RACHEL RABBIT WHITE
Rachel Rabbit White is a literary Venus. With the release of her book of poems, Porn Carnival, the glamorous writer reached new heights in lucite heels by captivating readers with her intimate foray at love and life through the lens of her days as a sex worker.
As a fellow Sagittarius poet who also deals with the erotic and who also lived and left New York, I knew we would have no shortage of things to discuss - in fact the original transcript was so long that it took various goes at surgical precision to go from over 15,000 words to the version you see here. On a cold night, in Mississippi and Mexico City, respectively, Rachel I discussed everything from her many lives, to the importance of seduction, her whirlwind romance to fellow writer Nico Walker of Cherry fame, and the role of the man as the muse.
AV: Where are you from?
RRW: I'm from a small town in the heartland, in Southern Illinois. It's not like what you'd normally think of. Very far from Chicago. Lots of Southern Baptists.
AV: What kind of a kid were you?
RRW: Weird. Deeply, deeply weird.
AV: I was a weird kid, too. Did you carry that until you were an adolescent?
RRW: How can you not? I feel like I was the only kid in my grade school who never had a boyfriend. Even the weird kids had a boyfriend at some point in grade school. I didn't have any friends. I was alone on the playground with my notebook, writing about what I saw.
Going into high school it was like I suddenly became dateable overnight because the senior boys didn't care about my weird reputation. They were just like, "Who's this cute girl that's still a virgin somehow?" I guess I started to be cool and party and stuff, but it didn't last long until I was the first goth kid in high school and the weird one all over again. And thank god for internet forums ‘cause that's where I really grew up, with girlpunk.net and SoulSeek. That's where all my friends were.
AV: The Internet does bring people together, it's true. But how do you marry the lack of anonymity with what that lack of anonymity can give to a career?
RRW: When Porn Carnival came out in 2019 I was still in sex work and I relied on it, obviously, for my job. I didn't think publishing a book of poetry was gonna blow up my spot immediately, cause it's poetry. My Instagram was private and my photos weren't out there. But then I did press with photos and just immediately, I was outed. The way you handle it? I don't know. Everyone always says that when you do sex work, go into it with the attitude that you will be outed one day. And I do think that's probably the best advice, just so that you can prepare yourself more. It's not an easy thing to get outed.
AV: How did you start doing sex work? Was it when you lived in Chicago?
RRW: It was in New York. I was actually a housewife when I lived in Chicago, believe it or not. I made three meals a day. I was very trad. I've had many lives. And I was a writer then too. I was a journalist and essayist back then. But, I mean, I needed money. [Laughs]
My best friend Marie Calloway was a sex worker, so I really knew a lot about the game through her, and desperate for money I dropped into a strip club, started stripping, realized like, okay, I get the way this lands. Everyone I know who has gone into sex work it's been out of a necessity for money. But then I think when you realize that maybe there is this higher echelon of these insanely rich people, the writer in you gets curious, like well, what's that like?
There are a lot of poems in the book, in the Paradise Edition especially, where it sort of addresses the things that drew me to it, but also what I was curious about started to become so monotonous. That sort of luxury becomes something you hate, and the things that brought you joy, like a stack of cash—the one thing that you love, that you're doing it for, that you can go and spend on your friends and feel like you're taking care of people and having a good time—even the smell of the money starts to sicken you.
Now I'm living here in Mississippi, and to me, moving here, being out of New York, that was the end of sex work for me.
AV: Speaking of having many lives, this is definitely a different iteration. Leaving New York, leaving sex work, becoming published, becoming known for your work, and then meeting Nico in this otherworldly, fantastical way—who is Rachel Rabbit White right now?
RRW: I'm definitely in a moment of transition. I feel like those are always really kind of weird to live through, but then when you look back at them it makes so much sense, you know?
I knew I needed to leave sex work for a while. It was making me so angry. Having to deal with people I didn't wanna have sex with, people I didn't wanna be spending time with—it really takes away your energy. And during that time, especially during the time I met Nico, because we were so separated, we turned towards spirituality, lighting candles, doing spells, talking to any angels that might be on my side, astral-projecting.
