My next interview in this series is with Phoenix, an author of one NihilismRevised’s many 2018 publications, Separation: Healing. Phoenix is unique to the NihilismRevised family, however, in that he already has a total of fifty (that’s right; that’s a five and a zero) book publications under his belt. You can find Phoenix’s current available oeuvre on his Amazon Page. While Separation: Healing is a poetry book, Phoenix also writes philosophy and prose fiction. I think you’ll get a clear sense of this Renaissance man’s diversity over the course of our conversation. Be sure and follow his blog and check out his YouTube channel. Enjoy!
It’s important to have writers that talk about the hard things. Without art, the systems we are in cannot be challenged. So, in a way, it’s political. But it’s also very personal, in that I need the space to be able to express the hard truths and feelings I feel within.
Me: I feel a certain affinity towards you, because we’re both deeply interested in philosophy. We both tend to blend the “low culture” world of pop fiction with a “high theory” perspective gleaned from a wide variety of readings. Is there a methodology you employ to handle the wide breadth of subject matter you read, or are you an ADD reader, like me, who picks up whatever catches the eye at the moment?
Phoenix: Somewhat. I have a methodology, although it isn’t nearly as tight and controlled as I’d like it to be because I’m into so many things and do lose focus at times. I’d say, though, that despite my wide interest, I do focus on the things most important to me personally, learning about the kinds of things I’d like to write. For instance, I have a good grasp of philosophy because I’ve focused enough to read some of the foundational texts, at least [foundational] in terms of their relevance to philosophy itself and not elitist importance to the academy or some imaginary tradition (though I’d argue there is a tradition, no matter how much we may rebel against it). I’m constantly refreshing myself on these texts. I also have a pretty good grasp of world literature because of college, with my English degree. I’d say that I always try to venture out though, for instance; I wanted to learn more about Postmodern/experimental poetry and analytic philosophy, so I’ve been following up on that recently. I keep my reading choices free and open and flexible, so I am constantly learning new things. It keeps me stimulated for sure, and that’s how I like it.
Me: I agree that there is a tradition, however vigorously we reject it. Decontextualizing, or, as I think of it, “liberating” the tradition from academic exclusively is a personal goal I share. Is Separation: Healing a product of this exploration of postmodern poetry? I feel some strong e.e. cummings influences here.
Cummings has always influenced me ever since I discovered his poem “In Just” as a troubled young teenager. But I’d say I’m influenced by many things, and though my poetry is experimental, it’s influenced by more than just Postmodern poetry and the avant-garde, if that makes sense. The push for experimentalism, often synonymous with elitism, has influenced me greatly and has been important in my development, but I have found I often resist the conceits, however inspired I have been by them. I explain this a bit in my foreword in my poetry book, Torque, where I was greatly moved by experimentalism as it was taught, but also resist what I find to be, in a general sense since the time of Pound and even Zola, problematic to budding young writers. You are told how to write, and not what to write, and I find this troubling because it is yet again another type of pointless conformity, which we must be careful with in the arts. It’s your work; it’s absolutely imperative that you make it yours. In terms of tradition: absolutely resist it, but know why you are resisting it, and know it in your heart and like the back of your hand, no matter what the tradition, both inside and outside the arts. It’s often most important outside art.
Me: That’s excellent advice, I’d say, and aligns with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. It’s good to recognize your influences and reject them at the same time. This seems to be a theme in Separation: Healing, perhaps in a less direct sense. I see a protagonist torn by his readings and influences, as well as societal expectations. Am I reading that correctly?
Phoenix: Yes, that is definitely correct. But I think the harder thing is that I’m trying to come of age, say what I want to say, crystallize and mature, and be genuinely original and truthful in my approach. But we also have trouble escaping our past, which includes our influences. Hence the metaphor of the phoenix (the dichotomy of birth and death, influence and originality, youth and maturity, etc.). But I’d say that’s okay. Genuine expression and the creative process itself will always win out. And art would become a solipsistic place really quickly if we weren’t aware of who we are talking to. That’s why I keep my influences broad, so that I can keep the conversation going strong. And perhaps have a few surprises along the way. We can also talk more about societal expectations, which I struggle with regularly, knowing that my thought is often atypical.
