Sunday, April 30, 2006

On the Possibility of Performing Flarf

The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for vituosity or in the communication of his "personality".

T. S. Eliot

As I've said before, my hunch is that many of those who don't get or don't like Flarf also think that it is impossible to perform it at some level. The poems, it might be argued, lack a "voice" or "immanent orality" to be "realized" in a "reading". Sorry about all those scare quotes. I'm trying to connect the sense in which poets do "readings" with the sense in which critics do "readings". Reading a Flarf poem is famously difficult.

So I'm watching the videos of the Flarf Festival at YouTube with great interest these days. I am enjoying it as much as the next guy, I'm sure, but there is something about these performances that once again makes me think that what I like about Flarf is something other than what its poets themselves see in it.

The readings I've watched so far all seem to introduce personality or "character" into the work (Jimmy Berhle's may be an exception). Many of them do different voices, and they certainly seem to be impersonating (and, arguably, sometimes mocking) their sources as they do this. That is, in reading their work out loud, they lend some support to Tony's "re-imagining the sources" theory.

Tony once applied Kasey's reading of Barrett Watten to Flarf. The key image is that of a poem

"spoken" through a bullhorn by a figure in black pajamas standing on top of an imposing but faceless public structure.

Like Tony, I think this image provides a model for reading (in both senses) Flarf.

Actually, I always try to read Flarf as though presented on a teleprompter in front of a talking head (news anchor, talk show host, president, etc.). The reason is that I think the Flarf materials (let's simplify by thinking of them as Google searches) achieve their maximum effect when passed through the constraints of an established, monolithic form. That is, Flarf calls for a radically entrenched subject position, a well-endowed enunciative modality. On the page, this normally means subjecting the materials to the hegomony of "free verse".

I was suprised that Drew Gardner used different voices. I always read that poem "straight" as a single, coherent statement. Something similar goes for Kasey. Sharon Mesmer's hillarious "Annoying Diabetic Bitch", which is probably the performance that works best (at least when seen on video) used a single voice but does seem to impersonate (and to an extent mock) the sources (though, like I say, construing what must be multiple sources as one). One way to avoid this would be to imagine Scott McClellan reading it off a teleprompter ...

in black pajamas, of course. Or, alternatively, and just as obviously, he might wear a pair of bunny ears and get someone to play bagpipes in the background.

As you can see, this isn't a finished thought.


Jordan said...

Hi Thomas - I'd say (in my best 90s-theory voice) there was a range of performativity, from the extremely goofy -- my idiot-child voice or Rod's Inspector Clouseau voice -- on down to perfect deadpan -- Anne and Kasey's readings, say, as well as Katie's and Sharon's. In Katie and Kasey's cases, I heard very little difference between their performance voices and their timbres in conversation.

I'd add that there seemed to be a greater range in performance voice style at the festival than in any given control group reading.

Not to skew your research or conclusions, just to offer some witness.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for the input, Jordan. I don't think I'm going to be making very much of what I glean from the videos.

Including Kasey among the deadpanners surprised me at first, but looking at it again, you're certainly right about "Chicks Don't Actually Dig War". "Ignore Me, Shorty," seems different on this point though.

I think my main suggestion here is not to let the contigent features of performance draw attention away from the tension between mainstream poetry and flarf (I think that tension is important).

In a sense, Flarf shows us exactly how formal "free verse" is as a constraint (or how constraining it is as a form).

All I think I'm saying about the Festival is that the good spirits (and I wish I could have been there) seems to have released a bit of this tension by allowing to many questions about what "poetry" is (as a set of presumptions) remain open.

Too much liberty (given that it was confined to a stage), perhaps.

Anyway, I'm still working on it. And congratulations with the festival. It sure sounds (and looks) like a success.