Flarf and the meaning of meaning

In my recent online travels, I met a poet who, when I asked him what kind of writing he did, he exclaimed, “I write Flarf.”

“Flarf?” I asked, thinking it sounded more like a marshmallow spread than a form of poetry.

Flarf, it turns out, is a recent newcomer to the world of poetry since it began in the 21st Century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flarf_poetry

I got a link to some of his poems, and boy did I have questions. First and foremost, I wasn’t sure what the poem “meant.” I read his most recent poem Body at War with Work (it’s really long!) and then re-read sections of it, then re-read them again, and my head was spinning.

When I asked Rick what his poem meant, he said he couldn’t summarize his poem or its meaning.

So Flarf is a kind of anti-meaning poetry, where random bits of information (from internet searches, snips from emails, or other data detritus) are used to riff the flarf-poem.

To quote Rick here, (for a guy who ascribes no specific meaning to his work, he sure is eloquent when it comes to describing the experience he is creating):

Rub any two words together and anyone who reads them, including the author, is gonna impose some meaning on them, sure. That doesn’t require that there be intentional, specific meaning encoded in the work. Not at all. No road maps for sale here. I have no idea what Chopin meant when he strung those specifically selected, meticulously arranged notes together buI I know how it makes me feel when I hear it. Jackson Pollock slung paint with a stick. What do those strafed canvases “mean”? Who knows? Same thing. In conventional poetry the words are slaves to the narrative, they’re just utilitarian signifiers telling you ANOTHER story. Language Poetry showed us that the words, like musical notes or splashes of nonreferential paint, should or could BE the experience rather than tell you a story about some other experience.

Rick has inspired me to explore Flarf – from a reading standpoint – not writing. But as writers are always influencing one another (or at least that’s how it’s worked for me) it makes me think about the deeper meanings we attempt to convey in our work.

Each of my stories has an intent behind it, some more lofty than others. Whether or not the reader receives the intended message(s) or not is a matter of speculation. And if they don’t receive the full message I intended, does that make their reading any less pleasurable, or meaningful for them? I don’t think so.

What do you think about the meaning of your work? Would you be content if no one understood what you intended to write, but enjoyed whatever meaning they brought to the text?

Everything is a matter of interpretation, after all, isn’t it?

And if it is all a matter of interpretation, where does precision in language fit into that concept?

The comments section is open and ready for your thoughts, diatribes, missionary zeal, and flarf-ist flarfings, friends……..

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post and the kind words, Carol. A few further thoughts that might help clarify for the uninitiated: first, I doubt very much that I actually said, “I write Flarf.” That claim belongs to writers like Sharon Mesmer, Nada Gordon, K. Silem Mohammad, Mel Nichols, they’re the finest of the Flarfists. I’m more of a Flarfist Lite. I do definitely employ some of the same methodology – Google search terms generating raw material then sculpted into poemy things, etc – but I’d been doing that same kind of experimentation for several years before The Flarf Collective collected. They put a name and anti-manifesto to it but by that time I was off trying things like tying a cat to my keyboard, writing poetry while having sex with a pygmy unicorn, composing on an Etch-a-Sketch…all the usual stuff. When you and I talked about Flarf I also mentioned, I believe, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, The Oulipo, Zaum, Confusionism and Crack-Lit. (I might’ve omitted a couple) They all factor into my work but no one of them so much that I’d call myself “one of those guys”. It’s fun to be in a club, the secret handshakes, the lapel pins, the discounts on Flarf exercise equipment. ,Flarf patio furniture,

    • …Flarf spa treatments and all like that there.But ultimately it doesn’t really amount to much. Nice people, some great writers, s’all. The clubbiness of it all doesn’t have much impact on my work. Case in point; the piece to which you made reference. That was purely loopy experimentation, not a lot to do with Flarf or anything else. I’d been stuck computerless for a couple weeks and wondered what might happen if I were to feed a stream of language into my smartphone using the Swype keyboard to “choose” the next word, and the next, and so on. Since much of the stored dictionary in the phone originated with me it was like collaborating with a machine that was trying to “think the way I write” and, of course, failing most of the time. You commented on the interminable length if the piece. It began life as a single line of Spam email gibberish combined with a comment from another email on chemicals in soft drinks, something like that. I let the phone “write” in whatever direction it chose, expanding on those initial elements. Whatever Autofill suggested I might be trying to thumb type became the next key word in the piece and it grew that way. So not precisely Flarf at all, nor Spam-Lit nor nothing specific in a “school” or “movement” or “moment” sense. Just something I fiddlef**k around with in my spare time. Which may be the most concise, accurate description of poetry in general, by anyone, ever, that I’ve ever accidentally written. Certainly there are geniuses of the poetry pantheon, some still actively writing, who deserve to be taken seriously…I just don’t happen to be able to think of a single one off the top of my head. Bazooka Joe, perhaps…his stuff is always packed to the teeth with “meaning”.

      Again, thanks for the post.

      Rick

      • Somehow the idea of using a machine (in this case a cell phone dictionary) as a partner in writing poetry is yes, a little Mad Hatter, but also really interesting too. I can see why you say it’s something that can’t be categorized because it was you messing around to see what would come out.

        But in the end, I loved your quote about meaning and that alone is worth: (1) reading the blog post with your quote, and (2) at least looking at the poem and now with your comments having a glimpse of the process beneath the text.

        Thanks Rick, I hope I’ll see more of your comments in the future!

    • Thanks Rick, you know, I tried tying a puppy to my keyboard and the results were – understandably – messy. I often feel like I’m piddling around when I write… (okay, enough puppy piddle jokes for now.)

      But I enjoyed hearing about Flarf, since I was completely unaware of the group of poets or what they were doing. Similarly with Zaum and Crack Lit… what the heck is all that??

      I probably should admit the last time I studied poetry seriously it was still the 20th Century. Things have sure changed a lot since then.

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