choose to eat and how we eat it have meaning, and that meaning is subject to criticism and change.

I have criticisms of contemporary poetics; for instance, how much of it still consists of an insistence that one’s own aesthetic, political, cultural preferences are absolutes. But I’ll save that problem for another time. Without question, having a developed criticism of poetry is crucial to a developed poetry.

And just as a p.s., in the hopeless hope of forestalling misunderstanding: sexual behavior is not a necessity because of procreation. It too involves a series of human potentials in the here and now that, like poetry, have often been under siege. And I know too that some kinds of poetry have non-linguistic elements; these comments are not a subtle dig at vis-po or Neo-Benshi or any other cross-disciplinary art.

Monday, July 16, 2007

thanks, neoliberalism

Now that I've become a full-time college professor, I don't have much chance to read books anymore. I certainly don't have much chance to keep up with books on globalism and the many political crises that it has caused.

Still, given my limited reach, David Havey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism is the best book I've read on globalism in awhile, and it may be the best book on globalism period. Sure, many of the things it discusses (but by no means all) I knew something about already. But the book is both so concise and so precise that reading it made me feel that I understood many things more clearly and compactly: what neoliberalism is, when it started, and what its goals are. I came away from the book thinking of it as essential reading, as important as a work like Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle for understanding the world we live in.

For those who haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. For those who have, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this book's strengths and weaknesses.

Funny though: one of the very few positive results of globalism is the books that describe it. I wish this book didn't have to exist at the same time that I'm very glad it does.

Friday, July 13, 2007

discussion continued: the usefulness of genre?

Hey everybody:

Thanks for your helpful and welcoming responses. I’m using this blog a little bit as a way to generate some conversation topics of my own, and I’ll have time for it sometimes and not others, I’m sure. I do like participating on other people’s blogs, but there are sometimes things I want to say that would be out of place elsewhere. I’m not a fan of the people who seize blog comments boxes for their own agendas; if you have an agenda, start your own blog, and if that agenda’s interesting enough, people will probably read it.

Ann, obviously we could talk about how the fiction industry and media have been hung up lately on some very questionable distinctions between memoir and fiction, but that would only be saying what we already know. I do think that both fiction and memoir involve an important “truth test”; we read them partly for what they tell us about the world, the human imagination, etc, and when those things seem consciously falsified, that’s a problem. But deciding where the truth vs. falsity line lies is very tricky; the lie is clearly not in the conscious inventing, which all fiction and memoir does. Nor is the issue really “accurate depictions of the world” since so many inventions of the kind we would now call sci fi or fantasy or all sorts of avant garde and other non-realist literatures have incredible truth telling power. My fiction mixes things that happened with things that didn’t all the time., and I know yours does too. Finally, I’m trying to let my fiction or poetry “call it how I see it,” but that means very different things at different times. I’ll have to think again about it. I wonder where other people see a “truth test” in their own writing.

Small Fry, it’s funny to be in the position of teaching when, on one level, I help students make (tentative) distinctions about genre and then, on advanced levels, I show them all sorts of literature in which those distinctions break down. But like you, I think it’s probably fine, even if sometimes shocking for the students. I guess there are two types here of the pleasure (and the pain) of knowledge; the growth that comes from being able to make successful distinctions, and the growth that comes from realizing that a lot of it really is a house of cards.

FrankenS, what you say is definitely true. You and I usually talk about this in the context of rock and roll, which as you’ve made clear to me numerous times, is different in many ways from literature. Still, yes, genre can be one way of structuring a piece of music or writing–and I’m leaving aside, for now, how completely fuzzy words like “genre” and “form” and “structure” have become, although it’s an issue I’m hoping to return to soon. But I would say this: even the strictest sticklers for genre norms probably still imagine themselves as adding something new to those norms. If not, the artist runs quickly into nostalgic paint-by-numbers (your phrase, I think) copycatting. Funny though: we don’t, in literature, have revival cover artists, people literally doing all Frank O’Hara or Gertrude Stein like some bands do Presley or the Beatles. But I bet that’s just because there’s no money or literary prestige in it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the usefulness of genre?

Thinking about the issues of how one defines a genre, and considering for the moment the case of experimental fiction, which might be called a genre, a point that could itself be questioned.

Derrida's essay “On Genre” presents his notion of the indefinite divisability of the trait. There's no defining shared characteristic of any genre that can't be broken down into further differences, and no characteristics of any piece of writing that can be absolutely the same as any other piece of writing. Thus our notions of genre as a form of sameness ultimately break down in any close examination of the traits of a given text. Any two texts are part of the same genre only as long as one is generalizing.

At the same time, absolute difference between any two texts is just as impossible as absolute sameness. Derrida gives as his example (one of many perhaps) the way in which most pieces of writing tend to literally identify their genre, for instance the cover of a novel might give the title and say underneath it, A Novel. The trait of identifying a text’s genre doesn’t belong exclusively to any genre.

Genre is therefore not a fact of texts, but a conceptual tool (usually a faulty one) that might be used to understand them (and that’s true even when the text in question accepts the concept of genre). The question would be, therefore, whether ths imperfect concept is still useful, or should be discarded entirely. The answer would be found in what the concept helps us understand in certain instances, and whether what it helps us understand in those instances is more important than what it obscures.

Given Derrida’s arguments, all novels (indeed all pieces of writing) are experiments, since whatever influence they take from other texts, they’ll never literally be those texts. And as Borges’ “Pierre Menard” points out, even if a text was literally the same as a prior text, a ground of difference would still exist, one regarding the context of their creation.

Still, there remains an important difference between fiction that highlights its inevitably experimental condition and fiction that denies/avoids/downplays that condition by trying to fit itself within a pre-existing genre. But if experimental fiction is fiction that highlights this inevitably experimental condition, on some level it's attempting to repeat the terms of its genre in a way not entirely dissimilar to the attempt found in more conventional fiction. In consciously violating conventional expectations for fiction, it's merely doing the expected for the genre of experimental fiction.

The key difference between so-called “experimental” and so-called “conventional” fiction would then be not how a given text situates itself relative to its defined genre. Instead, being true to an understanding of genre by violating the traits of genre rather than by attempting to replicate those traits seems more critically aware of the actual condition of genre.

Of course, the violation can never be absolute, since all texts replicate some features of earlier ones. So some texts successfully conscious of the problems of genre might remain within a genre by replicating a few of its fundamental traits while significantly altering others.

It seems therefore that “experimental fiction” is indeed a concept of genre that remains valuable, and it’s a concept that much of my writing is committed to exploring. A strange conclusion, in a way: to defend one’s belief in the value of a genre through recognizing the faultiness of the concept.

Are there any times when you believe in the usefulness of the concept of genre? When?