I'm not doing any of that stuff now, and I'm like, Do I need to meditate more? Did my angels leave me? And I thought about it and researched and it's sort of like your angels are there to help you out of a situation, and once you've made the transition you're a little on your own…
Now I'm in this new place and a little out of my element. I'm figuring out where I'm gonna land and what I want things to be. I have ideas for when Nico and I return to Brooklyn. I wanna be a dinner party person and throw seventies style dinner parties that are all night long, wine flowing, with mystery guests.
AV: I love that, that's the dream! We briefly talked about Jacques Demy and Jean Rollin, and throughout the pandemic I’ve been picturing the glamour of what life is gonna be like after. I wanna fall into that fantasy because it helps me get dressed in the morning, put on an outfit and not succumb to this sort of grimness around. But I wonder if it's a bit gluttonous to be fantasizing about that.
RRW: That's what keeps us alive though! Maybe those angels were there to stop me from dying, but then I realized I still have other guides. I've long been into this goddess worship stuff, and when I started doing sex work Venus became a huge deity for me. If you get any message from Venus, it's: you can find pleasure in almost anything. Look at fetishes– if you can understand that concept, then you can understand the concept of finding grace and finding pleasure in almost everything you do. Finding pleasure in waking up, finding pleasure in even having to do the dishes. And so much of that does come down to sort of imagining yourself as a character in a movie, and being surrounded by things that are lovely to you, and making yourself feel lovely—I don't know, to me that's what everyone needs in their life. Without it, it's just all anxiety.
AV: This is the kind of thing that made me realize you were a Sagittarius, because this is definitely my life philosophy and that of other Sagittarii. Most moments in life can be pleasurable. It is a choice, to a degree. To that end, it’s appropriate we’re talking in February, the month of love. What has your relationship to love been? How has that changed since meeting Nico?
RRW: I’ve always gone after the musicians and the bad boys. But sometimes things that ended up turning into relationships for me–probably because those affairs were so tumultuous–were with the safe guy, who maybe you don't have that insane overflowing desire for, but on paper it's good. And then at some point that started to feel like, Well can't I have both? Can't I have that fast-pace-crazy-love that I can build a life out of?
With Nico the quality of our meeting had so much of the feeling of an affair. We were separated, we both had this great respect for each other's work, we found that it was really magical when we talked. We just had this way of speaking to each other and understanding each other, and you know, we're both extremely attracted to each other, so it was just a very heightened sort of thing. I don't think I've ever been so sweet to a boyfriend. He makes me feel like I just want to be very nice!
RRW: I guess the quality of the affair really brought out the romantic in me. Early on I was doing crazy things for Nico. He was still in the halfway house, we didn't know if we were gonna be able to meet, his mother had just died, he was going through a lot and I was going to St Patrick's Cathedral to pray for him. And I was buying him gifts like rosaries and prayer cards, and buying a giant crucifix and then fucking myself with the crucifix and sending him videos of it. And then I did things like, I bought his favorite cigarettes and covered the package in angel stickers and wrote lines from Romeo and Juliet on each cigarette.
We could have this tumultuous passion, and affair-like quality, but what made our romance so rare was that a stable life together that really worked was also an option. I remember telling him, "I feel this." And that maybe we went more towards the other cause we weren't accustomed to having stability or wanting stability. But I feel like, if there's anything that's different about this love, it's that I truly do feel like I have both. I really feel like I have both the passion and the stability. And that's what I had always wanted. That's what makes it so addicting.
I like to chase. Nico made me chase him. He was out of prison, he was like, "Obviously I was in love with you, but I just didn't know if I was relationship material. I didn't know if I could be good to you or what I wanted." Of course that just made me write even more love poems, do even more crazy things. But it was so much fun to do that, you know? I think you're seducing yourself when you're seducing the other person.
AV: It's kind of back to that Venus thing, seeing Venus everywhere. Like using the cross to masturbate–everything is just so erotic, and you want to show that person that that eroticiscm functions around them, and, in a way, through you.
RRW: I mean I do worry about keeping it up—obviously, how could I not? But I've been so surprised that we've been in this total state of domesticity, and we're both writing. I just feel that, sure, it's only been a couple of months, but we have it sort of down. I think it's little things, like still getting dressed up for each other everyday, even though we only see each other. Having sex everyday. You just have to make those special things happen. It's still keeping the quality of the seduction, wherever you can.
