profiles in poetics: Arisa White

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Arisa White

Websites:

facebook.com/Arisapage

arisawhite.com

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.

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Photo: Photo by Samantha Florio

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profiles in poetics: Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni 2013Rosebud Ben-Oni

Websites:

RosebudBenOni.com

How much does language and cultural influence affect the unique visibility of core identity? You know, those surreptitious elements of ourselves we romance into the most endearing and particular parts of our self?  Poet Rosebud Ben-Oni’s first creative stimulus was musical; “electricities and soporifics … something between sleep and meditation.” This exonerates her personal mosaic. Ben-Oni explains, “I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own.” The explicative spread of perspective enumerates the weight of history and how this affects one’s own sense of self. The stipulative task, “[unpacks], all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth.”

Ben-Oni’s work SOLECISM out from Virtual Artists’ Collective provokes perspective-painted-supple-threaded strokes; ones she describes as, “that wiring, went awry since birth”. Ben-Oni accepts the displacing diversity of this music. It is how the complications and alternative experience of different languages occurs, stating, “the only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there.” The act of reclaiming one’s own language and perspective is necessary to how we connect and encounter others. There are historical elements whose visibilities alight important aspects of our identity.

This is how we communicate and accept otherness. She continues, “I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country [America] that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.” A particular emphasis in this interview is how, what is “quintessentially American,” is a fabricated false construction, which many times becomes authoritative and leaves diversity out. HER KIND addresses how some use these strains to overt power over others in questionable positions of authority. She says, it “has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices,” just as we listen to and honor Ben-Oni’s own respective story.

Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2010, her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize for Best Short Story in Camera Obscura: A  Journal of Contemporary Literature and Photography. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Bayou, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Lana Turner Journal and Puerto del Sol. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND (herkind.org) at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org

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1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?\

My first inspirations, I suppose, are a mosaic of electricities and soporifics inducing something between sleep and meditation. Hearing Max Janowski’s arrangement of Avinu Malkeinu for the first time. The chill of the synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur. Reclusive, unproven beings like Bigfoot and the Yeti. The decadence of poinsettia red, whiskey on my grandfather’s breath as he sealed a kiss on my forehead and each cheek, Naomi Campbell in George Michael’s “Freedom.” I had so much desire as a child. At the same time I had this distrust of desire and languages. I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own. I wanted to strip something bare one moment, and another I wanted to wrap the same thing in gossamer, make a secret, only to unwrap it again, slowly, hoping for some kind of metamorphosis. I turned to Edmond Jabes often; he was the first poet that inspired me to write. Every few years The Book of Questions changes for me. Its words weigh heavier now. I internalize further the frustrations, the skepticism, the faith in the blank page and the marks we make in word and action. And the weight of history that’s carried over in my faith and in my own experiences. My family also inspired me to write, although that was not the intention. My father is a riddle that unfolds into another riddle without an answer, and it takes some kind of woman to accept this My mother raised her brothers and sisters because her mother was ill; she didn’t have a childhood. I never gave much thought to their dynamic, my parents’ commitment to each other, when I was younger; coming from two different races and faiths, I only knew her family was from Mexico and his, mostly absent from our lives, was Jewish. I didn’t see until later that kind of love and history can be hard to explain to a child who they just want to look forward; only recently have I decided to reflect on the history we built together, and not together, as a family.

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

Norma Cantu, one of the founders of CantoMundo, is a mentor for me; she reached out to me at a time when I was filled with doubt. She reminds me listen to those little grey areas between waking and consciousness when the spirit level is alive. I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking, all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth; this was Norma Cantu’s advice to me at my first CantoMundo retreat this summer.

I like the work of a number of CantoMundo founders and poets including Eduardo C. Corral and Carolina Ebeid. Charles Simic, Gwendolyn Brooks and Orhan Pamuk were the poets I consumed in college; Pamuk’s “On Living” was a truth the instant I read it. Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest is incredible; it tells a story and moves beyond it at the same time, and her use of language is exciting. Metta Sama is both an inspiration and a guiding light. I really like Amy King’s work. Jared Harel is hilarious— I just discovered his work after reading with him here in New York. The Body Double is brilliant and I’m trying to read it as slow as possible because I don’t want it to end.

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

Yes. There’s more humor in the poems for my second collection. I think I’m also taking stronger ownership of biblical narratives, retranslating them into the narrative of being mixed, in the post-Benetton era. My first book SOLECISM already feels ages ago to me, and some of those poems were written in 2011 or 2012. It’s strange how a single year can bring so much insight; I got engaged this year, became a CantoMundo fellow, and did quite a bit of traveling with my fiancé Brian; we went to Hong Kong, China, Toronto and many places in the U.S. in less than a year’s time. I became part of his family. I spent one night in Hong Kong drinking sake with his mother and talking for hours; we both ended up tearful and happy and gripping each other’s hands. It was an electric night. It is an electric city. All of that makes me excited about the rest of my life. For the first 18 years of my life I had friends but felt very alone. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Only recently have I really opened up, and I’m so glad I met Brian and his family now, at a point in which I’d already tried to live in a place like Jerusalem and failed. That I’d addressed that failure myself, that it’s part of my identity to question things like, what is a Jew without practice?, to not have an answer, to present that to them candidly. These experiences affect my work. Sometimes these experiences are my work.

