Friday, May 19, 2006

Michael Nicoloff's Response to Flarf and Magee:

Okay, re: Flarf questions. I don't want to rehash stuff that's already been said and debated in places like Chris Daniels' blog, but from where I stand I run into similar problems when it comes to how to make sense of Flarfy work like the poem you're talking about. First, I'll be frank, here: I'm not crazy about this poem (though that shouldn't be read as my take on MM's work in general in My Angie Dickinson and elsewhere, because I think he’s produced a lot of excellent stuff), so I’m not really in an ambivalent situation of feeling interested in some parts of it and put off by others. To me, the particular way in which “Their Guys...” uses “bad” writing makes the poem not very interesting on the level of its linguistic surface, and the very disjunctive nature of the writing means that the fucked-up Orientalist element isn’t going to proceed very easily to some “deeper” idea in the way that the prototypical prose-fiction satire might. So what are we left with, exactly? In the context in which Flarf, as I understand it, was initially used—sending purposefully “wrong” poems into those scam poetry anthology contests to see if they’d win, which they did—then I can make sense of it more, because it becomes something akin to a conceptual art project in which the content of a particular poem becomes less important than its general “wrongness.” And moving from that initial context I can understand the ways in which people on the Flarflist found it interesting to explore/write with/discuss this kind of language in the semi-private space that listserv was/is. In both of these arenas, I can get on board with “Their Guys...” a lot more, but once it gets divorced from those spaces and goes beyond the in-group and into the broader (poetry) world and has to stand solo as a poem, it starts to just feel like a rather thin piece of writing that’s trying to get by on irony and so-bad-it’s-good cleverness and, yeah, approaches a kind of minstrelsy, albeit one in which the object of that minstrelsy is unclear.

That paragraph reads really harsh to me, which isn’t what I was going for (sorry), but I’ll keep going I guess. Okay—when Flarf work gets really interesting to me is when it enters into that “post-Flarf” space that KSM mentioned a while ago, when it takes the techniques and general modus operandi of Flarf and moves them to the proverbial next level, which to me includes a next level of thinking about authorial responsibility. Don’t get me wrong: I like fucked-up, I like disjunctive, Bruce Andrews is a huge touchstone for me, but to me there are kinds of fucked-up that I personally don’t particularly want to go near, both because they’re, you know, fucked-up and because they’re not fucked-up in an interesting way, a way that simultaneously disturbs and engages and provokes new thought and not just sheer horror at the state of the world. What Andrews, to me and I think to Maggie too, is doing is hopping so quickly from one subject position to the next that it becomes an kind of unending barrage of often contradictory language, language that is much less straight-appropriation and more activated, and therefore, between that and the quick hops, doesn’t fall into a kind of ironic aping of an often disenfranchised subject in the way that Flarf frequently is said to. And also—and this goes back to that essay of Dodie Bellamy’s in Fascicle that I’m obsessed with—Bruce often shoots straight past irony into full-on sarcastic assaults, and his attacks almost always seem to be on the powerful or at least the ominous “they” (I’m not saying he doesn’t cross the line, sometimes, though—gender stuff is what I’m thinking here, specifically). So I don’t want to try to de-fang Flarf of its inappropriateness here, but I do need to take issue with the potentially careless appropriation such work might perform. There’s a kind of Flarf that seems to be about engaging with the subject and all the interesting/disturbing/contradictory language our I’s produce, but too often the appropriation of idiosyncratic language and the subjects they drag along with them ends up making for a kind of quasi-persona poem that, when coupled with the patented Flarf irony and snark, ends up mocking some really easy targets—most frequently, it seems, a kind of stereotypically lower class racist redneck-type who’s had little access to education—that lack of education being the particularly highlighted point. Or simply being transgressive for transgression’s sake by appropriating some of the racist bile floating around on the interwebs for ends that are unclear. (I want to be clear—I’m talking about a kind of Flarf that I’ve read, certainly not all of it.) So to me the question ends up being not so much whether or not one appropriates language, but what kinds to appropriate and when/where to use it so as to make the irony really sting those who deserve it. I think that “Chicks Dig War” is a really well-executed example of this, and a lot of that has to do with what flows out of that title itself—for most folks there’s no getting around the fact that that shit is deeply ironic (though I think Drew has run into some people who missed that) and on the attack against a particular brand of powerful macho that’s running the country at the moment.

