The Uninhabitable, Jesse Rice-Evans’ debut full-length poetry collection, left me breathless. It was an absolute honor to have had the opportunity to read this recent release. The physical meets the psychological; the self-awareness and the autonomy developed through storytelling were powerful. Her words held so much urgency—tangible, malleable imagery that was both rich in its unique uses of language, as well as in its sensory details. I was fortunate enough to chat with Jesse Rice-Evans.
Savannah Slone: How does it feel to have completed your first full-length collection? What are your feelings on its release?
Jesse Rice-Evans: Oh my gosh, bizarre! The poems in this collection have been with me for so long in so many forms: dreams, delusions, stuff I’m good at keeping private.
SS: Can you discuss the shift and build-up of growth of self that takes place throughout?
JRE: Ordering poems in a larger project is not simple. This collection, in particular, needed help in sense-making, which hasn’t been my strong suit as I remain sick over time. Recently, I was organizing pieces in my new manuscript and felt like I had a strong grasp on what should go where, but I don’t remember this feeling with The Uninhabitable. What I do remember was growing too exhausted to fret about placement, and allowing many of the pieces to settle in wherever they felt comfortable, which ended up mirroring my own embodied experiences while writing the collection. Luckily, I had written a piece called “The Final One,” after the Jeanette Winterson quote, and that seemed like an appropriate choice to close the collection with.
SS: When did you start writing poetry? What about this medium drew you in?
JRE: I feel a little sheepish being one of those people, but I was a writer since I was super little. I didn’t feel that connected to my peers and was really into books about tomboys disguising themselves as boys to do things that girls weren’t allowed to. Relatable! I got more into poetry in high school when I attended North Carolina Governor’s School for a summer to study poetry, and then was rejected by every poetry program I applied to for college. After a few years of working nonstop and being too deep in survival mode to do much art-making, I left college for a few months, while dealing with mental illness crises, and transferred colleges after my junior year to UNCA (a small public liberal arts school in Asheville, NC). There was a rich community of writers there, and I joined up with the community writing workshops and met writers who weren’t writing the tired narrative stuff my professors seemed to love at my previous college, and I buckled down and wrote loads for the next several years. Then, more mental illness. Then, physical illness. These have forced me to slow down and develop patience—a skill that has never come naturally—and my writing practice has weirdly become a central way to work through trauma and pain, trying to make sense of the unexpected bloom of symptoms that forced me to radically reimagine my life while trying to unlearn the white supremacy I—and all white folks—grew up enjoying. Poems get to be slippery in ways that prose steers away from; there’s not always a clear narrative element in poetry, or at least in the work I am drawn to, and I am much more interested in affective and somatic connections with language than writing something with plot.
SS: How has your work evolved, since you began writing and publishing?
JRE: As my bodymind has demonstrated its ever-evolving needs w/r/t rest, I’ve gone through an intense process of grief. So much of my identity has been wrapped up in what I do, that is, through work in primarily intense physical contexts: food service especially. I started working on my 16th birthday and never took a break aside from a few months studying abroad in undergrad. I usually held down 2-3 service jobs at any time partly out of necessity and partly as a strategy to distract from a lot of trauma for which I couldn’t access any kind of treatment or care. The scariest part about developing the chronic pain and fatigue I now live with every day was that I require loads of down time, often spent alone. In the past, this was untenable: if I let myself feel any of the psychic pain I was holding onto, I feared an uncontainable flood. It wasn’t until I had no option but to rest that I accepted that I needed to face it, with the indispensable support of my therapist, partners, and friends. Then, the flood. Only, it bloomed unexpectedly into language, all of which I scrambled to capture in Google Docs on my phone. That’s really where this collection came from, and where the voice that now dominates my work emerged.
SS: How has earning degrees and teaching writing changed how you write?
JRE: It’s a bit of a different animal spending so much time teaching “academic” or “professional” writing and secretly writing poetry on my phone. I haven’t always connected these two elements of my life as my practices for each of them is super distinct and they each require such different ingredients for them to go the way I want. As I’ve moved up in the bizarre world of higher ed, I’ve definitely grown more and more fastidious about developing my voice in all types of writing. Theory is notoriously inaccessible and at this point in my career, this intentional opacity pisses me off. Gatekeeping is everywhere you turn in academia, and I’m up to here with the jockeying for privilege. In the classroom, I’m all about figuring out ways to understand an audience’s expectations and play to them with the intention of slipping anti-authoritarian practices under the radar. Unfortunately, I see this same sort of popularity contest in much of poetry culture. I did two off-sites at AWP because I don’t know the right people (but my editors do) and I definitely don’t have an agent. I have three part-time jobs and chronic illnesses and two partners. I’m way more invested in my students and myself than playing the exact games I caution my students against.
SS: Which poem, from this collection, would you consider to most wholly encapsulate the overarching ideas you explored?
JRE: This was hard, so I asked my friend Frankie Baker, an awesome poet also from North Carolina, to help me out. They said “Hypomania,” which is also one of the shortest pieces in the book, which opens with “Rebirth is just an awful edge.” I agree in the sense that it’s about how self-image shifts with illness, with memory loss, with growing up, and these themes are definite throughout The Uninhabitable and the new work that I’m writing. Right on, Frankie.
SS: Who or what influenced and inspired you, as you crafted the pieces within? Authors, activists, community members, media, specific books/works?
