Art & Craft: Poetry Becomes Opera with Arisa White's "Post Pardon"
Friday, June 13, 2014
Posted by: Laura Brueckner
By Arisa White
The past few months have been filled with a kind of magic that I have no words for. To think, I set this intention in place: to create an opera. To produce, on a grand scale, the tragedy that was Reetika Vazirani: in 2003, she and her son Jehan were found dead in the Washington, D.C. home of novelist Howard Norman. Vazirani brutally killed her son and then took her own life.
But it's not Vazirani that I am addressing with this opera, it's the loss that is felt. The grief that remains, the confusion, the pull towards one's own darkness experienced when someone is here, then someone is not, and the way they decided to leave was so violent, aggressive, and left no one alive. It's the question of why that remains—it's bones shaking in my bones, it's spirit I want to give a home. But in the end, what I am intending to create is a home for us all; a place/space to feel comfort and safety to experience those deep encounters with one's many selves.
Playwright Arisa White. Photo: Samantha Florio
I'm not alone in this endeavor. I met Jessica Jones, a jazz pianist and tenor-saxophonist, about 14 years ago, while teaching in a creative arts program in Brooklyn, NY. We have been collaborating ever since, and it made sense, when wanting to take this idea forward, that Jessica be the one to join me on the journey.
We held auditions in March; we had twelve people show up. Sopranos, altos; women who have sung in choirs, gospel, jazz, Puccini, in Paris; who play saws, who haven't raised their voices in song for many years—and this project called them out. Some wanted to remake our arrangements of words and music, only to show me that they were afraid to go where we were asking them to go. This opera, I think, requires courage, a fearlessness to be in hurt, in pain, and also the ability to deregulate, to know when it's too much, when you need to take a breath, step back, and rub your heart back to calm. Some women told us that they had experienced suicide in their families. You could see it in their eyes. And I needed to have vocalists in this opera who aren't afraid of witnessing.
One woman auditioning asked if this is my story, if this happened to me. Even though I ran through possible questions I could be asked about doing this project—and her question was one of them—I still felt vulnerable. Maybe it was the direct communication of it: her eyes, her body attentive and listening. I waited with bated breath for myself to speak. I said no, and wondered if I lost my permission to write this. Does it have to happen to me in order to make something from it? To make sense of it with the resources and tools I have? Similar to how folks talk about deaths of world leaders, activists, folks who have established a presence in our cultural and social consciousness—where they were, what they were doing, the outfit worn, their lives (mortality) become highlighted by the tragedy. I expanded beyond the limitations of the self, identity, of what I know and don't know, to a place of just knowing. Something in me knows this and I'm not sure how or why and maybe somewhere along my family history this was true: a mother/father killing their child then taking their own life.
No, this is not my story, and I do have something to say about it. I have some feelings about it.
Because I was starting from poetry, I was starting with glimpses. These tableaux of sensations, images, emotion, and its own kind of music, too. Post Pardon is the name of the collection, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011. It is a chapbook, a 20-page collection, with 19 poems total.
There are five distinct voices in the piece, so that made it easier to decide who are the main characters. There are the voices modeled after Greek Fates. In the poems, each one speaks once—to announce her role in the Poet's death:
You cannot undo me with a knot. You cannot clear the world of whetstones and steal the
blacksmith's tools. You are not planarian or starfish. This is not the game where backsies
are allowed. Where you trick the sleep with sheet bend. . . .
(—Atropos, but I call her "Poe" in Post Pardon: The Opera)
In the poems, the Poet, a woman in the throes of her darkness, takes her two-year-old son's life, then her own. The Poet's voice is rendered in two ways to illustrate an emotional and mental split: a voice in fear, and a voice in our reality, with formal and poetic grace. The lines are structured differently to illustrate the control and the unleashing, but always, strangely the madness is contained. This is when music provides it service; it articulates the nuance of existence, on a different sensation of experience.
Butterfly lipped mouths
took long rests on my medulla oblongata. They whispered
in my sleep, my thoughts
coated in flutter.
Their cheetah colors raced my words,
each time I was beat.
Their dusted wings fanned
the burn that skinned.
Each flutter bleeds like a ruby's edge. That is you who
leads me to my ledge where I search for what makes
Long Island Sound. Not one drink I've had last time
there was rain and trees shivered in my window.
In the opera libretto, there is a young woman named Willo, in her own part of the world, who finds out she's being followed by the spirit of a child. This is the Poet's child. For the opera, I have made all the main characters female. The male characters, the Father and Boyfriend, do not have speaking roles. They pantomime, they sit in the background; the Poet's father is a ghost who has visited her throughout her childhood and adulthood. It is a way of muting patriarchy so you can pay attention to its action, not his words. The men are movement-centered characters, muscling their talk.
In the true-life events, Vazirani had a son. But I wanted to call attention to the healing that woman and girls need to do specifically. After Maya Angelou's death, I went onto her Twitter account; on May 7 she had written, in response to the girls' kidnapping by Bokko Haram: "Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women's future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them heal." There are so many ways that women's lives are robbed and threatened, which has consequences for us all.
Throughout the libretto, there are nods toward Nina Simone, Alice Walker, Sojourner Truth and Audre Lorde. They are the ancestral literary spirits woven into the plot—it is a way to echo their activism as artists and risk takers, encouraging us to be attentive to the stripping of our power and honoring of our truth.
The distinctly Caribbean mythological characters who appear in the libretto are Moongazer, four Fairmaids and Churail. In Guyanese folklore, Churail is the evil spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. She haunts pregnant women and attacks women and newborn children. The Fairmaids are female water spirits. Moongazer, in Guyanese folklore as well, is an unusually tall, white and misty figure, habitually gazing at the moon. He may kill children. The Poet sees them all.