Me: You use the word “conversation,” which has different connotations than mere “expression.” It implies an externally engaged perspective that comes across very clearly in your work. I think you avoid a solipsistic turn in your poetry beautifully with this outward engagement. Before we get to the societal expectations, is there an ideal partner in this “conversation?” What kind of reader does your poetry address?
Phoenix: That’s a good question and one I’ve thought about a lot but am still figuring out as I learn and relearn what people respond to. Obviously, it isn’t for everyone; many of the people I’d most want to respect my work probably never will. But that’s okay. I liken my goal to that of Friedrich Nietzsche: find your own audience, create your own path, and write for those who would be most likely to want to join you on your journey. They are out there, I’ve learned, and it makes the process of writing that much more special. And indeed, I absolutely hope to be engaged in conversation with others, with many others. I keep the conversation as open-ended as I can manage.
Me: What would you like that conversation to be, ideally? Is it a shared love of reading and thinking, or some form of crossing the experiential gap between individuals? A general but genuine “connection” or “recognition,” if you prefer.
Phoenix: That’s a hard question because motives can often be convoluted and unclear. But I’d say it is a bit of both. I hope for connection, and I hope to express my life and my universe and share my love of literature and thought with others. I absolutely want to connect with others, and sometimes, if you can manage it, it means shocking people out of their stupor. We are all often limited until something awakens us suddenly. This happened to me when I discovered poetry as a teenager, or the Modernists in college. Or when I discovered the prog metal band Between the Buried and Me. Or when I watched Teen Wolf, the television show, for the first time. [There are] countless other examples. What artists have done for me—opening up my world and getting me to feel deeply—I hope to do with my readers. I think it’s what drives me. I want people to feel what I feel. I want to feel what other people feel.
Me: So, art, then, isn’t always pleasant. There’s an element of forcing the reader to face the division of the world into binaries in Separation: Healing. You often pair words and concepts with their opposites, which has an unsettling and confusing effect. Is this part of your goal to push the reader into a state of self-examination?
Phoenix: Can you highlight specific examples of this dichotomy? I would say in general, art should and shouldn’t be comfortable. It should change us, however. [We should] really feel it. [It should] shock, awe, and show the way (though in a friendly sort of way, not a narcissistic way). I want people to be comfortable with my work, but only because I am their friend. But we grow the most when we are challenged, especially when we aren’t sure how exactly. It’s the mystery of it all that keeps me going. Confusion is also my mode of enquiry, and though my thought has gotten clearer through time, it is confusion where I seem to understand the most. [The confusion] represents my suffering, but also hope.
Me: In “Postscript: Definition,” for example: “be poetic/politik”… There are a few more instances that I don’t have ready at hand, but at one point I can’t seem to find, you mentioned Derrida’s binaries explicitly and listed a few. And I totally understand becoming more confused the more you read. This also seems to be a theme here. I feel like there’s a healthy disorientation involved with learning about the world, and in particular, the mind.
Phoenix: Oh, yes. Derrida. Great example. So, logocentrism. So “Logocentral,” a poem about binaries. The poetry there is difficult to explain, but I will try. Derrida often highlighted that binary concepts are how we understand the world, and one is often subordinated in society. For instance, slave and master, which is coming a bit from Hegel, or mind and body, from Descartes, the materialist emphasis on the physical world. But realizing this is linguistic and literary, and also political. That poem, specifically “Logocentral,” was inspired by me trying to understand that as I passed The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. I was manic that night, a bit confused and suicidal, a bit of psychosis, and there at the museum late at night was an art installation of words, all contrasting each other. It captured the chaos in my head … but also soothed me because it was words, and philosophy. So, I wrote that poem. And in that poem specifically, I highlighted the street kid trying to just rest amidst language and chaos. I felt like a street kid, tormented yet kind-hearted. And all of that to say: logic and poetry was my way out of my suffering that night. I would also say for sure, that learning will always be disorienting, but in a good way. Socrates was always puzzled, yet, depending on who you ask, at least, he kickstarted Western philosophy. I take some philosophical cues from him. We must be willing to go deep in darkness to find out what really matters, and what’s truly important to us.
