I met Arisa White several years ago at the Centrum Writers Conference in Port Townsend, Washington. Fifteen minutes into our first conversation, I knew she was nothing short of an Iconoclast in the making. I had never met a writer so multi-faceted, so playful yet self-possessed, so learned and accomplished and completely unconcerned with whether anyone took notice. It wasn’t long before I started skipping my morning workshop to sit by the Puget Sound with her, drinking coffee, exchanging poems, and arguing heatedly over strategies for revision.
Over the years, we’ve kept in touch—as writers, friends, and champions of one another’s work. In that time, White has spun a prolific whirlwind of award-winning chapbooks, poetry collections, a children’s book, a libretto. She is heavily anthologized and co-editor of an anthology forthcoming from Foglifter Press. If that weren’t enough, she is a Cave Canem fellow, an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Colby College, and creator of The Beautiful Things Project, which curates poetic collaborations that center narratives of queer people of color. Perhaps most remarkably, she is, in the midst of this, an incredible wife, daughter, sibling, and friend.
White’s new book, Who’s Your Daddy (Augury Books, 2021), is for so many reasons her most impressive accomplishment to date, lauded by the likes of Dara Wier, Terrance Hayes, Patricia Smith, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes, “Who’s Your Daddy is a study of how power and loss work on the intimate scales of daily living and queer loving.” Publisher’s Weekly says of White, “Through trials and tribulations, White insists on love as an antidote to fear of life’s danger.”
Impressive accolades, yet I would argue that this master class in form, lyricism, intelligence, and heart is quite possibly brilliant beyond anyone’s summation.
White and I spoke over Zoom just before the dawn of the New Year.
—Piper J. Daniels
THE BELIEVER: When I read Who’s Your Daddy for the first time, I emailed you to ask, “What moved through you with this one?” Not because I thought any haunting entity deserved credit, but because I was so spooked by how deeply you conjured yourself. How did the writing of this book feel different from the others? How did it feel the same?
ARISA WHITE: I felt like I was trying to save something. I was feeling bad about myself, like I had a stain on my heart and I would never get into Heaven. I wanted to make visible all the things that feel shameful about me, why people would look at me and say, You’re broken. I wanted to transform that material into something beautiful. That was my goal. It came out of that desire to not feel sad and heartbroken anymore. Because of the amount of shame and guilt I felt, I needed to create something useful out of it and make it beautiful. And I believe that that’s what beauty offers us—a way to transmute that guilt and shame into something usable, and something that could be used by others.
BLVR: In the final section of Who’s Your Daddy, you make a sojourn to Guyana to meet your father, who the book is about. There’s something about the way you are in Guyana that is so unapologetic. Even the diction is imbued with this delicious confidence and I can’t help but wonder, what was your secret to being so self-possessed in those moments?
AW: I got some clarity. When I was there I said to my mom, “Oh, now I understand why he wasn’t a part of my life. He is the reason.” I think maybe I was expecting something Disney or Lifetime. Instead what I got was this dude being like, “You’re supposed to cook me dinner. When a daughter comes back, she’s supposed to do this.” This is a—tradition? You’re trying to lay some tradition on me?
I started to see how tradition can sometimes prop people up to believe they are entitled to your energy when they haven’t even put anything into it. So that’s the tricky shit of tradition. It makes you believe that you have to participate in something when no one has even given you anything. I think if I believed in these cultural practices, I probably would feed myself to it.
Now I don’t have this mythology about him. It was like, you’re a self-centered narcissist—makes sense you’re not around. And it didn’t feel negative. It was this beautiful kind of rest and just knowing. When you arrive at a place of knowing, there’s no positive or negative, it just is. And that’s where I got to be and I wasn’t expecting that.
BLVR: Who’s Your Daddy utilizes a linear structure but is in no way a traditional linear narrative. Which aspects of linearity did you embrace, and which did you reject?
AW: This book started out with the last section. It came to me in prose. I was curating a reading series at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. I was with this exhibition of contemporary, US-based, African artists for eight weeks, and looking at these visuals—that element of blue, of water and rivers and all that blue represents—stuck with me and I wanted to use that somehow. Where is the blue in my life? Where is the indigo? And instantly I remembered the door to the apartment on Fulton Street when I was a kid in Brooklyn and that royal blue paint of the door I was hiding behind because my father, Gerald, came to visit.
