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True Confessions

[whitespace] The Fray
Spoken Word Organizer: Derek Powazek started the literary Web site 'The Fray,' a place for personal expression and a new kind of art.

The 'Fray' comes out from
behind the monitor

By Michelle Goldberg

When Derek Powazek started his Web site, The Fray, two years ago, he capitalized both on the growing interest in memoir and on the anonymity and distance provided by the Internet. Since then, of course, a galaxy of banality has exploded in cyberspace, and you don't have to look far to find someone confessing the sordid details of his or her life online. Few besides those on The Fray, however, have been able to turn such cyber self-revelations into art.

The Fray is full of personal narratives, but its stories aren't just the random spewing of wired neurotics. Often authored by people who write for a living, the stories are carefully selected (Powazek publishes about one story for every 50 he receives) and edited, simply and exquisitely designed, making The Fray one of the Web's most successful literary projects. Entertainment Weekly wrote of The Fray, "As cyberspace grows increasingly crowded with Web zines, this calm, compassionately disturbing site seems more and more an oasis of grace."

But now, having created a literary universe that depends on the concealment afforded by a computer terminal, Powazek wants to take The Fray into real life. For the site's second birthday, he's having a live reading at the Cell. Then he's embarking on a weekly open mic (he's still looking for a location) where writers can tell their confessional tales to a live audience.

But do people who open themselves up online really want to meet each other? Part of the thrill of The Fray is its voyeuristic quality--especially because all the authors use their real names. Many of them are San Franciscans, and it's always been weirdly fascinating to match a well-known name or face to the odd secrets revealed on The Fray. Divided into the categories "criminal," "hope," "work" and "drugs," the stories are so elegantly presented and clearly told there's almost a hush when you read them. With an often ingenious use of frames, Powazek breaks the stories into tiny, discreet segments, and clicking at the end of each one creates an almost hypnotic syncopation.

Local spoken-word artist and Sidewalk writer Tarin Towers tells of working behind the bar at a trailer-trash hangout in Iowa. Over the text is a muted line drawing of sad-sack drunks, each glowing white as the reader gets to their place in the story. In Salon writer Janelle Brown's "Strange Beds," a rumination on the beds of past lovers, the page is designed with a tiny window and shadows like those in an unfamiliar room. There are stories about getting tested for HIV, about being molested, about fighting with parents--sadly normal stuff but beautifully written, lovingly presented. Whether a live person confessing into a microphone would have similar power is questionable--it may end up just feeling like group therapy.

Has Powazek given up on the connective potential of the Web? No, he says. "If there was a change in my thinking it's simply that I've gained confidence that these people who have found each other through the Web because they have similar ideologies and similar beliefs about storytelling can actually get along when they're put into real life with each other. What was hard was that The Fray has always been about using the Web to do something interesting, so taking it into real life is really doing something new."

In fact, so hopeful is he about the literary potential of the Web that he's starting another personal nonfiction site, SF Stories, which will be a Tales of the City-type collection of vignettes about the characters that populate his world in San Francisco.

The shared ideology that Powazek speaks of is an earnest commitment to personal nonfiction. Says The Fray mission statement, "The Fray is a place for people who believe that the Web is a place for personal expression and a new kind of art." He hopes he can make a similar place in real life--both in San Francisco and around the country, since Fray contributors in other cities are starting their own Fray readings. And for all the cynicism engendered by attending too many college poetry readings, there could be something magical about a place where everyone's there to hear stylized accounts of what's going on in each other's lives.

According to Powazek, "Partially, The Fray was a really natural extension of what I did in college with organizing open mics, and what I did before that with alternative journalism, and even before that, back to high school, [when] I was starting authors' clubs and being weird in the park. I've had this strange propensity all my life to try to gather people together who think the same way. Mostly it comes from an extreme desire to not be alone."

The Fray's second birthday party takes place Sept. 12 at 8pm at the Cell, 2050 Bryant St.; $5; 415/648-7562.

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From the September 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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