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Poetry Makes a Brief, Triumphant Stand at Performa

Bunny Rogers and Sophia Le Fraga stand out with voice and internet rhythm.

What does a poetry reading look like in a performance art context? Today, November 19, is the last reading of the poetry series, What if someone told u you were significant, organized as part of the visual art performance biennial Performa. Although there have been several poetry readings in previous Performa years, this seems to be the first time in which the biennial included a specific program of poets.

The three readings are curated by Mark Beasley to explore the “distinct and peculiar motifs of language online.” Talking with Mark after the first reading, he explains that he is interested in the written word beyond the printed page and specifically in the role of voice in poetry.

It’s fitting that the poetry readings take place within an art installation by one of the poets, Heather Phillipson. Heather is a UK-based poet and artist. The installation Final Days fills the former retail space-turned-event space A+E Studios with towers of cardboard boxes, TV screens, and socks dangling from the pipes in the ceiling, and in the center of the room, a big poster of a man’s lower body clad only in white briefs. The mic is placed in front of the penis and this is where the readings take place.

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Performa Poetry Series, What If Someone Told U You Were Significant, 2015. Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy of Performa. 

At the first reading, poets Bunny Rogers, Andrew Durbin, and Heather Phillipson read from their work. The audience sits on the floor in turquoise beach chairs in front of the readers or stands. Bunny Rogers has a voice that asks to be heard but in the end really doesn’t care. Her poetry exists as a certain body as well as text on the page. My body feels fragile and at risk whilst suspended in a purple mist. Rogers’ reading makes me think of the ways in which it is violent to ask someone to read. What is the poet’s phallus, power, in this art space?

Andrew Durbin’s writing is observant and prosaic. The author of Mature Themes (2014) talks about online and offline moments and creates a narrative that resembles the chronology of a browser history. Phillipson’s poetry asks the audience questions like “when did you start feeling like this?” and concludes the night with the line “One day the mind blows up then ciao, dead.”

Last week, poets Ben Fama and Sophia Le Fraga read. Fama reads a list of celebrity names. His work includes a lot of Western cultural references such as “Pellegrino.” Le Fraga plays more with rhythm as she reads from I RL, YOU RL (2013) and her hand-stamped book, Other Titles. She gives instructions in a commercial or Siri-like voice, argues with a bot about what makes a real poet, and e-chats and presents bot-like word plays like “A Good Tan Is Hard to Find” and “The Beautiful and the Damn, Girl.”

Performa Poetry Series, What If Someone Told U You Were Significant, 2015. Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy of Performa.

This evening, Performa’s last poetry event takes place at the same Tribeca location at 6:30 p.m. with poets Morgan Parker and Harry Burke. It’s an opportunity to see poetry read in a performance art context and perhaps think about the poetry reading as a certain type of performance and how poets, some of whom are practicing artists, art critics, or curators, might engage their text performatively through voice, body, or installation in front of an audience.

Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

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