Oakland poet explores family in debut collection
By Marta Yamamoto
OAKLAND — As a poet, Arisa White is not afraid to tackle important issues as she has demonstrated in her coming-of-age memoir, “Hurrah’s Nest,” a collection of poems that examines the troubles and joys of growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the second oldest of seven siblings.
To read this collection and listen to White articulate her long journey in their creation is to recognize a deep literary talent and understand why “Hurrah’s Nest” was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry.
The Grand Lake poet describes her debut collection as a journey from childhood to adulthood with poems written about her single mother, brothers and sisters, her growing up and her coming into her own sexuality and sense of herself as a young woman.
The poems, often dealing with abusive relationships took 10 years to complete, as White worked to get to deeper levels.
“There was this sense of how do I tell my story but also hold the truth in such a way that honors and also sheds light on relationships and dysfunction in a family,” she said.
White took her title from a nautical term describing disheveled rope or wire, liking the double meanings of a sense of confusion coupled with a nest.
“It brought the emotional sense I have of home — confusion, security — but at the same time, it’s where you bump against your edges and really learn what you’re made of,” White said.
Along with learning more about herself, White used “Hurrah’s Nest” to honor her colorful family and share them with readers, using her poetry to value ways the siblings protected each other and encouraged each other to follow their dreams.
Interestingly, the book motivated broad conversations within White’s family.
“I think in the end, what has been most important is the healing that has come out of it, the ability for us to step out of our shame and our darkness,” she said. “That’s one of the things I didn’t know I was doing for my family.”
The author sees these poems as offering a sense of community to readers, a sense of knowing they are not alone, and believes that by sharing her poems she lets others know that everyone has issues to deal with and that they can be resolved.
Though White also writes essays and has done some playwriting, it is always the lyric of poetry that draws her back.
“It is my first passion and I can’t let it go,” she said. “When I get to the page and want to express myself, the poem is what arrives first.”
The NAACP nomination came as a lovely surprise, especially coming from an organization that has done so much for civil rights, African Americans and the American struggle. White feels that having a category for poetry also gives it validation as a necessary, contemporary art form. And finally, seeing her name among those of her peers, including U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, was hard for White to believe.
The 33-year old author credits her 2006 arrival in Oakland as a catalyst for change and a turning point in her growth.
“It’s been enlightening,” she said. “I’ve gained perspective about myself, my family, my country by removing myself from everything that’s been so familiar.”
White continues to explore issues of conflict and growth, writing “A Penny Saved” to reimagine the true story of Polly Mitchell, a woman held captive in her home for 10 years, and currently studying Caribbean mythology, in part to write letters to her biological father, originally from Guyana.
“I’m wanting to take these personal questions and enlarge them to think about the role of paternalism and how we are in relationship to ourselves and our larger world,” White said. “I’m wanting to tackle these bigger issues; I haven’t done that yet in my work and I’m really wanting to challenge myself.”
Poetry Review: Arisa White’s A Penny Saved: A Poetic Narrative of Domestic Abuse
by Rebecca McCray
For ten years, Polly Mitchell was imprisoned in her Nebraska home, abused and kept under lock and key by her obsessively jealous husband. Just two months into her marriage, Mitchell’s husband installed deadbolts on the doors of her home that locked from the outside, and soon after nailed the windows shut and covered them with tinfoil to obscure his wife’s view of the outside world. After surviving a decade of rape and abuse, Mitchell finally escaped with the help of her mother and an advocate at a local domestic violence shelter. For Arisa White, this horrific narrative was a chance to explore larger themes of captivity, violence, and resilience through poetry.
White’s latest collection, A Penny Saved, is an interpretation of Polly’s struggle reimagined through the story of her own captive protagonist, Penny. Told in three parts, White’s fictional account of captivity moves deftly between varied narrators, carefully rendering the voices of child, adult, and home; of the abuser and the abused. Each of these characters illuminates a different perspective of Penny’s experience in captivity and the violence she endured. Even the house itself is an empathic narrator, quietly bearing witness to Penny’s abuse and chronicling the rules that dictate her limited movement. Through these voices, the reader intimately experiences both the violence and repetition of Penny’s captivity, her “extraordinary crawl from yesterday to arrive at the same damned thing.”
Penny’s daughter Elizabeth seeks solace amidst the chaos of her home in her imaginary friendship with Jewelie. “This imaginary friend became another voice in the manuscript—a voice that allows the younger person, witnessing all this violence to speak and articulate their fears and concerns. As a child who grew in domestic violence, it was important for me to have that voice involved, because it is a voice that is seldom heard or listened to,” explained White. Penny’s narration describes watching Elizabeth speak “quiet jibberish” into her palm, piecing together her daughter’s fictitious friendship: “She lives in your hand? / Yes, it makes it easy to keep her safe.”
White’s multifaceted narrative even embraces the perspective of Penny’s husband. “For the husband’s voice, I had to step out of my judgments about violence and aggression and masculinity. I had to step out of the place of seeing this person as wrong, but step into his story and share it because it too is one that needs to be heard,” said White. This exercise is a challenge for both author and reader – given the perspective of Penny’s husband, we are asked to extend ourselves to him as well as to Penny, in spite of the pain we feel for her throughout the text.
