Arisa White is a storyteller. A popular presence in the Bay area’s literary scene, White reads a poem as though each word is a prayer, a special and sacred moment she shares with her audience. White honed her talents at Cave Canem, the rigorous writing workshop for Black poets founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she received her MFA.
White’s debut Hurrah’s Nest won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry, was a finalist for the Wheatley Book Awards and the California Book awards, and garnered an NAACP Image Awards nomination. White’s second collection, A Penny Saved (Willow Books), inspired by domestic violence survivor Polly Mitchell, was described by the Feminist Wire as “a rich exploration of interiority.” White is also the author of Disposition for Shininess (Factory Hollow Press), Post Pardon (Mouthfeel Press), Black Pearl (Nomadic Press), and dear Gerald and has created the libretto and score for Post Pardon: The Opera.
A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of grants from the City of Oakland and the Center for Cultural Innovation, White has received numerous residencies and fellowships, from institutions including the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. White has served as a faculty advisor at Goddard College, a visiting scholar at San Francisco State University’s The Poetry Center, and the distinguished visiting poet-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College of California. White’s latest collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened (Augury Books) has been called “an assured and memorable book of poetry” by Roxane Gay and “exquisite” and “finely crafted” by Jewelle Gomez. You’re the Most Beautiful That That Happened was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
White spoke to members of the AfroSurreal Writers (Dera R. Williams, Audrey T. Williams, Kelechi Ubozoh, Rochelle Robinson, Rochelle Spencer, Thaddeus Howze) and the Association of Writers and Poets of Color (Dorothy Santos, Vernon Keeve, DeShara Suggs-Joe, Claudette Davis, and MK Chavez) about afrosurrealism, where community and creative work intersect and Black literary communities.
Audrey: In an interview with Rohan DeCosta, you discussed how The Beautiful Things Project is “pushing me to stand as a creative being.” Are there other communities, local or otherwise, that you recommend for writers/poets of color who want to stand as creative beings?
With the Beautiful Things Project, I’m thinking of ways to be a collaborator, to put poetry in relation with other artistic forms, in unexpected places, and to consider how the narratives of QPOC can be reimagined, broadened, and therefore highlighted. Standing as a creative being, I felt like I was pushing beyond the ideological separations that are made to capitalize off of people. There a times, especially when it comes to the business and marketing of poetry, I feel that poetry and the arts are separated from the masses; similar to CA Conrad, I want to live the poem, be the poem, and not treat it like a kind of factory work. In terms of developing an integrated sense of yourself, where you can rest, and therefore learn to deepen your creative response, along one’s target identities, I think of Cave Canem, Kundiman, Canto Mundo, VONA and the emerging writers workshops offered by Lambda Literary Foundation.
Dorothy: In your collaborative projects, such as A to Guyana or The Beautiful Things project, did any aspect of the community participation component present challenges you didn’t anticipate? Or, were there any stories (from the community) or artwork you received that helped illuminate feelings and emotions in your writing process?
I didn’t encounter any noticeable challenges. From the A to Guyana project that explored fatherlessness, what I noticed from the letters received from community members is that the stories of abandonment were all so similar. It was if the fathers all got the same memo and decided to enact their abandonment with very little creativity. Recognizing that, I realized that we aren’t necessarily doing anything new—I’ve come to understand the role of the writer or any artist is to illuminate and rescue the humanity that is lost to the mastering narrative.
Kelechi: Your writing has a songlike quality to it: you had your family members respond to the poems you’d written about them in a way reminiscent of call-and-response. How do you approach rhythm in the writing that you create?
I let whatever feeling I’m having establishes the rhythmic pattern, and that pattern pulls the language into it.
Rochelle: The future seems to play an important role in your work; you write about “babies so beautiful they spoiled the light” even in the face of brutality and oppression. Would you describe your work as being influenced by Afrofuturism or AfroSurrealism?
I believe yes. I don’t want to let go imagination for the future in my writing because it allows me to create symbols and images needed to build that future. I believe in life, in the impetus to keep living, and to live in ways that allow us to reach our full capacity for being. The moment we let go of doing that imaginative work, we have seeded apathy, have given into the machine, into our annihilation, into the belief that the only way is the current design constructed on our flesh.
Dera: You’ve served as an advisory board member for the Massachusetts-based Flying Object project and you’re a native New Yorker. Are the Black literary communities on the east and west coast similar? What is the atmosphere/vibe amongst the Black literary community in the Bay area? What differences do you notice in Oakland as opposed to San Francisco? Is there a spirit of competition or camaraderie between the two groups or even amongst Oakland poets/writers?
Black diaspora communities have similar narratives of displacement and anti-blackness that they are working with, in their work, in their bodies and wherever they land on this earth they will need to contend with ways in which they are afforded and denied humanity. This question of compare and contrast makes me think about the ghosts in places: what are the ghosts that the east must deal with? What ghost does the west must deal with? And how do those ghosts enter their work?
Kelechi: What is your writing process? Your poems seem rooted in time. In “Backdoor,” you write about a barn door embedded with a family’s history: “you pick up the door to your barn/found 10 miles away, and it’s a special/ door. Four generations recorded/how short and tall they were.” Do you write every day? Do you write every night? How do you go about writing about time and memory?
I’m writing something everyday—be it a line or an almost-poet or revising something I set aside months ago. I think about writing in different stages: idea, generation, synthesis, revision, and editing. So at any given point I’m engaging one or more of these stages. Because I’ve broadened my conception of writing—not just sitting and writing but as a process, a series of encounters with word and language—it frees me from feeling like I’ve failed at writing today.
Dera: How did you prepare yourself to be a full-time, career author/artist? Did the process happen by chance or organically?
In a session with my therapist, he made it clear to me that I have always been a creative being. My formal education didn’t make me a creative person. My jobs don’t make me a creative person, and him reflecting that back to me, I’ve realized I have made choices throughout my life to fulfill and feed the creative impulse, to hone it, learn from it, witness how it works in solitude and in community.