O, You Cosh-Boned Posers!

Awful poems sought and found: From spam to Google, flarf redefines random

Flarf began in 2000 or 2001 when Sullivan entered a deliberately offensive poem in a scam poetry contest. ("I got fire inside/my "huppa"-chimp(TM)" is, possibly, the only quotable passage.) From id-stoked overhearings more than a little derivative of Bruce Andrews's "I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up" ("If pods could talk—so, how/about a sperm-a-thon?"), the movement made the switch from finding to seeking when Gardner (Sugar Pill) went to Google to see what the deliberately misspelled "Rogain bunny" search would yield. Gardner explains: "If you have a Googled/cut up poem that still has most of its social filters set too high, it may be interesting poetry but it's probably not flarfy."

Magee's small-press magazine Combo broke the flarf story first, in early 2003. A significant finding in that issue, currently required reading for Charles Bernstein's literature students at the University of Pennsylvania, is that Google searches on the phrase "aw yeah" yield more socially acceptable results as the number of w's in "aw" increases.

Of course, spam and poetry have been going together for years—consider Jack Collom's NEA-fellowship-winning acrostics for the tinned meat with a contraction of spiced ham for a name ("Suddenly, masked hombres seized/Petunia Pig/And/Made her into a sort of dense Jell-O.").

illustration: Nate Williams

It will probably never be said of spam (as Blaise Cendrars did of advertising in 1927) that it is "the most beautiful expression of our epoch." It may yet serve a post-M.F.A. generation as a gateway drug to making their own accidental beauty out of words, though. Says Bernstein, "These spam poems have a purpose, unlike the great poetry which [they seem] to resemble, which has the virtue of having no purpose at all, in the great Kantian tradition of art." Or as Eve Massey put it in an e-mail of July 30, "cabot admissible chromium drive."

Jordan Davis is the author of Million Poems Journal (Faux). You could Google him, or you could go straight to jordandavis.com.

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