Permission to Dream Forth: An Interview with Arisa White

JULY WESTHALE interviews ARISA WHITE

picture of white and westhale together

In Arisa White’s lyrical memoir, Who’s Your Daddy, she writes of her father’s absence throughout her coming-of-age in tender, genre-bending poems. July Westhale and Arisa White, former teaching colleagues and Bay Area community, approached this interview in an epistolary way, discussing form, family, voice, and taking up space on the page.

July Westhale: What a haunting, luxurious collection, where relatives have “Tree of Heaven arms,” bargain with “one-way streets,” are “brackets of boys,” and a “father isn’t a place from which I can run.” The reader begins with a prologue: “This is a grandfather feeling”—and instantly, we’re in. We’re enraptured with the observant, unfailing voice of the speaker, sometimes child, sometimes older-poet-looking-back, but always reliable. Always present, and here with us, the reader, and ready to allow us the dignity of experiencing, though intentional, expert craft. When you were considering the speaker in these poems, what was the journey for you?

Arisa White: This journey to speak, to voice, a literary response to the question of who’s your daddy, was spiral until I shaped the shape to be found. Because this writing process was prompted by my mother asking me if I wanted to write my father in Guyana, it started out as epistolary poems. And I spent time writing poems that were just figuring out how to address my father. Do I call him by his first name, do I call him dad, father, which then led to dear god, then dear dog, and I settled on dear Gerald and the lowercasing of the “dear” was a way to reduce my respect for him, to take off a bit of the power we give father, patriarchy, and also to signal the unsureness in myself, this feeling of being small from not growing up with an active and daily relationship with him. Doing these kinds of poetic exercises helped me feel through the contours of this voice. To capture different registers and create a present-day score of its qualities.

With a grant, I was able to invite others into this question of “who’s your daddy?” and held epistolary writing workshops to generate letters written to fathers, absent, dead, estranged, and patriarchal figures—and this happened in Trump’s last term. There was much people had to say about daddies, literal and figurative, and soon I heard the echoes. That the speaker of this collection was something collective—it was an I who had many eyes. From those workshops, and a call for epistles, I also gathered letters from San Quentin and as far as the Philippines. My mother also gave me a letter, and from her letter came the prologue for Who’s Your Daddy. The letters themselves became ways to be in response, to collage and create more responses, and to bring collective detail to my own memories.

With this same grant, I traveled to Guyana and met my father, spent time in his old haunts, and stood my body alongside his. I kept a journal during the visit, so when I returned stateside, I now had that reality to incorporate—I had a presence and present reality to weave into the narrative. Even reading scholarly articles, essays, and books on fatherhood and fatherless daughters, was another way to pitch the voice outward and onto the page. In many ways, as a poet, I felt like I was conducting an orchestra of voices.

JW: The attention to form is what makes this collection really sing—the brilliance of the forms used; lines are largely long, encompassing, enacting, and when they are short, they fragment to great purpose. For example, in a poem that begins “I got on a sunshine yellow tank top.”

“He has no idea who I am. My punishment for ‘starting the fight,
young lady’ is to sit in front of the classroom with my desk to the
board and practice my cursive. The word is ‘ship.’ I write it on
the slant, the ‘p’ becomes ‘t,’ and I’m spelling ‘shit’—five times for
muscle memory.

                                                                           The red ball-
                                                                           point draws
                                                                          
my attention,

                                                                           correct
                                                                           these
                                                                          
’ships. 

 To what extent is this a departure or embracing of the way you think about form? Do you find yourself to be a writer who considers content first, form second? The other way around? Both at the same time?

AW: Content comes first for me, and then I think about how the content can inform the form. Form then becomes a bespoke container for the content. I may use a received form like the haibun and then deform it in some way so that it matches the narrative voice or point of view I want the reader to inhabit. I like to think of the form as a way to hold the reader’s attention as well, capture their eye.

