Arisa White is an assistant professor of creative writing at Colby College and a Cave Canem fellow. She is the author of Who’s Your Daddy (Augury Books 2021), co-editor of Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter Press 2021), and co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up (Heyday Books 2019), winner of the 2020 Maine Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. She serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press. arisawhite.com
Mattew Zapruder: Arisa, I just finished your wonderful and singular memoir about your attempt to cross what Patricia Smith calls the “gaping chasm” between you and your Guyanese father. It was a really intense and gorgeous and compulsive reading experience, and though we have known each other a long time (ten years?), I feel now like I know you in a much different way.
Arisa White: How so?
MZ: This book is so intimate. It’s about absence, about fathers, about trying to locate and maintain a sense of authentic self in various relationships. The traumas and struggles and triumphs within it felt more than autobiographical. The book took me far away from a voyeuristic or even empathetic experience, and into something generative. I felt change as an exciting and dangerous possibility, which of course it is. This probably has to do with the form you chose.
AW: This is good to hear. I aspire to write in such a way similar to the feeling of approaching an ocean—or some massive body of water—that takes your breath away. You feel small and everything, it cleanses and you contemplate, and always the possibility the horizon grants.
MZ: That is how it felt. One of the most striking aspects of the book is its mixture of forms. You are a poet, and in the past we have spoken of your reverence for the image, for the intuitive in language, for the power of the metaphor. Yet you are also greatly interested in narrative in your poetry, and you’ve also written a successful middle-grade novel. Was there a tension (beneficial or otherwise) between your poetic impulse to discover, to let things go where they will regardless of the conscious intention of the writer, and the need to tell a true story?
AW: Yes, total tension, but it’s beneficial. The tension offers up an additional field, a third space, where creativity happens—especially if you’re interested in resolving the tension. For me, I’m able to build a narrative from these instances of resolution (where things come into clearer view). It’s like working in a received form—combinations of risks and traditions, to arrive at something honest to the true story. The true story, as with Who’s Your Daddy and the middle-grade biography Biddy Mason Speaks Up, has its images of people I need to work with, there are facts that ground their lives within a moment in time and place—but what I’ve come to realize is that through poetry I am charting the inner life, and often traces of that linger as object, in memory, in historical record. So now, I must investigate my own inner life and the inner lives of those around me. This is where that poetic impulse takes over, to wonder, turn over, feel and draw connections. When I’m reconstructing an inner life, my own included, I’m using my body as the verb—the is, to be—in metaphoric equations. It is through my metaphors that I’m better able to tell an emotional truth that often goes unnoticed. The tension helps to discern which tools are working for you as a writer, and what now must be made and encouraged with your own poetry.
MZ: It sounds like what you are saying is that you needed poetry to find the whole truth of the story you were telling. I love that idea so much. Can I ask you to share an example from a moment in the book where that happened, where the lyric impulse opened up something that would otherwise not have been there?
AW: This poem, from the second section of the book “The moon runs until the day catches it,” I’m describing a lover’s reaction to me breaking up with her, and I’m also beginning to narratively seed the idea of all my Romantic Intimate Others as RIOs, as rivers, because this extended metaphor of water allows me to create imagery and story that connects and transports me to Guyana, “the land of many waters.” It is from the tension of these relationships that the field of the father begins to make itself known.
I break a woman’s heart for reasons not-her-but-me, for
feeling romantically incompetent, for guilt that her needs
do not matter to me She is better off
Oh, she keens—a city of sound born from split metal and
a felled mountain. The ripping reveals a network of rebar
never to hold earth again
She weeps a river, valleys wet. Babbles, creeks, and baggage.
Sobs mistfully north to south. It is clear where we end now,
and she is rushing far, then farther
pushing out her banks, making sure
the flora and fauna damns my name.
MZ: That’s a great example. The intuitive knowledge of the image, the way that it connects experience, is so important to this book. The poetry in it gives us as readers access to that level of experience that could not otherwise be there. How would you describe the genre of this book? Was it difficult to find its form? How does it seem different from, and similar to, other writing you have done in the past?