So it started out as this lyrical essay. My publisher was like “This is beautiful and amazing and it’s great, but… how did you get there?” So for me, linear time was an act of generosity for the reader. What are the ways I can let the reader into my narrative? What are the motifs I can develop? I began to trace linearity through my own story, and motifs and conceits started to develop to help me tell the story from childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, up until my mid-thirties. My editor pulled out a lot of allegorical things, these allegories around my father, so at some point a good fifty percent of the manuscript was taken away from me and I had to build it up again.
BLVR: I think that’s the most associative path to linearity I’ve ever heard. And also the way linearity should behave.
AW: I think so. Time always felt like Mother—Mother Time. Usually it’s Father Time, but for me, time felt like a feminine, motherly, maternal thing, because in part, my mom structured how I understood time—you could take your time and thicken it with tension, flights of fancy, and all states of being.
BLVR: Before your trip to Guyana, did you settle upon a writing practice you’d follow once you were there, and how did things develop once you actually arrived?
AW: I would say my idea of that trip was really basic, and I think I did that for my own emotional wellbeing. I’m going to meet Gerald, I’m going to give him a copy of these epistolary poems that I wrote, and I’m just gonna see Guyana. I knew I would keep a journal, I would read the newspaper, I would pay attention to what was on TV. We were also there during Mashramani, which is a celebration of Guyana becoming a republic. Growing up in Brooklyn, we would always go to the West Indian Day Parade, so I was familiar with what I would see at Mash. But I really felt I was going as a journalist. I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to take notes, I’ll write in the morning and at night. I will keep articles from newspapers that resonate with me. One morning, I was reading the newspaper and an article about these men who gang-terrorized and raped this kid they thought was gay, and I knew that was going in the book. So in that regard, I went there in this basic elemental way to receive as much information as possible.
BLVR: In the book, love is often explored as an energy field, and I would argue that approach is more interesting and universal because it’s less steeped in conventions we know to be bullshit.
AW: In many ways, I was chasing a media-created idea of love. There were all these things I had to unlearn, and in that unlearning, oh my god, the anger that was there. Just recognizing that love isn’t about performing a role or perfecting a mask and thinking that will keep a person. I knew how to be a good daughter, and I knew how to do things that people expected of me, but I didn’t know how to be me with other people and still expect to be loved. After I finished Who’s Your Daddy, I realized that love is showing up over and over again. And the thing that sustains you is falling on your face, and learning how to be vulnerable in the presence of other people while communicating your needs, and setting boundaries, because that’s part of loving yourself.
I think upon reflection, I have a fiercesome bunch of people who stayed around and loved me. This book could be reviewed as, “She came from a broken home. She had a lot of trauma.” To which I say, who hasn’t had trauma, and whose home is not broken? But I know my mom’s going to find a way to help me out—when Gerald didn’t show up the first two days I arrived in Guyana, she put out a bat call, from New Jersey, to all the people she knew in the country. I have my brothers, I have uncles, I have this extended maternal family and loved ones.
BLVR: Who’s Your Daddy explores the ideas of absence and presence in new and deeply nuanced ways. I’m curious about the role of familial narratives inherited around absence, and how those narratives contributed to the mythologies of your own imagination and use of poetic imagery.
AW: A lot of my mythology has to do with my mother’s dreams. My mother has operated in my life as an Oracle. She embodies many of the archetypes of mother, the stereotypes of black mother, pulling in that very earthy, kitchen table woman’s knowledge. Growing up in the earlier parts of my childhood as Rastafarian, we were cast as weirdos and outsiders in the family, and because of that I knew we were living our own story. My mom would have all these dreams that would script our lives as a result. So for me it’s very much a part of the poetry-making of my life. I’ve always said to myself I want to live my life like a poem.
BLVR: In your writing education, were you ever discouraged from writing about dreams?
AW: When I teach fiction, dreams always function as an escape and never as the terrain in which you can play, transition, or bridge. It’s like, “And it was all a dream, the end!” But as a poet, I was given permission. We’re sort of known to be dreamy, so I think because I’m steeped in that genre and the permissions allowed by it, I can be completely disobedient. Dreams are source material for me. I rely so much on image and dreams are image-rich. I barely remember dialogue and if I do, it’s a score of resonances in me. I can go back later and fill in the words for whatever that energetic sonic score is. Sometimes I’ll wake up with a pulse of sound that I have to get out. But it’s the images of dreams that stay completely with me and I use them again and again.
