The Poetry Project

Mallika Singh Interviews Rosie Stockton

Mallika Singh: At the end of the third section of Permanent Volta, you write: “look at how my / worlds / want your / worlds / look at our worlds / wanting other / worlds.” Do you think poetry helps you figure out what you want or figure out what kind of worlds you want—and how you want them?

Rosie Stockton: Poetry has this ability to be a mode of breaking common sense and questioning the quotidian. If my rational self is always trying to organize information or submit associations to logic, poetry doesn’t really like having to submit to that. Writing poetry is helpful for perceiving new horizons or temporalities or forms of relation that I find are stifled in other genres of thought or writing—narrative forms for example. At the beginning of the book I explored this psychoanalytic idea that “you don’t want what you think you want.” What our conscious selves allow us to desire misguides us. Maybe this is only part of the story, or maybe those desires are underwritten by more insidious or unexamined or unrevealed desires. This made me be really cautious with my desire. I was like, the objectification involved in being a desiring subject is inevitably violent or produced by profound alienation, so I’ve got to be in this very studious practice of care in order to live and love ethically. But how to do this without tipping over into repression or shame as a coping strategy, or caving into norms that police sexuality and regulate queerness? I sought a more communal mode of longing.

For me a poem is a way to stage how desire moves, and the poem gave me access to these different layers of my own desire and my own idea of what a “world” is. Poetry helps me register that there are infinite worlds to tap into, as a way to reject the totalizing “World” of the liberal subject and modern philosophy. By breaking syntax and grammar and putting alienated systems of domination and daily life into contact, I wanted to register these invisible social contracts for the violence they are—throw these concepts of consent, agency, and freedom into crisis. The poems allowed me to be more experimental with my desire and even desire things or modes of my own submission that maybe would seem “wrong” or “annihilatory” to dominant logics of freedom. That’s where kink or BDSM power dynamics come into play for me. Towards the end of the book there is a poem called “Ditch Sestina” where I grapple with the power and collaboration involved in submission. I was interested in the consensual contract one can create with an intimate partner and explore the possibilities of playing with power: of being totally subjected to someone else or someone else being subjected to you. To me this feels like a world-building mode of relating, that perhaps remains unavailable to dominant political modes of how freedom is imagined.

MS: “Ditch Sestina” is one of my favorites. I was constantly gasping!

RS: That one is so much about submission. “If the answer is yes, keep asking...” like, what a bad thing to say. Find my no! I want to find my “no,” my boundary, my edge through this collaborative practice. It’s about taking that risk of building a world with another person through consensual power play—there is so much healing in that. To refuse institutions of power in favor of a dispersed or intimate deregulatory power.

These poems just allowed me to go deep into my shadow self and the dark parts of my psyche that are associated with shame. Demanding to be constrained as a way of experiencing the annihilation of selfhood, and an opening for an oceanic reorganization. I was reading Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty by Deleuze where he makes an argument that the idea of sadomasochism is misleading. Sadism and masochism are completely different logics and the fact that they’ve been bound together in this term makes no sense. The masochistic desire is this deeply collaborative and consensual contract. Whereas sadism only works if the one person sincerely does not consent: the sadist feels pleasure at genuine harm. A masochist doesn’t need a sadist dom, they need a dom to create a contract with, who derives pleasure from the contract, not breaking the contract. In this way, this poem felt like a way of thinking through the excesses possible outside of non-consensual submission.

MS: Can you talk a little bit about the overall structure of the book and its sections? What was the movement from the first to the last like?

RS: The book is structured into four sections. The first part is called “No Wages/No Muses” and it is staging this contradiction around the politics of reproductive labor. I was obsessed with this impasse around reproductive labor and ways of being that are invisibilized and devalued by capital according to racialized and gendered domination. This section was moving through the questions: what can political demands that imagine worlds that refuse the subject/object and productive/reproductive split in favor of communal modes of reproducing life look like? The section title moved from the demand “Wages for Muses” to a more abolitionist demand “No Wages/No Muses.”

The second part of the book is called “Hagiography” and is about work and being a worker. A Hagiography is the life of a saint, so I imagined that in an ironic way: the worker is the Saint of the imagination of capitalism, and also the Saint is the prototypical figure of revolutionary struggle. I was wanting to push back against the category of the worker in the framework of saintliness.

Then there is “Permanent Volta,” which are these deconstructed sonnets where I experience my writerly self moving to deregulate my desire & to allow my longing to move me, rather than ideas. What’s happening in the unorganized “social” life of my longing and modes of belonging? I refused to impose this austerity or scarcity mindset that I associate with how I disciplined my thinking around autonomy and refusal. It’s a tentative opening towards a queer excess, couched in the formal terms of the sonnet.

“Sovereign Exhaustion” is the fourth section. And that’s where I decided, okay, let’s flood these questions in a hyperpersonal way. I surrendered to the flood of desire and the care of attending to that desire. The flood felt like a mode of refusing selfhood and the lyric “I” to imagine non-sovereign forms of collective liberation, communism, love.

MS: Did you always write in constraint, or is that something that you came to? I hear so much excess and spilling over and rambunctiousness in your poems—the language speaks towards queer excess and erotics, so the formal limitations are a really interesting contrast.

