“Capitalism is this never-ending carnival and you’re just there laboring, working the machine.”
What Rachel Rabbit White Wants:
The decriminalization of sex work
To take care of her friends
A lumpen poetry
I first read Rachel Rabbit White when I moved to New York City in January of 2018; her Garage column Sex Scenes has some of the best writing on sex and culture that I’ve read. After a year in the city, Rachel and I had developed a large group of mutual friends in both sex working, poetry, and queer circles. As with many people our age, we witnessed one another living parallel lives through our tweets and our Instastories until eventually Rachel invited me to a party in Williamsburg last winter. I remember being so nervous as I approached the bar; she’d had been someone I had admired creatively and ideologically for so long. Her poetry spoke to the lived realities of a queer and sex working community that I had grown to love, and that had taken care of me in my hardest moments. Once Rachel herself arrived to the party, I understood what everyone was waiting for: she has a magnetic energy that makes it difficult to look away. She has a confidence that influences everyone in the room.
Rachel’s work doesn’t just represent a community not often portrayed in the mainstream, it depicts experiences that have often been fetishized, misconstrued, or outright ignored by most circles in publishing. Rachel Rabbit White’s work is revolutionary for a multitude of reasons, both for the leftist politics layered throughout her poems, but also because she is an out-sex worker who embraces qualities that literary institutions often reject.
When I arrived at Rachel Rabbit White’s apartment in October to discuss her new book of poetry, Porn Carnival, I could not have predicted how much of what we discussed would serve as a response to party coverage for her recent book launch: coverage which made a community that’s actively organizing politically (for the decriminalization of sex work, harm reduction practices, the anti-carceral movement, and a multitude of other issues that impact queer and sex working communities) come off as frivolous and shallow. Many on Twitter, hearing a description of the launch, criticized the hedonism, the sex, and the absurdity of the party antics without considering the fact that queer sex workers who write don’t need to have parties that appeal to the respectability standards of those who have never traded sex for money.
As a person who attended the Porn Carnival launch (and the after-party, even though I didn’t stay for the angel dust), it really was just another weekend in the circles that make up the queer sex working community. The truly extraordinary thing about the event was the mutual aid that took place: all funds went to Whose Corner Is It Anyway, copies of Porn Carnival were available for all who wanted them, and people from a criminalized community could connect safely in public with other workers who understand them and their experiences.
I. “There’s always a hole in them.”
THE BELIEVER: I’m here with Rachel Rabbit White to discuss Porn Carnival, her first collection of poetry. Tell me about the writing process for you.
RACHEL RABBIT WHITE: I started writing this book the Summer of 2018, with the fallout of SESTA/FOSTA ringing through my community as we were working and organizing—wondering if my friends and I were walking into stings, wondering if another ad site would go down, life becoming more and more precarious for almost everyone I know and love.
I went to one of Andy Flower’s readings, and I was so moved. They were like, “You should write poems.” I went home and just started writing them.
Poetry really opened me up because I’d been struggling to write prose. I couldn’t help but write about my sex work experiences but every time I started to write about my experiences, tying them down to the certainty of the sentence was terrifying.
BLVR: Yeah right, “it’s there.”
RRW: It’s there, and it’s so confessional. It’s hard to let it be slippery.
BLVR: You really can’t let it be slippery. It could be another sex worker reading the work, who will get it and be like “yes,” but often it’s a civilian audience who’s going to interpret whatever they think the poems mean and project onto them.
RRW: I wrote a lot of personal essays back in the heyday of “over-sharing,” so coming from personal writing I got to be aware of the ways where the process feels exploitative—you know, when you start to talk to agents about a memoir, and your life is made to be marketed for an audience.
Poetry for me was a way to blow that open, to play with the confessional and laugh in the face of it, to express myself in a way that felt creative and not like selling out for clicks or a book deal. Poetry feels truer to the vague fragmentary uncertainty that is living a life, more than any other form of writing.
BLVR: Confessional for your own sake. It’s empowering because you’re not really ever going to make money with poetry.
RRW: It was very freeing to find a confessional-anti-confessional confession.
BLVR: Anti-confessional, is that how you’d describe your work?
RRW: I think so. I have a poem that’s called: “What are the confessional forms a nonconfessional might take?” And the text of it is just: “I long to hold back! I love to be withholding! To tease and not give!”
BLVR: I think that’s beautiful. You’re the person who got me into this writer, Chelsey Minnis. I saw your Instastory of some of her poems, after that I started getting a client to buy me a Chelsey Minnis book every time we saw each other.
