Today’s post is on Tuesday instead of Monday because I am participating in a pre-publication book tour of poet Arisa White’s Who’s Your Daddy through Poetic Book Tours.
Here is a synopsis of the book
Who’s Your Daddy is a lyrical genre-bending coming-of-age tale featuring a young, queer, black Guyanese American woman who, while seeking to define her own place in the world, negotiates an estranged relationship with her father.
After my review, I will share advance praise for the book, as well as information about the author, Arisa White. Then there is a list of blog tour links, including interviews and guest posts so you can learn more about Arisa White.
This hybrid is specifically memoir, but Who’s Your Daddy? shapes itself as a prose (and lyric) poem collection. I don’t know why we don’t have more books available to us that are a long narrative told in poetry. They are rare and yet so compelling, perhaps because poem series elicit more complex mixtures of emotions from readers than linear traditional memoirs do.
What attracted me to the book before I read it was the feeling of connection (my memoir-in-progress has to do with my father’s estranged relationship with his father) and the ping of curiosity about White’s life as a “young, queer, black Guyanese[-] American woman” since I fit only one of those descriptives.
From the first page I was captivated by the story. In the first section, the writing is succinct with a smattering of specifics that bring White’s childhood to life. She imagines or fills in what she can’t remember—the ride to the hospital for her birth, what life was like in the first few years. She grows up without her father, Gerald, a married man. She does experience love from her mother and her uncles, but life is still difficult. The book skips ahead to White at the time of her post-graduate studies. She has difficulties with relationships, but manages to forge one with Mondayway. White feels there is something missing. Halfway through the book, she realizes she has been running from something.
Deep breaths open my
tight chest, and I feel how running has taken more than
given. I rub my heart with the heel of my palm, and my
heart stays voicing,
Find your father
Find what’s missing there
Find what is enough
Find yourself whole
Forgive and be forgiven
In the second half of the story, White tries to get to know her father. He has been deported back to Guyana from the U.S. for participation in a crime. White and Mondayway visit Guyana to spend time with Gerald, but also to get to know White’s roots. Her movement toward acceptance and growth is a bit back and forth which feels realistic and painful. Again, powerful words that mark another epiphany are set apart from the prose poem form:
I got her back,
who I abandoned
in his going.
she is enough.
Arisa is enough. She doesn’t need her fantasy of a father to fulfill her identity.
There is so much I could write about this book, but I just want to give you an idea of why you would want to read it. The prose poems are short. The organization is helpful, as are the brief Guyanese proverbs and quotes from thinkers. I found references to even an old standby like the Bible and Shakespeare or Eliot (the pearls that are his eyes from The Tempest or The Waste Land—I wasn’t sure which one she was referencing, maybe both). But much of the book is punctuated with more contemporary thinking, such as the context of toxic masculinity. Gerald is a tragic example of that phenomenon. In fact, near the end of the book I realized that I can’t stand Gerald. I was willing to try to get to know him “while” Arisa did, but when he continued to do harm to her through his selfishness and misogyny, I could no longer try to tolerate him.
The book can be read in two sittings, but you will want to mark passages and go back to them. You will be thinking about Arisa White’s story for days afterward.
Those of you who know I have been working on my memoir for 1,000 years might be interested to hear that I found White’s format super inspiring. I’m trying out writing my memoir in prose poems instead of traditional prose. In some ways, I feel that I am going back to the beginning of my project a bit, when I was writing in “scraps,” but it’s a world away from what I’ve done before, too.
