Petroleum Hat

Drew Gardner

Roof Books


Sunday, February 19th, 2006

Perhaps you have been following the recent folderol surrounding Flarf, its adherents and its discontents, in the blogs, list-servs and electronic journals. Those of you coming late to this party may view a cache of origin myths and working definitions on the EPC site. There, core Flarfists Kasey Mohammad, Gary Sullivan, and Mike Magee provide at least thirteen ways of looking at Flarf, as a technique, as a movement, as a concept, as a collection of attributes, as none of things ("There is no such thing as Flarf!" —KSM, channeling Tzara). Of course, formulations like these begin to smell like post-mortems. One begins to suspect that Flarf has left the building.

There one would be wrong. Flarf, dead, alive, or trussed up for action like Miss Emily’s corpse-groom ("Flarf isn’t dead. It isn’t even Flarf.")cum radio star is hurling out some of the most kinetic, attractive, sort of honest, cute, cutesy, apt, angry, and despairing writing in the American spectrum. The Flarfy Petroleum Hat by Drew Gardner has got all these attributes in spades, and his poem "Chicks Dig War" deserves all the nervous accolades being spilled like martinis onto its open flames.

But first, let’s climb back onto the dubious teeter-totter of defining (or describing) Flarf. I like Sullivan’s description (see EPC), only half of which is quoted here:

Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."

Flarf (2): The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of "flarfiness." Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based.

This definition (which goes on for two more sub-definitions) brings out the multiple identities of Flarf. On the one hand, Flarf is an nth generation Dadaist method in which text is collected by some random technique and then arranged according to the poet’s eye or ear. Flarfists are reported to use Google and other search engines, spam, or word processing features such as spell check and search-and-replace to arrive at first versions of their texts. Most critics seize on this aspect of Flarf in their analyses, but method, to me, seems only half the Flarf equation, and, anyway, I suspect many of the Flarfsters create texts without corporate tools, out of fluency in, rather than quotation of, the Ur-speak of techno-corporate culture.

The jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories of the Flarf poem, while fetching, are not the source of Flarf’s originality. Folks, it’s just a species of collage. To my mind, it’s the other aspect of Flarf that distinguishes it. I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as "cute," let alone as "a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness." The Flarfists may have the ultimate defense mechanism in calling their work "wrong" or bad writing, but at least they accurately describe it. This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be (small ess) sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems’ self-aggrandizing, sentimental, bloviating, or sexist tendencies.


The latest setback in the Flarf story came at the hands of one Dan Hoy, yet I would argue the damage done to Flarf comes more in Flarfists’ reaction to Hoy than to his critique. In Jacket, Hoy characterized Flarf’s reliance on Google as an unwitting, unexamined complicity with corporate nefariousness, and took the unfortunate tack of lecturing the Flarfists on just how a Google search works, how it dresses the mutton of corporate prerogatives as the lamb of democratic access. In response to Mohammad’s post ‘Hoy on Flarf’ on his {lime tree} blog, Flarfsters scoffed at Hoy’s didacticism, and pooh-poohed his corporate critique, and this, dear reader, disappointed me. How can a group of writers that describe their work as pointedly "Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. Not O.K." react so defensively to a charge of Un-P.C.-ness? The more thoughtful, well-argued responses that have appeared since are no consolation. Certainly, it would be more fitting to rip yet another page from Tristan Tzara’s playbook and ride the pony of would-be corporate complicity all the way to the deranged highlands of Absurdity itself(Ryan Daley’s post is along these lines). Hopefully, by the time Sullivan publishes his collection of ripostes to Hoy in the next Jacket, the Flarfsters will have their neo-Dadaist bona fides (which is to say, non-bona-fides) in place.

Another line of attack which applies more directly to the review at hand is the pro-Flarfers complaint that Hoy didn’t address Flarf poems, but rather Flarfster rhetoric, in his essay. The charge is accurate, but I wonder what it is that makes Flarfsters and their apologists expect conventional, New Critical analyses of unconventional, absolutely anti-New Critical writing. Is it appropriate or even productive to wrestle this writing down into digestible, regurgitatable discourse(that metaphor being atrociously mixed)? Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the published products of Flarf are poems. They read like poems. Poems that could be critiqued. Perhaps this is a shortcoming. On the other hand, the poems themselves are great. In Petroleum Hat (the book, you will recall, that I am reviewing), you will find spammily titled pieces like "Skylab Wolverine Bunny Cage Nub" in which short stanzas create a ricocheting, B.B.-gun-in-the-living-room effect:

Phoenix is the land of milk dowsers,
and I’ve always been
a wolverine bunny cage xenocide forum asshole.

