By Gabrielle Lawrence
My Afmerica, winner of the 2018 Trio Award, will be released on March 15, 2019.
GL: You’re releasing your second book of poetry, how does that feel?
Artress Bethany White: It feels wonderful to have this book come into the world. I started publishing poems from the collection in 2014, so it has been a work-in-progress for some time. I remember exactly how I felt when I recognized that the collection was getting closer to my vision of what I wanted it to be. That sense of surety was priceless. Like most people, I look for blessings on a project as an indication of progress. After the manuscript was accepted for publication, I began to think seriously about the cover art. When I came across African American artist Stefanie Jackson’s lithograph “Daydreams or Delusions,” I felt that it was the perfect image to frame the content of the book. The musculature and set of the female subject’s mouth spoke of a resolve that I feel underpins this collection. So, yes, I am really pleased with the end product.
GL: How does this collection differ from your first book of poetry, Fast Fat Girls in Pink Hot Pants?
Artress Bethany White: My Afmerica stems from a point and place in my life when I made a conscious decision to be exactly who I wanted to be in my writing. It started with conversations and my refusal to have anyone walk away from a serious discussion around social justice issues in the U.S. without understanding exactly where I was coming from. I was no longer interested in being misinterpreted or desirous of carrying the weight of history on my back. I felt strongly that it was time to share the burden. As a result, My Afmerica contains poems of witness on the lengthening list of casualties in America’s ongoing race war, while also looking at one of the most significant and underexamined casualties: the American family. Both of these narrative threads are integral to the textual reality undergirding the neologism My Afmerica.
GL: Many of the poems in this collection are place based. What role did locale play in constructing these pieces? In the narrative as a whole?
Artress Bethany White: I began exploring the impact of region on my writing when I was pulling together poems for my first collection, Fast Fat Girls in Pink Hot Pants. Moving from the Northeast to what was supposed to be the New (and improved) South really shook me. This was not the South I remembered from visiting my extended family during school holidays where I resided within a cocoon of familial safety. This South reminded me of the racial values I had read about in William Faulkner and viewed in D. W. Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation. The only difference was that people smiled brighter as they welcomed you into the racialized morass of traditionalism. Things really began to shift for me, however, when I suddenly found myself in an interracial marriage with a transracial family composition. That’s when I felt compelled to record exactly how we were experiencing this transition from Obama-era America to Trump-era America in the twenty-first century South. At some point I realized that if I was going to be true to myself in my writing, I had to deal with how I was living. I think that there is change afoot in various tradition-bound regions both North and South, but the Dixieland ethos has experienced a large-scale resurgence across the nation as part of our current administration.
GL: Several of these poems include epigraphs as news clippings. How important was it for you to respond to current events and the tensions of our political climate in the making of these poems?
Artress Bethany White: It was important. I used epigraphs when I first published some of the poems in literary journals. When I began assembling the collection, the epigraphs became notes at the conclusion of the book in order to not interrupt the narrative arc of the whole. Many poets envision change on the other side of their poems. Hope is the reward of being able to address the weighty concerns of the world. I see myself in community with poets who identify with this logic on some level. A more concrete answer to that question might reside in the structure of the book. The first half deals frankly with poems of witness that evolve into poems of direct personal experience. My desire was to really denote how families are being damaged by what is happening around us all. The second half of the book evokes familial bonding as a parallel narrative or buffer to this violence.
GL: What do you think of pieces like your poem “The Unmaking of Bianca Roberson”, a poem about an 18-year-old African American girl fatally shot in the head in June 2017 after an alleged road-rage incident with a white male driver, still speaking to current events like the fatal shooting of Jazmine Barnes earlier this year? How are pieces like this in conversation with our compounded climate?
Artress Bethany White: So much of the impact of poems of witness is about recording events as an historical record of the times. New information is streaming constantly through our collective consciousness, so the poetry provides people with an opportunity to slow down time and think about what has just taken place. This slowdown can be fruitful as a time of individual, communal, or classroom-level reflection. It also begs for a contemplation or search for answers to repair the rupture that a loss of life has left on the national landscape. To witness is to believe that national mourning can lead to change.
GL: You practice several different forms in this collection. Do you think the restriction of poetic form is a good way to jumpstart creativity? How did those forms affect the sequencing of this collection? Did they challenge the content?
Artress Bethany White: Form allowed me to add a level of elegance to often challenging topics. A case in point would be the villanelle “After A Daughter’s Phone Call Detailing the Suicide of Another Mother’s Son.” Suicide is such an important topic today as we reflect on mental health and the need for self-care, but in this poem I really wanted to focus on the loss of friendship and what that means for the subject of the poem. The repetitive nature of the villanelle form helped me to highlight those details that would become lodged in a grieving person’s storehouse of memories. In this case, the recurring image was that of water rippling through hair as an invocation of despair. This is what readers are confronted with in the first two stanzas.
A carefree, tousled-haired boy
takes his life in the most spectacular of ways,
a swan song heard round your world.
Memories of friendship a seductive susurration,
a shell overflowing with the breath of waves
now rippling through a lifeless boy’s hair.
GL: Do you have any advice for writers of color eager to tell their stories?
Artress Bethany White: Write, hone your craft, read broadly, and never think that your story isn’t worth documenting.
Artress Bethany White is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. She is the recipient of the 2018 Trio Award for her forthcoming poetry collection, My Afmerica (Trio House Press, 2019). Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Harvard Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Hopkins Review, Poet Lore, Ecotone, and Pleiades. Her collection of essays, Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity, is forthcoming from New Rivers in 2020. She has received the Mary Hambidge Distinguished Fellowship from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts for her nonfiction, The Mona Van Duyn Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and writing residencies at The Writer’s Hotel and the Tupelo Press/MASS MoCA studios. She is a visiting assistant professor of American cultural studies at Albright College in Pennsylvania.