Why a traditionally published poet decided to self-publish her newest book, give it away for free, and ask readers to help her write the sequel


Arisa WhiteArisa White, the widely-published Bay Area poet, Cave Canem fellow, and board member of Flying Object, has decided to self-publish her most recent collection dear Gerald in both print and eBook editions, give away a bunch of copies for free, AND solicit responses from readers that she’ll use as source material for another book project.

Why? Well, I asked her.

An interview with Arisa White about the process of self-publishing her latest poetry collection

I  know it’s unfair to ask you to summarize a book, but if you could, what’s the soundbite about dear Gerald?

dear Gerald is a collection of epistolary poems, addressed to my estranged father. There are 35 poems in the collection, if you count the two typographical poems. I started on this project a few years ago when my mother asked me if I wanted to write to my father, who was deported to Guyana for involvement in a criminal case. Last time I remember seeing him, I was three years old, living in Brooklyn, NY. The work tries to make sense of his absence, and all the ways absence shows itself in my life—how absence begets absence, and what does this mean for the quality of our relationships with self and other.

Why did you decide to publish it yourself, and what has that process been like? Do you think it’s still important to publish both eBook and print editions? Did you face any technical hurdles in terms of design or formatting?

It wasn’t until August that I realized that I’m publishing a book myself—I have been mostly thinking about dear Gerald as a project, which involves the writing and publishing of a book, a collaborative community component, as well as a trip to Guyana to give a copy of the work to my father. So when I wrapped my brain around the fact that, yes, I am self-publishing a book, I thought of dear Gerald as a boutique collection. As with fashion, it’s the limited edition T-shirt line that you can only get at select stores and only for one season.

Keeping that in mind, I let myself have fun with putting the poems together in book form. Since the poems are epistolary, I did away with the table of contents, instead wanting the reader to jump right in—there is no order that the reader must abide by. The title of the book, technically, is a poem, too.

During the month of August, I was in residence at Headland Center for the Arts, and being in a cohort of visual and sound artists, I played with the idea of poem as a visual experience. Manipulating Guyanese proverbs, written in Guyanese Creole, I focused on the look of the words, their arrangement on the page, more so than the content. Publishing the book on my own, I gave myself the permission to do away with the rules, whatever rules I was holding myself to as a writer, rules about what I thought a book should be or do, and in taking those risks, I produced a batch of work that reveals an aspect of my voice that I haven’t heard before.

For my design and printing needs, I used the community resources around me and that has gone very well. I hired a graphic designer, Jai Arun Ravine, which worked out perfectly because Jai was transitioning out of a day job and moving into doing more freelance work in graphic design. As a writer, poet specifically, Jai understood the importance of keeping my line breaks. I asked my writer friend Soma Mei Sheng Frazier to copyedit the manuscript, pre and post design, and then I went with a local women-owned press in Oakland called 1984 Printing and they will run off 100, 6×9, perfect bound copies of dear Gerald. So far the hurdles have been none to minimal.

I think it’s important to have the book be in the form that can reach your readers. I like having ebook editions because I can immediately send a book to someone overseas or down the block for review. The physical book creates for more of a sensorial experience with the reading process, the touch and turning of pages, the print on the page, and the way the spines are all displayed on the shelf—I love it.

I’m really interested in the way you’re involving your community of readers in this project, asking them to contribute their own letters. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what you might do with their contributions?

I received a $10,000 Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to publish dear Gerald, take a trip to Guyana to meet my father and give him a copy of the book, and collaborate with the community through a call for letters, addressed to one’s estranged father. Participants will receive a hardcopy of dear Gerald in exchange for their letters, and selected letters will be used as inspiration for a second collection, which I’m considering to title Who’s Your Daddy that I will begin after I return from Guyana.

Before getting the grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, I would talk to people about what I was working on and they would share their absent-father stories with me. What I found fascinating is the similarity in our narratives, the same kind of haunting pain, and all the questions and wonder to go along with “Why wasn’t my father there for me?” And when you start to pay attention, the absent father shows itself in our religions, our governances, in our whole body politic.

It’s important for me to have the personal become a conversation that extends beyond the I. How can this be social, global; how can others be a part of what I’m writing about? As writers, we often talk about having our work affect change and affect others, but what happens when we actually invite people to share their stories and words and then use them to create poems? I’m trying to answer that question through this community participation. My hope is to collect 95 letters from the public, select 33 and use them in mash-ups, where I combine texts to make a poem; or remove text from the letter and reveal the poem(s) within; or direct responses to the letter as the father personified. It’s a kind of “performative poetry,” where the audience is part of the art and artmaking—but instead of a stage, it’s happening on the page.

“Getting the word out” is always important for a new book, but since you’ve got this extra collaborative aspect to the project, how’ve you gone about promoting/soliciting submissions/etc? (any interesting details about blogging, guest blogging, email list, social media, etc.)

I have been mostly getting the word out by way of my social media networks and through my newsletter. I’ve written about the project for Epochalips, PANK, and So to Speak. In the earlier part of December, I will conduct an epistolary writing workshop, hosted by the San Francisco-based reading series Hazel. In November, while in New York, I will be reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop from dear Gerald.

You’re giving out a limited amount of physical copies of this book. To who? And why? Should writers be afraid of “free?” Or is it a means to build a readership?

I’m publishing 100 copies of dear Gerald, and will give out 95 copies to those who send me letters. (The remaining five books will be for me.) To receive dear Gerald you must be willing to give yourself healing attention. The book is my offering to your fearlessness, to sitting down and mining that pain, that absence, and then sharing it with me. It is no easy task to do that kind of work . . . .

Sometimes, I think it would be easiest to have people just buy the book, but that was not my reason for wanting to do this project. I wanted to heal my own personal wounds and in the process help others do the same. dear Gerald is an act of freeing me and others from stories that no longer serve us, from what we may have told ourselves about our value and purpose as individuals because we did not experience the presence of a loving father.

“Free” changes the game, changes how we make exchanges, and allows us to rethink the relationship we have as writers to our readers and how collectively we can actively author change.


Have you tried any of the approaches Arisa discusses in this interview? Free books? Collaborative writing? Self-published limited editions? If so, how did it go? Let me know in the comments below.

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Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."


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