Leora Fridman is a poet and prose writer whose work is concerned with issues of identity, assimilation, care, ability, and embodiment. Her recent collection of linked essays, Static Palace (punctum books, 2022), explores the possibilities that arise “from circumstances we often perceive as ruin: hopeless political systems, disabled bodies, narratives that stutter and do not complete themselves, [and] the devastation of climate change.” I spoke with Fridman about these daily and artistic possibilities and experiences as well as the poetics of abjection, “giving in” to writing, disability justice, preservation, curation, collaboration, and the pleasure of a facilitated experience.
Along with Static Palace, Leora Fridman is the author of the poetry collection My Fault (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) and her work appears or is forthcoming in The Millions, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Tricycle Magazine, Open Space, Matters of Feminist Practice, and The Believer, among other places. Forthcoming books include Fasci/nation, a book of nonfiction on embodied relationships to historical trauma, Vessel, collected poems on shattering and consecration, and Goldenrod, a novel. Fridman is currently Curator in Residence at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Faculty Associate in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University.
Caryl Pagel: Static Palace begins with a piece about falling in and out of love (emphasis on the falling, the lawless chaos of such tumble) and the resulting relief of heartbreak’s totality. After accounting for a youthful breakup and its consequent painful/pleasurable reeling, you write: “I began to see, I liked it. I liked watching my anxious grip on power loosen, the restrained, disciplined part of me die off and open to something else.” By the end of the essay, this statement becomes a metaphor for writing itself, for giving in to terrifying vulnerability, (erotic) power/lessness, and generative wallowing. You trace the complexity of a poetics of abjection (I thought immediately Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, which you discuss in a later essay, as well as Dickinson’s “Master Letters,” where she begs, pleads, humiliates herself to a master-beloved figure, gaining narrative strength via rhetorical fragility). So I wonder—do you have strategies or rituals for this kind of giving up or giving in to the process of writing itself?
Leora Fridman: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot in my own writing and with my students about how we can engage with the challenges we are confronting—distraction, anxiety, depression, screen-time, fear, etc.,—and make creative work from the kind of brains we have now, as opposed to seeing these challenges as blockades in the way of getting to the kind of writing or thinking we want to do. This idea is, of course, influenced by disability justice and theory, in that I am trying to see my brain—and my creative practice—as enabled by its conditions, fully legitimate alongside these conditions, as opposed to disabled or made wrong by them.
For me, this means a lot of changes in form, as well as in process. I am no longer trying to write prose or story in a linear fashion. Was I ever? Maybe I just aspired to it as a normative version of success, that I would know I was fitting into an identity category of writer if I could write a plot or argument. Over the past years I have given myself increasing permission to write in the scattered, associative way my brain works now. I see my nonfiction as an invitation to conversation more than any kind of argumentation. This is my “giving up.”
Recently I wrote a piece about my compulsion to online shop during the time I’ve allotted to writing. I was fighting this compulsion for so long and hating myself for it, until I realized I could turn toward the habit and see what it had to say as material. It turned into a reflection on overwork and burnout, an insight that I could not keep pushing myself as hard as I was, so that when I tried to write in the old, perfectionist, striving ways my body and mind actually interrupted me, presenting a distraction until it was impossible to continue.
It’s never been hard for me to write—I’ve always been an over-writer as opposed to under, meaning I write a lot of trash I have to throw out in order to get to the stuff I want. I churn out words, I push myself too hard when rest is necessary. So, I don’t find myself struggling, exactly, to “give in,” as you say, to the practice of writing. Instead I find myself struggling to give in to slowness, to scatteredness, to the forms that are meaningful and expressive for me, which are far weirder and more patchwork than my younger brain would have liked. I’m giving in to my amoeba self or my amoeba forms, slowly, slowly.
Even as auto-theory and the critical-creative-personal essay are popular these days, it took me quite a long time to figure out what I wanted to do in prose. Over the course of Static Palace you are along for the ride as I try to figure this out. This is vulnerable for me, because I’ve now already left behind certain formal or craft choices that I make in the book. But that, for me, is also an aspect of “giving in”—it’s a transparency about learning along the way, absorbing and shifting as I go.
In the essay “On Stakes,” you write about the mold problem in your Berkeley-area home that (unbeknownst to you for over a year) was causing debilitating headaches. Increasingly, the earth and environment we have failed to conserve or live less obtrusively within is a cause of illness. Obviously: global pandemics, problematic air quality, bacteria, dirty water, lead, toxins, etc. In this way, your work becomes documentary as well as exploratory. What is the charge of a personal anecdote or testimonial in these essays about climate change and activism?
The charge is a good way of putting it. What can the anecdote electrify? For me, it electrifies the attention. I am trained to care about people, especially people who express or communicate intimacy with me, who build a sense between us of being known. For this reason, when someone shares with me about their personal experience, it is much easier for me to tether myself, to literally pay attention.
