Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White [photo credit: Nye' Lyn Tho] received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. Her recent collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened was a nominee for the 29th Lambda Literary Award and the chapbook “Fishing Walking” and Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won the inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates cultural events and artistic collaborations that center narratives of queer people of color. She serves on the board of directors for Nomadic Press and is a faculty advisor at Goddard College. arisawhite.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Hurrah’s Nest, brings attention to familial traumas and silences; I learned to write from a critically affirming place with that collection. To look critically with love and that then allows for some kind of release to happen, healing to occur. My most recent collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, doesn’t feel different—it’s base is the same; I’m allowing some things to take center stage. You’re the Most centers queer black female experiences and the forthcoming chapbook “Fish Walking” and Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife is quite playful with language. It’s surreal and spiritual. I’ve challenged myself to not rely so much on the metaphor—there’s an unmasking I’m doing, which feels vulnerable, however, now, I’m imagining that all things co-exist in my reality, all ways of experiencing a moment.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry is closest to my way of speaking and being in the world. We are such a perfect match—that poetic eye/I is present in my prose and dramatic writing.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Starting is easy; it’s finishing that’s the challenge. Often I need to go away on retreat to truly finish a project—to get into it and notice the absences, the places where it doesn’t cohere. I need uninterrupted time to relate to it.
My first drafts, that is what I transcribe from the notebook to the screen, come out looking nearly close to its final shape. In my notebook, I’m working out the emotional truth of the poem and whether what it’s communicating is in alignment with my intentions—or sometimes I’m so surprised by what comes out that the poem shifts me.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I have an idea, but first the idea has to make its presence felt in my body before I’m moved to bring it to the page. Sometimes the idea can remain in the head, and I’ll make a note of it. But when my whole body concedes, it’s writing time. Maybe I’m often cross-training—writing individual pieces as they come and writing poems specific to book-length projects.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy readings and reading my work. When working on a project, and when the poems have stabilized themselves, I’ll bring them to the public. Reading to an audience is so much different than reading aloud to yourself, in your familiar rooms—the work has a chance to bounce off other bodies, take up a different space. It is then that I’m able to experience the work as its own distinct presence. I recognize where it is strong and the areas that need development.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Is there a water style? An earth style? I’m considering how the elements can be a way to craft the poem.
What is a queer black female aesthetic? How does it feel when I write out of queerness or blackness? Sometimes the two feel the same. My female body is a constant—it informs my everything. How my body is labeled (by force or by choice) is variable.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is to shake us free from master(ing) narratives.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
When an editor is good, she is essential. My editor/publisher Kate Angus was an extraordinary person to work with on my latest collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. Her comments and suggestions for reordering the poems revealed gaps in the emotional arc of the collection. She edits with an understanding of how I like to use language and as a result, the language has extra pop.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Follow your obsessions, the things that catch and hold your attention. And I find this especially helpful on those days when I’m wondering, What do I write?
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In the past 10 years, I have relied on The Daily Grind (TDG) to give routine to my writing. TDG operates online and each month you sign up and are assigned a group of writers to send work to each day. When signing up, you select if you want to be in a group working on New Poetry, New Prose, Revised & New Poetry, and my favorite is Manic Mixture. There is no commenting on each other’s work. You are showing up each day, sharing writing that you are capable of completing within that 24 hours. Why I like Manic Mixture is because, as my life has broadened as a writer—in addition to writing poetry, I’m writing plays, essays, course descriptions, interview responses, etc.— I don’t need to separate how writing shows up in my life. It is actively a part of who I am.
These past two months, I’ve been beginning my day with meditation. I then check emails, especially on the weekdays, and make a to-do list of the top things I need to get done for the day. Usually, writing comes in the evening, 4-8pm. Weekends, I wake up, meditate, read, and do some writing, but I allow myself to be chill about it, especially if I don’t have any deadlines to meet.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I return to books and art. I return to life, to the people in the streets and bars, to my friends, to the shit going on in the world, to the sun on my face, instead of the glow of a screen. I go for a walk.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Egyptian Musk reminds me of my mother, and mothballs remind me of my grandmother.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All things influence my work—my experience of the world (word) is relational, so my work arises from the intersection of all things.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read a healthy amount of theory, cultural studies, spiritual and metaphysical texts, and enjoy my fair share of popular culture. Poetry is the way I synthesize my various encounters in the world—and I like to imagine myself as the point in which all those encounters intersect.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to live in another country for more than a year. I love the experience of being in another culture, in another consciousness. The world becomes so much larger than where I claim citizenship. I get to step out of the echo chamber of my country, its pathologies, and learn to relate to my body outside of the national discourses that serve to limit how I access and actualize my humanity.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if not this. I’m very sure I would have been in the arts—maybe a professionally trained dancer. However, I have always wanted to come up with the names for nail polishes and lipsticks.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Desire—if my heart isn’t in it, it’s not worth my energy.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The two last great books I read was Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forge: Endarkened Feminisms, Spirituality, & the Sacred Nature of Research & Teaching by Cynthia B. Dillard and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe and Moonlight is the film.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a children’s book in verse, which I am co-authoring with Laura Atkins. The book is about Bridget “Biddy” Mason who was enslaved, starting in Georgia, and with her Mormon master, walked to Utah then California where she petitioned for her freedom. Later she became a philanthropist and wealthy landowner in Los Angeles. Slated for publication in early 2019, this is the second book in the Fighting for Justice series, published by Hey Day Books.