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

Absolutely. I’m working on my first full-length play after success writing one acts, and I return often to August: Osage County; I had the good fortune of seeing it on Broadway a few years back, and was devastated by what I’d witnessed, the complete disintegration of a family in three acts. I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction as well; I’m reading Ha Jin’s A Free Life at the moment. I’ve just finished Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It left me breathless. The North Korean defectors she interviews for the book all faced incredible obstacles, especially in trying to assimilate to South Korean culture. It’s important to tell these stories, so that they are remembered, that these things really did happen in the 21st century.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

In the near future, complete the final revisions on a novel I’ve been writing for the last five years. It centers on the migrations of a young woman of mixed heritage and a man from Fuzhou, China who meet in New York City just they are both at the end of their respective rope. I’m fascinated by family dynamics, how they shift in place, time and cultural norms, and the novel explores how two very different people live in constant motion, always on the move, even when they are still. I’m also writing a play about the influence of the drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexican border. In the next 2 years or so, I’m planning to move Hong Kong for a while, and travel around Asia as much as possible with my soon-to-be husband. We’d be there now if it was possible.

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

Tara Betts and Rachel McKibbens who are already off the charts; their performances will blow you away. I love the Belladonna Collective, which published both LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TwERK and R. Erica Doyle’s Proxy. LaTasha’s book is a treat if you love languages and all its possibilities. As for Erica’s book, I need a cigarette after I read Proxy. It’s another one I can’t put down. And watch out for Kamilah Aisha Moon; she’s absolutely brilliant.

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

Labels are tricky when you’re mixed and dip into different genres. I am many things, a Chicana/Latina/Hispanic, bisexual, Jewish skeptic poet who also writes plays, fiction and nonfiction. I adore my neighborhood here in New York, and all the neighborhood along the 7 Train. I do my best writing whether I’m home in Sunnyside, or in Woodside, Jackson Heights, Flushing. I guess then you could say I’m 7 Train Love. Does that work?

8.)    The opening poems of your book, Solecism, have shifting collocative values that displace cultural affects of worth and tradition. We read about “the jellyfish outlining beer bottles,” moving to “shells gather like cemetery flowers,” and “the ashes / fed to our mothers in molasses”. The enchanting myth entangles us with mermaids “accessible as the savage / wants some howling / girl against a narcotic wire.”  This archetype is addressed further as it juxtaposes the poem, “The Mixed Child with Pale Skin”. Here we read, “always too sexy–off–the–shoulder / even in suits— your mentor interrupts: // writing this makes you rather juvenile. She tells you race / is no longer taboo.” The self-beliefs placed upon her here are invisible as the weight they assume in language. Why is it so important for her to write and in what ways do you see her addressing these archetypes? Is she successful?

I don’t think she’s worried about being successful; her mixed heritage, that wiring, went awry since birth. The composite of her experiences is unruly. She tries for understanding, but knows that she has to tell her narratives in the most real way, and each time as they occur (red) and exist within her. The only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there. This is a lot of frustration in those poems, at the different hierarchies of literature, social class, even love; this is both a response to and an exorcism of those places that aren’t as static as they seem. In SOLECISM, she is just beginning to see that.

9.)    The term Sal Si Puedes translates to leave if you can and is often ascribed to colonias and other neighborhoods found in the US and other parts of Latin America. We converse with this neighborhood. In, “Over the river from Sal S. Puedes,” we unwind musical lines, “swarms of mosquitos and matted beds / of water,” between “hyacinth and hydrilla.” And then fiercely, “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” who is fierce; “I’m not a foreshadow of the divine. / Quit photographing my children … I am not in your worldly terms. // Your first word was remembered. / I was born a muerto. / You— / Have yet to let me finish a sentence.” There is a tendency to romanticize tradition in a manner that assumes an othering gaze. Feminism breaks open the argument and allows the othered to have voice. Alternatively, ascribing the word “Feminism,” also boxes in the opening of this cross-cultural communication because it is largely misunderstood. Do you think that this is changing? Why or why not is it significant to attribute Feminism to this change? Do you see the world globally listening to more of her sentence?

When I wrote these poems, I was thinking of my own experiences as much as those of my mother and her sisters, as they related them to me. In college I remember a professor telling me that writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Americo Paredes were “supplemental” and not necessary to understand the Western Canon, much less American Literature. That they were “regional” writers and wrote in specific dialects that did not accurately reflect the American experience at all. I also remember this same professor saying he had “read books about Mexico” and then citing D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano. He could not see the problem with that thinking. I wrote those poems in response to that thinking, and certain things I had seen happen to the women in my mother’s family, things that I escaped perhaps because I was different. You know, my mother and sisters would not call themselves “Feminists;” my mother always brought up the point that Mexican-American women were largely left out of the Feminist Movement in the 1970s. I think now there’s more awareness when one invalidates another’s experience as not “quintessentially American.” I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.

10.)    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. How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital? What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?

Working with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts really opened up my eyes to gender disparity in publishing, especially for women of color. I’ve gained invaluable experience working with VIDA, and I realize now that my experiences with gender and race date back to when I was in college at NYU. I remember taking a Literature of India class back in 2000, and my professor, an American woman, opening the class with Orwell, Kipling and Forster. She couldn’t understand why a particular classmate of mine, who was Indian-American and female, was outraged that the class began from a colonialist perspective. Where was, for instance, the Urdu poetry? The professor replied that the student was “cherry-picking.” They argued all semester. During our last class, the professor had the “final word” stating that she believed she was right, that she had no regrets about the way she had taught the class. My classmate raised her hand, but we were out of time. I remember the tension walking out of the room, of seeing this young woman fuming in the elevator next to me, of being silenced. That left quite an impression of me. Women silencing other women. The questionable use of authority. I wished I had said something, but I was young in many ways. Now, as much as I concrete on my own work, I want to create numerous spaces for honest conversation and as fairly as possible—VIDA (and Cate Marvin particularly) gave Arisa White and I the space to do this as editors. It has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices.