Leora Fridman

Leora Fridman on Individual and Collective Fantasies Becoming One Thing

An interview with Leora Fridman, from The Write Stuff series:

Leora Fridman is an interdisciplinary artist, organizer and educator based in the Bay Area. Leora is the author of My Fault, selected by Eileen Myles as winner of the 2015 Cleveland State University First Book Poetry Competition. She is also the author of several chapbooks of poems and translations, including Precious Coast from Hangman Books, and Eduardo Milán: Poems from Toad Press. Leora is recipient of multiple grants and honors including a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, grants from the Center for Cultural Innovation, and a Dorot Fellowship. Leora co-edits Spoke Too Soon: A Journal of the Longer, and she forms one fourth of the social practice collective The Bureau.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

It changes depending on who I’m talking with—I have a lot of different selves, as we all do, of course. Usually I say some version of “I’m a writer” or “I work in the nonprofit world” unless I am feeling patient and/or chatty, and then I say what I’m “interested in,” which of course is always a preferred question to what I do since what I do changes all the time.

Interested in: This answer, changes, too, but I say I’m interested in labor and creative work, I’ll say I’m interested in radical speech, I’ll say I’m interested in language that makes speaking more possible for people who don’t think their language is good enough or allowed or safe to be spoken. I’ll say I’m interested in corresponding with people, with voices, with loyalty, with language—I’m particularly excited about correspondence right now, about what it means to bat something back and forth in correspondence, what it means to respond to each other in writing. I’ve been interested in correspondence / letter-writing as a gendered art, one which we think of as taking place in intimate / internal space, and I’ve been curious about what makes it more intimate / internal than public forms of writing—I’ve been trying to upend this a bit, making intimate forms public, and vice versa. We’re already doing this so much in the ways we pour ourselves into our online personas, so I’m trying to find a form for writing an individuality (life-writing, as Hélène Cixous might say) that disarms our understanding of the public vs private, of the external vs intimate.

Lately, when people ask me what I do, I’ve also been talking about my facilitation, community organizing and event curation work. I’ve been saying I like to create spaces where people can have strange, challenging and thoughtful conversations. I enjoy helping people get intimate with what’s strange to them and feel that what is intimate to them is also strange. I’m interested in creating situations where people feel interconnected (with each other, with politics, with ways of speaking they typically don’t consider their own) and also estranged from their separate selves, their known selves, the selves they are slotted into all the time.

So, what do I do? I seek to create artifacts and locations where people are spurred to connect and create—and those most often come in the form of writing projects, rituals, participatory social practice projects, and workshops in creative writing, anti-racist work, mindfulness, and homesteading skills.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

Right now one of my biggest struggles is figuring out what to be loyal to—I’ve always been a person who has many different interests and allegiances, and in many ways I came to writing because it’s the integration for me, the integrating location. I aspire, though, to being someone who is deeply rooted in my communities and committed to my projects, and sometimes that requires having fewer interests and deeper focus.

I’m working on a new book manuscript in which I’m trying to dig into loyalty further. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be loyal, to show care, especially in the context of a world that undervalues caretaking work. I’m particularly interested in the idea of loyalty as I engage with my inherited (family, cultural, religious, ethnic, social) tradition and my simultaneous respect for that tradition and desire to be released from it. I want to figure out how to be loyal and also flexible. Relatedly, I aspire to intersectionality with struggles for justice and being loyal to those struggles without inserting myself and my own privilege.

In a social context that often admonishes me to “have boundaries” and spend time on “self care” I often get confused because I care about interdependence and I was raised in a fairly tribal family that I now live far away from. I get confused about how to take care of my individual self but still honor interdependence. I believe in humans taking care of each other and relaxing our boundaries when other people need things of us, but I also want to be valued for the tremendous amount of unpaid caretaking labor that I do—especially as a female-identified person who often assumes that kind of labor unseen.

