Love Repair, Ghosting Remnants, & Using Our Life Material: An Interview with Poet-Memoirist & Who’s Your Daddy Author Arisa White
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
Asst. Poetry Editor Michal “MJ” Jones spoke with poet, educator & Foglifter contributor Arisa White about her new book, Who’s Your Daddy, forthcoming in March from Augury Books. Full transcript and video below! *Transcript has been edited for readability. Pre-order the book Here.
Michal “MJ” Jones (MJ): Hello Foggies, I’m here with my friend and mentor, Arisa White, author of Who’s Your Daddy and board member of Foglifter as well. Thanks, Arisa, for talking with me today.
Arisa White (AW): It’s my pleasure!
MJ: Arisa is in Maine, and was in the Bay Area for a while. So yeah, I would love to talk about your book and some of your writing practices! But I’m wondering if you can ground us in reading an excerpt from Who’s Your Daddy, and we can talk about the book going from there.
AW: Yeah, I would love to. So I’m going to be reading, “I have a Shango dream,’’ and “I’m not sorry for my one way streets.”
I have a Shango dream – Yoruba god of fire, lightning, and thunder, depicted with a double axe. A white and red wedding – I wear red Converses, a monarch train, my arms free of fathers.
Bing’s sister told me to be careful
not to “sweep dem feet” as a young
girl. “You wanna not get married?”
I swept the floor, swept every love-
child inch of my body from the
“ting” my mother chased.
Truth be told, under certain weather, a young girl becomes a weak woman. Cloudy heart, spine partly, I felt the pressure of an adult front. Proposed, three different times, drunk, to the same ex – I couldn’t vow to a blade that knew my insides soft –
I’m already of split definition.
I’m not sorry for my one way streets, my way or the highway, manly waters incompatible with my sex
Swear by my cocksure shine, don’t believe one person can give you all that you need, polyamory is the way to burnish
I’m not your daddy Will not top you to stay You are your own bottom
I work at pleasing me Cause I can’t please you and that’s why I do what I do – Erykah Badu
I’m not trying to be in love, I’m searching for a new preposition
Discerning and cautious about who gets close to me, my trust is earned
Love is a verb and is space and not asking me where I am going all the time
I panic at the knowledge of my own real existence – Bernadette Mayer
My attachments are to memories, lightbulbs, cardstock, dreams – immaterial drops of golden sun
Let’s remain under the spell of objectification
Once the chase is done, I eat the sweet thing
Unconditional love is a boat that has sailed – conditions now apply
From home to globe, I know the extremes of people – my hate is a soluble line
I take all sides, shape-shift, my moods and language mutable, too slippery for words and evaluation
I am used to being unaffected and misrepresented. I live short and fine as the doll most nestled. My bathwater is nobody’s business, my complaints squeakless. I burp and, goddamn, Gerald is noisome and stinky
– and Gerald is my father’s name.
MJ: Thank you. I’m just hearing you read and it’s beautiful. I actually wonder, just when you’re selecting things to read, why that section today?
AW: I think I just wanted to start right in the queer of things, in the woman-woman love dynamic that started to call up the feelings of absence, the feelings of distance. Being called out by my intimate partners for being distant and not being emotionally present. And so having that repeated to me over and over again, I start to think about, where else is distance and absence functioning in my life? And how is it taking the space of presence? What am I reenacting?
And so I think at that particular moment, there’s just those memories of hitting up against that tension of someone wanting my full commitment, wanting my full presence, and I’m just like, maybe not, my attention is kind of over there. Or maybe, because I’m in a polyamorous relationship, I’ll go to the second person, or the third person, you know. So I think that is where I started to feel the need to look more deeply into absence. And where those voids were repeating, how I was remaking it, and to start to check myself and grow. So I wanted to just start there, because that is what really, emotionally and spiritually, brought me to the writing of this book.
MJ: Yeah. Thank you. It’s a really beautiful book, and I’ve read all your work, as I’m sure you know. And I think one of the things that was resonating for me in the reading of it,[having] divorced parents, a more distant father is the ways these core shaping – either from childhood or major events – will sort of resurface in intimate relationships, friendships, the way we approach life in general. So I think it’s a really fitting excerpt to begin with.
I’m going to move around on our questions. The book had different versions, and went through a lot, basically, to get in this form, which is so beautiful. So, can you share what you’re sharing in the book? And what is the full journey of it? And what was your process of writing and ordering and revision? Cuz I know that was a journey!
