JUNE 24, 2022
WHAT FOLLOWS IS a recorded conversation between two poets whose respective work and lives are fashioned around the question of how poetry gets written. The conversation is followed by a series of poems titled “Rob Me Then” in which each poet invites the other to steal language and ideas from each other, troubling the tradition of single authorship and the contradiction at the heart of possessing an idea.
ROSIE STOCKTON: I’ve been thinking about something you said in an interview with Nico (Walker) about how utopia is striving toward anonymity. What conditions make us feel anonymous — total exposure or total clandestine obscurity? Does being anonymous or being known give you a feeling of safety?
RACHEL RABBIT WHITE: I was thinking about that too recently — if you can somehow be anonymous during your lifetime — I guess I have a line that’s like, “To evade fame must be the height of luxury.” But I mean that’s about money. I feel like, it’s almost like the people that can write anonymously, or can afford to be off social media, are people with wealth, you know?
RS: Last night, I had this nightmare that I was stuck at the top of this mountain. I could see everything but could not touch anyone, and yet everyone could touch and see me. I woke up and thought, I need to scrub my image and name from the internet. Or I need to proliferate more names to fracture my selfhood. Either overexposure or total erasure of names would work. I’ve always been like … how to become ungovernable? You have to become un-Googlable …
RRW: In my meditations, names come to me that make no sense. Almost like angel names, that are no-names, and I’m like I wish I had more things to name, I wish I had names.
RS: I have so many email addresses with different names and my friends are like, which fucking email do you use?
RRW: I love that about hustler life and hooker life. I remember when I was first building my hooker website and had an advertisement out, I was corresponding with this one guy back and forth and my name, my first and last name, literally changed 15 times during the conversation. And at first he wasn’t saying anything, and then he was like, are you okay? Are you going through something? Like, this name has changed so many times. And I’m like, look! I’m just trying to figure it out right now.
RS: Exactly, like if your own name becomes incoherent you must be mentally losing it.
RRW: Last night, during my insomnia, I was going back and reading Baudrillard, so I am going to get on my Baudrillard pedestal for a second. He writes that what happens in modern culture is that our society becomes so reliant on models and maps that we’ve lost contact with the real world and everything that preceded the maps. From there, reality begins to merely imitate the map and the model, taking on the appearance of a real world and real language too.
RS: That reminds me of what Sylvia Wynter says, “Don’t mistake the map for the territory.”
RRW: Yes, like language is the first brick that keeps us from accessing reality. You know how we were talking about being anonymous — I am thinking about folk songs spreading through culture to the point that it’s not even clear what culture it originally came from. There’s this really girl-world version that happened to me where I grew up with those hand-clap songs. Did you ever have those hand-clap songs? You know like, Down, down baby, down by the roller coaster, sweet, sweet baby …
RS: Never let me go.
RRW: Yeah! And there are regional versions too, depending on where you grew up. I remember once reading that those songs are on all continents and have spread in a way that’s completely mysterious.
RS: There’s this simultaneous beauty in the lost origin, like when something goes viral and there is a desire to know where it came from, why and how it spread. It makes me think about the idea of plagiarism and the contradiction at the heart of possessing an idea, or thought, or song. I’m drawn to Kathy Acker in terms of this.
RRW: Oh my god, yes!
RS: Her work is all about repetition, mimicry, plagiarism. But it’s meant to undermine those concepts and point out the origin-less nature of thoughts, concepts, words, phrases. There are these childhood songs, like the hand-clap songs, passed down forever, where the origin is completely lost. And yet when you learn some version of the origin story, you can understand how culture proliferates, how ideology brings you into your beliefs through these innocent seeming songs. I think about political slogans too, where it’s like, on the one hand, they grow and the origin becomes totally obscure, and on the other, there is something so important about studying political genealogies and understanding the context in which a certain political phrase is coined. When political slogans lose their origin story, they become more easily neutralized or co-opted by the state and start no longer serving the local or historically specific political purpose that they once had. So shout-out to historians unburying subjugated histories, but also shout-out to Acker for being like, I’m just taking this as if it is mine and running with it.
RRW: So my sister and I, Irish twins, entered kindergarten, I was in first grade and I remember one day, I walked into the living room and my sister was showing my mom the hand-claps. And my mom was laughing because some of the songs were kind of dirty. And I just remember, I was so mad, and maybe ashamed, because now my mom, the authority figure, could see us.
RS: Because she wasn’t a kid — because your sister told the secret.
