The Poetry Project

“Beaten by a child in plainness of living!”: An Interview with Rachel James

Morgan Võ

Rachel James is a dear friend, but we only became close at the very onset of the pandemic. At that time, the manuscript that would become Rachel’s first full-length collection of poems, An Eros Encyclopedia (Wendy’s Subway, 2022), had just been selected by Wendy’s for the 2019 Carolyn Bush Award. This is to say, I wasn’t hanging with her when the writing happened, but in the years since our friendship really broke open, An Eros Encyclopedia has always been a forthcoming star on my horizon, a UFO from a prior time—and oh, how I hollered upon its arrival. This conversation was a way, for me anyhow, to engage with the Rachel I hadn’t known, who animates this book as its central trickster, philosopher, traveler, witness. —MV

Morgan Võ: Early in An Eros Encyclopedia, you quote Audre Lorde asking, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?” I was wondering if there was something you were aiming to elaborate when you were starting this writing?

Rachel James: It’s funny, I feel like when you trace the activity of meaning making, the pattern changes depending on what moment in the process one’s referring to. I think what you’re asking is about: now there’s a book, this object, that has a kind of closed-ness. It creates the illusion of beginning, middle, end. I like the question because it makes me realize how one of the effects of having a book is the sense that there was a beginning. It’s hard for me to locate, other than thinking about my lifelong obsession with how knowledge works. I suppose those basic questions of epistemology. How do I know what I know, how do the people around me know what they know, why do we all think we know? That question of understanding categories, why they exist and who makes them, that would be the… what was the word you used? Aim?

MV: That you were aiming to elaborate.

RJ: Aiming, yes. I think that’s what I was aiming to elaborate.

MV: When I look at the title, I first really focus on “encyclopedia” as something that defines a kind of text. What is an encyclopedia to you?

RJ: “Encyclopedia” was my way to create an arrow—to point to processes of knowledge production and systems of knowledge. The title sets up a false expectation because the book doesn’t follow the form of an encyclopedia in any way. Although, maybe it does in its variousness? But that’s a pretty loose connection. So, “encyclopedia” is a kind of shorthand for categories of knowledge and the question of who makes the definitions, and beyond that, who creates the categories.

I’ve always been curious how the categories themselves come about. It makes me think of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, an early encyclopedia, or I mean, not particularly early because encyclopedias are quite old, but one of the first widely printed encyclopedias. Ultimately, Diderot wasn’t satisfied with the form, and wanted to draw out the connections between things, not just aggregate information. But I see a lot of connections simply in the idiosyncratic act of selection. Even idiosyncratic might be too banal a word: the purposeful act of inclusion and exclusion.

MV: There are so many funny and wonderful references to ancient Greece. I particularly laughed at the moment where you’re yearning for clothing that is basically a toga.

RJ: [laughs] Mmm. Many years ago, a friend showed me this list that he made of all the directives—like, moments of action—in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius. Lives and Opinions is kind of like a survey, an encyclopedia, of different schools of Greek thought. My friend suggested that if you enacted these actions, you’d have more access to the ideas and ways of being of a particular school.

Diogenes is “the father of the Cynics.” One of the directives of the Cynics is to, for example, masturbate in the town square. I like the idea that there could be encyclopedias that give action as a way of knowing. There are a number of direct quotes from Diogenes that a chorus says in the book. And ones I just made up. And—I don’t know how much I should get into Diogenes, but—

MV: [laughs] As much you want.

RJ: Diogenes is a sort of rich kid whose father owned a minting factory. He gets kicked out of town after debasing the currency. He disowns his father, gives all his possessions away, and goes to the city to live in a big ceramic jar.

I’m trying to think of other moments I describe in the book. Diogenes sees a child drinking from her hands. He throws his cup away and says, “Beaten by a child in plainness of living!”

