Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press, and includes work from poets Sophia Le Fraga and elena minor. They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss Xanga blogs, “legitimate” literature, digital spotlights, and saving your soul.
Michael Martin Shea: Sophia, your piece in BAX begins with the all-caps, full-page declaration, “I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET”—but of course, as we read on, we find that that statement is not entirely true, as the work incorporates hashtags and emojis. And elena, your piece gives a similar nod with the title, “rrs feed.” So maybe an interesting question to start off with would be: what role does the internet (or internet-based modes of speech) play in your poetics?
elena minor: I view internet-based iconography as another thesaurus, another source of symbols as words [language], just as a – z words are symbols. I have no set ideas about what poetry should or shouldn’t be, so I’m free to grab anything that seems to hold the meaning I intend and put it to use, sometimes in easily recognizable ways, sometimes not. Although I haven’t seen one yet, I’m sure someone has already written a poem consisting of only emojis. For all we know, emojis may be the lingua franca of the 22nd century. How would Shakespeare be translated? (Now there’s a literary project.)
Sophia Le Fraga: I think the internet has always played a big role in my writing. I say this mainly because the first time I started writing diligently was in high school, when a friend and I created a blog in order to hold each other accountable for making poems. We’d come up in the years of Xanga and LiveJournal, when anyone in the world with your URL could read the most intimate things you shared online, and I think our impulse, in part, was one to self-publish. I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET was, at least I think, the first work of mine to deal directly with internet content and with repurposing social media statuses. But the internet is really big! I think what interests me personally and what maybe gets my “poetics” going is more the language of social media, and specifically the way that people talk to themselves or each other on the web. @elena, check out Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick. Some of my work from the past two or three years also deals with adapting classical texts into instant-messaging dialogues.
MMS: When looking at your poems, one notices immediately how multi-lingual they are. Perhaps this is easier in elena’s work, with the mixture (and occasional overlap) of Spanish and English, but I think a similar idea is at-play in Sophia’s piece, in the sense that it uses overlapping registers—for example, phrases like “in the anecdotes/and parables/composed/of former future” alongside “welcome to my couch/u superficial motherfucka.” What is the effect of this crossing of linguistic spheres in your work? What is your relationship to language, or to different forms of language?
em: When I write it’s really all one language, meaning that the flow of words and symbols, whether English or Spanish, is seamless for me, natural. I’m not crossing anything since I don’t think of them as separate. It’s more a weave of whole cloth. My observation is that for people who are monolingual in English, anything not in standard English is problematic, i.e., out of their control, and it either drives them crazy or they reject it as “legitimate” literature. One of my favorite books is TWERK by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. You want language? She’s got it. Although I don’t necessarily get all the words, I still get what she’s saying, doing.
SLF: I guess this is a tough question. What is the effect of the crossing of linguistic spheres? I guess the effect is poetry! Kind of like elena’s work, I think work that crosses these kinds of language spheres aims to create a sort of depth or layering, of access, of register, of voices, whatever. Elena’s observations on her monolingual readership is interesting; I was raised bilingual, so I feel like I was able to catch the different levels on which her poem “rrs feed” was functioning. I don’t personally think that the effect is lost on monolinguals, though I obviously can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it’s not since you guys included it in this university press anthology! It’s harder for me to talk about this with regards to my own work here, especially since these phrases you’re quoting are lifted from different friends’ social media profiles. So I guess the crossing of linguistic spheres you’re referring to here reflects a switch in these voices.
MMS: On that note, Sophia, I know you’ve mentioned elsewhere the role appropriation plays in your writing process. When reading the excerpt from I RL, YOU RL, I’m struck by all the quotation marks–not because the word or phrase isn’t “yours,” (whatever that means) but by the sense of contingency they evoke. It gives the language a feeling of otherness, almost as if it doesn’t fully exist on the page. Can you each speak a little bit about contingency of language, or about the process (and perhaps ethics) of using someone else’s words?
em: The U. S. literary landscape seems to be the only territory where language is an issue. I’m not sure where the fear of “foreign” languages comes from but it’s a serious drawback to our educational system. From the git anything that is not English is “othered”. And sadly, it limits what is published in literary journals. Certainly it limits where bilingual work like mine gets published. As for found text, I don’t really use it, at least not consciously. Certainly all writers riff off what we’ve read but it feels like stealing if I lift text verbatim and repurpose it. Whose work is it really then? I know I’m fairly old school about this but I want my work to be mine, to erupt from my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions. If it looks, reads or sounds like someone else’s, it’s not because I’ve appropriated it.