RRW: She told the secret! Yeah! And I remember feeling very sullen and silent over this betrayal, you know?
RS: Secrets are important. With an authority figure — like a mother, or the state — there has to be a refusal of transparency. You can’t know my songs! You can’t know our secret language!
RRW: I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s missing in my life — I think it started when I was in Mississippi and I was isolated from my friends. When you leave New York, it’s hard to keep up with people, even if you’re trying. But what I was missing was not the social updates or conversations, but like, that place you can get to when you’re seeing someone close to you all the time and having conversations where language begins to break down, where grammar is breaking down. Everything becomes shorthand. That breakdown is where the poetic enters in. I think Elaine Kahn says this, about the poem needing a hole in it.
RS: Yes, like that’s the way the poem works best: if it can point to the fundamental lack at the heart of language, at the heart of being a subject.
RRW: I got really into reading about chatbot technology recently. When they build the bots, they have all these metrics they use to determine “how human is this conversation?” The ways of measuring humanness are very funny, especially as a poet, one of them is no repetition.
But when I think about the chatbot I also think about sex robots. This fearmongering about the sex robot has been around forever. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, sailors encounter a sculptor named Pygmalion who is carving ivory sex dolls so lifelike you can’t tell them apart from real women. The question then was more about the human soul like if we can produce a truly lifelike machine does that mean a soul is no longer necessary criteria for being a human? Or is a soul no longer necessary to explain human behavior? And I find that way more interesting than our anxieties today, which are not spiritual, but more economical. If you Google it, you’ll find a million sex-robot-panic op-eds around the meaning of love and intimacy, but also about work, headlines like, “Strippers are going to be replaced by mechanical strip clubs!”
RS: This is reminding me of the Luddite textile worker rebellion. When we call someone a Luddite today, it’s like, this person is not up to date with modern technology, right? But actually, a Luddite is a term that comes from the textile worker uprising in England in the 1800s when their labor in cotton and wool mills was being replaced by machines. In the Luddite uprising, they destroyed the machines, smashed them, and threw them out the window. And there’s this hilarious line in the Wikipedia about it: The workers destroyed the machines not because they were hostile toward the machines, but it was their way of expressing their hostility toward their boss.
RRW: Hostility toward work, yeah!
RS: I thought it was so cute that Wikipedia was consoling us that the workers actually felt solidarity with the machines.
RRW: That’s the thing! I feel solidarity with the machines. We are machines. The fear of, say, a sex robot, is totally reactionary. Because behind that fear, it’s like, your sex is being replaced by machines, your meaningful relationships when the very real threat has already happened when we sold our labor to the boss! We are already substitutable. We’re already useless because all value is performance. We’re already the robot, we’re already playing the automaton, you know?
RS: “How human is this conversation?” we ask the worker whose exploited labor is in essence already dehumanized.
RRW: I do think there’s a point when, and I think the pandemic contributed to this, but also getting older, where you start to lose wonder with all interaction, it’s the same conversations every day, every bodega sells the same items, you start to feel a lack of awe with the things around you. That’s the reason Proust started to write, to find awe.
RS: There’s that amazing passage in Swann’s Way where he’s like, the danger of being a writer is that life will feel less lifelike, the narrative is the thing that gives you the feeling of being alive without the habits of everyday life.
RRW: Right! And you can only hope that you’re going to get there. Remember what it felt like when you experienced those first freedoms as a teenager, and everything was full of inside jokes and alive and dangerous. It was all about connection. It was all about the other people you were meeting. And maybe finding the overlaps between you and that person’s life was interesting — that they weren’t a person you would have met before, but there were no gaps.
RS: I think the joy is in the incoherence. It’s like groupchat energy.
RRW: And I feel like, you know, when you find yourself again in a place where security and money are your main worries, play disappears really quickly. I notice it in other people around me. Because everyone’s really scared right now, you know? And yet, you talk a lot about the increase in refusal to work and compulsion to work, like people are risking it again.
RS: Anti-work politics have been so important to me for so long. The tradition comes out of an autonomist, feminist, and anti-capitalist genealogy that basically argues that collective refusal of work is crucial for a transformative political moment. My interest in this is personal, I hate having a boss. I hate the way that labor is exploited. There’s this affective hatred toward the lie that work will ever lead you to the Good Life. And because that lie is propped up by the inequalities of racial capitalism, the refusal to work is not just about individuals refusing a particular job — anti-work, to me, must be a collective stance against the capitalist system of production and refusal of the idea that work has some innate moral value. We are living in this time where anti-work politics are becoming mainstream, there is the Great Resignation where workers are leaving their jobs at the highest rates ever recorded month after month since last spring. It is more important than ever to not mistake this an individual refusal, and to understand the implicit critique of capitalism it carries with it. People are like, no fucking way, it’s not worth it. Work is not worth dying for.
