Tuesday, May 23, 2006


dear minor american readers,

we have decided to leave the comments in the comments section now that we are convinced that we have you hooked into reading our blog religiously. [= we think you get it and want to stop cutting and pasting now].

as i said before, i am really grateful for this conversation [especially the eavesdropping we get to do on Nicoloff and Boyer]... because it has truly helped me understand Flarf a little more. [a lot], or, at least, it has helped me to think about Flarf in different ways.

i am wondering... way back to Magee's reading... to the beginning of blog thread... and specifically wondering about the public performance of 'Their Guys' which seemed to cause such a stir amongst the attendees. after this reading... there were a lot of discussions about racism and a lot of upset/offended/concerned/scoffing poets all chattering about "asian chicks" and "what was that about?" and, in fact, i must confess that i was surprised by these conversations... and i don't know if it is because i was michael magee's opening act and still recovering from my opening act jitters and therefore unable to concentrate... or if it was because i was not offended... or what... but i was surprised, although, in understanding after the fact.

and so... these others... who have not joined in our discussion [but who are, in fact, reading these posts] i really would like to invite you into this discussion. and to specifically address *what* offended you... *why*... *if* ... all these things.

because it is really easy to simply write something off as *not my thing* and never go into why or share the why with yr fellow viewers... but it doesn't do the work of this poem, or any other poems, any good.

and i can see why the work of this poem is being called into question and also, i can see why people might think there is no work to this poem.

and so. i am wondering about this statement that Anne [excuse the familiarity] made way back in her first response to Michael Nicoloff:

"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."

and i am wondering if that does anything for the audience members who attended this reading.

is the out-loud detracting from the work of the poem?
is the performance?
would yr reactions have been different had you encountered the work on the page first?

how was this "cunning" lost on so many of us at the event?

there seems to be something lost in the translation from page to performance [not performance on the page] here...

or is that not true?

there. i said something. maggie can stop beating me now.


Anonymous said...

Looks like there might be an East Coast, West Coast rap turf war on the boil.

What about some reaction from people of color, from Asian American poets, to Magee’s poem? There are some responses in the comments section at Lee Herrick’s blog:


Herrick’s reaction raise an important issue—the attitudes displayed in Magee’s poem are mostly part of the white unconscious—any transgressive “charge” that comes from baring these impulses and feelings is incredibly socially specific.

There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not irony constitutes critique, and whether Magee’s titillating display of obnoxious orientalist attitudes and impulses, though quoted and satirized, simply reinforces these time-worn tropes.

Who isn’t for the strategic deployment of irony against powerful targets? But the ultimate object of the satire in "Their Glittering Guys" is what…exactly? Orientalism? Identity politics? Sexual fetishes? The pervasive irony of the execution would have us believe that all of these targets are somehow equal or isometric. They’re not.

“PC” isn't just a word, it represents a movement, bound up with affirmative action policies and various versions of identity politics on American college campuses. The right wants to bash it in the name of “freedom” but a potential left critique would be that PC, however ameliorative its policies may be in the short-run, isn't nearly radical enough in dealing with the problem.

Magee's audience is probably in agreement about the "wrongness" of racism, so the strategic value of bringing up these particular social taboos doesn't seem to serve any particularly compelling strategic ends in the context in which the poem was presented. I don’t know, to choose PC as a target these days in America seems a little misguided, to put it generously.

What are the cultural politics of “limitless aggression” exactly? Does Fox News qualify?

Finally, the issue of minstrelsy. There seem to be numerous examples, at least on the internet, of appropriations of Black English vernacular in flarf that could only be described as 21st century blackface minstrelsy—whose awful and continuing racist history seems to be lost on folks. Readers are expected to believe, that after some magical shifting of subject-positions, minstrelsy becomes a harmless and even politically radical “ritualization of anxiety”—an anxiety, that, somehow, all of “us” share.

We don’t.

Anne Boyer said...

