SOU professor earns fame through flarfing

Kasey Mohammad of Southern Oregon University is flarfing his way to fame — at least among flarfists, who, admittedly, represent a small proportion of poets.

Author of the just-published flarf poetry collection, "The Front," the associate professor of English and writing resists defining flarf but gladly shows how it's done:

Throw random words into Google.

Paste the results into a Word file.

Delete all the Internet addresses (URLs) and numbers.

Arrange the disconnected sentences and phrases into lines of poetry.

Mohammad enters "bunny rabbit," "abomination," "deficit," "Spinoza" and "Republican." Amazingly, hundreds of Internet passages contain all or most of these terms. But there still are too many, so he adds "Prius," trying to get under 100 responses from Google.

He cuts and pastes them, not adding any of his own words except "a" and "the," and quickly arranges the words into seemingly nonsensical lines that can't help but bring a smile to your face.

Although chaotic, the lines — perhaps because they're born of the same search terms — gradually take on a vaguely coherent meaning.

"Being less representational, it gives you new ways to write and opens up the language," Mohammad says. "You have to risk again."

Flarfing, or "Google sculpting," comes from such anti-mainstream movements as dadaism, beat poetry and language poetry of the 1970s. It presents an edge to a modern verse tradition that's "gone completely stale and inert," Mohammad says.

"It comes out of post-Modernism. It's fragmented, disjointed, deliberately jarring, instead of soothing," he says. "But it is writing. It opens up vocabulary imagery that would never otherwise occur ... you let the language direct you."

Asked about its random direction when compared to traditional poetry, Mohammad says, "If poetry is going to thrive again, maybe we have to kill it off."

Mohammad's title poem, "The Front," includes these lines:

Santa Monica to its everlasting shame has made

an immoral bargain like a blind kitten "housecats convince people that marijuana is immoral" now the name of the black kitten was Ink

as he opened the door he received a surprise

instead of the usual stove-lid or potato masher for him to dodge

came only words.

If flarfism has any meaning, it's not handed to you on a plate, Mohammad tells his students.

"Some people think it's fun and some resist it and ask, 'Is this really writing?' he says. "A lot of people see it as a novelty. Some poets resent it. Others, experimental poets, like it. Other experimental poets feel it's not politically conscious enough. It doesn't have the strict referential forms about class, war, global warming.

"I found it more politically charged by not allowing you to look away from atrocities, absurdities and religious pieties and rhetoric," he says.

Flarf is a reaction against the sort of verse "that's published in the New Yorker, childhood memories, a walk in the forest, like Robert Frost ... you get two or three lines into it and here it is, war is bad, the rainforests are dying, you say, OK, I see what your beliefs are."

At the Emergent Forms poetry readings at Ashland's Bohemia Gallery on a recent Monday, Maurice Burford, an SOU literature graduate, called flarf "fun, disgusting and vulgar; it allows you to say anything without using your own words, like dipping into the collective unconscious with a cup — exciting."

Daniel Bailey of Fort Collins, Colo., after reading from his new book, "Drunk Sonnets," at Emergent Forms, said flarf poetry "takes authorship away and gives it to chance ... sometimes producing incredible things. It's about selecting, rather than saying something personal to yourself. There's something very democratizing about it."

Mohammad taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz and has his doctorate in English and Renaissance literature from Stanford University. He is the author of earlier books, "Deer Head Nation," "A Thousand Devils" and "Breathalyzer." He edits literary magazines and is the adviser to SOU's West Wind Review.

A fan of Shakespeare, he is working on rejiggering the Bard's 154 sonnets by making all the words into anagrams, keeping the same rhyme scheme and 14 lines — and using any leftover words for the titles. He calls them sonnagrams.

"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done," says Mohammad. "I love working in traditional meters ... trying to create something witty out of available materials."

The attraction of flarfing, Mohammad notes, is that it's "absolutely exhilarating ... it's moving language around in material chunks. It's almost a tactile medium."

Mohammad, whose father is from Yemen and mother from California, says of his hometown of Modesto, "While I blame it for a lot of this flarfiness, it crushed my spirit in just the right way to open me to poetry."

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