“…absence breeds madness, an irreconcilable relationship you know is there but can’t call it by its name…” In these crisply narrative poems, which unreel like heart-wrenching fragments of film, Arisa White not only names that gaping chasm between father and daughter, but graces it with its true and terrible face. Every little colored girl who has craved the constant of her father’s gaze will recognize this quest, which the poet undertakes with lyric that is tender and unerring. -Patricia Smith, Incendiary ArtArisa White channels the ear of Zora Neal Hurston, the tongue of Toni Cade Bambara, and the eye of Alice Walker in the wondrous Who’s Your Daddy. She channels Guyanese proverbs, Shango dreams, games of hide and seek, and memories of an absentee father to shape the spiritual condition. What she makes is “a maze that bobs and weaves a new style whenever there’s a demand to love.” What she gives us are archives, allegories, and wholly new songs. -Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future AssassinsSomewhere nearing its end, Arisa White says of Who’s Your Daddy, it’s “a portrait of absence and presence, a story, a tale, told in patchwork fashion…” This exactly says what Who’s Your Daddy is, though it doesn’t say all it takes to do justice to the mythic paradox an absent parent guarantees a child, young or grown, or what it takes to live with and undergo such birthright. There’s not only a father’s absence and presence, there’s a mother who says you raise your daughters, and love your sons, there are stepfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, a grandmother, brothers, lovers, all of whom leave their marks and give and take love. Surrounding the whole book hovers the questions do I forgive him, and is forgiveness possible? This beautifully, honestly conceived genius of a book shook me to the core. -Dara Wier, You Good ThingHow does a lyric memoir—a queered-up autobiographical hybrid of prose and poetry—become a real page-turner? Well, for one thing, its speaker uses her authenticity and open-heartedness to generate a rib-cracking amount of courage to look for, find, and emotionally confront a missing Guyanese father who ends up being the “unhello” of a “nevermind.” What’s so moving about this discovery is the speaker’s lyric response. It’s a shrug that’s a song that’s the speaker telling it experimentally-straight about how it feels to have “arms free of fathers.” It’s a story that’s a song that’s the speaker’s “gangster swagger” that beautifully tells of how to confront one’s relation to “a culture of deadbeats, wannabes, has-beens, what-ifs, [and] can’t-shows” without succumbing to despair. One really wants to quote Plath’s line here about “eat[ing] men like air.” Oh, I love the courage of this book. The whole “black heart” and love-strength of it. And you will too! -Adrian Blevins, Appalachians Run AmokA lyric anthem for the fatherless, for seekers of the places and people that made us, for the artists ready to unearth and reshape their own stories. I gulped this exquisite manual like precious medicine, a spell that made me more myself. -Melissa Febos, Abandon MeCollaborative, interactive, this work of poetry and memoir offers life as a recurring question. Who’s Your Daddy is a study of how power and loss work on the intimate scales of daily living and queer loving. Read this with compassion for your own defining questions and the raw texture they have left upon your heart. -Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub: Finding Ceremony
Who’s Your Daddy is striking and gorgeous. “I’m born into a bracket of boys,” White writes, framing a portrait of fatherhood that shutters and aches; it enthralls. I wanted to lap it up. A reflection on family that permeates via knitted prose with deep verse—my favorite kind. White’s work is sonic, lyric, and important. I can’t wait for y’all to read this book. -Emerson Whitney, Heaven
ARISA WHITE is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, Post Pardon, Black Pearl, Perfect on Accident, and “Fish Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won the inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. Published by Virtual Artists Collective, her debut full-length collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was a finalist for the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards, 82nd California Book Awards, and nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Awards. Her second collection, A Penny Saved, inspired by the true-life story of Polly Mitchell, was published by Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press in 2012. Her latest full-length collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, was published by Augury Books and nominated for the 29th Lambda Literary Awards. Most recently, Arisa co-authored, with Laura Atkins, Biddy Mason Speaks Up, a middle-grade biography in verse on the midwife and philanthropist Bridget “Biddy” Mason, which is the second book in the Fighting for Justice series. She is currently co-editing, with Miah Jeffra and Monique Mero, the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart, which will be published by Foglifter Press in 2021. And forthcoming in February 2021, from Augury Books, her poetic memoir Who’s Your Daddy.
This is the second part of the two part post by Maine poet Carol Bachofner about her new books. In this section, she writes about Test Pattern, a fantod of prose poems, a book I was thrilled to provide a blurb for.
by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner
Although The Boyfriend Project manuscript was the work of over three years, this was not the case with Test Pattern, a fantod of prose poems, which will be released in May of 2018. Test Pattern is a book that had a bizarre kind of urgency that saw completion in less than a year. 21 of the poems were written in a single summer, mostly in a single week. The poems began on Monhegan Island, Maine at a writing retreat. Writing getaway is perhaps a more accurate descriptor. Four women poets in a rented house with only one mission: write. The group had been going to Monhegan for several years, spending time relaxing and writing. Each time, I would devise some kind of daily challenge for writing, a “do it or don’t” kind of challenge. Each morning there would be envelopes on the buffet and we chose, then set off to write. This particular time, I chose fantod cards, derived by the late Edward Gorey, a kind of tarot deck of strangeness. I have loved Gorey’s drawings for many years. I find them to be comforting while strange. Not a tarot aficionado, I was attracted solely by the drawings rather than the usual use for tarot decks.
Each fantod card has a drawing of Gorey’s and a title. A small booklet is included in the deck with phrases related (or sometimes seemingly not at all) to the cards. Certainly the phrases were fanotd-ish [my made up word here]. It is useful to define fantod at this point, so the reader will not spend time head-scratching. The Oxford Dictionary defines fantod as a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness.
