LIKE A BREEZE, poet Arisa White took the stage at Bay Area Writers Resist, an event organized in January responding to the election of Donald Trump. She didn’t speak his name or bookend her performance with the rallying cries heard at protest marches — although, as a black queer female, she has plenty to rally against. Instead, she began simply and slowly:
Stillness and breath
breathe your body
She repeated the lines; then again.
“I was thinking about how we’re all in this reactionary place and expect the poet to speak to our reactionary desires,” she later explained. While the repetition was uncomfortable, even for her, she believes breaking through discomfort is important — itself an act of creation.
Take White’s most recent collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. The title comes from the poem “When They Say,” part of a series dedicated to White’s late cousin, Karen. Each verse is a pool of pain — but only in the beginning. Young girls are molested by uncles, their “adolescence initiated with AIDS.” White offsets each verse with their imagined wonderings: Was I black and ugly? Why did he do that to me? But in the final verse, a new narrative is born:
Karen, you are holy ova, she-she serenade, potent dap and dynahara,
bornship and portal, worshipped lotus, you are liminal wonder,
helicun, you are vivakiss, kush, fragrant red-deep, a woke-parade —
believe, you are the most beautiful thing that happened.
In telling Karen’s story, White tells her own; she doesn’t see them as separate. She approaches words as reference points, rather than end points, she said. By reimagining language she exerts control over her sense of self.
“I think about language as placement, as locations on a map,” she said. “It’s a way to get to something — that’s the expansive element of language. When you read a story, you’re able to find a location within yourself. It may not be the same exact place as another person, but you find your own place; your own Leaning Tower of Pisa. From that, you make your own language and are able to tell your story in a very distinct way.”
On a sunny Friday afternoon in Oakland at Nomadic Press, which published her chapbook Black Pearl, we discuss her work and how tension, labels, and silence influence it.
ALYSSA OURSLER: You spoke earlier of breaking narratives that really don’t benefit us. It seems that when we break them — as you do in “When They Say” — we feel a troubling tension, and that tension often drives us to silence.
ARISA WHITE: Absolutely. I have an aunt who’s a lesbian — but she doesn’t call herself that. She calls herself an aggressive. She’s in her early 60s and she came out in the late ’70s, when everyone was coming out. In 1979, when she came out, that’s when I was born. That’s when there was this gay march on Washington — 1979 was such a gay year! But my family had a difficult time accepting her: How are you gay when you had kids, and were married?
For her, it was like: No, the previous performance wasn’t true. But she maintained her relationship with my family, and we got to witness this queer, black female in relationship to us. We had to re-see everything. We had to break through our discomforts of what it means to be a woman, to be black, to be a mother. What we thought was the script was broken.
My aunt broke a silence. Silence is different from quiet. She was like: I’m going to be the kind of woman that I want to be. I’m going to break through and find a language for myself. When she did that, she pushed us all out of our expectations. Then we had to reside in a place of quiet. Quiet is a creative space; silence is death. In quiet, we get to incubate and bring into creation a new form.
That distinction is very powerful. Quiet is lacking right now. That might relate to the media landscape, because everything’s so reactionary. To be involved these days feels like you’re always responding to something. Do you have to consciously carve out that quiet? Is it something you’ve cultivated in yourself? Or perhaps that’s what poetry does for you?
It’s all of the above. Poetry is my quiet and my way of articulating the crossings — from out of silence into noise, or out of silence into quiet, or out of quiet into voice — and the intersections of just being who I am. Poetry offers that moment of responsiveness.
I just don’t want to react. Reacting takes away so much of my energy and so much of the fun of being a poet, like the ways you can be creative with language. When we’re in this reactive space, it’s like all of a sudden every cliché gets used and feels so reused that it’s no longer functioning anymore. It’s lost meaning. When we’re being more responsible, we can actually learn to tap into our senses. If you can find quiet, you can see these other shapes and sounds in things.
How would you summarize your writing practice — your ability to tap into those shapes and sounds — and how has it changed over the years?
I’m writing more, actually — even though I’m doing more. I also think about writing in different stages: reading, synthesizing, daydreaming. I’ve intentionally taken in the idea of the quiet — allowing myself five minutes of breathing and then starting, breathing and then ending. I’m doing more collaborations with other artists, too. Black Pearl came out of a collaboration, and currently I’m working with a choreographer and an actress on a one-woman show.
