Poetry News

'It's a lot of power we wield!' A Conversation With Ben Fama & Kate Durbin

By Harriet Staff


We've been waiting for this for annuals, like begonias and bachelor's button, oh my; we just didn't know it. Your eyes burning too? It's because Kate Durbin and Ben Fama are in conversation at Lemon Hound, are we right? Oprah? Thank goodness. An excerpt:

BF: There was an occasion a few years ago when you were solicited by Oprah’s O magazine as a potential featured author. A few dozen female writers were contacted by O staff to send in images and writing samples, or visit in person bringing samples of their wardrobe if they lived in the NYC area. When the issue came out you were struck by the representation of your aesthetic … vinyl lettering as decor on an ensemble. This is all documented at the launch for your book Ravenous Audience. You created a performance piece called No Bikini in response. Can you tell us more about this?

KD: I had exchanged emails with the editor in charge of that spread, as they were interested in having me come in to try out for the feature, but they didn’t realize I didn’t live in New York City. As soon as they found out I was in L.A., they were like, sorry, we have no budget. I said, well, it’s O magazine, I might be able to fly on my own dime (I was just starting out and eager to get my work out into the world). Can I just email some images to you? And they said sure, go ahead, so I sent in images, then never heard from them again. Most of the images I sent had text/felt lettering on clothing, so when the spread came out with the letters swarming around the poets and on their hair, etc, I was shocked. It seemed obvious that they’d taken their inspiration from my photos, and yet hadn’t the courtesy to acknowledge the influence with a note in the piece, or even to respond to my emails. (Looking back I am seeing this experience as more par for the course but at the time I was naive). I am all for appropriation but I don’t think a large corporation absorbing the work of a young, unknown artist without acknowledgement is truly in the spirit of transparent appropriation. They also used the felt letters in really commercial, precious way.

The NO BIKINI performance–which was part of a larger collaboration with poet Becca Klaver, for a curation of work about women poets and fashion for Delirious Hem called Seam Ripper–was my way of dealing with the issue without just swallowing it silently. I turned my body into an anti-commodity (on the Internet, no less!), and my felt letters into a zero-space that no one else could enter or claim. I wanted to say–yes, you may have used the felt letters, but you don’t get what their original intent was, which, for me, has always been to display/play with the battleground of a woman’s body, the narratives that are inscribed upon it by culture, in/through fashion. For me, ultimately fashion is about reclaiming one’s own body as a space to express one’s own ideas. My NO BIKINI is more fashionable than any of the designer outfits in that O fashion spread (although many of the poets in the spread are quite wonderful, so I am glad that Oprah was highlighting poetry–my “spread” wasn’t really about that).

Our interlocutors go on to discuss Durbin's tumblr-based project, Women as Objects:

BF: You curated an online gallery for bright stupid confetti, the thinking behind it is clear in your thesis: The art of the moment is girls, online.

KD: I definitely think the most exciting art being created now is by young women on the Internet. That’s what my tumblr project, Women as Objects, is about, gathering that work and calling attention to it. It’s also an anthropological project. I curated the Girls, Online gallery as kind of a best-of the work on Women as Objects, both from girls who self-identify as artists (like Molly Soda) and girls who maybe don’t self-identify that way, but who are doing amazing work (Plastic Pony, Lynne Teen Porno, and countless anonymous tumblr users). I didn’t want the work to get lost in the Internet ether–particularly the work of those who are not identifying as artists but who are inspiring a lot of people and getting copied by Urban Outfitters.

I was happy when I was approached to co-write that piece about the teen girl tumblr aesthetic for Hyperallergic, because all this great talk was happening online about tumblr art in conjunction with Hyperallergic’s first Tumblr Art Symposium in NYC, but it was almost entirely focused on work by men, work that is really disembodied and not very raw or confessional. The total opposite of the work I find most fascinating on tumblr. Luckily, there are some really wonderful online art galleries popping up. Grace Micelli’s Art Baby gallery is one example. Her gallery showcases work by young artists made on/for the Internet, and it’s best viewed within that frame. A lot of the art in her gallery could fall under the umbrella of teen girl tumblr aesthetic.

And there's even more! Head over to check it out.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2013