JRE: So many. I’ve always written with pop music as a backdrop—the femmer, the better—so Kesha, Shura, Crater, Rihanna, Carly Rae Jepsen, Janelle Monáe, Ariana Grande, Lorde, Solange, all deserve shout-outs. I was really into Jay Deshpande’s Love the Stranger right as this collection was really finding its feet, and I’m so grateful to the whole relationship I ended up having with his collection. This also marked the close of my obsessively-read-everything-Kate-Zambreno-has-even-breathed-on phase, so her singeing honest look at the abject was a huge influence to my work. Part of dealing with my ill health also meant finding connections online: Annie Segarra, Vilissa Thompson, Imani Barbarin, Jennifer Brea, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Talila Lewis, other chronically ill academics, and writers I mention here are just a handful of a rich scene of awesome sick and disabled activists who challenge ableism and its intersecting oppressions through art, writing, and advocacy. I’m hugely in their debt for my own better disability justice politics, including some of the conflicting experiences I talk through in the collection.
SS: Who are some queer and/or disabled poets who inspire you?
JRE: Eli Clare, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, my amazing partner Zefyr Lisowski, the late Tory Dent, Kai Ulanday Barrett, everything put together by Deaf Poets Society and Monstering. I am careful about this term inspired in relation to other disabled writers, though, as so often sick and disabled people are used as metaphors for abled folks to fetishize. These poets motivate me and challenge me.
SS: How do your disabilities play a role in your writing process?
JRE: Well, I’m pretty much always lying down and my cognitive issues are less severe than even a year ago, but it’s not like I ever have the ability to be like “time to compose some poems!” Usually, I’ll be reading something or watching Grey’s Anatomy/playing Candy Crush on my phone and hear a phrase or term that interests me. This actually happens a lot watching Star Trek (Voyager and DS9), as well as nature docs, so I have a running list of notes in a Google Doc called simply “2019” that holds all of my in-progress gibberish before I try to shape it into anything legible. My memory issues also mean that I return to these fragments unsure of what I intended when I first jotted them down, which is kind of freeing; I can take fragments that I didn’t associate logically as I was writing them and instead play with juxtaposing weird observations and sensations in a non-rational way, which is so much of how my brain works now. I love this blank slate feeling, as I don’t beat myself up for missing a narrative opportunity. Instead, it’s a kind of poetics that I’m really attracted to and grateful for.
SS: How could the literary community do better, when it comes to accessibility and inclusivity?
JRE: We love to plug up “inclusive” pubs with professional writers and writers who have agents, writers who get to be full-time artists. On my (long) list of writers I love, none of them can afford to be an artist for a living which, gross capitalism sucks, etc. but loads of writers actually will be fine if they never make any money from writing. And they’re not trans women of color, sick and disabled folks, and poor writers. The cultural workers doing the political groundwork and advocating and taking up space with their shifting privileges are invariably from working-class backgrounds because when you’re poor, you have to give a shit about your community or you’ll all die. Rich writers need to honestly give their money away because they probably stole loads of brilliant work for marginalized writers and will never get called out on it because popularity politics always benefit thin, white, abled, cishet people. Always. Also, hold your fucking readings at accessible venues. It’s such a huge slap in the face that so many literary connections happen at readings that huge numbers of us can’t even fucking get into. If you wonder why there are no disabled people at your event, it’s because it’s inaccessible. Fix it and invite us!
SS: You belong to two marginalized communities, yet still, of course, hold privilege as a white person, which you acknowledge in this collection. What role does whiteness play in your craft?
JRE: My whiteness obviously grants me so much access to spaces and authority esp in academia! I’m automatically more listened to and believed in medical settings—tho anti-fatness is a popular ideology for medical professionals as well! I mean, ultimately I’m pretty much always totally safe: not being perceived as threatening means I have the privilege to go about my goddamn business without getting harassed, threatened, the cops called on me. I’m on the fine line of too-fat-for-street-harassment and too-not-fat-for-public-fat-shaming, which extra means that I get left alone. Now I’m working on a few pieces that tackle my whiteness and whiteness more broadly further in-depth, as I still don’t see white writers talking about our own race, racism, and investment in white supremacy, which every single white person in the universe practices and benefits from. This is striking to me, especially as “woke” whiteness is socially popular and rewarded (usually by other white people). Where is the “woke” white poetry that isn’t ableist, racist, fatmisic, transmisogynistic, classist? It’s almost like if we gatekeep people of color—and Black folks especially—out of the activism, academia, whatever, we (white folks) scramble to find someone else vulnerable to target to remind us of our position: at the top of the hierarchy that we do unspeakable things to enforce.
SS: Do you feel a social responsibility as an artist? What motivates your relationship to your own voice, as well as to your specific audience?
JRE: YES. But also as a now-middle-class person working bougie academic jobs, I have a responsibility to use my cultural power to make a fuss about injustice. I am super exhausted, but I have to work all the time to push back on this shit.
SS: What would you say to emerging writers and artists who are creating in this ableist, heteronormative society we exist within?
JRE: It’s not worth it to get sucked into the respectability politics of lit/art world. Don’t trust any institutions. Read a lot about how capitalism and colonialism ruin art and bring this up all the time; you’ll find out who you can be real with super fast.
SS: What are you reading lately?
JRE: Funny you should ask. I am finalizing reading for my second exam towards my doctorate in English composition and rhetoric. So I’m reading lots of cool scholars who think through language, the body, interlocking oppressions, and teaching: Jasbir Puar, Foucault, Anne Boyer, Carmen Kynard, Harriet A. Washington, Liz Bowen, Tory Dent, Brittney Cooper, Margaret Price. As I mentioned, I’m currently paid an annual fellowship to read and think and write, which is definitely the most low-stakes job I’ve ever had, so it’s important to me to use this incredibly privileged time to get smarter about how power works so I can tackle this stuff in the world!
You can buy Jesse Rice-Evans’ The Uninhabitable here.
Jesse Rice-Evans (she/her/hers) is a queer femme rhetorician and doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center researching intersections of language, disability, and digital culture. She is the author of several chapbooks; this is her first full-length collection. Find her at http://www.jessericeevans.com.