Wow. It’s been over a year since my last post on this blog. In the interim I’ve been raising a beautiful baby girl who’s grown into a toddler — and she just keeps getting bigger, faster, smarter, better.
It’s great fun, and hard work, so of all my extra-parental activities (work, music, writing poems, writing about other peoples’ poems, etc.), I took a little hiatus from writing about other peoples’ poems. But I’m BACK! At least for this long-overdue post about the work of a talented, intuitive, and patient poet/playwright from the Bay Area named Arisa White.
Arisa is a Cave Canem fellow, author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon, and founding editor of the online literary community HER KIND. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she serves on the advisory board for Flying Object, an excellent non-profit “laboratory for creative development, performance, and publication.”
I recently had the chance to interview Arisa White about her second full-length book, A Penny Saved. It’s a collection of poems inspired by the true story of Polly Mitchell, a woman imprisoned in her own home for many years by her abusive husband.
In the mind of another writer, a fictionalized verse account of such horrible events could’ve gone wrong in a hundred ways. But White hits the right notes and asks the right questions, bringing great empathy (though not absolution) to each poem and each character.
Arisa White was kind to send me A Penny Saved shortly after my daughter was born. She was even kinder to take the time for this interview almost two years later, and I’m grateful to her for giving me a glimpse into how the book came to be.
CR: One of the most impressive accomplishments of A Penny Saved is its lack of judgment towards the victims of this particular situation of domestic violence, at least in terms of YOUR judgment as the writer. How did you get to that place, first as a person, and then (or maybe simultaneously) as a poet?
AW: Whenever a judgmental thought occurred, I turned the question to myself. If I thought Penny was stupid for staying, I asked: Were you stupid for staying in situations that didn’t work for you? What did I need in order to remove myself from situations that weren’t working for me? I had to be honest. Admit to my violence against others, emotionally and physically. Out of rage and insecurity, I’ve hit others. I wanted absolute control when my own life felt shitty and bleak and instead of taking responsibility for it, I blamed those around me for their shortcomings; what I perceived as their failures, were my own.
And this was a continuous practice of stepping out of ego to be on the same page with the characters I constructed. I had to open myself to the whole emotional spectrum, so that I could move through the writing process—wherever I felt stuck, something was blocked, and that “block” was me saying “no” to something: to an experience, to feelings, to an old memory that needed to be forgiven. I had to say “yes” in those tight places, because that was where the intelligence resided—in those moments where I turned away out of shame or guilt, closed the door, and threw away the key.
I take on certain work because there is a certain growth I want to instigate for myself. I can’t do very much from a place of judgment, besides separate from others and therefore collude in the violence that cycles between us.
CR: I heard you say that you began to answer the question “why would someone stay in an abusive relationship” for yourself when you realized that all relationships are comprised of negotiations and compromises. Can you say more about that, particularly in regards to how you approached the character of Penny?
AW: When two people meet they are strangers to each other, or more so countries with their own values, language, operating systems, identities, intersections, histories, etc. To meet, you have to give something to the dynamic. You speak in your own language less, so to form the palaver needed between you and your partner, you give and take to make this thing between the two of you. I think our upbringing conditions us for certain experiences; we have low and high tolerances for things, or no experiences at all, because, in all sorts of ways, we’ve been sheltered. How our social identities intersect, we may have been privileged to some experiences, but not to others.
Yes, any abuse makes us tolerant of that abuse later. And it doesn’t have to be extreme. Someone raised by a loving and attentive parent who has made just about every choice for them, thereby denying them the chance to feel or discover something on their own, so that child learns to doubt their intuition, or when they say “no” it’s disregarded and turned into a “yes,” is going to be used to having their boundaries ignored. (That is, if they were able to make up their mind about if they needed a boundary or not.)
Our upbringings have its gifts, but we need to be hyperaware of how we’ve been shaped by it, how we act as a result, what we allow people to do to us. We’ve been socialized to be a race, gender, class, religion, etc., and so we come at each other expecting (even subconsciously) to be treated a certain way, because we’re “used” to it or this is how we’ve been culturally and socially used. The reality of being human with each other is that at some point we will be ab/used by each other. Thinking about Penny, a recent high-school grad at the time of meeting David, she’s young and still has a lot of growing. Still in adolescence, her notions about romantic relationships come from her immediate family and media. Love is far more complex and has its sobering doses of suffering and joy. And relationships, because we are negotiating our various texts (subtext, context) of our being, are work.
CR: You have a great knack for translating the power of a dramatic moment onto the flat white page through the use of surprising imagery. One example I’m thinking of is “He drops to his knees like all those Catholics at the altar, / an amputated cross against my shins.”
How do you find the right words or image to convey the emotion of a moment?
AW: Oh, I really can’t say. I’ve tried to slow down the moment, when it does occur, to see or understand what’s being joined to create surprising imagery. If I am caught in the rhythmic momentum of the words, then the rhythm guides me. I’m plugging in words that fit the tempo of the feelings. Or I switch up clichés or riff off colloquialisms—alter common symbols, like the cross, and relate them to the body.
Each thing accessed and interpreted through my body becomes information for later. Mostly, I am in constant observation, comparing and contrasting, and even when I’ve spaced out, and appear no longer connected to now—I’m not in our constructed now; I’m chilling in a place that is ripe with sensation and energy. Sometimes, I match the energy of one thing with another, even though it may not be obvious that they go together. A qualitative bridging.
Read the rest of the interview here: An interview with poet Arisa White | YRTEOP: Poetry Turned Around | YRTEOP: Poetry Turned Around.