Anyway, there are gaps here for sure. Please tell me where they might be.


Anne Boyer said...

This is an interesting discussion, and I actually have two reactions here: the first, a response directly to Michael’s reading of “their guys,” and the second, a response to the popular narrative that MN repeats – that the Flarf “ends up mocking some really easy targets—most frequently, it seems, a kind of stereotypically lower class racist redneck-type who’s had little access to education.”

On the issue of “Their Guys,” I, of course have the privilege of reading the poem (rather than simply hearing it) and further, being able to read it right up next to the Yeats poem about glittering little “Chinamen” and “Hysterical Women” it critiques. I think Mike’s poem is relentlessly and complexly anti-racist, and further, I think it has a fascinating textual surface & a jittery subject position: ie, it is not “bad” in the sense of funny-naïve or uncrafted (not, say, like the Polar Bear Poem that follows it on the Mainstream site w/ the barfing poop.)

However, I know enough about Flarf out-loud to know it can create the effect of monody. This is one way I find Flarf to be cunning. It is understandable, then, that MZ would hear this poem and think it is a poem with a fixed subject position about a stereotypical Asian “chick” – it sounds that way, sometimes, read aloud by a single speaker at a literary event.

Of course, with time to read the poem I think the work becomes entirely something else. Pardon my super-long metaphor, but I read it as on a map drawn by Yeats (of a city, Orientalism) (and outside of this map, a country of the “Great” Western Poetry). Somehow all over the map are the lines and drawings of noisy racist perceptions about Asian folks – that there is a “predominately female culture,” that Asian people are hipper or smarter than white folks, that “they” will take over everything, that “they” exist merely as pornographic objects or cultural threats.

Then it is as if – upon this document, drawn first by Western literature, second by popular Western perception – Mike poured some crazy flarf-solvent, and everything got blurry and terribly wack, so Yeats pops up again and again, and dumb racism, and poetic language, and not so poetic language, and it is all distorted: the haziness what makes the critique obvious. And nothing is in THE PROPER ORDER nor is there a PROPER assigning of “unacceptable” notions to THEM, some evil ignorant other, nothing absolving liberal white folks of these notions, or even absolving the poet, who stands up and reads this work knowing full well the perception of monody that occurs when Flarf is read aloud.

It is hard to imagine, for example, that when reading the last bit, one can read this as anything other than an anti-racist poem:

“The others turned to see one of their men had fallen. Indeed, despite his glittering
blues, greens, and silvers (“As we retreated two white guys on bikes appeared...”) they had him tied up in their old Frontier”

So yeah, tied to their old Frontier, I think it brilliant, and tragic, and well-crafted, and right on taking Yeats to task, and also INAPPROPRIATE in the best way, which is the way it is considered entirely INAPPROPRIATE for white people to do anything other than pretend that racism is a concern for people of color. Say, look at a literary journal & you will find very few works by white poets about race: Flarf, at the very least, does not pretend to live in a culture of normative whiteness.

And (2) of course, the “redneck” story – which I’ll admit drives me batty, because I can’t find the textual evidence for it. So Michael, if you read this, please tell me what poems you had in mind: it could well be they exist, I just don’t know them, so I spent a great deal of time googling Flarf and redneck to see if I could figure out why this perception exists.

My first theory is that it has something to do with Deer Head Nation, which as you probably know, basically involves a half-Yemeni guy with an Arab name googling up a meditation on a “symbol” of white American culture in the wake of 9/11. If folks associate Deer Heads with rednecks, they might think that the book is full of “redneck” speak, but mostly I find in it teenage chat-room speak and the fragmentary language of porn and news and internet commerce.

