Longtime New Yorker Rachel Rabbit White casts a wide community net in both cityscape and cyberspace. Entrenched with poets, activists, and sex-workers in the physical world, she’s built a second home online as a freelance journalist and the “Sex Scenes” columnist for Vice Magazine. We were lucky enough to meet White in 2018 at the Poetry Field School, and witness the germination of her poetry. What began as poems for her angels and ghosts branched into works on love and work, then expanded into a map through all tributaries of selfhood.
Porn Carnival (Wonder), her debut book of poetry, grapples with glamor and image, then invites you further in, interweaving non-dualities of joy and nihilism, romance and despair, all with canny discretion. White can work this alchemy on the page and at a party, which we discovered when we recently stomped into the bar, Gold-Diggers, for Porn Carnival LA: Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Instantly engulfed in a swarm of friends, both Internet and IRL, we twisted through the heavenly bodies, finding her, our Renaissance Daddy, the poet, holding court in the heart of the room: A lavender marabou menace, rhinestone drip (spiritually vajazzled) from throat to toe.
People turn up for White because she turns up for them. That night, we turned up to melt down into her embodied mix of visceral glitz and boundless wellspring of creation. After the party (and afterparty), we crawled into bed with the poet to talk passion and process, personhood and pussy. Over the course of our pillow talk we were struck (not for the first time) by how fluently, how magnanimously, she gives of herself and her poetic tongue.
—gin hart and mal young
mal young gin and I have been talking about being perceived and perceiving the self. Has spending so much time transmuting memories into Porn Carnival made you feel like you’ve walked out of this experience with a reframed “self”?
Rachel Rabbit White The book has a lot of sadness and is marked by personal tragedies as well, but it constantly keeps moving towards joy. And the hope of joy. But when I saw the book together as a whole I was like, This is a really fucking sad book. And that was Ben Fama’s first response too, he was like, Fuck. Really brutal. As heartbreaking as it is, it’s about romance too. How romance is always mediated by capitalism. I am a pessimist when it comes to romance, but romance still has its grip on me, like it does on all of us probably.
For me, often the natural state of love is not harmony but disharmony, and the book is about how romance is always a bit doomed. The book understands that. There are lines in “Porn Carousel” about imagined horizons and not wanting to go towards them. And yet you still can’t help it. There’s no perfect love right? There’s always some lack that exists but you can have overlap. Overlap is like … the perfect moment. I’m not interested in a perfectly preserved relationship, but in letting a relationship be a moment, a complete expenditure. I’ve talked in interviews before about not wanting to preserve myself, not being afraid of expenditure, of wasting my life. And I feel that within romance too. When you’re a romantic, you want your consequences to be big.
gin hart How does poetry shape your romances, and the act of loving?
RRWI’m thinking of how, for Lacan, fantasy isn’t a representation of an action and its consequences, but a scene, where you imagine what everyone’s roles are in sustaining the veil. I’m also thinking of Renaissance paintings, where angels hold up the veil, behind which lie our truest desires.
There’s no perfect or complete love, but we shouldn’t feel like we failed when it goes badly or not how we planned. There are perfect moments, and poetry can allow you to freeze those moments. That’s the only reason to write it.
my It clarifies either what happened or what you wanted to express more.
RRWTo express, This moved me. The people who the poems are about know I’m writing for them. It’s such a gift to be in love and to be able to write poems to the person that you love. There’s no better feeling in the world for me than having a cerebral connection with somebody. Because of the way poetry utilizes language and frees us from the tyranny of the sentence it makes the other areas where we’re similarly freed—text messaging, conversation—more fun and playful. They start to have a relationship with each other. When you’re writing poetry your text messages change. And also when you’re writing poetry you become aware that all love is an art form. Any relationship can be its own mini literary tradition. Not everyone picks up on the fun texting. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a space to create here.
my Yeah exactly. It’s like, Play with me!
RRW That’s it. I mean poetry is “play with me.” I really want people to be in there with me.
my You give a lot, divulge a lot about your internal life and your sanctuary in Porn Carnival. The subject matter also lends itself to a level of privacy that you balance well. Did poetry influence your breadth, enable you to move more candidly between subjects?
RRWI think of my poem “what form might a non-confessional confession take?” and I feel like in order for the art to be full there needs to be a hole in it. To be withholding leaves a gap for conversation, a space for the reader to finish the thought.
What’s most interesting to me in poetry is what the holes in the poem do for the reader.
my There are poems in Porn Carnival where you feel two feet behind the voice within it. And you’re a spectator watching the space materializing and dissipating.
RRWOne thing that Ben pointed out when I showed him these questions is that I also create settings, and that a lot of poems don’t have settings. “Open Air Modern,” for example, has this sense of geometric space and glass and shadow. It moves from structures in LA to structures in New York City. It has a strong sense of setting for a poem that’s about love being ruptured by cruelty and conflict. There’s dissociation too because when you’re in these super intense situations where you’re fighting with a partner and you just start looking around the room, you can slip out of yourself to escape the moment. You become a spectator of your life. There’s something cinematic about that. Watching life unfold like a film.
ghIn “Cabaret” you write “sometimes I wish I could find the metaphysics in pussy / lift the veil and discover / the origin of the world.” In other parts of the book, we meet Aphrodite Ourania and trans Jesus. How do God and gods interface with pussy metaphysics?
