Arisa White is an Oakland-based poet and writer, whose powerful books touch upon the issue of domestic violence. She is the author of Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. On January 18, Arisa is going to conduct a “Write to Heal” workshop at the San Francisco Public Library. Everyone interested in writing is invited to come!
*UPDATE* The January 17 event has been canceled.
W.O.M.A.N., Inc. volunteer Julia Glosemeyer recently had a conversation with Arisa White over tea and French fries at San Francisco’s Elephant and Castle. They talked about writing, migration, growing up, and healing from trauma. The W.O.M.A.N., Inc. blog is publishing the whole exchange–dive in!
A WRITER’S PATH
What is your connection with W.O.M.A.N., Inc.?
I wrote a book called A Penny Saved, inspired by the story of Polly Mitchell, who was held captive in her home for ten years. Writing is a very solitary act, so I was trying to find a way to reach out to the community. I researched some local organizations, so that we could collaborate and partner around what I do well and what they do well. W.O.M.A.N., Inc. was already stored in my back-brain, as I had met Mariya Taher [W.O.M.A.N., Inc. Community Liaison Manager] through the online journal called Her Kind that I was working with. The journal is primarily for women writers who create fiction and non-fiction work, and Mariya had submitted an essay. After my book came out, I decided to reach out to her and propose a writing workshop.
Nonprofits tend to welcome volunteers who would like to contribute their professional skills. I’d love to talk to you about your career as a professional writer. It takes a brave person to become a writer nowadays, as the climate is very competitive—in fact, Business Insider even put Creative writing second on their list of the most competitive careers! What made you pursue writing as a profession?
You know when you grow up, and you have a natural talent for something, you are just drawn to it? That’s how it’s always been for me. Storytelling, just doing creative things… I’m from a large family, so my siblings and I would create together—little movies, commercials, plays, all of these strange drama series. We would paint together, do crafts… So I grew up in a space that was fostering this—almost like a creative escape. My older brother at a time was a visual artist. In writing, I saw the opportunity to be myself when I was growing up.
Along the way people have cautioned me, saying “You won’t be able to make a living as a writer,” or “What else are you gonna do?” I definitely do other things, for example I have a full-time job as an editorial manager for a dance magazine. I do that from home. I love the work–I love dance and I love editing. I have a secure financial resource that allows me some flexibility to travel for readings and do workshops. I’m also now teaching at Goddard College, which is making me even more secure to pursue my writerly interests. It is my goal at some point to be able to just focus on writing, to take 2 or 3 years off, wake up every day, and think “What am I going to write today for a book or an article?” Just really, really be entrenched in my writerly life; but I don’t feel like I am quite there right now.
I guess, if you have a full-time job to support you, it gives you the freedom to write whatever you want, and not care about commercial pressures. You don’t have to write novels about zombies, for example, just because zombies are popular.
For the dance magazine where I work, there is an audience that we do have to cater to. It’s the private studio owner, so most things are focused on dance and running a small business. But dancing is an art form that I enjoy. I didn’t train as a dancer, but I took classes in high school and college, and I’ve interned and worked with major dance organizations in New York. I think if my mother had the finances to send me off to ballet school, I probably would have been a dancer as well.
Once I decided to go to graduate school for poetry, I knew that this was it, I was definitely taking a path towards becoming a professional writer. I went to UMass Amherst, and I am now part of a community of amazing writers. I am a member of an organization called Cave Canem, which is a network of African American poets and poets of the African diaspora. That network extended my reach in so many ways. I feel really blessed to have met so many people along the way to help me think about how I can be a poet in the world, in a way that is genuine to me. It makes me feel very secure.
GROWING UP IN NYC
Your childhood in New York was very artistic, do you feel like it was a product of that city in some way?
I think it was; sometimes I don’t really know how to answer that question. Maybe yes—it was a product of that very thriving city, where there is diversity on so many levels. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though predominantly we were in Black communities, those communities were so diverse, with folks from the Caribbean, folks from Africa, folks from Europe, folks all over the country, so our sense of what it is to be a Black person, a Black woman really extended across the world. We were always exposed to different ideas and different points of view.
My mom was very adventurous, for a chunk of time she was a Rastafarian, and we would also travel up and down the East Coast. I think that my mom’s interest in doing things differently, seeing things differently, and wanting to break convention—that interest really runs through our blood, inspiring me to explore, look at things differently, and try to find another way.