But when I google up “Flarf” and “Rednecks,” I do find this complaint from Lucipo:

“The sentiment Kent seems to read from Flarf is "those dumb rednecks" rather than "we dumb rednecks." I agree that I get the same feeling Kent does.”

If the redneck narrative around Flarf really does refer specifically to KSM’s work, how can these people who complain that it doesn’t sound like “we dumb rednecks” ignore the fact that an Arab guy culturally isn’t ALLOWED to be a redneck? Check out (if you have the stomach)>You Might Be A Redneck Muslim
. I was talking to KSM about this & he generously thinks people just forget that he is Arab, that explains it, but I don’t think white people complaining about the oppression of white people in poetry easily “forget” that an Arab man is the one writing the work, esp, when, at least in some popular opinion, (though not necessarily in textual reality) he is “stealing” the words of white people and doing funny fucked-up shit with them. It goes on, right, with the critical meditations upon KSM’s “dick wagging,” which seem to be a projection of fantasies of Arab male hypermasculinity into the critical material surrounding Flarf. There are the weird threats of violence that seem to show up in the anti-Flarf rhetoric, too, guys talking about aiming guns and ass-kicking, and that seems to indicate the rage about Flarf might have a kind of racial undertone (not to mention the all out racist stuff about "anyone named Mohammad" etc.)

But maybe I’m over-reacting. Probably, maybe. I’ll probably later be really ashamed of that first theory. The second theory of the “redneck myth” around Flarf is the idea that people associate racist language with poor people. Or they associate stupid internet speak with poor people. Of course, I think stupid internet speak is the province of people who have the luxury of spending all day or night fucking around on the internet – not the working class – and that racist and sexist language is in no way the sole possession of poor white folks, but some of the Flarf critiques I've read (Daniels, Johnson) seem heavily invested in the idea of equating stupid with poor. Also, there is the weird critical trick going on where these people (Daniels, Johnson) pretend that Flarf is only written by affluent white men, thus continually writing the rest of us out of it’s narrative, and charging critiques of the Flarf with a feeling of “unfairness” & makes it more cunning.

But Michael – I am not saying YOU are doing this – only that you have triggered my speculation on all this by repeating the narrative of the redneck-Flarf that has always confused me. I do think Flarf is one of the few poetries actively engaging with issues of race and with various constructs of whiteness, so it is bound to make us, esp. white folks, feel shaky and weird. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw up. I find writing Flarf causes me to feel pathologically vulnerable: as if all the cultural scabs are being peeled up, as if the WESTERN CANON I sometimes love or hate is flaking off and looks just awful, and to make it worse the Flarf doesn’t come accompanied with any kind of theoretical windbreaker to protect us from the shit storm of language and culture. Just all that.

Oh this is very long. I hope it added something other than word count to the conversation.


Anne Boyer said...

Oh, I messed up the links --

racist muslim redneck jokes that will make you probably throw up:

Yeats poem that at least might make you queasy:

Anonymous said...


Lurker surfacing here...

Thanks for having this discussion. These are very interesting responses. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this poem (I'm Asian American btw, a writer, and I've been following blog discussions on Flarf and other poetics topics for awhile now). Out of curiosity, can I ask a couple of questions to put this thing in social context?

Is Mike Magee white? (I'm assuming from context that he is.) Were there any Asians or other minorities in the audience when he read this poem?

You see, I'm trying to get a handle on the social power dynamics in the room when the poem was read. I think that's really important here. I'm intrigued by what Anne says about this poem being a case of a white writer actually trying to address race. I can see where she's going with it being "complexly anti-racist," y'know, if you scratch the surface you can find some content that seems to be against imperialist exploitation and the objectification of Asians and all that. Actually in a lot of ways, this interpretation isn't really that complex. Most people who go to these kinds of poetry readings, I imagine, have been trained to know that Orientalism = bad, and in these post-Said days practically anyone with a liberals arts degree knows how to extract the "right" kind of interpretation. My real question is does this really get us anywhere productive regarding race? Michael Nicoloff's comment about minstrel speak seems tres tres relevant here.

