I first met Rosie Stockton in the fall of 2019 while attending an experimental poetry residency in the Hudson Valley. We partnered up during a somatic ritual exercise, in which we wordlessly gazed at each other for several minutes. Though I knew nothing about their poetry, I was disequilibrated by some compassionate mischief in their eyes.

A year later, I re-encountered Rosie in an online poetry workshop while they were living in Los Angeles and I was living in New York. I was struck by the harmonic assemblage of Stockton’s writing, the playful sheen cast by their images, and a meticulous ear for hypnotic language.

We spoke over Zoom in early May, during the afterglow of a new moon, just before the release of their debut poetry collection, Permanent Volta, and discussed queer poetics as a mode of contesting subjection, methods for transmuting desire, and using miracles to abolish time.

Ivanna Baranova: Rosie! It’s such a joy to chat with you. Permanent Volta is beautiful, and I’ve been meaning to ask about the cover since I first saw the book. It almost looks like a pod of whales or dolphins dancing. What inspired the design?

Rosie Stockton: Oh, I’m so glad you asked! And this take is funny timing because I actually saw my first whale yesterday, right after cutting my foot on a piece of glass. This new moon was wild — a blood offering, then a whale shows up. I was like, this moon is communicating with me.

Such an auspicious and mystical way to usher in a new book.

Definitely. The cover was designed by Rissa Hochberger, and the illustration that appears on it was drawn by Mountain Pollen, a tattoo artist and friend. I had expressed to Rissa that I wanted a cover that operated like a veil: a boundary that obscures and protects the poems, while also offering the promise of something behind it. I wanted desire, lack, and insatiability to be thematized. I also wanted to draw from Communist pamphlets from the 1970s, so we worked with particular typeface references and color blocks that are referential to that era.

Following our back and forth around these themes, Rissa sent me a cover design that included the Lacanian graph of desire, situated amidst color blocks that also reference a book cover from the Chicago Leather Archives. I sent them back an image of morning glory vines from my backyard twisted into the shape of the graph. We decided to ask Mountain to redesign the graph, with the morning glories in mind. They draw with such a specific, gorgeous hand. Their lines disrupt the mathematical directionality of the graph, and make it more floral and luxurious. It feels mystical to me when I look at it.

Totally. It’s beautiful. And a luxury theme was right on time for a Taurean book.

This book is such a Taurus!

It is, and desire is all over the book. I’m looking at “Enfance IV”: “My desire won’t be born of lack / but of fullness . . . a hungry ghost.” I love this turn from lack to fullness and the generous subversion there. My familiarity with hungry ghost symbolism comes from Buddhist folklore, you know, the hungry ghost being this supernatural figure who traverses the “preta” realm with insatiable desire. Another reference that comes to mind is Gabor Maté, who’s written extensively about addiction recovery and the opioid crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and elsewhere. But Permanent Volta offers desire as a renewable mechanism for abundance, which feels like a break from conventional cultural cues and references, including Lacan.

I love that your work challenges this myth that desire can be satiated through the conscription of certain configurations of relationships, objects, or experiences, which is what perpetuates the hungry ghost phenomenon — you know, perpetual seeking. Your poems offer desire as a propellant experience of its own that can amplify the powers of presence and connective care, rather than enlisting desire as a means to an acquisitional end, like a radar detector or something.

This poem is a “loose translation” from an Arthur Rimbaud poem called “Enfance.” I read the Rimbaud in English and then translated (or reinterpreted) it to English, thinking specifically about how Rimbaudian desire — queer, chaotic, and revolutionary — is marked by total recalcitrance and unceasing hunger.

I love your citations for the concept of the hungry ghost. I was also thinking with Avery Gordon’s writing about how ghosts and ghosting are connected to melancholia and loss, specifically the way that we are haunted by intergenerational social violences, power structures, and ongoing histories of racial violence. How does one write about intimate desire, given the systems of power and dispossession that organize or disorganize our relations? The repression of historical material haunting produces a crisis of identity and wholeness, I think. There’s always this absent fantasy of origin at the core of what it means to be a subject, to be a person who desires: to be constituted by lack. As a white person, I think about this in terms of the alienation of whiteness and the violence at the core of the fantasy of “wholeness” in particular.