And there was also the reality of growing up in a household where domestic violence was present, and with violence outside the home as well. For some time I lived with my grandmother in Fort Green projects in Brooklyn, and it was really violent. There were gunshots every night, and people were dying from crack addiction all over the place—in the 1990s, the folks were falling out. So we saw the ways in which our community was suffering, within and without, and we were taking it out on each other. If my stepfather is having a hard time, for some reason, he comes home and takes it out on us. So it becomes a very confusing space to be in, as family is supposed to be about safety, security, and love, and at the same time you’re also the target of their anger, sadness, and dissatisfaction with their lives.
What that turns out to mean is—the violence that they feel within turns on you, and so it’s like “Why is my mother calling me names?” or “Why is my stepfather hitting me?” or “Why is he hitting my mom?” Those kinds of questions led me to create something, because I needed those questions answered, and the people around me didn’t really know how to answer them, except by living their lives as honestly as they could. But in writing and thinking about things creatively, I got to imagine something else. I don’t know what necessarily that “else” is, but with the opportunity to sit and think about it, and to use stories like Polly Mitchell’s or my mother’s, I wound up bringing all of those different voices to talk about something that hurts. It simply hurts, and there isn’t an answer for it, but if we pay attention to it enough, we’ll find a way. And I think that’s what creativity is for me.
The activities that my siblings and I devised, when we had to watch each other while our mom was at work—she was a single mom most of the time—were a way for us to be with each other that was healthy, that was innovative, that was about saying “We can find a new way to relate” through imagination, through fantasy. We forget the importance of imagination. It changes things, it changes the way you feel about yourself, how you perceive the world, and it empowers you to go out and change things too. It shifts us, so we can have broader, transformative changes in the communities and the relationships that matter to us.
You’ve actually just answered another question that I wanted to ask: how can writing help people deal with trauma? From the point of view of a layperson, it is not immediately obvious. Some people would say that it’s not good to pick on wounds, it’s better to just try to forget the bad things that happened. Such a way of thinking is common in Russia, where I am from. When I moved to the US, I was surprised to find a whole discourse around domestic violence. Domestic violence is very common in Russia, but it isn’t talked about as a major problem. Extreme jealousy isn’t perceived as something out of the ordinary. Checking your partner’s phone or email is considered quite normal, for example.
But even though America has a language to speak about domestic violence, the problem is still very prevalent. Otherwise, organizations like W.O.M.A.N., Inc. wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t receive more than 18,000 calls a year.
I think this problem is also normalized here. All over the world, violence against women is normalized. Organizations such as W.O.M.A.N., Inc. have to deal with the reality of violence being so much of a part of our culture. Even now, folks don’t want to talk about domestic violence because of shame, that sense of “I did something wrong,” or “Something’s wrong with me,” and that’s the reason why this is happening. It makes me so upset, because we internalize the belief that we’re supposed to accept this kind of violence just because we are women. We are supposed to not walk the streets at a certain hour, we are supposed to dress a certain way, we have to hold our bodies in a certain way so as not to invite violence towards us. Because it exists everywhere we go.
If I go to another culture, I have to abide by the rules and the expectations of what it means to be a woman there, and I think about this when I travel. If go to another state, I have to be constantly aware of my presence, of being a threat to people around—and then couple that with being gay, and being Black, and being a tall woman. It draws this level of attention that at any time can go any way. I’m often aware of that, and it just makes me so angry. And it traumatizes me, that hyper-vigilance where you feel like you can no longer feel safe.
The workshop I’m doing for W.O.M.A.N., Inc. is about helping people find a language for those scary things that they’ve had to deal with. We’ve all have to deal with something that’s really shifted us. We hold that inside of ourselves, and it is going to come out some other way. Your body is going to let you know what it needs to heal, and it will create the necessary pain so that you pay attention. We all have had difficult moments, and all those moments are lessons. It’s information. Each of us is a book—I think of you as a book, I think of myself as a book, and we are all filled with so much information, and history, and perspective.
It’s a very interesting way to put it.
Yeah, and what you’ve been through can teach me so much about you, and about the world, and maybe offer some solutions to how to better be a person in this world. So I want your story, because your story is valuable. It’s valuable to yourself, because it is going to teach you how to heal, how to help other people. But if we keep all that inside of us, it just rots and turns us sour, and f**ks with everything around us. Some people like to say “Oh, I haven’t been through anything difficult, and my life is absolutely perfect”—and I’m afraid of those people!
I’ve noticed that in the US, there is this very big pressure to always maintain a perfect façade. In Russia, there doesn’t seem to be such pressure to be perfect, and people in Russia share negative thoughts more freely. For example, at the workplace people may complain about something (“I hate this… I’m sick of that…”), and this doesn’t seem to be a feature of American office culture. Maybe this pressure is one of the reasons people are ashamed to speak about domestic violence.