Following Polly Mitchell’s escape and the prosecution of her husband, one question pervades the interviews she gave: why stay for so long? This is the complex question that initially spurred White’s writing. “It is a question that is not particular to Polly’s story, but to women who are in abusive relationships, period,” said White. “Why do we stay? What keeps them there? I was really curious about that internal thing inside that says, ‘stay a little longer.’ It is the same question I posed to myself about my mother.”
With Mitchell’s story, White’s inquiry evolved beyond the why: “I came across this situation with Polly where she couldn’t leave, so then the question became how does she stay? What are the internal resources she’s tapping into?” White’s poems work to answer this question, and in doing so artfully reveal Penny’s strength, her love of her children, and her will to survive.
Across the Page: Meredith Maran, Linda Hirshman, Arisa White
Posted by Heather Aimee O’Neill on June 19, 2012
This month’s Across the Page features Meredith Maran’s wonderful debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, Linda Hirshman’s history of the LGBT movement, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, and Arisa White’s collection of poetry Hurrah’s Nest.
A Theory of Small Earthquakes by Meredith Maran (Soft Skull Press)
Award-winning journalist and writer of ten nonfiction books, Meredith Maran knows how to tell a good story—and her fiction, it turns out, is no different. In her debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, Maran tells a powerful and evocative story of a family that spans over two decades. It is a novel about what it means to forge your own path—in life, love and in the creation of a family.
After Allison and Zoe meet and fall in love as undergrads at Oberlin College, they move to the Bay Area of San Francisco and begin a life together. The relationship is strong and filled with growth, but tensions arise when Allison’s desire for a child forces her to consider Zoe’s free-spiritedness through a more critical lens.
In the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake, Allison sleeps with a man from her office at Mother Jones. She soon discovers that she’s pregnant and it is unclear if the child is the result of a previous artificial insemination procedure or the affair. When a baby boy is born, the three parents have to learn how to work together for each other and for the child.
A Theory of Small Earthquakes is not only an important and honest book, but it is also extremely funny and smart. A must read.
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman (Harper)
When I first heard the title of Supreme Court lawyer and political pundit Linda Hirshman’s new book, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, I knew that this was a story I wanted to hear.
On the front cover, Victory promises to show “how a despised minority pushed back, beat death, found love, and changed America for everyone.” And in the book, Hirshman lives up to this promise in her deft analysis and chronicling of the gay rights movement. Hirshman, who is straight, was inspired to write this detailed account after an interaction with the “longtime gay activist, philosopher, and bongo-drumming Faerie,” Arthur Evans.
The book charts the major points within the movement from the Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage equality. Hirshman provides an in-depth look at the movement’s history (“Red in Bed: It Takes a Communist to Recognize Gay Oppression”) to its current obstacles and achievements (“With Liberal Friends: Who Needs Enemies?”).
Whether we’ve actually achieved “Victory” just yet is a question Hirshman allows readers to consider for themselves, but she makes an undeniably compelling and convincing argument that there is plenty to celebrate in the journey and fight thus far. Victory is an ambitious, entertaining and highly informative book. The perfect read for Pride month.
Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White (Vac Poetry)
Arisa White’s debut poetry collection Hurrah’s Nest features a gathering of voices that capture the universal and the personal. The poems here are lyrical, dense and compact investigations of family, home, race, society, sexuality and love.
The title of the collection refers to an untidy mess, a tangle or heap of objects, but White keeps order here through a clear and straightforward voice. In her absorbing examination of her difficult childhood and conflicted relationship with her mother, White considers her past in order to better understand her present and future selves.
In “We Not Crazy, We Feeling Irie,” White describes her mother through the sound and memory of her voice:
My mother sings as if her tongue were raised
alongside the sea’s echo.
And, indeed, her mother’s presence echoes throughout the rest of the collection. Community and family both influence White’s poems about young love and her developing awareness of sexuality. In the poem “As Near As We Come To Another World,” she writes about her best friend and neighbor:
My skin to her skin is not enough—
orchestrated bumping into and draping onto,
spooning during sleepovers,
huddling when scary movies are on—
I need closer, an infrastructure to get there faster.
This is White’s first full collection. Her previous chapbooks include Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon. The San Francisco Bay Guardian selected her for the 2010 Hot Pink List and she is a blog editor for HER KIND. Engaging, accessible and contemplative, I highly recommend checking out Hurrah’s Nest.
Additional books to check out:
The Narrows by M. Craig (Papercut Press) – A gripping coming of age story set in the mythical world of Terresin, an urban wonderland where a young woman named Sim struggles to find a place to belong. The novel is filled with magic, intrigue, environmental and social allegories, and love. An impressive debut by Brooklyn-based writer Maggie Craig.