I find it excruciatingly difficult to read the news these days. And I don’t mean because it pains me—it doesn’t. My focus completely glazes over, and I feel nothing, most of the time. My eyes scan headlines and I retain very little. I am hoping, in these essays, to trick us out of scanning.
As poets we have been told so many times about that William Carlos Williams line, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I am thinking of the poem here as a site that demands attention. I am thinking of the essays in Static Palace as the first prose I began writing after years of exclusively writing poems. And so in the move into prose I was seeking to keep “what is found there,” a site of quivering potentiality.
I am thinking also here about privilege: I live at the moment very far from sites of dramatic climate disaster, violence, displacement and war. Were I to choose not to pay attention, I would—at least for now—mostly be insulated from it. And yet, from this position of privilege I have also noticed the devastating loneliness that kind of insulation can bring. To ignore pain and suffering is to create a kind of rigidity in the mind that I cannot tolerate. I thought about this when I watched the faces of the Sackler family members listen to the testimony of people shattered by the opioid crisis, in the video footage included in the Nan Goldin documentary. They seem like hulls of people who have separated themselves from the human in order to survive.
The way I write in these essays is an attempt to poke holes in my insulation. Not out of martyrdom but for my own wellbeing, too. None of us will survive alone, though of course the narrator of these essays would love to believe she could. In some ways this book is the story of me convincing myself out of that narrative. And then falling back on it, and then trying again.
For this reason I believe in personal story, testimonial, as you say. I hope that a reader experiences the personal parts of this book as an opportunity to insert themselves, to treat the book as a kind of (if only temporary, performance of) relational conversation. I hope that the reader imagines whatever version of me from these fragments is useful for them in order to feel connected to the larger questions here about survival and care.
I’m under no illusion that my own narrative is the most important to be heard in some grand, maniacal way. I don’t think my experiences with illness are the most extreme, or the most—anything. I don’t speak of my own experience in order to acquire pity. But I don’t see another way to keep paying attention than to speak person-to-person. To insist that we weave between our own personal narratives is, for me, to insist that we continue to weave our lives, ideally to maintain some kind of network—the only kind of network—that can help us meet the changes to come.
A few times in this collection you describe the clumsiness and silence that can accompany pain, paralleling other relational and systemic alienations. As a response, in Static Palace you repeatedly explore somatic, rhizomatic, experimental, and “messy” artistic and political gatherings that forefront difference, disability, rest, and refusal. This is a book that celebrates new forms and communal experiences. My question is a somewhat pragmatic one: As someone I’ve known to move around a bit, what circumstances do you seek out in order to build sustaining relationships in a new place? What advice might you have for engaging with a community that is unknown to you, or one in which these ideas and resources aren’t already built in?
My partner always jokes that I am always starting groups. This means our living room is often full of people, some of whom know each other and some of whom don’t. I just moved to Brooklyn a few months ago, and I’ve started two reading groups and a writing group since then. I suppose I like doing this because I like hanging out with people in a way that involves some kind of content or project. I find that the older I get, the more common it is to have truly boring conversation. My instinct in order to work against this is to offer facilitation or prompts for how to interact—you can see some of this in my previous project, Rituals for Removing Creative Blocks, as well as generally in how I facilitate creative writing workshops, which relies heavily on prompts and prompting.
I love a facilitated experience. My friends make fun of me for this all the time—I lean toward the formalized, but it’s not exactly because I don’t know how to hang out with people, or something—it’s because I always want new ways to interact with people. I want to dart around the usual things we talk about, the tired things. I want to make obvious the rules in the room, the unspoken dynamics—which, of course there will always be some unspoken dynamics in any given interaction, but when we lay out a set of rules for how we interact, we get to make obvious some of the choices we are collectively making, and maybe even refuse some of them. If you’re in a new place, I recommend going to any kind of facilitated experience, because it might upend—or make clear—what is going on there already.
I have a pretty hungry, insatiable mind, which though on a spiritual level is frowned upon, serves me well in terms of forming community. I am curious about far too many different things, and the in-drawing of the essays you see in Static Palace are partially my attempt to draw together my own personality from a variety of different experiences and readings and relationships into something even temporarily cohesive. As a person who is often sick and fatigued, I am always trying to figure out how to do things with other people without over-doing. How can I seek connection in ways that are gentle, that allow me to leave when I need to? How can I stay curious while also being cautious? I gravitate toward spaces where access needs are named and noted, where there is an understanding that people may need to leave at any time to take care of themselves, spaces where care is considered part of the job of the institution organizing the event or of the people present. Usually spaces that have these overt qualities are activist or organizing spaces, disability-oriented spaces, or spaces prioritizing social practice art.
I make myself a stranger a lot. I go to a lot of events that I know nothing about. Online and in person. Several essays in this book came out of this kind of behavior. Take “Brace for It,” which started by me going to a dance performance I heard about through a friend of a friend. It was a long bus ride from where I was staying in Berlin, but I was curious enough, and I like to cultivate this kind of behavior in myself—it’s always been one of my greatest fears that as I age I will grow rigid and unwilling to try. For sure, many things that I go to are uninteresting to me. I joke sometimes that my hit rate of enjoyment is 2%. But it’s completely worth it for that rare time when I walk into a gallery—or a wherever—and something connects.