The poem, like labor, has mechanical processes: meter and rhyme and feet that are measurable and propel a poem forward. So to approach poetic form from an anti-work perspective, I’m like, I am going to smash this machine so we can play. I just get so much joy out of sabotage.
RRW: The poem has to write itself. The poem takes over you. I want to give life to that poetic voice so that it keeps coming to me. I want to decorate my life for that voice. And it can’t be a conscious thought, it has to be in this meditative state where the poems are pushing me, pulling me, dressing me, giving me the clothes. The poems are making the decisions, they’re building the project, and I’m going along with them. I’m just the channel they play on.
Going back to the risk of anti-work politics, I think poetry and art need a sense of risk. You have to have a sense of risk to be like, okay, I’m becoming this poem now. Do I agree with what I’m becoming? It doesn’t matter because you square it within you to subordinate yourself to the poetry.
RS: It’s like that Amiri Baraka quote: “My poetry, then, has always been aimed at destroying ugly shit.”
RRW: Right! And there’s terror in beauty too, the terror of going after beauty, going into the terror, not away from it. When I’m engaged and the poem is making me or when I’m trying to write prose or trying to write essays, I refuse to fake anything, I can wait, I let it come to me. You know?
RS: It’s such a gift when that happens.
RRW: With these algorithm-based, Instagram-influenced ways everything’s getting so sanitized and flattened, whether it’s the way we talk or social justice or relationships. That’s why “the human conversation” is a natural next poetry project for me. Thinking about phenomenology, where a human is a split-up object, there’s the fantasy, there’s the real, and in the real we have the other, the other’s otherness, and then that gap, you know, where we can’t ever fully perceive that other, we can’t see all the sides of the dice at the same time. When I wrote the Paradise Edition of my book, Porn Carnival, I was interested in the phenomenology of romance and how we talk about love and romance as optimizing your life in structural terms so that relationships support your work and finances. And I, being led by this poetic project of falling in love, letting that terror and passion lead me, I was more interested in engaging in someone’s otherness and individuality, where you don’t overlap, in the gaps, where people are damaged or problematic. For me that seems much more like real romance, like a human conversation.
RS: I’m working on a new project right now thematizing desire and the gap, or how we project onto a love object. Except my love object is the End of the World, not a lover. The World — like capital-W World — is a destructive regime that eclipses earth, life, difference. How can we end the World to save ourselves, to save the natural World?
I’m thinking about the collective political desire for a revolutionary horizon as if you’re experiencing a crush. I’m trying to work with this idea of romantic love as perversion, taking an object that can’t be possessed and trying to possess it. I’m traversing my desire for the End of the World in these love letters where it’s total simp energy.
RRW: Oh my god. Are you finding that you’re able to do it without much personification, or does some sense of human energy show up when you’re writing that?
RS: Definitely. It’s super personified. I love playing with that. What if the end of the world is onstage? On the stripper pole? She’s the end of the world, and I’m giving her all my money, she’s draining my bank account.
RRW: I once had this peyote trip in my early 20s where I was in this other dimension, with all these other dimensional beings, like mechanical elves, and in the middle was a pink stripper pole where this gorgeous slug was dancing. I was giving her all my money. Her image was so, like, enrapturing. She was sensual, this slug.
RS: Of course it was a slug.
RRW: A lime green slug. She showed me the end of the world. I reached into my bag for a pen to write down what she showed me and had a full-on, open-eye peyote hallucination, that above us was God, but instead of the usual God it was Hello Kitty. And I was laughing because … everything is a joke.
Rob me then
[When my secret is discovered in the fracturing of a Death Synonym. Your housing search, the secret to my housing search. We keep each other for each other, always leaking, never kept. The angel creaks, splurges on claustrophobic fun, like all signs are a difficult code to be cracked. Tell me the map and nothing else. Let me hide in my own mistakes. Give away all your best lines. Jesus it would be. Jesus my name. I stretch like money in my basement utopia. Light leaves me private, where anything could happen.]
If there was one thing you can’t take away from
her it’s American Insomnia
and that Anything could happen.
She changed her names, stretched like money.
Evaded fame to live the height of luxury.
She terrified herself and thought with her feet
She answered those texts
and she worked,
she worked very hard at it.