RS: I haven’t always written in such intense constraints. That was a project I set out to do with this book. In past projects, I would always write and work in really collaborative settings, which is another type of container. My dear friend and poet Patricia and I have a really long-standing collaborative back and forth. It is not necessarily an explicit epistolary practice, but one where she would write a poem and then I would write one in response and we would kind of let each other digest each other’s language and build this associative world together. Even in non explicitly romantic relationships, I experience this psychic exchange as a really erotic practice, as a way of expressing in excess of my individuated being. We let each other be each other’s muse, and also refused the very objection of musedom via collaboration. It makes the whole idea of authorship murky: whose language is whose? I am for a dispersal of authorship.

Writing collaboratively is a really different way of writing than writing in sonnet. The erotics of the sonnet are real for me too. With the idea of a “permanent volta” I imagined refusing the resolution of the sonnet in the couple form as this kind of liberatory edging. Interrupting the teleology of heterosexual sex, I found so much pleasure in being bound in the sonnet form, and also binding the sonnet form to my will.

MS: Wow. Yes. The form gives you a container to take risks and to play within.

That reminds me of the floods that come up in your later poems. I often think with water in relation to resistance, gender, and desire. Does that resonate with you?

RS: Definitely. When I was living in Michigan, my backyard flooded and I spent a lot of time trying to combat the water so it wouldn’t get in the crawl space. But it’s like, how can you contain water? I spent time digging a ditch and putting piles of sandbags up. I tried to redirect the water to a different place, but it always leaked. I lived with the flooding as a material but also really psychic experience, and it became a governing logic of my life. It felt like trying to contain being, similarly to how gender is a category that tries to contain difference. What happens if you stop trying to contain the flood and stop relating to containers or categories as things that keep you safe, that protect your belongings? I used the ditch or the sandbag as a metaphor for regulating gender embodiment and expression. The poems allowed me to ask: what if you stopped sandbagging gender? Stop trying to regulate my embodiment, or the way that white womanhood produced me, and protected me, and harmed me. I let my being flood that category, not only to disavow it but really reckon with it, and create the conditions for play, pleasure, and change within it.

MS: In “Eunuch of Industry” you write: “what if we kissed / in the Amazon locker? / crude oil massage, your hand lotion / on my choke points.” This brought me to surrender and power—and the differences between a consensual surrender of power vs imperial or corporate power. Capitalism and white supremacy are structures that dictate our lives and therefore our desires. This poem felt like such a pleasurable disruption of that forced imperial submission.

RS: Yes, absolutely. “Eunuch of Industry” is a quote from a text by Marx called “Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property,” and there’s a couple of lines in that poem that are riffing off of that essay.

When I was imagining kissing in the Amazon locker, I was trying to register the desire for the most alienated parts of our lives to come in contact with the most intimate parts of our lives. In that poem I was using language of violent extraction of capital and put it in proximity to our most intimate relationships in images like “your hand lotion on my choke points” and “crude oil massage.” These extractive spheres are made to feel abstract, and I wanted to try to make legible, even if only for myself, the intimate ways they structure my life and relationships. These violent modes of extraction are all around us at all times, and also meant to be as invisible or palatable as possible so the violence isn’t registered as violence in a daily way. The poem is trying to emphasize that really violent alienation of racial capitalism with intense intimacy. These forces are hyper intimate, even if they’re meant to be occluded from our view by structural power. We have to make these forces legible in order to disrupt them.

MS: Your work reminds me of Don’t Let Them See Me Like This by Jasmine Gibson, in thinking about intimacies, pleasure, desire, and love, under capitalism, in the heart of empire. Those are themes I often write about as well. So I wonder, what are some of the ways you create and express those intimacies in life and in writing?

RS: That’s a beautiful question. I love Jasmine’s book so much. In creating and expressing these networks of intimacy, it is important to me to interrogate how I am formed by white womanhood and understand the gender binary itself as produced by a long history of white supremacy and colonialism. How I “express” queer intimacy, being nonbinary, and the modes of belonging and care under racial capitalism are connected to gender and sex as much as whiteness and class. To me it is not only about messing with the categories of normative gender and sexuality to pursue communal forms of intimacy, but also about disrupting the material conditions that are part of white supremacy, colonialism, transphobia. I experience myself to express these queer intimacies through many activites that crisscross private and public spheres: gay sex, studying, practices of mutual aid and resource redistribution, partying, excavation of shame, participating in abolitionist projects, and engaging in ephemeral and lasting systems of care that refuse to consolidate power in familiar ways. To allow an erotics of care to be part of what helps register and navigate the inevitable contradictions and tensions that permeate these practices.

In relation to poetry, I try to create these intimacies and register their stakes by using the constraints of poetic form like the sonnet, and interrogating the political history of form and its role in expropriation and dispossession. The sonnet is connected to the production of “romance” which is a regulation of the many expansive forms of love and intimacy. This type of love is funneled into the couple form, a form the nation state and capitalism needs because it is efficient. But even within these forms of domination, such beauty happens in excess. I play with how this form produced objection & subjection in our most personal relationships. And instead of just completely refusing to engage, the poem is a place to stage power struggle and power dynamics to contest forms of empire. Whether it is a sonnet or a nation state. There’s no removing ourselves from language, from the gender binary, from the fact that the white supremacist state manages the upper class hoarding of resources. I was rethinking “autonomy” in relation to domination, and so, in using the sonnet, I subjected myself very intensely to its constraints. I was expressing my experiences of love and care to contest the heterosexual couple form and all its fantasies and affects. I wrote sonnets to lovers, friends, comrades, coworkers, strangers. I used it as a container, and then allowed myself to break it.

#265 — Summer 2021