This is How I Dream It by Jennifer Harris (Jackleg Press) – From the author of the celebrated novel Pink, which was included in Curve magazine’s top 150 lesbian-written novels, Jennifer Harris’s new book is a lyrical compilation of stories, poems and anecdotes that explore and meditate on themes such as love and longing—you know, the easy stuff of life. A very powerful collection.
Savvy Verse & Wit
April 29, 2012
Interview with poet Arisa White
By Serena Augusto-Cox
As National Poetry Month winds down with the month of April, I hope the tour was able to inspire you to read different poetry books and poets. Today, I’ve got a special edition to the blog tour, an interview with poet Arisa White, author of Hurrah’s Nest, which I reviewed earlier last week.
I really enjoyed the variation in this collection, the imagery, and the personal story. If you’re looking for poetry that makes you think, but is entertaining at the same time, White’s work is for you.
Without further ado, please welcome Arisa White:
1. What are your poetic roots? When did you begin reading and writing poetry and who has influenced you?
My family is an artistic bunch. There are poets, rappers, and writers, and dancers, and shit-talkers, which takes skill and craft as well! It’s in the blood and some of us have been fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue those dreams.
When my aunt, the oldest of seven, found out that I was writing and publishing poetry, she would call me on the phone and read me her poems and tell me her ideas for writing a memoir. It’s beautiful to be a source of inspiration for a woman I admire. My paternal uncle Aubrey has a book of poetry published called Implantation. It’s funny how you look back on your life and can see that this has always been your path.
I began writing poetry in elementary school, really took a liking to limericks in junior high, and in high school I won a city-wide contest for a poem I wrote about women’s history month and I just kept going from there. I frequented the Brooklyn spoken word scene and was influenced by Jessica Care Moore, Mahogany, Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux, even the movie Love Jones had a positive impact.
My first book of poetry was an anthology of women poets, given to me by my global studies teacher. From that book, I memorized “Nikki Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni. Even at one point, I interned and was mentored by a local Brooklyn poet, India DuBois (I wonder how she’s doing?) who wrote Jazz and the Evening Sun. It is when I went off to Sarah Lawrence, I feel like the reading and delving into the craft of poetry began.
2. Hurrah’s Nest is a lot about the scars that shape us. How much of your poems are autobiographical?
Hurrah’s Nest is an autobiographical collection, rendered poetically. Mostly and lately, I have been writing from personal experiences–through the lens of self. I’m making sense of what’s going around me, as well as to investigate what is going inside of me. Who am I? I feel that urgency to know, even more so, having relocated to the West six years ago and removed from the people, places, and things that I have defined myself with and by. The poems I’m writing now are an expression of my heroic journey.
3. As an MFA graduate, how do you feel the degree has helped you and/or hurt you? And what made you decide to obtain your MFA from UMass Amherst?
The MFA degree was what I wanted to get–I wanted to be skilled in my art. To be seen as an artist. I wasn’t really thinking about how I could use it. I don’t think I have consciously used my degree to get a job or a teaching gig–it’s been my writing and experiences I have relied so much on to open doors for me. In the end, it all works together.
I loved my MFA program at UMass, Amherst. It’s a three-year program and it’s a perfect amount of time. I received a three-year fellowship that covered my tuition, health care, and I gained valuable teaching experience. Also, the time to write was priceless. When deciding on MFA programs, this was my criterion, in order of importance: region, financial support, and faculty. At the time, I was living in NYC and I wanted to be somewhat close to my hometown. Also, I didn’t want to add to my debt. I really wanted to be financially supported so that I could concentrate on writing. UMass, Amherst, has a great faculty (Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Dara Wier) and is a part of the five-college system (Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire, and Holyoke). In addition to my graduate course work, I took poetry and dance classes at Smith–I had a wonderful time during my graduate years. Because I did not have the distraction of NYC, I really focused in on my writing and point of view. Hurrah’s Nest is essentially my thesis (thank you, Dara!).
4. Poetry is often solitary, more so than other art forms on occasion, because it is deeply personal, but there are efforts like the Split This Rock Poetry Festival and others that attempt to bring poetry to the masses and to bring about a social connection and call attention to a particular cause. Do you feel the need to do the same in your work? If so, why or why not? What do you think of these poetic movements?
I totally feel the need to call attention to particular causes in my writing. As a poet, it is how I engage–by interrogating how we relate or are not relating to each other and the social, economic, and political ramifications that has on certain groups within our culture. Poetry can be humanizing and restorative and believing that gives my poetry purpose, gives me purpose.
In thinking about the work I’ve created and want to create, I’m moving from the personal and to a social “I”. Hurrah’s Nest looks closely at the family unit, where it all starts, where we form a sense of self and how that self relates to others and the world. Then we step outside of the home and often time are in the habit of repeating what we have been told about who we are and what we can do.
I think we have to know our particular stories, so we can take responsibility for how they shape and recreate experiences. My second collection, A Penny Saved, which will be published by Willow Books in 2013, is about a woman who was held captive in her home for 11 years. I loosely based the collection on Polly Mitchell, a Nebraskan woman who finally escaped from her home and husband, with her four kids, in 2003. It’s mind blowing what we do to each other!