Hi anon, are you the same person who wrote that comment on the atonalist blog? Why no name?

I must confess I am not really familiar with flarf works that adopt black vernacular, though there might be some. (anyone know something? LRSN's work, maybe, which I hear is heavily hiphop influenced?)

I didn't think when Michael Nicoloff said minstrelly, he was referring to black/white, but to the accusation that Flarf makes fun of /minstrelizes the "uneducated." Michael, were you talking about flarfists stealing black vernacular? Did I completely misunderstand you?

As I said, my ritual of anxiety theory mostly has to do with Deer Head Nation in the wake of 9/11, though I believe Pet Hat also qualifies as this kind of anxious use of language. I would hate to have this analysis taken out of context & the specific relationship to specific texts and techniques and political conditions.

I was not thinking of flarf as having anything in common with the minstrel in relationship to race, only in expression of anxieties (these anxieties mostly having to do with the war, and in KSM's case, specifically with what it is like to be an arab in the US during the war).

The exception to this might be with what has happened with racial ethnic tensions in the criticism of Flarf when an arab man is critically attacked for appearing to "make fun of" or go minstrel on what are presumed to be "white" folks: then the idea is turned on its ear (maybe, or at least its elbow).


Michael said...

No Anne, you're not wrong here. I was using minstrelsy broadly (and as I wrote earlier, I'm very much running into its limits as a tool, for sure).

Gary said...

I appreciate the arguments that have come out of the minstrel discussion, and do understand them as being primarily about the anxiety.

Technically, tho, I think anything that pulls language down off the Web--whatever that language is--might be thought of as a kind of documentary approach. Very different in not just technique but in intent, to great extent, than people who consciously write "out of" other voices that they have internalized.

I'm thinking there of Jennifer Knox's "Chicken Bucket," which takes on the voice (and points to the life) of a particular woman--not Jennifer's own voice--but which was not Googled nor gleaned from any other outside source, but rather constructed from her own imagination.

kevin.thurston said...

re: anonymous's's's's comments
Who isn’t for the strategic deployment of irony against powerful targets? But the ultimate object of the satire in "Their Glittering Guys" is what…exactly? Orientalism? Identity politics? Sexual fetishes?

i think it is really simple to think that these things can be separated, but it is a misleading, and in the long run, defeating strategy.

that is, the 'sexual fetish' that arises from 'orientalism' ('my so horny' in full metal jacket, then sampled by too live crew--just to make sure those ideas reach a broader demographic) is tied to 'identity politics'. they can't be un'd.

i like flarf. in the end, because it is useless (and annoying) to try to legislate via poetry.

Anonymous said...

Hello There,

I’m glad that the discussion surrounding Magee’s poem have been so civil, relatively speaking. Indeed, I’ve posted thoughts about it on the Atonalist and have to admit that the acrimonious blog debates surrounding Flarf poetics generally have made me hesitant to post with a name. I realize that this is also an obligation for me not to engage in snarky and generally unfair responses to Magee’s poem, although this can be a bit difficult for me considering the content and tone of the poem.

Although I haven’t read “Deer Head Nation,” (I will) I’m sympathetic to and interested in what Ms. Boyer describes as “Whiteface” minstrelsy. This seems like an entirely different approach than the one embodied in “Their Glittering Guys.”

Athough I’m not sure how heavily ironized snippets of Black English vernacular can totally avoid a kind of proximity to the specifically racist history of “Blackface” minstrelsy, I think framing the issue in terms of “anxiety” should probably take into account the position of the enunciator and the ostensible target. As in: whose anxiety and what specific sampled language set?

My concern is that the specific subject posited by “Their Glittering Guys” can sample racist language from a distance and move much more easily through this discourse than others, or Others. The ease can easily become titillating or just plain offensive. I think my argument, in its more abstract form, is how the “universal,” or dematerialized, authorial presence that marshals such language and flits effortlessly through various subject-positions is in fact a fairly socially specific, and fairly privileged, hegemonic subject. My concern then, is with the cultural specificity of the enunciator of “Their Glittering Guys” and the image of white liberals performing racist stereotypes, in front of captive audiences, in order to exorcise “their” demons. As a form of cultural politics and/or aesthetic value, this seems like a fairly aggressive and counterproductive exercise.

