profiles in poetics: Arisa White


Arisa White


Seeing is an act of love. Arisa White is a writer of empathic impulse seeking to break down destructive cultural perceptions and personal conduits as they take place in speech and language. She views women writing to be “more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.” In a similar manner, White establishes her own, “emotional rhythmic-textures” in style and content. The outcome enables her to simulateously traverse trauma and empowerment. This shared love and loss permits the extremity and mutual narratives of our private and public spheres.

In this interview we focus on White’s latest book out from Willow Books, A Penny Saved, motivated by one of the worst documented cases of domestic violence in the United States. Her inspiration becomes a vehicle of wonder, “about [Penny’s] daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love.” She states: “It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing.” The story allows her to unwind notions of intimate violence and how this affects personal and civil liberties.

When we take responsibility for our common fear, nostalgia, desire, failure, and triumph, we are able to witness movement; change, and accessibility to difficult tangibles of historically shattered and abrasive actions. She intimates, “I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.” This dialogue manifests the transformative power of personal healing. Self-compassion, “is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity.” This means actively seeking the courage to be vulnerable and speak to the vertigo and calm experienced in both balance and imbalance. We awknowledge the rips and thread back together bits and pieces of our world. If left unaddressed, according to White, writing “[misses] out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.” Active witness has the power to heal a world; much smaller and larger than ourselves.

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon (which is being made into an opera), as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and the editorial manager for Dance Studio Life magazine, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her partner.


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1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton—“go anywhere, be anything.” That’s the perfect invitation for this restless spirit of mine. For this body that has been told it cannot do or it will have to concede in order to justly be—the written word offered an escape, so the writer must be Harriet Tubman.

I was a 4th grader—I recently transferred from another public school in Brooklyn—and I decided to run for school president. Another girl from my class ran too, and for her election-day speech, she beautifully rapped it, in front of the entire school, K-6, faculty too. And of course she won—who wouldn’t vote for her after such a grand performance! (It also worked in her favor that she attended the school since kindergarten and everyone thought she was so dope.)

My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Williams, had us write stories every week, using words from our Vocabulary List. Plus, this large cardboard fabricated treasure chest, filled with treats and goodies, which she gave to those that read the most books each week. I was sure to be the one with the most golden stars.

For a borough-wide contest, I wrote an essay for my brother, who was in 5th grade at the time, so I was in 8th, about diversity. I used a garden metaphor, and my brother won! (I also wrote a similar essay for my grade, and didn’t make the cut.)

Spending summers as a young kid bored out of my mind, curled up on the couch reading whatever was on my mother’s book shelf: Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillian, Agatha Christie, Ishmael Reed, Iyanla Vanzant, Gloria Naylor . . . and my brother’s comic books, which I wasn’t supposed to be touching. I liked X-Men the most.

2.) Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Including the writers mentioned above, there is, in no particular order, Nikki Giovanni, Saul Williams, Hart Crane, Jessica Care Moore, Audre Lorde, Toi Dericotte, Pema Chodron, Rebecca Seiferle, Tyehimba Jess, Terrance Hayes, Dara Wier, Harryette Mullen, bell hooks, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, angle Kyodo williams, Alice Walker, Nikky Finney, Reginald Shephard, Adrienne Rich, Bob Kaufman, Medbh McGuckian and the list continues to expand, in all sorts of ways, over time. I keep meeting writers who point me in the direction of other writers and I keep looking and reading and being willing to encounter what I did not know before.

3.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Nila Grutman, India DuBois, Tracie Morris, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Regina Arnold, angel Kyodo williams, Dara Wier, Rebecca Seiferle, Nikky Finney. Dear friends: Darrell, Sulay, Geimy, Serena, Matthew, Alicia, Rosebud, Soma. My family. My fiancée is quite a muse! She reminds me to pay attention, and sometimes that isn’t so easy, but always rewarding. All these folks have offered me ways of seeing and distinct ways to language it.

4.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

Nikky Finney once asked me, after reading my graduate thesis project: “What is Arisa’s natural swimming style?” To find out, I had to accept that I wasn’t really swimming. When I got in the water, I panicked, let fear instruct, and did whatever strokes that would get me to safety. Over the years, I have learned to pay attention to what I do, why I do it, and learn to accept more of my natural impulses when I write. I’ve embraced more of the rhythms of my voice and the quirks of my imagination and given myself more permission to be, let go, and let down the censors. I think each time I’ve pushed through or knocked down a wall within myself, a new pathway for speech was formed, and I considered new ways to approach it (and define and reimagine what it is) and with that came the confidence to write and say it.