I’m in the process of adapting Post Pardon, a chapbook length long poem that explores the post-partum experience, into a libretto. My composer friend Jessica Jones is writing the music. And then, I’m applying for grants and residencies to write a series of eclogues that depict the lives of four sexually-exploited minors and their pimp, in an urban setting. For me, I’m very much focused on writing about women in extreme situations, calling attention to those realities.
5. What are you reading now in poetry and what poetry would you recommend others read and why? Also feel free to share anything about your upcoming poetry collections and projects?
I would recommend others read Bitters by Rebecca Seiferle, Cranial Guitar by Bob Kaufman, Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen, leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess, Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, and anything by Medbh McGuckian, because these poets have these fresh ways of saying/seeing things, a charge that makes you love and appreciate poetry, and an intelligence that makes me jealous! There are so many more poets whom I’m discovering too–so I recommend: never stop reading.
Thanks Arisa for answering my questions. I look forward to reading A Penny Saved and your eclogues.
Savvy Verse & Wit
April 23, 2012
Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White
By Serena Augusto-Cox
Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White is an illustration of the “untidy heap” or “tangle of debris that can block a stream” that family can become, and it will remind readers how birds create their nests out of the most unwelcome or tossed aside elements of the world from hair to fabric strings and twigs. There are scars here, deep ones rooted in absentee parents and relatives whose ways of doing things countered the practices the narrator was taught. Minor acts of rebellion scream out in dreadlocks and boyish haircuts on girls. There are other poems with child-like qualities in which panties become parachutes and beaded braids become like seaweed in “Last Bath,” which represent happier memories and playfulness shared by young siblings with great imaginations.
In “Portrait Painter” (page 19), White’s narrator ponders the evident differences between herself and her brothers, whom she is called out of childhood into adulthood at a moment’s notice to help raise. “It’s different/how our mother looks at us/with sweet and brick/of romances gone,” she observes. A deep sadness and resentment pervades the poems in this collection as the narrator looks back on the waffling of her mother who in turns cares for and gives up care of her children, and threatens them with foster care when they’ve not behaved as they should, particularly in “Chore.”
Ostracization happens inside and outside the family for the narrator as she experiences typical classroom jokes coupled with the laughing she endures from her mother, brother, and step-father. Her mother even chastizes her for her sensitivity, saying that it is like a “broken leg” in “Helicopter, Heliocopter Please Come Down. If You Don’t Come Down, I’ll Shoot You Down.” (page 28).
In “An Albatross to Us Both” (page 41-3), the theme of protection and strength is strongest as the narrator and her siblings “wear each other like amulets.” Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White is a lesson to us all that despite all of the “mess” we create with our lives and the messes that we live through, there are nuggets of wisdom and strength that we carry with us and nurture. Strong imagery combined with themes of loss, separation, and togetherness create a powerful collection about the beautiful mess that families are and how they shape us.
Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest
It is Monday night in Glen Park and the neighborhood calms as its residents assume posts in bars and warmly lit restaurants along Diamond Street. I have found my way to Bird and Beckett Books, where I know poet Arisa White, author of the recently published Hurrah’s Nest, will be reading.
The group of people that has already assembled greets me warmly, and I assume (correctly) that I am surrounded by a number of fellow poets. I recognize and appreciate their affinity for this place, a small storefront piled high with myriad books. Each overflowing shelf leads to another, and despite the smallness of the venue I find myself momentarily overwhelmed by its contents. A makeshift stage bears a beautiful upright piano, and I learn that Bird and Beckett, in addition to monthly readings, hosts celebrated jazz events. I make a mental note to return here often.
As the reading begins, few chairs remain empty; the turn-out is impressive for a Monday night, the atmosphere low-key and yet thrumming with artistic support. Q.R. Hand takes the stage, and though I am unfamiliar with his work, the gravity with which he selects pieces from his portfolio assures me that something impressive is about to unfold. Q.R. performs his fast-paced, sonically explosive poetry and the audience collectively leans forward, interjects with yes or wow and even this is it, this is it!
He concludes and is ushered from the stage with friendly slaps on the back and congratulations. The host assures us there is “plenty more where that came from,” and encourages us to seek out more of the poet’s work.
And now we are introduced to Arisa White, who smilingly admits that it is her first time to Bird and Beckett. A comment is made about her impressive number of publications and awards, particularly for such a young poet. Modestly, White acknowledges that yes, she has been fortunate in this regard. I cannot help but feel a pang or two of good-natured envy.
Like Hand, White takes the stage quietly, her copy of Hurrah’s Nestin hand. The book’s title, she explains, is antiquated slang for a state of disarray, a nautical term for “chaos.” This immediately lends certain ideas about her project, which takes the poet’s large family (White is one of seven children) as its focus.
As a lover of formal poetry, I am glad when she begins with a piece entitled, “To you, named the messenger of god,” which borrows prosody from the sestina. The names of White’s six siblings churn and cycle within the framework of six-line stanzas; seven stanzas, in total, hearken to the poet as part of this family unit. Clever? Absolutely. It takes a careful writer to navigate a sestina’s scaffolding in this fashion, without the choice smacking of gimmick. “To you…” is an immensely successful poem, both utilizing and breaking formal constraints to fuel the collection’s musicality.