So I’m grappling with loyalty: how to help and be seen as a helper, how to help without inserting myself, how to let go of my ego and take care of myself and my loved ones at the same time.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

I’d probably say something very simply and trite like “do what you love.” Definitely I wouldn’t say a person should go into poetry or experimental prose (or even any kind of writing, these days) without it being a labor of love. I’d say, “make sure it energizes you” because I write because it energizes me, it makes me feel alive. If it didn’t make me feel alive I wouldn’t do it. It sounds extreme but I doubt I’d survive if I wasn’t writing.

So, I guess I’d tell this person: make sure you’re doing it to survive. The stakes are that high sometimes, and they probably should be if you’re going to do this.

I’d also tell this person to read, a lot. I don’t think you can responsibly be a writer if you don’t read widely, diversely, consciously, exorbitantly.

On a very different note, I’d also tell this person to make sure that if at all possible they have an ergonomic setup for writing. I’ve injured myself quite a bit from years of not sitting well while I’m writing, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I’m impatient and I’m always coming up with new ideas, new books, new projects I want to do, so it’s hard for me to ever feel successful. I don’t imagine myself ever feeling successful, though satisfied, maybe yes. I feel good about the word “satisfaction.”

That said, I’m really happy about my new book and with CSU as a press and Caryl Pagel as an editor, so I’m trying to force myself to see the success of that. I feel grateful—grateful is a word I’d use too, rather than successful—about how thoughtfully my work has been treated by my editors. I feel grateful for being around politicized writers in the Bay Area and beyond, for experimental writers who insist on expressing as they do, grateful for cultivating community that involves a loving anti-oppression framework.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

This one. I don’t think of myself as someone particularly oriented toward revenge, but maybe I’m just hiding it all the complete starburst of joy I feel when I listen to this song.

Also this one, but this whole series.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

I have so many, and I’m writing a lot about ancestors right now, so it’s difficult for me to pick one. One of my favorite is my great-grandmother Nettie who got on a train in Poland with her brother in order to escape pogroms targeting Jews. Her brother got pulled off the train by police and she never saw him again, but she made it to the US nonetheless and went on to have the kind of heroic back-of-the-haberdashery-to-middle-class-in-two generations kind of Jewish immigrant story that it’s hard to believe is real but that is so typical of the kind of stories I grew up with. As I look more into my family and the way different people in my family deal with goodbyes and attachment, I’ve grown to learn more about epigenetics, inherited trauma, and how Nettie’s wrenched goodbye from her brother might have gotten passed on. I tend to weep my guts out in the airport or at train stations right after I say goodbye to someone but be stone-cold and feel nothing while they’re still there. Hi Nettie.

Lately I’ve been asking for and hearing a lot more stories about my grandfather Luis and the ways he negotiated business as one of the few Jews in Mexico City who was able to do business with non-Jews. He passed away about nine months before I was born, and has a mythical quality on my father’s side of the family—he’s referred to a lot as a dandy, which I’m intrigued by, and is also remembered for his angry flare-ups, loyalty, and sense of propriety. Right now I’m trying to drill down to the bottom of the story in which one of my father’s four brothers had Luis break a guitar over their head. No one seems too upset about this and no one seems to be able to remember whose head it was.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I’ve pretty much always wanted to be a writer—it’s funny, one of the writers I thought I wanted to be was Armistead Maupin because I snuck into my parents’ bookshelf and read Tales of the City before I had any idea what San Francisco or the Bay Area even was. I just knew those books had sexy bits and cults and things I had the feeling I wasn’t supposed to be reading about. I’d perch by the bookcase with those big volumes, ready to stash them back onto the shelf as soon as I heard movement in the house. Maybe a sign to come of my future inconsolable love affair with the Bay Area?

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

I’d be by myself by the water. I love cold water, and I love dunking in it. I’m thinking now of one of the camps on the Big Sur river on the way to Sykes Hot Springs. I’d wake up, make coffee over a fire, write for a few hours, dunk, go for a long sweaty hike, dunk again, make a big meal over a fire involving cornbread and then hot whiskey and chocolate. My hair would smell smoky as I slept. Another person could be there at night and bring their guitar.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I have a very light and fairly new relationship with tinctures and teas as medicines. I take allergy medicine and Lactaid when I remember. The main things I serve myself medicinally are meditation and yoga classes and screen-fasts in which I don’t use computer or phone for days at a time. This helps with everything. Including writing.

