Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, and the author ofPost Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, she is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College. A native New Yorker, living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife, Arisa is adapting Post Pardon into an opera with a Cultural Funding Grant from the City of Oakland.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I write, teach, and do editorial work.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Finding a balance between my work (paying the bills) and my writing. I want my writing to be my work, where I put my most time and energy, and get paid for doing it. Paid in a way that actually allows me to eat and have a home. Sometimes, too, I tell myself it is all a matter of perspective: what I do, regardless of how I define it, is a part of my writing life. Everything connects, it’s just a matter of me seeing and consciously making those connections. When I am able to rest in that mindset, I am living the life I want to live.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Everyday I make goals for myself — or a least every week. And each time I meet one of those goals, I feel successful. Each success allows me to dream bigger the next time — the ante is up, the risk is greater, and I’ve pushed my evolution as a person and artist. That makes it all worthwhile.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
In the recent past, I’ve learned, on my father’s side, that our ancestors were part of a marooned slave colony in Venezuela. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my Sarah Lawrence professor, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, as an undergrad. She asked me what I would do if I found myself alone, and I responded: I would make community. I will find others like myself, with similar values, and we will form a community together. The reality is that society will dictate your status in the world, where you are supposed to be, your station in life, but to truly meet your needs, to feel free in your own body, you need to break from all that masters you.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Oh, I think it would have to be the entire cast of A Different World. Yes, I had my crush on Lisa Bonet — matter of fact, the other night I had a dream she was giving a talk in San Francisco, and I got there late, and was upset that I didn’t get to see her walk to the podium. I loved them all, Dwayne Wayne, Jaleesa, Freddie, Whitley — in sixth grade I wrote a story with the main characters, using my vocabulary words for the week. Not only did I want to be them, I wanted to be in that world of college, of having friends you hung out with in the dorms, discovered life with, who were there, no matter what: to deal with racist encounters, to encourage you toward political activisms, to complain about how broke you were, and keep you company when you stayed up all night to complete that literature paper you waited to the last minute to start.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
A lovely cabin, me and the wife, possibly the dog, but he sometimes is strange in new spaces and takes away from the relaxation . . . someone is cooking our food for us and delivering it to our door, morning, afternoon, and for dinner we drive into town, a small town, and eat in a restaurant that looks like someone’s dining room and all day we listen to the trees.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Sure and I have and it’s never as sexy as one would think. At some moment, when I can no longer take myself serious, I burst out laughing. But Prince (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”; “Darling Nikki”; “Sexy MF”) is always a good artist to sexy dance to — his musical compositions have dramatic breaks and pauses that allow you to perform a dangerous seductive stare down, and the choreography performed in the doorframe looks top-notch. Why the doorframe? It’s easier that way. You can lean and hang on — and since I’m not in shape and my knees don’t bend like they used to, because of some minor arthritis, mostly in the right knee, I need all the support I can get. And plus, every good picture needs a frame!
How much money do you have in your checking account?
$1300-something, but it’s the end of the month and soon that will be, after bills are paid, like a hundred bucks and some change.
What’s wrong with society today?
We sit too much. We tap on things to communicate. I have too many aches and pains associated with sitting and staring at computer screens. And when people say hello to me — like real human beings, walking down the street, making eye contact, I’m suspicious — what do you want from me?! A hello, yeah right.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
No, but sometimes I wish I were on something, so I can use it as an excuse for unacceptable behavior.
What is your fondest memory?
There are a few coming to mind right now: when living in Western Massachusetts, a friend took me to a field that was lit with fireflies. As far as the eye could see. Another friend invited me to Vancouver to do be a part of her midnight tea performance, and I came prepared to read poems, but once I relaxed into the space, took in the fact that I was there with other artists (dancer, dj, designers, visionaries) I set my poems aside and free-styled for the entire evening. Driving to Phoenix, AZ, and one moment it’s sunny and gorgeous, and the next gloom and hail, the size of golf balls, pelting down on the car — and the top was down on the convertible. We suffered minor scratches and made it through the jackknifed trucks. When I was 12 years old, I took my friend’s bike and rode twice around the block. It was my first time on a two-wheeler.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
At least once. My wife has the sweetest morning face and she makes me tea and gives the best hugs before 9am, and then the world takes over and it’s serious business after that. There’s no time for falling in love, just standing proudly in it.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Cure for cancers. And less crap and chemicals in our foods.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
It rhymes with heart and we need it to live.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a libretto, in collaboration with Jessica Jones, tenor-saxphonist and pianist based in NYC. The libretto is an adaptation of my poetry chapbook, Post Pardon, which was inspired by the suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani, who also murdered her son. On Sunday, July 13th, we are having our first public concert of songs, so I am in producer mode. Fundraising, marketing, and once the showcase is over, I will return back to revising the libretto, keeping all that I have learned in mind. I’m excited to enter into revision mode because this collaborative process has revealed to me other creative possibilities for the libretto.
With a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, I am working on a series of epistolary poems, addressed to my estranged father. During my 33rd birthday, my mother asked me if I wanted to write to him in Guyana, and instead, I wrote poems. It’s been two years, and I’m self-publishing a limited edition collection of 33 epistolary poems (100 copies) that I will make available to the public, free of charge; however, in order to receive a copy of the book, you must send me a letter, addressed to your estranged father. I will select 33 participants’ letters, and use them as inspiration for another collection (e.g. mash-ups, erasures, or direct responses), after my visit to Guyana in early 2015, when I will reconnect with my father after 30 years and give him a copy of the book. If people are interested in getting a call for letters, contact me via my website.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I love bold work that speaks from the writer’s authentic place. Writing that slows me down so I can look and experience the world differently — maybe even love it more because it’s beauty has been revealed. I enjoy wit, craft, and narrative — not the retelling of an event, but how the event was experienced within, a preverbal understanding that is then articulated through word.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The spraying of chemtrails — I’ve never noticed this before until I moved here and when they spray the sky, I have the sickest allergies and lethargy for the next few days. Also, I’ve never encountered so much human shit on the sidewalks than I have here — and I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, so I thought I was desensitized to the grit and grime of city living.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Me and my wife and a bunch of friends, some food and alcohol, laughter, and taking up whatever space we are in with our fabulousness. Preferably, I’m home by 11pm, so I can be in bed before midnight.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
In Manhattan, one summer-hot afternoon, several years back, on 5th Avenue, I saw a black woman in an industrial-grade garbage bag. The kind of garbage bag you put other garbage bags in. This was not performance art; this was her attire. It was the conditions of her financial and emotional states. She ripped holes for her head and arms and she walked down the avenue like the rest of us, and at one point, collapsed in the middle of the sidewalk. Dumped herself right in the middle of the ritz and wealth of the city. I still wonder, what part was she throwing away?
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Really it depends on what kind of mood I am in. Right now, I’m thinking: get my mom some Pandora charms and rewrite my 50-word bio.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Egyptian musk, tea tree oil, and bergamot.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
To live debt free.