Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Conversation with Arisa White

As I read You're the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, the new collection by poet Arisa White, published in 2016, I felt that I wasn't connecting deeply enough with this work.  Although I noticed and appreciated the bravery and beauty of these poems, many of which have titles from 'a List of terms for gay in different languages' on Wikipedia, I couldn't help but wonder: am I too old, too traditional, or even too straight to really “get” this work?  When I read poetry, I want to savor the beauty of the words and their arrangement, but I also seek to understand the meaning of the poems. This is essential to my enjoyment of poetry.  Fortunately, Arisa White agreed to answer my (somewhat eclectic) interview questions, presented here.  My hope was that a conversation with her would strengthen my understanding of and connection to her work. 

A Conversation with Arisa White

1) Welcome, Arisa, and thank you for being so gracious and patient with me!  As mentioned, I struggled a bit to find connection to your work.  Who do you think is the ideal reader of this collection of poems?

AW: I think someone who can live in the interstices.  Someone who understands and knows grief, a broken heart, who pines for things to be just, who is not afraid of her well, he who goes inward, they who write for the here and sensuous logic.  She who sees and resists the restraints put on the body,he who story tells and finds other ways, they who disobey hegemonic voices and choruses on and on 
and on . . . .

Spoken like a true poet, Arisa!   :)

2) Tell me something important about this collection that I may have missed.

AW: I don’t know what you’ve missed. Makes me think of the bus driving off as you run to it. And do you keep running because it is a bus you need to catch?  I wonder, what made you late?  What were the conditions that made arriving on time, now a missing for you? The funny thing is this collection is exploring that same thing--missing. The way it leaves a certain presence in the body. The absence shapes you. And as it does it’s shaping, you learn to exist with it. You learn a new understanding of your body and its emotional terrain as the relationship matures. In that maturation, things are nurtured--the imagination, for one, and the way you maneuver language, and quiet and silence too, so it better speaks to you, is another. So the language is full with you.  Each poem explores some form of missing and the transformation that occurs.

Arisa, at least I didn't miss the missing theme, mentioned above! Your poems eloquently express longing and loss and love.

3) What gift (or gifts) do you want to give your readers?

AW: Joy.  Nuanced emotional literacy.  Rigor.  Possibility.  Inspiration.  Contemplation.  Provocation.

I'd add Harmony to your list, Arisa.

4)  Do you hope to reveal, or conceal, in You're the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, which seems to be a love letter?   How autobiographical is this collection? 

AW: It does feel very much like a love letter. A love letter that has been written in private and public places in the body and within the culture at large. A love letter written at different points on the waves of love, at different moments when you encounter a “new” way of comprehending love. A love letter to how love leaves you open and changed. This collection is not autobiographical. It pulls from my personal sphere. Too much is taken from what is around me--gossip, media, family narratives, books, popular culture, music. The I in the collection is an outward I, an I in community, in intimate relationship to the ecologies that form its making. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is the house made from tensions of bodies in relationship to their own and other bodies. 

5) What, if anything, did you (or an editor) edit out of this book?

AW: There were six poems removed from the original manuscript. The work had a different tone, and at times reminded me of pieces that could have gone in my debut collection Hurrah’s Nest—those poems were more autobiographical. Some of the edited-out poems were an exercise in language, and after revising them, sometimes radically, they didn’t make sense to me.  I couldn’t place their sense within in the collection. With the removal of those poems, I was better able to see the overall creative enterprise of the work, and as result I then included the suite of poems “Effluvium”; “Effluvium” brings attention to AIDS and its impact on black women, but expands itself to address violence against women.


6) If you could set one of the poems in this book to music, and turn it into a song, which poem would it be, and why?   

AW: Not music, and that may be because there is already “music” present in the work—its prosody, assonance, slant rhyme, etc.  However, I do see “Lady in the House: Kitchen Speeches” as short film. That persona is so irreverent and radically self-possessed that to see her embodied would be great. The setting of the kitchen is very feminine, and so knowledge has been exchanged at kitchen tables, near the stove, washing dishes.  It is a powerful creative space, a space where women cook for revolutions, commune and congregate, take time for themselves, make themselves beautiful, prepare their medicines, concoct poison and bombs.

