Interview With Poet Arisa White

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?

Right now, I’m reading me and Nina by Monica Hand and Ardency by Kevin Young.

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.

***For Today’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour stop, visit Reading Rendezvous.

Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White

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.

Poet Arisa White

ARISA WHITE is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon; she was selected by the San Francisco Bay Guardian for the 2010 Hot Pink List. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. Recipient of the inaugural Rose O’Neill Literary House summer residency at Washington College in Maryland, Arisa has also received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, her poetry has been published widely and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. A blog editor for HER KIND, and the editorial assistant at Dance Studio Life magazine, Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her partner. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was published by virtual artists collective.

****Check out today’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour stop at Seer of Ghosts and Weaver of Stories.


This is the 10th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.



This is my 28th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Mailbox Monday #165

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is the Metro Reader.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1. Nostalgia for the Criminal Past by Kathleen Winter, which I purchased.

2. The Receptionist by Janet Groth, which came unrequested from Algonquin.

3. A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez, which came unrequested from Algonquin.

4. Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear, which I receive from Harper.

5. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear, which I received from Harper for a TLC Book Tour.

6. Hurrah’s Nest by Arisa White, which I received from the poet.

7. Real Courage by Michael Meyerhofer, which came from the poet.

8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, which I bought at Novel Places for the WWI Read-a-Long this year.

9. Harlem’s Hell Fighters by Stephen L. Harris, which I bought at Novel Places.

10. Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin Decker and Jason Eberl, which I bought at Novel Places for Book Club in March.

11. City of Thieves by David Benioff, which I bought at Novel Places for Book Club in May.

What did you receive?