AW: That was a journey. It really was. And it’s a journey that wasn’t solitary at all. And I think sometimes, in the writing process, we just think it’s the poet, the writers by themselves, but really, there’s a network of relationships that are activating this work, this creativity. And so it started with my mom. Per usual, she’s a huge source of information. She’s an inspiration as well. And I turned 33, so it’s my Jesus year. And she says, “Do you want to write your father? I have an address for him in Guyana.” And I was like, “Ah! Okay, that sounds great, okay, let me think about it.” Whenever I’m not sure emotionally, it’s, “let me think about it. Let me take some time.”
And she just kept on saying that to me throughout that year, and so I’m finally like, “Okay, you justt pass it [the address] along, send it to me in a text.” But my hesitation had a lot to do with… what am I going to say to him? What am I going to say to Gerald? Yes, he’s my father. But he’s, he’s a stranger. This strange presence in my life. He’s a specter in some kind of ways.
And so I started to write these epistolary poems, and I think I was actually taking a class with Sharon, who teaches at Berkeley City College. And so I started taking a poetry class there. And I just remember writing one of those poems on the bus as I was going from Berkeley to Oakland. Because what I started to recognize was, Gerald doesn’t know anything about my life. And so I started just documenting my days on the bus, going to the chiropractor, talking about meeting my girlfriend at the time, the breakup of one relationship, moving to California. So I realized that I was writing epistolary poems, because as a poet, I have to somehow make poetry out of all of it.
And what’s interesting is that the poetry, deciding to go and think about this as poems, helped me become so strong in myself. It makes me realize – poetry is such an emotional language for me that when I’m in that space, I’m really trying to language how I feel and those combinations of feelings. So I started off writing epistolary poems, and then from that kind of idea, I applied for a grant. Because here I am amassing all of these very specific kinds of poems.
And so I applied for a grant, The Center for Cultural Innovation in Los Angeles, I got a $10,000 grant. I proposed a three-pronged project: the first part would be to host a series of epistolary workshops in the Bay Area, so that people can write letters to their absent, dead, distant fathers, as well as patriarchal figures, like governments, and presidents and things of the sort. It was really interesting, because that also started to happen during the 2016 election. So people were writing letters to Obama to say farewell, and then writing crazy things to Trump.
So I created that space. And with these workshops, people are writing letters, and they can share their letter with me, and I would give them a self publication of all of the epistolary poems I wrote. And that publication at the time was called dear Gerald, I actually have a copy of it right here. So I created this self publication, just 100 of them. So it was this exchange that I had, and I was just reading these letters, and it was just the same story. It was like everyone had the same story of abandonment, you know, maybe a little tweak here or there. But essentially, wow, we’re all kin, we’re all of these bastards out there, we’re really family.
Also, I did this call for submissions through my network, so I got some letters from inmates at San Quentin. Those letters were beautifully written, the penmanship on it was just extraordinary. And I actually exchanged about two rounds of letters with one inmate,
just talking about when his father left and how he very much felt like that had a lot to do with how he ended up in his present circumstances. And now he’s just sort of mourning the fact that he’s not going to be able to be present for his own children. So people were just starting to see their own cycles as they were writing these letters to me. And I got a letter from the Philippines, which I thought was pretty exciting.
So at this point, I have all of these letters. I didn’t know what to do with them, but they were there. They were sort of comfort. And so, I guess the second part of that grant was to create a self publication, which I did. And then the third part was to go to Guyana, meet my father after 30-plus years of estrangement, give him a copy of this book, and just be there for two and a half weeks. And I did that. And it was a journey. So each stage of this project produced more material for me to work with.
So I had these letters, I knew I wanted to do something with them. At some point, I was like, “I’ll respond to them as if I’m the father.” Then I realized, no, that’s complete bullshit. That’s too much work, and that’s weird. I don’t want to do that. But then I started to think about collage, and centos, and just thinking about taking lines from one letter to the next because of the similar narratives, and creating characters out of them. So there’s a section, there’s a poem in the opening section [of Who’s Your Daddy] , where I’m with my imagined friends. And the dialogue comes from the letters that I got from people.
AW: And yeah, so then when I went to Guyana, I kept a journal. So I was just writing every day, I was just picking up newspapers and articles, and just really documenting my time there, taking photographs and little videos. So then, after that trip was over, I had the experience of meeting Gerald, I had my journal, I had all of these newspaper articles that I kind of wanted to weave into it. And so I was like, What do I do now? Because the work has evolved from the epistolary manuscript that I imagined. I have these letters, I have my journal travel notes. How do I bring this all together?
And so reading work by Piper Daniels, Ladies Lazarus, which is a collection of essays that combined both poetry citations, her own personal research into events that happened in her childhood. So I was reading a lot of these genre-bending things. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, her books, Spill, M Archives, all of these ways in which writers are working with what would kind of be an academic, more scholarly voice, but they’re bringing in poetry. They’re bringing in this lyrical prose. They’re bringing in their personal experiences, and they’re just doing it in these really fabulous ways. I loved Yabo by Alexis de Veau, and just how it moved across time, in these really fascinating ways.