They’re ashamed of a lot of things. But the denial doesn’t help anybody. That idea that we have to be perfect is a prison, and we consent to it over and over again. This imprisonment drives us all absolutely crazy, and it doesn’t allow us to accept our freedom. We are constantly constructing who we are based on everything outside of us. “This is what I have to be, because this or that person said so…” It feels so wrong, and it’s crushing your spirit and crushing your soul. And you pass that denial along to your children and everyone around you. And everyone looks strange, you know? There’s something odd about walking around clueless about who you truly are.
You were talking about people being repositories of information, but with some people, it’s really hard to read that information because it is obscured in some way. For example, on social media, where everyone is constructing a façade.
Yeah, it’s almost like “I need a mask to match your mask,” so that we can interact.
Probably that’s the case with people who have “nothing to complain about.” Everybody has something to complain about!
That’s very true. I have complaints!
MOVING & GROWING UP
You were born on the East Coast and moved to Oakland. What is the same and what is different in terms and culture and inspiration between those two places?
Each place has its own vibe and its own energy. I still write about New York, but I do it in a very emotional way. It’s nostalgia; it’s longing, which I think is a muse for most people. In California, I’ve noticed that because of the lack of change in seasons, there is a sense of sameness. Time has a monotone quality, it has a sense of consistency, nothing breaks it. And the pace in California, especially the Bay Area, is much slower. So there is a way in which I have to deal with stillness, that I’ve never had to deal with before.
Same here, as I grew up in Moscow, and sometimes San Francisco feels like a village.
Now, when I am writing, I have to deal with myself in a different way. I’m also growing up—I’m 34, so I’m no longer in my hopeful, optimistic, I-can-do-anything phase. I’m in a place now where I’m thinking about building. It’s a different kind of energy, it requires long-range planning and much more patience. And it requires the ability to be patient with myself at every step of the way. So all of a sudden, I am witnessing myself as a part of something. I am this adult person who can actually change and be a part of the communities and things around me in a way that actually matters to me. I don’t need to ask anyone’s permission anymore. Before it was like—“Yay! I’m twenty, I can drink and do whatever I want”, but now I’m recognizing what it means to really do whatever I want. “If I want to do this, what does that require?” In my work, in my poems, I’m finding myself incorporating that stillness, that contemplation, that being with yourself with little change. The change is so subtle and slight that it becomes accumulative. So I’m not going to have this dramatic winter, or dramatic summer, or dramatic spring, or this incredibly beautiful fall, but I am changing in these very subtle and necessary ways. And I feel like I’m going deeper. And so that’s how being here is shifting me. It actually reminds me of Butoh dancing, which embodies that sense of slowness.
Yes, for example the husband and wife duo Eiko & Koma, who performed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2012. In one piece (Fragile, with Kronos Quartet) they moved incredibly slowly while lying down, and that must have required a lot of patience, effort, and energy, as well as awareness of their bodies.
So that’s where I feel like I’m at—in this refined slowness. If I stretch my arm, what am I using—what muscle here, what joint there? It’s an attentiveness, so when I’m executing something, you can see the line, you can see the beauty and the intention. You can see my whole self being present in such a way that is almost unbearable—you always want to speed up, to move faster. So in my work, I can take account of my body—I can be very intellectual and speedy, but now I feel the need to bring my energy down. At this point in my life, I want other people to share in this experience. Especially women and men who have gone through physical violence—for them to be able to be in that stillness, to get in touch with their bodies again, and feel what their bodies are telling them, what’s coming out, what histories are being revealed. And sometimes that stillness is uncomfortable, but it reveals something that I know is necessary. I do not think I could have done that in New York.
Moving fast also requires a lot of effort and energy, but we are not taking the time to notice that. What if we slowed it down, so that we could see how much effort and energy we’re putting out every day? If you are this ball of energy, how can you use it more effectively for yourself and for other people?
What you said about growing up reminded me of this article I read recently in Russian, which says that as you grow up, you start to listen to the voice deep inside you more, as opposed to this “super-ego” that tells you what to do.
And it takes a lot of will to do that! At this point of my life, I feel like I’m doing a lot of revision on what I was told. I’m looking back, and I feel a lot of anger. I’m exploring the anger that I have as a result of seeing my mom being abused, seeing other people I love being abused, seeing folks that look like me in the world being abused and killed. That builds up inside of you. All of a sudden I started feeling angry and dissatisfied in my relationships, so I wondered—where was that coming from? What am I mad at? It’s because of what I’ve been taught about who I am as a woman, who I am as a Black woman and a queer woman—all of these ideas that I didn’t realize were inside of me, because I’ve thought of myself as someone with a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem. And I am those things, but a lot of that was rooted in trying to run away from all of those negative voices that were saying “Oh, you can never be a poet,” or “If you’re gonna be gay, people will beat you up,” or “You will never be happy with a woman,” or “You have to take care of people because you’re a woman.” So what I became was a result of reaction.