Because Who’s Your Daddy is relying mostly on the sentence, and as a poet, I have a bit of anxiety about seeing all that text take up the page, I want to find ways for the white space to be present, to signal to the reader those lyrical moments of leaping and association, to remind the reader (and myself) that we are still operating in an emotional landscape with all its emotional resemblances resonating.

But what was wonderful to experience, with my engagement with the narrative sentence, its conventions of style and usage, was that the sentence became playful to me again. It became a wonder. If I’m using form to capture the reader’s eye, how can I use the sentence in a performative way, and what can that performance evoke when read and seen?

For example, in the poem “I play hooky and study the subway map. . . .,” I begin to fade the text, “My mother will not marry Cornell,” giving it that ghosting effect—Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels, was one of the books I read while writing Who’s Your Daddy. In it, Daniels employs this kind of typography in her essays. The line, “My mother will not marry Cornell,” eventually disappears. Then the black standard of text: “until it is true” appears and I hope the reader realizes that the text faded into the narrator, and by proxy, faded into them. It has embedded itself in the reader. And now we resonate with what remains, working its power on us, until we become the truth of our intentions. One of those insights I got from writing this particular poem. In a book that tackles absence and distance, emotionally and geographically, it was a simple but solid exercise to consider the visual nature of language to reinforce the emotional effect of the text’s meaning.

 

JW: If I were teaching this poem to a classroom of students (which I hope to!), then I’d point out these shorter lines, talk about how form breaks because something in content “breaks,” comes alive, is freed, emotes, journeys, turns sideways or strange. And how brilliant to do this in a poem specifically about schooling, about what kind of writing is “right” and what kind of writing is “not.” Because, for me, one of the strong and resonant components of this collection is about appropriateness and legacy. What is “allowed,” and what is, as Elizabeth Marston talks about in her writing about trans femme identity, “an unauthorized copy?” I’d love to hear your thoughts on legacy and lineage, the themes that got you to this incredible and powerful book.

AW: I was thinking more about the legacy and lineage of absence. How maleness and manness are conflated with absence in our culture, in my imagination. The father is not supposed to be there; he is outside of the home. Which I think makes all his absences permissible, excusable, allowed. So what then does it matter when the whole body is gone? What does it matter if he has a body, but his spirit is gone? What if he disappeared, through personal and state-sanctioned ways, what value does his absence bring to the household, to the economics of this whole empire? What if we inculcate a way of thinking where it’s assumed, expected, and imagined that the black father is a deadbeat in the song of a child’s life, what can be scored in his absence? If I come from a diaspora of people taken and sold away from their familial ways of being and relating, what is extracted from a collective psyche of a people, of a people made to be a people, because of such a grand grieving absence? Do we call this grand grieving absence “father,” the same way we call God, Son, Holy Spirit, and give people a reason to gather and make temples around this absence? It is the legacy and lineage of a father’s absence that was the generative framework for Who’s Your Daddy.

JW: Did you know what you were writing about before you wrote it? After? During?

AW: I was aware of what I was writing, but I’m not always aware of what meaning I’m making or how the poem/writing is speaking back to me. Sometimes I feel like the work is ahead of me and I’m writing to catch up with it, to transcribe it at the speed of it is revelation.

picture of the poemJW: I’m curious about that—“to transcribe it at the speed of it is revelation.” That’s so elegantly put, and I think there’s something there that is resonant and intuitive to the writing process. Would you say more about that? What has that looked like for you?

AW: Having worked on a project, like Who’s Your Daddy, for a number of years, I was able to see what was forming, what was emerging. So I got to notice the patterns, the narratives being woven, the arc(s) making a bend toward itself. And that’s one speed. Then there’s making space for the actual writing. For being a conduit for the telling. For the opportunity to listen in and listen deeply. For feeling the rhythms of scenes and sensations and personae. For making time for the arrival and learning not to judge what arrives. It was helpful that I spent two hours after my teaching and just wrote. I stayed consistent with it. There is something about that consistency that helps me look at things with a different pace (speed). Like the pace of wonder, where I find resonances with the thing I’m writing. This allows for the work to become a companion in daily life—it’s shared and that shared experience offers mass to the writing.