RRW: Her books have been out of print for a long time, too. They’ve finally been rereleased by Fence. She’s my biggest influence and I wanted it to be overt. She has the only poem where there’s an “after Chelsey Minnis.” I found her in 2013 and this was at the time of Alt Lit. It was these white straight men dominating the Bushwick poetry scene and it was really depressing and alienating for me.
BLVR: Of course, how can you interact in those circles when it’s like your voice isn’t valued equally?
RRW: Right, yeah. Finding Chelsey Minnis and finding the Gurlesque school, which she’s often been associated with, was like finding Riot grrrl for the first time, you know? As corny as that sounds.
BLVR: But no that’s real, Chelsey Minnis makes me feel okay about being a bad woman.
RRW: Yeah, she throws a fit in her poems, she makes a scene. That’s what I love about them. I think that there’s real rage there, this feminized rage that I want more of. Sandra Simonds did an amazing essay about her for the Poetry Foundation. She quotes Joyelle McSweeney, who says that with Chelsey, her poems are never full, there’s always a hole in them. They can contain so much but they’re never pinned down. There’s a mystery there. There’s something enigmatic that makes you always want to know more.
BLVR: And she doesn’t give it to you!
RRW: She doesn’t give it to you, she’s withholding! It’s so powerful.
BLVR: It’s like you either have to give vulnerability all the time, or you have to never fuck up and be messy. Chelsey Minnis does this thing, and I would say the same with what you do in Porn Carnival where you’re like, “It’s actually great to be messy, like this is a part of who I am”.
RRW: Yeah, I feel like that guides the formal structure of the book, which incorporates some manifesto style lines into the messiness of life, which is always more than theory. It’s useful when deciphering a poem, or any piece of art, to ask what it stands for or against, from what conditions in life the piece emerges. Those conditions will necessarily shape the form of the expression. Just as different types of lives are valued hierarchically by our institutions, not all styles are equally welcomed.
The institutions of American literature have long favored a formal style that relies only on subtext. People like Paul Engle were sincere in their embracing a certain liberal humanism that, coming from Kermode, wanted to give to every gesture in our life the same attention that close reading in literary criticism gives to characters.
But also this was in part due to the documented influence of the CIA funding writing programs, among other literary institutions, to “fight communism” is felt in the professionalization of creative writing. And the result has been a sort of tone policing, a preference for the sotto voce, the personal, and a natural skepticism for large claims (and the idea that any call for social justice is necessarily grandiose).
The manifesto-style passages of the book inherently suggest community. The book, at times, engages the plural pronouns of “we” and “our”, it’s not the singular subject of capital, not just the slouched-over consumer—or writer. I do think it has a different resonance poetically, and a different politics. But the book is still about my own life and it represents my experiences, not my entire community.
II. A Pact with the Devil
BLVR: Can we talk about what some might call the decadence in the book?
RRW: The decadence shown in the book is me inside of the work space, where I’m made to be a luxury among other luxuries: hotels, dinners, a way of life for wealthy men, that I can access through class drag, through my own privilege in sex work. Luxury is alluring but also incredibly depressing. Clients need us to pretend that we are like them, that we are don’t come from a working class or even middle class background, because otherwise they feel uncomfortable. And all the while you keep thinking how you’d want to share this luxury with your friends, your partners. You get to the point you can’t even taste the dinner you are eating with the client. So you wait, you get out of the date, and then you blow all of the money you just made taking your partner to the expensive sushi restaurant you went to for work and only then it hits you: this is how it was supposed to feel.
BLVR: That leads me to the question: who are you writing for?
RRW: Yeah, the question of who I was addressing with these poems kept coming back to me as I was compiling them in a book. These were clearly poems that were reaching out to the reader. The book begins with an invocation: fellow sufferer. I almost cut that line so many times and Elaine [Kahn], my editor, really pushed me to keep it. I was like, “Maybe it’s corny” and Elaine was like, “No, it really sets the tone for the book and it’s so important that your book starts on fellow sufferer.”
To me a fellow sufferer, is any fellow worker, and not simply fellow sex workers. Elaine really got it when she said “I see you as the carnival worker.” I was like, “Yes!” Capitalism is this never-ending carnival and you’re just there laboring, working the machine.
BLVR: I want to ask you about the line “I wanna be a horrifying woman, a dust ruffle, a decorative kleenex holder.” That shook me to my core. I don’t think I’ve read something where I’ve been like, “Yeah there it is.” I want to unpack what it means to be a horrifying woman.
