You Call That a Poem?! Understanding the Flarf Movement

Every Thursday night, my roommate puts on sweats and makes his way over to the Butts, where he joins a small contingent of friends for several hours of LARPing.  To one who doesn’t know better, the acronym, which stands for Live-Action Role-Playing game, might bring to mind the engrossing experience of a traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, complete with elaborate backstories and highly-developed characters.  Yet my roommate informs me that, in the interest of time, he and his friends usually just cut to the chase and duel, pummeling each other with large foam swords.

Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, Mel Nichols, and Rod Smith (Photo Credit: driftlessMedia)

Last weekend, a friend came down to visit me from Bates, and upon arriving in my room promptly noticed the enormous duct-taped hilts of Sam’s LARPing accoutrements sticking out from under the bed.  He was unfamiliar with the game, so I summarized it for him as best I could, and we moved on.  Yet the topic came up again later.  I mentioned that I’d been messing around with a kind of poetry called flarf, in which, using a procedure devised by technique poet Drew Gardner, the writer comes up with a phrase (typically a racy or nonsensical one), Googles it, and then crafts a poem from the search results.  Gary Sullivan wrote what is widely considered to be the first flarf poem in 2000 as a reaction to a sham poetry contest put on by the International Library of Poetry.  Sullivan penned and submitted the worst poem he could muster, entitled “Mm-hmm” (read it here), and urged a handful of friends to do the same.  These vigilante pranksters began emailing their poems to one another, and before long discovered that what had began as a farce was producing some remarkable new work.  Taking their name from a poem by Sullivan called “Flarf Balonacy Swingle,” they adopted Gardner’s Google search technique and the movement was born.

My friend seemed interested—mildly—but I could tell he was skeptical.  “Flarf?” he asked me.  “How similar is that to ‘GLARPing?’”  I can see where he got mixed up—the word does sound quite a bit like LARP, and also, if I’m honest, like barf.  But flarf, I assured myself, is cool—it’s cutting-edge, progressive, organic, everything art should be—and so I could not help feeling a little irked by its association with LARPing.

Sharon Mesmer (Photo credit: T. Carrigan)

In retrospect, though, I realize that flarf has a lot in common with LARPing.  Both, on their most basic level, are expressive acts that allow their participants to become vessels for something beyond themselves, to facilitate voices or personae altogether separate from their own.  Flarf, according to Sharon Mesmer, a veteran of the movement, is “a generous, wabi-sabi kind of poetry,” the kind that can “inhabit bodies very different from the poet’s own and allow them to speak.”1 Ultimately, it is no different from most other creative acts: Like LARPing, it’s just playing make-believe. And indeed, the controversy surrounding flarf is not so much directed at this poetic role-playing as at the techniques by which the poems are made, the random bootlegging of other people’s language.  This, in turn, raises a broader question about the ownership of words, whether simply selecting and organizing them is enough to call them one’s own.  But flarfists are not concerned with ownership; conversely, as Mesmer explains, “a certain amount of control (i.e., ego) [must] be surrendered, allowing the word-image to come under the influence of chance.”2 The radicalism of flarf is its attack on authorship, its assertion that neither the “original” progenitor of words nor the flarfist buccaneer who absconds with them is entitled to possess them exclusively.  And this is a radical idea, which highlights another crucial parallel between “flarfing” and LARPing: the need for total abandon, for a complete disregard for what people might think.

Radical as it is, however, flarf is actually a reaction against postmodernism, against disjunction, obscurity, and the absence of narrative.  As both Mesmer and conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith have noted, the form is remarkable among its contemporaries for its playfulness, cohesiveness, and accessibility.  Take Chickee Chickston’s brutally irreverent poem, “My Mary Oliver”:

My Mary Oliver has three stomachs:

greater omentum, peritoneum, and kitty cat tummy.


My Mary Oliver dines in plaid.

Shiny misgivings notwithstanding, her words are even more true in French.


My Mary Oliver loves the smell of barf.

It’s true—barf!


My Mary Oliver doesn’t want to be bartered with.

She’s seen The Price is Right.


My Mary Oliver resists verbage.

She knows where it leads.


My Mary Oliver knows who black people are.3


Despite the array of bizarre, seemingly random images, there’s not a lot of hidden meaning here; everything is pretty much right at the surface.  Not all flarf is quite so forthright and sassy, of course, but most exhibits a general impulse to communicate that other avant-garde circles eschew.  In a time of such alienation and estrangement, these poets argue, why add to the confusion by producing dense, overly-cerebral writing?

Kenneth Goldsmith takes this notion a step further, audaciously calling into question the very value of being original.  “With so much available language,” he posits, “does anyone really need to write more?”4 This is a serious question, one that every writer and artist must consider as the market for fresh, unprecedented work becomes ever more cutthroat and burdensome.  Originality isn’t dead, nor will it ever be, but to what lengths should we cling to authorship and the pretense of novelty in our work, and to what end?

– By Jack Chelgren, ’15


Further reading:

Shell Fischer.  Can Flarf Ever Be Taken Seriously? Poets & Writers.  1 July 2009.

Drew Gardner.  Why do I hate flarf so much? Poetry Magazine, July/August 2009.  The Poetry Foundation.  July 2009.

Kenneth Goldsmith.  Flarf is Dionysus.  Conceptual Writing is Apollo. Poetry Magazine, July/August 2009.  The Poetry Foundation.  July 2009.

Sharon Mesmer.  Flarf Is Dead, Long Live Post-Flarf. TheScreamOnline, Vol. 7, #3.  TheScreamOnline.  March 2011.

Gary Sullivan.  Am I Emo? Poetry Magazine, July/August 2009.  The Poetry Foundation.  July 2009.

Gary Sullivan.  A Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry. 2003.

Gary Sullivan.  Jacket Flarf feature: Introduction. Jacket 30.  Jacket magazine. 2006.

1. Mesmer, Sharon.  “Flarf Is Dead, Long Live Post-Flarf.”  (TheScreamOnline, Vol. 7, #3.)

2. Ibid.

3. Chikston, Chickee.  “Three Poems.”  (Jacket 30, July 2006).

4. Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo.”  (Poetry Magazine, July/August 2009).

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