MV: Living in a ceramic jar sounds a bit like a combination of performance art and scholarship. Like, you have to produce these experiences in order to push further in knowing things. One thing I wanted to ask was about this formal device in An Eros Encyclopedia of describing different stages, and different performance situations. I was wondering if you have some sort of theater-envy or something, or if you had a past in the theater, or what that relationship is to performance?

RJ: [laughs] If I could be on a stage in front of a large audience, I would be a musician or a clown. I am way too introverted for that. I definitely have performance-envy. When I think of acting—it just seems so masochistic! To lay yourself down to enact someone else’s vision seems brutally masochistic to me. But also humiliating and liberatory in the best way. I used to think I had to perform, in the literal sense, because it was so terrifying. Now I let myself write.

At one point I was actually developing a play. I thought, “I’m going to write this play and weave the play throughout the book.” But I never finished the play, so it’s satisfying to hear you say that it’s there, even though it’s not.

But yes, the stages. I want to keep going with the stages because describing them is a simple way to express my unending experience of artifice.

MV: Yes—it might be that it’s less about being an actor or writing a play even, and more about what happens when there’s an architectural space that separates a performer and an audience. What happens when there’s that kind of witnessing? And what happens when there’s a mutual agreement to that artifice?

RJ: There’s a kind of abstraction happening in the way that I am employing the stage and the audience and constantly referring forward to it. Maybe that’s a sign of my own alienation? Just feeling that slight divide between myself and what I am observing, the separation of the performer even from herself. But I do think there’s something about theater that I haven’t yet been able to articulate. While writing the book, I was thinking a lot about performers, always situated within structures of power, who mirror the story of power back to the audience—for example, the court jester. The trickster or clown or jester, maybe if there’s a voice—I literally never had this thought before now—but if there is any voice being witnessed throughout the book, maybe the trickster is that omniscient voice.

MV: For me, one of the pleasures of reading your book is that there’s so many people in it. I was excited about seeing our friend Cecilia Wu so many times! Could you talk about how polyvocal your poems are? There are so many people in them, and what about your writing makes it possible for that to happen, or desires for that to happen?

RJ: I wish we could call Cecilia! She could come and be my ghost interviewee.

Writing is such a social activity for me. I am perpetually in a state of not at all knowing what’s going on. I feel confused all the time, and very much in the unknown. So I am curious about other people and their experiences. That is one of my earliest memories of feeling, just really wondering what is the consciousness of others. And kind of strangely—even though I’m doing this activity of creating a text, sharing it with others—I feel very much not interested in what I know, or think I know. I’m not interested in putting my opinions down on record as an activity.

I’m wondering now about world-building, and what it is to somewhat reconstruct the world around me. I’m thinking about how this kind of greediness, to witness or understand more, to put that to record… I don’t know. I’m having a complicated thought about futurity and world-building, and whether I’m recording the present or trying to construct some different kind of future. I’ve always been curious about—going back to my obsession with categories—disrupting ideas about authorship and authority of thought, which opinions belong to who and which understandings belong to who. I definitely feel a kind of permeability. Like I love the premise of Fred Moten’s B Jenkins, where each poem is a portrait of somebody that Moten is connected to, either personally or intellectually, that came into his life or his knowing through his mother. So the book becomes a kind of portrait of his mother. I desire that kind of experimentation with portraiture, and trying to highlight the permeability of being. I think that’s how my writing becomes polyvocal.

MV: At one point in the book, Cecilia is saying, “If you take to be given life, you owe yourself to death.” And you later say, “Every origin begins with an act of consumption.” But then I contrast those moments with another: you’ve just had a revelatory sexual experience with someone, and you write, “It must take another person to show me things I’ve already got.” So I feel like some of the important issues in the book are about accepting how much it takes other people to be a person, but also the difficulty of knowing what that means for your responsibilities to other people.

RJ: I do think understanding things in terms of their relationality is so much a part of my experience of being human and of writing. I was talking to a painter recently about painting, and I love talking to painters because I feel so distant from that form, and the very precise formal questions about color and what-not, and when I look at a painting the first question that comes to me is, “Where did the wood for the frame come from?” And then, “Where did the pigment come from? How did it get made? Who was paid to make it? Where did the money come from?” I would eventually land on the surface of the painting, the image.