RRW I was surprised at how much Venus, gods, Jesus, and Christianity showed up in the book.
Also, pussy metaphysics are all over Christian imagery, but also non-Christian, like the clamshell of Venus—her clamshell surfboard (laughter). And that always came back to “the power of pussy is the spark of creating life” but as someone who’s not bio-essentialist, I’m also for a post-pussy era, as much as I do love pussy, so.
gh It can be both.
myTangentially, are you big into ritual as a source of inspiration for your poetry?
RRWI’m chaotic. I’m not a person who’s very good at keeping tight schedules … daily ritual can be very tough for me because of the hours I keep. But my monthly reading series is called Ceremony. People come together, drink, mingle, then hear poems. To me that is a ritual.
my How about when you sit down to write a poem, do you consider that a ritual?
RRWI am really hard on myself, and I force myself to sit at the laptop for as many hours as possible, that’s my secret. And it’s often horrible, until it’s very enjoyable. I don’t know if that’s a ritual or a self-hating, masochistic thing that I do to myself.
I think of “Monologue Beyond Midnight:” “poetry to impress the gods / to lend the reader moisturized wings […] I’d sell my body for that.” That poem comes after the poem “Our Lady of the Camellias” which has the repeated line “I would rather die than work.” This expresses the sentiment that when I’m at work, and it’s dull, it’s the last place I want to be. It’s a feeling all workers have, the dread that comes with one more day of struggle, with the knowledge that after that there will be another one, and then another one. The line is repeated three times because, like work, it keeps coming back. That work is the unavoidable horizon for workers—a burden that we will carry every day until we liberate ourselves. In the meantime, being able to come back to poetry, to find the time and energy and space for it, is a matter of luck and privilege. I don’t take for granted that if I’ve worked enough, I can sit for days writing. That’s why I do it.
ghI think about the line “Poetry gave me this sickness / I think the sky is mine / Its pollution is mine” every day! Humanity deifies then plummets.
RRW Nietzsche and his metaphors around health and sickness come up a couple of times in that poem. The idea of metaphysics as born out of sickness, the result of ugliness’ hate for appearances and its desire for something more than just the world. Ugly Socrates’s criticism of kalokagathia, the ancient Greek doctrine of nobility as the harmony of a beautiful soul with a beautiful body. Not only is this an aspiration ever more common in the guise of wellness practices, but also how as a sex worker this coincidence of inner and outer beauty is something expected, yet sometimes, for me personally, mental health (and writing) requires that I disconnect body and soul. But also that poem is an interrogation of why I insist on pursuing poetry, something that hurts me both emotionally and economically. My insistence on writing little notes to the world, little appendices that want to add something to the sky and the earth, that denounce how unbearable a tautological world would be, where the sky is the sky is the sky and just the sky.
my I was talking (again) about Marie Calloway …
my And the book What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life, how it hits you full-force with openness and you are Marie as you read it.
RRW Yes completely! Because of the way she so perfectly captures her interior. Discussing interiority in my book, my friend Annelise Ogaard, a filmmaker who I’m cowriting a script with right now for a TV series called Companions, said something like, I see this work as you trying to bring these two selves together—the work self and your interior self.
my This kind of ties your work together—the different amounts of self that you can put in a piece.
RRWOf course I don’t believe in a fixed self or an authentic self, because we’re always manufacturing a self under capitalism, for consumption. But Marie’s is also a book that grapples with the interior. Marie so beautifully, and in such great detail, creates an interior. Painstakingly detailed. You are in the interior of Marie Calloway, and that’s why the book is so fucking powerful. I think people will be studying her book for a long time because it’s a stunning work. What happened to her is really fucked up.
People were calling her stupid online. Journalists. Because they were, what? Mad that she’s hot? I don’t think they were even mad that she took down a leftist dude who wrote for The New Inquiry. I literally think people were mad that she was a visible sex worker, and that what she presented wasn’t easy. Again, they were just trying to shut down sex worker complexity and make people think, Oh it’s not there. I want to say that in 2020 when people are more radicalized, that it wouldn’t happen to Marie now. But honestly I don’t know. Marie is one of my lovers and one of my best friends, one of the people I’ve been closest to in my life, so it makes sense that we share something. Put in there that WPDISIYL is a genius work.
I don’t know if y’all know about JT LeRoy. They were this very mysterious author who wrote these stories about being a teenage male hustler, and they pulled this literary hoax. They had performers read as “JT LeRoy” but the author was actually this forty-year-old with a lot of gender dysphoria, uncomfortable with writing as a woman. They were published as fiction, people just took them as autofiction. And when she was discovered by the fucking New York Magazine and the New York Times she was panned as a bad writer. The sentiment was, This is no longer good, this is bad writing, we thought this was a teenage hustler and now this writing that we praised and called angelic … we’re taking it all back. It’s a heartbreaking story. She wrote a book called The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, so my poem, “The Heart is Delirious Above All Thing” is dedicated to Laura Albert aka JT LeRoy, which I shared with her, and she was keen on. Another person whose work was completely attacked, like Marie’s.
my I can see you and Marie reflected in each other.
RRW We are forever. She is my heart forever. There’s a twinning there that will never not be there. Because we touched each other so deeply and lived through so much together.
I’m just so glad to have people who get it. That’s always the fear. That your poetry won’t find its people. That’s the whole reason to write.
gh It’s a seeking!
RRWIt’s a conversation!
my Play with us!