Rachel Rabbit White Wants You To Write Poetry On The Clock
Ahead of the release of her book "Porn Carnival," the writer and poet discusses personas, orgies, and how a Seal song (yes, that one) became an unlikely inspiration for one of her poems.
For years, the Italian leftist theorist and media activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi has been calling for more poetry, pleasure, and presence as part of a revolutionary mission and treatment of our ailing late capitalist spirits and bodies. Bifo’s goofy delivery and invocation of what we know we need has secured him the position of leftist cheerleader daddy among several of my femme comrades. Now Bifo should really meet Rachel Rabbit White. A poet, prose writer [Ed. note: she's a frequent contributor here at GARAGE], sex worker, and community organizer, White embodies the integration of poetry, Marxist analysis, pleasure (parties!), and protest. As she says in this interview: “Analyzing material conditions always comes first: before the orgy. And if you are working, alongside the orgy and within the orgy.”
If integrating politics and pleasure were easy, Millennials would be a generation of ecstatic activist—the desire is there. Instead, a majority of us are whining on Twitter, podcasts, and between friends, repeating the othering language of national states and consumer capitalism we were raised in. Poetry alone can’t save us, but it helps: restore ambiguity, lushness, tension, release, synchronicity, chance, order, and chaos, aka Reality to language and so life.
Porn Carnival is Rachel Rabbit White’s debut poetry book. Written over the course of a year—in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, a sex worker endangering law, which White has organized against—the text flips between the dull company of the rich who pay for it, the sloshy consciousness of designer pills, luxury beauty products, lesbian sex, poetry as gay, stresses of desire, money money money, “an army of flowers,” and humor: “I’m just a little clown!” Rachel writes in her poem "Audition:" “putting words on a page.”
How did this book come to be?
I wrote it over the course of one year, entirely inElaine Kahn’s poetry workshop. She is my mentor, poetry mommy, and editor. I was struggling to write, because I hadn’t [written] outside of my journal for years. I had been focussing on becoming “stable,” working so hard, so I could have a community around me, and could take care of others. I was burnt out, and when I tried to write, all that came out were sex work stories, which felt exploitative to share, and I felt triggered.
Exploitative to yourself?
Yes, I was frustrated feeling that work was all I had in my life and then when I finally manage to cut time for myself—my interiority—all I could talk about was work. I felt as if there really were nothing else. Partly this feeling was also due to only having experience writing journalism and personal essays, that is paid work. I was approaching writing with a set of habits that stifled my autonomy, wondering: What do editors want? What do readers want? And the answer was female trauma. Female trauma told in an entertaining way while maintaining whatever fantasy they would have of me. It felt icky. Then one night I went to one of Andy Bess’ readings. After I was like, “Poetry is so beautiful.” They suggested I write poetry. “I want your poems,” they said. So I went home and immediately started writing, it just starting flowing.
This book has a lot of invocations of the poem as a figure, or poetry as a material thing. I was wondering how that happened.
There are two poems in this book that really do that, one is "Celebrity Stage" and the other is "Interlude." I wrote both on an acid trip alone in my bedroom. I was thinking in multiple levels: about the poem doing the work for me, including the confessional work, because I was writing about my life, about sex work. In those poems, the poem itself becomes the sex worker. Maybe it’s like Poetry is the stripper stage name of the ancient Greek muse of erotic poetry Erato (it means beloved; she’s also a mime which is very Porn Carnival). But to be truthful, the idea first came from more modern sources. I was reading a lot of Chelsey Minnis and seeing how she was addressing poetry itself. I was wanting to embody the poem, rather than addressing the institution of poetry.
While reading your book, I was wondering if there’s ever been a feature film adaption of a poetry book, and how amazing that would be.
I can’t think of one. Cinematic themes, pacing, and techniques were huge for me as a guide into poetry. I was so happy when I did a first readthrough of the book out loud and it ran two hours. Like a movie, perfect.
This question of adaptation had me wondering: What's the palette of this book? The Texture? What's its soundtrack?
I was trying to think about that recently—what the art and the music of the book is. Jacques Demy films, which are musical, were an influence. Hip hop and Soundcloud rap, for this online or outlaw vernacular, channeling that through sex work. I love Sandra Simonds, Elaine Kahn, Chelsey Minnis, and the Gurlesque school of poetry, but also decadent French literature, Baudelaire, Zola, Genet, Pierre Louys. Other musical references: a poem called "More Lana than Lana," and there’s a poem called "Kiss From a Rose in a Glass Pipe," that was inspired by an orgy we had where someone kept saying, “Put on Kiss From a Rose.” At first it was a joke but when we did, we were lost in the universe of that song, we felt we would lose our minds if we couldn’t keep hearing it! We were so high, we couldn’t figure out how to do the automatic repeat on Spotify, so someone had to be in charge of manually repeating it.
How are you thinking about performing the poems, or the poems as performance?
To me, life is a performance, and poetry can become this way to perform your life. In terms of performing the poems, I love the traditions of poetry being sung. It’s more about the pleasure of the sound. The launch performance at Venus in Furs club was crazy. It was the first time I had intro music, and I just snapped into it, and started doing a mini stripper routine.
I had been thinking—and your book solidified this understanding for me—about how persona can be a way to maintain privacy.
Absolutely. I think as sex workers we know this more than anyone. Persona is vital to us. It’s how we stay safe.
"What I like best in art is this thing of never being certain, never giving away too much, and that’s something persona can do: you pluck from the rich inner life but there’s still a withholding in order to make the reader want more and in order for their imagination to go."
Exactly. First of all, it’s important to have a persona, so your clients don’t stalk you, also to maintain yourself in a situation where you’re constantly reacting to the other person and how they want you to be; not be your real self, not give away your real politics, how you think, and how you don’t want to be there. You have to hold on to the deep acting of the persona. And that can be very painful, but it’s also necessary to your safety, your hourly, and to protect your rich inner world. A big part of your time as a sex worker is taken by trying to deflect people from piercing that safety bubble. Similarly, women and authors of color or other marginalized people are often asked, under the guise of authenticity, to burst that bubble of safety. When I first read some of these poems in a more academic workshop, many suggested I open with my sex work “credentials.” They didn’t know if they could believe me, so they asked me to out myself and make myself vulnerable before they could read me. As an artist, the rich inner world that you want to keep safe, you also want to share. What I like best in art is this thing of never being certain, never giving away too much, and that’s something persona can do: you pluck from the rich inner life but there’s still a withholding in order to make the reader want more and in order for their imagination to go.
I wanted to talk about the politics of Porn Carnival. There’s a lot of talk of money and class, refusals to work, and the exultation of pleasure.
Analyzing material conditions always comes first: before the orgy. And if you are working, alongside the orgy and within the orgy. I feel like true liberation is both the liberation of sexuality and pleasure, and from labor; but liberation from wage labor must come first. This liberation can only happen if we work and organize towards building forms of action and institutions that are capable of bring capital under democratic control. For my poetry to be political, when it wants to be political, it means that it has to work inside this frame of redistributive justice. C.A. Conrad said that poetry could be something you do at any time, in free moments, as you go to work, and I want to encourage everyone to write poetry on the clock. Poetry can find a home in even the tiniest freedom, making it a space where we air our grievances and maybe create values, or change how people think. With any political action, the question is: What’s the Meaning? Which is also the question with poetry: What does this poem stand for? What does it stand against? What does this poem render generic? Writing a book of poetry isn’t a substitute for politics, but it is modestly something you can do along the way.