"Terrifying and wonderful and magical and just, overwhelming"... The Poetry Cove's Shen Friebe sat down with emerging poet and YouTube sensation Rachel Oates to discuss her performance at this year's Glastonbury Festival, as well as her own journey through life and poetry.
Courtesy of Rachel Oates.
If you have a penchant for jumping on YouTube and binge-watching comprehensive book reviews or critiques on Bible-thumpers on a chill Sunday afternoon, then there is no doubt Rachel Oates has appeared in your Recommended feed at least once. I sat down with the multi-talented content creator, eclectic artist, dog-mum and now poet to discuss all things life, poetry and self-discovery for the latest edition of The Poetry Cove magazine.
A disclaimer: this interview features discussions regarding domestic abuse and the violation of abortion rights.
2: Performing at the Glastonbury Festival
S: Welcome, Rachel, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us at the Cove. I guess my first question is, what got you started on YouTube? Did you just wake up suddenly one day and had an idea for a video, or was it something you had been thinking about for quite a while?
R: It’s a little bit embarrassing. I wanted to get better with makeup and I was really, really bad at makeup. So I was like, you know what, I am going to record my progress doing my makeup and watch it back and kind of analyse it and be like, 'oh, what did I do here? What can I do better?' So I started making makeup videos. I was kind of doing them for myself and to be like, 'oh, these are the mistakes to avoid', and things like that. Then as I was making them for myself, some people started watching and I started talking about other stuff whilst I was doing my makeup, like the first big thing that I spoke about was a local election, and people started watching. I was like, 'oh maybe people do actually care about what I have to say...' .
I had a blog at the time where I spoke [mostly] because I worked in digital marketing back then, so I posted a lot of business-related stuff and photography-related stuff, and kind of like, opinions about things. So I basically shifted what I was writing about in my blog to doing it in videos whilst doing my makeup. People started watching and after a while I dropped the makeup and just started talking, and it went from there.
Rachel and her staffie, Kyra: Courtesy of Rachel Oates.
S: You performed some of your own poetry at Glastonbury. So, how did that all go? I bet it was a bit nerve-wracking, but exciting?
R: It was terrifying and wonderful and magical and just, overwhelming. So I performed two different sets. So I was part of a collective called Heard Collective, which is all about supporting and promoting women in music, so not just on the performing side but also on the producing side, promotion, and basically everyone who's overlooked in music. It's about giving them a voice, and they've recorded [a single] in the past at Abbey Road, and they used all-female musicians, all-female sound engineers- everything. It was brilliant. I performed as part of this all-women collective and the poem I performed was called 'Room' and it's basically about my choice to remain child-free and all the stigma around that, and all the issues that I’ve kind of faced.
But on a wider scale it's about reproductive fights for women and people with uteruses and how we’re often stifled, especially by men making laws about us without having a say. Yeah, I think it came completely at the right time because that is a poem I had been working on for months now- like probably 6-7 months- and it's been written/re-written so many times and I finally got it to a point where I was like, 'yes- this is ready to perform, I’m proud of this, I like this'. The day I performed it was the day before Roe v. Wade was overturned in America and I performed it at midnight on Toad Hall stage. Then just a couple hours later [Roe v. Wade overturned] was announced and everyone was so emotional. But it felt like it was the right time to speak up about that stuff and I feel like people kind of appreciated it a bit more and it was magical.
I had women coming up to me afterwards saying, 'oh, I'm so happy you said that, oh, I loved that, it's so important'. It was incredible. Again, I had a bit of a cry afterwards. So we headlined Toad Hall stage, which is just a tiny one but there were a few hundred people in that room, and it was absolutely packed and I came off stage afterwards and I just sat down and I just had a cry and I was like, 'I can't believe I did that!' It was a dream come true.
S: That's probably the best outcome you can get out of something like that, and have people come up to you and tell you how moved they were by something that you'd taken so long to write and read. That's incredible!
