Rachelle Toarmino begins the first poem in her newest chapbook, “the games / in your hello / end my word.” The poem is about Kristen Stewart, but you could also say that Stewart herself collaborated with Toarmino on the piece. Every word of the poem, and all the poems in “Feel Royal,” comes directly from celebrity fashion choices.
Toarmino collected countless photos of celebrities wearing clothing items featuring words and phrases to use for her chapbook “Feel Royal.” She edited and rearranged these found words to write poetry about the celebrities themselves, but she also found out much more in the process.
Toarmino has always been obsessed with celebrity culture, following celebrities online and scrolling through celebrity gossip for hours in high school. Toarmino started saving interesting photos of celebrities to her phone with no intention necessarily in mind. Then, she posted a rearrangement of words found on Rihanna’s shirts to make a poem. The post was so well received that Toarmino thought, “‘That was actually really fun, and I could do that for a lot more celebrities.’”
This began Toarmino’s year long commitment to collecting pictures of celebrities. Because the words come from their clothing, Toarmino likes to think that she’s collaborating with the celebrities themselves.
“It’s fun to say that I’ve collaborated with Chance the Rapper, or I’ve collaborated with Ariana Grande,” she said. “I can’t make up the words. They give me the raw material, and then I manipulate it into more ethereal sentences and lines and images, but I couldn’t do it without the words they already chose to wear. I do, in that way, see it as a kind of collaboration.”
While found poetry is typically used as a way to change the meaning of the original content or to reclaim the words, Toarmino’s work is meant more to convey the celebrity’s personality in a creative way.
In “Cardi B shows off her maternity fashion,” Toarmino writes, “drag your pink angles / up the runway and dance / find me in paradise / with the power I trap!!!” Knowing Cardi B, her way of empowering herself and speaking candidly with loud excitement comes across in both her clothing and the poem.
Toarmino went to extreme efforts to convey each celebrity’s unique personality. In addition to using their clothing, she also consulted their social media to mimic their writing style. She looked at whether they used all lower case, exceptional grammar, texting abbreviations or were completely random.
“I think style can be substance in that way,” she explained, “and the way that you choose to engage with texting lingo or abbreviations can also say something about your personality. I wanted some of that to come through.”
Combining fashion with the literary world of poetry opened up a new world of meaning for Toarmino. Celebrities have the opportunity to say something with their clothing choices because they know they’re most likely to be photographed. They can push back against ideas, enforce their own beliefs, subscribe to an ideology, or convey their personality. Toarmino recognizes that poetry can do these same things, and ultimately satisfy the natural desire to clarify who we are.
This being said, writing in this form was definitely a challenge for Toarmino. She describes her typically style of poetry as “maximalist,” where she tries to mimic the way people actually talk. She credits the work she does with her literary magazine, “Peach Mag,” for challenging her to explore more experimental poetry.
“My writing has invaluably improved because of the people I know and I’m able to surround myself with and interact with and call friends,” Toarmino said. “I’ve also been exposed to some really cool, new, fresh ways of writing, topics to write about, that have only come across my radar because people submit them to ‘Peach.’ I’m really indebted to a lot of my contributors too for teaching me about poetry and what it can be.” Toarmino will be reading from “Feel Royal” on Nov. 2 in Brooklyn for the blush launch party as part of their chapbook series. Also, on Nov. 6 she will read at the Castellani Art Museum in Niagara Falls to promote the book. Next year, her first full-length book of poetry will come out with Big Lucks, titled “That Ex,” which is about different stages of relationships, heartbreak and love, leaving and being left. Readers can expect more events and readings in Buffalo when it’s released. For now, copies of “Feel Royal” are available on blush-lit.com.