I’d agree with Boyer that the Yeats poem deserves the drubbing, and raising the issue of the “frontier” (as in, maybe, Frank Norris’ “The Frontier Gone At Last”?) is a nice touch, but these moves seem curiously peripheral to the content of the poem as a whole, whose targets remain blurry to me (Yeats isn’t the only figure that is ridiculed) and whose “Yellowface” tropes raise the stakes of confronting racism in a more “nuanced and developed” manner.

As for the issue of the separability of the various targets, I hope I haven’t suggested that they are. But I don’t consider it a “misleading” or “self-defeating” strategy to respect the material differences between, say, the history of Orientalism with identity politics. Although one can be seen as a response to the other, they are not symmetrical phenomena. If one wishes to make identity politics an equal target of critique, then one wonders how this, essentially, differs from the protracted right-wing offensive on “PC” and all of its incarnations. In a very real sense, I’d have to disagree with the notion that we are all Others, or equally Other. There are multiple overlapping and often conflicting identifications at work in all of us (class, race, gender), but the specific history of exploitation in this country does not flatten the field, and make Black Slaves the equal of their white masters, men the equal of women, or, in a more contemporary setting, Arab Americans the equal of white demagogues.

Can poetry “legislate” anything? I’m not sure it ever could. But I’m also not sure Magee or other Flarfists would want to give up on or continue to experiment with versions of cultural politics. To simply write off poetry as possessing no political context, orientation, or aspirations seems like a pretty conservative notion to me.


Anne Boyer said...


I do wish you'd unmask. We all take risks to discuss ideas in blog form & certainly the risk is greater as ideas about flarf in blogs seem to be increasingly quoted out of context in "scholarly" work these days, but I usually find anonymous blog commenters to be unnerving to make conversation with -- rather like trying to engage a prank caller in meaningful exchange. Even more unnerving to be called "Ms. Boyer" by a person who will not reveal themselves, thus reminding me of the power imbalance: how I will held be responsible for what I say, how you will not be.

I am still confused about your claim about Flarf's appropriation of black vernacular. Could you show me examples of what you mean so I could address it?

I am also thrown off by the "yellow face" bit. I thought the question raised was something about Mike appropriating the language of racists (who some associate with poor white people), not that he was speaking as an Asian. How then, does this become yellow-face? Wasn't that something like performing in "dumb white racist face" he was being accused of? (Though I do see actual "yellow face" around poetry land -- yikes, think Yasusada!)

Still, I do agree with much of what you have said here -- that we are not all equally other (or equally oppressive of others). I would, yes, feel some despair if the American poetry that does engage with culture -- Flarf, those working in kindred modes like Dinh and Glenum, etc. -- up and did what too much of contemporary poetry still tends to do: please, no inserting "awful void & telling silences" where culture ought to be.


oh, & on this note, go check out Ksm's analysis of Their Guys over at the Lime Tree: though I think I disagree w/ him re importance of Yeats in the poem, it is a provocative analysis.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne & Everybody,

I’ve given it some thought, and agree that it’s important to take responsibility for what I’ve said here, not to mention the fact that my anonymity puts you at a rather unfair disadvantage (the “Ms.” was an attempt at formality, and definitely not intended as a prank). With that said, the safety of the pseudonym has felt necessary to me considering the indeterminate intent of the poem. Full disclosure: I’m friends with Mr. Daniels, although I haven’t followed the resulting blog feuds very closely. The flames look pretty terrifying.