RRW: Totally, I’m so glad you brought this one up because so I got that phrase “horrifying woman” from the Belladonna of Sadness, have you seen it yet?
BLVR: No, I haven’t.
RRW: It’s a 70s film from Japan, this beautiful psychedelic watercolor animation. It’s about a medieval peasant woman who makes a pact with the devil to avenge her rape by a nobleman—but of course, the devil also rapes her. There’s this scene where she’s finally at her power, the devil turns her into this incarnation of madness and desire. She’s got purple flowing hair and long lashes and she’s like, “It can’t be, I thought I’d gone to hell. This is hell? I gave myself to Satan, I should be a wrinkly old witch right now. I want to become a horrifying woman! I want people to turn away in horror when I pass by on the street.” And the devil says “You have become beautiful. You’re even more beautiful than god.”
BLVR: Oh my god, I have to sit with that. Because she feels so guilty and upset and overwhelmed and she just wants to be so horrifying. And the devil knows that so he just makes her so beautiful.
RRW: Exactly, it’s also like as a sex worker it’s hard not to relate with sort of making this pact with the devil where you become more powerful.
BLVR: You do, you do.
RRW: And society tells you that you should be horrifying, as a sex worker, and there are times I want to be horrifying, I want to be ugly, I want to be angry and then to have to upkeep this outward facing persona that’s focused on physical beauty. I don’t want to forget anger or hatred, I want my rage. That scene hit me on so many levels, finding this weird power through sex work, but also its double bind.
BLVR: When you are a sex worker, there’s this problem with not being able to go public about bad experiences, because we are already facing such a problem of stigma as a whole. Anger and rage is this thing you have to bury so deep down and hope it doesn’t snap out of you one day, but at the same time you look beautiful and you’re this luxury experience, you know?
RRW: Yeah, this transformation where all of a sudden Satan is telling you that you’re beautiful and you just want to be horrifying.
BLVR: You’re just like, I don’t want to be here.
RRW: I don’t want to be beautiful!
BLVR: When it’s attached to money, there’s a whole other element of stress. You don’t really have full control over your own appearance and that can feel very disempowering, you know? Not to mention that with bodily, mental and emotional labor, you can only carry so much. You’re made to carry not just your own traumas but then you’re placed in this situation where you have to encapsulate other peoples’ and navigate that.
RRW: Yeah totally. “Cabaret,” was also written from a point where I had emptied myself out so much in order to perform and just like tour and go on vacation with clients and just keep going and do a good job and be present and be my fake self and not my real self. I have to have boundaries to have my real self sealed away, like I felt I went through an accidental ego loss, which when you don’t mean to have an ego loss experience is very painful and traumatic.
III. Lumpen Poetry
BLVR: And that’s another thing I think you explore really well within the book, to bring it back, trying to navigate multiple lives and multiple lived experiences that are all equally intense in their own ways and beautiful. They are at odds, I know, they are at odds because you’re trying to live this life where you can have full queer joy and be in these beautiful communities but also simultaneously have to navigate these wealthy men with huge egos. That’s very difficult to navigate.
RRW: Yeah, I think the thing for me, too, is some people are able to mesh their sex work personas with their real person and I’ve never wanted to do that. It was always my real person is for me. I don’t identify with my clients. I don’t identify with their wealth hoarding, but it’s hard to live two separate lives. It’s hard to set boundaries because they fetishize crossing them. But boundaries are there for a reason, they are what allows sex workers to do our job, they keep us safe, and when those boundaries come down and the clients start seeing an actual whole person whose entire personality isn’t predicated on their pleasure, it makes them mad. No matter what, you are the one punished, punished if you keep your walls up, punished if you take them down.
BLVR: It’s inevitable, you kind of have to accept it. I really loved the line, “Don’t let your mouth make a check that your ass can’t cash, that’s what my mom used to say.” Can you talk more about your relationship with money, in relationship to your mother?
RRW: Oh my god.
BLVR: She obviously influenced the way you approach your own economic status, and how you care for yourself.
RRW: That’s the theme of my life, honestly. That line especially in the book was important for me to include. I grew up in this heartland working class community, and I think it’s hard for parents not to want their children to do better than they did. My parent’s demand for status was a way to ask me to reassure them that I was doing okay. These images of opulence were how they understood what feeling good must be like. There was this temptation also of pleasing them, of showing off to reassure them. But when I really started sex work as a sort of career, I realized those aren’t my values.