Musicality is what energizes the entirety of White’s reading. Hearing the work in the poet’s voice was a delight, but the symphonic flux of the words is evident even on the page. My mind, my ear go again and again to a stanza that opens “The small places I go,” which recalls a traumatic incident in which the poet was struck by a vehicle:
I hide from the light
beneath the cover of lids,
and where I go is tinted
with the color in which
we mark our errors.
This sadness makes me
stamp size. (48)
It is this constant, shifting assonance that makes White’s work so melodically memorable for me. While the content is often of tragedy, the tone is of song, of celebration. A lineage of trouble becomes lauded for where it has led; the journey is inviting in such a warm light.
I notice as she reads that White frequently employs a unique syntax, in which agency is often assigned to unexpected objects. This is strongly present, for example, in “P.S. 21′s assembly for the blackface documentary,” in which White’s phrases include “My favorite t-shirt spoils beneath my chin,” and “He fumbles the dark, the lamp to shatter” (23). In one of her most powerful pieces, “Tenderized,” these shifts are vivid:
The herd of myself wrangled to a waterhole, stationed on hooves
with god-given stripes to come close to the embarrassing curtsey of words.
I offer myself like one of the carved tchotchkes on the mantel.
For the ways I imagined myself vicious,
they’re as inanimate as carnival prizes. I barter
my sentinels, concede myself as my mother does to his aggression. (51)
The rawness of these syntactical shifts grinds, in all the right places, against the natural music of White’s voice. So suited is this choice to a subject matter that includes, among other things, hunger, abuse, neglect. There is a prosodic arsenal within the pages of Hurrah’s Nest and it has clearly been constructed with care.
When Arisa White has finished reading, a brief moment of silence is punctuated with applause and generous vocalizations of appreciation. Her first visit to Bird and Beckett has been a great success, and I feel certain her first book will enjoy a similar response. I leave, bolstered by the energy only such a reading can manifest.
By Arisa White
Virtual Artist’s Collective, 2012
The Narrator: Poetry Review: Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White
This week’s poetry review is contributed by Chelsea Lemon Fetzer, whose poetry has appeared in Stone Canoe, Callaloo, Tin House, and Mississippi Review. She is the founder of The Create Collective, a non-profit organization working to bridge the gaps between artists and community based organizations. Chelsea currently leads NY Writers Coalition workshops for homeless LGBTQ youth at CAMP Brooklyn.
In her debut poetry collection Hurrah’s Nest, Arisa White offers a lovely and haunting family portrait. Drawing from he life as a young girl raised in Brooklyn, Arisa is neither guarded in her honesty, nor self-indulgent. The collection poignantly recovers moments of a childhood, simple as they are impacting, dark as they are colorful, while it explores a refreshing range in style and form.
Ultimately, a narrative is assembled in Arisa’s lines, and we come to love and hope for her characters — seven siblings and their mother, who cannot be protected from her own struggles and search for love. At the same time, Arisa’s style shapeshifts into the abstract, expertly playing with the possibilities of poetry, so that the story of a family grounded against its will is ultimately told in a language that leaps into dreamlike flights.
I had the privilege of interviewing Arisa on her experience writing Hurrah’s Nest.
What sparked or guided this collection?
My obsessions. I was writing – and writing the things that I was obsessed with, which were my family and my relationships that played out family dynamics. There were moments from my childhood that stuck with me and those moments would appear over and over in my poetry. They were a part of my cosmology, my vocabulary.
Those moments became my metaphors to constantly riff off of. I discovered something more about myself and others from the moments of pause that writing welcomes. I got to look closely and feel deeply and see things more clearly. And to really sit with those givens in life: Everything changes, things do not always goes as planned, life is not always fair, pain is part of life, and people aren’t always loving and loyal all the time.
Can you describe your process of translating memory, especially the often chaotic narratives of family/childhood memory, into a poem?
All of my writing is translation, regardless if it comes from my memory or another’s memory. I’m often working from this place of how to write the emotion I am feeling, how to make it seen and felt. Because I know that I am not going to be able to remember every thing that happened, I rely on my emotions as guide. I start from a central truth that I know everyone can agree on — everyone in this case of Hurrah’s Nest would be my family. That this event happened.
From there, it’s an exploration of my feelings — I’m trying to locate images and sounds, how it sits on the page, to speak my emotional narrative.As much as I can, I allow myself to take personal and artistic risks when writing. I allow my vulnerability to occupy the poem. There is no point in writing if I am not tapping into my vulnerability because that is where the beauty is. That is where language seems to freshly flow. And I feel like I’m reconnecting to something great in myself, something untouched by circumstances, something essentially good.
That is when I know the translation has been successful, because I managed to reconnect with a moment in time that felt incomprehensible to me. There is less chaos between what is felt, seen, and heard. The poem is what makes peace between them all.
Why did you choose “Hurrah’s Nest” for the title?