Like Pam, I’ve grown up hearing the language of the poem, in all of its iterations, and have come to associate the language with violence and fairly traumatic personal experiences. Like Pam, I’ve also heard the language in other venues where Asian American artists have tried to reappropriate these tropes, successfully or not, and where, also, I’ve been left wondering if such good intentions simply ended up reifying those stereotypes and paralyzing those artists, myself included (at least at an earlier moment of my writing practice) at a certain level of discourse. The identity conferred by negation seemed, at the time, politically disabling and fairly thin stuff in terms of aesthetic value, however you’d like to construe that vexed term. Hence the reference to “Yellowface.”

It is with this in mind, that the issue of the audience and the person doing the ventriloquizing becomes essential. Can one imagine “Their Glittering Guys” being read in front of a group of Asian Americans, and in that context would the poem be an example of “Yellowface” or of something else? Can the racialized procedure of the poem be similarly applied to African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans?

Kasey has provided a provocative close reading. My comments so far are mostly directed at one issue in particular that he raises:

“Much of the argument around the poem revolves around the question of whether Magee has adequately theorized the deployment of the Asian stereotypes: even though most objectors have acknowledged that the overall intent of the deployment is clearly anti-racist, they continue to question whether the stereotypes themselves have been sufficiently stripped of their power to offend, particularly in the context of a public reading, where the self-short-circuiting textual aporias are not so readily apparent.”

I guess my feeling is that the language can never be fully stripped of its “power to offend,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that other resources from within the poem can’t be mobilized to critique, question, or detourne those elements. A few syntactical slippages don’t seem sufficient, to me at least. The issue isn’t some puritanical desire to police discourse so that the poem is “insusceptible of misreading in any and all circumstances” (Winston Churchill’s deliberate misuse of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” comes to mind), but instead in a recognition that the burden of responsibility lies with the poet if he or she wants to work with such toxic materials. If this is the project, it’s the cost of admission so to speak.

The language of the poem does point, seemingly, to a fairly consistent and ubiquitous racism—this seems like its intent, plainly. Kasey raises a good point in asserting the imbrication of “aesthetic pleasure and the unexamined conditions of our privilege as poets/readers,” every document of civilization a document of barbarism, of course, but then the specific problematics of the racial question gets aerosolized into a more general, and far less concrete, problem of aesthetic value. Unfortunately, the problem, at least as it was initially posed, was about the unequal distribution of “privileges.” I’m not sure this gets us very far in thinking about either race, melted into a general aesthetic complicity, or Yeats, whose relationship to Irish Nationalism could put other works of his in a different, less unpalatable political context.

I’m happy that Mr. Magee has let us see behind the curtain a little bit more in terms of the construction of the poem. I’d have to agree that we’re all “in the middle of racist language,” and “getting out” can be terribly difficult considering the absorptive power of racist discourse. I don’t think anyone is advocating ignoring current political realities in favor of penning sonnets about wildflowers and babbling brooks. And I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone has “rights” to this or that particular form of language, but if the very real specter of minstrelsy is to be avoided, I imagine that any author would have to be pretty alert to the resources within language and experience that can resist such absorption. Otherwise, we’re simply repeating the problem.

As far as concrete examples of those potential resources go, I was interested in the portion of Magee’s poem that deal with, I think if I’m reading it right, the “our guys” and “their guys” rhetoric of the Japanese economic threat during the Reagan years. Also, the racist discourse could bump up against, beside Yeats, maybe the language of organized labor in the early part of the 20th century (the failure of class consciousness in favor of this image of the yellow peril come to steal jobs, and the various exclusion acts that were subsequently championed), maybe the vitriolic anti-immigrant diatribes of Lou Dobbs on CNN etc. Lou Dobbs needs a good old-fashioned knuckle sandwich.

It’s a tall order, I admit, but context and historical specificity seem, again, like the price of admission.

Chris Chen

csperez said...

hello, am joining the discussion late via KSM's blog. I am interested in examining how this poem is being read and the politics of these readings (which is to say I am not so interested in the poem itself or the author's intention - the main reason being that both the poem and the author's intention are already determined, but our readings are still being formed).