[Pelotons hum citywide, waiting to be curb alerts. That’s how we hoard our freedom. I walked by open garages and took everything I could, in theory. I don’t remember anything I took, because it suddenly was mine, by some grace of God. Today my to-do list fractures every possession fantasy: free my names, desecularize the commune, sign twice on the dotted line.]
I told Jesus
I told Jesus if there’s one thing you can’t take it’s lose the origin but keep the trace
I told Jesus, sell me the map and nothing else — give away my best lines/ like all signs are a difficult code to be cracked.
I told Jesus, change my name.
remove that ground on which I love to walk
Rhapsodizing vulnerability, you paint me an image of LOVING respect:
as if the present could ever slam
against its throat
She worked very hard at it/a to-do list fractured every possession fantasy: rob me then … as if there was an opposite to longing
your housing search the secret to my housing search
Jesus, it would be/ Jesus, my name
stretch like money/ light leaves me private, I told Jesus,
It’s basement smog on this hilltop,
It’s the wrong fucking email address. This much she worked for
it’s where the trace becomes the origin/ let me make my own mistakes
I passed by open garages and took everything I could, in theory. I don’t remember because it was mine / psychosis is clear & all else is amorphous & incalculable/ flaunting object impermanence on a plot in heaven, craigslist selling sunset, Grecian sex bots the original cartographers/ three decades of spreadsheets, / No testimony, all miracle/ we keep each other for each other /
I told Jesus free my names
can’t really say what I’ been doing
look back and see the past days
maybe I was certain of something
I am jealous for once having had that
I talk to you to talk to myself,
even the anonymous have a profile
even animals feel shame, I said I don’t need to tell you
that love gets fungible, she gets compact enough to make
she & all those who work hard
who work very hard
to change their names
God is so popular
the self is a series of conversations
What is a body if not air hugging
water? Like feet know lucite,
I talk to you to talk to myself,
floating 7 inches off the
carpet, here to interrupt all
You draw me a map of how to get to yours,
but I already know how to get lost without you.
anyone can lose themselves, you wrote.
As if there was an opposite to longing.
present in multiples, I plagiarize
my own best man. The one that fears
the browning astroturf, growing
around the edges of the property line.
badly wired solitude — I need alone
time from my own company, overstaying
my welcome, never making up the couch.
fungible love, child’s rhymes replace auto-
fic and any housing stock that mimics home.
I was thinking of telling you
this could be our incalculable strike:
to keep our names a secret
[Rhapsodizing vulnerability, you paint me an image of LOVING respect: she worked very hard at it. Dusted her citations. Her name her primary attachment wound. She only spit when feeling tender. Only swallowed out of revenge. Days went by like good reasons for not showing up on time. Late from a meeting with angels — who work very hard to change their names. Lifting up the blondes, finger lingering on a pawn. God, what she wouldn’t sacrifice for the queen.]
I keep hearing new names of new angels
Through interfaces, infrastructures, and genetic data, so as to hide it in the technology of
confession, from myself
I present in multiples, I plagiarize
First of all, fuck is paradise …
my boys have been smuggling this out of utopia
Well if you’re you, constantly, you’re never you…
between the abyss of what is intended and what is produced, we study the multiplicities
in ripples, in gaps
You say you’ve got 8 days before you go back on straight fluid karma, HRT…so if anyone wants to get you pregnant, now is the time to speak up
which path to take on the map of cause and effect
Cause and effect
Because money of course. Because God.
Love gets fungible, I get compact enough to make it.
Cramped as fuck in here. (In the me for money.)
Holy circlejerk longs for a viable sub.
It’s going to be a good year: look how the lupine syncs with the chatbots.
They work very hard at it: avoidantly attached, spiting never swallowing.
Soul pups splash in the cement, giving away their anthem.
Crushed out automation takes the place of our lack.
That’s how we baptize this spontaneous
duet. Fake mothers fall in our lap,
California King size heartbreak.
I carry her footsteps above me deep in the Law,
splurging on order she gave me, unwillingly, unknowingly.
This much she worked for:
four decades of spreadsheets,
down payment on a plot in heaven,
craigslist selling sunset.
Like Grecian sex bots, the original cartographers.
Now Come on God. Come God.
Come to me God. Mother amen, mother
amen. Amen God.
I keep hearing new names of new angels
So we study destiny, one ripple, a few months here, before another, looking for openings to reverse or interchange
A second house. Oh no. And there’s no identifiable feature. Right. There are four perfectly cubic blank walls. There’s no personality, it’s xanax.