Me: Socrates is a great example. We would do well to aspire to his particular brand of disorientation. Do you often find a way out from or inspiration in moments of temporary psychosis or anxiety in connection to your writing?
Phoenix: Well, writing is my lifeline, aside from my friends. But I’d be dead without writing, because it offers an alternative. I can be creative and expressive. There are rules to writing, sure, but I’m constructing. And I keep trying. And I keep writing. That’s my hope in a nutshell. There is a rational yet creative process in writing (speaking of dichotomies) which I find very soothing. Words give me hope. Concepts, too. And just the very act itself of writing. Horace said poets tap into divinity. Sometimes I believe this.
Me: You say writing is your lifeline, and earlier, you alluded to a struggle with societal expectations. Would you care to elaborate on what kind of struggles with societal expectations your poetry helps you deal with or confront?
Phoenix: Excellent question, and I think it’s an important one. I think a bit of Foucault when it comes to this question. He knew that society itself was very pejorative, oppressive, and cruel to those in the margins. I have often felt a blatant exclusion from certain aspects of society. This is because of the stigma of mental illness itself, but also because having mental illness changes your thinking. There is a theory that those with certain types of mental illness see things more clearly than others: their perspective is more accurate to the bleakness of life. However dramatic and exclusive this idea is, I think there is a grain of truth only in that, with my personal experiences, I have been to places mentally (physically too, by way of my physiology) that I would never wish on anyone else. The trick is whether this sort of teleology—of being able to see things differently—is actually useful. I think it is, in some ways; the pain means something, but I only seem capable of answering this question with my writing. Because it is in my writing where I can talk about the hard things, really open up and address the issues society won’t and refuses to in order to stay in a consumerist capitalist stupor, however awfully cliched that seems and is. In other words, writing is literally subversive, and that’s important. In books about censorship, like Distant Star by Roberto Bolano, this picture of censorship of subversive poetry is crucial and very terrifying. Poets are killed by the government for telling the truth. I don’t bring this up to make a moral claim about fighting the system (and potentially getting killed for it), but simply to highlight the tension. It’s important to have writers that talk about the hard things. Without art, the systems we are in cannot be challenged. So, in a way, it’s political. But it’s also very personal, in that I need the space to be able to express the hard truths and feelings I feel within. If that became solipsistic, I would be okay with it, because it wouldn’t negate the complexity of my life, experiences, and reality. I need to express those things, and so I do it in the best way I know how.
Me: Roberto Bolano’s Distant Star is a brilliantly dark book, I believe, and an apt example of art that crosses societal boundaries (and even artistic boundaries, I would argue). What about your homosexuality? Does this also add to that dimension of marginalization to which you feel you can only respond to in writing?
Phoenix: How I discovered what it meant to be gay was both conflicted/tragic and artistic/cathartic. I think I knew I was different at least when I was in high school, but I wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t until I discovered Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, while I was still in my early twenties and in college, that I knew I was different, and why specifically. The protagonist was both hypersexual and literary, and I felt I was just like that in so many ways. But even with me reading many books about being gay throughout my early and later twenties, I felt I had to keep it secret because I got enough pain and exclusion from having mental illness. I finally came out when I was twenty-six at the honest request of my friend Preston, who knew because I hit on him not knowing he was straight. I told him after this that I was hurt and sad because of what I felt towards him, but that he thought there was nothing wrong with my feelings. At that time, I was reading The World of Normal Boys, and that book shocked me awake. I knew I couldn’t hide it any more, that I had to come out. So, I did. But during all this time, and even up to now, I write about being a gay man because, even though my homosexuality is more acceptable than my mental illness, there are complications about the whole thing. People usually don’t know what you feel and tend to dismiss it. And the gay scene here in Salt Lake is brutal and judgmental a bit, and that’s because of our oppressive Mormon culture. So, I write about it, because dating here is such a brutal and messy process that has yet to be realized, even though I am (mostly) openly gay. It’s why poems like “Tensed,” “F,” “Fag,” and “Naked and Free” are so hard hitting. I have yet to deal with the themes in those poems, being still somewhat closeted and confused as to how to move forward with (mostly, so far at least) shitty men. Ha ha ha.
