Spotlight: Arisa White

Hobart Festival of Women Writers welcomes

Arisa White as a Participating Writers for Festival 2018.

Arisa White-IMG_4034-Small

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and the author of the chapbook “Fish Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife,which won Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) Per Diem Poetry Prize. Hurrah’s Nest, her debut full-length poetry collection, was a finalist for the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards, 82nd California Book Awards, and nominated for the 44th NAACP Image Awards. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, her more recent full-length collection, was nominated for the 29th Lambda Literary Awards. Arisa White is also a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize. Her poetry is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet.


Arisa White has received an Investing in Artists grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to fund the dear Gerald project, which deals with the issue of absent fathers; as well, she received a Cultural Funding grant from the city of Oakland to create the libretto and score for Post Pardon: The Opera. She is also the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, for which she curates artistic collaborations and events focused on narratives of queer and trans people of color. She has also received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Rose O’Neill Literary House summer residency at Washington College in Maryland, Hedgebrook, Prague Summer Program, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. This autumn, Arisa White will join the English Department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, as an assistant professor in poetry.


Arisa White comes to Hobart Festival of Women Writers for the first time this year. She speaks with Stephanie Nikolopoulos about her writing career and her work.


Stephanie Nikolopoulos
Stephanie Nikolopoulos



Arisa White 


SN: You are currently co-authoring, with Laura Atkins, Heyday Books’ second book in the Fighting For Justice series. The book is a middle-grade biography in verse about Bridget “Biddy” Mason, who was born into slavery in Georgia and went on to become a nurse and philanthropist and founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Why did you choose to tell this story in verse—and what are the challenges and joys of doing so?

AW: Deciding to tell the story in verse was a decision that was in place before I came on board. The joy is writing poetry itself. The challenges were having to distill my metaphors, to strip back language so that it was at the reading levels of our audience. This stripping back was at times emotional because in dealing with the history of slavery in this country, I didn’t have the elevated language to communicate its insidious nature. How do I communicate the systemic racism? The rape? From this stripping back the historical silences, the redactions, and this missing became visibly felt. In the stripping back, there I grew real eyes for patterns of violence and its current iterations. In the stripping back there is pain and suffering so alive and tangible today, and so I spent a considerable amount of time in tears. Feeling myself resurrecting something that is both my own and ours. And from there, from what is my own and ours, the language came, honest and bare and full of sense.

SN: Previous to this, you worked on a full-length poetry collection that also dealt with the similar theme of being trapped by a man and fighting one’s way to freedom: A Penny Saved, inspired by the story of Polly Mitchell, who was imprisoned in her own house by her husband. Can you tell us a little about why you not only feel drawn to these specific types of stories but also why you choose to write about them? What, if anything, do you want the reader to take away from your work?

AW: What I am intrigued by is the (socio-political) culture that allows and breeds these individual acts of violence. And then when it comes to the personal, I’m intrigued by the resilience, by the will to endure, how the very impulse to live drives us—and what are we driven to do and be? I’m drawn to the questions that arise from syncing myself into these women lives—how the persona is a way into deeper questioning that allows me to unravel mastering narratives, pulls me from binary thinking into the interstitial—where it becomes apparent how I am bound up with others. I want readers to be shifted emotionally—to feel nuanced states of feeling and the consequences of their actions and inactions.

SN: You were born in Brooklyn, are an alumna of Sarah Lawrence College, and went on to earn your MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Now, though, you live in Oakland, California. Do you feel there is a difference in the East Coast versus West Coast poetry scene? How do these places inform your writing?

AW: East Coast is where I was formally educated as a poet and writer. And it is home for me, and it is from Brooklyn that I learned my alphabet, my rhythms, scales, survival, the building blocks of storytelling from family and neighborhoods. I recently relocated from Oakland, CA, to Maine to teach full-time at Colby College. But during my time in Oakland, I grew to understand myself as a poet in community. To think about how my poetry lives in the body and how it lives communally. How it relates and is in relationship with __________. Having to “feel” in that blank tends towards innovation and experimentation, and this is how I experienced the Bay Area queer literary community. I felt like I was being asked, not just to break out the box, but to imagine and forge my own shape. This helped to hone my I for addressing my experiences as a black lesbian and to do so in a manner that offered the clarity to hear my own voice and to honor the distinct way it languages and makes meaning.

For Festival 2018, Arisa White will present the workshop, “Metaphor Is Magic.” 

Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” was the first example of a metaphor that I learned. Amazed by the transformative power of “is” and the verb “be,” the metaphor has magical properties. In this workshop, we will explore, through readings and writing exercises, the various ways to wield the metaphor’s magic.

– Arisa White

To find a complete description of this and all of the workshops offered for Festival of Women Writers 2018, go to Festival 2018 workshops



Inspired by the publication of You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happenedhailed as a “love letter to queer people of color” by Lambda Literary–the Beautiful Things Project is a series of creative collaborations with poet Arisa White and QTPOC artists, community organizations, and businesses. The Beautiful Things Project hopes to expand readership beyond markets that are often targeted for poetry; to mutually support artists and organizations that work to restore, nurture, and bring beauty to the people they serve; and to create Beautiful Community Events that spotlight the narratives and experiences of queer and trans people of color. More: Beautiful Things Project

Arisa White at Radar Reading Series – Arisa White reads

for more on Arisa White’s work, go to Arisa

for links to Arisa White’s words: Words


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