So I was like, I can move across time, too. And also, Jennifer Tamayo’s YOU DA ONE, which is another piece of documentary poetics. She was also kind of grappling with, who’s my father and going to meet her father in Colombia. And just that whole process of the book was the series of questions that really guided how she organized and thought about the structure of her book. So I’m just thinking of all of these models I had out there, and how do I bring and blend them together was really a part of the process. So it first started off with prose and citations.
And I handed that in just before I left the Bay Area, April 2018. I handed that in and left the Bay Area in June. And I was actually at Mills College putting it all together. I had a lovely office with great sun. So I would just hang out before and after my class and work on this. So yeah, it mostly started with prose. And it really started with what would now be the [fourth] section in Who’s Your Daddy of going to Guyana. So basically, when I handed it over to Kate Angus, my editor at Augury Books, she’s like, this is amazing. This is beautiful. I’m missing the poetry.
So it was through this editing process that it started to become more genre bending, you know? And I had to really think about, not only the line, but the sentence, in these really evocative ways. That pretty much was its journey. Then that whole editing process, I love working with Kate Angus, she just, I feel like her edits are spiritual.
MJ: I feel that, yeah!
AW: Yeah. She’ll suggest I take out huge chunks. These aren’t, you know, like, “Oh, take this out.” No, it’s – remove this 20 pages! You’re like, “What? How dare you?” But she always hits at the thing that I’m still holding onto craft wise, emotionally, spiritually. She can just suss out that old thing that needs to go. Because then it’s gonna allow for so many other things to just flow in. And for whatever genius is needed to make this work happen, we first have to, like, remove the dead matter.
And so it [revision] becomes work that I have to then think about in my dayto-day life, right? I have to take out this section, I also have to take it out of me too. And why am I still holding onto it? How have I not integrated it into my being, into my consciousness? You know? And so these edits often put me in a place where I have to think beyond the page and think sort of wholly.
MJ: Thank you. There is a lot to that. Since I’m in the early process of ordering and figuring out my own manuscript, I was interested – we have the physical book, and then how it was formed and birthed is completely different from beginning to end. So thank you for talking me through that.
And I know since we’re talking for Foglifter, we were sort of looking for the queer question. I don’t know that I have the gay question yet. The gay question!
AW: The gay question!
MJ: What was resonating with me in what you were saying about –the queerness in this work, and in your work in general, as you were talking about, sort of the emotionality and tenderness of poems, in your language of that and how that, to me is such a queer thing – a tenderness, a vulnerability. And also another thing that I’ve admired, your Beautiful Things Project, and being a very community-based poet.
You know, you were sort of speaking to how the work – although it’s addressing a very private voice and the journey that you had to go through – that there’s these essential others of community that are inextricably linked to that. So, Erykah Badu coming in or even Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and the lineages that we’re writing into, which I think is a deeply queer concept, a deeply Black concept, it’s a colored concept – that necessity of community. So I would say, that’s where the queerness in the work was hitting me. So I don’t have a question about that. You can respond if you want.
AW: Yeah, I think there’s something about the recognition that – I think, you know, moving to the Bay Area made me realize that. That my work is operating in this network of care, love, family, friends, biological, logical, family. I often felt, even in graduate school, or you know, just even writing my poems as an undergraduate, that I would always go to family. I would always go to autobiography. Because I feel like that’s where my practice is – my practice and my praxis.
And so I develop theory of language and metaphor with my family. I mean, I’m part of a large, loud, Black family. We play spades, we do cookouts, we do it all. We dissin’ on each other, you know, shooting the dozens, mama jokes. And it’s everything. Simile, metaphor, timing, pacing, wisdom – all of that is around the kitchen table, during holidays. I’m learning about how to tell our stories in this embodied way. You know, it’s, it’s really when I’m sitting at the page, I’m very much moving around to kind of get a sense of how to punctuate the piece, based on how the words are moving and pacing through me.
Cuz there’s always this sense of an attack – and not the attack in the way of wanting to harm you – but I want to get at that most vulnerable, sort of sensitive spot, or the spot where I know if [I] touch it just a bit, it’s going to activate you to either laugh –
MJ: That’s the gayest thing you’ve said on this call!
AW: (Laughing) I’m gonna, touch you and make you laugh, you know, I’m gonna make you cry too. And it feels like a success when that happens, because I’ve done the emotional and sensorial and spiritual work. And it’s sort of translating now. Now the reading becomes haptic, you’re just gonna feel it all, all over.
