OAKLAND -- As a poet, Arisa White is not afraid to tackle important issues as she has demonstrated in her coming-of-age memoir, "Hurrah's Nest," a collection of poems that examines the troubles and joys of growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the second oldest of seven siblings.
To read this collection and listen to White articulate her long journey in their creation is to recognize a deep literary talent and understand why "Hurrah's Nest" was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry.
The Grand Lake poet describes her debut collection as a journey from childhood to adulthood with poems written about her single mother, brothers and sisters, her growing up and her coming into her own sexuality and sense of herself as a young woman.
The poems, often dealing with abusive relationships took 10 years to complete, as White worked to get to deeper levels.
"There was this sense of how do I tell my story but also hold the truth in such a way that honors and also sheds light on relationships and dysfunction in a family," she said.
White took her title from a nautical term describing disheveled rope or wire, liking the double meanings of a sense of confusion coupled with a nest.
"It brought the emotional sense I have of home -- confusion, security -- but at the same time, it's where you bump against your edges and really learn what you're made of," White said.
Along with learning more about herself, White used "Hurrah's Nest" to honor her colorful family and share them with readers, using her poetry to value ways the siblings protected each other and encouraged each other to follow their dreams.
Interestingly, the book motivated broad conversations within White's family.
"I think in the end, what has been most important is the healing that has come out of it, the ability for us to step out of our shame and our darkness," she said. "That's one of the things I didn't know I was doing for my family."
The author sees these poems as offering a sense of community to readers, a sense of knowing they are not alone, and believes that by sharing her poems she lets others know that everyone has issues to deal with and that they can be resolved.
Though White also writes essays and has done some playwriting, it is always the lyric of poetry that draws her back.
"It is my first passion and I can't let it go," she said. "When I get to the page and want to express myself, the poem is what arrives first."
The NAACP nomination came as a lovely surprise, especially coming from an organization that has done so much for civil rights, African Americans and the American struggle. White feels that having a category for poetry also gives it validation as a necessary, contemporary art form. And finally, seeing her name among those of her peers, including U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, was hard for White to believe.
The 33-year old author credits her 2006 arrival in Oakland as a catalyst for change and a turning point in her growth.
"It's been enlightening," she said. "I've gained perspective about myself, my family, my country by removing myself from everything that's been so familiar."
White continues to explore issues of conflict and growth, writing "A Penny Saved" to reimagine the true story of Polly Mitchell, a woman held captive in her home for 10 years, and currently studying Caribbean mythology, in part to write letters to her biological father, originally from Guyana.
"I'm wanting to take these personal questions and enlarge them to think about the role of paternalism and how we are in relationship to ourselves and our larger world," White said. "I'm wanting to tackle these bigger issues; I haven't done that yet in my work and I'm really wanting to challenge myself."
Arisa White: www.arisawhite.com
"Hurrah's Nest": Virtual Artists Collective, $15.
"A Penny Saved": Willow Books, $17.95.