AV: Seduction. Seduction is just so important. Something else I’ve been thinking about is how historically, the dynamic of the muse has fallen on the woman. The woman is supposed to be the muse and, even though now we know that so many of them weren't just the muses, that they were artists themselves, that's not really what we've been taught to understand about the dynamic of artist and muse. You're a person who's used their life—ups and downs—as inspiration for their work, and now you have this incredible romance, this really inspiring person in your life who is also a writer. Is there ever any sort of clash—for a lack of a better word—between who the muse should be, or do you think you inspire each other?
RRW: I'm really drawn to those topics. I think you're right in that we're taught the woman is the muse, but it's a case of repression. There's this amazing book called The Women Troubadours by Meg Bogin. We think of troubadours as these medieval poets who hung out at the royal court and wrote these love poems in order to have the favor of the court, to live amongst the royals and be their entertainers. What a life that would have been! But there were women troubadours, too, and they also wrote love poems they would perform at court to state their love to someone in order to seduce them. The female poets were a bit more confessional; they would talk about their problems in love, and in a lot of ways it makes their poetry much more readable. So I think about that history. Or in the high-end court in Japan over a thousand years ago, poetry was seen as the highest endeavor and the best poets were women. So I think about all of these different women who have had that role, how much power is in that role, and how much I love it.
AV: Exactly. I wanted to go back to something. I'm from Mexico City, and while I don't consider myself religious, I grew up with a Catholic upbringing and Catholic culture. I think in terms of sex and relationships, there has been so much shame spewed into everything that until we know better or until we expand our parameters of our knowledge, we tend to look at our experiences of love and relationships and sex through the lens of whatever is being reflected back on to us. Did you have internalized shame from growing up in a small Southern Baptist town? And did you have to rectify that when you entered sex work?
RRW: I definitely had internalized shame, though I don't think it was so much from my religious background. Everyone I grew up around was Southern Baptist, but my parents brought me to a non-denominational Christian Church. They were very much Jesus-hippie parents. Prior to meeting my mom, my dad had a black van with shag carpet in it, with motorcycles that he took all over the country. He got into a motorcycle wreck, met my mom who was a nurse, who had her own crazy life, and they decided to have kids together. They had their own sense of Christianity and religion. They were very open to talking to me about sex; I was more embarrassed and ashamed. My favorite opening line from any book ever is Story of the Eye, and I won't be able to get it perfect, but it's something like: "As far back as I can recall, I grew up very much alone and afraid of anything sexual." Which is definitely how I felt as a kid.
There's a poem in Porn Carnival called "the heart is delirious above all things.” The speaker of the poem says she learned to read by basically reading condom machines in truck stop bathrooms with cartoons of naked girls on them. Words like "tickler" and "tingler" please her, and in the poem, it says: "I knew to be afraid / not of the nude but of never being alone / not even in my mind." Once you learn how to read, the images and pre-word stuff are gone. So, it's both about learning how to read, and about realizing that you're a girl and what that means. I had anxiety of feeling like I didn't want to be a girl. I felt very afraid of what it meant to be sexualized as a woman. Even though I thought women were beautiful and everything feminine was beautiful, the focus on it from the male gaze, which I was aware of as a child, felt terrifying. You know things like, in the fourth grade when all the girls were shaving their legs, I think that's when I became the weirdo because I walked away like, I will not be doing this. [Laughs] I do not want to shave my legs.
There's another poem, I think it's "lifelong lounge" where I write: "my own private boyhood / believing in beauty / baby wanted wild / didn't want to grow up designated worth labor / with a physicality that didn't allow for disappearance." It’s about being very aware, and watching, and seeing the things around you that you understand, but you don't yet understand. Understanding gender dynamics and what's expected within those dynamics... it just really fucking terrified me. And then eventually you realize—if you're a sexual person—that you can't fight sexuality off. Maybe it’s the same as if writing is the thing that makes you feel sane, you can't fight writing off. You can, but you'll become crazy. I guess once I became comfortable with things I realized that both writing and sex could be places of giving, and generosity, and play, and fun. That's what I didn't see as a kid. I was so worried about the images I was getting that I didn't realize it could be a place of self-expression, cause I didn't have that expression yet.
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First published in Suave 2, print edition. 2021.