“Enfance IV” ends with the line “I am ending this poem now, a hungry ghost,” kind of punctuating that desire will never be resolved and the hunger will persist. And maybe that hunger doesn’t belong to me, but constitutes me. Even if we get what it is we think we want — whether that is receiving love from the person that we desire love from, or temporarily filling some deep childhood need, or even a political fantasy around more communal forms of organizing our relationships — desire remains. There’s no resolution, at least in a single lifetime, to the work of healing the intergenerational trauma that’s foundational to our psychic lives.

I think acknowledging the correlation between desire and fantasy and to some extent divesting from desire — when it impels the kinds of psychic ruts and tunnels which can develop from fantasy, while also recognizing the multivalence and immutability of desire itself — is integral to any healing project: psychic, social, political, ancestral, inter/intrapersonal, and otherwise. Like, can we allow desire to exist without tasking its existence with the production of discrete outcomes? Can we envision and actualize revolution or healing without restricting those visions to the utopic dead ends that fantasy would have us project?

I guess it’s no coincidence that fantasy is so prevalent in childhood, when longing is maybe at its most acute, or at least our long term patterns of longing and desire are being hardwired.

As for the Avery Gordon reference, melancholia and loss is an apt framework here. Grief itself feels like the driving catalyst for desire. Because existence is mired in continual grieving, I think desire is what drives us to recreate our wholeness through new conditions and to reconcile the grief that lives in the ancestral constellations we embody.

What’s also interesting to me is that this poem lives in the Hagiography section of the book, which refers to biographical depictions of sainthood, and so it almost calls forth a template for divine inspiration or exaltation. How did you approach this theme?

I love that — contextualizing this figure of the hungry ghost in the larger section of Hagiography feels really right. I’m interested in the invocation of ghosts and haunting in psychoanalytic terms. When we have the feeling of hauntedness or when desire feels really visceral, it means something repressed in us is coming to consciousness, and the tools or the coping mechanisms that we have to repress this core hunger or core need for more and more isn’t working anymore. And that is actually a really activating state. I think it’s connected to questions of spiritual and political becoming, connection, and opening. Even though in that poem there’s a bratty effect of frustration: “I can’t get what I want & I’m a hungry ghost! No matter how much I chase I am never satiated,” there is almost an exalted state in the movement of desire. I am in a practice of being at peace with the fact that there’s a lack or void in me that’s always going to be bubbling over and that I’m always going to try to fill. When I am able to be in touch with my drives without focusing on fulfilling them, I can feel so grateful just to experience and notice desire. 

I have a political commitment around not trying to make my love objects satiate my desire. But I try not to repress that structure of desire, either. I try to notice how desire can make people or relations into objects, and grapple with the urge to consume them, fill myself with them, or possess them. I think a practice of care can attend to these flows of desire to mitigate their harmfulness without trying to regulate them. 

At the same time, in “Hagiography” the poems are about work: going to work, hating work, working too much. I wrote a lot of them at work, in between breaks at work. I was really thinking about how in our society, and even in many political movements that seek the restructuring of our society, the worker is put on a pedestal like something of a saint. That’s the “moral life” of a good citizen: you work hard, and you get what you want. This, of course, is a lie, and a myth propagated by white supremacy and racial capitalism. It’s such a hungry ghost formulation. So these poems wanted to refuse that myth by enacting an ironic Hagiography of being an exhausted worker, as if that is a noble thing to be. When, actually, I’m just like, I’m tired and I don’t want to work. And that’s saintly, actually. It’s saintly to not want to work.

My mind keeps going back to Rimbaud, who’s implemented throughout the book, and I’m curious about your connection to his work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this song — it’s been stuck in my head as I’ve been preparing for our chat — called “Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow” by Felt. Anyway, one of the first lines is, “You’re reeling from ‘A Season in Hell’ but you don’t know what it’s about.” Clearly not you!

