Thursday, August 21, 2003

What cheered me up last night was Stephanie's copy of Combo 12, which Stephanie pulled out of her bag and let me read at dinner and then just let me keep--I tried to give it back but she insisted, the logic being, I think, that the Bay Area had plenty of Combos and maybe I needed to spread the gospel to Chicago.

Well, it was just what I needed. Even though I was really tired and a little gloomy I decided to leaf through it when I got home and shortly I was laughing out loud (which I'm sure sleeping Robin really appreciated) and would have rolled on the floor if there were room amongst the boxes. It's been a while since I've read a collection of poetry that was so energetic and gleeful and surprising from page to page.

But what was so totally stunning was: I'm sitting there at David's with my potato pancakes waiting and flipping through the mag and something's coming together, there is really honestly an aesthetic here, and I look up and I say something stupid like, "Whoa, now I know what flarf is!"

Now obviously Gary and Kasey and others have offered up their (anti-)definitions before and I've tried to follow their lead and not reify the label into some kind of Mode. But looking at this Combo I did feel something distinctive going on, something that other kinds of writing--even writing that shares some of the same tools, like the "Google poem"--hasn't been able to accomplish. So I'm just going to risk sounding like an ass and try to explain what I mean.

I remember at some point a while back Kasey declared that he wasn't going to write Google poems anymore. Stephanie speculated last night that after a while of writing using Google you start to feel, well, guilty about the whole endeavor, because sometimes it just seems too easy. When I tried it myself at first I thought that too, but I realized that it wasn't so, that my own efforts at the form just weren't coming out right. Looking at what I'm seeing in Combo I realize what I was doing wrong: I was trying too hard to filter, shape, make it pretty--worst of all, to try for some kind of lyric closure, which was just disastrous. I don't think I previously understood what it really meant that flarf meant to embrace the "bad" or "tasteless"--this turns out, in what you see Kasey or Michael Magee doing, to be a very particular kind of tastelessness, that which seeks out and embraces what is degraded and offensive but energetically so, like the kind of pleasure you get from quoting a tagline from a bad movie--no, that isn't quite right, but "Awwww yeah" seems like the perfect slogan for flarf, its reveling in the nasty.

I guess to my mind the work in Combo by Kasey, Katie Degentesh, and Michael Magee best captures what I'm talking about, best hangs together into a distinctive aesthetic (not to say anything against the other fine work in there). It's no accident that the placeholder objects in Degentesh's poems are sausages and popsicles, two of the most grossly overprocessed consumer foods known to man--and yet so tasty. Stephanie pointed out to me the brilliant way in which the ground keeps shifting, so that you're thinking at one point "oh, well, obviously 'sausage' is 'dog'" but then a few lines later it's definitely a tumor, and so on, just hanging together enough to keep you going but off balance the whole time. And the poems don't wrap themselves up neatly; it's like they could just keep going but that they simply stop at some point.

What I like most in Magee's poems, as well as Kasey's [oy--this first name/last name thing requires another post on another night] is how they preserve the texture of the language you find online--typos, all caps, nonstandard spellings, rhythms ("similarity between Little / Miss Muffet and Sadam Hussein?!")--unfiltered, but brilliantly concentrated. The repetition of "ass," "fuck," and "dumbshit" in Kasey's poems are like a kid's pleasure in saying swear words to himself for the first time or two his friends on the playground--and the energy of playground insult--but somehow use that to portray totally wild mood swings: in "Abstract Poetics," from aggressive hostility ("ur nothing but a stupid dumbshit goddam motherfucker") to self-flagellating exhibitionism ("now that my ass has reached a new audience / with my MA in dumbshit studies"). Most important is that there is no effort to "redeem" this material or take a position above or outside it: the poem just gets down in there and stays there.

And yet: there's obviously some desire to make an (ahem) serious point: you don't call poems like this "Abstract Poetics" and "Mainstream Poetry" if you don't want to whip somebody's head around. Magee: "Poems are, like, total bullshit unless they are / squid or popsicles or deer piled / on elk in the trunk of David Hasselhoff's / Cutlass Sierra." Flarf's hardly the first poetry to revel in the pop-culture reference--actually, hardly anybody doesn't--but I think the key is (am I wrong here, folks?) that there no irony in that reference, in fact a pointed refusal of irony, a refusal to make the poem superior to its material (unlike the wounded and guilty attachment a lot of young, intelligent writers have to pop culture). Squid? Popsicles? Deer? Eat up.

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