John Denver is nonsensical.
Good morning Skylab!

These people are for people’s amusement
in the Jack Palance Malice Palace.

I hate the high levels of jerk war around here.
Morons of quietness…

In the first stanza, the confessional-feeling "and I’ve always been," with its poor-me "and," works like a hinge between the surreal claim of the first line and the manic non-syntax of the third. Reading through this stanza, I feel picked up, swung around, and slammed down. But rather than repeating this act in the second stanza, the poem makes a different gesture, shooting arrows off in the direction of pop culture and kitschy national ambition. In the third stanza, an aural chiasmus keeps the lines from progressing; the repetition of "people" in the fifth line and the mashing up of "Jack Palance" into "Malice Palace" in the sixth keeps snagging the heel of the sprinting reader, so the lines can’t quite reach their endings. Finally, the seventh and eighth lines return to statement, and it would be hard not to read these as commentary on both exurbia and its double, the crowded inan-o-sphere of American Internet culture.

As the poem continues, it recycles its keywords and phrases, and the sum does have a parodic thrust, sending up, I would guess, the desire to make prettily-paced epiphany poems amid the catastrophe of contemporary life. In its final stanza,

I sent some smutty fragility to a waterfall
gently teased the
wolverine bunny cage by touching it
with a copy of Frogger.

The final line ruins what was *almost* a poeticized moment, but in another way completes it by overheaping nostalgia on its sentimental, I-steered lines. The poem also has an ecological angle; nature is sliced and diced, decimated and pixilated as it bleeds through this interface.

The politics of Petroleum Hat works both on the level of the individual poem and in its overall gesture of milking the pornographic solipsism of hypermediated reality for all it is (or isn’t) worth. A more conventionally political poem is "Money," which comes appended with a false-n-Flarfy epigraph. "Money is a kind of lettucy Stegner Fellow," ‘writes’ Wallace Stevens, with typical sagacity. As the poem opens, Gardner riffs like a demented Herbert:

Money, the long pink scorpion semaphores,
cash, stash, Chairman Mao, extra hard cheddar
just listening to Terry Gross.
I just killed the Pillsbury dough boy.

The deflating energy of the last line reminds us that, however zany and humorous the diction and juxtapositions of a single line, Flarf exists at the level of the stanza, because it is here that the rhetorics of gesture, statement, exposition and continuity can come tumbling down. Despite such acts of sabotage, this poem achieves epigrammatic status by its conclusion:

Money. You don’t know why it’s floating in front of you,
but you put it where your mouth put it.
And it talks to itself.

Perhaps in this iteration, Flarf is a kind of koan, engaging absurdity until it releases its wisdom.

In a poetry-sphere flooded with wishy-washy antiquated responses to the political moment, Gardner’s "Chicks Dig War" should be notorious. I am willing to look like a moron and place this poem up there with "Howl" for the capacity it gives to the dismay of the Abu Ghraib generation. The lunacy of this poem derives from the obsessiveness of its motif and the variety of ways it is reiterated, so that we can’t hoist ourselves out of the critique by something as consistent as tone. Fear of feminism, female strength and male weakness are conflated with each other and with the antithetical heterosexism of militaristic propaganda to create frightening, porny ideations: "God Made Girls Who Like War." Other stanzas seem tapped from the fetid ditch that is the brain of Karl Rove:

The pacifist wanders through life in a state
of psychic castration,
his heart scarred by the talons of female avarice
and flawed psychology. He is a poor fool who has
listened too literally
to the women who lie and say that what they want
from men is adoration and understanding.
What they want is war.

As the poem trammels on through the chatrooms of existence, it is the pseudo-rational tone of its concluding lines that is most disturbing:

women are an anti-civilizing force,
actively creating more male aggressiveness.
It would seem that a wise society would have an
interest in creating a counter-force to oppose this.

Here is a chilling reminder that suppression of women is a neat fit with almost any hegemony. Though this poem is overtly about gender, its methods could be applied to any subject on which its particular phobic fractal is writ large or small.

The humor, chilling glee, whiplash variety, and pugnaciousness of Petroleum Hat truly distinguish it. This is a topical book, although its Flarfy ventriloquism undercuts concrete political statement or parable. Sloganeering, as this book would have it, is definitely part of the problem. Flarf dismantles and remounts our current anhedonic mediascape without presuming that one might actually, in this way, defang it. This may strike Hoy or others as reactionary, as might the writing of the poem qua poem, the use of stanzaic form, and the publication of conventional poetry books, complete with blurbs. I look forward to reading more from the Flarfists and to seeing how their rhetoric circumvents and disables this critique—or whether they manage, like Tzara, to frustrate both their critics’ and supporters’ efforts to digest them.

