Out of What Remains: Talking with Jacinta V. White
I met Jacinta V. White nineteen years ago. The day we met, she was training me, a new hire brought in to take over the administrative job that she was (wisely) leaving. She undertook the task scrupulously and with care, even as she gently cautioned me that things in the office were not as they seemed. She was right. The day she left for good, the energy in the office shifted. Darkened. Cooled.
We had struck up a fast and easy friendship, one that was enhanced by the revelation that we were both practicing artists. We would spend hours in what we called “vibe sessions,” writing together and talking about our future plans. Her plans included The Word Project, an endeavor whose mission tapped into Jacinta’s belief that we were all on a healing journey. She wanted to use those creative avenues—art and poetry—that had helped her with the grief she had endured after her father’s passing to help others who were also grappling with pain. Reading her latest work, Resurrecting the Bones—a collection of thirty-seven revelatory poems that chronicle her journey visiting Black churches and cemeteries in the rural South—I was reminded of those conversations and I was moved now, as I was then, by her ability to capture and contain grief with stillness and grace.
Jacinta V. White is a teaching artist, poet, and certified corporate trainer and facilitator. In 2001, she founded The Word Project where she works with individuals and groups using art as a catalyst for healing. In 2015, she founded Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing to provide a platform for others to tell their story through poetry, creative nonfiction, and photography. Jacinta’s chapbook, broken ritual, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2012. She is widely published and the recipient of several awards, including the first Press 53 Open Award in Poetry and the Duke Energy Regional Artist Grant from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County.
I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to speak with her, as a friend and a fan, about Resurrecting the Bones, and the deeply intimate journey of a Black woman into a spiritual past where she accidentally finds herself.
The Rumpus: You’ve always been a poet whose work wrestles with grief and family. What is it about this particular work that made you know you had to write it?
Jacinta V. White: I did not set out to write this collection of poems. When I started this journey with my uncle, I wrote a poem at the first church we visited. And then at the next church we visited, I wanted to reflect, and the way that I reflect is by writing—so there was another poem. It just started to build and then halfway through, I thought maybe this could be a book and I kept following the breadcrumbs. Ultimately, the decision was bigger than me and the only way I could really understand the history and the legacy was to write about it.
Rumpus: I hear you saying you wanted to recreate your experience attending church when you were young, and reading these poems, I felt the church experience of my own youth: I could hear the creaking floorboards and the feet tapping on the wooden planks. Those elements really came through in a visceral way, almost as if to invoke a sense memory for people who’ve been in an environment like that. Is that something that you were doing on purpose or were you writing what you observed at the time?
White: Both. I was writing what I observed, what I felt, what I imagined… and my hope was that others, who would read the poems, would be able to connect. Those memories for me are very fond. I loved growing up in the church. I loved that experience, so I wanted to try to convey that. Even though it may be complicated for me at times, I wanted to convey that appreciation and that love. When I hear responses to when I read, particularly “Church Girls,” that are in the vein of That takes me back to…, I think, yeah, that’s good.
Rumpus: This book is an ode then, to Black churches and the Black church experience and an homage to the familiar. But what of Christianity itself? Separate from the physical structures where we perform church, how did your own religion inform your need to craft these poems?
White: Good question. I wanted to stay focused on the tangible aspects—bring to life what I was experiencing. But the backdrop to all of that was religion, not just being religious. Underneath it, are my thoughts and issues, to be honest, with Christianity. It’s a part of “Communion Wine,” “Body,” “To Damascus,” “God is Woman,” and other poems. It’s my working through the history of Christianity—the idea that Jesus is a white man, that God doesn’t have a feminine presence. I do love Christianity and being a Christian, and I am thankful for the path. But I don’t think anyone can fully accept a belief without taking time to pull it apart as well.
Rumpus: One of my favorite lines in the entire book is “empty myself like coffins on Resurrection Day,” which is a line from the title poem. So, with that line in mind, I want to talk about resurrection.
White: Alright, let’s get deep! [Laughs]
Rumpus: Not necessarily the Resurrection but, resurrection as a theme. “Resurrection” is part of your title, but it is also a recurrent theme in certain images that you revisit throughout the book. It’s understandable why resurrection and church are parallel, but why are we resurrecting “the bones” in this work?
White: So, there are a couple of reasons why that was important to me. The first is that it’s scriptural, but we can come back to that. The second is that it’s a metaphor. For me it’s talking about this calling forth, this needing to pause and bringing up some of those things that we’ve buried. And so, whether we’re talking about church, or community, or Blackness, I feel like there’s so much that we’ve buried, and I wanted to take a moment to have people think about what it means to resurrect all that. How do we bring all of that back up? Even the stuff that we may want to leave dead, but for a moment, can we just bring it back and look at it, and see how we may look at it differently?