More later, I hope...

Anonymous said...

uh, forgot to introduce myself-- my name is Joanne...

I'm hoping to say more about this when I have more time and after looking at the Magee and Yeats poems again, but what I'm trying to say first off is this issue is way more complex than just whether you read its content and tone as racist or anti-racist. There are all sorts of issues about power and voice and who gets the podium and who has to listen and "take it," that I think are really important here. Being that the poetry/writing community is super-social and all, I think we need to look at these issues more closely.


Gary said...

Hi Joanne,

The question of whether or not anything is to be gained by
Mike's poem is an open question, certainly, and will vary from person to person.

I may read it differently than you do. Because I don't see Mike as "white," I see him as Irish American. (And that's, of course, just an assumption, based on his name, but ...)

This seemingly subtle difference may change how I see a poem by what I imagin is an Irish American poet (Mike) responding to work by an Irish poet (Yeats), and not just any Irish poet: An "Anglo Irish," "nationalist" poet who "flirted with fascist ideas in his old age." (See:

I see Mike's poem engaging with a particular struggle (Yeats', for cultural "voice"), one that at least indirectly informs his own (Mike's, and my own, too) cultural/ethnic history, and the dark side of that particular struggle.

Yeats, throughout most of his poetic production, is doing a kind of "othering" to the Irish. By that I mean by focusing on and exaggerating difference. Here's some Yeats for you:

"The land of faery,
Where nobody gets old and godly and grave,
Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise,
Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.
Land of Heart’s Desire."

I mean: wow. And one--or at least I--can then backtrack, and see Yeats's Orientalism as a direct result of his specific approach to *his own culture*, an approach that comes out of, is in fact a reaction to, the oppression of the Irish, but which responds with nationalism and to some extent a kind of fascism.

I don't think it's an accident that Mike chose Yeats in this instance, and I don't think the poem, finally, is necessarily about "Asians," or even "white" attitudes towards "Asians"--though that is its surface noise.

Reading this poem, Mike's poem, I mean, as an Irish American poet, I begin to wonder about Yeats' project vis a vis Irish nationalism, what that meant, how it shaped Yeats's world view, how that world view itself had been shaped, and so on.

For whatever that's worth.

Michael said...

Hi Anne--

Thanks for this very interesting post. First, to tackle my use of “redneck”—in hindsight I wish that I hadn’t used that word, because it taps into the particular narrative that you’re talking about in such a way that it ends up overwhelming what I was actually intending to point to in that statement. I think this was a product of piling on descriptors in order to tease out what I was actually thinking but then forgetting the weight that “redneck” has acquired with regards to Flarf. But what I was really getting at is the part of that sentence after the dash: “a kind of stereotypically lower class racist redneck-type who’s had little access to education—that lack of education being the particularly highlighted point.” Because those moments when certain Flarfy poems appropriate statements that contain bad spelling/messed-up grammar or glaring racist/sexist/homophobic stupidity gleaned from the internets—and particularly when those statements contain both of these things—the spots where this happens frequently end up feeling like a class of folks (regardless of socioeconomic position) who are brainy and schooled (self-taught or otherwise) are just taking easy potshots at the uneducated for their being uneducated. In a different light, it’d have a very “Revenge of the Nerds” quality to it. But from here I think we can see where the jump to “redneck” is made: racist/sexist/homophobic + lack of education invariably = redneck. In light of what you say regarding a lack of textual evidence for the existence of a Flarf Redneck Assault Team (hmm, FRAT)—and you’ve most certainly read more of this work than I have, so I’m betting that you’re probably right—this equation becomes less evidence of something within the work and more of a look into the kind of associational models that are floating around. It’s like racism and bad grammar automatically lead to a lower-class quasi-Southern idiocy—a stereotype that I’m not proud of perpetuating in my last post and which other people writing about Flarf should also shut up about and do some textual analysis (and also quit it with the threats and man-rage)—when in fact racism and bad grammar exist in, um, quite a few other segments of American society, as you’ve said. But these associations, true or not, and fucked-up as they are, are facts of the American landscape, and unfortunately that means sometimes they’ll determine our writing in ways outside of our intent. Therefore, taking misspellings and racist bile out of one context and placing them in another has to be done, obviously, with a great deal of care. As poets (especially of the “avant-garde” set) we are, again rightly or wrongly, associated with a kind of privilege with regards to language, and so our appropriation of languages that aren’t always our own is frequently going to carry the stamp of something like “class” (though that’s not exactly the right word), and that’s simply something that each poem is going to deal with successfully or not. I think that KSM in “Deer Head Nation” frequently does this kind of appropriation in a way that activates it towards fascinating, nuanced, and on-point uses, but at other times (though I don’t think this is my central problem with “Their Guys...”), Flarfy work does seem to be smarty-pantses minstrelizing (not a word, but I’m going with it) a bunch of less-than-privileged folks because of their lack of education. It probably comes down to a case-by-case basis for when this appropriation is on-point or not—and there’d be a lot of subjective disagreement here.