What is your fondest memory?

Being curled in the sunspot on the couch in my parents’ home reading things I wasn’t supposed to read. Not having anywhere else to be.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Individual and collective fantasies becoming one thing.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m writing essays, kind of strange essays that are somewhere between correspondence and lyric and storytelling and reporting. Besides the collection I mentioned above about loyalty, family and caretaking, I’m working on another about women on the Mexican-American border, specifically the different public roles that women have taken within the “drug war” there and more specifically the role of naivete in understanding and “combating” violence.

I’m also working on a serial poem called GLACIER NATIONAL PARK about the parallels between how humans manage our own bodies and how we manage land, a book trying to talk about being an individual body on this planet as we are told that this planet is dying.

I’m also editing a serial poem called THE RIOTS which attempts to give voice to how bodies change as they amass and how we talk about bodies amassing in desperation to gain power. I started the book years ago and it keeps changing / growing out of my own experience and friends’ experiences in politicized public action and gathering.

Then I also just have poems. I try to write at least one messy poem a day just to stay alive and keep speaking. Some of these are collected in a series that right now is called VESSEL.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

This book I mentioned above about women on the Mexican-American border is one book I’ve been trying to write for the last five years that I keep starting and not getting my head around because it matters so much to me. I want to do this work. I want to write in a way that is, as someone at a recent reading of mine said, “hermetic and open” at the same time—I want to convey the experience of attempting to be authentic and the impossibility of that at the same time, to convey the experience of trying to be honest when all voices are coming from such different places, levels of privilege, languages, understandings. I want to write the mess of women being presented as “natural” caretakers, and the way that caretaking work is undervalued. I want to write about power, and how power has many invocations. I want to write into a world where others can invoke their own power.

Right now, I most admire lyric writing that doesn’t normalize itself too much to flatten the writer’s voice, but that folds in other voices, works in multiple modes, shows the vulnerability and stakes of a mind at work, a mind integrating information, a mind learning and changing as it goes along. There are versions of this that I aspire to that are more prose-like and versions that are more poetry-like, and they vary widely in terms of their styles. This includes the work of people like Maggie Nelson, Joanna Hedva, Wendy Xu, Amy Berkowitz, Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Peter Gizzi, CD Wright, Claudia Rankine, Juliana Spahr, Rachel Zucker, Brenda Hillman, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Bhanu Kapil, Rebecca Solnit, Hélène Cixous, Carrie Lorig, Kelin Loe, Anne Carson, and so many more than I can’t list right now.

In addition to writing, I also want to do “work” outside of / conmingled with writing—organizing work, caretaking work, ritual work, work teaching writing and its link to ritual, work helping arts/creative projects happen, facilitation work, work teaching people homesteading skills, work facilitating racial justice and mindfulness practice, more, more.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

The brain explosion pressure feeling that I get because so many people / me included / feel precarious about their living situations. So, really: I would change what’s at the root of this: capitalism and racism. But that’s a longer story.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

A pop-up cocktail bar that I made with friends in a park (Willard Park is one of my favorites)—everyone brings one bottle of something that is required to have a bar, and we make the bar together then make cocktails, probably not in glass so I won’t get stressed about breaking glass—followed by barefoot grass dance and then we walk home and laugh in the dark.

What are some of your favorite smells?

I love smells. I’ve recently started making custom scent-blends for people. My favorite blend right now is a combination of rose, cardamom and pink pepper in almond oil. I also love salty hair smell. Generally I like the smell of people’s heads, except for when it goes on too long and starts to smell like hot dogs. Also hot bread is a favorite smell, definitely hot fresh bread, especially with hot cheese. If I ever find out I need to be gluten free it will be very sad, and I will probably have to stop writing.

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