How can I be myself without it being a reaction to something? That requires going back and letting a lot of things go, and the funny thing is—when you let something go, negative or positive, there is grief. Because I’ve built my life on those ideas, and letting them go means living without them. So it’s a very interesting space I’m in now—I have no answers, I’m not trying to be this idea of the person that I always thought I ought to be, I’m really trying to go day by day and allow myself to love myself in very basic ways. For example, when I’m hungry, I eat, when I’m thirsty, I drink water—I don’t have to wait! There is no reason for me anymore to starve myself; there is no reason to put myself in a corner and cry because of what people will think of me. So that’s the revision I’m doing—looking at these old stories closely, looking for the information that they can give me that’s valuable, and then letting go.
In the Bay Area, there is this culture of non-traditional healing that aims to heal both mind and body. I know that your partner is doing craniosacral massage. Do you feel that this culture of alternative healing is beneficial for the work of combating violence?
That’s one of the other things about moving here, too—there is that huge culture, and with it the ease of being able to talk about all these things. When I go to New York, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about those practices, because it sometimes feels too new-agey. New York is so cosmopolitan, but the culture around those mind-body practices is so different—I am still struggling to find the language to talk about that difference. But here it’s a part of people’s daily practice—to go to yoga, or reiki, or to get craniosacral massage—all of those modalities I’ve learned about here.
When my partner, who is a massage therapist, is working with my body, I’m learning a different intelligence. I always thought that you go to school, you get your degree, and everyone regards you as smart and intelligent, but when I came out here, I realized that the body is just as significant. It also teaches you and has its ways of informing you about things. The body holds so much, the same way your mind does. The body has memory, and my body was holding on to things that happened years and years ago. That fascinated me—if my body still has the memory of being traumatized, it’s going to act as if it’s in trauma! So I had to let go of the trauma that was being held in the body so that I could integrate where I am presently. You know, the mind is a crazy thing to control, it’s always all over the place, so that’s why we try to do our meditations, sit with the mind, and see where it’s going, but what happens when we sit with our bodies, and see what they’re holding?
It’s also information.
Yeah, so here is one of the fascinating things about working with my partner and doing cranial. I was hit by a car when I was 8 years old, and when she was working on my body she saw images of that. She could see where the flow of my cranial fluid was disrupted. It is supposed to flow in this very long circle, and she found that I wasn’t making a complete circle in my energy flow. What she said was true, because I felt it–my hips were off, my back always hurt, and so once she’s able to adjust me, I’m able to move in a more complete circle—my own energy is completing itself now.
We’re all holding particular traumas, it could be anything. So it’s almost about recalibrating, taking care of all those different aspects of yourself, so that you can be a whole, functioning person out in the world, not this crooked energy. Because that’s what you are giving to everyone around you, right? As much as you would like to give your whole complete self, and think that you are holding things back, you are always giving everybody what you have. So know what you have. I think that’s the greatest gift, actually. Being able to be in a non-judgmental relationship with all that we’ve been through helps us become more intelligent people.
This very much resonates with W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s new program C.U.E. (Connect Unify Evolve), which places an emphasis on both physical and mental wellness.
I wanted to conclude by talking a bit about poetry, as to me it seems like a very revolutionary art form. It has formidable qualities in terms of sharing information in an oppressive regime, in that the rhythm makes poems easy to remember and pass down orally, without a paper trace (unlike a novel, for example). Unlike paintings, poems do not occupy space, and unlike music, they can be shared without much noise.
Yes, I agree that poetry as a form is very revolutionary. It’s immediate, and there’s no cause and effect—it can just happen. Poetry mirrors the immediate experience of reality. Because the history of poetry is very much about an oral tradition, and poetry is rooted in the body. For example, the basic metrical unit in most Western poetry traditions is called the “foot”–our language is rested on feet! All of the language about poetry comes back to the body. Poetry is rooted in the experience and ethos of the people, as well as the body it is coming out of. And that’s revolutionary, because from one culture to the next, we are being socialized out of our bodies.
Recently, I read about the “landays” that women poets write in Afghanistan. They are one-line, sixteen-syllable poems in Arabic. The landays talk about American occupation, war, the oppression of women. The women use them to communicate so much about what’s going on. That can’t happen with a novel—you can’t whisper 650 pages of a novel to another person! And they are spread through the entire culture. The body becomes a house for all this information, and to contain it and hold it is a kind of resistance. You have to torture the body in order to get it out.