First reading of Sophia Le Fraga's 'W8ING 4' (1)
First, some a priori statements. A poem is made out of language. Language arises out of need; most of our basic communication needs are denotative. Poets play with language in ways that other language users don’t (and when they do, we might say that such use of language is poetic). Poems open connotative capacities in language in order to do something other than indicate, something more, something different. One definition of poetry that I like is release of maximum connotation.
So Al Filreis, Brian Reed, and Craig Dworkin — all poet-critic-scholar-teacher guys — have told me that this new work by Sophia LeFraga, “W8ing 4,” is a poem. It therefore is one. But am I capable of recognizing it as one? What is a poem? What kind of answer does this work propose? Is the work effective; is it a good answer to the first question? What poems do I already know that can help me understand and appreciate what this poem is doing? How does it extend poetry or expand its field? And if I don’t like it, will it be possible to recognize and describe its value? And if I do like it, does that mean it’s good? All these questions orbit the work before the act of reading.
The poem “W8ing 4” is framed by the degraded language of its title, as well as the technological device of the phone: sound (phone/audible voice) and text (texting/legible voice). In addition to the title’s texting/slang spelling — the use of letters and numbers (for their phonemes) — the title is a fragment. “W8ing 4.” Waiting for. Waiting for what? Waiting for God (Weil); Waiting for Godot (Beckett); Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee); “Waiting for the Man” (Lou Reed). You’ll find half a dozen romance novels on Amazon with titles that begin, Waiting for: Me, Nick, Rachel, Rain. Also, Waiting for Baby, an obvious life manual. LeFraga’s literary allusions may go quite high or quite low. I expect scrambling of old standard cultural codes. Promising, I think, because potentially vigorous; but by now, not very new.
LeFraga’s work is a video, on Vimeo. The screen shows an iPhone. I can control the forward play, pause, and rewind of the video: kind of like maneuvering through a book, but cumbersome. The resolution is really blurry. I will have a hard time reading the text. High tech meets low-fi. The phone has her name at the top of the screen: $oph. The poet may be the “speaker,” just as with a conventional lyric poem … ? The money sign is the anti-sign of poetry … Ironic? Am I feeling anxious? What kind of writing is this?
I’m reading and I’m watching at the same time. The illusion is that I’m watching someone — presumably $oph — text with someone else. There are no hands, but I see keys punched; the texting appears as if typed in real time, though actually it’s sped up: funny to think of an experience of waiting unfolding at a higher than natural speed. I’m now working with a set of conceptual contrasts or oppositions: voice/writing; speed/waiting; written and visual language. I see toggling between letters and lists of emoticons and other visual tags; also errors, some corrected, some left in. I hear the little swooshy sound effects of iPhone texting. Though conversational, this is a language no one speaks because it’s made up in part of unspeakable abbreviations and images. Texting, in other words, is a purely literary language, though it conforms to many informal speech patterns or sounds — I hadn’t thought about it until this moment. The work is leading me to a new insight about contemporary language use, and not just poetic speech. I’m presented with a new paradox: although I called this language degraded, it’s also clearly a literary language, one that mixes its signs: emoticons are like clumsy punctuation marks that function by inflecting tone, or adding color to emphasis; they’re a perfect complement to deliberately inadequate speech: the fumbling expressiveness of the inarticulate.
But it is a written language that’s creating the illusion of a “natural” spontaneity, and it’s doing so by virtue of a style or stylistic quality that I recognize as belonging to serious art: the style of artlessness, the high art of no-art. Within the history of styles it goes back at least as far as Defoe, and maybe to the very beginning of the novel, its epistolary form. It’s a kind of verbal Realism, but also associated with Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, and whatever’s happening now. Keeping it real! Is it sophistry to wonder if the poem can be called “traditional”? Such broadly drawn historical/conventional tags aren’t helping me understand. Mostly, the work’s rough textures and the unfinished nature of its materials and the way it foregrounds its medium and the system that creates it — all that strikes me as a new form of Brutalism. (That sounds smart; does comparing Le Fraga’s work to a style of architecture help me understand it? I’ll have to come back around to that question to make sure …)
The phone, among other things, is a communication device for voice and text (it occurs to me that it’s the first syllable in the word “phoneme.” But so what? Maybe nothing; but I notice my mind is being teased open). The phone is not apparently a poetry device. So it’s a good choice to test the nature of poetic language and poetic form: the device opens the field of the poem much more widely than is conventionally conceived. Twitter may put a premium on condensare, with its limit of 140 strokes, and lead to some good writing I’d hazard to call poetry. But it’s not a dramatic form. Le Fraga’s work is a dramatic form: the interplay of two voices: so, more like drama or the novel — the social role of language, the immediate drama of communication. It’s clearly playing off of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; though by using the dude icon to signify whom they are waiting for, Le Fraga is also playing with the romance genre. Are they waiting for Godot, or waiting for Gary? Why not name the person, why use an icon? Unless the figure has no name … ? One hears pastiche and deliberate downgrading of speech. Is there a target for this satire? What’s the moral imperative? It’s easy to — in a sense — translate a great work into a trashy parallel form. Or even more simply to rewrite a pulp narrative so that the seams of its artifice and convention are revealed as a parlor game or carnival trick. But such a work is not telling us anything we don’t already know: that art is not life; that life is messier; that art uses artifice to heighten the effects of language and our awareness of the world. So, like any good poem, the work is not trying to tell us something, or anything; it’s presenting an experience that moves us and makes us think.