AW: It took some time figuring the genre for Who’s Your Daddy. It started mostly as prose and citations, and with Kate’s suggested edits, more poetry was incorporated. With the poetry, then came the permission to employ the lyric to its utmost emotionally rooted magical elements. What the whole journey of writing and making Who’s Your Daddy taught me is that people have been making it up as they go along—to fill in the blanks, to hide the truth, to protect, and sometimes circumstances demand you create in the absence of a person (or thing). The biggest revision was adding memories from childhood (and also a challenge because I didn’t want to repeat the childhood memories recounted in my debut Hurrah’s Nest). I started, essentially at the final section, minus the star ceremony, because that section was the emotional impulse for the project—to write about my trip to Guyana, meeting my father, and reflecting on various ways this narrative of absence has resonances across households, nations, in our histories. It was also a documentation of my trip to South America, responses to television, books and essays I was reading, so I knew that by allowing the poetry to enter back into the work, I was forming a structure that could hold my narrative—how I story in this world, how the world makes story about me, and how then I get to narrate that from different registers of voicing and therefore knowing. Audre Lorde’s “biomythography” was a mothertext for Who’s Your Daddy, because I needed to conjure a father from absence and myths. It made me angle differently into my own memories for the father, for displays of father, for how father was being defined for me in my home, socially and politically. What were the actual and archetypal narratives I heard about my father and the Black father. But also wondering, where are we feeling that in us, how is it showing up in our dynamics, how was my father’s absence presented in my life. I charted those absences in all sorts of ways: as a grandfather feeling, the abecedarian, as the “wandering womb” that characterizes endometriosis, my feet and hands, the charm for the ladies, as a cheater, as a broken heart. . . .
MZ: Can we talk more about absence? This seems to me to be at the center of your lyric here, this search for something that we desperately want and need to find or discover or relocate, but also know we probably cannot? Is this connected with poetry for you?
AW: In one of my classes, after reading your essay “Nothing Is the Force that Renovates the World” and Audre Lorde’s “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” I lead my students through an exercise where we define Nothingness, Absence, Quiet, and Silence, and then we feel for these states in our bodies and then record the images, memories, words that arise. In every class, there is the realization that there is a quality to absence that implies something was once there. There is longing for what was. There is desire. And poetry is a documentation of those deep wantings. After a significant relationship ended, precipitated by my inability to express my dissatisfaction and needs for the relationship to change, I was at a loss. Felt like nothing. Shameful and angry for not doing the proper woman’s work of keeping fidelity, I became a “man.” Having witnessed this in my upbringing, the men are the ones who leave, who cheat, who are violent, who distance themselves, who do not express their feelings; I was reckoning with this particular masculine understanding of myself. As a lesbian, narratives of pathologized masculinity linked to my sexuality abound, and this recognition silenced me. Since this is often the reaction I experience in response to my intersectional reality, through poetry, I’ve trained myself to explore those scary places, even when they resemble the stereotypes I’ve attempted to evade. So the poem is acts of assembling the self, balanced and whole. It serves as larynx to speak into absences and the echolocation of those first words confirms that you are here. This is what absence offers, which I’ve apprehended more deeply after writing Who’s Your Daddy, contours of human understanding.
MZ: I love that phrase, “echolocation of those first words.” That feels exactly right to me, feeling your way into the absence, postponing immediate systematizing thought or typical structures of logic and narrative, in favor of a deeper knowledge. It makes me think of Barbara Guest’s marvelous first book, The Location of Things. How fortunate your students are to have you guiding them into that space so many of them might not naturally find. I was not brought up to appreciate or even acknowledge that sort of wisdom. My upbringing was highly patriarchal and anti-feeling (the worst thing you could be in a situation was “emotional”), especially around language. Everything immediately already was an argument, a projection of a coherent self out into the world, against others. On the other hand, there was something else inside me, a strong force and urge toward a way of knowing through questioning. It is that part of me that will always need to write poetry.
It sounds in a way like you are talking about meeting your animus, to the very limited extent I understand that concept in Jungian psychology. Did the image of your father in the book function as a way of exploring those “scary places” and absences in yourself? Did that masculine part of yourself ever figure, ever appear in dreams?
AW: I was reflecting if I’ve ever been asked how I felt as a child or adolescent (—I was asked how I was doing, but not how I was feeling). From what you’ve mentioned, there are some similarities—“anti-feeling” and “a projection of a coherent self out into the world”—that resonate with me. My mother once told me my sensitivity was a broken leg, and so I spent many years trying not to be broken in this way. And then being raised Black and woman in America, I was groomed to enter a society that was against me, so therefore I am to work “twice as hard.” So this projected self had to be an exceptional Black. Also, another layer of this projected self was to assume authority. As an older sibling, often in charge of my younger siblings, my mother single-parenting, I had to be an adult. These projected selves we inhabit and sometimes reconstruct is why I can move through different registers of voice, call on persona (James Tate once commented in workshop, “You write in so many different ways”) because to poet as another self, through a set of imagined eyes/I’s, I get to be a sensitive person, a little freer from derision. A little freer to be in and know my feelings. Despite the stoicism and lack of affection in my upbringing, dreams were sources of information to heed. In my early twenties, I had two dreams or hypnopompic states where a full-body weight pressed back into me, first time in Cape Coast, Ghana, while studying abroad my junior year, and then Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in my first apartment after college—I perceived the weight as masculine and the purpose of it felt like a return.
