Arisa White Talks Emotional Mapping, Comprehending Trauma, Inclusivity, Intersectionality, & Mor
Sarah Marcus: You are one of the founding editors for HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. The New York Times has said that “since it began several years ago, the VIDA count has been a reliable conversation-starter about gender disparity in the literary world.” How did you get involved with VIDA, and how did this initial blog come to be? Is there overlap in purpose and message with your work as a Kore Biters columnist at Kore Press?
Arisa White: I was recruited by VIDA founder Cate Marvin to come on board to help conceptualize and edit HER KIND. Rosebud Ben-Oni was my co-editor and it was because of our well-clicked relationship as editors, as writers, as women of color, as creatives, as so many things, we were able to make HER KIND into a community that welcomed and promoted emergent and established literary voices. Mostly, Rosebud and I shared a vision to value each woman as a living library. Here is the mission we came up with, and it came from the heart:
HER KIND is VIDA’s next big step. It will serve as a forum to create lively conversation about issues that are often dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream media. We wish to honor the experiences of women writers and hope HER KIND will be an agent for positive social change, encouraging women to define their own terms regarding the importance and value of women’s voices. Funny, thorny, contemplative, savvy—HER KIND will provide a myriad of voices and aesthetic approaches for the blog.
So whenever or wherever Rosebud and I combine our powers, we will bring it. Now at Kore Press, we are interviewing women writers who we see as literary activists, who are bold and speaking truth in distinctive and provocative ways. We have Airea D. Matthews, Rachel McKibbens, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, to name a few, as Kore Biters.
SM: Your gorgeous debut poetry 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! Can you tell us about this project? What poems do you feel the most connected to in this book? I especially enjoyed the exploration of identity through dialogue, sound, and language. How long did it take you to complete this work?
AW: It took me about 12 years to complete Hurrah’s Nest. I left my MFA program at UMass, Amherst, with a version of it that I continued to work on until it became the version we see today. Like most debut collections, I explore my childhood and family dynamics and was interested in feeling through, more deeply, the moments of intimate violence, the abusive relationships my mother found herself in, and to hold it all with the love that was present. I wanted to know what was the formative ground that held us up. It is a book that interrogates the memories that stick with you, asking to be massaged down, those knots in your narrative, in your sense of self, and poems were the healing attention I could give. Because I enjoy what each poem and prose piece, is doing, what each taught me about what I’m capable of aesthetically, I connect to all the poems in Hurrah’s Nest.
SM: As a writer and BFA Creative Writing faculty member at Goddard College what role does inclusive feminism and intersectionality play in your curriculum and in your larger literary community?
AW: Goddard is low-residency, so the students create their study plans—their “syllabus” for the semester. As an advisor, I share my knowledge with them, guide them to read beyond their cultural influences, explore other eras, and this philosophy is also supported by the pedagogical practices and the educational mission of the BFA Creative Writing Program and Goddard as a whole. I do my best to model a life of inclusivity and honor the intersectionalities that inform the lives around me. It’s not so much a role as it is a way of life. A way of being that I am sure to nurture and evolve and to encourage myself to step beyond what is comfortable, to create encounters that will open me to understanding who is around and before me. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about in her TedTalk, we have to move beyond the single story, because who we are as people is far more rich and layered and complex that we are taught to consider. This is the failure of our consciousness—it is individual, dualistic, and lacks a cosmological approach. Within my community of family, friends, students, and bystanders, I ask us to question and to think about our narrow expectations, to hold the contradictions, and not regard the other as an object for their personal use—and they do that too for me.
SM: We learn in your dear Gerald author statement that these epistolary poems and prose are addressed to your father who was deported to his homeland several years prior and that the last time you saw him you were three years old. What was your experience of giving him a copy of this manuscript like after 30 plus years of abandonment? What was it like to create a cross-genre manuscript? How did you make decisions about ordering the pieces?
AW: Giving him the book, I felt resolved. I got to meet the man that created the absence, and to understand what was that “thing” I carried around that is connected to his abandonment. I got to return to the site of the trauma and better comprehend its presence, and then chart within myself how it’s been functioning in my dynamics. And the book is arranged to mark those moments along that emotional map. After reading the collection, Gerald told me in a phone conversation that I could have written a better book if I talked to him first. There are many conditionals that we can apply to our lives to make a different outcome—but that’s all in the imagination. It is not real, not now, not here. And the point of the poems was to make sense of my life without him, to wrestle with the mythology of him, to give him an account of who I am. I took his response as a complete assholish remark—he couldn’t be with my point of view, with me. This has been a part of the journey too, recognizing that loss comes in all these different ways, these degrees of hereness, and I’ve had to make peace with that. With the people who are no longer in my life, because they fade out, because I let them go, because I wasn’t the best at showing up or I didn’t allow them to be here for me, and then there are folks who I am psychically connected to, people who resurface and then swim away, and I’m learning and relearning how to be OK with that, and how to not think that I could better if, I could be more loved if, I could write better if, and to accept myself as complete, whole, and no missing parts.
SM: What are you working on now, and what can we get excited to see from you in the future?
AW: When you’re in it, it’s often hard to say what it is exactly you’re working on . . . I think it’s a poetic drama. I’m interested in exploring in this work the intersection of drama, poetry, and narrative—what is useful from each, what combinations are necessary for the spiritual journey of a queer black woman working to integrate her feminine aspect? Also, I’m continuing to work on Post Pardon: The Opera, with my collaborator Jessica Jones. Last night, I watched a documentary about the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and in it he said, “Do not abandon your work!” and Post Pardon, from chapbook to libretto has been a testament to remaining in a relationship with what you create. So after a season of applying for grants to put on a full production and being rejected, we decided to reassess our direction with this project, and Jessica suggested we do an album of songs. There is so much vitality in the songs, the message toward healing, to paying attention to what we fear, and where we are uncomfortable so that we celebrate life more deeply, with more integrity. And we need more of those sentiments communicated in our music. The work has heavy jazz, soulful influences, and the songs will be revised to include some hooks and more choruses and lyrics changed here and there so that the meaning is broadened beyond the world of the opera itself.
Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst. She's a Cave Canem fellow, and the author of Post Pardon, 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. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College.