Thursday, November 12, 2020 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for meeting information.
Rachelle Toarmino is a writer, editor, and educator from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the founding editor in chief of Peach Mag, and is the author of the chapbooks Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019) and Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Shabby Doll House, Sundress Publications, The Wanderer, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in The Cosmonauts Avenue Anthology and My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry. She will be an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst in the fall. *That Ex *is her first full-length collection.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry?
RT: In fourth grade, I wrote a poem for religion class in which I made the impressive mistake of thinking thong—a word I had heard on Sisqó’s hit single “Thong Song”—was a synonym for soul. Horrible.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
RT: I’ve always kept a diary, so I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I still have my very first one from when I was about five years old, which flaunts a pink plush princess cover and is filled with pages of fat glitter crayon of all the words I knew that rhyme with cat.
CH: How did the poems of the first chapbook, Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016), come together? How did your process change with your second, Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019)? Is there a common through-line for these books?
RT: For Personal & Generic, I embroidered thirty micro-poems into needlepoint hoops of various sizes, shapes, and colors. I was interested in exploring what it might mean to make a poem solid—to approach poetry in three-dimensional space. At the time, I was really into Roni Horn’s sculptural representations of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I wanted to explore a similar intersection of reading and looking in my own work. That intersection is also a big part of Feel Royal, in which I constructed poems by finding text on the clothing worn by celebrities in paparazzi photographs, but my process was opposite of Personal & Generic in that I began with three-dimensional objects and put them on the page.
CH: Tell us a little about your full-length collection, That Ex. How did the process of composing this longer work differ from that of collecting your chapbooks? What did you learn from the process?
RT: The poems in That Ex, unlike my two chapbooks, were not written with a project in mind. Instead, they catalog themes of heartbreak, rage, desire, conflict, and trust—the emotions and experiences that characterized much of my twenties. The poems began to take shape as a book when I became interested in looking at the character of the ex-girlfriend and how she is represented in pop culture and works of art, including, as in my chapbooks, how she is made both solid or flat.
CH: Hera Lindsay Bird writes about That Ex, “This is a sensitive, self-aware collection full of Britney Spears references, emotional vulnerability, and digital nostalgia.” Tell us a little bit about the role of pop culture and digital life in your writing.
RT: I don’t believe in shying away from the digital in my writing. Digital technology and communication are so part of my life—I spend hours looking at screens every day—that it would be insincere to exclude them. As for pop cultural references, the poems in That Ex are specifically interested in representing a heartsick lineage. The speaker calls on her various models of exes—pop stars, fictional characters, poets, musicians, artists, and others—to teach her how to navigate her world post-breakup. I think there is an emphasis on Britney because I grew up with her. She was my first real example of an ex-girlfriend, and I watched what the publicness of her breakup did to her. The speaker in That Ex is likewise interested not only in the experience of heartbreak but the spectacle of it, too.
CH: What was your vision in founding Peach Mag? How has your experience as an editor influenced your writing process?
RT: My two cofounders and I wanted to create a space for emerging writers and artists to discover and celebrate each other. The greatest effect of Peach Mag on my writing life is having found a way to be constantly surrounded by creative people. It has given me access to a community I’ve read, admired, learned from, and had fun with.
CH: I understand you’re an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass. How did you decide on making this investment in yourself, and how did you choose UMass? What do you hope the MFA will bring you?
RT: I had always wanted to pursue an MFA for the time, focus, mentorship from professors, camaraderie among a cohort of readers and writers, and exposure to new writing and ways of thinking about writing. I appreciate UMass Amherst’s program for many reasons: it’s three years of funding, requires candidates to take at least one workshop outside their genre, and provides editorial and arts administrative opportunities that prepare us for the world of creative labor post-MFA. I’m also totally star-struck by many of the writers who went through this program or teach here now. It feels wild to have this experience in common with them.
CH: What is your writing life like? How has it changed over time?
RT: Chaotic and bewildering. I’ve found that I favor long and sporadic stretches of uninterrupted time to write—in that one analogy, I relate more to the sprinter than the jogger. As my lifestyle and responsibilities evolve as I get older, though, I’m learning to balance this preference for spontaneity with a more disciplined routine.
CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise?
RT: Some of my favorite poets are Anne Carson, Frank O’Hara, Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib, Hera Lindsay Bird, Tommy Pico, Kimmy Walters, and Jakob Maier. I’ve also been blessed both to discover and to publish some of my favorite contemporary poets through Peach Mag—our print and digital pages are full of work that challenges and excites me.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
RT: Two books of poetry that I recently read and loved are Greyhound by Aeon Ginsberg and Not I by Sebastian Castillo. I highly recommend them.