Nov 23, 2007

Drew Gardner: Petroleum Hat

With its inconsistent tone and self-conscious awkwardness, Drew Gardner’s second book of poetry, Petroleum Hat (2005), may already be an early Flarf classic. The flatness, the fakeness, and the constant disruption of “communication”, that is, information consumption, doesn’t make for an easy read. Gardner’s poems, many of which read like constellations of fragments culled from internet searches or strings of spam, have caused some anxiety recently in poetry circles – anxiety specifically related to his methodology – are these anti-humanist poems simply “generated by machines”? Following generations of collage from Dada to Burroughs, not to mention MTV, mashups mediated by various forms of technological tools are hardly revolutionary. But beyond the methodology lies the importance of Gardner’s intervention into the spectacle of contemporary American media culture. For Flarfists, the contemporary muse is not an ancient Greek nymph who whispers sincere odes in the poet’s ear but a drag king impersonating the tragi-comic (late) Elvis in Las Vegas, all bejeweled jumpsuits and awkward karate moves. She may well be the specter haunting contemporary American poetry. Or it is a he? And perhaps that should be “spectacle” rather than specter?

While Gardner’s poems in Petroleum Hat might be perceived as conventionally “awful”, they ultimately declare themselves as poems. Nada Gordon’s recent book, Folly, on the other hand, extended poetry beyond its conventional bounds with Gordon’s interjections, conversations and references to theater or performance texts, all of which served to disrupt the book as a collection of discrete poems (see my previous post). In contrast, Gardner’s poems certainly look like conventional ones – blocks of text with justified left margins and ragged right margins, arranged into stanzas over a page or two. However, like Gordon’s Folly, Gardner’s Hat is characterized by its multitude of conflicting voices, its deflation of sincerity and its juxtaposition of serious and profane content.

Like internet search engines, Gardner’s poems make no distinction between “serious” information (“news”), personal asides and pop gossip: it’s all potential material to add to the mix. In Petroleum Hat, political figures mix it with celebrities in a flattened virtual world, and this may in fact be less of a literary construct than simply a reflection of the “real” contemporary America (the Governator of California, for example, springs to mind). While there are no consistent narratives or tones in Gardner’s work, the language all seems to be culled from the virtual world – what K. Silem Mohammad calls a poetry with internet “flavors”. At times, it feels as if Gardner is “drowning in the porridge of upload” – and, rather than distilling the information overflow into clear, rational packages of consumable data, he leaves it messy and thick with absurdity, cynicism and ambiguity. In “The Key and the Carrot”, Gardner writes:

I walk my room
looking for a destination,
only finding poets who love form and content
I have nonetheless found myself
walking to the receiver
as arsonist
with the new situation in quantum furrow
let it suffice with this:
the ground beef is still nothing received

The absence of punctuation makes it difficult to make “sense” of this poem, its initial autobiographical mode is disrupted by random appearances from quantum furrows and ground beef, as if our arsonist is burning the conventional autobiographical tone in which he (?) begins. If poets “love form and content”, Flarfists have instead fallen for relations and surface. Thus it does seem a little futile to be digging into the depths of these poems (what is “quantum furrow”? why “ground beef” here?) as they are less metaphoric than metonymic, establishing relations across a surface rather than mining a tradition (again, no evidence of ancient Greeks here).

A major theme of the book is the Iraq War, or more specifically, the images and language of the war as it is being consumed in contemporary America (or least on its computer screens). Gardner plays with War on Terror doublespeak, exposing its absurdity and deflating its seriousness. In this sense, it is worth considering the fragmented language and imagery of Petroleum Hat as a corrosive disruption to the sanitized feeds of information presented by mainstream American news sources. Gardner’s now-infamous poem, “Chicks Dig War”, for example, begins “Story time: Trojan Oil War (part 2)”, a pithy summation of the war, but he goes further than just the war with his repeated phrase “chicks dig war”. While it has been described as an anti-war poem, Gardner is actually dismantling the warped logic and propaganda that justifies war, and ultimately satirizes contemporary American gender and power relations. Joyelle McSweeny, in her excellent review in The Constant Critic, described the poem thus: “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."” The foundational American trinity of miltarism, religion and patriarchy are all wittily deflated by Gardner’s satire.

