Janelle Bonifacio interviews Arisa White

Arisa White is the author of two collection of poems, Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved, and two poetry chapbooks, Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon. An alumnae of both Sarah Lawrence College and University of Massachusetts, Arisa is also a member of the PlayGround writers’ pool at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, an advisory board member for Flying Object (a nonprofit art and publishing organization), and a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Goddard College. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was a finalist for the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards and 82nd California Book Awards, and a nominee for the 44th NAACP Image awards. She adapted her chapbook Post Pardon into an opera in 2013. She hails from New York but currently resides in Oakland, CA with her partner.

JB: Firstly, let me thank you so very much for accepting my request for an interview. I could not be happier to speak further about your writing, and I really hope none of these questions are too personal. I appreciate your time and look forward to reading your answers.

Tell me a little about your first poetry compilation, Hurrah’s Nest. What inspired you to write it? What inspirations have you drawn on for your other poems and poetry collections?

AW: Hurrah’s Nest sort of arrived. Meaning, after several years of writing, as an undergrad, a Cave Canem fellow, and graduate student, I assembled the poems that were the strongest, that set something off in me, and saw that I was mostly writing about my family, our trial and tribulations, and the collection formed itself.

I was trying to move myself through those difficult childhood/adolescent experiences and the poems were a means to make something that felt stuck in me (memory/trauma) into something fluid, to be learned from, to be a source of both and beauty and intelligence.

The personal influences me because as individuals, we are sites for what is political and we speak to the larger issues that are to be reconcile as a collective. My second collection, A Penny Saved, was inspired by the true-life story of Polly Mitchell, who was held captive in her Nebraskan home for 10 years. Having dealt with domestic violence in my own childhood, this collection was a way for me to explore DV from the points of view of the mother, father, children, and the house where it all happened. I grew in my craft, and as a person, learning that judgment isn’t a creative space.

JB: The poems in Hurrah’s Nest reflect a deep connection to very rich and complex family dynamic. How autobiographical is Hurrah’s Nest? Was it difficult to relive some intense and complicated memories to write your poems?

AW: I would say it is autobiomythographical. Very much rooted in my personal experiences and also rooted in my imagination—when dealing with traumatic moments, bringing in the creative allows for a new story, a new way of standing in the world and relating to myself and others.

JB: Hurrah’s Nest is a very personal collection of poems that has been studied in schools (mine, obviously). Was there a message or goal for writing something so close to your heart? Did you achieve this goal?

AW: I didn’t have a message or goal in mind. I wanted to put together the best collection of poems I could put together at that time—showcase my best work. Stepping back, I’m able to say that there is no shame in the life you’ve lived, in things you’ve done or in the things that have been done to you. The light comes into those crack and broken places, the shell comes off, a new you emerges. Something can be made from what you are given, it teaches you how to be resourceful, how to create in the world what you need to sustain and thrive.

JB: Growing up in such a large family and in such a concentrated city, how much did this influence your style of writing? How have your relationships changed since you moved to the Bay Area; a place so very different? Did your family support your decision to become a poet? Have any of your past poems resonated with you even deeper now that your life is so radically different?

AW: The city is in my prosody. It’s layered sounds, its pacing, its pull, the many languages that you hear. I feel more like a verb than a noun, having grown up in Brooklyn. Coming to the Bay, I’ve slowed down, incorporated the stillness into my writing, meditation, and a cosmological awareness that expands the I/eye. As a result, coupled with getting older, I’m integrating more of my experiences, recognizing my responsibility, and my poems—especially during the revision process—feels fuller.

My mother supported me in being a poet and supported me in having a livelihood, a way of taking care of myself. She’s a Capricorn, practical and realistic, so she has been the ground for my idealism. I dream and then think about the practicalities of making that dream come true. I’m grateful that she was insistent in teaching me how to think this way.

My life doesn’t feel radically different—yes, circumstances have changed—I still feel I am with myself, my many selves. I’m learning more deeply who I am, those many selves, and as a result understanding more fully who and what I’ve encountered. The opening poem to A Penny Saved, “Will Know Nothing,” I find myself calling up at those moments, when I’m recollecting on some past event, and because time has been a teacher, my thinking is less dualistic, I relish in the wisdom of what it means for the “roof to know the ground.” That things will not turn out to be how we think they will be, that walls will come tumbling down, that what your parents told you, what society said about you, is not your truth, and you are as creative as you are destructive. There is a peace in that, and in that peace, I’ve learned to use my energy more wisely, direct it in ways that are within my control, and break out of and through some damning thoughts.

JB: Tell me a little more about your opera Post Pardon. What inspired you to branch out into such a different genre? As opera is seen as a much more “high brow” art form, what fears or difficulties did you encounter when entering into the genre? Why did you choose an opera rather than, say, another collection of poems or even a musical?

AW: The Opera is an adaptation of a collection of poems, of the same name, inspired by the murder-suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani and her two-year-old son Jehan. I met Vazirani and her son, while on a Cave Canem retreat, a few weeks prior to their reported deaths in the Washington Post. I was taken by it, as many were, and to make sense of it, I wrote poems. But I wanted something more; I really wanted the poems to keen, to sing the grief of the matter, and opera felt like a perfect medium for this tragedy.