For me to write something, I need to locate it in experience and someone’s body, otherwise it’s just out there floating off like a kite. In engaging the actress and asking her all these generative questions, I noticed what was showing itself was her insomnia. I thought it was interesting how now everyone’s like, “Be woke.” “I’m woke.” So I thought, “How can we play with this idea of wokeness, insomnia, awareness, and the need to actually rest?” How awake are you if you’re constantly having to labor — psychologically and emotionally — under master narratives, under this idea that you have to school people? Sometimes you need to sleep.
We’re a culture of striving, production, and efficiency — and mostly in ways we don’t even articulate. Even rest and leisure have become commoditized: I must relax during this time. That’s not how relaxing works!
Right, and also the idea that rest and leisure are only allowed for some groups of people. It’s funny. I’m teaching at St. Mary’s College, and I’m having an amazing time with graduate students, in part because I can come with these crazy prompts and try out ideas. It feels so fun. I was telling my mom, “I feel like I’m not doing work.” She said, “You’re not doing work. And the fact that you feel like you have to do more to make it feel like you’re working speaks to our neurosis as a culture.”
My mom worked. I grew up constantly seeing the black women in my family work, work, work. So somewhere in my brain there’s this conception that a black woman always has to labor, and that’s been historically reinforced. How do we break that? You have to discipline your body out of that.
You talk a lot about the body. I don’t know if it’s a trend toward the types of work we have available, but oftentimes we don’t think of centering ourselves in our body. There’s this distinction between body and mind. When you work are you trying to bridge that?
I’m just trying to get into my body. I don’t know where else I would start. [Laughs.]
I often think of it as a false distinction.
We’re taught to think of it as false! Even when I work with some of my students, they’re surprised that in their critical writing they can use a personal I. I’m like, “Yes! Why wouldn’t you involve yourself in your scholarship? Your knowledge is coming out of how you are in the world.” It’s the way in which we’re taught women’s writing is not universal; but a white male writer, his work is universal.
In the piece you wrote for LitHub, “In Praise of Our Black Women Poets,” you mention Lucille Clifton and her comment that people think a black woman poet cannot be universal. You wrote: “Clifton’s remark disabused me of the idea that there is something I must erase to make my poetry universal. She freed my mind and body; she freed my verse.” Can you elaborate?
Sometimes you have these moments where your brain gets decolonized, like, “Huh, why is the white male universal?” I am just as universal, looking at the world — the trafficking of women, the trafficking of black bodies — I am situated in a universal narrative. I am here, I am on this planet. I don’t have to constrict myself or negate my experiences.
Thinking about intersections and focusing on queer black female experiences gives me a different point of view, a way to isolate those experiences, to wonder about how they’re performing or shaping my art. It allows me a kind of clarity — to be able to see myself in a very distinct way within those identities.
That reminds me of “Seven Marys” — the series of seven poems that conclude the book. They’re very self-assured. One line reads: “I’m a woman grown better by my choices.” Tell me about what those poems mean for you?
I like “Seven Marys” because something broke for me with that. I’ve been called sassy and snarky and all these things, but I don’t feel that way. [Laughs.] But I’ve embraced that and really brought it into my poetry as this radically self-possessed woman who doesn’t mind being called a bitch, or doesn’t mind using profanity, and who will take on violence to protect what is hers, to protect her broken heart.
I like stepping into that emotionality, because I was holding back on that, in part because I didn’t know how to write it and not feel like some sort of angry black woman cliché. So I was like: Okay, I am going to step into the angry black woman cliché, whatever that is. If that’s not feeling right, where does it feel right for me? It becomes a location. Maybe the head-rolling doesn’t work for me, but it works for me in this instance, and I find myself making my own persona.
I like that it’s authentic in a certain moment. We have this false idea that we have to be consistent at all times. But how is that authentic? Who isn’t always changing? We often create these scripts for ourselves, so it’s nice to embrace the idea of what works right now.
That’s kind of how I move in the world. I had to get used to the fact that I change my mind, but to have that level of integrity — to stand behind that fluctuating sense of yourself — it’s just practice. I show up for these personas that want to be voiced. I just have to do the work to best articulate them, so that it feels authentic to me as a writer in a moment in time.
Since this interview, White launched an event series based on the work of You Are the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, in collaboration with queer creative voices and people of color, community organizations and businesses to spotlight narratives and experiences of queer and p.o.c. communities.
Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer who has written for USA Today, Popular Science, SF Examiner, and more, while her prose can be found in The East Bay Review, 805 Lit, Luna Luna Magazine, and others.