In Gardner’s “John Denver Wawa Shadow Puppet Government”, he again mashes up key contemporary themes – the war, politics, celebrity and religion:

the NBC/Wall Street Journal doesn’t understand
the God of Isaac and Ishmael
soon we’ll all be praying to John Denver
if we don’t allow right-wing poor people to feel happy
ALL the time,
teach their kids how to pray in the direction of pizza
yet see no problem
with having the Lord’s Prayer printed in ghostly pubic hair

the president has become newly stressed-out
with the profound equality of all human beings
knocking over stone walls onto Avril Lavigne
as Abraham Lincoln once did

Here, Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham (though with different mothers), underline the common ancestry of Christianity and Islam (the former religion traces a lineage through Isaac, the latter through Ishmael). Mainstream news “can’t understand” that both religions have the same father. In a contemporary America where more people vote for TV pop stars than politicians, John Denver, bland country/pop singer of the 1970s and 80s, may be both a worthy idol and a worthy political candidate. However, unlike contemporary bland pop stars, and despite the potential patriotism of hits such as “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High”, Denver was also known for his political outspoken-ness, and was particularly critical of various (particularly Republican) governments.

In the following stanza, Gardner flattens the space of the poem to conflate Avril Lavigne and Abraham Lincoln. Beyond simply a curious juxtaposition, Gardner is also skating across the surface of language, with ALL as a key refrain from the last stanza – both bland contemporary pop singer and former president contain those letters in their names, underlining the equality of all. However, more seriously, equality is stressful for the president, with the resonance of “stone walls” recalling 1969’s Stonewall Riots, and suggesting that equality here is not just referring to the rights of America’s Pizza-eating poor but also the president’s “knocking over” gay rights proposals.

There certainly appears to be something sinister going on behind the scenes of the “shadow puppet government”, though Gardner does not offer a clear ethical stance on any of these issues – the poems force combinations or conflate discourses that do not usually belong in the same space. Another poem, “in this otherworldly quiet”, for example, begins:

in this otherworldly quiet
i heard the piercing cry of agony rent the air
dear little bird, why this shipbuilding?
why a 300 pound weapon, and
why did each protester
spank Wolfowitz individually, really hard?

administration has been made between
clauses relating to internet surveillance
and radioactive toys made of lint

Here again, Gardner presents a mashup of contemporary news issues – the war, internet surveillance, weapons – in a creepy silent otherworld (the silent distance created by the mediating screen?). But the messiness only allows the reader brief moments of empathy. By creating a space where prayer meetings meet celebrity porn and the war’s principle architect, Paul Wolfowitz is spanked by protestors, Gardner’s warped visions are certainly infused with an absurd humor. As spam aims to escape filters and spread virally, so too Gardner’s language escapes rational communication in unfiltered streams of the American collective unconscious, and the results are both humorous and frightening. Petroleum Hat is a collection of odd fragments that takes on the glittering surfaces of mediated culture in a combination of chance-generated spontenaeity and constructedness, resulting in a poetics which tries to take on contemporary media culture on its own terms rather than from the position of “poetry” that expresses “sincere emotions”. If not sincere, then serious? With the constant stoppages, voice changes and erasures, the reader is never really sure. As Gardner writes in “Skylab Wolverine Bunny Cage Nub”:

That last paragraph has to go—
I think that’s the wolverine bunny cage of
our problem—not counting the last paragraph
made of paper maché nub replicas.


Drew Gardner reads "Chicks Dig War" at the 2006 Flarf Festival in NYC (YouTube video).

Drew Gardner reads from an earlier book, Sugar Pill, to the accompaniment of his own piano playing, in a duo with bass player Damon Smith (Ubuweb, sound only).

Drew Gardner's blog, Overlap.

The latest on Flarf, a National Poetry Foundation podcast. A good introduction and overview.

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