Our challenge was to write to the drawing and to use any or all of the phrases in the booklet. I challenged us all to just let go, to not overthink, to be free to wander wherever the prompt materials wanted to lead. Each day I and the other women built our poems in a fantasy, dystopian world where a mouse might be dancing on a tabletop or a walking stick had a life of its own. The challenge was not to describe, but to suggest, to connect however loosely to our own lives or to make lives that seem to exist off to the side of our own lives. For some reason of the unseen universe, this sparked a huge response in all of us and we just could not stop writing “fantods.”
Seven days ought to have produced seven poems for each of us. For me, there were 21. NOTE: at the initial writing, these were drafts…very rough ones at that. Rougher than usual. I might note that I made a decision to use the prose poem form to make the fantod poems. Another challenge for me. Some of the others used this form too as we had been working on that in our poetry group. The big challenge for me was to be loose, to free-associate, to let the poem drive my writing more. I got into what I can only describe as somewhat of an altered state as I responded to the cards and messages.
In the prologue to the manuscript, I explain in perhaps a fantod-ish way and I set the reader on his/her path through the manuscript.
The poems in this book are the inadequate drainage of the author’s mysterious intellect. They pay homage to Edward Gorey and his twitching curiosities, his sense of fantod. The author in no way attempts to create an incident in a tunnel, an apology in a train station, a transgression in blood ink. Let the poems live on their own misconduct.
There are many prose poem variations, from the lopsided list poem to the prose sonnet, to a Q & A poem, to song lyric inclusions. There is no particular order; the author is sick of order. If there is rhyme, it is entirely the fault of the Princess of Rhyme, who sits atop her mattresses in monkey slippers, eating peas from under the 5th mattress down, waving a wand stolen from a fairy-tale villain.
If you find yourself enjoying these poems, please make a donation to the Home For Insane Poets. OK, you might need to build a Home for Insane Poets, then donate to it.
So ingest, digest, and regress through the maze of pr-oetics. Double-dog dare you.
What unease or unreasonablenesss do you see? What phrases jump? This is the setup for the rest.
I determined that although the fantods would be prose poems, I could (in my newfound freedom) interpret that loosely. The reader will notice this right away. I am convinced that form, while not an old thing from the attic, can be something refinished or restored by alteration. I had let myself out of my room. I was more than ready to play. I was not living behind the yellow wallpaper, but I might be just a little insane. Just a little.
In writing the poems for the book, I committed myself to the altered state that is fantod. I wanted to be another version of myself, to at least temporarily reinvent not only my writing, but also myself. I have done the same in my watercolor painting, but that is another story. Or is it? Certainly, in both areas, my lines have blurred. Perhaps the blurry state is well-demonstrated in my Q & A poem, What’s going on here? — a Q & A Prose Poem. The poem came later, after the island retreat. Scribbling away in a notebook, trying to regain the looseness of fantod, I came up with a series of random questions, put them away for a few hours, then came up with the same number of random answers. I put these away for a few hours. Then came the looseness of answering the questions, pairing up Q with A, loosely and without a plan. Notice the fantod coming in so clearly as the answers get jiggy with the questions. Even now, as I read them again, I am struck by what happens when the poem is speaking to itself.
What’s Going on Here? — Q & A Prose Poem
Q. What do you hide when someone comes into the room?
A. A rainbow of fish
Q. What loses itself in your hair?
A. lichen, mistletoe, spider webs
Q. What is your disease?
A. A humongous rainstorm
Q. How have you been swindled?
A. It was not with a bow and arrow.
Q. What have you executed?
A. ladybugs, guts smashed between the pages of my journal
Q. What panics you?
A. Papier mâché slug floats.
Q. Anything that claims your blood?
A. Looking under every island for seahorse caves
Q. What is unknowable about you?
A. Everyone’s obsessed with suspicion.
Q. What is written on your mask?
A. This poem looks like a coffin.
Q. What’s underneath your mask?
Q. What do you believe about bad luck?
A. It’s a rock cairn at the entrance to an unholy tunnel.
Q. What lurks under your bed?
A. Condoms made of mermaid scales
Q. How was your first encounter with a kiss?
Q. How would you describe yourself to an ancestor?
A. My father’s ashes in an hourglass
One of the things about prose poems, and about fantod poems, is that the poem does take its own place. Unfettered somewhat by what the poet wants, the poem demands its own authority. Rhyme becomes subservient to the poem, not driven by it. I always strive to tame rhyme in my writing, to get it inside the lines rather than to end-stop it. Writing prose poems makes that happen on its own. Fantods are so loose, relying on the bizarre or the uneasy. Therefore the tendency to rhyme disappears in favor of the phrase. It’s time to take a look at the prose sonnet, since so many of the poems in Test Pattern are in that format.