I wanted to paste my comments that I left over at KSM's blog in response to his reading of Magee's poem. THANKS:

first to say that I think Magee's poem IS successful "as poetry" and is GOOD, as such. I gauge success in poetry as to whether a poem is able to engage me at various levels, and this poem does engage, no doubt.

I also don't want to join the debate as to whether or not Magee has "adequately theorized the deployment of the Asian stereotypes"--I think by the time Pamela returns and is done commenting on this, she will have adequately and elegantly proved that he HASN'T.

finally, I don't want to dwell too much on whether or not Magee's poem is offensive: IT IS.

SO, what i wanted to comment on is Kasey's reading of the poem, and a few points where i very humbly disagree.

First, I think Kasey does a wonderful job elucidating the poem's "formal appeal" (which, by the time all is said and done, will be all the appeal this poem will have left). Now, Kasey, you spend a lot of time "decoding" the sources of the text, showing how brilliantly the lines are constructed thru "shuttling continuity and discontinuity" and how this creates a "semi-syntactical aesthetic" that frustates "reading the poem for content." Which is really just a way of saying that this poem is a collage/cut-up, which everyone already knows. You do justify the work you do by saying that "1) it shows where the disjunction comes from; 2) it shows that Magee didn't have to join the phrases at that specific point...." SO WHAT... we knew that already--these are simple principles of the cut-up. And so he doesn't go for seamless; most flarfists (most poets nowadays) avoid the seamless anyways.

It would have been more interesting to create a semantic structure for the poem thru the source texts, but you seem to imply that this is not generative, and I am inclined to agree with you ... so again, what is the "appeal" of these aesthetic terms???

When you say that you cannot answer the objection that this poem might be alienating, your reasons are: "a) I can't put myself into a subject position within which they might be perceived that way (since I understand their citational status and thereby am not alienated by them), and b) to attempt to do so would in itself be an illicit projection of my own subject position into a space I have no right to assume (especially as in order to assume that space, I would have to pretend to know less than I actually do, which would imply that my own subject position is superior to that onto which I was trying to project myself)"

It is a good point you make, in all honesty--but c'mon, all it takes is a little EMPATHY to understand how this poem is offensive and alienating to the Asian-American community. Certainly we have not lost our sense of EMPATHY in the "flood of formal appeal" that this poem so apparently offers.

Along the same lines, you argue that "one might answer by the same logic, a poet like Magee has no right to intrude his poem into that same space in the first place, but this would imply that Magee has an obligation to adjust his critique so that it is insusceptible of misreading in any and all circumstances in order to avoid such a violating intrusion. Surely any poet who was thoroughgoingly conscientious in this way would quickly confine his or her range of permissible expression to an absurdly small sphere."

This is truly ABSURD. Certainly you will concede that it is possible to write more poems than Raymond Queneau and with more expressiveness than Frank O'Hara and STILL not write a single poem that offends even such liberals as Lee and Pamela. The only thing reduced to an absurdly small sphere is Magee's conscientiousness.

I do agree with you about the phrases being both "phatic and motivated"--both are new terms to me and I appreciate the formulation--will have to consider that more.

You say, "in order to "get past" the sensitive content of the poem and "get to" the aesthetic means by which the poem justifies that content, one must abandon that distinction entirely"--what I think you overlook (and there is an ethical consequence to this) is that YES Magee's poem justifies its content, but the CONTENT DOES NOT JUSTIFY THE POEM.

Anyways, forgive the oft-sarcastic tone in this post, it is late, and i am out of cigarrettes. AS AN ASIDE, i wanted to say that I LOVED Deer Head Nation, and was wondering if you could explain: "that the 'thematics' of the poem are a direct coefficient, along with its structural arrangement, of its aesthetic value." I can't quite articulate what you mean.

LAST THING, do you think we can call Magee's title a "homophobic transliteration"? PLEEEEEASSSSEEEE.....

Peace and Quiet.

Anonymous said...

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