Opera is written in verse, and keeping that in mind, I could venture into it. It became less intimidating. But there were moments of doubt and wondering, What the hell am I doing? Am I doing this right? Similar to when I’m writing a new poem, revising it, there is still that voice that wonders, WTF? I have more years of practice with poetry to quiet the naysayers, more evidence to present to my Doubting Debbie that I can do it. When I get in those moments, I ask myself what I need to feel secure in taking this risk. The answers that came were: read more librettos, study the form, especially of operas written by poets and adaptations, learn some musical theory, and take a lyric writing class.

I wanted to honor this desire to write an opera—I had a dream of writing one for several years and so wanted to do it. As an undergrad I wrote a musical for a final project in a film theory class. It was called Hot Skillet, and to this day it remains lost somewhere, out there, only read by two other people, my professor and a dear poet friend. But that was the stepping-stone to Post Pardon—I knew that I was capable of creating something that felt out of my reach, not allowed to me. The roots of opera reminds us that it is a dramatic art for the people, the common folk, so these ways we want to label creativity is a corruption, is a way of shutting us down, and replacing our intuitive drive to create, to bring beauty into this world, with insecurity.

JB: Your upcoming self-published dear Gerald collection is one that stirs up some very complex and intense emotions for you. I know it spawned from meeting your own father in Guyana for the first time. Why have you decided to send a call for letters to others with estranged fathers? As it was cathartic for yourself, how do you feel this project will affect those that send letters of their own? Have you chosen to self-publish this collection as it is something so personal for you?

AW: dear Gerald came about when my mother asked me if I wanted to write a letter to my father in Guyana. We’ve been estranged for 32 years, and I didn’t know what to write, what to say in just one letter. dear Gerald is a collection of epistolary poems, talking about my decades of life without him, how I made sense of his absence, how I felt it. The call for letters came about as a result of folks letting me know that they had similar stories, and it all seemed too predictable, stereotypical—the missing/absent/distant father. I wanted to know how others were dealing with it, processing it; I wondered how their lives were shaped by the father who was not there. And then it dawned on me, is this what patriarchy does? Is this what sets us up to be susceptible to religious teachings? To the way we are governed? Waiting to be rescued by some heroic, mythical, masculine force? As we wait, we give up our own agency, we become victim to the brainwashing of gender constructions, social orders, perpetuate a violence that leaves us divided and distant from each other, making it so much easier to deny the humanity of another’s presence. What is it that the distant/absent patriarchal figure is teaching us?

Those who have written letters have expressed how good it felt to get their feelings off their chest. And in writing such a letter, they are reflecting, becoming conscious to what resides, hurting, inside them. I believe now they can act from a more awakened place.

I chose to self-publish because I could—I received a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to write the poems, self-publish, and then visit Guyana to give a copy to my father. I felt a greater sense of freedom with my voice by self-publishing. I wasn’t worried if the publisher/editor would like it; I wrote poems that pushed me into another region of my voice. I took on a more direct political stance, up the ante on my provocation, played with the white space of the page, manipulated Creole proverbs—I played. And in that play, I brought forth a more authentic and present voice, one that is forgiving, even a quiet intensity. It was beautiful to witness, because I wasn’t waiting for permission by some outsiders to be heard/read.

JB: Hurrah’s Nest, though a poetry collection, reads much more like a collection of family stories from memories. Now that you have written an opera, do you think you may branch out into another other genres of writing; say, fiction or playwriting? Perhaps even visual art?

AW: Yes, and I have. I’m a part of the PlayGround writers’ pool at the Berkeley Rep, where we write 10-minute plays, on a specific theme, during a 6-month period. I have some novel ideas brewing, and some short stories I’m working on. Really, it’s about having the story dictate the form and then having the patience and trust in myself to do what I need to do to tell the story properly. I’m rooted in the poetic, the lyric, and from there—my safe ground—I’m emboldened to take risks.

JB: You are very determined when it comes to your writing, applying for grants, fellowships, attending conferences and residencies. Do you have a mantra of some sort that you live by? Something that inspires you to always continue to push no matter what the circumstances?

AW: A mantra that is a combination of: “If there is a will there is way; fuck it—do what you want to do; why not; have you seen what’s out there, c’mon; you are distinct and so is your work—no one can do you; who are you waiting for?; be the change; and find a community.”

JB: As your poems do highlight the complexities of race, and as you are part of the LGBT community, do you plan to write a collection based around the difficulties and issues of living such a lifestyle? Are there any other upcoming projects you are considering besides Dear Gerald? Any current events that have piqued your interest and inspiration?

AW: Yes. I’m working on what I call my queer manuscript. It has no title—rather, it has a title, that I don’t want to share right now. It started when I found a list of word/phrases for gay/lesbian in different languages on Wikipedia. Some derogatory, some not. But what was interesting to me was how the feminine was defamed. So in many ways, the manuscript is about loving the feminine, as it manifests in any sex, within any body type.

I’ve been sitting with this manuscript for several years, feeling through the emotional arch, trying to figure out what more I want or need to say. And Black Lives Matter, All Life Matter, brought me to Queer Lives Matter, and I’m looking at the deaths of queer folks at the hands of police and young transgender folks killing themselves and how to render these social realities into a closet drama or choreopoem or combination of both as a way to conclude the manuscript.