Blessed Be #7 with Arisa White

Arisa White photo by Nye Lyn Tho

Cave Canem fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. She teaches in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College and is a lecturer at San Francisco State University. She will be the distinguished visiting writer in residence at Saint Mary’s College of California in Spring 2017. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened is her newest collection from Augury Books.

BBF: Can you speak a bit about your poetry origin story?

AW: I started to get serious about writing poetry in high school. Going to open mics in Brooklyn, writing poems for Mumia Abu Jamal events in Manhattan, joining online writing groups, and then I went off to college and studied poetry and literature. I have had a wonderful support system of teachers and poets/friends who have encouraged me forward when I thought it was pointless to poet in this world.

BBF: Who are your influences?

AW: Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Piri Thomas, Hart Crane, Medbh McGuckian, Sherman Alexie, Rebecca Seiferle, Adrienne Rich, Dara Wier, Saul Williams, Sensei Angel Kyodo Williams, Bob Marley, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Alvin Ailey . . . so many.

BBF: Why is poetry important to you?

AW: Poetry makes me feel alive and purposeful.

BBF: This interview series is interested in thinking through, developing a queer poetics as it relates to the magical or occult. One of the ways I think about a queer poetics is the possibility found in reimagining, or a queer imagining-intersectional, queer kinship, self-reflective, active resistance to heteronormativity and white supremacy…I find these ideas resonant immediately upon reading the intro to your book (and throughout), You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, out by Augury Books you write, “I realized that the labels we use to name present us with a loss. To name a person, an experience, or an object means we see it for that purpose, that utility, and gone to us is the “what else” — the possibilities of everything that the label can’t encompass.” How might you think about a queer poetics?

AW: A queer poetics isn’t solely about the “thinking,” the way in which we privilege the mind (rational and logical) over all matter. A queer poetics ask us to consider the entire body as a site for intelligence and inquiry. To write out of and from the parts of our bodies that are socially and culturally silenced. Then align ourselves with the queerness of all things. To recognize the other others. Learn the stories of others. Write from how we live time, breath, and location.

Arisa White

BBF: This interview series is also interested in the relationship between the personal and the political. How might this relationship influence your writing practice and otherwise?

AW: There is no separation between the personal and the political. It is all one. The political is personal. Metaphor is real. As a writer, this is how I invite the reader to see the world in fresh ways, give a new perspective that keeps the senses awake and engaged. Each generation has a way of forgetting, and as a poet, I believe I’m here to help them (re)member. To join them with the forgotten parts, to welcome them into freedom.

BBF:Do you have a relationship with magical practice or the word magic? If so in what ways is it significant to you? Is it related to your writing process/your politics?

AW: I believe magic as a kind of consciousness. The way language is used is magic. As a writer, I’m creating worlds and states of feeling that expand and/or manipulate the reader’s consciousness. Each poem is a room to enter, a book is another way of saying house.

BBF: How might you describe a queer occult?

AW: If secrecy is an element of being a part of the occult, then nonheteronormative practices have operated for centuries and decades in the shadows. In the backrooms. In secrecy. In closets. What I think is necessary is mentorship, intergenerational conversations where knowledge is passed down, and the creation of archives throughout LGBTQIA communities, not just in popular cities. We need to see ourselves, diversely, to counter and balance the narratives that operate in popular culture, and create our own models for storytelling — to be queer in the fabric of our craft. Like the hammer is queer because of the queer hand that wields it, and queer is this possibility that defies our imaginary. A different kind of knowledge is able to enter our intelligence when we are open in our exchanges, we learn to use our imaginations beyond what is expected of us.

Arisa White Nye Lyn Tho

BBF: As I read your book, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened I encounter various relational constellations or vignettes of encounter that illuminate the experience of intersectional identity in various locations i.e. on a road trip, at the temple, on the bus, in dreams…can you speak to the ways the relationship between site and identity are at work in this text?

AW: Every site has its ethos, its ways, customs that act on our expression, which impacts the degrees in which we live in aspects of our identity, in our bodies. The poems and verse in You’re The Most engages with this understanding in evocative ways to call attention to human behavior.

BBF: I am curious about the role earth plays in your book, I mean to say the presence of the dirt and cultivation, how this shows up at seemingly various moments in/across time. Can you speak to the role earth/growth/dirt/cultivation plays in this collection?

AW: Earth as the thing/place you’re bound to, where you will return at death. From the buried comes trees, something that will participate again in the ecosystem. When I went to graduate school, I was surrounded by farmlands. Tilled earth is so sensuous, alive, and I began to understand life in a different way than what I learned in the city; life as dynamic stillness — and from that stillness comes the corn and pumpkin for us to eat! Emotionally this collection grapples with loss, and so the earth reminded me that something will come of this pain and grief, something will grow out of the emptiness and apathy that is felt. I learned too to be with the weight of it all. A different relationship to gravity. To be here, and what it meant to be here, in the moment of life.

BBF: The East Bay Express recently wrote a lovely review of your book, calling it a “Love letter to queer black women,” and describing it as “documenting the lives of women she’s met — or conjured — throughout her tenure as a Black woman writer,” and as “a sort of communal autobiography.” Can you speak to these descriptions and how you see them operating in this work?

AW: I’m telling stories about the lives I’ve encountered, my personal experiences as well — a creative (non)fiction of lives and living. The “I” is a communal I, as a gaze, as a position, as a location. It can be shared.