BLVR: If we might pivot to something dream-adjacent, you use a lot of synesthetic language and imagery in this book. Sometimes the risk there is preciousness, but you’re doing something completely opposite, something both juicy and precise. Do you consider yourself synesthetic?
AW: I don’t necessarily know I’m doing it, but I love the concept of synesthesia. In high school I learned about the condition and I thought, That’s the most fascinating thing ever. That’s the best condition to have. Then Robin Coste Lewis pointed out that I do these interesting things where I verb my nouns…
BLVR: Absolutely. I’d define that as one of your trademarks.
AW: And that’s my metaphor making. I believe the body is the verb and that’s how everything’s going to enter into being. My body feels like an instrument for those possibilities. It’s the way I want my body to be. If the body has memory, that means I can access the memories in my body, and I can shift the story and how it’s held in my body.
BLVR: One of the revolutionary strengths of this book is your writing on the topic of menstruation, which is neither apologetic nor unapologetic, because you’re operating on a whole other level. You describe your period and the debilitating endometriosis you suffer from as “having cast you in its spell.” You write of your family, “because it occurred monthly, my family disables their care.” And later, of a woman in your life, “She holds my pain like a newborn beast and coos it down.” I wonder if there’s an intentional juxtaposition there and, if so, what that says about menstruation and queer female relationships.
AW: The monthly occurrence of pain taught me you’ll deplete your usual networks. That was a source of sadness but it was also recognition. Who can take care of me and how can I participate in this care as well? That’s why we have partnerships. So one person can be there when the others cannot. And that’s when I started to think about fatherhood and the absence around it and how there’s this pain that can just boil up in that space because they’re not participating when the other person isn’t there.
It wasn’t until I got to college people would check in on me, like, “Where are you, where did you go?” I’m in the bed in so much pain, and here come the ladies with their salves and their teas and their soups and there would be rounds of people participating in helping me get through. And I think as a result, I started to love it, if that makes sense. I didn’t love being in pain, but I loved what could come out of that moment of not being able to do everything for myself and how I had to learn to ask for help. And my period also gave me permission to say no. There’s something about who I am during those moments of bleeding that makes my vision precise. It becomes clear what’s needed and what needs to go. And I don’t have any attachment because my body is teaching me to let go. It started to shift and change my story of my body in this beautiful way, and it had to do with the women I was dating, with my friends, and it’s the best thing ever, how we make community around menses.
BLVR: I hope one of the ways folks receive this book is appreciation for the strength menstruation lends to the process of writing as well as what ends up on the page.
AW: I feel incredibly sensitive and powerful and a force of energy during that time. I feel more clairvoyant. I feel more deeply intuitive. Everything you’re not taught comes into deep application in those moments.
BLVR: Can we touch on what role Somatic therapy plays in Who’s Your Daddy?
AW: For me, writing is this somatic process because it’s coming out of the rhythms and memories of my body and I’m just trying to translate as best as possible. I remember asking in an interview with Edwidge Danticat about the body of the human and the body of the essay, and she said something about not wanting to conflate those, and that’s when I realized, I do conflate the two. I want whatever I put on the page to shift consciousness and that means I’m depending on us to be bodies with each other.
I practiced meditation throughout the years, and yoga, and my wife is a massage therapist who specializes in craniosacral therapy, which is about holding different stations in the body and working with the nervous system to essentially work with the body’s capacity to heal itself. And that’s what poetry does for me. It holds me enough so I can start healing myself through words and images and sound. My personal rhythm feels in sync with the rhythms around me and the poem is coming out of the harmony of those rhythms.
BLVR: For queer writers depicting romantic relationships, there remains an uneasy balance between expression and protection, a necessity of being recognizable to but not revealing of the community as a whole. You seem completely unconcerned with this in Who’s Your Daddy.
AW: I grew up in the very visible presence of a gender-noncomforming aunt and her friends, and my aunt never announced she was a lesbian. Telling a coming out story feels pornographic. I can’t participate in that narrative. I knew there were other narratives operating alongside the narratives that we were supposed to perform. I learned that I don’t have to identify my otherness for the benefit of other people’s comfort—it’s not about comfort, because comfort feels superficial. It’s about how we can be with each other that is authentic for the both of us. For me it’s like, “Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, because that’s the best part.”