While researching nautical terms for the poem “An albatross to us both,” I came across the definition of hurrah’s nest, a bundle of cords or rope in disorganization, which later came to mean, disorder and confusion. I like the multi-layered meaning of hurrah’s nest. If you don’t know the definition, it sounds kind of jovial, celebratory, lively. Coupled with ‘nest’ you have that feeling of nurture, home, care, being tended to, a starting place.
All those conflicted feelings one can have about home and family are embedded in hurrah’s nest. It felt like a perfect title because that is what I wanted to convey. I wanted that sense of celebration and frustration of family. The hard and gentle lessons that come from our childhood, how it shapes us and cracks us, opens and closes us to our selves — forever these seasons of water and burn. From every thing that has happened to me, I have been given and made more aware of my tools to be an adult, a writer, comfortable in my skin. And I can nest in that.
We alone together is me, one egg in the pigeon’s nest
between my rusting ten-speed and brick wall.
The wind blocked my body from her.
Night and day we were audience
to feathers tossed and shit about.
It’s hard to listen to courtship.
She tells me, With children you will never be lonely.
-from “Disposition for Shininess” by Arisa White
ALBANY POETRY EXAMINER
POETRY BOOK REVIEW
by Cherise Wyneken
Oedipus plucked out his eyes in order to relieve his agony. Oakland poet, Arisa White, opens hers wide as she shares her emotional and physical agony with readers in her new narrative collection of free verse, HURRAH’S NEST, from Virtual Artists Collective.
In the first poem, TO YOU NAMED THE MESSENGER OF GOD, we learn that the family’s nest was no “Hurrah,” except for the siblings’ care and love for each other. Like a spider Arisa spins a complex web through her childhood, where lack of motherly affection traps and pulls her away from her essence. Although her poems describe a challenging family life she doesn’t whine; rather, she takes us there where we can feel the bad times with her.
Arisa seizes our attention through her insightful use of vivid images and original vocabulary such as, It’s frightening how she has an epitaph’s unmistaken permanency; the way the script attempts to smile in marble. Or, that cocklebur of a mantra, both from DISPOSITION FOR SHININESS. Similes like laughs like a jackhammer, put the sound right into your ear, and metaphors such as an artery which stands for her mother, whose blood she shares, are unmistakable in their reference. Her voice never drones, but vibrates loud and distinct. She uses specific events to introduce new crises in her life: I’m getting rid of you all, words from her mother in CHORE and You flee for the police in SISTER, a reference to her physical surroundings. His body leaves a draft, describes how she felt when her brother left home, and, We fold the smaller one into the bigger one, poignantly shows how the children protected each other. Her sadness is beautifully expressed in THE SMALL PLACES I GO: This sadness makes me stamp sized. The narrative comes to a resolution as she seeks healing through therapy: IN THE GRIP OF DIRT. The collection as a whole is an elegy for her childhood.
The narrative comes on so strong, I first felt incapable of working with it, but as I read on, I found a thought provoking collection of moving poetry — one that helps us understand each other and refrain from making quick judgments. I highly recommend the book.
In the last poem in the collection, found on the back cover, and printed below, Arisa reveals a lingering sadness for what she missed in her childhood.
What you come to meet at ends:
ports and shantytowns,
me folded like a note
waiting to toss
myself to any wave
muscle enough to get me back.
Really, what is the point
of the sun’s ritual,
the light and heat of its circling,
if what rivers through me
is a hunger—
the draught and flood of it?
Life and Times.com: The Word
Interviewed by dream hampton
Arisa White’s debut collection of poetry Hurrah’s Nest works in many ways as narrative prose. Her vivid collection works as a kind of biography of a family, or a neighborhood. But always there is flow – almost musical – which can’t be entirely credited to her Caribbean roots. White is casual yet careful with construction, she makes deliberate look easy. Her poems are not without politics, but they do tend to come with no judgment. In her poem “Subtext…” she unpacks a life in seven stanzas:
“Pregnant at fourteen, swayed by a boy
not gentleman enough to take off her coat.
Six kids later, she sleeps with a Jamaican mechanic
Who gets drunk and leaves her a bouquet of bruises.”
Here, I talk to the Sarah Lawrence and UMass, Amherst, grad about her first reads, making a living as a poet and the hierarchy of page poetry over spoken word.
Life+Times: What were your earliest experiences with literature?
Arisa White: Mostly I did a lot of reading. I read anything that was at my mom or grandma’s house – encyclopedias, Agatha Chrisie, Jamaica Kincaid, Terry Mcmillan, Octavia Butler. Around 6th grade, our teacher was really into building our vocabulary and part of those assignments were to write stories with SAT words. I’d rewrite the lives of characters from A Different World. I rewrote Dwayne’s life. I put Whitley in the ‘hood. My teacher shared our stories with her sister and her sister couldn’t believe these stories came from 6th graders. And that’s when I realized you can put on a guise and create a whole world that doesn’t necessarily connect to the author’s personal history and something about that fascinated me—I could be a trickster.
L+T: Hurrah’s Nest is concerned with family. It reads like your family. How did you navigate issue of privacy?
