Jan 8, 2009

Sharon Mesmer: Annoying Diabetic Bitch

In the closing years of the Bush era, poetry from the Flarf collective emerged as one of the most challenging creative responses to contemporary American culture. The era’s key themes – 9/11 and the subsequent wars, the ongoing occupation of Iraq, the rise of the religious right, tensions over immigration, and the conspicuous consumption of the credit bubble economy – have littered Flarf poetry over the past few years. Poets such as K. Silem Mohammad, Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, Drew Gardner, Sharon Mesmer, and others have actively taken up the challenge of creating a literature of critical engagement in a culture characterized by the almost complete pervasiveness of mediated communication (recently dominated by the internet, but also TV and radio). Diving headfirst into the information flows, Flarf poets have surfaced with a practice that operates like the literary equivalent of burlesque: the pastiche of “serious” content mashed up with kitsch, the corrosive parody, the teasing humor, the glittering costumes and play with identities, and the essentially performative nature of burlesque are consistent with much Flarf poetry.

Burlesque’s intention was rarely to shock (in the 20th century avant-garde sense), but rather to titillate and seduce, while at the same time overturning and challenging social norms. While it may not be possible to shock a literary audience anymore, the extreme Flarf of Sharon Mesmer’s recent book, Annoying Diabetic Bitch, may prove challenging (at least in this burlesque sense) to some readers. In Mesmer’s hands, the earnest lyrical voice of confessional first-person poetry has degenerated into scatological language, garbled gibberish, inane conversation and insults as she mines the excesses of conventionally unpoetic realms such as online chat rooms, spam and celebrity gossip websites for material. While lacking in earnest gravity and narrative continuity, the voices Mesmer employs are nonetheless compelling and at times, the dialogue she employs reads like a series of warped comedy skits – her reading at the Flarf Festival 06 and the audience reaction here really capture the sense of a Flarf poem as a kind of burlesque performance.

Characterized by abrupt changes in voice and register, Mesmer’s poetry is composed from within a culture of extreme distraction. She creates a strangely artificial zone inhabited by characters derived from chat room handles such as “SmarmyMan” and “Fckme69” or pop cultural figures such as the Olsen twins, and the use of words and phrases such as “like, totally”, “crazy ass” and “go figure”. The characteristically Flarfy juxtapositions of “serious” political or philosophical content with frivolity or banality serve to undermine any attempt to establish a clear polemical position. Conventional literary criticism (such as this essay) and close reading techniques seem only marginally useful in coming to grips with the Flarf of Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Indeed, as Mesmer points out in the poem “Why I Love Literary Criticism”, “literary criticism is extremely boring, whilst a squid superconducting quantum interference devices is exciting.”) The latter squid may well serve as a handy metaphor for a Flarf poet: conducting (in both senses of the word) interference devices within the streams of contemporary media culture.

In the book’s Postscript, Mesmer describes how some of the poems were composed using the results of Google searches in which she entered odd word combinations into the search engine. This technique appears most obviously in poems such as “Ass Vagina”, a poem that reads like a kind of pornographic spam salad, beginning: “Free Lindsay Jessica Carmen topless puss ass butt vagina 100% free”. The mash-up of porn search tag phrases is pushed into absurdity with subsequent reiterations and mixes in later lines, such as: “Hairy preggo men teen orgy Greenville manufacturing district with endangered hairy ass teen rappers 100% free”. Again, the performative nature of the repetition of key terms (“ass”, “hairy”, “100% free”) continually undermined by unrelated material makes for a hilarious live reading experience (see here). Mirroring internet searching, language shifts horizontally in these poems, skimming across the surface of meaning. Perhaps Mesmer’s poetry thus cynically performs the absence of transcendence in contemporary American culture (other than the excitement of being pulled along the information stream by a superconducting squid).

