Artist of the Week Rachel Lapides ’23 on Poetry in the Mundane Moments

On a crisp Sunday morning, I was lucky enough to snag the big table at Hobbs right next to the window. Rachel Lapides ’23, the originator of our beloved Artist of the Week tradition, joined me soon after. We got drinks and bagels first so that we could simply chat about every person (and dog) that passed us as we ate. Last year, I was able to attend one of Rachel’s poetry readings, and ever since I’ve been itching to ask more about her creative process. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she said with certainty. “When I was a child, I learned how to write before I knew how to read. I would memorize letters and copy them out. I wouldn’t know what each individual letter meant, but I knew how to write people’s names.” 

This interest in the written word was anything but stifled at home. 

“Both of my parents are professors, which is a classic Swarthmore story,” Rachel explained. “My father was an English professor. And my mother teaches theater; they actually met at the college where they were teaching. So they were both hugely influential. I was raised in a very creative household.” 

With an English professor as a father, Rachel joked about the books she was assigned as a child, titles and authors that would quickly become some of her biggest inspirations. There was something so stripped down about our conversation, like Rachel was simply outlining her life philosophy to me. Her words mirrored her poetry.

One of my favorite poems that Rachel has written appeared in her Instagram story. The poem was about a date she had, one that was a little absurd, and then her friend’s reactions when she told them about it in a group chat. The situation was very routine, motions that I would similarly follow after an especially striking dream, but the wording was so peculiar. I suddenly wished that everyone told me things in such a way. 

I asked Rachel to explain this peculiarity to me. 

“I’m interested in using unusual words to capture something that I think is absolutely true to get at the essence of something, and sometimes an unusual word will better capture something than a usual word,” she said. “And I think that’s what poetry is really good at doing.” 

She added, “I’m interested in writing on mundane subjects. I think they capture what it is to be a person, which is that we spend most of our lives going about our day and doing mundane activities.” I gestured to our open laptops, and the school work from which we were taking a break. Swarthmore, too, is full of mundane activities.

For example, Rachel wrote a poem with a line about having acne. 

“I wrote a poem with the line, ‘When I’m picking my skin in the mirror, I mistake my eye for a blackhead and squeeze it out. It falls out of the sink onto the bathroom floor. Eureka! I see myself.’ So taking these events,” she said, “things that we don’t typically consider beautiful enough to be written about, and turning them into a form of celebration. I’m reclaiming the abject. The point for me is not to be grotesque but to be celebratory.” 

Rachel and I are taking a philosophy class together this semester called Philosophy and Speculative Fiction, and as she continued to talk about her writing interests, I felt the conversation dip into that philosophical space. 

“I’m interested in the field of semiotics, which suggests a relationship in the words we say and the abstract concepts which they represent, or try to represent. And I think poetry by virtue of not needing to conform to prescriptivist style allows us to bend the rules of grammar, of what counts as a word, to exactly capture as close as we can something that we’re thinking about.” 

I wondered, then, what does Rachel think about? What’s getting bent and made into new words? 

“I think of my poetry as a form of journaling,” Rachel said. “It’s often just exactly what I was thinking about in the moment, which I think is a form of being truthful, instead of arbitrarily manufacturing a narrative that didn’t come straight out of my head. Also,” she added, “A lot of poetry can be very serious. I’m interested in play.”

She continued, highlighting a connection to her mother. 

 “I’m very lucky that my mother is a theater professor, because she’s always emphasized the importance of being able to tell a story and to connect with an audience. I grew up in a very playful household, where we were essentially putting performances on all the time. A joke is a performance.” 

Not only was Rachel’s household a place for play, she also had just as much inspiration from her environment. 

“I love New York,” she said of her hometown. “I always want to live there. I think it was really good for me to grow up in New York because I was exposed to so many stimuli all the time. So many different kinds of people. But I also really appreciate being able to get around by myself and have autonomy.” In this way, it felt like Rachel had access to an unlimited array of possibilities throughout her life. I couldn’t tell if this was daunting to her or something she embraced. It may have been both. 

Rachel told me about another one of her poems, in which she goes on a date with ChatGPT. One of the lines, “I will never speak all I have” found itself in the middle of everything we discussed that morning. “I think that’s one of my greatest fears,” she explained, “that because we’re so limited by day to day, year by year, our lives have only so much we can do and so much we can see, and I want to do as much as possible, as many types of things as possible.”

I had to pause our interview a few times when Rachel’s friends walked in. I had severely underestimated the amount of traffic Hobbs would receive on a Sunday morning, but somehow these small breaks were perfect little bubbles of friendship. 

“I think the most important part of being alive is our interpersonal relationships,” she said. “And that really affects my writing. I think Swarthmore really values hard work. But sometimes we forget that the joy of being alive is in our conversations with other people.” I couldn’t help but immediately agree, thinking about how long it took us to actually press the record button on my voice memos. I like that Rachel’s poems would capture an ordinary moment and make it unusual. I had already lost track of time when we were talking before the official interview, as we bounced thoughts back and forth about everything from our class together to our thoughts on graduating. Looking back, I wonder how she would word these moments, and which ones she would pick apart and make new. I wanted Rachel to make poetry of our friendship, even the seemingly boring bits.

Rachel will be attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa this fall, where she will pursue an MFA in poetry. (Be sure to check out her very funny and poetic thoughts at her twitter, @rachellapides)    

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