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At Performa, Two Poets Make Online Language Flexible and Freeing

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A&E Studios, set up for the Performa Poetry Reading Series and with Heather Phillipson’s ‘FINAL DAYS’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Poetry readings aren’t popular, or easy. I recently learned that in some European countries, poets and writers have actors read their work for them in public to make the experience more accessible and appealing. At A&E Studios, for the new Performa Poetry Series, titled What if someone told u you were significant?, there were beach chairs and free beer — and the added environment of an art installation by Heather Phillipson, whose videos channeling the experience of online shopping were apt for a reading dedicated to poets “whose works borrow the distinct and peculiar motifs of language online.”

Standing before an enormous print closing in on a man’s bulging briefs, Ben Fama and Sophia Le Fraga read poems about celebrity culture, broken relationships, email exchanges, and the mundane. Both New York–based poets find comfort in the internet — “The Internet is my home / Where it’s easy to be beautiful / And seen and new,” Fama writes — but also express a sense of unease and insecurity with it. Le Fraga started by reading her “throwback” poetry, a series of works in email or online comment form in which the speaker attacks the poet: “Dear Sophia … I find your poetry offensive”; “Do you understand what it means to be a poet, Ms. Le Fraga?”; “who tagged this as poetry?” Both poets write about the lonely, voyeuristic, and amusing nature of online relationships — Le Fraga: “guys i can hear all / yr thoughts / in my internet”; Fama: “I found you / on Gothtrash.com / and saved your picture / to my computer desktop” and “I look through all your pictures / I don’t really want to know you / but you have a cute cat.” Both poets are forward and personal — in introducing a poem, Fama cited a friend as an inspiration but added, “It’s not about her, but about me, because it’s poetry.”

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Ben Fama reading at the Performa Poetry Series, “What if someone told u you were significant?”

Fama and Le Fraga also share a love of lists, as they seem dazed by the internet and its constant flow of information. Fama began his incantatory reading: “MIRANDA LAMBERT / KIM KARDASHIAN / CAITLYN JENNER / THE HAMPTONS / CELEBRITY BREAKUPS.” Le Fraga, whose poetry captures the moods and inflections of internet language and how it affects us subconsciously, read a series of alternative names for famous movies and books: “A Street Food Cart Named Desire / Tinder Buttons … The Old Man and the Siri.” Le Fraga’s work shows how online language sounds strange when spoken (“you have a hashtag contradiction”), whereas Fama’s poems jump back and forth between online and offline worlds, rendering them as one fluid experience. His language moves from ambiguous, internet lingo (“dash/cam/attack”) to the physical and concrete (“wet/coke/summer”).

We read a lot of articles on how the internet affects our thinking and behavior, but I rarely come away enlightened. Most of the time I’m left feeling guilty, depressed, or punished. But through their poetry, Fama and Le Fraga frame the internet as something we have created and made personal — rather than being imprisoned by it, the poets take ownership of its language, make it flexible and even freeing. Through my first beer, reclining in my beach chair, I listened with ease to the poets’ words, which seemed to slow down and unlock my own online world.

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Sophia Le Fraga reading at Performa’s Poetry Reading Series, “What if someone told u you were significant?”

But it’s unlikely that poetry readings, however reformed, will be widely attended any time soon in the US, where poetry isn’t popularly read on the page either. In discussing why this might be, a Turkish poet recently suggested to me that poetry is read in countries undergoing hardship — in other words, where poetry is a need. Though the US is not a country of grave suffering, there is no place where people don’t experience pain, confusion, and grief. Of course, poetry isn’t solely there to console. But, regardless of where in the world we are, it does help to distill our contemporary experiences into a language that we often have not mastered or fully absorbed before the poet puts it down on the page.

Ben Fama and Sophia Le Fraga read at A+E Studios on Thursday, November 12 as part of the Poetry Performa Series What if someone told u were significant? The final reading of the event featuring Harry Burke and Morgan Parker will take place on Thursday, November 19 at A+E Studios (160 West Broadway, Tribeca, Manhattan) at 6:30pm. 

Correction: This article originally referred to the underwear in Heather Phillipson’s print as boxers, not briefs. It has been fixed.

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