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The Light Beyond Language: An Interview with Renia White


Renia White is the author of the debut poetry collection Casual Conversationwhich was selected by Aracelis Girmay as a Blessing the Boats Selection. The collection was published by BOA Editions on April 19, 2022. Casual Conversation imagines a new way of knowing, a way that encourages us to think through how we structure and stratify ourselves, inviting something strange and other to spill out. White challenges us to question whether there is anything casual about this life, even as she invites us to consider other logics and to think alongside each other. This book gives space to hold what we fear out of formality: consequence, embarrassment, anger. It plays, it tarries, it disrupts. It pulls apart what seems sound in an effort to see: what did we make here? How’s it going? be. 

Learn more through this exclusive interview with Renia White and BOA intern Theresa!

Theresa: The voice of the speaker is honest and casual. I think it resonates with readers by removing language barriers that sometimes make poetry feel foreign and superfluous. How has your choice of language contributed to the message you want readers to receive after reading Casual Conversation?

Renia: In a lot of ways, these are simply the poems I was making over time: the kind of life I was making poetry from. But I hope the way the poems are conveyed can be a bridge for the reader—back to them or what moves them. And I hope that bridge allows them to get somewhere useful. Not because any other architecture would be less productive, but because this was what I could offer with the tools my life—with what my ear, my eye, & my heart—had offered me:  what I had retained and shaped into something that honored that, indeed, nothing is new under the sun, but we can take another look. And once we look, we can add to what's here, we can zoom in or place something adjacent, etc. that might offer another way of inhabiting what we already know. And, hopefully, I could make pleasure possible there: among all the bramble we’re bound to have to encounter as we work through the wild world, to make that work more feasible.

T: In American society, microaggressions, racist remarks, and sexist language are often found in casual conversation, along with institutionalized and organized oppression. In what ways is Casual Conversation able to tackle these concepts? What do you feel makes poetry such an effective means of activism?

R: I don’t know that I can say to what extent the book tackles these concepts, but these poems might say there’s something about acknowledging one thing right next to another—a context/juxtaposition that can reveal to us something more about what we’re holding and who we are: not toward a multitudinous understanding of what it means to be human, but beyond that declaration and into the nooks of its multitudes. Even if we are just speaking from the "surface," from the faintest bit of who we are—things don’t necessarily get less complex if we say them simply. Because the sticky stuff is about people, feelings, history: and we think we know what they mean until we bring something in the room that casts a new light—that warps things anew. And when it’s language that can make that reorientation possible, I think there’s this satisfaction that we can work with what we have—that we must, actually, but that we can make beauty along the way as well. I don't think it's a singular potential, though, of poetry—but I do think there's a particular power in seeing what brinks we can bring language to and push it beyond—in a way that allows something material to be possible.

T: The use of space within your poetry is very unique, sometimes altering the flow of the poem or leaving room for the reader to ponder the importance of the words. For example, in “the space between,” line breaks are frequent throughout the poem, but the structure remains in a paragraph form, creating pauses that build tension. Have you always played with space and form in your poetry? Did writing this book alter your creative process in any way?

R: I think when I began to really take to poetry, I appreciated all the possibilities therein—that I had this constraint of language but also that there were little spots of light that could be let in. I took a while to come to the final forms of some of the poems because there were small things I wanted to be possible that all the ways of shaping the experience: space, lineation, etc., could shift so drastically. Feeling in charge of the poem’s municipalities in that way is something I grew into and hope to continue to grow into over time. When I decided that I was editing the poems I had toward what became Casual Conversation, I decided that I was willing to follow space and light and sound with the same mind(s) as the thought work—that I would work from what I had. And I know that there are ways to use these tools that I don’t. And I love that that’s possible—all the elsewhere we can arrive at—for the sake of that golden thing the poem wants to be/become.

T: I found the poems that featured the relationship between the speaker and her sister to be very powerful. “in the name of half-sistering” was one of my favorite poems within this book. I love how this poem revels in sisterhood, using it to intervene with the way society attempts to divide and disconnect us, or define us by our parents, even within the conversations of schoolchildren. Is the speaker’s experience a reflection of your own? If so, how has that type of connection inspired your writing within this book?

R: Indeed. The experience—of having someone tell me that my sister is just my half-sister—mostly gave me the opportunity to think about how I felt about half-sisters or half-sistering, in a way. I got to think, even at that age, about what it meant to us and to choose not to opt into that understanding (and to know, in a small way, that was what I was doing). It was one of those crystallized memories that seemed to unlock a door for me—about language and feeling. About what’s happening beyond language. And I think so many moments of import happen there for many of us—where what we feel or know collides with the container of language and how someone else understands it. And my relationship with my sister and my understanding of her has been something I’ve had to separate from, say, the justice system’s understanding of her. And the kind of questioning that results in survives throughout the collection, perhaps. 

T: The first poem in your collection, “hearsay,” ends with the lines: "some eat and they say / 'why all the hunger?’” These particular lines really communicate the irony of privilege in the modern world, and also invite the reader to consider their own role in a society that chooses not to provide when there is more than enough to give. What stand did you want Casual Conversation to communicate to your readers about the political spectrum and the modern climate? Were there questions you wanted to inspire within your readers through your poetry?

R: I don’t know that I wanted to inspire specific questions, but to revel in that inclination, maybe—an inclination toward questioning. What is this thing I’m holding? We’re holding? How do you arrive at your questions? Where do you stay and think? What do you take to your beloveds to ponder further?

T: In the acknowledgements, you mention that the conversations and questions of your cohort benefited this book. Could you tell us more about this experience? Was there a certain moment, person, or conversation that inspired you to create this book?

R: No matter how alone I’ve felt, how singular an experience felt, no matter how infuriating that thought might even be—that we are never as alone as we feel (which begs: and so why the feeling?)—I, of course, have never truly been alone in this world. And to know that there are poets doing the strange and ancient work—of encountering a wild world and moving language in the direction of what comes after the knowing—is a great comfort. It reminded me, always, that I was in a larger hand and I could lean into that hand in whatever way helped me to sustain. While no singular conversation inspired the book, I was and remain moved by the conversations I've had with both poets and my loved ones which led me to believe that we could talk about difficult and ecstatic things in this way too. And that there'd be something worthwhile within that coming together—and it could be poetry, of all things. How odd and apparent and fantastic.
Theresa VanWormer is a Spring ’22 intern at BOA. She is in her junior year at St. John Fisher College, studying English for Editing and Publishing, as well as minoring in Marketing and Communication.
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