R: I was terrified as well because I got up on that stage, looked around: just men, everywhere. So many men. And I was like, 'God, do you know how scary it is to get up and talk about your uterus to a room full of like, 200 cis men?' But they were really, really lovely and really supportive. And they were attentive listeners, and they were really nice afterwards, and it was just wonderful.
S: Couldn't ask for anything more, that's awesome. So, now that you have been writing poetry for quite some time, how would you describe your style? Are there any poetic devices you find yourself gravitating towards, or anything unique or original about your poetry?
R: I think I'm definitely still finding my voice. I'm still figuring that out. I kind of go through stages. At the minute I'm still playing around with experimental forms and stuff, and I'm playing around with one about reproductive rights and abortion again, actually, a theme at the minute. But where it’s almost like a 'choose your own adventure' but in poetry. So the poem branches out and you can go down different routes and read it in different ways, so it's a really weird experimental structure. So I'm playing around with different things like that at the minute and just trying to have a bit of fun.
But when it comes to my usual writing, you know, more traditional forms and stuff, I'm a big, big fan of an extended metaphor. I absolutely love it. 'Room' is a good example of that. Basically, I use the metaphor of it being like a spare room in my house, and everyone wants to control it, but really it's talking about my uterus. You know? So big, big fan of that. I've got another one that I called 'Misery Symphony' that’s about... basically, I dated a musician who didn't treat me very well. But he used a lot of what I'd been through in the past as inspiration for his songs! And I was like, 'hmm, I don't know how I feel about that.' So I was like, well, if he can use me for songs, I can use him for a poem. The whole poem is full of metaphors of him basically ripping apart my body parts to make musical instruments out of them and create an orchestra on stage. It sounds disgusting. It's very, very graphic. It's quite emotional. But, extended metaphors… I'm a big, big fan.
Courtesy of Rachel Oates.
S: Yeah, likewise, I can say the same. It’s interesting that someone else is telling your narrative. There’s something quite disturbing about that, especially if it's been someone who's been so harmful. Unfortunately, it is something we can empathise with. But hopefully you're dealing with that in a healthy way… it can be pretty tough.
R: It’s hard. I am finding that poetry is helping me with a hell of a lot of stuff. I think it’s kind of common knowledge at this point that I was in a really abusive relationship. It wasn’t good and it really messed me up and I had major trust issues afterwards, and he hurt me physically and emotionally and in every way possible. I found writing about that afterwards really helped me process what I went through, and they are poems that I'll probably never show anyone else. They were just for me. And then some of them have become poems that I'm more happy sharing but on the whole, most of them are just for me but they helped me process what I went through. It helped me try to understand his side a little bit better and what he must have been thinking. Because you know, it's easy for us to sit here and think, 'how can a man kick his girlfriend? Why would he do that?' and we don't necessarily understand it. But I wanted to understand it. I wanted to try and get where he was coming from even if I didn't agree with it. So writing I guess helped me process that a little bit, and helped me come to terms with it. You know, that and a lot of therapy.
S: Sorry to hear about that, but yeah, it can be therapeutic. Without going into it too much, I was in a very similar situation to yourself, so that video came out at the right time. There is a particular kind of- especially when it comes to narcissism- a very set personality type and unfortunately, when you encounter one you can see it, and when it comes to other partners. So yeah, it is a heavy subject to talk about. You’ve come quite far!
R: I’m sorry you went through that.
S: It’s something a lot of women have to deal with, and men as well.
R: It’s so much more common than you think! Because now I've been speaking about it publicly, the amount of people who have come to me and people who I'd never expect, and people that I know have been like, 'yeah I was in the same situation, I went through that.' Or, 'that situation you described happened to me.' Even one of my abuser’s exes came to me and said, 'I had the exact same experience. He did that to me'. The same patterns repeating, and whether you're hearing it about the same person or a different person, it’s terrifying, but also as survivors you kind of feel a sense of solidarity and community like you’ve all got each other’s back. Which is really, really comforting and I needed that so much.