SLF: I’m not super interested in talking about the ethics of using someone else’s words, I mean, not with regards to this project, at least. Elena says the US literary landscape seems to be the only territory where language is an issue, and I would redirect that to posit that writing seems to be the only art where appropriation is an issue. Found photographs and found objects in sculptures, for example, all seem to be accepted without question, so I feel like it’s strange that collaged writing is equated with theft when collaged imagery isn’t. I don’t know, maybe I’m not with it enough, or maybe there was some truth in that silly quote that poetry is 50 years behind painting. I just feel like it’s a different landscape when we’re all sharing things on the internet anyway. I’m also not talking about lifting someone’s dissertation and calling it my poem. The process behind the work you’re talking about here, which dates from 2012, was to ask different people on Facebook and Twitter whether they wanted a poem, then culling through the language in their profiles to create a kind of word salad that pleased me. With regards to the quotation marks you’re referring to, I can’t remember now if I was loyal to the punctuation on the original statuses the poems come from. Reading it now, I think of them as air quotes… A sort of score for how the poems should be read aloud, but also, what you’re saying: a lapses in the poem that takes you out of it and makes you question the world that the lines set up.
MMS: elena, you’ve written before about your background in activism playing a role in your work. One of the allegations often thrown at poetry is that it’s detached from the political, that it doesn’t have any tangible effects. How would each of you respond to this idea, and what would a poetry grounded in activism look like?
em: I rarely write about trees and flowers (as I recall, the last time was sophomore year in high school). There’s nothing I could say about them that is more eloquent or moving than their actual existence. The conversation about whether poetry i.e., art, should or shouldn’t be political has been around for a long time. I don’t know that there is a definitive position to take. I write based on what I observe, what I know and what stirs me to put words to paperXscreen. Activism is a part of that but not always. Sometimes I just want my work to provoke introspection, reflection. But whether poetry can cause political action depends on the reader and the poem. It goes back to the old argument about whether the personal is political and vice versa. Anyone who reads U. S. Latino poetry will see that much of it is grounded in the political. And why wouldn’t it be?
SLF: Is it really one of the allegations thrown at poetry that it’s detached from the political? I can’t imagine anyone who’s read a handful of poems would say that. For the first years I was publishing, I was super on this trip that my work was not political and had nothing to do with politics. But now, writing this, I can’t even get into the mindset I was in when I would say that. Maybe it would be better to edit my former self and say that my poetry isn’t directly rooted in activism. Thinking back to the work I was making then, and I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET certainly falls into that period, my poems dealt with existing on the internet, existing in capitalism, what does it mean to have a voice on the internet and what kind of weight does that voice hold… and all of that now seems political to me in retrospect. Isn’t all art though, since it inherently comes from a world with politics?
MMS: Hmm, yeah, that might be the best and most succinct way of putting it. On a different note, you each have an element of visual play in your work, seen above all in the typography of elena’s piece and the use of emojis as a sort of punctuation in Sophia’s. What role does the visual, or disrupting the traditional visual flow, play in your poetics? How does visual display relate to language, for you?
em: I don’t have a reader in mind when I write. I’m focused only on what I’m trying to say and what combination of words and symbols do that in the manner and order I want them to. What eventually emerges is often dense, layered and visually rocky. I intend for it to be because the “what” I’m trying to convey is also dense, layered and visually rocky. ‘What does it all mean?’ I’m often asked. ‘What do you think it means?’ I answer. That said, “rrs Feed” is fundamentally about what could be. I believe in disruption: it keeps the mind alert, active. I’m as likely to twist (or at least tweak) conventions of grammar and structure as to use symbols that interrupt words in order to pack more into the work. Compress to express, sort of.
SLF: I don’t really consider my work to be confined by any one medium. I’m interested in text that lives on predominantly visual platforms like painting, textiles or still or moving imagery. I feel like text is always at the center of my work, but I also feel like my work doesn’t always lend itself to a page or codex. Sometimes it does; I suppose it depends on the project. The piece I have in BAX was originally an unbound book of 4×5 pages, tied precariously with a little piece of twine, and in that sense I consider the book itself a visual work. Maybe this goes back to the question you were asking about different levels of depth and layering in a work.