Me: Do these struggles, both with societal and personal acceptance of mental illness and sexual orientation, play into the image of the Phoenix? Why did you choose the Phoenix as your nomme de guerre?
Phoenix: I’d like to express a very specific feeling of loneliness. Being gay and feeling like an outsider to the community makes me lonely. Being stigmatized for having mental illness makes me feel lonely. These things have been a part of my life for a long time, and they always linger in the background. I became Phoenix to overcome my past and the things I wouldn’t let Stephan Heard be and do. I learned that I was Phoenix when I wrote one of my first books, The Street Kid, with Phoenix as the protagonist. That book is published as it should be; it’s there where I began to really flesh out who Phoenix, The Street Kid, was, and the mythology behind it. The Street Kid is modeled after my life in a very literal way. Past delusions become plot points, and I really push the boundaries of the idea of the autofiction, of blurring truth with fantasy, fiction with autobiography, past events with perceived events, fact with fabrication. Phoenix, however, is not unreliable. He isn’t an unreliable narrator; what he feels is real. It is the very perception itself that becomes crucial, because that is the experience, whether true or false, black or white. But Phoenix always overcomes the pain, struggle, and inner turmoil in the end… and that is because it is a part of him. Phoenix is delusion and that’s the beauty. Phoenix exists in cycles, in his head and in his life. He is always dying and rebirthing. This is my metaphysical view, too, in that we need the fire to understand the cold, the light to understand the dark. But as a writer, I play with language, so Phoenix also references Phoenix, Arizona. When I was hospitalized in the psych ward as a fifteen-year-old just trying to survive, I experienced something very traumatic. Catatonic, they ripped open my red shirt, as though to restart my heart with a defibrillator (this was in the ER). I thought I was dead. They cut through my red shirt, which said Phoenix, Arizona on it. At this time and forever more, that place (Phoenix, Arizona) became mythical to me. But, I was traumatized in this instance. I knew something had changed, and that scared me, until later in life I became Phoenix, and I confronted it.
Me: That’s incredible man. There’s a lot to unpack there. You mention The Street Kid. Is this a series of books? What books are in the series? Is this poetry or prose?
Phoenix: Well, there is my definitive book that started it all, and that’s my published book, The Street Kid. It’s prose narrative with experimental techniques. Basically, I disrupt the third person past narrative with first person thoughts in the present, unregulated by punctuation, in parentheses. It’s a series in a way, but also not. I left the exploration of that character very open-ended and experimental. So, the next book is A Burning Metamorphosis, which I have yet to publish. That is a long complex book and very worth it. But I’m constantly exploring Phoenix in other venues, such as poetry. In my poetry book, The Beautiful Mythology, I write poems from Phoenix’s perspective, though you don’t necessarily know this. And there are other examples. It’s very fun dealing with Phoenix and his friends.
Me: I’ve wondered about the radically different stylistic choices in your poetry. Does this all stem from playing with Phoenix as a character? For example, Wordless is radically different, stylistically, than S:H. It has more of what I think of as a “rap” rhythm and less of the experimental, terse, and violently powerful structures employed in S:H. Is this about changing perspectives, or something different?
Phoenix: Great question, because it helps me focus on one of my (many) theories with writing, and that is: always try to find a new way to express yourself while also seeking to make your voice more distinct through practice and really knowing the words. Most, if not all, my poetry books are different stylistically from each other, and that is because I encourage the evolution of (my) language. My book Rap is a play on the formal structures of rap, which I also fragment and make offbeat. It’s an exploration of rap, performance poetry, and traditional rhyming. But then you get Pocket Words (published), which are literally minimalistic sound-bytes that do not use a first person narrator, generally. Or take Depictions, an early effort, where I fuse the knowledge of the object correlative (T.S. Eliot’s concept) with Wordsworthian and New York School lyricism. I could go on, I’ve completed sixteen poetry books to date, but I think you get the point. Part of why I do this stylistically is because I want to see what I can do. I want to know what ideas I can explore, what words I can use, what I can say. But there is a bigger picture, too. I want my work to be distinct. So Wordless, even with its experimental, performance poetry edge, is still very much something I would write, and it fits in my oeuvre. So, as you can see, my goal is to push myself, but also be consistent, as my junior high English teacher once taught me. I find freedom in trying on new clothes, but also wearing my beautiful familiar red Phoenix Arizona shirt. Doing this helps me stay creative but also push my boundaries. But it is only one literary theory among many, so this way of approaching it is not fully definitive for my process, but it is useful shorthand.