The Poet had a more fleshed-out story because I knew more about her—that is, her death. But what else? There must be more to her? I wanted to make her character separate from the news story, an identity that was distinct to the opera. Same goes for The Fates, which in the latest version of the libretto are glassblowers (Gaffers)—and that change occurred when I began to think of setting.
Willo, the young woman followed by the spirit child, was the most difficult to conceive. Within the poetry collection, there are only four poems that inform Willo's character. Each poem is short, totaling 19 to 20 lines in length. The following poem (which is untitled, as all the poems are in the collection, to convey continuity, nothing ending or beginning) is the third of four of Willo's poems:
Out of nowhere he appeared:
a little boy, lying on the sidewalk, named Surf Avenue, like a piece of broken boardwalk, brown and ashen there in the middle of the block, looking at the sky that came close to the curb. Breeched between fence and tires, who does he belong to? I ask, are you ok? He stares at my mouth, turns me into a puzzle—my words are not his words. I ask again, with my face and gestures and slow pronunciation that balloons sound around me. This time he answers to my feet, cuffs his left wrist, then nods, as if some dry wave moved his head.
Willo had no backstory that I could borrow from; she required me to imagine her from dynamic stillness—like a birth. Drafting, considering, and the struggle to fully image her had to do with not being able to hear her voice. Willo has the least amount of text in the poetry collection, and she isn't loud (emotionally); she questions, observes, reports—everything acts on her or around her. She's bearing witness (so how do I translate her quiet to the audience, to this world?). To imagine her as a full character I needed her in action. Saying things. Doing things. (What things?) And what would be the songs she would sing?
Arisa White and collaborator Jessica Jones. Photo: Courtesy of Arisa White
At one point, I thought to cut the character—a few people suggested that to me. But in the end, Jessica Jones, my collaborator and composer for the opera, encouraged me to see her importance, the sense of hope she offered; the journey she is on helps the audience understand the story.
"We are all touched by each other—we inherit the sorrows of each other, each other's stuff. Familial and social, we carry what the other carries. Connectivity." (Journal entry, January 2014)
How do I connect Willo to Rema, the Poet, to The Fates (Gaffer)? What conditions permit these intersections to occur?
Some of my challenges had to do with trying to create a realist opera from poems that were at times surreal, if not magical, and the language lyrical. How do you physicalize the surreal? Or what is the most appropriate setting for the magical?
A big concern was where I set this. At one point, it was in some kind of storefront—disembodied scenes of suburbs, beaches, train stations, and city blocks. None of it was quite sticking; it didn't make sense.
Then my attention got turned to bottle trees. I knew I wanted The Fates (Gaffers) to be lit in blues and indigos—and when, in my research, it was said that the blue bottles in particular were believed to catch evil spirits, this felt like a possible creative avenue to explore.
The Smithsonian Gardens blog adds that "other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom."
Photo: "blue bottle moon" by zen Sutherland on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
The Bottle Tree bridges Willo and Rema. In Willo's world, she is finding Rema's notebooks, which lead her to the Bottle Tree. Later, reading Howard Norman's memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, where he recounts the heart-breaking affects of Vazirani's suicide and murder of her son in his home, I learn that Vazirani left a series of notebooks, filled with tortured content, for him to find. He later burned them.
As I deeply consider the Bottle Tree as a setting, I reevaluate what a spinner, snipper, and allotter—controlling the metaphorical thread of life—are doing in a bottle tree. The Fates, I felt, needed roles that were related to where they resided, and now as glassblowers, they tend to the spirits and make the bottles that house them.
Rema has always had a defined space, when writing the poems: the kitchen, windows looking out to a garden. Specifically in Queens, New York, where she could hear the airplanes leaving and arriving from JFK.
Since the mythological characters appear, often associated with water in the poems, I knew it was necessary to have a river. There is mention of the slave trade and marooned colonies, and water serves as a conjunctive experience, historical and personal, that allows worlds to be joined and separated. The Gaffers, from the Silver River, get sand there to make the bottles.
I'm still working out my kinks with Willo. I'm imagining a backstory that links her to Rema in a historical chain of events—a personal narrative that makes her susceptible to Rema and her daughter Isa. What wound has made Willo a conduit? I reflected on that question in a journal entry from January 2014: (and as I read it now, I remember growing up being shocked by the number of news stories I would hear about mothers leaving their newborns in dumpsters or garbage cans, and that cities offered options to those in such predicaments: leave your child at police stations or firehouses, no questions asked)
Willo was abandoned by her mother, left in a dumpster to die until a group of teenagers found her and took her to the local precinct. The mother left a note: 'I cannot raise a girl in my home. She's not safe there.'
The daughter Isa. I'm thinking she's human, but she keeps being imagined as a puppet. Or a silhouette. A shadow puppet—in a very Kara Walker kind of way. Since the opera tells of their deaths in reversal, Isa is an infant most of the time. Then I toy with the idea of having there be an actual little girl that appears from the Silver River, like some final blessing for us all.
Now that I have the major songs written and composed, which speak to important moments in the opera, the singers rehearse and get more into their characters; they ask me questions, toss out ideas, thoughts of healing and redemption, and so after the sneak preview on July 13, I will continue to work on recitative, the possibilities of more songs and the revisions of others, as the libretto grows in specificity. It's thrilling to be a part of a process, both individual and collaborative, that has gone from poems to libretto to songs and then back to the page again.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, and the author of Hurrah's Nest and A Penny Saved. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College. Visit arisawhite.com.