I was obsessed with Rimbaud as a teenager, and returned to his work in the context of studying the Paris Commune and the Surrealist poets. I wrote closely alongside Rimbaud’s famous proposition in his Seer Letter that fundamentally disrupts desiring I: the “I is an other.” The “I” is the property of language, it precedes the speaker, in each utterance the speaker submits to the language. That one has control over the “I” they speak is a fantasy of Cartesian logic: I think therefore I am. Rather, Rimbaud suggests “I am thought,” or better, “I am spoken, therefore I am.” I wanted to know how the “I who is an other” desires.

Along these lines, in the poems I seek to acknowledge that desire itself exists as a reaction to property relations or bourgeois subjectivity. I read Rimbaud alongside Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and was really thinking about the revolutionary and decolonial potential of the “poetic image” to usher in otherwise unthinkable realities and forms of relation in regards to desire for new forms of love, politics, and metaphysics. 

Césaire’s essay on “Poetry and Knowledge” articulates this so well: science needs poetry to make any new discoveries. Poetic knowledge is that which disregards the given premises of the world we live in and can break common sense.

Wow, “science needs poetry.”

This was really important to me for thinking about poetry as a medium for sensing something about the world and politics that is beyond rationality or “conscious” desire. I was thinking a lot with the phrase: “We don’t want what we think we want.” If our conscious mind tells us we want this, how can we understand the underlying structures that are guiding our desire, which are usually produced by internalized structures of violence? What are our practices of undoing and unbecoming around desire? 

Right, and seeking to understand what structures and influences our desire brings us to kink, which, of course, suffuses the text. I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about your use of language in Permanent Volta as a conduit itself for emulating power relations, how you manifest kink through the use of unique forms, terms, and devices throughout.

This book is so much about the interpersonal experience of power structures. I was asking questions about power and subjugation throughout the poems, and I was interested in a lot of different political or poetic tactics of responding to power: refusing it, grappling with it, manipulating it, evading it. I was drawing from political tactics like sabotage: what would it mean to sabotage a poetic form? And strike: what would it mean to go on strike from a poetic form? What would it mean to go on strike from someone who is writing about you? What would it mean if the person you wanted to write a love poem for went on strike from being represented? 

Questions of “tactics” for refusing power brought me to thinking with power play and kink. Laws of sexuality, especially normative heterosexuality, are both explicit and ideological. I think so much about private, intimate life and the structures of state violence, and how poetry can be a mode of addressing this relationship. Using the poem to stage intimate modes of power play under the umbrella of kink was a useful mode of exercising this tension. How can my own desire for obscenity, raunchiness, debasement somehow make perceptible how state violence regulates or produces my own desire, and how I navigate these contradictions. Of course, kink makes the regulative structures super explicit, and then allows us to create consensual situations to address how power moves through us, in potentially very healing ways. 

Absolutely, and the power play can transcend conventional modes of embodiment and even sexualization. Like here, this line from poem VII of the “Permanent Volta” section: “I capitulated to the desperate Earth . . . all miracle / it rationalized my dreams.” In this poem, power is yielded back to a planetary body, and the capitulation itself achieves transcendence by imbuing the dreamscape with the rationality of miracles. Which, as I see it, is a perfect definition for poetics: miraculous rationality.

Of course you gravitated to the miracle line! This poem is about interrupting normative temporality and teleological time: plot, narrative, conclusion, ending. And this poem refuses to believe that one thing causes the next thing, but rather offers that causality is cyclical, spirally, fractal. What would it mean to submit to the earth’s logic of time, which isn’t linear — then what would rationality mean? If that type of time can only be processed as a miracle? Rationality exists in the moment you suspend belief. If everything is a miracle, suddenly my dreams are what register as rational. This is the rationality I would want. I want believing in miracles to be easier than believing in common sense.

Beautiful, yes. This excerpt and your response remind me so synchronistically of A Course in Miracles — which I’ve been reading alongside Permanent Volta — in which they also discuss miracles in relationship to time: “Miracles reflect the laws of eternity, not of time. The miracle thus has the unique property of abolishing time to the extent that it renders the interval of time it spans unnecessary. The miracle shortens time by collapsing it.” And really, there’s an ongoing sense of collapsed time rendered throughout Permanent Volta; the book is like a parade of voltas. And it reads so generously, like an invitation — as in Césaire’s formulation — to participate in new and necessary discovery. Which reminds me of another line I highlighted: “we must invent what we see.” 