I gather from the dramatic situation that $oph is texting with another woman. $oph seems to have been away, and has now returned. “‘W8 / So yr back?’ // ‘Am I?’ // ‘I was starting to think you were gone forever’ // ‘Me 2 tho’ // ‘we’ll have to celebr8 / this being together at last’ // ‘not now but l8tr def’ // ‘lol / you should have been a poet’ // ‘I was. / obvi’.” Is $oph just bantering, or is this some kind of proleptic drama? She’s been away, her friend thought maybe forever. Now she’s back, but she’s also not present. The contemporary idiom and the ironic playfulness of much texting speech blur the lines of the situation. The medium is the message? I don’t think so. The medium may actually be a kind of static or signal breaker in speech acts between people. Or, if one of the speakers is really disembodied, the medium may be the only available means of communication. Ghost in the machine. Are we the ghosts in the language machine?
But they’re in the same place together! Texting each other? Why aren’t they just talking. Kids these days …. Mysteries persist. The mechanical speed of the back and forth and the absurdity of the situation evoke Beckett’s minimalist dramatic clowning and Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, with its farcical misunderstandings. “‘I guess lets try to have a conversation / Since we apparently can’t stop txting each other’ // ‘Word’ // ‘sooooooooooooo say something’ // Chill / I’m trying’.” The experience of being caught in the mechanical operations of the universe, according to Henri Bergson, is what creates farce. “iMean I don’t think we’re at risk of thinking anymore.” Or, “There’s no lack of void.” The language of texting can’t capture the metaphysics of their weird plight, except that their plight seems to be feeling trapped in the text machine. Is that the “iMeaning”? Is any language adequate to such feeling? When it comes to communication, aren’t we all trapped in the devices of language, don’t we all bump against the limits of what can be said? I can’t seem to stop texting right now, on my computer, as I write this. The implications are growing. This is good. The work is making me think, making me more aware of my own world. “‘We always find sumthin 2 do that makes us feel like we exist / amirite’ // ‘we’re magicians’.” A little grand, perhaps; but writing can be a kind of magic when it makes things appear in thin air before the mind’s eye. And a little later: “‘Do you think god sees me?’ // ‘you gotta close your eyes’.”
The drama of the exchange, its first social and then metaphysical concerns, spikes from implicit to explicit here in the final moment. But before we read the word “eyes” we see the misspelling “eurs” before it’s corrected — phonetically, that’s ears more than eyes. “And Being, but an Ear,” writes Dickinson … How do we know the world if not through language? What’s required is reception, not production. Close our ears, close our eyes, we’ll finish knowing — then — finding god, or making oneself more visible to god, requires, the work seems to say, the end of texting, of making texts. Isn’t the Bible a kind of sacred canonical texting; the ten commandments a form of texting on “two tablets of stone written with the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:10)? The textual work on LeFraga’s microprocessing tablet, so constructed, proposes, in the end, its deconstruction as the end. A new antinomianism? How will any of these notions lead to a subsequent evaluation of the work? That requires a second reading …
Joshua Weiner is the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (2009), as well as the the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006) and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (Chicago 2013). Weiner is the recent recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a Whiting Writers’ Award. He has published poems and prose in Best American Poetry, the Nation, the American Scholar, New York Review of Books, Chicago Tribune, Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, Chicago Review, Boston Review, Yale Review, Slate, and elsewhere.