April 19–25, 2021
Arisa White is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Colby College and a Cave Canem fellow. She is the author of Who’s Your Daddy (Augury Books, 2021), coeditor of Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter Press, 2021) and coauthor of Biddy Mason Speaks Up (Heyday Books, 2019), winner of the 2020 Maine Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates poetic collaborations that center narratives of queer people of color. She serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press. On Thursday, April 29, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with John Murillo and Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Author photo by Nye’ Lyn Tho
from Who’s Your Daddy
I’m not invited to know much about my father’s family because the family is concerned I’ll write about them. Avery told me this. They keep the black-boy magic from me. My father’s family bequeathed what Gerald started: in the tenth year of his life he wrapped his words mute. These words are tight-lipped cowries I pitch to the ground just to get inside. They keep the black-boy magic from me. It’s an unexplored complement that is active and I do not know its properties. Throws me off-kilter, like one leg is shorter than the other and caught in a whirlpool. I have a gangster swagger. My stressed foot, dipping dipping dipping and turning up wet.
I find and friend another Gerald-child on Facebook. My Facebook Sister, who is by nature half my sister, but nothing nurtured these halves. She went to my high school, three years after I graduated from the High School of Economics and Finance. In one message, she has very little to say about Gerald. Near nil information to give. “I wasn’t checking for him like that.” She has no longing to know her father. She is soon to have a child and takes selfies that show her baby bump.
I find and friend a second Gerald-child on Facebook. My Facebook Brother, who is by nature half my brother, but nothing nurtured these halves, is five years younger. In a series of messages, we set up a phone call. Bryce tells me Gerald was deported for battering his daughter’s boyfriend. This boyfriend was beating her. Attempting to kill her. Was there a gun—my Facebook Brother doesn’t know but Gerald was charged with a felony. For this third strike, he was sent back home to Guyana. And I envy my half-sister for that moment she felt her boyfriend topple from her, relief from abuse, and she entered the cove of Gerald’s care.
I’m noticing, lately, fathers with daughters. Of the pictures my mother gave me, I don’t have a proper portrait of Gerald—so much chiaroscuro, not enough good. The Polaroid sends cracks through his face. His dark skin absorbs all the light and features aren’t distinct. The windows into his soul are shadowed. I’m on his shoulders; we stand tall as the buildings in the distance. My toddler-face squints at the sunlight. Neither one of us is really seeing.
—From Who’s Your Daddy, Augury Books, 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I am writing about a father I do not know and beginning to reconnect with him. I’m documenting those moments of encounter. What I know, what I don’t know, what I will never know, what I will never have—treating it all as information about my father’s absence.
What are you working on right now?
A short story that I started three years ago. My students are working on fiction pieces in my intro to creative writing class, so I decided to work on a short story with them. It’s one of those break-up stories, with a lot of internal conflicts, and I’m finding that when I make the main character more external, my poetic sensibilities kick in. It’s nice merging the poetic with the fictional.
What’s a good day for you?
Wake up to no alarm and the day isn’t structured and I can just flow from one thing to the next without feeling the need to complete it or get anything done. There’s good food and I didn’t make it. Sunshine, and I’m chilling out on the deck. There’s some Netflix involved—a romantic comedy and dance movie, for sure.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My maternal grandmother—she and her sisters moved to Brooklyn during the Great Migration.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I grew up mostly in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn—Fort Greene projects and later on in a brownstone on Greene between Bedford and Nostrand. I’ve lived out of Brooklyn since 2003—went off to graduate school and then moved to the Bay Area and now I’m in central Maine trying to become a tenure-track professor. I came of age in Fort Greene, within a community of Black lesbians and gay men and it was great. There was a thriving literary scene, I loved the tree-lined streets, loved that I could recognize my neighborhood in Spike Lee’s movies. Over the years, the color of the neighborhood has changed, more cafés, boutiques, university expansions, high-rises here and there, yoga studios—it was not this way in the ’90s. Most of my family have moved out of Brooklyn to New Jersey, because they could afford to purchase homes there. A few years ago, I walked down Myrtle Ave on a visit to my friend, who lives near Pratt in a new building overlooking Brooklyn with a squint-view of Manhattan, and it was a stroll through what sixteen years can do to what was once the ’hood. Then at the same time, I was part of a wave of a new gentry in the Bay Area—so I was feeling that sense of change and loss from both sides.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
What’s immediately coming to mind is riding the F train one time: I enter, and the car is relatively empty, and on the floor, spotless white pumpkin seeds strewn about. It looked so pretty.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
My wife says, “It’s where my external creativity grinds and (t)werks.” Lol. I now live in central Maine, moved here for a teaching job three years ago, so I’m still getting acquainted with the literary community here, and with the pandemic, “community” no longer feels tied to a physical location. In these days of COVID, community are those people who show up for you, check in and say, “I’m thinking of you.”
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I was introduced to these poets’ work in Brooklyn. Carl Hancock Rux would hang out in Fort Greene in the ’90s—I loved his poetry and later when I was interning at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the summer of my junior year in college, there was Carl with Jane Comfort and Company, adapting his Asphalt into a dance performance. He was modeling a pathway that I wanted to follow with my own writing career—poet as collaborator working across genre and mediums. Saul Williams, too, stomped ‘bout Fort Greene, would feature at the Brooklyn Moon Café at times, Kokobar too, and he was like some superlyric person for me—unapologetically poetic and himself and quirky, with burstful poetry. After I saw the movie Slam, I truly believed poetry could shift who we are as people.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
India DuBois came to my high school, I believe my sophomore year, and she lived in Crown Heights. I interned with her one summer. She revealed the hustle to me—the marketing of your own work and making of your own opportunities if you were going to be a poet.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ross Gay’s Be Holding. It’s a book-length poem and I’m so amazed by the sustained attention, the turning of the I / eye, the connections and wondering and wandering to and from and back again. It’s breathtaking.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
White Girls by Hilton Als.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I prefer physical books, and I love underlining or writing in the margins—stars are hotspots to return to and if there is a star and an exclamation point that’s often an idea I’ve been trying to work out on my own and the author figured it out and articulated it perfectly. If the book really gets me thinking, I’ll turn to those few last blank pages in the book and start to draft some thought or stanza worth of poems. I dip in and out of multiple books until I find one that I’ll read cover to cover. Since I’m one of those people who buy more books than I can read, I force myself to read the books on my shelf.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Crown of sonnets.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On the bus or subway.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Stoops and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate love,
And what I love you love,
For every heartbreak breaking in me as good breaks in you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
In the purple light of father,
a small and slick dodger,
a trade of all jacks,
a bishop to rob
you of your sin,
bleed ink into your pen,
pour from you love,
bruised beautiful as these Brooklyn
streets—lit in bars of Biggie.
It’s family, it’s where I’m from.