Rachelle Toarmino is a writer, editor, and educator from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the author of the poetry collection That Ex (Big Lucks Books, 2020) and the chapbooks Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019) and Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sundress Publications, P-Queue, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Cosmonauts Avenue Anthology and My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Peach Mag and currently serves as the assistant managing editor of jubilat. She lives between Buffalo, New York and Western Massachusetts, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst.
I first met Rachelle Toarmino on my rooftop, a few summers ago. She and a few other sensational writers were touring the Northeast, and I was hosting the Brooklyn spot. I was immediately impressed by her reading. Look, there are some poets an audience politely snaps for, and there are some poets that get a crowd worked up like a pop star. Toarmino’s the latter type. You see the adoration; people cheer in anticipation for their favorite lines in her whip-smart and tender poems. She’s also incredibly generous, the kind of writer who understands that being an active member of the literary community means championing others’ work, in addition to your own. She publishes countless writers as editor-in-chief of Peach Mag and she organizes numerous readings/parties/workshops that continue to grow the artistic community in Buffalo. I had a great time talking to her about That Ex.
Kristen Felicetti: I must ask. Have any exes got into your DMs asking, “Um, is there a poem about me?” Or are you the kind of person who might reach out to an ex and say, “Just so you know, there’s a poem about you in there. Thank you, I hope you’re well.”
Rachelle Toarmino: Ha! Oh, girl. I haven’t reached out and neither have they. I wrote the poems in That Ex over the course of many relationships, crushes, and flings—so I’m a little surprised, just given how many of them there are. Maybe the exes are unionizing…
KF: I’ve heard you read some of the poems in That Ex out loud and you’re a great reader. Do you have a different relationship with your poems when they’re on the stage vs. the page? What makes a strong reading performance style? I know you taught a class on this subject too.
RT: Totally—and thank you! I really miss the magic of IRL readings—everyone tuning out or turning away from life’s distractions to face, for a little while, in the same direction. I’m grateful for virtual alternatives, and I’ve attended some truly killer virtual readings, but the format doesn’t afford the same levels of surprise and reciprocity that have characterized my favorite readings. I love performing, but I especially miss being on the other end as part of a crowd—sensing the collective shift of a room’s energy as it heightens or quiets, feeling the lightning of well-timed eye contact with a reader, being part of an applause that in the moment seems like it’ll never end. It gives me chills to think about.
My personal reading style of the poems in That Ex focuses on animating the speaker. I try to embody the emotional core of the poems, which means shifting between angry, sassy, flirty, bratty, self-deprecating, resentful, tender, baby, and back again. When the poems are on the page, they have their own way of performing, which I think can be the fun of form: surprising a reader and playing with elements of a poem to add dimension or bring it to life. So, for me, the intention is similar, but I also acknowledge that there are endless approaches to performance and form, and it all depends on what you want to do.
I think a strong performance is one in which the speaker honors the spirit of the individual poems, builds their setlist to have a climax and denouement, and makes clear in the moment that they don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. This means practice, and I’ve taught workshops that give space to writers interested in trying out new performance styles, receiving feedback, and getting more comfortable in front of an audience. It comes naturally to some people, but for most of us it takes practice.
KF: I miss the magic and energy of IRL readings too. And this is such a fun book, it deserves a grand party with a danceable playlist and themed decorations. I know you recently did a drive-in launch for its release, possibly the first-ever poetry drive-in. How did that go?
RT: Fun as hell! I stood on top of my fiancé’s car in the parking lot of a fossil park and yelled poems into an FM transmitter while the sun set behind me. It was magical, simple, and safe. My favorite part was when I introduced my poem “IF YOU LOVE ATTENTION MAKE SOME NOISE” and everyone honked their horns incessantly for what felt like a full minute. (I see you, attention sluts.) In the poem, I repeat the line “I am easy to love” about a hundred times, so the delay between broadcast and reception to the cars—all with their windows down and volume up—created this intense echoing effect. I felt surrounded by a chorus of scorned women. This feedback loop made me think of Anne Carson’s line from the chorus in Antigonik: “How is a Greek chorus like a lawyer? / They’re both in the business of searching for a precedent … so as to be able to say / this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / not unique you know it happened before / or something much like it.”