MMS: elena, at one point in your piece, you speak of “a great maw that words a-loud/a-lone/can b/reach.” And Sophia, in addition to your poems, you’ve also written and performed anti-plays where, even if they don’t involve any spoken dialogue, still have an element of being enacted. For each of you, what sort of power does the vocal, the aloud, or the embodied have, and how does this affect your writing process?
em: I love sounds and rhythms and use them frequently in my work. They add musicality and motion that punctuate the words. We chanted and danced and drew before we ever wrote. So why not dip into that ancient well? “Sing out, Louise!”
SLF: I’ve been thinking a lot about performance and embodiment recently. I’m about a third of my way through an MFA in photography currently, and most of the work I’ve been presenting has been in the form of live performance. I guess this is because I feel like the idea of some sort of capital P Photography is changing through the advent of all kinds of social media attached to our phones and that the snapshot, and to a larger extent, the selfie, are sort of blurring what Art Photography is, to me, anyway. What I’m interested in, fundamentally, is taking a sort of reality or existing world and filtering it (think Instagram filters) to give back to the audience or reader or viewer that “same” reality, flipped on its head. I’m also interested in the curated self-absorption that I associate so heavily with social media, and I’m interested in embodying and performing this self-obsession as a way to generate work. That bit’s been with me since I wrote this I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET work, and has stayed with me through the thank you piece you make reference to below.
MMS: On that note—Sophia, I saw you read at the Poetic Research Bureau during AWP, and your entire piece was a list of thank yous to various people (or objects) in attendance. And of course it was funny, but it also felt like a kind of ritual, like it was bringing us together as an audience. Meanwhile, the end of elena’s piece almost has a call to arms–“canta pueblo…canta” for “poets [who] die [sin song] every day”–which likewise feels ceremonial or ritualistic, a call to communal action. To what extent do you think of poetry—or of writing in general—as a ritual, or as communal, and what possibilities does this line of thinking offer?
slf: Oh man, that’s funny you were there! I’m glad you saw it, I thought that went over pretty well that night. I actually wrote that that day, after a little frustration with the monotone of the structured marathon reading. I had read the “actual work” my publishers brought me to read the night before and after seeing about 20 to 40 readers a night, just wanted to have fun with my last reading in town. I guess it was also a sort of meditation, a sort of exercise in gratitude, as well as a playful critique of the ways people read, the time and space they take up on stage and the kinds of gestures they perform as sorts of rituals around poetry readings. I’m quite interested in ceremonies and rituals—for the best in poetry I usually turn to Jodorowsky’s poetic acts—but I’m mostly super fascinated by observing the subtle gestures people perform when they’re already in the real or digital spotlight.
em: “rrs Feed” is, in fact, a call to action, a call to engage and proclaim witness for those who can’t, who couldn’t. I exhort the reader to call out for them, to do what they weren’t able to. Call out—sing—to commemorate their lives and save your soul. Amen.
elena minor‘s work is informed by a basic curiosity about the mystery of language—the paradox of spaces and symbols—how we can never say what we really mean but keep trying anyway. She is the author of TITULADA (Noemi Press), and her fiction and poetry have been published in more than two dozen journals, including Jacket2, MAKE, Switchback, Shadowbox, RHINO, Mandorla, Hot Metal Bridge and Puerto del Sol. She’s a past first prize recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize, founding editor & publisher of PALABRA and a veteran arts administrator. She also teaches creative writing to high school students.
Sophia Le Fraga is a poet and visual artist. She is the author of Other Titles by Sophia Le Fraga (If a Leaf Falls 2016); literallydead (Spork 2015); I RL, YOU RL (minuteBOOKS 2013, Troll Thread 2014) and I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET (KTBAFC 2012). Her anti-play trilogy of iOS adaptations comprises “W8ING,” “TH3 B4LD 50PR4N0” and “UND3RGR0UND L0V3R5” (Gauss PDF 2014, 2015). She’s recently been included in Greater New York (MoMA PS1; New York), PERFORMA (New York), and Eugen Gomringer & (Bielefelder Kunstverein; Bielefeld, Germany). Other Titles (Büro Broken Dimanche; Berlin, Germany) was her latest solo show. Le Fraga is the poetry editor of Imperial Matters, a curator for the experimental reading series Segue and a member of Collective Task. She teaches poetry at BHQFU, New York’s freest art school.