And then also just thinking about, it’s the space where I recognized that I was a poet, that I was a storyteller. And in sort of announcing that this is what I want to do, through my actions, going to slams and deciding to go to school for poetry. People were like (mocking) “Oh, you’re gonna go to school for poetry.” But I think naming it as such made me queer instantly, right? Because already people are participating and storytelling and dancing and making – we’re already art, you know, doing our culture with each other. But when you name yourself and say, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna be a poet, instantly, it’s like, “Hmm, what are you? What are you going to do with that?”
So that’s when I started to recognize my commitment to being a poet, to living this lyrical life that I was making, I was creating that space of queerness for myself. So already, I’m just the weird, Black kid in the family. You know, “she’s using big words, she’s an Oreo,” you know. “Come over here, Arisa. Let everybody know your big words that you’ve learned today.” Thanks, Uncle Andre. So, I knew something, I was doing something different. I was using the material of my life in such a way that I was gonna be visible about it and sort of make myself distinct around it. And so I think coming into being, naming myself a poet was, I felt like the queerest thing I could do within my family.
And then sort of beyond that, it just became, how can I continue to use my life experiences as an anchor to think about narrative and how to break it, how to reform it, how to revise it, based on the interactions I’ve had, and the experiences and the way people speak and feel in the world. And I think that is where I’m often excited about going to the page and writing queer narratives, it’s because what I’m bringing with me, is Black, woman, city. It’s tall-ass people. It’s Southern, it’s Caribbean. I get to bring all of my lineages into the line and do the work. And that’s what’s super exciting for me.
MJ: Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you. And I mean, so much in there. I too, have recently declared poethood. I came out as a poet and people were like, “Okay, well, yeah, you’ve been writing poems forever. You were five,” you know.
AW: So true!
MJ: My mom, I think, would try to punish me by getting me to read the dictionary. And then I just be like, “Oh! What is this new word?!” So I feel you on [being] the outcasted intellectual.
Yeah. And I’m thinking about – you’re very firmly rooted in poethood, and the love of being a poet, and the language of what that can do. [Who’s Your Daddy is] such a genre-bending work, I think is what you said, which is also very queer, you know. And it sort of reads with this fluidity where I’m not – It feels like it’s reading as one act and one-on-one story and journey that I’m there with you.
And I’m curious, you said in the process, it sort of came as essays or prose first. What was that? I mean, I’m not sure if it felt like a departure in terms of the normal type of writing you find yourself in, but why the choice of lyrical memoir and lyric essay at different points in the text?
AW: So the other part too, is that I was able to get that prose voice, which was so exciting for me, cuz I was doing – I was curating a poetry series at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. So I was there for eight weeks listening to poets, looking at the exhibit there. And there were these contemporary South African artists. And blue kept [appearing] – there were these variations of that royal blue – that cobalt blue with gold. It was this constant blue that was showing up in most of their work, and sort of speaking to the diaspora, the water as conjunctive. You can read that in all sorts of ways.
But what that was doing for me was triggering my memories where I’m like, “There was that blue door! I hid behind that blue door, the last time Gerald came to visit, when I was about three or four.” And so, bam, visually, being amongst this artwork started – the blue door. And it just came out as sentences. And I just went with it, it was terrifying. Because, you know, I’ve always had anxiety about writing essays, growing up and going off to college, and it’s like, “You need to work on your semicolons, and blah, blah, blah.” And then graduate school, I had one professor in English basically, she’s like, “You don’t know how to write, go to the Writing Center.” That was it. And she said that to two other people in the class. And so we sort of bonded, like, “we can’t write it, we’re at graduate school. So let’s not write together.” (Laughing)
So it’s just this anxiety whenever I have to do sentences. I have to talk that anxiety down and say, yes, you can do this, you’re fine. So already I put myself in a space that I was taking a risk. But it was just coming out. It was that voice because the voice was one of talking to someone. I was addressing my father. And so I was thinking about – the sentence offers more, it’s more generous, I believe. It can hold more information, and doesn’t require as much association. So already with that letter writing mode, I knew I was in a space of generosity. I was going to give you more information than I usually like to do in a poem. So there I’m vulnerable. I’m working in fuckin sentences. (Laughing)
I’m going to be sharing more information about myself, which means I’m gonna have opinions, which I often don’t like to do as a Pisces. Let’s just move through all of the possibilities. We’re all good, you know.
But I was gonna take a position and I started to realize, wow, I do have a position and it’s a combination of anger. Where were you? What were you doing and why weren’t you there? And I begin, through the sentence, I felt empowered to ask those questions. And in some ways feel entitled to an answer, right? The same way that I’ve learned my father felt entitled that I would take care of him and send him money to pay for his rent and things like that.