AW: I just wrote and then I realized it was going to be about family. Initially I tried to change their names, but that didn’t work because the poems were constructed with the music of their names: Kayana, Uriah, Jamar. So I got their permission to put it out there, which meant giving it to the family to see what they thought and I was nervous. I thought they’d think I betrayed their privacy, but they loved it. I was relieved. However that came at the end when I was putting the manuscript together. During the years it took to write these poems, I focused on the writing, on getting my truth out, otherwise I would’ve never written these poems—I can be very sensitive to what others think.
L+T: How do you make a living as a poet? Do you have to teach? A lot of poets would love to know some of the practical things they should know when they think of doing this…
AW: Number one: don’t focus on the money. What I do is I work. Around 2008 I realized I couldn’t just do poetry, I had to do something else. For me poetry is about all the things I’m doing in my life, which includes my work. So it came down to me doing work that allowed me to keep poetry as a top priority. For me that means writing for magazines and working remotely, so if I have to travel or go away a month for a fellowship, I can. I’ve been a bit resistant to academia and teaching, but I’m considering. I do writing workshops in the community. I recently did one with high school students in Oakland and that was an ideal group to work with. I’ve been more proactive about making more of those opportunities happen. It’s also about being realistic—yes, as a poet I have to have a job or a rich partner [laughs].
L+T: Who are your favorite poets?
AW: There are so many, but some of my favorite poets are Hart Crane and the Irish poet Medhbh McGuckian, who I just adore. For contemporary poets: Tyehimba Jess, Rebecca Seiferle, Claudia Rankine and Terrance Hayes whose recent chapbook deals with race from a sci-fi perspective.
L+T: What do you consider the differences between spoken word and poetry?
AW: Growing up in New York, I’d go to Brooklyn Moon and Nuyorican and Kokobar and all these places where there was spoken word, so it holds a totally special place for me. I can see where it diverges from page poetry but they both work the same for me. With spoken word, I came into my own political voice and sensibility as a young woman growing up urban and poor. It provided a space for me to make social and personal connections and to think of myself as a citizen. When I’m working on the page, I focus more on the word, the syntax, the actual line. I have respect for spoken word, I consider it a genre of poetry and it has its place in the canon. When I’m working with kids whose poems come off more performative and spoken word, I give them tools to better their line structure or improve their metaphors. I believe each has its place.
Phenomenal Nobodies: Knowing the Unknown
“Sound Cannot Be Denied. The Music In Ourselves Cannot Be Denied,” A Conversation With Arisa White
The Museum of Natural Historicity and Phenomenal Nobodies celebrate award winning writer Arisa White and the release of her debut poetry collection, Hurrah’s Nest. White is a writer of rare courage, lyrical styling, and insight. What follows is an excerpt of the conversation PN had with White over the course of the last two weeks. As you’ll see White’s ability to think critically and deeply is buttressed by her unique sense of humor and perspective. We hope you enjoy reading her thoughts as much as we enjoyed hearing them.
Editor-in-Chief, Phenomenal Nobodies
PN: Good Morning Arisa, I hope all is well in Oakland. I’d like to begin our conversation with a two part question: Why write; why read?
AW: These questions are deceptively hard in their simplicity. Why write? It is a way to forge connection. I’m sitting here in the 16th & Mission BART station, looking at all the lines around me: in the tiles, the rails, the lines of this notebook; the actual sentence. The shortest distance between A and B is the line. And since I’m A, I write to arrive. At Beyoncé, maybe. At the bee in flight. At being. At how to just be.
Why read? To meet other minds. Reading, I believe, is our teleportation—Star Trek just made it look more interesting with sparkles! If you think of each individual writer as his or her own universe, then reading is an opportunity for adventure. It is like someone pulls back the curtain, and says, Go, there is beauty to be discovered here. It is an act of liberation, in the sense that it helps me to confront my truths about myself. And those truths can be in agreement or in disagreement with what I read. It is intimacy, and intimacy is about relationship. And as we all know, relationships are hard work. Within those dynamics with self and other, we learn our edges, where we have built our walls, we learn where we let unconditional love die away, we learn what was lost and what it is we wish to reclaim.
PN: The idea of writing as a process of learning for the writer, and writer as universe is always a fascinating one for me, and it makes me think of Ginsberg’s poem “Cosmopolitan Greetings” in which Ginsberg writes “Universe is person.” If this is so, than how does a writer get over the idea that what they have said has already been said before? How do you continue to write, especially in a world which is so invested and overwhelmed with blinking and beeping machines, televisions, reality shows, etc… so much of which is not about learning?
AW: A good friend of mine gave me a copy of James Baldwin’s short stories and essays from Vintage, and I read “Sonny’s Blues,” and this passage confirms my actions as an artist, as a poet, and drives me to keep writing: “[They] are up there keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.”
This world is always going to be invested and overwhelmed by something. This is life, no? These challenges are what keep us balanced, what may even drive us toward wellness, to stillness, to finding the thing that speaks deeply to us. It is all about moderation and changing things up, so you’re not overusing the same muscle and numbing yourself out. Nothing’s fun when you’re numb!
