Umass Amherst Alumni Association: It’s Not Just About the Written Word

“Poetry is my voice. It helps me navigate unconscious waters and brings what I’m trying to think about into the light,” says nationally recognized poet, playwright and author, Arisa White ’06 MFA.  The Cave Canem fellow is currently working on two major projects, a sequel to her self-published collection of poems about her father entitled, dear Gerald and a full production of her libretto, Post Pardon: The Opera.

dear Gerald
Faced with conflicted emotions around her estranged father, White was inspired to write her poetry collection dear Gerald. “I had always found myself silenced around the topic of my father. Later, I started to recognize the ways in which we’re all connected around absence with our fathers or fatherlessness and started to make larger connections about the social and political implications of that absence,” says White. “How do we negotiate absence? How are we governed by it and what is the necessary healing that needs to occur?”

With a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation in California, White developed a multi-part project that includes: publishing her poems, a community participation component where people are asked to write letters to their estranged fathers or other authority figures in exchange for a copy of dear Gerald, a sequel publication comprised of the letter submissions to be titled, Who’s Your Daddy? and a reunion with her father living in Guyana.

To date, letters, poems and visual art have been submitted by men and women of all ages from around the world. “It’s great to receive different examples of expression because it’s not just about the written word,” notes White. “My objective is that people connect with whatever it is that needs healing and attention. And however you express that to get to the other side of that heaviness is ultimately what I’m trying to inspire in people.” More information is available at Submissions for the dear Gerald project are still being accepted at

Post Pardon: The Opera
In 2013, with a $4,999 grant from the City of Oakland’s Cultural Programming and an additional $6,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, White developed a libretto and score with New York-based composer Jessica Jones. An adaptation of her poetry collection, Post Pardon, the opera explores the interior landscape of a young woman contemplating taking her life and that of her child. The work is based on White’s acquaintance with fellow poet Reetika Vazirani, who killed herself and her young son in 2003. 

The opera premiered in Oakland in July 2014 before a packed house. “People were excited by the major themes of the work; one of which is inherited sorrow. There is currently a lot of research in metaphysics and genetics on transgenerational trauma. The opera wasn’t rooted in any specific science, but artistically it made sense,” says White.

Following the opera’s premiere, White received fiscal sponsorship from the playwright incubator PlayGround to pursue a full production of the piece. She is currently applying for additional grants in order to raise $250,000 to produce the opera with a full orchestra by February 2017.

Of her work, White stresses the importance of community in her professional development. “You have to be connected and have a community for emotional support and to guide you professionally. The reality is that I invite people into my sphere of influence because there is so much to learn from them.”

This sense of community was strengthened at UMass Amherst while a student in the Master of Fine Arts for Poets and Writers Program. “I really felt that I was being tended to and nurtured as an artist,” recounts White. “[Professor] Dara Wier taught me that I can approach the same idea from different angles until I am released by it and so she gave me permission to just focus on one thing until I figured out how I was going to say it.”

White has authored the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award in 2013. Her play, Frigidare, was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival in 2011 and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005 and 2014. Read more about Arisa White’s work at

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Daddy Issues: A short documentary film

Created by  CSU East Bay students Da’Ryn Merriwether and Keiko, Daddy Issues explores the topic of fatherlessness through the interviews of several dynamic black women who did not grow up with their fathers. This short was inspired by the dear Gerald project–I sent a call for submissions to Keenan Norris, novelist and professor at CSU East Bay, and Da’Ryn decided that instead of writing a letter, she wanted to create a documentary. I make a few (sometimes acting silly) appearances in the film. Enjoy!

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dear Gerald: Call for Letter Submissions

Check out this most recent write-up about the dear Gerald project at PANK.

Are you estranged from your father? Or fatherless? Have you ever thought about writing a letter to him? I’m asking people to submit letters addressed to their fathers or patriarchal authority figures, and in exchange, I will give you a copy of dear Gerald, a collection of 33 epistolary poems.

Books will be given away, free of charge, on a first-come, first-served basis. I have 100 copies of the book to give away, and 33 (or more) letters will be selected as inspiration for a later collection, which I am considering to title Who’s Your Daddy? Possible ways I may use participants’ letters: mash-ups, where I combine the letter with other texts to make one poem; erasures, where I remove text, while leaving behind particular words to reveal the poem within; or a direct response to the letter, as if I am the father.

I’ve been working on the dear Gerald collection for two years, starting when my mother asked if I wanted to write my father in Guyana—I haven’t seen him since I was three years old. A grant from the Center of Cultural Innovation will fund the publication of the book, as well as trip to South America, where I will give him a copy of the collection.