So instantly, what became interesting is that I became stronger in this way. It felt like a balancing of both my feminine and masculine energies. There was something that just upped the ante, I was more fiery, I was more: this is who I am, how I’ve grown. And I’m ready to confront you. And so there was something about that, I guess the sentence felt like it could be, it could be more bold, it could be more present. And it could be confrontational, not to aggravate, but to show up, which is, it’s a different, it’s different than me being avoidant and running away. And always choosing distance between me and a person as a way to resolve an issue. But instead, I’m gonna be here, I’m gonna stand in my presence, I’m gonna ask questions, I’m gonna say things, and I give my opinion, and we’re gonna be present in that.
So it was an interesting emotional shift that I had to do, I had to put on my big-girl panties. And find a way into my own power. And so I guess I needed the sentence to do that. And it just started that way. I was also reading stuff like Zong!, I was reading cultural studies stuff. I was reading stuff on Afrofuturism, on the spiritual practices of African American teachers… I was just reading, it was all over this stuff that was helping me find a way to write about all of this, you know? Because it wasn’t just like, “Oh, my dad is gone.” There’s a system operating that makes dad go, that makes a lot of daddies go.
And with that system in place, it then creates a kind of person that exploits it, and uses it as an excuse to not also show up for their families, too. So that’s also another reality, which I got to see, is that at some point, my father made a choice not to be in my life, for whatever reasons, it was an intentional choice. And in some ways, I needed to learn that lesson, because it made me realize that I can make choices and stand behind them. And even if people think they’re awful or bad… it’s me standing firmly in my choice. Yeah, I get to choose, I get to choose.
MJ: Yeah. I just – interview over! I mean, I don’t know what else I can ask! It’s really interesting to think about your relationship or prose or the sentence – I think of the essay by Audre Lorde, you know, her essay about transforming anger? Where, at the end, she’s making these declarative statements of like, I am this, and then in the naming that, you know, what writing can do for us. So I definitely relate to that. I was very trained in the prose, I can write the hell out of an essay, and I had to come to learn my love of poetry and think about – what is actual immediacy of an emotional moment I want to capture, which I feel like has been really vulnerable for me. So, I don’t know, maybe we can write a project together? And learn in that way, as we have been.
So – you were talking about how certain exposure to arts or reading triggered different memories. So one of the questions that I had was – I mean, in the book, you’re recounting things that happen, from age three, four: what helped you enter a space of recalling? Because I think for me, in memory we, or I, can’t always remember these things. So there’s these tricks I would borrow from fiction about writing that constructs, world builds. Or I have a feeling that’s something that happened, but how did you actually remember this? Or how are you bringing in these other forms to tell the feeling of something, if that makes sense?
AW: Yeah, I’m using it all, right? You know how memory is, with its ghosting remnants that can hang out inside of you. And I think about that more so visually, in terms of what I can see as I recall. And then also where it is in the body. Like when I’m reading something by Dionne Brand, and she’ll say something and I’m like, *gasp* “Oh my God, I remember that time when, blah blah blah.” I think Maggie Nelson has this really great essay about writing alongside. Right? She’s always writing along with people. Books, experiences, that’s kind of what happens.
And I think with any project I’m working with, I kinda have a soundtrack, who I’m listening to, music wise. And then I pull out books by people whose voices are really interesting, their way of either turning a phrase or seeing things – I need that as a reminder as I’m going in. Those soldiers alongside me. But I’m also working from family stories, the stories that get repeated over and over again, so they just come up instantly. I’m working from photographs, whatever my mom managed to keep from all of the different moves that we had. So it’s photographs, it’s books, it’s song.
During Who’s Your Daddy I listened to a lot of reggae cuz I grew up Rastafarian. And my stepfather, I later found out was Guayenese, but my mom thought they were Jamaicans for a long time, so we thought we were Jamaican-adjacent. (Laughing) Which is really funny. So I grew up listening to a lot of reggae, so I started playing some old school reggae, and tried to find specific Guayanese artists. And then also, music from the 90s – of growing up in Brooklyn, Fort Greene: Erykah Badu, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Maxwell. I loved that time. So I just bring myself back into that world a little bit so that those songs, those sounds, those images – will help me recall as I’m writing.
And then, whatever glimpse – I think about – because I was writing about Guyana, and Guyanese gold is just really beautiful gold. When I went to Guayana to meet up with my father again, I went shopping for some Guyanese gold, and I could not afford it. (Laughing) I could not! But it made me remember the time when my mom bought me these bangles, gorgeous, three of them. Guyanese, solid gold bangles. And I gave them away. She tells this story over and over again. So I knew to recall these things.