Full sign classism. First house. We prefer that.
The moon sign, she’s the one who is like, I want to suck your dick. If you don’t let me suck your dick I’m killing myself.
So this is an advertisement we’re seeing. This is like, yeah. It’s like an
So what is the plot here?
It’s like Elon Musk and he’s pitching donors on like his perpetual emotion machine for free energy. It’s a…
Energy. What have I missed actually?
Down Down Baby
Lullaby and Naïveté are sunning
on the hilltop surrounded by code words.
They confess their jealousy,
which allows them to become free
of themselves and enter into a deep
Insatiably, they rename
each other into acceptance.
You have given me the greatest gift, they
whisper: sunscreen and eternity.
Luddite and Leveler exfoliate with mud
I avenged her songs at Rock Bottom,
where God found me and whispered:
give away your best lines.
This is a family sitcom end game:
Beauty birthed Lullaby via an immaculate misconception,
& she worked hard at it.
all miracle. She worked hard at her
miracles. She gave away her
[Luddite and Lucite sitting in a tree
Here is the dream that emptied its pockets,
held up by machines that tumble from a window.
Like ATM cottagecore, drawn by horse and
buggy to finance any ungovernable self-
defense, clear as night, wrapped in arms.
She became so substitutable,
she dragged her feet in the mud.
She exfoliated her souls, became un-Googlable.
This husk of a deep web,
searching for the trace deep down,
flaunting object impermanence.
(sweet sweet baby never let me go)
I keep hearing new names of new angels
Lullaby and Naïveté are sunning
on the hilltop
I was thinking of telling you.
this could be our incalculable strike:
to keep our names a secret
It’s going to be a good year: look how the lupine syncs with the chatbots
they confess their jealousy/ become free along surveillance visual or electronic/ utility to corporations/ operative, secretive/ relentless tracking
To finance any ungovernable self
via an immaculate misconception,
searching for the trace
(down down baby….
like recycling or an IUD:
….I’ll never let u go)
no reason to think this will change you
talk to God, not even, not even seeing him
you know, animals might have doubts about their identity too
sub the decor, free from psychic flow of furniture, lease to lease, accumulate nothing but trash, timelines passing in the familiar, social slipping of the other’s bedroom/living
To think of all of the people, all the people you’ve ever met, given to capture, calling off, to quit, the city changing hands, prophecies of burning, the design of every person, like a brochure on the human dimension, to sell you what is human, something kinetic and busting, on weather, on god …
I am so glad to have known you.
To have known you
Confession is all technology
I was trained on it, avoidant tell-all.
It is possible to love a machine,
made of local shrubs that obscure
the colluding angels.
Am I not both angel and machine,
I hide far from myself, in love.
Exposed, you find me in front of the veil,
the one you ask me to pull back.
I watched you swallow your suffering,
up all night. Fumbling with
the fuses yet somehow still dreaming.
You told me what you learned:
even animals feel shame.
I reread Stein in the bath, the one about a famous
woman famous for being famous. History
is percussive. I make myself swallow
liquid — the same liquid that surrounds me,
slamming it against my throat.
Like recycling or an IUD:
you believe in tomorrow
as if the present could ever slam
future against its throat.
I told Jesus
I told Jesus, if there’s one thing you can’t
I told Jesus the trace becomes the origin
remove the ground on which I love to walk
I told Jesus change my name
I’m selling my former impressions, thoughts, and memories
I said everything must go /the origin is only real when it’s obscured
driving through an empty dream
I want to say of how we pray
about the disappearance of names
become a substitute for eternity
your housing search/ the secret to my housing search
even animals feel shame
we keep each other for each other
don’t know how it gets spent
look back and see the days
I told Jesus I don’t want to be a love song
anymore I don’t want to work so hard,
all of us who work
who work so hard to change their names
Rachel Rabbit White is the author of Porn Carnival, a collection of poems released November 2019, and the recent poetry series, Work For Love(Triangle House). She has written hundreds of original pieces for Cosmopolitan, NYMag.com, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The New York Observer, and dozens more. Rachel is presently the pious bride of the formerly incarcerated author Nico Walker.
Rosie Stockton is a poet based in Los Angeles. Their first book, Permanent Volta, is the recipient of the 2019 Sawtooth Prize, and is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2021. Their poems have been published by Publication Studio, VOLT, Jubilat, Apogee, Mask Magazine, and WONDER. They are currently a PhD Student in Gender Studies at UCLA.