JH Phrydas: on How Your Corporeal Presence Impacts Your Community
An interview with JH Phrydas, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:
JH Phrydas is an LA-based writer and researcher of prose. Raised by his birth family in Atlanta and queer family in the Bay Area, he was generously awarded grants to study writing and somatics under the guidance of Bhanu Kapil. He was the co-founding editor of Tract/Trace: an investigative journal and currently curates a long-term project called X21REQ, which calls for artists and writers to answer the question: “What does the 21st century require of you?” Phrydas’ recent work can be found in Aufgabe, Fact-Simile, andTract/Trace, and his first book, Levitations, was published this autumn by Timeless, Infinite Light(Oakland, CA). He currently works as a gardener and landscaper in Echo Park and loves online correspondence. Feel free to get in touch with him anytime: Email | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
“I’m a writer” usually does the trick in the US. Of course, this must be followed by extrapolation. In Mexico, I say “I’m a poet.” Although I don’t consider myself one, it’s closer to the truth. I would hate to oppress anyone during small talk by saying “I’m an experimental prose writer who’s attempting to explore how the sentence viscerally extends the body in/as empire.” In general, I’ve found that folks outside of this country are more inclined to express interest in arts whose value is not tied to the market. This shows just how narrow US-American culture’s tunnel vision is — I mean, in the fight to monetize everything from free parking spaces to personal toilets, our psyches shift along an axis of disengagement: especially from time. And doesn’t writing and reading — the poetic within language — inherently foreground the temporal as the site of corporeal pleasure? I think Bifo said something along those lines, but his books make me sad. Commonplace whitewashing of political theory is just as detrimental to conscientious thought as anything on the side of capital. To work within language is to work within the inherited and complex psycho-history of the world. Every time we write words on a page, on our skin, on social media, we’re participating in that history.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Depending on the kindness of strangers. Growing up as a sissy classically trained choirboy, I missed out on 80s pop culture and am perpetually horrible with conversational references. My boyfriend calls me a 90s baby even though I was 8 when that decade began. So I spent most of my time away from my peers. Entering SF queer nightlife in my early twenties changed all that: as ephemeral spaces were built and dismantled each night, we entered another plane of existence charged with affection. Between bodies ‘unfit’ in harsher environments: the street in daylight. Even if such grandeur was, from time to time, superficial. The feeling of artifice itself a type of connectivity. So much joy came from lips and eyes and bodies done up and flowing booze. It taught me to allow myself to be helped, and it chipped away at the guilt of relying on another for guidance, for support. Abandoning my stubborn self-reliance opened up routes unseen until then. Like finding a new apartment last month. Like having my first book published. Like being able to sleep at a friend’s house and not be cold.
But, now that I wrote that, I realize it’s kind of a sidestep.
Because it’s so easy to dodge a question with a pretty answer. I think my problem is with the word “struggle.” If you asked me again, I’d tell you my biggest concern has been not becoming a monster to which my skin gives me access. Not that I’m on the edge at every turn, but rather the subtleties of interaction with people around me I always strive to make sure are structured by feeling and not what I was taught in school. Growing up as a sissy classically trained choirboy north of Ponce de Leon Ave, I was shielded from the ethnic dynamism of urban Atlanta. I remember my friend’s parents not letting us leave the house during Freaknik. I remember reading Alice Walker and feeling the woods change shape as we drove through the fields, wondering what those oak branches had held. The way men flew Confederate flags at the laser light show at Stone Mountain on wet summer nights. I sang “Dixie” even though I didn’t like the tune because everyone joined in and because it came right after “Georgia on my Mind” and seemed appropriate. I was afraid of the mute clowns that sold neon glow sticks we’d wrap around our wrists. How those clowns should have not been the ones I feared most.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I would say, “You sure about that?” and then invite them into my sunroom for a spliff and coffee. We would sit in plush chairs surrounded by stacks of our favorite books and talk about sentences, global politics, and self care. I would ask a lot of questions, such as: how does your body mis/fit in this world? What does language do that nothing else can? If your writing was an architectural space, what would it feel like to enter it? Do you need a place to stay? Maybe the local parrot would come by at this point to squawk in the palms outside. We’d talk about succulents and survival. I’d listen more than advise. I’d mention how, when I wanted to ‘be a writer,’ many people gave me advice that, sometimes helpful, sometimes not, reflected on the giver’s present situation more than mine. Which is to say: “Soak in the words, gestures, emotions, and tonal qualities of those you talk to about your passions. Let them rest next to your gut. Visualize intense attention to your craft. Look at the market. Undergird all of this with exploring the question: ‘how does/can my corporeal presence impact my community?’ Then, proceed.”
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Success is such a… sticky term. To feel success, or have success, or present success, isn’t super important to me because it’s contingent on a gradation whose opposite pole is failure, and that yardstick is so tired. I’d rather talk about the discursively-extended body and the way one feels when moving in and out of comfort. I’d rather explore what the risk of sitting at a table is: writing livable futures. I’d prefer discussing how to maintain psychological and physical health for those whose desire to create severs them from financial stability. What if we framed the question of success differently, and instead inquired about a person’s life-situation through a constellation of points that includes ‘ante-social calm’ near ‘acute FOMO’ alongside ‘groundedness’ not far from ‘self-love’ and ‘mental exhaustion’?