So I think – a combination of starting to write Who’s Your Daddy in this sort of prose-y way, taught me the elements that I needed to develop in these earlier sections. So, blue was coming up, water was coming up, Guyanese gold was coming up. I wind up meeting my stepfather’s cousin while I was there, so I knew I had to bring Bing back in, and then think about where did Bing disappear to? So I had to trace Bing. So it was this really fascinating way where – we have the presence of a father that eventually goes away, and then the biological father was there but then goes away and now he’s coming back again, then when I’m in Guyana, I encounter my stepfather’s cousin. So I knew I had to bring Bing back.
So I was placing the constellation. The stars were there, and I had to essentially connect the dots to make a constellation of this whole book. And so that helped me with memories along the way. You know, when was actually the last time I saw Gerald? My mom thought I saw him, I think I was in 5th or 6th grade – I was like, “no, I didn’t! My last time was 3 years old!” And she was like “no!” So it was just these really fun moments of – but that’s memory.
And I also wanted to honor these ways in which new information comes along, or we blend things, or we remix things for the purpose of telling whatever story we need to tell ourselves. And a lot of that remixing – I got to see – wasn’t necessarily true once I met my father. So whatever story was mastering me around father and fatherhood began to unravel as I actually met the man, and he could tell me stories. And I no longer was operating on these myths of him.
MJ: Ah, yes. I have a question in here as well about writing about family or loved ones, with whom we’re still in relationship with and want to maintain relationship with. There are a lot of figures – obviously, Gerald is able to be written with a level of nuance, of feeling – I’m wondering just how you’ve approached writing about family, relationships, or your wife, or –
AW: I mean, writing about the wife is hard, to be honest. I’m in this new place. What has been a benefit is that usually these relationships I write about have transformed in such a way that we’re no longer in contact, or just friends. And there’s distance that has shifted our dynamic. So I’m figuring out how to write about present-day dynamics that I know aren’t gonna go away. Because I’m at this point where I have the stamina to be in intimate dynamics, and to repair them, and to shift them.
But with family, it’s kinda fun. (Laughs). Because they’re my alphabet. I really can’t not write about them – they’re my template. They are the mold from which everything is created and imagined. Because I just think we are amazing people, and we actually mirror what has happened historically to Black folks in America and in the diaspora. So I got the basics here. I can just combine those things, and create something that is more accessible to other people. But they are my breath. They are my inspiration.
And so, what I like to do is honor that as much as I can, with love. So even if I am writing sort of critically about domestic violence in my childhood, or the absence of my father, I’m doing that from a place of love repair. Wanting to repair our soul. I want to free us, so we’re not fugitives in our own master narratives. So with that, there’s the heart. And I also share my process with them, too, so they’ve learned things along the way. And in thinking about how Who’s Your Daddy came about, it is this multi-pronged process that I can bring people in.
My mom wrote a letter, so from her letter I got to learn something really nuanced emotionally about her dynamic with her father. And so I could work with that. And also, as these different stages are happening, I’m talking to my siblings. I’m like, “Oh my God, I just met one of Gerald’s children that’s supposed to be my half brother.” So we get talking, and certain feelings come up, and what you start to realize is – in those instances, when I was meeting my half siblings, I’m like, “I don’t know these people.” Yes, sort of genetically and biologically we have relation, but there’s something to be said for showing up, being there, developing, growing with each other, fighting with each other – that is the relationship. That is the stuff that’s gonna carry us through.
And then I start to realize the importance of just being there for the people who have been there for me. So there’s that. And then also, therapy. One of the things I learned from my therapist – I was in therapy one time, and I was just going off. You know how you just get in the pleasure of complaint? (Laughs). “Fuck this, and that’s fucked, eh eh eh!” I was just on it, killing people. (Laughs). And then my therapist is like, “Arisa, hold on. You are projecting. That’s all your projection.” And I was like, “really?” (Laughs) I felt defeated, but then in that same moment, something just clicked: “That’s my projections, that means I’m making this shit up. And placing it on people, where could that be useful in my life?” As a creative writer. (Laughs).
So I make my projections, then I make characters out of them. Then I also share the work with my family once it’s all done, so that we can have conversation. So I think it’s a matter of recognizing, one: you may be projecting and with those projections are creative materials for you to use, for you to work out whatever it is you need to work out with that. Sometimes, the people I write about are these energetic permutations I need [in order] to move the force and energy of a story along. I don’t need you per se, but I need your combination of energy in this story or in this poem, to do a certain kind of energetic work, whatever that means. Emotionally, imagistically, spiritually – you have given me something that feels like language, and word and story. And that’s what I’m playing with.
So there’s that limit to it as well. And then also, we have to work out our own narrative. And people played a part in that, and they’re gonna play a part in us writing about it, too. So, if you’re in my life, playing a part in who I am each day, and if I’m a writer, I’m gonna use that and you’re gonna play a part in my writing as well. So I just let everyone know, I’m a creative person. And if you wanna be here with me, you’re gonna show up in the work because you helped me get to that point.