I think what you’re noticing is a relentless practice of wanting to understand the borders or perceived borders that may not exist between things. The line about “every origin story begins with an act of consumption” came from a conversation about how cells reproduce, how one can consume the other in order to grow.

MV: There’s another moment where you’re having an experience of extreme self-awareness, and you write, “I think I was writing the story at that point instead of living it.” Then you quote Moyra Davey’s nephew asking her, “Wouldn’t you rather live life than narrate it?” I was wondering if you could elaborate on what difference there is between writing and living? And if there’s any risk in confusing the two? Like, do you think it’s an obstruction to be engaged in the world in a linguistic way?

RJ: Something that’s confusing me about the question is maybe our interpretations of that Davey line are different. I see the sense of narrating as an experience of consciousness, of being separate. But it’s interesting, because Moyra Davey works in what I would call some form of auto-ethnography. And that’s a form I’m also engaged with. So it is true, now that I’m thinking about it out loud, there is a kind of practical task of narrating, which would be creating—in her case—texts, photography, and video. I’ve been narrating in many mediums over the years, including—horribly—performance. In this case I made a book of poetry.

This is kind of a hard one, to elaborate on how I experience consciousness, the difference between being and describing. Here’s me being confused. Can you say the question again?

MV: [laughs] Yeah, but I think I’ll also have to work it out out loud, if you don’t mind?

RJ: Of course!

MV: In the moment where you say, “I think I was writing the story at that point instead of living it”—if I’m remembering correctly, you’re having sex with this person, and you’re trying to make them come, and trying to make them come has started to feel like a job. And there’s this separation that you’re aligning with a perspective of observation as opposed to experience.

RJ: Yeah, being aware of another layer of consciousness.

MV: I think part of why I wanted to ask this question is that I so often carry this fear that what I’m doing is looking, and not living. That what I’m doing is writing it down in my head, and not participating or experiencing. And then sometimes, as I’m spending more and more of my life as a writer, I’m sometimes wondering, well maybe that’s just a different way of living. So, to what degree is there actually a value judgment between these two sides?

RJ: That helps me a lot. Thanks for giving me more context. I feel you—because I often think my misery and pain comes from not being able to connect with others, but I actually believe it’s from me monitoring connection, which is a version of writing it down in my head. It’s such a great question about when are these processes of observation generative, and when are they just creating more alienation and separation?

Thinking through practices of experimental ethnography and documentary—my academic background—I’ve found a lot of rich resources addressing these questions. I’ve been confusing things by teetering between the inner experience of an individual and the external act of representation, the writing, but I think that’s because I’m not confident I understand the boundaries between these categories. Traditions of witness are so complicated. People who make work that awkwardly sits within looking and living, like Moyra Davey and Trinh T. Minh-ha, are big influences in my thinking. This is not explicitly in the book, but it is in the book because it’s a way of being.

MV: One last thing I wanted to ask about: the cover image is so amazing, but I also have very little understanding of what I’m actually looking at.

RJ: It’s an alluvial fan! I was going through my computer looking for images or ideas for the cover, and I found this experimental lecture I had given that I have full amnesia about ever giving, or making. It had a video that I played in the background as I spoke which was mostly a blank screen, but every so often a series of photographs of alluvial fans would appear, then suddenly the screen would go blank again for a long time. The talk was called “On Knowledge”—a joke—and I was using the alluvial fan as a way to think through how knowledge travels. Alluvial fans are created through a geological process. A river narrows until the flow of water spreads out like a fan. The image is an aerial shot from far above.

I have to give credit to the designer Rissa Hochberger, who placed the image—thinking again of categories and frames—in such a way as to accentuate its anthropomorphic qualities. I see a lot of bodily positions, a mountainous ass, and legs spread.

That’s the story of the alluvial fan. [laughs] That’s the story of the cover of the book.

#271 – Winter 2023