Arisa, it's interesting that you singled out this poem and mentioned that you can see it as a short film.  It's one of my favorites in your book.  I agree that the setting of the kitchen, sometimes c
alled the heart of the home, is both feminine and powerful (I like that coupling). To my surprise, I've grown to love my own kitchen over the years; it has become a creative and comfortable space for me. There are many profound lines in "Lady in the House: Kitchen Speeches", such as:

"I've been searching for one pure answer, one complete
thing to feed loss.  Something grown for your mouths,
a recipe my pots don't refuse."

7) How does the writing process affect you, emotionally and/or spiritually?  Why did you choose poetry over prose?

AW: Writing is an integrative act.  Different parts come together to make something, and from that making something becomes known.  Something is realized, and what that means for me is that I’ve freed myself.  In the ways we are socially constructed and therefore disempowered, I get my power back, bit by bit, trauma by trauma, generation by generation, and so I know myself more by being engaged in the creative act that socially created me.  I’m more present in my body, even when I’m told to be fearful because I’m black, woman, queer, etc.  I can write myself right as an inhabitant of this earth.  My “I” has broader (in)sight.  And poetry aligns more closely with how I see/perceive the world.

Arisa, your statement, "I can write myself right as an inhabitant of this earth", is excellent.  The act of writing, to a writer, is, of course, extremely valuable.  As far as poetry goes, you seem to be a natural poet. 

After thinking about your answers, I realized that I needed to read your poems with more freedom, meaning that although your content is meaningful, I shouldn't seek or expect a complete, literal understandingI was reminded (once again!) that my approach to reading poetry should be different than my approach to reading prose. This  conversation did help me to connect more closely with your work.  Thank you very much for this interview, Arisa! 
Thanks as well to Serena from Poetic Book Tours for arranging this tour and for providing a print copy of this book.  For more reviews and features, please visit the other stops on the tour for You're the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened.  I've linked this review to Serena's 2016 Poetry Challenge.

Thanks for reading!  As always, your comments are welcomed. 


  1. I love how open she was to your questions. She sounds like a poet to watch!

  2. Thanks for being on the blog tour. Arisa is a wonderful poet and I'm glad she had time to answer your questions.

    1. Thank you for your help, Serena. I've definitely learned a thing or two about poetry by being on your tours. I've also noticed that I experience more poetry in my everyday life, if that makes sense. I notice and appreciate more. :)

  3. ThanK you for this conversation. Your questions helped me think through a lot of things about audience and how a text is received once it's out in the world.

    1. You're very welcome, Arisa! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions in a thoughtful, and poetic, manner.

  4. Very interesting q&a. Some of your questions were ones I would not have thought to ask.

  5. Thanks for sharing this interesting perspective on poetry. I do not read much poetry normally. When we covered it in school, it was so helpful to have discussions, such as this one, about it,

  6. Wonderful interview. I wasverymovedby her response when you asked her why she chose poetry over prose.ot is very challenging to doagood wand asessionsnd for sure this is first rate

  7. This is a great interview. That goes for the questions as well as the answers.

    I think that one reason to read, both poetry and prose, is to connect with those who have other perspectives and experiences. I think that sometimes making those connections is difficult and sometimes we do not always succeed on fully connecting. It is usually worth the effort however.

  8. I really enjoyed reading Arisa's answers to your questions!

  9. Wonderfully insightful post, great questions and answers.

    As you know I'm not a big fan of poetry, only every now and then dabbling, so I can relate to your opening thoughts.

  10. I enjoyed this Q&A Susan. Thanks for the interesting post and discussion. I know what you mean about appreciating the work but sometimes the connection may not be there. It is such a personal thing.
    Happy weekend.


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