By Ben Fama
Wonder, November 2012
48 pages / $30 Buy from Wonder
Looking back now on the New York poetry world or “scene” in the year of the Mayan apocalypse, it remained, perhaps against all odds, a small one. Case in point: at a poets’ and small press publishers’ party in lower Manhattan I attended last year, somebody introduced me to a person (an older person, just old enough to be on the pre- side of the millennial age gap) who claimed they recognized me or had heard of me somehow via the Internet. They didn’t know my last name, but I had already told them I was a poet. It seemed we were friends on Facebook and had been for a long time. The person got out their smartphone and started scrolling through their contacts list, before asking me in complete earnest: “Are you Ben Fama?” I took it pretty well.
Mall Witch is an illustrated book of poems allegedly written in tandem by the poets Andrew Durbin and Paul Legault, ghostwriting as the poet Ben Fama. At least that’s what I was told, initially. It is the first full-length work to come out of Durbin and Fama’s mercurial publicity project called Wonder. You can read their first manifesto online in which they posit themselves as the reluctant saviors of poetry in our time. They discuss the doom of our Internet-oriented “content farm era” with MFAs, ageism, academic tyranny, and what amounts to a general lack of attention span unanimous today among an assumed readership. Taking such a fatalistic view of the contemporary landscape, they go on to promise Wonder will deliver “one last phase of innovation” or what they call “100% authentic buzz.”
About what exactly? Stylistically, Mall Witch is pure Fama all the way. For fans of Legault’s homespun ventriloquisms of John Ashbery and Emily Dickinson (some from Fence Books, or his latest from McSweeney’s) or Durbin’s precocious Frank O’Hara-style cosmopolitan lyric (Durbin is younger and a late-comer to this coterie, his poems have just begun to appear online and in some print journals) there is none of that here. It makes this reviewer truly wonder who or what actually did write Mall Witch, or what the point of any such alternative methods for the book or “buzz” really is, if all that comes out on the page in the end is the same anyway.
Like O’Hara, Fama writes about the gay experience and feelings of overstimulation and distraction in short, terse poems heavily laden with pop cultural references ranging from Kenneth Anger to Mary J. Blige to Tumblr and back again: “What I really want to do is direct / Surrounded by gothy youthful-looking somethings / Set a google alert and notify me in the future.” Irony in these poems is a moot point. In theory, they mean to disrupt the boundaries between the worlds of fashion, art, poetry and performance, and engage new media. However, the poems themselves continuously fall short before your eyes, one line at a time, dismissive like the parting gesture of a host who stands at the door to inform you the party’s just over. Some would say this has been standard operating procedure for every successive generation of the so-called New York School of poetry for about a million years. Fama’s only innovation rests with his poems’ identifying the pretense of popular 21st Century quandaries (alienation, lack of personal identity/freedom in the Digital Age, etcetera) which are usually a lot more articulately expressed in the media elsewhere, a.k.a everywhere, any time of day and for free, online.
Some of the artwork inside is unexpected and interesting. For the poem “Pastel,” a high-res image of a yellow-camouflaged Four Loko can nicely balances the spread to the one side of a single-stanza poem, the entire page rendered in a pale pink overcast. A lot of the pages look like what happens when Adobe InDesign falls into the hands of a seven-year-old girl, but this is probably deliberate. It’s a clutter of neon color blocks and retro fonts mixed with images of clothing, pop singers, naked men and women, clip art, cartoon characters and emoticons. You would do better to buy a book of poetry by the real Ben Fama. He’s got like…two or five of them?
Ben Tripp is a poet, writer of other genres, and sometimes editor of journals big and small. He blogs at http://benjamintripp.wordpress.com/.