At a Yale writing workshop in 2003, one of E. Parker Phillips' college classmates said Phillips' erotic poem reminded them of a Calvin Klein ad. Phillips, who identifies as genderqueer and uses "s/he" and "he/r" pronouns, doesn't remember the poem itself, only one line from the work about a lesbian sexual awakening: "Love is where we stay in bed and go shopping for hats." The classmate was trying to humiliate Phillips. But s/he treasures the memory.
"The connection between sex, power, and writing felt undeveloped at a place like Yale," Phillips recalls. "It made me feel like things weren't set up for me to have a voice.
"Well, now I fight for that voice."
At the time, Phillips was studying for a degree in Chinese. These days, s/he's one of the busiest people in Miami, juggling writing, teaching, performing, BDSM and fetish work, and activism. Phillips cannot be explained simply in a line from a poem or exemplified in a single memory. But though Phillips defies labels, he/r uniquely intersectional message and example has made he/r one of South Florida's most prominent voices in the queer and literary realms.
Phillips was a queer kid raised by strict parents near the Adirondack Mountains in Glens Falls, New York, a largely white, Republican, rural town. There was a lot of pressure at home to go to a good school. Phillips found sanctuary and joy in playing sports. "I was an athlete before anything else in my life," s/he remembers.
After graduating from college, s/he lived "on the fringes of literary cultures at Yale and in New York City." The red state of Florida might not seem like the most welcoming place for a queer writer, but Florida International University's creative writing program offered Phillips the chance to study with renowned poets Campbell McGrath and Denise Duhamel. There, s/he recalls, "I could learn to embrace how I write from my groin and my heart while also exploring ideas and politics. Miami, and FIU, helped me turn my position as an outsider, once a source of shame, into a place of empowerment."
Phillips taught at FIU and Broward College while publishing poems in journals such as Voluble (a LARB channel), The Sensations Feelings Journal, Jai-Alai Magazine, and Hinchas de Poesia. Along the way, s/he developed a unique literary style to express he/r layered experiences. "I am happiest at the nexus of language, performance, and physicality," Phillips notes. "Writing poems is a trans-like state where I am thinking about my body both physically and emotionally, processing my experience in language — consciousness tethered to a sensual world."
From 2014-'16, the instructor found a less conventional avenue for expressing he/r identity by opening a 1,500-square-foot BDSM commercial dungeon. "Both [kink and poetry] feel like arts of consciousness," s/he explains. "BDSM, kink, for me brings together making money and art; it is how I have made a living in the past four years."
S/he now operates out of a private fetish studio in Hollywood, Florida — and not just to pay the bills. "I try to work outside academia so I can deepen my engagement with the world, which affects my voice in poetry. It is not always easy. I probably do too much," Phillips admits.
In addition to hosting BDSM play parties and a meetup for kinky people titled Miami Munch, for the past six months, Phillips has cohosted the weekly Queer and Trans Yoga class at Agni Miami.
"Poems, BDSM, yoga — these are my lifelines. Sharing these practices with other people amplifies their meaning and helps me push the boundaries of the various forms," Phillips explains. "When I try to live up to the expectations of what I perceive as the mainstream poetry world, I end up not writing."
In joining all of these varied pursuits, s/he explains, "If I can focus on bearing witness to my feelings and my body, bearing witness to politics and injustice, I can engage poetry as a vehicle through which I traverse the known into the not-yet-known... Imagining a different, more equitable world is particularly important to me as a nonbinary, genderfluid person."
Part of imagining that world is changing the words used to describe it. "Language is an ontological problem — a world of 'he' and 'she,' a binary world," Phillips continues. "How can we take that apart and build something more livable?... What happens when I share my queer, feminist consciousness with a reader? A change in hearts and minds can happen there."
The Queer and Trans Yoga class s/he cofounded is another converging of these realities for Phillips. In a hatha class, the teacher focuses on yin — "practicing being versus doing" — according to one instructor. Students hold poses for three to five minutes, and class leaders discuss topics such as self-acceptance, self-love, and coping with rejection. During the class, a reiki practitioner attends to individuals. The class also begins or ends with a poem by a queer or trans author, or a talk by a community member.
"The message we convey is one of nonviolence toward self and others. There is a lot of emphasis on the self and falling in love with the self," Phillips says.
Those themes will carry into he/r course at this week's TransArt, an annual event that advances equity for the Latinx and LGBT communities through education. Titled I Talk to My Body, Phillips' workshop will "look at the topic of the self addressing the body, which we will explore within the context of a queer and trans lived experience," s/he says. Using works by poets Lucille Clifton, Anna Swir, and Joy Ladin, Phillips hopes to teach students to "make sense of, or even celebrate, a discontinuity between self and body."
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Phillips recalls a recent moment at Queer and Trans Yoga when a practitioner spoke about being queer-bashed by a trusted yoga instructor. The reflection evoked a related yoga practice. Class members were told to lie on their backs with legs in the air, "so we could feel the disorientation the person experienced. It felt like falling backwards," Phillips remembers. "I really wanted to get up and leave — it was challenging both emotionally and physically."
But the meaning of the action made it bearable for Phillips. Inversion poses like that lift energy to the throat, s/he explains, renewing one's voice.
"Learning how to work through discomfort is a hugely valuable lesson for me as a queer person, given the discomfort I face in the adult entertainment industry, in my family, and as a poet," Phillips describes. "Doing yoga in community and turning the raw, painful stuff of lived experience into something inspiring and shared — that is another act of poem-making too."
I Talk to My Body: A Queer and Trans Poetry Workshop for TransArt
1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 10, at MDC Live Arts Lab, Miami Dade College, Building 1, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Visit readingqueer.org and unitycoalition.org. Admission is free.