S: Absolutely! It’s the irony of feeling alone, but going through that together. It is healing when you eventually start to feel that. So would you have any advice for anyone- veteran poets and new poets- about getting their artwork out into the world?
R: That’s tough, isn't it? I know it sounds silly, but I was having this conversation yesterday with a friend who's a musician, and we were talking about the difference between creating art for art's sake and creating art for business and how there's very different approaches you need to take. I think it's absolutely fine to write for yourself, create art for yourself, create poetry for yourself: all that sort of stuff is absolutely fine. You don't necessarily need to create with an audience in mind, you don't necessarily need to write thinking 'I'm gonna sell this. I'm gonna promote this. I'm gonna do whatever'- you don't need to write with that mindset. But I do think once you've decided 'I want to share this with the world', you do need a little shift in perspective. You do need to be a little more business-minded and take some basic marketing courses, learn the basics of digital marketing, and don't be afraid to distance yourself from your poetry a bit. Because you know, when you first start putting it out there, you're going to get rejections. You’re going to get a lot of rejections.
Watch Rachel's extensive review of Lana Del Rey's 'Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass' here.
This is gonna sound really, really silly- when I first started submitting my poetry to journals and magazines I was like, 'I know I'm gonna get a lot of rejections, so I'm gonna get myself used to it and get it out of the way straight away'. So I submitted to the biggest and best journal in the UK, and I was like, 'I know this is gonna be a no but I need to hear that and I need to get used to it'. And I was like, 'actually, this is fine, I can cope with this.' Now I'm starting to submit to smaller journals so I've got a little spreadsheet that says when submissions are open and when I can do that and which ones are gonna go where… like all these rules and things. There’s so much you’ve got to figure out like that because some journals and magazines don't want you to submit poems that you've submitted elsewhere, and at the same time, some only want [content] that hasn't been published anywhere else including blogs and Instagram, so you need to be aware of that. Some are okay with that. Some only want text-only poems. Some are looking for poems and illustrations or you know, videos of poetry and stuff like that. So basically, do your research, figure it all out, get organised, and don't be afraid of rejection.
S: That’s solid advice! Couldn't have said it better myself. You’ve got a very important voice. You're very loved and we're loving what you're doing, just… power to you!
R: Well, thank you so much!
A Poem by Rachel Oates:
Broken girls are not romantic:
I am not smudged eyeliner and backcombed hair
I am not a solitary tear on a rainy day,
I am not a glorious hurricane,
I am the destruction left behind by the storm,
unable to repair myself.
I do not smoke a cigarette in the night and sigh,
I slam my head against the wall
Until the neighbours call the police
And I run barefoot into the streets
wild but not free.
I am not a wanderer or a free spirit,
I am lost:
I know my way through these alien roads
But not how to navigate my own mind.
None of this feels like my own;
I have had my mind and body thrust upon me by foreign hands
And I can’t settle in these too small metal, mental walls
Pressure rising, skull caving in,
So I slam and slam and slam
Hoping to crack the shell to let the burning inside out
As it bubbles and boils and scars.
Ice seeps into my soles and I shake.
I am not a beautiful project to be completed,
I am unstable, unsolvable, unlovable, lost
By Rachel Oates:
I collect men like matches.
Holding each a little too long;
failing to catch fleeting sparks.
Like the night we danced in
the crowded roost, with all eyes on you
and yours on me, that lit the match. And now,
I gift you my heart in a timepiece,
loosely wrapped in floral fabrics
and give you all away to the wind
and the waves, to sail through
cerulean seas and magenta dreams,
while I sit with burnt fingertips
and cling to another broken,
burnt out match.
Read more of Rachel's poetry in the latest edition of the Poetry Cove magazine.
Watch our full interview with Rachel: