Featuring art from Miller & Shellabarger and writing by William L. Alton, Will Cordeiro, Nikki Paley Cox, Meredith Doench, Steve Drum, Jennie Ehrenhalt, Jodie Garay, Rae Gouirand, Elizabeth Greenhill, Dena Rash Guzman, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Chaney Kwak, Rex Leonowicz, Alistair McCartney, Anthony Moll, Cynthia Neely, Jason Oet, David Pickering, Nicole Santalucia, Sam Sax, Vince Sgambati, Charles Springer, Jeff Tigchelaar, David Weisberg, Arisa White, and Yuvi Zalkow. View Full Contributor Bios...
Arisa White is the author of two poetry chapbooks and the recipient of multiple awards and honors. Her first full-length collection Hurrah’s Nest, nominated for the 44th NAACP Image Award, made some of Gertrude’s editorial staff fall in love and want to know more. Her second full-length collection, A Penny Saved, was published by Willow Books. Gertrude’s Elizabeth Simson had the honor of interviewing Arisa for issue 19 of Gertrude. We hope you enjoy what we discovered.
Elizabeth Simson (ES): This is your first collection. How long have you been writing? Talk a little about the journey to creating this book. Poets sometimes ask us about the process of gathering poems for a manuscript. How did you select and order the poems for Hurrah’s Nest?
Arisa White (AW): I’ve been writing for over a decade. “Follow” was written as an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence. I was in a workshop with Thomas Lux. (I enjoyed staring at the slouch socks he wore with his tapered jeans.) After class, Thomas came up to me and said that if I ever needed anything—needed to talk—he was there for me. He thought it was me in the poem. He told me to get out of it. I was upset he thought it was me and equally moved by his caring. As I pulled together the poems of this collection, I had to honor the fact that these were true stories. I couldn’t escape them or separate myself from them.
I continued to write poems, without thinking about them as part of a collection, while taking Cave Canem workshops in Manhattan and in graduate school at UMass Amherst. A variation of Hurrah’s Nest was my thesis project. I sent the manuscript off to contests and publishers after grad school and received rejections. I reflected on what was working, what wasn’t. I got feedback from editor friends and asked non-poetry people to read it to see if it appealed to them, if they had questions about clarity, narrative arc, etc. Using all that feedback over these past four years, I deliberately put all my family poems together, narrowed it down to a time period, chronologically ordered them, and soon I could see what was missing, what wasn’t said.
“Disposition for Shininess” is one of those poems added to give it volume, to give my voice the rage and confusion it needed to create a fully complex emotional experience for the reader. “You smellin ya’self gal?” is the last piece I wrote for Hurrah’s Nest. (I was at Hedgebrook in 2010 and it came to me—I think subconsciously I wanted the challenge of writing lyrical prose—and I enjoyed writing it; I could hear my brothers’ voices so clearly. I laughed so much while writing it.) I needed the prose form to ground the collection, as well as be a narrative fulcrum to which all the other poems could refer.
In thinking about how to open and close the book, it made sense for me to begin it with a poem that uses my siblings’ names. The opening poem is somewhat an epistle to my youngest brother, chronicling the experiences he was not a part of. Then the closing poem addresses another brother, who is older, proposing the need to revisit and unearth the stories and beliefs that have shaped us, so that we are not limited by those stories and beliefs.
When Virtual Artists Collective accepted the book in 2011 for publication, I asked my siblings for permission to use their names. I sent them the manuscript and hoped that they approved of what I wrote. It was so great they said yes, quite immediately after I sent them emails. As I look back, it makes sense that this is my first collection—in some ways it is a tribute to the art making that my siblings and I would do when we were little. We created together, and I still keep them close when I create.
Here is me, a ten-year-old on the cusp of puberty, with a canary-colored terrycloth towel covering my buzz cut like a wig. Here is Grandpa, perched on a pink plastic stool that buckles under his weight. The cassette player plays my favorite album of the year, Out of the Blue by Debbie Gibson.
“How old are you?” I ask Grandpa across the toy tea set he has just bought me.
“A lady never tells!” Grandpa says, outraged. “And a well-mannered girl should never ask.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Georgina,” I say.
“You are most forgiven,” Grandpa says, unpuckering his pout.
He picks up his teacup, sticking out his pinky. But he looks nothing like a lady. He used to be in the Navy and has a faded anchor on each hairy forearm to prove it.
"Lovely weather, isn’t it, Miss Jenna?” he asks me. It’s pouring outside, but we’re pretending.
“Oh, yes, quite,” I say, nodding eagerly. “Perfect for high tea!"
Mom bursts through the door without knocking. “Guess what I picked up for dinner!” she says. Her burgundy work pumps sink into the fuzzy carpet. Her smile drops.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“It’s only apple juice!” I say.
“No, what’s on your wrist?”
Propped on the tabletop, my left arm sparkles with my friend B.J.’s limestone bracelet that I traded for my baseball bat.
“My God, James,” she says. “Are you wearing my lipstick again?”
“He certainly is,” Grandpa says. “Fetching, huh?”
“Go wash your face before your father comes home,” Mom says, slowly. “And close the door behind you.”
The tap runs warmer than the bathroom tiles under my feet. I can hear the muffled sound of Mom yelling at Grandpa. I wipe my mouth. In the mirror, I look bloody.
at the rib joint
we became men.
his whole body
smoked for ten hours
in my hands.
sucked the meat
off him. suck
the bone. marrow
you know, when you eat
something it becomes you?
younger me grew broccoli crowns from our skull,
grew hand antlers, ground ankle beef.
at the table
god unhinged his ribs
at the joint. opened him
like an oven laughing
with smoke. the steam
flapping it’s black wings
up from his organs.
when i ate his ribs
i became a man
or maybe just ribs
at the table
a big ugly heart
or maybe a creation myth,
when i ate him.
in the beginning there was a table
i sat and ate at until i was something.
my reflection swallowed in the plate,
my god, the weight of the blade.
the blade, singing.
you know when you become
something it eats you? the teeth
in my hand? the weight of the handle?
the meat separating from bone.
Sam Sax is the first ever Bay Area Unified Grand Slam Champion and Oakland’s first two-time queer Grand Slam Champion. He curates 'The New Sh!t Show', a bimonthly reading series in San Francisco and is the poetry curator for The Modern Times Bookstore. You can find more of his work, now or forthcoming, in Rattle, The Evergreen Review, Muzzle, Brusque, The Nervous Breakdown and other journals.
CH I CH E S TE R
Bitter wind dusts up
rock ledge. Icicles collect
at every faulty seam. At sunset
she cries to the bone, absorbed
in the falling darkness,
her recent loss. Occasionally
an icicle comes undone, pierces
the stillness. Before that, I let fly
the knife tip of an iron shovel
onto ice-thickened bluestone
in search of the path, what will return
as flowerbed. Snow underfoot, smell
of snow, when we lay entangled
in earshot of low, muted radio,
phone’s far-off ring, kettle whistle
and alert to a shadow of breath–
as it goes, never one thing,
all the while I look, watch, talk,
read mail strewn across, think
dammed-up gutters, storm’s weight
the crunch, rare song
of infrequent deep-winter bird,
this sharp cold, what keeps me
from me, from you,
the mind’s endless jettison,
never one place alone.
Jodie Garay's poems have appeared in a number of journals, including Brooklyn Review, The Saint Ann's Review, Twelfth Street Review and Mountain Record. She and her partner split their time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.