5.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Fiction, for its use of narrative and plot—I like story. I think about how to take the time to evolve the telling.

Short-form playwriting has made me consider how the poem occupies space. Or how can the poem occupy the reader—how does it emotionally shape inside her? Thinking in this way, I try to create emotional-rhythmic textures that make the body/reader consider one’s presence, place, and time.

6.) What are your plans for the future?

Currently, I’ve adapted my chapbook, Post Pardon, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011, into a libretto. NYC-based composer Jessica Jones is developing the score. All of this with a cultural funding grant from the City of Oakland; and in July 2014, for two nights, we will have a concert of songs. Although having to do a little fundraising for this event is daunting, I’m excited to be doing this. Jones and I have never done opera before, and she’s a great collaborator to make discoveries with.

This fall I was awarded an Investing in Artist grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to write a collection of poems inspired by my estrangement from my father who currently resides in Guyana. I’m taking what tidbits of story that was shared with me over the years about him and making my own mythologies. It is my way to make sense of his absence; to construct a grand story of why he’s not here that’s rooted in histories of Venezuelan slavery, Guyanese police culture, and U.S. immigration and extraterrestrials.

With this grant, I will invite the public to participate. This is the first time I’ve ever thought to do something like this—to incorporate other voices in my writing process. But there was something about this project that made me wonder, how have others made sense of their fatherlessness? If given the chance, as I was, to write your father, what would you say? How would you say it? Midway through this project, I will send out a call for submissions for letters addressed to estranged fathers. I will select 33 letters, and mail each a copy of the poetry collection. Using the letters, I will do an epistolary mash-up for a later manuscript.

7.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m speaking in a general sense, with no specifics in mind, the writing is what it is. I don’t have much of an opinion about what has occurred or hasn’t occurred. I can say, the writing is more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.

8.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Rosebud Ben Oni, R. Erica Doyle, Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Natalie Baszile, Roxanne Gay, Kiki Petronio, Kamila Aisha Moon, Remica L. Bingham, Emily Pettit, Emily Kendal Frey, LaTasha Natasha Diggs, Lauren Allende, Camille Dungy, Karen Rigby, Sharon Suzuki-Martinez, Cassandra Dallet, Minal Hajratwala, Katherine Hastings, francine j. harris, Metta Sáma, and so many, many more.

9.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Lyrical writer.

10.) We begin A Penny Saved out from Willow Books with a quote from David Richo: “When God is seen as a rescuer or parent in the sky, we may depend on him for protection and lose our faith if he does not come through. When we give up the childhood version of life, we stand on our own surrounded by others but not necessarily defended by them against life’s disturbing threats. With no “parent” on the lookout, we notice that we sometimes have to bear more than we can handle, and we may fold under the pressure. This too requires a yes. Our purpose in life is not to remain upright at all time but to collapse with grace when that is what has to happen. The fact of impermanence gives us the hope that we will rise again.”

Can you please describe your motivation for writing a book inspired by Polly Mitchell’s story? She was held captive for 10 years in her house by her husband David with whom she had a family of four children with. Her story is documented as one of the worst cases of domestic in the history of the United States. Many of these stories remain undocumented. Many of these women do not survive. We hear stories from Penny herself, her daughter’s emotional bereavement, and later in the story from her husband himself. Here, as you say in the title of a poem, “Questions are rabbits”: … one leads to many more”. Everyone wants to know why she stayed. On her Larry King interview she says she stayed because she loved him. The layers of emotional complexity I know here are in a way unanswerable, so as a poet, how and why did you choose to illume this particular story? How do you see this conversation interacting with other cultures?

Mitchell’s story is one that is extreme and because it is extreme, we pay attention to it. My attention was captured and with that came the questions, the wondering about her daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love. It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing. How to live with those contradictions? Having grown up with a mother who was in abusive relationships, Mitchell’s story was another way to investigate intimate violence. To create a persona that must find ways to survive in these extreme circumstances. Even though, as a culture, we may act as if our lives are OK, we are living intimately with violence—the constant erasures of our and others civil liberties, the distractions of race and class and all those isms that force use to view ourselves and others as separate, we learn each day how to be in radical denial of what’s going on around us and the failure to accept, is violent. What is going on in our homes, in the personal, in the private—does it match up with the face we wear in the world? So I wonder, what has patriarchy taught us, showed us how to be, and how are we showing up for others and ourselves in this? And I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.