Mesmer teasingly offers up mashups of incredibly inane, unsophisticated language and banal declarations, almost as if to challenge our expectations of what poetic language is or should be. Beyond the literary provocation, she is also highlighting the flippant superficiality of much online culture – the exaggerated whining of blog culture appears in numerous poems, the self-centered and superficial voices of “I am Beautiful” take vain declarations to extremes (“I also have a beautiful soul, to go with my body”), and the repetitive insults of “Annoying Diabetic Bitch” and its companion piece, “Fine Hormony Bitch”, reflect the online culture of discussion board flaming:

You annoying diabetic bitch.
You anorexic bulimic diabetic bitch.
You dumb annoying talentless diabetic bitch, eat some diabeties.
You and your bitch monster diabetic junkhead father,
and your diabetic cat, your pathetic diabetic cat that eats birds

A poem such as “I Wuv Bumblebees” pushes this inanity envelope to the extreme, opening with a series of variations and extensions on the phrase “I Wuv Bumblebees” and continuing:

I wuv kittycats and I have three cats.
No – ha! – seriously, I wuv bumblebees more
and I think you’re a deadly bumblebee crack whore
(oh, I meant “fucking legend”).

Mesmer’s parody of such online banter exposes cracks in the culture of banality, bursting at certain points into violent confrontational language as the wuvable bumblebee suddenly becomes a “deadly bumblebee crack whore”. While titillated by the transformative bumblebee, the reader is ultimately left frustrated, as the final lines serve to deflate any rhythmic sense or continuity of the bumblebee theme:

And you only have to insert “Flight of the Bumblebee” to produce
duotone balls, pink and white,
and anal beads of purple.
I’m sick of this.
Let’s go pirate gaming at Brickfest.

Cruising through the datascapes of distraction horizontally from bumblebees to anal beads, Mesmer ends her “search poem” with a signature abrupt and illogical change of course: an invitation to attend a Lego convention. Like the form, Mesmer’s content is also “irrational”, sliding horizontally across contexts as it gains and sheds meaning in a literary equivalent of channel or web surfing.

As with other recent Flarf volumes (see my previous reviews here and here), contemporary political realities are prominent in Annoying Diabetic Bitch. The collusion of the religious right and recent American imperialism are highlighted in the poem “My Jesus in Lint Form”:

My Jesus in lint form taught me
About taking barbarism to new levels,
Levels heretofore perceived only in metaphors
Of demon legions in a post-Dutch world.

But the most scathing parodies are reserved for the commander in chief, who Mesmer has performing thus in “I Am A Very Confident Little Fellow”:

When I do my flight suit sausage strut
On the deck of the frigate, flippin’ the bird
The grunts all know I have the primo cunt
And a whole butt-load of dung-sniffin’ butt monkeys.

While the sacred icon of the presidential figure is dragged through the scatological mud-pit several times in the book, the various voices Mesmer inhabit reflect varying political positions (presumably apart from her own). In the poem “I Know That Babies Feel Just As Nervous and Confused As You Do”, for example, she pushes a contemporary anti-immigration voice to extremes to expose its inherent racism: “I’m not all left-wing and shit, but I know the Religious Right can be easily replaced by a baby with a Pez dispenser … And you know what else I know? That America is becoming another Europe where the birth rate is so low the continent is now overpopulated by immigrants from Muslim countries, and that’s why I’m urging white people to have babies because most immigrants show up here with bad fucking attitude problems. Same with their babies.”

With the end of the Bush era only weeks away, perhaps the parodies of Annoying Diabetic Bitch already seem dated. In the not too distant future, critics may look back on this poetry as a cynical response to a particular era in American culture that has passed. However, there is much in Mesmer’s book that indicates productive future possibilities as well: the stinging comic parodies, the inhabitation of various online voices and the engagement with the particular languages and modes of contemporary communication. Finally, Flarf’s convincing convergence of literature, performance and communications technology (both as a means to build literary communities and as a data mine for both content and form) has created a 21st century poetry that is both entertaining and critically engaged.

Further reading

An interview with Sharon Mesmer
Sharon Mesmer’s blog