Many folks have stories and unresolved pain associated with fatherlessness. This gave me the idea to invite people to write letters to the fathers they do not know, who left them, who have not taken part in their lives.

There is always that suspicion you are alone. You are the only one who didn’t grow up with a father, and the shame of it consumes, even in small and unconscious ways. To share this work with the community is to push this conversation forward, to lessen the stigma of being a bastard, abandoned, forgotten, or never considered by one’s father, and to individually and collectively evolve into healing action. dear Gerald brings attention to the difficult bridges we must cross to get to a deeper understanding of who we are.

GUIDELINES: Letters written to your father or patriarchal authority figure can be creative, lyrical, or visual—it’s open to your interpretation. There’s no word limit, but if you need one, letters cannot exceed 5 pages. I ask that you formally begin the letter with “dear,” followed by your father’s name, and end the letter with a closing (i.e. Truly, Arisa).

DEADLINE: February 1, 2015 or until books are given away.

WHERE TO SEND: or dearGerald Letters, P.O. Box 12742, Oakland, CA, 94604. Please include your mailing address and a 50-word bio.

Visit for updates on the project.

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ZORA: Summer 2014: Notes on Anger

Black Love is Black Excellence, Tiffany Latrice.

For Zora Magazine’s summer issue, I’ve curated Notes on Anger, a series of personal essays that address how black women negotiate their anger. Monica A. Hand, Idrissa Simmonds, adrienne maree brown, Joshunda Sanders, Metta

  • What is your definition of anger? How did you learn to be (or not to be) angry?
  • What is your anger portrait?
  • What has your anger taught you? What has been personally uncovered?
  • How have those lessons affected your relationships, your sense of self, intimately and socially? How have your perspectives changed?
  • How did you grow from a time when your anger resulted in feelings of shame, guilt, sadness and/or fear?
  • What comes to mind when you think of the angry black woman stereotype? Do you relate to her; do you not? Has that stereotype impeded or bolstered your expression of anger?
  • How do you inhabit your anger so that it works to restore and heal the dynamics (intimate relationships, community, physical environment, community, politics) around you?

Visit to read their responses.

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Generations Literary Journal Podcast

Hey folks! I was interviewed for the new Generations Literary Journal’s Podcast. You can check it out here: — I talk about my latest projects and share a few tips on how to stay inspired to write. While you’re there, please subscribe and support the Journal. #genlitpodcast #generationlit

SHOW NOTES: (what we talked about)


  • Writing poems into a project as a way to stay in the writing space
  • The importance of residencies and retreats to fuel your writing
  • Adapting poetry for the stage
  • Collaborating with other artists
  • Anger Portraits on
  • The Daily Grind Online Community






“You need to know the intelligence of your poem.”


“Know when your writing seasons are.”


“a writing oops…thinking that once you’re done with a poem it has nothing to teach you”


“Be engaged with your surroundings and record everything.”


“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” — Muriel Rukeyser



Joshunda Sanders
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Stacy-Ann Chin
Tara Betts

Visit the website here: Generations Literary Journal – Generations Podcast.


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Sneak Preview of Post Pardon: The Opera

postpardonprintfinal6-5-14 edges cropped

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The Write Stuff: Arisa White on Experiencing the Articulation of Preverbal Understandings

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.

Samantha Florio

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, and the author of Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, she is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College. A native New Yorker, living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife, Arisa is adapting Post Pardon into an opera with a Cultural Funding Grant from the City of Oakland.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?

I write, teach, and do editorial work.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

Finding a balance between my work (paying the bills) and my writing. I want my writing to be my work, where I put my most time and energy, and get paid for doing it. Paid in a way that actually allows me to eat and have a home. Sometimes, too, I tell myself it is all a matter of perspective: what I do, regardless of how I define it, is a part of my writing life. Everything connects, it’s just a matter of me seeing and consciously making those connections. When I am able to rest in that mindset, I am living the life I want to live.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Everyday I make goals for myself — or a least every week. And each time I meet one of those goals, I feel successful. Each success allows me to dream bigger the next time — the ante is up, the risk is greater, and I’ve pushed my evolution as a person and artist. That makes it all worthwhile.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

In the recent past, I’ve learned, on my father’s side, that our ancestors were part of a marooned slave colony in Venezuela. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my Sarah Lawrence professor, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, as an undergrad. She asked me what I would do if I found myself alone, and I responded: I would make community. I will find others like myself, with similar values, and we will form a community together. The reality is that society will dictate your status in the world, where you are supposed to be, your station in life, but to truly meet your needs, to feel free in your own body, you need to break from all that masters you.

To read the rest of the interview, visit

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An interview with poet Arisa White | YRTEOP: Poetry Turned Around | YRTEOP: Poetry Turned Around

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.

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