I’m not sure if I’ve really addressed these questions quite to my satisfaction or yours, but this nonetheless seems to be a convenient spot to return to “Their Guys...” and the specific discussion we’re having around how to read this poem—and I have to say that I’m glad that Maggie raised these questions with regards to a specific poem, because so often these Flarf Wars (or discussion of anything, really) have fallen into a kind of vague generality that, in spite of often being necessary, makes me feel more than a bit wary of making any definite statements (despite the fact that that’s what I was just doing in the paragraph above). Anyway, that aside—I think that a certain amount of our disagreement over how we feel about Magee’s poem is going to come down to our individual subjective responses to the language therein. I’m thinking particularly here about your statement that you find the textual surface of “Their Guys...” to be really interesting. I think it’s been established that, while this certainly isn’t the least interesting poem I’ve ever read on the “surface” level, I do not share this same fascination. But it’s pretty difficult for one of us to say that the other is “wrong” in this regard—without some extraordinarily extreme digging into the genealogies of our own subjectivities, unconscious minds, blah blah, etc., to understand the juridical power shaping how our particular “I just (don’t) like it” factors operate, and I’m not sure if it’s really possible to do that, and if it is, it will probably provoke me to have a freak-out/extended personal crisis.

But this said, in aspects of your reading of “Their Guys...” there are things I both agree and disagree with. I also read Magee’s poem as in a sense taking the various at-times-contradictory perceptions of Asian people—the Asian “takeover”; mentions of height; the title and its plays on the perceptions of Asian men as gay (or at other times, feminized or asexual); the Dragon Lady, etc.—and collecting them into a sort of sprung quasi-narrative of illogic. In the context of this piling on of stereotyped perceptions, I don’t think that the ironic moves being made here are going to be lost on most readers. As you say, the critique is obvious. But maybe that’s exactly the problem: when I pose the question to myself of what the actual critique is, all I end up with in response is something like “dudes—racism is fucked-up.” Which takes me back to my initial response to this poem, which was not that I felt so much as though it was racist but that it made me feel bored and annoyed—the kind of extreme language and the extreme reactions it is trying to provoke didn’t give way to any sense of deeper or more nuanced critique, and since, as I said above, I don’t find the textual surface all that interesting, I was left with very little to keep me engaged. It feels like all provocation and no pay-off. So I guess I’d say, yeah, it is an anti-racist poem, but I’m going to have to disagree with it being all that complex.

There’s more that I’d like to say here about the issues that Joanne raises regarding Magee’s position as a white male poet and the way that that interacts with his poem, but I’m gonna hold off on that (must articulate better). I’m very interested, though, about what you’ve said about KSM and the convenient “forgetting” about him being Arab that I agree does occur in a lot of these discussions. I’d definitely be all for him weighing in here on that and everything else.


(Also--I am super interested in your rumored Feminist Flarf Suite and would be very thankful if you would backchannel it to me if it is in a state anywhere close to done and/or meeting with your satisfaction. Thanks!)

rozydesouza said...

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