I feel ambivalent about professionalizing myself via sex work, with this want for more money, or nicer things. I’m still trying to unpack that. I want to live a life of poetry and art. I don’t want to be jetting away with clients, touring, going along as an accessory to their lifestyle. It’s hard to find that balance and it’s so hard to make right by your parents and prove that you can make it.
BLVR: That you can take care of yourself, and them.
RRW: Yes exactly, yeah.
BLVR: When I think of money, and I think of money often, I don’t see why make it if you can’t take care of the people around you.
RRW: Oh, it’s the only reason.
BLVR: It’s the only reason. I have never understood people who wealth hoard. To me it’s always been like, can I take care of my mom if she needs it? Can I donate to my friends’ GoFundMes, you know?
RRW: Totally, I don’t even understand savings because for me it’s like the moment I have it I’ll just give it back to my friends. What does anyone need? Money is only there to share.
BLVR: I feel like poetry and sex work go hand in hand. They make sense to me, poets can’t make money, what makes money?
RRW: When I was an essayist and journalist, I could see so much of my work completely tainted by these big media companies. With poetry it felt important to write outside of that context, but, of course, then I just ended up managing the trauma of work and writing about work again. The poems “Celebrity Stage” and “Interlude“ are the two where it’s obvious that the poem becomes a sex worker, I was on acid when I wrote those.
BLVR: Wait, did you write those both on the same acid trip? I love that, that makes so much sense.
RRW: At first they were one poem but then I realized they were two. It was one of those things where you’re seeing in four dimensions on acid. It became very clear, this way of taking myself outside of the confessional and not wanting to confess, letting the poem do the work for me.
BLVR: That goes really well with the anti-confessional because the poem itself is doing it.
RRW: Yeah and poetry is a performance and sex work is a performance and life is a performance! and also elevating sex work to poetry. The poems were written about all kinds of sex work, about stripping, which, when you’re on stage can feel very poetic. There’s real moments of art in the work that we do as sex workers. It felt good to elevate that.
I was thinking about this and I just tweeted the word “lumpen poetry” I want a criminal poetry, if sex workers read my poems I hope they write poems.
There is this idea that, like punk, poetry is just a phase, it’s something young people do and when you mature you move to more “serious” forms of writing—unless you go into institutional poetry. Poetry has been seized by institutions. They’ve convinced people that poetry is something so hard to decipher it’s best left to people who do creative writing MFAs, and even PhDs.
BLVR: The poetry I love does not come out of an MFA program.
RRW: I don’t have an MFA. Poetry should be of the people. Poetry should be for everyone but especially people who live lives on the margins, people who work, because poetry is a release. It doesn’t cost anything but time to write a poem, and there is no right way to write one. There’s no wrong way to read a poem.
BLVR: A poem can be anything. A poem is kissing my friends on the cheek.
RRW: Exactly. That’s also why I think it’s important to have a poetics that’s fun and fun to read. I want the poem to let me in. Writing a poem isn’t so different from throwing a party.
BLVR: Yeah I want the poem to give me a hug, I want the poem to caress my face.
RRW: Yeah again, I like when the poem has holes in it, but I still want to be let in.
BLVR: Yeah exactly, it’s like tease and denial. I think that’s what makes poetry really fun in a way that’s necessary in a time when we don’t know what the world is going to look in twenty years. All we have right now are our communities, our art practice, and each other. We have to take care of each other and create together.
RRW: That’s why I like the immediacy of poetry, too. It’s not, you know, the novel where you have to sit reading it forever. A friend of mine recently tweeted that poetry is published during the revolution, the novel comes after. Poetry feels like much more of a conversation, a dialogue.
Poetry is rooted in song and the lyrical. I love how with the troubadours poetry was a court game where people would announce their love for someone and then they would respond. That’s what poetry should do.
BLVR: I wish we had something similar that feels a bit more pulling you in, pulling the public in.
RRW: I do feel like in our little enclaves in New York and in LA we are all writing to each other and for each other. This whole book was basically written to Andy Flower, but I think that can become universal as well. I’ve been thinking of the poem as an invitation, the poem as solicitation, there’s something inherently gay in that, poetry is almost inherently queer. In many ways the effectiveness of lyrical poetry on the reader depends on the poet’s charm. The poet structures linguistic mechanisms to which they attach their voice. It is a flirtatious act that, like queerness, is open and generous to the innumerable differences of the reader.
BLVR: They also get pulled in, and in gay poems specifically. In general, poetry is very gay.
RRW: Poetry is gay! Poetry should be gay.