MJ: Yeah. Absolutely.
AW: And in some ways, they’re not my audience, either. I think that’s a really interesting slight shift, that I actually don’t have an audience in mind when I’m writing, even if I’m writing about my family. They’re not my audience. And so that helps me even more to create these little separations as I’m doing the work on the page.
MJ: Yeah. Thank you. I’m stealing so many notes for later, cuz I’m just like… “I don’t wanna hurt anybody’s feelings!” (Laughs). Well, ya shouldn’t have been a dick! You knew I was a writer!
AW: It’s so true! So true.
MJ: Yeah. Beautiful. I think the other question I had, which I love to ask, is: was there a section of poems or a section of the book that you found the most challenging to write? And that can be interpreted broadly – either challenging because it was painful, or you just couldn’t quite figure out what you wanted to say at that part of the text?
AW: I think the most difficult part was figuring out the part around the intimate relationships. That was hard. This is where the editing came in, because I was like, “and in this relationship blah blah blah.” And I had a whole cast of ladies. (Laughs) Because I was trying to show how each of these relationships showed me how I’m not showing up. I’m being absent. And it was too much, but I didn’t know – it was crazy. I didn’t know how to tell that story.
But because Kate, my editor, was like, “we got too many people up in this section. You gotta take this out, take that out, take this out.” And because of that, I just came up with the idea of alright, we’re just gonna sort of blend them, merge these people together. Think about, what’s the ultimate lesson that you’re trying to convey, and what’s the ultimate narrative that you can pull from all these experiences that will work for this story you’re telling?
And so what I eventually decided on was, since I’m working with this water motif, with Guyana, in Arawak, Guyana means ‘land of many waters.’ There’s so many rivers there. One of the stories that I learned about my grandfather on my father’s side was that he was drowned to death. I’m a Pisces, water sign. And then my therapist at the time was saying something like, “romantic intimate others,” or “romantic intimate partners.” And I was like, “romantic intimate others! RIOS! Or, rivers!” (Laughs)
MJ: I liked that section!
AW: And so, I was in this moment of extreme panic, because I felt like I was relying on all of these different little stories to substantiate why I sort of felt like my father, and then my editor said “you gotta take them all out.” I was like, what can I do to fill this space? I bring in water. And then I’m like, “how am I gonna do that?” And I’m like, are people really gonna fall for me being like, “I dated a rio.” You know? (Laughing) Like, how do I get to that point of convincing the reader of that? And so there’s a few of those moments.
There’s [a moment] I use the ABCs as a ritual by the Atlantic. I had the ABCs in my childhood cuz I’m learning that from Bing, and he’s like, “why don’t you know how to say your ABCs?” So playing with these ideas, I was like, R-I-O is sort of playing in that ABCs motif. So that becomes a way to further convince the reader, if I continue with these ideas of acronyms and alphabets as being spells, as being energetic entities that I can manipulate and use, and absorb, right. So that was the big challenge – when my editor said that, I think I needed almost 10 months to figure out what to do.
MJ: Wow. Well, it works. It works. I love books that I can just fall asleep in – not as in, because it was boring, but because I don’t wanna put it down. (Laughs) I love to fall asleep with a book. It’s really beautiful. I think it has – just knowing your work pretty well – it has everything that’s good about you in it. So, thank you for talking about it with me. It’s gorgeous.
AW: Thank you so much!
MJ: And I’m very excited to –
AW: You’re the first person – for us to have this kind of interview, I think is so precious. I love that, it’s great. Because you’ve been getting [updates] along the way I’m like, “MJ! I’m almost – I think – the editor said I have to – !” (Laughs)
MJ: I was like, “you can do it! Yay!” I was like, “yay, go!” Pom-poms. So my last two questions. We’re in this pandemic and I’m just – I remember I was talking with another poet friend and it was, April maybe, and she was like, “yeah, you should be able to come see me in June.” And I was like, “we bout to be here all year.” And she was like, “Really? You think so?”
So – I guess, maybe I lied, maybe it’s 3 questions you can answer rapid fire. One is, what has sustained you during the pandemic times? It could be artists you’re reading, or practices that have sustained you. Two, what are you working on, which can be interpreted very broadly; it can be a project, or it could be, “I’m working on not losing my mind in this pandemic.” And then lastly, and this is the most important question, so, when the pandemic is over – whenever that might occur – your’re hosting a cookout, maybe your big family is there – what 3 songs are going on the cookout playlist that you just have to have?
