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What does it mean to be a poet in the internet age?

(from my blog: artoffiction.blogspot.com)

One of the things I like about America’s venerable “Poetry” magazine are the surprises that it throws in now and then – translation issues, for instance – and in this issue, a mini-magazine within the magazine addressing two “new movements” for the 21st century, Flarf & conceptual writing. It’s surely part of the role of a national poetry magazine to bring to a wider audience work from the margins.

Having had more than one conversation recently about the lack of web-based writing that actually comes out of the possibilities of the medium, perhaps its not a surprise that Flarf is primarily concerned with that medium. Edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, he introduces the subject by saying that “our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age?” What indeed…

He introduces us to writing that is interested in its own processes, “found poetry”, but because of the dynamic nature of the internet, this is the wrong term, its perhaps a poetic equivalent of Eno’s “generative music” – a writing that churns and changes with this immersive medium. Though its not all flarf, (using the term to mean spam or similar garbage) as Mel Nichols’ charming modern day Whitman poem “I Google Myself” makes clear. Though reading its last lines, “I don’t Google anybody else/And when I think about you I Google myself/Ooh, ooh, oo, oo, aah”, its almost a mashup between e.e. cummings and long-forgotten Divinyls single “I touch myself.” Sharon Mesmer and K. Silem Mohammad’s poems are long lost offshoots of Ashbery’s “Tennis Court Oath”, juxtaposing random words from the internet into what otherwise looks and sounds like a normal poem, whilst in the conceptual pond Goldsmith’s own “The Day” takes news articles from the newspaper on 9/11 and gives them a retrospective dread. “TOMORROW. Mainly sunny” reads one, “Islam is a dangerous religion”, reads another, quoting a Houellebecq interview.

These things are of course closer to art practice than traditional poetry, but because the web is still a written medium, primarily, there’s a nice playfulness with words that keeps them firmly in the poetry camp. Here, I think is the difference with much internet based generative art (thinking of Thomson & Craighead’s installations that use live streams to create the content for their work) or indeed with older forms of “concrete” or “visual poetry.”

Flarf is fun, and I think its the playfulness in this selection which is great. It’s not saying “all other poetry sucks” or creating yet another divide where there’s so many already. You can read all these pieces online here.

All of this deserves to be taken seriously, though perhaps not too seriously – there’s surely no big agenda round conceptual writing other than as an interesting thing to do; and, surely with the “toolkit” that is the internet, we’d be surprised to find nothing that uses it. A sestina made out of Tweets for instance might be a nice little exercise, but who knows whether Twitter will remain in 5 years or more?
Katy Evans-Bush writes a little about it here, and the great thing about Flarf might be that we’ve all written it without realising it. And as Steven Waling says in response to the post, it’s fine for a little while, but you don’t necessarily want to just read this and nothing else.

I wrote quite a lot of generative or conceptual poems around the millennium. One of the most effective can be read here.