Me: That’s a wonderful answer, man. I think writers can focus too much on “creating a brand” and lose sight of artistic growth. You, however, have incorporated growth and change as part of your image, and it works beautifully, not only in the realm of fiction and poetry, but philosophy and psychology as well. You adopt an unusually conversational approach in In Defense of the Mind while you address issues like Cartesian dualism, existentialism and functionalism. I have to say, it’s a relief reading someone who is interested in philosophy without the pretense. Does this willingness to experiment extend to your philosophy, or do you have a specific “system” you consistently advocate?
Phoenix: Great question, and tough to answer because philosophy is so different from poetry and even fiction even though clearly there is much overlap. But I would say, thank you for being genuine in your own search. That’s what matters. I’d say philosophy is a tough one because we overuse the term philosophy and it has lost some of its meaning. So, each generation always thinks they are doing true philosophy, not taking into account that philosophy is a long and complex conversation (knowing me, you know I hesitate to use the word tradition, but that is there too). So, Hegel thought he was defining philosophy back in the 1800’s, but then so did the logical positivists and the early analytic thinkers of the twentieth century. But for me, philosophy is not a thing but a mode. This means that many people philosophize, and important points and issues are brought up in conversations happening all over the world right now this very minute. And how we record these ideas is how we do philosophy. This means that when I do philosophy, I consider the tradition as I understand it (and this obviously includes philosophy outside the traditional canon of Western thinkers, like the East). This is important, because it means I will utilize my style of philosophy while also leaving it very open-ended. This is intentional. So, In Defense of the Mind was a treatise in which I’m dealing with many themes that pop up in Western philosophy. But there’s more to it. There is a kind of synthesis, to use Hegel, or perhaps even the contemporary thinker and philosopher Grant Maxwell, who wrote The Dynamics of Transformation, thinking about these very ideas. There is an openness to possibility. That idea was inspired by the philosophy of emergence, which has a tradition in twentieth century philosophy. The point of all of this is to highlight that philosophy is about ideas and expression, not ego. We should, ideally, be healthily detached from our ideas. But we should also defend them in a friendly and truthful manner too. So, I’d say that my treatise is the beginning of asking hard questions by using tradition, whilst also giving my reader space to think about these issues on their own. Philosophy, as I write it currently, is much the same way, though less formal. My current project, Effort, is philosophy but not even a treatise. At this point, I don’t feel the need to justify it or defend it. I just want to express philosophy. Because, I have ideas. So, the joy I take in philosophizing has become less formal as I explore. I’ve even thought about using different styles of writing and logic to convey this. Philosophy, ironically, doesn’t always have to be linear. Just think of Deleuze, who really opened up what philosophy as a discipline can be with his free association. But I’d say as a final note that In Defense of the Mind was indeed a Defense. I had a theory of mind and of mental illness that was absolutely important I convey. But as I learn more, I relax and become more open. That is my process.
Me: The fact that philosophy isn’t about ego is a point that I think deserves special emphasis. I find Deleuze helpful viewing philosophy from a perspective of expression contingent on context rather than a statement of Absolute Truth. This is another aspect of “up-rootedness” that coincides well with your fiction and poetry. Would you agree that Phoenix, in broad terms, isn’t about dogmatic truths or ideological boundaries, genre or specific form, but an openness to the world of experience, a yearning to see, feel and think all that can be seen, felt and thought, coupled with a strong desire to share and inspire your readers to similar levels of enthusiastic openness?
Phoenix: That is exactly it, and you articulate it very well. I’m humbled by your (kind) description.
Me: Not at all, man. I applaud you. Yours is the exact attitude I want to promote on this blog. It’s a pity that more writers aren’t so curious about the world around them.
Phoenix: Definitely. It makes it harder to connect with those we should be able to.
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