“Poetry is my voice. It helps me navigate unconscious waters and brings what I’m trying to think about into the light,” says nationally recognized poet, playwright and author, Arisa White ’06 MFA. The Cave Canem fellow is currently working on two major projects, a sequel to her self-published collection of poems about her father entitled, dear Gerald and a full production of her libretto, Post Pardo: The Opera.
Faced with conflicted emotions around her estranged father, White was inspired to write her poetry collection dear Gerald. “I had always found myself silenced around the topic of my father. Later, I started to recognize the ways in which we’re all connected around absence with our fathers or fatherlessness and started to make larger connections about the social and political implications of that absence,” says White. “How do we negotiate absence? How are we governed by it and what is the necessary healing that needs to occur?”
With a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation in California, White developed a multi-part project that includes: publishing her poems, a community participation component where people are asked to write letters to their estranged fathers or other authority figures in exchange for a copy of dear Gerald, a sequel publicationcomprised of the letter submissions to be titled, Who’s Your Daddy? and a reunion with her father living in Guyana.
To date, letters, poems and visual art have been submitted by men and women of all ages from around the world. “It’s great to receive different examples of expression because it’s not just about the written word,” notes White. “My objective is that people connect with whatever it is that needs healing and attention. And however you express that to get to the other side of that heaviness is ultimately what I’m trying to inspire in people.” More information is available at http://arisawhite.com. Submissions for the dear Gerald project are still being accepted at https://atoguyana.wordpress.com/about/.
Post Pardon: The Opera
In 2013, with a $4,999 grant from the City of Oakland’s Cultural Programming and an additional $6,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, White developed a libretto and score with New York-based composer Jessica Jones. An adaptation of her poetry collection, Post Pardon, the opera explores the interior landscape of a young woman contemplating taking her life and that of her child. The work is based on White’s acquaintance with fellow poet Reetika Vazirani, who killed herself and her young son in 2003.
The opera premiered in Oakland in July 2014 before a packed house. “People were excited by the major themes of the work; one of which is inherited sorrow. There is currently a lot of research in metaphysics and genetics on transgenerational trauma. The opera wasn’t rooted in any specific science, but artistically it made sense,” says White.
Following the opera’s premiere, White received fiscal sponsorship from the playwright incubator PlayGround to pursue a full production of the piece. She is currently applying for additional grants in order to raise $250,000 to produce the opera with a full orchestra by February 2017.
Of her work, White stresses the importance of community in her professional development. “You have to be connected and have a community for emotional support and to guide you professionally. The reality is that I invite people into my sphere of influence because there is so much to learn from them.”
This sense of community was strengthened at UMass Amherst while a student in the Master of Fine Arts for Poets and Writers Program. “I really felt that I was being tended to and nurtured as an artist,” recounts White. “[Professor] Dara Wier taught me that I can approach the same idea from different angles until I am released by it and so she gave me permission to just focus on one thing until I figured out how I was going to say it.”
White has authored the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award in 2013. Her play, Frigidare, was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival in 2011 and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005 and 2014. Read more about Arisa White’s work at http://arisawhite.com.
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By Elena Lamontagne