Part of this is about a relationship to time. This comes up in Static Palace, but I’m always working against my own ingrained instinct to optimize. I don’t want life or experience to be a product, or like I’m trying to get the best one. For me, putting myself in contexts where I don’t know the rules or expertise helps me to see time as less linear and more process oriented. It helps me, again, to pay attention.
Part of this is about asking for help, which has become necessary for me because of the sicknesses described in Static Palace. Asking for help does build ties, even if it’s hard for me to do. When I’m making plans with a new friend, I tell them my access needs, which tends to invite them to share or just reflect on their own. This makes possible what Mia Mingus calls “access intimacy.”
Part of this is also about humility. I don’t assume I know a lot. I assume I always have a lot to learn. Especially if I am somewhere new, I listen and ask a lot of questions before I consider taking up space. I assume I will probably make mistakes for lack of knowing how things are here. I look at what people are doing already and what they are complaining about needing. It’s a curatorial instinct, in a way. I look for the gaps and connections. At a reading in the summer I heard the writer Lars Horn say of their process, “it’s mostly curatorial,” and I loved this. I’m an arranger on the page, a knotter of things—and of people. I think far too hard about which people I should invite over for dinner together.
You and I first got to know each other through the publication of your first book of poetry, My Fault, which came out in 2016 with the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, where I am an editor. Our conversations about poetry turned into friendship, in part I think because of our shared editing and publishing values. You are someone who prioritizes conversation and curiosity, evidenced by the artistic collaborations you’ve participated in over the years, everything from co-editing a journal of long-form poetry (Spoke Too Soon) to co-running the feminist conversation and performance series Let’s Talk, to other collaborative social practice projects, interviews, and a podcast. This mode of social engagement is also clearly an engine for your writing, appearing throughout Static Palace as you attend workshops, describe the activism and art of others, and thread a variety of outside thinking through your text. What artistic relationships (yours or others) are you currently excited about? What collaborations are you thinking about or engaging in now?
I just finished a collaboration with two other writers about insomnia and sleeplessness, selections of which will appear in Fence 41. Each of us wrote our own piece and then we came together to record a conversation about where our work converged, particularly around how exhaustion reconfigures identity.
My biggest piece of work right now is an exhibition I’m curating—a fully collaborative project with the artists as well as the staff of the museum. It’s my first time curating a show on my own, but it feels like a relatively easeful extension of the curatorial impulse I was describing above. Except I have to take more measurements!
I’m working on a children’s book for the first time and am really curious to see what it will be like to work with an illustrator. It’s making me think a lot about representation, and how specifically I do or don’t want someone to be able to visualize what I’m writing about. And does that change depending on the reader’s age?
When Annie Ernaux won the Nobel, I started a celebratory reading group with some friends to re-read her work, and the group keeps expanding. Now we seem to be in an ongoing conversation about consent, or is it inheritance? What about consent culture do we inherit, and how? Do we need to preserve anything intact? These questions are my summaries of hours of conversation and collaborative thought.
Outside of writing and reading—down the street from me there is a very special place called the Salon on Kingston, a kind of community gathering space for my neighborhood. Every Thursday night they have a musical act and then an open jam, and the kind of enthusiastic, welcoming collaboration that I have witnessed emerging from that place is absolutely utopic. I sing occasionally and non-professionally, but mostly I watch and try to learn things about the rigor of invention. Last night at a jam I was talking to a violinist about why improvisation is called improvisation instead of composition, because aren’t you improvising when you first compose? (You can see here, again, me placing myself in a situation where I do not know what I am talking about.) Being in the salon has made me think a lot also about non-verbal communication, and I’ve started writing a new piece about what can’t be communicated in words. (Yep, good luck to me!) But there’s a lot of risk involved at the Salon—on the part of the musicians trying to create something live together, and on the part of the curators of the salon, who keep their doors open to anyone when I literally do not know any other music venue that does that. It’s a kind of organizing, I think. One place where a lot of people meet who do not otherwise.
I’d also have to just add that I see many of my text message and voice message threads as active collaborations. Two friends and I are texting about the curly hair products we’ve used and whether we’ve been duped into avoiding shampoo, and that could turn into an essay. A friend of mine in Sacramento, CA seems okay in the floods but at the same time we are together thinking through guilt and obligation to aging parents. A friend and I are going back and forth about whether a novel we consider a failure is still worth reading because it makes us mad. Another friend is having a baby as a single parent by choice, and I’m trying to figure out how I can show up for her in a truly intentional and significant queer family kind of way. That’s where it all starts.
Caryl Pagel is the author of three books of poetry—Free Clean Fill Dirt, Twice Told, and Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death—as well as a collection of essays, Out of Nowhere Into Nothing.
This post may contain affiliate links.