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4 Responses to “Petroleum Hat”

  1. K. Silem Mohammad Says:

    Dear Joyelle,

    Great review. I’m so excited that Drew’s extended parallel clauses made someone else think of George Herbert! I had the same response just last night reading these lines from “The Beast”:

    to read minds, setting up in Japan, coming to
    Cleveland, abbreviated in good company, interested in
    the calibration, one of the least hairy people I hang with,
    the kind of engineer we look for but couldn’t hire,
    working on getting better in that Pacman game,
    growing every day, giving his crew
    directions, a representing link to an okay new president,
    awake and smiling at the camera, an idiot,
    one of the first tae kwon do schools
    to open in Toronto, a master, Walden Pond,
    awesome in good company, abbreviated as jealous,
    known as ‘the beast’….”

    Funny to think of these lines in connection with a poem like Herbert’s “Prayer.”



  2. Patrick Herron Says:

    Dear Joyelle McSweeney:

    The ruckus over Flarf started about a week or two before Hoy’s article appeared in Jacket. Kent Johnson dropped a bombshell on Kasey Mohammad’s blog which stated that Alan Sondheim and I were the inventors of flarf, thus at least implying that there are twin issues of social exclusion and lack of attribution at the center of the discussion regarding Flarf. While I did not agree with Kent that either Alan or I invented Flarf in any way, I did publically agree that the claim was not “completely absurd” as Mohammad described it.

    I posted my response to Kasey’s blog but it did not appear there. So I posted it to the Lucipo list on 20 January as well as to Lester’s blog (Lester is my puppet).

    Here’s my post to Lucipo:

    I was quite active on Jordan Davis’ now-defunct subsubpoetics discussion list during the period 1999-2001. I had extensively articulated and demonstrated a ventriloqual (Lester, my puppet; see for Silliman’s review of the manuscript Lester wrote in 2001) web-based poetics that relied heavily on web tools and on critiquing and parodying an internet poetics. I had published poems and articles on the subject in journals Gary and Jordan ran (among others). Between my website ( and my puppet Lester’s work, they were for better or worse familiar with what I was doing. When I found a year later there was this group getting credit for this innovation, and this group was getting credit for something described in the terms I set forth for my own work, I was bummed. Heck, Lester’s *only* public reading was with a reading series Nada ran, back in 2001. It was crushing and peculiar to find my name wholly absent from any element of discussion.
    It felt quite creepy. Further, when I read that the “first shot” of Flarf was identical to something I did in front of the person who authored that “first shot”–only I did it six months earlier–I felt I had a legitimate issue with Flarfists on the subject of attribution. I don’t know whether the issue is plagiarism–I don’t even know what the terms of such a discussion would be–but the issue is in that neighborhood.

    After this post, Gary joined the lucipo list to take aim at what I had written. Then Kasey joined, Tim Peterson joined, and so on.

    It was in the wake of this discussion on Lucipo that Hoy’s article came out. His article backed up, in effect, what I had been saying, my claims to attribution etc. I was saying that the official description of Flarf did not match the actual work of Flarf; Hoy was saying the same thing. I was saying that this mismatch occurred because the description was lifted from my own descriptions from that period, but the work of the Flarfists did not reflect those descriptions. This shortcoming was the smoking gun that supported what I had been saying. Hoy, from out of nowhere, came into the picture plucking that single characteristic I felt was missing in Flarf but in my own work. (Yes tooting my own horn–how classless.) That characteristic was the web-critical dimension.

    But you’ll continue to find my name absent from much of the discussion. I feel strongly that the absence of my name functions to de-legitimize my claim. Meanwhile you’ll see a lot of Flarfists joke about “no, *I* invented Flarf,” which is a mean-spirited jab at what I claimed. My argument has been spun beyond recognition, and it’s surprising because I thought I was for over seven years on friendly terms with many of the Flarfists.

    Patrick Herron

    Still short-lived
    Like a machine that is used
    But is not good enough
    But gives promise of a better model
    Work for endurance must
    Be built like
    A machine full of shortcomings.

    – Brecht, from “About the Way to Construct Enduring Works”

  3. annoying copyeditor type guy Says:

    trammel is not a synonym for travel

  4. Joyelle McSweeney's Percussion Grenade reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin | Tarpaulin Sky Press Says:

    […] has written about at length is Flarf, which has been defined in many ways, but by McSweeney in the Constant Critic as “Jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories … I love a movement […]

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