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What Was Flarf?: Jordan Davis Reviews Diana Hamilton’s Okay, Okay
Most poets need an income. Some of us teach or are freelance copywriters. Some of us work for nonprofits or consulting companies. Most of us, at some point, have worked in a cubicle, and all of us have to develop methods for creating time to write. We regularly recommend Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems to young poets who have recently graduated from college and are struggling to adapt to their cubicle. After reading Jordan Davis’s recent review for Constant Critic, we’ll also recommend Okay, Okay, by Diana Hamilton.
Davis convincingly situates Hamilton’s work within the framework of Flarf and Conceptual writing, but we’re especially intrigued by the way he connects Hamilton’s subject matter with the labor of writing. “Hamilton’s book carries on the work of the Flarf and Conceptual poets,” he writes, “but the Conceptual poets don’t work, they write time and action plans, and if Flarf involves work it’s analogous to the combining and rewriting that goes on during dreaming.” Davis sets up this framework quite clearly early in the review:
Google as a tool for the making of art has had a separate life from Google as a prosthesis for navigating the world and its culture, the way the pencil has had separate lives in the studio and at the office. Taking up the disinterested Kantian aesthetics of the language poets, Flarf and Conceptualists have made a point of providing results for useless searches—unless you have a rabbit with mange, “rogaine bunny” is not something you’d look up to plan a course of action. Diana Hamilton’s first book, Okay, Okay (available both for purchase in hard-copy and for free as a pdf from Truck Books), however, asks a serious and painful question: “how to stop crying at work.” This search leads often to the kinds of message board and self-help material that Flarf has been criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for appropriating condescendingly. It also leads to Human Resources best practices documents and scholarly work on emotion from before the dawn of Freudian psychology—the kinds of material Conceptualist works present as self-evidently interesting, without engaging the arguments or observations.
Davis argues that, while it is possible to Google-sleuth many of Hamilton’s sources (as he does in his review) and to differentiate phrases she left alone versus the ones she modified, the book is much more satisfying and moving when considered as a whole:
The text shifts easily from one-source pages…to these collaged composites, building force like a narrative and voice like a monologue, though there is no narrative and no unitary speaker. It works just the way the avant-garde said it would—and so seldom does—because it is focused completely, in every clause, on strong feelings and how they are both felt and avoided. I thought at times of Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale, another excellent work that uses collaged internet search results to get to the heart of things, and of Kevin Davies’s “Lateral Argument,” which remains the high score on the post-Language poetry video game.
And not all of Okay, Okay can be reverse-Googled:
From the apology for feeling in the Radioheadesque title to the ungoogleable narrative that closes the book, Okay, Okay is resolutely not an invitation to share an inside joke or an appeal to intellectual vanity. The feelings may be borrowed, quoted, distorted and inverted; they may take time to come into focus; nevertheless, they are real and strange and there every time the book falls open. Readers who have written off Flarf as either an “oh that” or an “I don’t get it” experience will ignore this new mutation at their cost.
You’ll find the complete review at Constant Critic.