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Ambrosia Salad and the House of Salad’s music video for Róisín Murphy’s “Dear Miami.” It reminds me of a magical time in SF before so many of us jumped ship for other cities, other coasts. A lot of my friends in this video started queer dance parties in the bay that became communal salons for smearing daily life into extreme chaos — not knowing what would come from such a dedication to extreme vibratory exuberance, and plunging in anyway.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
That’s like asking if I have a favorite cell in my body. I love how my boyfriend’s family keeps shrines of their deceased family members on large tables in their foyers. My family does likewise, except we spread our photographs and inherited objects along walls in separate rooms of the house. I wonder if there’s a fear of communal marking. I know their faces, but I feel them more subcutaneously, because of course they’re there. What I mean to say is, I’m not not them. All of them, and they surface from time to time in various shades of warmth and reflexes of fight, flight, or faint. Intergenerational communion is intense, and not as deeply stored as some would think. But even then, ancestry doesn’t end with familial blood. My ancestry deepens — or amplifies — through writers and artists whose work enters my psyche on a visceral level. My next project is actually an attempt at writing a novel that opens such a space of ancestral conflation. There’s a lot of fur, a lot of blood, a lot of temporal mirroring. And it’s really gay.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Wildness is hard to come by these days, especially when sought after. Years ago, I looked for it in the bay: César Chávez Park, Aquatic Park, Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista. But these were tangential, the feeling of dirt under your feet as you stepped away from cement. And the eyes that scanned the limited horizon for other bodies dis/similar to their own. When urban parks weren’t enough, I decided to flee the city and hike in the Appalachian mountains with my father for 6 months. Even there, on the spine of the oldest mountain range in the world, we never had a day of extreme social fracture. There are always city roads, always buzzing power lines. I realized the parks in SF held more wildness then forests whose paths were so well worn.
But, then again, when mountain lions sound like crying children as you walk your friend’s boyfriend’s brother’s dogs in the outskirts of Juneau at sunset, your skin begins to shiver.
What’s wrong with society today?
2015 has been an incredibly bloody year, just like the year before, and the year before that. After the violent Friday the 13th attacks in Paris, you saw many people polarized over the media attention and overflow of care, prayer, and attention to France. Where was the outpouring of love for Kenya after the April massacre at Garissa University College that killed 148 people, they asked? Where was the media coverage of the suicide bombings in Beirut on Thursday the 12th that killed 43 people? A blogger in Delhi named Karuma Ezara Parikh wrote a poem that went viral: “It’s not Paris we should pray for. / It is the world. It is a world in which Beirut, / reeling from bombings … is not covered in the press.” The complexity of power around visibility and the body needs to be scrutinized. Especially since we’re still in the middle of the Great War of the 20th Century — of which WWI, WWII, the Iraq war, the War on Terror, the war in Syria, and the proliferation of ISIS-inspired violent attacks are all just chapters.
This also has something to do with the erasure, or deliberate forgetting, of history in the digital age.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
There’s so much debate around art and its [non]necessity. Cutting through ossifying layers of cultural production around the image of “the artist” is the first step in shifting the conversation. For instance, I began my devotion to writing in the 00s and 10s of this century, but my intense shyness kept me along the periphery at various poetry readings and art shows in SF and Oakland. I didn’t know how to approach strangers, especially those whose work inspired me so intensely. And so I found myself connecting to the world of experimental writing online, especially via Ron Silliman’s blog. There was such an insurgence around conceptualist and flarf writing practices, which offended and bored me (a mixture of feeling I didn’t know was possible). I saw these academic white folks getting to shout out racial slurs and homophobic hate speech on stage in museums, at poetry festivals: a glee in being so culturally naughty yet sanctioned by the context of “art.” And this push for ending expressivity, ugh. I mean, the desire for machinic automation in art seems so outdated to me. And ironically, this desire to erase the writer was founded on the highest form of cult-of-the-individual tactics to the point where it’s these individuals who will kill poetry. These people who are brilliant enough, who are the uncreative geniuses, that will finally rid us of any pesky notions of difference, nuance, visceral knowledge, emobodied politics. Anyone triumphing a terminal poetry has some issues. What all of these people did was reinstate art as scarce; art as inherent, god-given talent; art as hot commodity; art as for the few, made by the few. I align myself closer to what Ellen Dissanayake says when she writes: “To think of art as a behavior of making special is truly a change of paradigm.” Once we begin to think of creativity as power, when we realize writing is an act of defiance wielded by all, when we can see how art can be housed in the Whitney just as much as it’s expressed in how one puts their child to bed, then we can shift the conversation around art to something more vital. I found this when I stopped reading Silliman’s blog and began reading Bhanu Kapil’s.
What are you working on right now?
Finding a job. If anyone knows of any, hmu.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’ll never forget the first time I read Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil, What Began Us by Melissa Buzzeo, and The Sorrow and the Fast of It by Nathanaël [Nathalie Stephens]. These three books came out around the same time (2006-2007), when I was finishing up school. I had just fallen out of love with critical theory, which had been my psycho-spiritual teacher for three years. What Kapil, Buzzeo, and Nathanaël did and continue to do with language resonated not just along my skin or in my bones but through my entire nervous system. I didn’t know what to think when confronted with a writing that held so much visceral residue, so much emotive energy transmitted through tone, syntax, the flow or blockage in the line, the sentence: a writing that builds/extends an architecture of the body. A langue-scape. My body was obliterated and reconfigured, my eyes shifted along routes invisible until then, emerging from the space of the book, an intimate territory. Vibrating. It was then I realized my critical academic education had, in a sense, failed me. Or maybe it was failing itself.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I moved to LA, if that answers the question.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
The limitlessness of self-righteous conviction.