In that poem, “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word,” I was thinking about the strike as a tactic for taking back power. I imagined all the objects in the lullaby refusing to operate as they are meant to. They aren’t broken: they refuse. The mockingbird refuses to sing, the ring doesn’t shine. I read this lullaby as basically a crisis of use value, imagining the commodity with something akin to the agency to refuse. Instead of imagining a mother trying to coax a baby into sleep by promising them all the things they want, I imagined the objects refusing to be instrumentalized as promised. I see all these refusals as miracles in their own right: as whispers of worlds in which the inherent value of something isn’t reduced to use value. 

I also like this idea that “not saying a word” is an invitation into illegibility, opacity, or encryption in the face of state violence and capitalist value. Perhaps the mother isn’t just trying to make the baby stop crying, but rather inviting the baby into a mode of communicating beyond transparent language. If language is what inaugurates the self as a subject (I am spoken therefore I am) can the refusal to “say a word” mean the refusal of sovereign subjechood? By “not saying a word,” can the baby refuse to reproduce the conditions of the world organized by state violence and capitalism that they’re entering? 

Yes, the baby can! But implicit in the baby’s refusal is a playfulness — calling back to the Rimbaudian Enfance trajectory — that celebrates the revolution taking place around them. There’s a delight in witnessing these objects refuse their prescribed commodification. Isn’t this what we’re currently seeing, too: individuals rejecting their would-be commodification and refusing instrumentalization. The value is shifting now to collective resistance and I think we’re — not to get all astrological — drawing from the momentum of Saturn’s return to Aquarius in service of improving social structures and recalibrating deeper states of justice. Revolution is the natural expression.

Get astrological! It’s such a beautiful framework for thinking about the individual and the collective. I was thinking a lot about that in “Blur Me Out,” in this line about sleeping and digesting food: “while the stars’ algorithm / churn out millions.”

I love that. In that same poem you write, “I am all submitted to you, like you submit to the blossoming that happens in the siloed collective gut.” So again, the collective. And later, “where we are Mother of each other / where we are brothers / baby burning disobedience.”

In “Material Memory,” I was really obsessed with the idea that we could be doing something our whole lives without realizing we’re doing it. When I was living in Detroit, I would go to the river every day and lean against the railing, and I noticed that some parts of the railing paint had worn off more than others. I was really interested in gradual change and how small, incremental, repetitive actions by many people — neighbors, strangers, friends — that are illegible to us can cause change or growth. 

Sure, the ways we unconsciously co-create and collectively influence our material and metaphysical realities, and how we conduct ourselves in those realities. That sentiment is so harmoniously conveyed in poem III from the Permanent Volta section: “together we made / this place / together / we can leave it.”

Yeah, and the idea is that nothing is done alone. I think I’m really insistent on this particular fantasy. That one is a love poem. I was writing about wanting someone’s attention, just wanting to write about loving them, about my desire, and feeling like there was inevitably a violence to that. I was kind of confronting the magnitude of the impossibility of expressing my love. That is a trope: “words can’t touch the way we want to express our love.” But I was also interested in the way words actually can even harm this type of love. I feel struck by the silent violence of grammar. I’m like, language: not my premise! 

Not my premise! Hilarious. For reader context, that’s a Susan Sontag quote that Tess Brown-Lavoie has memorialized, from an interview where Sontag shuts down an ideologically predatory journalist.

Yes! But also, language is one material we have for building together. These are the conditions in which we find each other. We are able to love through language. Here we are, our hunger doesn’t compromise. We’re desiring each other. We found ourselves here, in these premises that aren’t ours. We are so lucky that we found each other. Let’s leave these premises and imagine otherwise.

Permanent Volta
By Rosie Stockton
Nightboat Books
May 2021

Ivanna Baranova is the author of CONFIRMATION BIAS (Metatron Press, 2019). She lives in Los Angeles and helps with communications at The Poetry Project.

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