JW: I want to buy copies of this book for my poet friends, call them, and say “flip to page x, look at this line, this line,” because poetry, when done well, is the perfect way to tell a story. Poetry is the way to tell what happened in a story between the lines, with lines themselves. To say nothing of the content, right? What other sort of book would this be, if it weren’t complicated if it didn’t wrestle with grievous, joyful, sometimes funny, often sad family history, told in a way that gestures a poet spent a good deal of time looking at the many converging stories of these relatives, these daddies, these Trees of Heaven, deciding in the end that no one way was “right,” but all were “write?”

AW: I have no idea what Who’s Your Daddy would be—it uniquely shaped itself and I can only experience it as the lyrical hybrid oddity that it is, which makes it so alive for me. And because of that aliveness, it pushed me forward in my craft, in my imagination. This book taught me how to do the next writing thing and serves as a reminder for how to give myself the permission to dream forth whatever is waiting to emerge.

JW: Here’s the big question that everyone loves/hates. What comes next? What are you engaging with, writing, and reading?

AW: The most immediate thing I’m working on is an opera, which was adapted from my chapbook of poems Post Pardon, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011. Post Pardon: The Opera is composed by Jessica Jones and will be directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang, choreographed by Laurel Jenkins, and set designed by Dianne Smith. The opera is set between the material and spiritual worlds, where three females’ lives intersect because of a murder-suicide. From the afterlife, a mother attempts to heal her relationship with two daughters, one living and one dead. As a device to non-judgmentally enter the interior landscape of a woman who contemplates murder-suicide, the libretto employs Caribbean mythologies and West African cosmologies to explore the concept of inherited sorrow. With its concern for gendered and ecological violence, Post Pardon: The Opera is a lyrical and mythical world splitting open with a Black woman’s song. Colby College, where I am an assistant professor, is incubating the development of the opera and will premiere it in Spring 2025.

I just finished up a manuscript of poems, both prose and choreopoetic, that I’m calling “I Do,” which examines matrimony as a vow of unwavering witnessing to the mortifying ordeal of being known—by another and to one’s self. Since marriage is not solely between two persons, this state of “knownness” extends socio-politically to consider the ways racism, gender, sexuality, and our mortality, guard us against productive feelings of love, inhibits the seeing that we so unconditionally desire—we aggressively thirst for—in this life of unquenchable want. “I Do” is wrestling with the predicament of being a sentimental human confidently unsure of what to do with a queer heart.

As for reading, I have three books on my nightstand I’m returning to and putting down: Deep Liberation: Shamanic Tools for Reclaiming Wholeness in a Culture of Trauma by Langston Kahn, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology by Andreas Weber, and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartmen. I’m making life transformations right now and something about these books feel necessary for the journey ahead. And I’m taking them in, piece by piece, like a step at a time.

 

Arisa White is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Colby College. Most recently, she is the author of Who’s Your Daddy, co-editor of Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart, and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice Series for young readers. Her poetry is widely published and her collections have been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, Lambda Literary Award, and have won the Per Diem Poetry Prize, Maine Literary Award, Nautilus Book Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, and Golden Crown Literary Award.  As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates poetic collaborations that are rooted in Black queer women’s ways of knowing. She is a Cave Canem fellow and serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press, as well as the Community Advisory Board for Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Arisawhite.com

July Westhale is a novelist, translator, and the award-winning author of six books, including “Via Negativa,” which Publishers Weekly called ‘stunning’ in a starred review. Her most recent work can be found in McSweeney’s, The National Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, CALYX, and The Huffington Post, among others. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Transatlantic. www.julywesthale.co

Permission to Dream Forth: An Interview with Arisa White

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