Sonnets are not new to me, having been educated in the formal ways of poetry. I struggled with them however, not quite getting the beats right or wanting to eschew the end rhyme schemas that are part and parcel of the form. Finding the prose sonnet has been wonderful for me because I have been able to adapt the traditional form to fit the needs of my poems, breaking out of usual schemas to let the poems do their own thing, so to speak. To put it another way, my traditional sonnets have never won a contest or been published. My prose sonnets have enjoyed a somewhat improved status.
When one makes a traditional sonnet, there are choices of Shakespearean or Italian or Miltonian. Writing a prose sonnet, there are all choices and no choices. For me, I choose (generally) to keep to three aspects of Shakespearean sonnet:
1. 14 bits of writing — I call them chunks as they are most certainly not individual lines as the traditional demands there to be.
2. A change or turn (volta) at or about chunk 9, and
3. Often, though not always, a rhymed final 2 chunks. In other words, chunk 13 and chunk 14 would have an end rhyme word.
Sometimes I number the chunks. Sometimes I do not. The numbers may be read aloud or left to be silent. The poems may be in neat blocks that LOOK like sonnets, or they may not.
Here are two sonnets. Which seems better for reading the numbers aloud?
Stage 4 Case of the Heebie-Jeebies
1. The diagnosis is certain. The women at the Black Duck Emporium knew before anyone else. It’s a fantod, Mary Ann confides. 2. Well, I told Donna just last week something was up. 3. Not wanting to intrude, I drink my latte, study the bird observations notebook: Indigo Bunting, Green Warbler, Brown Creeper. 4. I think of the girl I saw yesterday creeping along by the church in the rain. 5. The Black Duck quackery saw her too. Green sickness, Ginger said. Didn’t Mr Spock have that? Or was it Dr. Spock? 5. The diagnosis: contagious. 6. Wasn’t she in here a few days ago? Did she touch anything? They speculate that you have to kiss someone to get it. 7. But, a fantod. You don’t see that every other week. 8. Spasms. Nightmares. Nudity in church. Bats and bell ropes at all hours. 9. There are spells for casting aside a fantod. I keep this news to myself. 10. I am pretty good at enchantments and spells. I’ve officiated at Viking funerals. I’ve been up a tree to cure birds of panic attacks. 11. Donna’s hair is a spell, scarlet tanager feathers. No Fantod for her. 12. Still the island’s in a dither with worry. 13. Someone spits and says Jinx. 14. Stage 4 case of the heebie-jeebies on the way I think.
Nothing, prose sonnet of repetition
1. I’m nothing compared to a key unstuck from a lock. 2. Compared to a lost shoe flung on the telephone wire. 3. Compared to a sea bird lost in the offing. 4. I’m nothing compared to girls with exotic names, like Chloe or Proserpina. 5. Nothing whatsoever compared to wind in the olive trees, lichen on spruce, inner bark of an ancient birch. 6. I’m nothing compared to secrets released into the wild. 7. Compared to piecemeal light from the sea coming through fog. 8. I’m nothing at all compared to an opera sung by nightingales, 9. as if a flamenco danced on the tables of Andalusia. 10. I’m nothing compared to the sky changing its clothes by the hour, the minute. 11. Nothing, I say, compared to grains of sand or to 12. wavelets on the beach 13. Nothing compared to the place I first encountered my real life humming. 14. I am nothing compared to where I am going.
What can be learned from the prose sonnet? Do these two sonnets contain the freedom
of fantod? How unsettled do they seem? As I read them now, I am inclined to weave elements from both into a third, entirely new poem. Let’s freewheel a minute and see what that might look like:
1. I am nothing compared to a key unstuck from a lock. 2. Well, I told Donna just last week something was up. 3. I am nothing compared to girls with exotic names, like Chloe or Proserpina. 4. I think of the girl I saw yesterday creeping along by the church in the rain. 5. Nothing whatsoever compared to wind in the olive trees, lichen on spruce, inner bark of an ancient birch. 6. I’m nothing compared to secrets released into the wild. 6. Wasn’t she in here a few days ago? Did she touch anything? 7. Compared to piecemeal light from the sea coming through fog. Spasms. Nightmares. Nudity in church. Bats and bell ropes at all hours. 8. I’m nothing at all compared to an opera sung by nightingales, 9. There are spells for casting aside a fantod. I keep this news to myself. 10. I’m nothing compared to the sky changing its clothes by the hour, the minute. 11. Donna’s hair is a spell, scarlet tanager feathers. 11. Nothing, I say, compared to grains of sand or to 12. wavelets on the beach. 13. Someone spits and says Jinx. 14. Stage 4 case of the heebie-jeebies on the way I think.