11.) A good portion of the poems are dedicated to the exchanges that we have with Lizzybeth, the daughter and Penny concerning her imaginary friend Jewelie. In the poem, “Jewelie can’t be her friend anymore” we listen to Lizzybeth, “[Jewelie] was doing it all night. She had sweat on her. She put it in my nose too. Then she put dead bodies in there like I was a grave.” How did these stories develop and why are they most focused on the make-believe world created by the daughter?

I can’t really say how the stories developed—most of them just came to me and during the first draft. I was on retreat at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island, and having a lot of uninterrupted time in nature to daydream, trained my brain to see things differently. . . . I knew I was working with a persona who was using her imaginary friend as an interlocutor. This enables Lizzybeth to gain authority over her voice, to feel empowered to speak and speak out against the violence she is witnessed to in her home, as well as do some creative problem solving about how to deal with the things she hears and sees. How to make sense of her father’s aggression and her mother’s perceived passivity.

12.)   One of the most the most simultaneously chilling and evocative moments emits from the narrative of David. He says, “I ashed you. Your scalp birthed red dots – I smelled the hair I ripped. You removed from the force of constellations, obeyed the temperaments of my bursts – I loved you for that.” In this space we view the body and negotiation of intimate and universal pain and violence. At once we are placed in a binary of trauma and compassion; ambiguity and the specific. The goal of this piece is not necessarily redemption, but rather the fracture of the wound and the power of survival. What do you believe is the message of this book?

We need to make personal transformation. Take time to heal our personal wounds, those deep, dark, shadowy parts of who we are—embrace them. Be a compassionate witness to yourself and love you in the ways you need to be loved—that is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity. Be vulnerable. Lets stop resting in our comforts, thinking we are a-OK, because our failure to look critically at our selves, is the reason we have so much violence going on around us.

13.)   Have you tried to connect with Polly, and what does she feel about her story?

No, I haven’t. I have taken her story as inspiration to create A Penny Saved, which is by no means Polly Mitchell’s story. Only Polly knows and can write her story.

14.)   How does sharing her story affect you as a writer?

My debut book, Hurrah’s Nest, was a collection of memories in verse. It was important for me to share my story first, so that I could write about other people. That appeals to my sense of fairness. So, when I am sharing, I’m sharing an expanded part of myself. A broader I/eye. I feel like my voice houses a chorus, echoes, and bottled notes.

15.)   I would also like you to take some time to describe how your work and how you identify yourselves in the world affects the work that you do for VIDA.

I’m trying to be a better citizen with my work (as poet, editor, teacher), a part of something larger than myself. It’s a way to balance all that time I spend alone, writing away. When a manuscript is completed, I really think I’ve done something for the greater good. (It’s the Aquarian in me—which is why I get offended when I’m told that what I do is nothing, a waste of time, or stupid.) As a black, queer woman to speak often feels like “I’m chewing on rocks”—and to push up against all those master narratives requires a fluid language, and finding your own way, that validates your multiple selves. We are all on those individual journeys, so it’s good to share field notes, the experiences life has offered so far. VIDA is this opportunity to create a community that supports women who are developing a public writing voice, finding their style, alongside those who have one, and to put into praxis that all women’s words are heard and welcomed.

16.)   How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital?

Critical look at the conditions, systems, and beliefs that make the community lacking. Honest assessment of whether or not more women voices is wanted and why. . . . Changes in technology is changing the way we make, identify, and name community, women will create the communities they need to sustain them . . . There will be some dedicated activity involved. A commitment to go the miles, to seek, search out, to go beyond what is known and convenient, comfortable. Look, find, discover, and be active in, across, and between communities: give workshops, forge collaborations, and honor what is important to the voices you want to attract. (More verbs to be used, I guess.) But all that activity is going to remind the literary community that it’s a living body, with living consequences, and when it’s not functioning from the whole, it’s missing out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.

17.)   What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?

To slow down so we’re not so reactive, take the time to recognize your privileges and how you benefit from them and are limited by them each day. Identify your powers and decide how you will use them. And there is no half-stepping. You need to commit. You need to see how your behaviors may not align with your missions, visions, goals, objectives, beliefs, thoughts. Do you take responsibility for your words? Know how corruptible you are and what silences are deadening up your truth.


Photo: Photo by Samantha Florio

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