AW: Okay. That’s great. So, one of the memories I have from Who’s Your Daddy – it was this photograph of me and my cousins and my brother. And we’re at a cookout. So, always, at a cookout, I feel, the song that must be playing is “We Are Family.” (Singing) we are family. (Laughs) That’s for sure, it has to be playing. And then I would need some Me’Shell Ndegeocello on there, her whole first album that came out in ‘94. And Erykah Badu, I like all of her albums, so I would just be her whole album. All of them. Starting from the ‘90s until now.
MJ: You cheated, but that’s okay.
AW: (Laughs) I know!
MJ: You got a whole catalog, you ’sposed to pick 3 songs, but I’ma let you –
AW: Okay, the song by Me’Shell that would be – “She Wasn’t Your Girlfriend Last Night.”
MJ: (Laughs) That’s a good one!
AW: Definitely that one. And – I’m instantly seeing Mama’s Gun for Erykah Badu and blanking on the song – but it’s another one of those songs. It’s like, I can take your man. I have to think of it, I’ll let you know.
MJ: I’m sensing a theme here!
AW: It is! It is such a theme. But I’m thinking what else would probably been on there, what have I been listening to? Nina Simone, “C-Line Woman” for sure. Frankie Knuckles, “The Whistle Song.” I love that song so hard. (Laughs). All Notorious BIG for sure, and yeah. Let’s stop there.
So, what am I working on now? I’m honestly, at this point, I’m working on grades for my students. (Laughs). Yeah, it’s grades I’m working on. I’m also conceptualizing some sort of collaborative project– maybe another Beautiful Things Project – where I want to convene a bunch of Black, queer, lesbians virtually and ask, “How are you making art? How are you using beauty as a lens to resist all of the anti-Blackness and anti-feminineness that’s going on?” So that’s what I’m thinking about. And it’s slightly connected to a writing project that I’m working on that’s this idea of a heroine’s journey. Queer Black woman takes this heroine’s journey, and she’s stopping at different stations where she encounters the knowledge she needs to be her fiercest, Black queer self in the world.
So I just wanna get the information from folks. But I’m still thinking through that. So there’s that. And then, what’s been sustaining me? You know, honestly I would say, teaching has been sustaining me. It has been, just offering me structure through all of this time, as well as holding me accountable to my students and to the learning space I’m creating for them. And it’s something – it’s almost similar to when I worked in retail at the GAP. I loved the job, because I’d go in, fold things – it was organized, it was neat, I knew my work was done, and I had a direct contact with the people I was working with. “You want these jeans? I got these jeans. You look good!” Bam, we’re done, right?
And so it’s been a similar kind of feeling, especially teaching remotely. I know I’m useful and purposeful. I’m creating this space for my students to reflect, to feel, to think, to work their silences, to get some sound healing, to bring poems out in the world in these funky-fun ways, and to be surprised by themselves. And that has been the biggest reward during this whole year. Their poems, their excitement, and me also then thinking about, how do I use this online format to still do that really deep work that I love to do as a teacher? And that has been really generative for me.
In some ways, I felt like Zoom was a sonnet. I’m working in this form, what will it allow me to do? And instead of thinking about what it will be taking away from me, how will it make my work more precise, more refined? How will I really pay attention to dynamics in a space like this, right? And sort of make note of different ways of showing up, and not just relying on my presence in a room. But how do I really be attentive to emails and things like this without losing my fucking mind. But I also created great boundaries because of that. And so I’m learning, you know, I answer your emails only from 9 to 5. With that, in some ways, I think I’ve learned to create some balances and I’ve learned to push my work and my pedagogy as a teacher.
And I come out of this semester feeling more confident in understanding that my students are collaborators in this process of learning. They help me better my lesson plans, help me be more clear and generous in how I share material with them and ideas. So that has been the biggest sustaining thing for this entire year. And it’s been good. Because for a long time, I really resisted teaching. I didn’t think I was going to be a teacher and everyone was saying, “you would make a great teacher!” I was like, “you’re only saying that cuz I’m a poet, and you’re scared I’m gonna die starving!”
But once I moved out to the Bay and started to teach in the ways that felt genuine to me, and as one of facilitator and guide instead of feeling like an authority in front of people, telling them what to do. So, once I kind of recognized that for myself, “Oh, this is what I’m doing as a teacher.” I’m curating. I’m providing you with all these great, juicy, amazing fun things to do, things to learn, things to absorb. And then we get to be in the process of what you learned and hash it out and reflect on it, and think about how you can take this to the next thing you do. And that feels good, so now I’m excited about being a teacher.
MJ: Good, I’m glad, you’re a phenomenal one. I expect to see your AWP proposal next year about “Zoom As A Received Form!”
AW: That sounds like a good idea!
MJ: I’m sure it will be a hit. Alright, thank you for talking with me and Foglifter.
AW: Yeah, this was great. Thank you so much!
MJ: Of course!
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