I love reality shows, TV is a great invention, blinking and beeping machines can be cool and it’s all about learning, about the evolution of humanity. Learning doesn’t look one way and that is what we have to be open to. When I’m sitting and watching television, I am watching it critically. Paying attention to the tropes and stereotypes and clever ways they sell products to us and tell us we are in constant need, that we are in a perpetual state of lack. That is the sad part and the part that can keep you thirsty and unfulfilled if you measure your worth based on that shit.
All of this stuff, the distractions, the blinking and beeping enters the writing. I want it to because it is a part of my culture, a part of my times. Blinking and beeping offers new metaphors for me to play with, forces me to shift my perspective, see things differently. Thinking in that regard, I appreciate rappers for their ability to pull in so many cultural and popular references with excellent wordplay. When I need to feel hype—thank-god-for-art hype— I listen to Nikki Minaj or Lil Wayne on Pandora and read a few lines of Hart Crane and Medbh McGuckian, and I’m like, “How you like me now!?”
PN: You mentioned Beyonce. Can you speak a little bit on the subject of the role and responsibility related to black womanhood an artist has? Are there aspects of the identity you try to challenge or subvert in your work? Or is social identity something a writer must ignore as they work?
AW: The moment you say responsibility, I feel this weight and pressure and that is the thing I don’t want to feel when I am writing. Talk about a killjoy! Some people thrive with responsibility, but as the older daughter in a bunch of seven, I’m tired. As a woman, I have to battle with that role of being mother, nurturer, and selfless giver. I have a defiant streak, so whenever I’m told that I have to be something or be a certain way or act accordingly to these socially accepted notions of womanhood, I find other ways for expression. I don’t necessarily trust what everyone else agrees on, I need to question it, see it in operation before I consent to participation.
In Hurrah’s Nest, you can witness that wariness in approaching womanhood, black womanhood in particular—since that is what I knew. As I understood black womanhood then, from listening to my mother’s stories, it seemed fraught with violence and loss. I remembered being afraid to turn 14 because that was when my mother had my oldest brother. I was firmly cautioned to not do the same thing. I was going through puberty, my body was changing, and all of sudden I became sexually visible—something for the taking. And too, it become my responsibility to protect my body, to keep it from being violated and disrespected, to tame it so it didn’t court any kind of advances. Womanhood, felt like too much defensive work! I wanted to avoid that work of womanhood. It’s strange to have a relationship with your self where you feel like you have to be on constant guard—it reduced me to corporeal fragments, to object. I wanted and still want a way to be free in my own body, without contempt, fear, or shame. It is a journey, a journey where I am giving myself the permission to live wholly (holy) in myself.
I try to approach identity fluidly. To show its shapeless, shifting nature. How we name ourselves, label, and identify—these are false containers. It’s like money—not real! We agree that it is real, so it gets to have power over us. And it gets to limit our interactions and connections and therefore stunts what we can know and learn about each other and ourselves on a deeper, humanistic level. Fluidity allows for movement and we need it to grow and evolve. I’m a Pisces; I need movement otherwise my spirit dies.
I don’t ignore social identity; I recognize how it shapes our existence, however I approach it like it’s a part of my toolbox. It’s a mode of inquiry and a set of experiences that I can delve into and manipulate as needed. As a result of being black, woman, queer, and a whole other set of identities, I have information I can use, stories to tell, language I can switch in and out of. When I think about the way people speak and the idiomatic expressions and the arrangement of words, I get a sense of how folks position and have been positioned in society. I get a particular vantage point from syntax. In Hurrah’s Nest, I have a story in the middle of the collection called “You smellin ya’self, gal?” and what stands out for me is the sound: how my brothers spoke, how I spoke, how my stepfather’s sister who is Guyanese spoke. There is a meeting of island talk and city talk. Grown bodies, young bodies. These collisions that make us pay attention in surprising ways, because we show ourselves more honestly; we see the masks coming down, the slip-ups, the vulnerability. It is getting to that vulnerability that challenges me—how to use language to speak about and speak to the ways we keep ourselves from showing it.
PN: Your mention of how we use language makes me want to understand two things about your work. First, can you talk about the relationship between message and musicality. How much is your work driven by the sound of language? How much of it is driven by the idea or feeling you’re investigating and working to communicate? In other words, does the sound of language, the pursuit of some inner cadence bring you towards discovery?
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be
Everybody’s searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me
I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be
And if, by chance, that special place
That you’ve been dreaming of
Leads you to a lonely place
Find your strength in love
This was the first song I had to memorize for a graduation ceremony. Whitney has a powerful voice and her ability to go deep and high makes me get goosebumps–gets me feeling. With writing, the majority of the time I start off with an emotion and then I find the language to match it. It is a matter of translation. I am an emotional being trying to communicate and I will use what is at my disposal to help you, the reader, the listener, the observer, feel it. Sound cannot be denied. The music in ourselves cannot be denied. With all our busyness and running, we have to be reminded that we feel.