That Ex took about five years of my life to write, edit, and publish, so it was this huge anticlimax when one day the book was just…out. It felt like a trick—like I was stuck in writers’ purgatory of trying to get everyone excited about the book without it ever actually coming out. Releasing it during quarantine has given me a renewed appreciation for parties: sometimes people need to come together to target their collective attention and celebrate something. I’m beyond grateful to my friends, family, Buffalo’s literary community, and the folks at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Preserve for helping me give That Ex the welcoming party it deserved.
KF: You’re a first-year MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst. I figure anyone entering an MFA program is pretty dedicated to studying the craft of writing, so how do you work to improve your craft as a poet? Are any of the poems in That Ex a result of that work? Are there poems in the book that you consider in conversation with other poets?
RT: Prior to my MFA program, I’d never actually taken a poetry workshop, so you can imagine how totally geeked and lucky I feel to have this opportunity. Until now, I’ve worked on improving my craft by reading as much as possible—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews, reviews, song lyrics—to try to learn from others. I include in this DIY curriculum my work on Peach Mag, the literary journal I cofounded with friends in 2016. We’ve edited and published hundreds of poems, stories, and essays, which has meant reading thousands of submissions every year. Working on Peach Mag also means that my social circle is dominated by creative people, and the conversations to which I’ve had access because of that have been invaluable. (Do you feel this way with The Bushwick Review?)
That Ex definitely celebrates these conversations—the ones with my friends as well as with the poets and writers I’ve read and admired. In particular, I call on poets Anne Carson, Frank O’Hara, Hera Lindsay Bird, and Alice Notley, as well as pop stars like Britney Spears and Lorde. Emphasizing lineage—both poetic and what I’ve jokingly termed ex canon—in the book was very important to me.
KF: I totally feel that way about The Bushwick Review. Speaking of being in conversation with other poets, “BEING ON THE PHONE WITH YOU” is such a clever reference to everyone’s favorite Frank O’Hara poem, “Having a Coke with You.” That poem is about how O’Hara would rather spend mundane real-life moments with his boyfriend over any exciting travels, and your poem is about a relationship that currently cannot have any of those mundane, regular real-life moments because it’s long distance. I love how you make the phone and phone apps themselves sensual in this poem; that is what long distance can feel like, this intense focus on a device/technology. Even the line breaks remind me of quick text message lines. Am I reading this right?
RT: Yes! Thank you so much for this reading of “BEING ON THE PHONE WITH YOU.” I wrote it in the stage of new love in which all I wanted to do was text all day and riff on each other’s jokes. I was living in this beautiful foreign city but would basically walk to the bus stop every day without looking up once from my phone. In fact, I’m normally a very slow writer—my process for writing poems involves more collaging over time than sitting down and getting out a full draft—but I wrote that poem in a rare one-sitting session, which I think also speaks to that obsessive headspace. And you’re spot on about the quick text message lines. During the final formatting of the poem, I texted all the lines to myself and broke them where they broke on my phone. I had tried a couple of different forms, even writing the original draft to mimic the form of “Having a Coke with You,” but nothing seemed to fit the one-sided eagerness and bittersweetness of the tone I was hoping to capture. Bringing that intuitive understanding of the “breath” of texting to poetry’s meter was a real ooo and aha moment.
KF: Your bio says you’re currently working on a book of nonfiction that explores privacy, persona, and vulnerability online. I’m very intrigued, especially because internet language is a big part of the language of your poems. Can you talk about this work at all?
RT: I’m still figuring out the direction of the project, so I don’t want to give away too much, but I’m interested in how some of my most formative experiences have been shaped by online spaces and digital technologies. Broadly speaking, I’m also interested in the roles these spaces and technologies play in the evolution of our notions of privacy and voyeurism, which affect the ways we think about ourselves and each other. I began considering the subject two years ago after writing a fragmented essay following the death of my cat Bug, which partly explores how the tradition of public mourning is being represented online. I had to set the project aside while finishing up That Ex and preparing to move to Massachusetts, but I got some great feedback last year at the Tin House Winter Workshop and I’m excited to get back to work on it.
The poems in That Ex don’t deal as explicitly or consistently with the internet, but they do play with the ways that being online affects intimate thought, interpersonal communication, and emotive expression. Including internet language in the poems was not a premise of the book, but because I grew up online and continue to spend a good portion of my adult life there now, it would feel insincere not to reach for those images, metaphors, and experiences in my writing. I think we write about what we spend our time observing—maybe that’s why previous generations of poets reached for nature more often than our generation tends to—so it makes sense that screens slip into my writing. Maybe the internet poem is my pastoral, lol.