Interesting. Might just play some more with other pairs of prose sonnets.
As I wrote the poems for this book, I fell back on a technique I’ve enjoyed since beginning to take my writing seriously: intertextuality. This is the referring to another work in the new work. In the poem below, which is clearly a fantod, clearly prose poem, I chose to use a phrase from an easily-recognized work. I open with the phrase. If the reader is familiar with Bartleby the Scrivener, by Melville, he or she may find a bit of eerie connection to that piece in my poem. (Here is where you go read Bartleby by the way). It is helpful to keep a file of phrases you admire or find interesting for just such occasions as this, ready to jump start a poem, or to include in one when appropriate. Remember that if you use more than five words of someone else’s, you must attribute to that writer.
Look at the poem below and see how there are elements of unease, which certainly was true for Melville’s story. Look at the word play which makes the reader’s head spin a little, like the planets.
It’s in the cards
I would prefer not to consider geography, all those latitudes not fixed, as stars & planets are not fixed, rolling, shifting, doubling back with the seasons, chased by the moon or wetted by the tears of gods who claim to have made them. I was not there when the bowl was turned upside down, when the pick-up sticks toppled to the ground, forcing map makers to map. I would prefer not to risk liquidity to trudge along the lines in the seas, risk being crushed by lines that might snap if a new city falls out of the sky. I was not there when the cards were shuffled ,the hand was dealt. I was there at the prime meridian, the United Kingdom running in a line between my feet, waiting for the clock to do something sweeping that means time, [like latitude but with strings attached]. Clock-makers clock every move. Spring forward we’re told, or fall back. Fall upon time that gives and takes some star that fell yesterday or will fall tomorrow. I would prefer to tell time and latitude by the whirl of planets, the suck of the tide. 52 pick-up.
I end this exploration/conversation with a poem that makes use, not of another’s phrases, but of foreign language phrases. This can be disquieting or thrilling, both of which are hallmarks of fantods. This is also a prose sonnet. Look at its shape. It is not the little block of lines that is typical of a sonnet. It does have numbered chunks. It is a fantod in that it uses history and yet draws that history with presages of the modern era. There is a little justice here too. History seems to beg for alteration, for a parallel time. Fantod!
1. Madame Defarge stops knitting. 2. She looks across the circle formed last week to watch heads lop and roll, sees an exact other her, knitting and grinning, her name growing in blood red wool. Ah, mais oui! she thinks, certainment! 3. It was bound to happen. 4. History forged in betrayal. 5. Her favorite color these days is red. She looked beautiful in red once, when she was young, before she met Msr. Defarge. He always said she was a looker. 6. He was a financial broker. Wore silk suits and a cravat, crême de la crême of society. Accusations of usury earned him the blade. 7. Good to be on the side of winners her mother always said. 8. They were coming for her now:
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse tous en rond.
9. Sometime after July 14th: Long live the Republic! 10. Death to infidels and whistleblowers! 11. Get rid of the evidence. 12. Danse de la liberté had begun. 13. Everything rearranged. 14. Tout le monde ce sont strange.
Thank you, dear Reader, for traveling the journey of these two books with me. I hope you will set upon a course toward your own remarkable changes. I hope you will read there rest of my poems and find satisfaction and even inspiration there. Thank you Luanne for inviting me to chat with your readers and share my journey from love to fantod. I ask, how different are they anyway?
Carol Willette Bachofner, poet, watercolorist, and photographer, has published five books of poetry, most recently The Boyfriend Project (2017) and Native Moons, Native Days (2012). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including, Dawnland Voices, an Anthology of Writings from Indigenous New England (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). She won the Maine Postmark Contest 2017 for her poem, Passagassawaukeag, which is published in The Maine Review. Her photo, Rigged, received Honorable Mention in the Spirit of Place contest by Maine Media workshop and is printed in the contest anthology. She served as Poet Laureate of Rockland Maine from 2012-2016. Visit her web site at www.carolbachofner.com to purchase her books.