I did meet my animus along the journey of writing about my father. I intentionally chose to no longer do school after my MFA, and school was very much central to my identity, but I wanted to disrupt this notion for myself that I needed the academy to be a learner. I, also, wanted my poetry enriched by the experiences that would come from living outside the structures and environs that have contained all my life. I moved from the East Coast to the West, lost my job during the Great Recession, was on public assistance and unemployment for some months, and my anger showed as anxiety and bouts of depression because I could not understand why my exceptional Blackness wasn’t getting me the job or romantic love or literary awards. This kind of thinking made me believe I was entitled to a particular outcome—something was off. I was in a place of self-scrutiny, because the beliefs and behaviors that got me to that moment needed to be reevaluated; I needed to practice in real time better ways of relating that allowed me to incorporate the parts I set aside to make others comfortable. The first iteration of Who’s Your Daddy was a series of epistolary poems addressed to my father. In them, I set out to be honest in a way I could only be with someone who didn’t know me but wanted to build a connection. Since we didn’t have a schema for engagement, I could be in my feelings and be sensitive, claim all of me without judgement, center my choices as my own and not as a result of someone else’s cause. Doing so made me feel complete and want for nothing. This is when my poetry has been a practice for a braver self who can show up amongst the world.
MZ: I think we often think, in our western literary culture, of poetry as a vulnerable, even traumatized voice, speaking from a place of loneliness and need, a reaching out for something. That’s where a lot of us (myself included!) started speaking from when we were first writing poetry. Did you feel that way about poetry, or were your initial impulses different? Has your view of poetry changed through all the different experiences you’ve had? Did writing this book change what you thought about poetry, and what you thought was possible? Or was it more of a confirmation of instincts you had about what poetry can do?
AW: Initially, what I felt with poetry was the temporary relief from whatever suffering I was experiencing. In the moment of relief, I felt smarter, beauty was more present, there was a greater sense of aliveness, something more became available to me that didn’t rely so much on polarized thinking. So each poem, each book, has a way of breaking me out of my confinements. Those confinements could be psychological, intellectual, or artistic, but I’m always amazed by the fluidity and malleability of the poem, of verse. In my introduction to poetry writing course, I ask my students to explore and expound on what a poem can do and be, and one student this past semester said, “that a poem can do what a human can do.” What I love is she recognized the poem as something living and alive, something tied to our consciousness, and I’m always thinking that we are not all that aware of what we can do as spiritual beings in this human form. Which means the poem has unexplored possibilities to offer. That excites me. I ground my poetry writing in this and approach this truth with a water sensibility—soothing, eroding, mesmerizing, and formidable, making its shape as it goes and being the shape in which it’s held. Empathetic and with a long memory.
With Who’s Your Daddy, I embraced collage, a voice more “we” than “I,” a communal I. While writing it, I felt the need to reach out to the community and ask for their participation through letter writing and workshops; I used those letters to construct some poems in the books; I, essentially, needed others to join me in the meeting of my father, and then I began to realize the absence is real, alive, and humming; and because I began thinking of this project as an introduction of me to my father after 30-plus years of estrangement, I took a broader look at who I am, considered myself in a set of visible and invisible relations. All of those relations, even my encounters with texts I was reading, choice in music, esoteric YouTube lectures, all of which became curious challenges for how to incorporate these elements and make them lyrical.
I think, too, how it took the goading of three women, respectively: my mother, undergraduate literature professor, and editor, telling me to write; write it without causing harm; write the child into it. There are ways that poetry has taught me how to listen deeply, be comfortable with the wait and generation, and what you get is a better understanding for how to use all that is around you to make a piece of work that is generous and true to your vision.
Each time I’ve crossed genres with poetry, each collection or artistic project is a kind of refinement. I get clarity. Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the middle-grade biography in verse, taught me to use the archives to revive the unknown voices, to use the information you have to lay out the stars of a person—and then it’s my task to make the image and story to help us remember their presence, keep them in consciousness. The libretto I adapted from my chapbook Post Pardon does a similar kind of wake work, where the mother who commits a murder-suicide comes back to offer explanation and apology. This was based on poet Reetika Vazirani and her two-year-old son. When I deploy poetry to tell a person’s life, the life I imagine becomes the form, and it’s a matter of having the skills to build that form so the reading experience is life in itself. I applied all of this to the writing and structuring of Who’s Your Daddy.
MZ: What are your hopes for this book in the world? What sorts of readers do you hope it reaches? What would you like it to do for them?
AW: As the book makes its way to the public, I like to cast big dreams and grand wishes. Some of those dreams being Who’s Your Daddy the audiobook, additional reprinting overseas, and translation into Spanish and French. As for the sort of reader—readers who have their own deep questions. I’m often thinking about ways to introduce poetry to people who may shy away from it. I love using the books to inspire unexpected collaborations that transform my poetry into the material needed to make poetic experiences for others to meet poetry on a slant. If all goes well, I’m looking forward to collaborating with the Maynard Jordan Planetarium in Orono, Maine, to create an immersive visual reading of Who’s Your Daddy in fall 2021.