KF: Can you talk about the unique playlist way you ordered the poems in That Ex? Also, what was the song for “A WORD FOR IT”? That was one of my favorites because of how it expressed frustrations with the limitations of language in ways that were cerebral (“everything I say lately feels like a draft”) and heart breaking (“I am speaking this like the little boy I babysit who points to the space underneath his knees and says I usually like to cry in here“).
RT: I really struggled to sequence the collection. I wanted the order to have a narrative arc, but I thought it would be dishonest at best and boring at worst to tell the story of a woman who falls in love and gets her heart broken. Situating the love poems as context for the breakup would make the climax the breakup and the denouement the heartbreak, but I wanted instead to center tenderness and joy—in spite of the heartbreak and damaged faith in love. To achieve this, and to place the poems that didn’t necessarily move the narrative forward, I went through my music library and assigned a song to each poem that fit their individual moods and tones, and played with rearranging the tracks until I got a playlist that felt complete and coherent—and that totally slapped.
The song for “A WORD FOR IT” was “Visits” by Karen O. The track lasts about a minute and a half, like many of the songs on that album (Crush Songs, 2014), but within the rest of the playlist it has the energy of an interlude, which was fitting because “A WORD FOR IT” is the second poem in the (unofficial) second half of the collection. Your reading of that poem—the frustrating but worthwhile ambiguity and imprecision of language—is reflected when she sings “I don’t know, I don’t know / The words are gonna come out slow” and “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t hold / Any, any, any soul.” There’s a lot of missed and miscommunication in the book.
KF: I wanted to ask about the cover. How did you and your publisher decide on that shade of pink and that Gothic font?
RT: Oh my god, that pink. When Mark Cugini (the publisher and designer behind Big Lucks) asked me to put together a mood board for That Ex, I included about a hundred “examples” of pinks, reds, and combinations of pink and red that I liked. It was exhaustive (and exhausting, shout out to Mark), but I knew the book had to be the right pink. “LOVELESS,” the fourth poem in the collection, opens “Somewhere a man owns / exclusive rights to the world’s / pinkest pink,” which references a petty 2016 intellectual property dispute between two men in the visual art world. I liked the idea of reflecting in the cover both that resistance to displays of (masculine) ownership and a tabloid-level interest in following them. Taking the private public is a big part of the book.
In another way, choosing an obnoxious hot pink for a book of poems about becoming new again in love felt familiar to reclaiming certain aspects of conventional femininity. I love how the gradient effect that Mark created makes the book look like a bottle of nail polish or tube of lipgloss—all these tools that signal celebrations of the hyperfeminine, which we’re taught to resist. I’ve quoted her before when discussing the cover, but this answer to an interview question by one of my favorite poets Kimmy Walters also gets at this sentiment: “I spent a lot of time hating pink because I wanted to be seen as tough and low-maintenance. I don’t really care about being seen that way anymore, so I came back for pink and I’m making up for lost time.” As for the typeface, we thought a Gothic font would give the cover the edge it needed.
KF: Finally, so many artists seem to love cooking and I don’t, so I love how you’ve been vocal on Twitter about not caring for it much either. In quarantine, we all had to cook, so I was wondering how that went for you, lol.
RT: Look, cooking: I get it! I too have cooked a meal, so I feel uniquely positioned to understand its charms, benefits—whatever. It’s the time-consuming mundanities of cooking that I resent: researching recipes, shopping for ingredients, making the whole thing, eating it in literally less than ten minutes, and cleaning up for an hour afterward. The reward, for me, isn’t worth it, so I try to put as little thought into the preparation, taste, plating, etc. of my own meals as possible. I would personally prefer to spend that time reading, writing, or looking at my phone.
That’s the mission behind my award-winning foodie Instagram @heyitsedible, anyway: that for some of us, food doesn’t need to taste good, it just needs to keep us alive. For whatever reason, though, this celebration of simple self-sustenance concerns my otherwise loving and open-minded friends, whose disdain evolved into outrage and honest-to-god intolerance during quarantine when I began posting more recipes than usual. It’s disappointing because I’m really enjoying finding my own voice in the kitchen—for example, I recently perfected the @heyitsedible take on the normative recipe “crêpes” in which I combine tortilla wraps, cream cheese, and Sour Patch Kids. You’d think they’d be happy for me.