And so, particularly with me trying to bring back the past, and thinking about the bones as far as the church structure and cemeteries… it just felt like we need to call some things out and up. What does it mean to stand up? What does the act of resurrecting mean?
Rumpus: What does it mean to you? Because you said we were coming back to the scripture.
White: There is an Old Testament story where God is talking to Ezekiel, and the question Ezekiel has is “Can dry bones live?” and there’s this calling forth of dry, dead bones. Bones in the desert. And the answer, essentially, biblically, becomes yes because God rebuilds this person, bone by bone. So that’s something I wonder about—can dry bones live? And if so, how? I wanted to touch on that theme throughout the book, whether it’s bones, or a relationship, or family.
Rumpus: To that point, the first line of “Now”—“I am not in the grave”—sort of jumped out at me because it felt like a full-circle moment. That line was saying, I am not bones. It felt like you were asserting yourself, and saying, I’ve gone on this journey, I’ve brought up the past, I’ve looked at it. Even the stuff that I wanted to stay dead. Now, here I am, this is me. I’m wondering if maybe your own resurrection is part of what you were trying to do here?
White: The short answer to that, is no, I wasn’t trying to do that. But the longer answer is, that is exactly what happened. It started out with me and my uncle going to these cemeteries and churches and once I realized there could be a book, I applied for a grant from the Winston-Salem Arts Council which I was awarded to travel and go to other churches throughout the South. That’s when more of the research happened. At that point, I wasn’t going to any more of my family’s churches; I was visiting churches I’d never heard of before and that journey… getting in my car by myself and going to a church where I didn’t know anyone or visiting a cemetery in an Uber (which was not a smart thing to do) was transformative.
The sadness that I talk about in “Church Mothers” had faded by the time we get to “Benediction” which is the very last poem in the collection. It was a process of me finding my voice. Having been the daughter of a prominent pastor and having generations of pastors in my family, this collection was a coming to terms. Especially in the second section. I had to say, I’m a woman. And I’m going to talk about sexuality the way I want to talk about it. So, it was a growing up. I was standing taller. But I didn’t see it coming which makes it more beautiful for me.
Rumpus: About “Benediction”—when I read it the first time in my ARC, there were lines that were blacked out and I wondered if that was a typography situation or error (because that can happen in advance review copies) or whether it was it purposeful?
White: Yes! You know the poetic form, “erasure.” Typically, you would have a poem that’s formed from an existing piece of literature with words or lines that you’ve taken out. So, I did a little twist on that. I took popular phrases and songs from the Black church and I blacked out words and lines. So, you, I’m sure, could read that and say, “I know what the rest of this is.”
But there are gaps and things are missing and things are changing so much in the world. Particularly with this great institution; this great, African American institution. I wanted to try and represent that. At my book signing when I read it, I had people fill in the blanks. I would start a statement and I asked the audience to finish it if they knew it. And they knew them all! It was like a call and response. Then I read the piece, so they could have some idea of what it would sound like if all the phrases were there without anything being blacked out.
When you think about something like, for example, unmarked graves, there’s so much of our history that’s been wiped out and blacked out and forgotten. I wanted to show that. So, I thought, I’m just going to take some of the phrases that all of us know and see what can be made new out of what remains.
Rumpus: Speaking of unmarked graves, you have an untitled poem about fifty tombstones without names in the Second African American Graveyard. There was something very haunting and profoundly sad about that imagery; the idea of being dead, and nameless, and forgotten.
White: I don’t think we can talk about religion and church and not talk about the dead. Yes, in Christianity, it’s about a living God, and a resurrected Jesus, but death is a part of that narrative and an inevitable part of our life. So, to pull up at a tiny church at the end of a dirt road and park in a gravel lot steps away from a cemetery, you can’t help but to pay your respects even if you don’t know a single person buried there. You can’t help but to wonder about their stories. The least I could do was try to pull a poem from the silence that blanketed the cemeteries. The least I could do was attempt to share a word or two as a way to say, “You’re not forgotten.” Those who came before me are a part of me. I truly believe that—bloodline or not, named or not—if they are Black they are a part of my story now. And it’s overwhelming and deeply sad to me that we, as a people, forget there are those buried who we drive past without even offering a prayer or taking off our hat and offering a nod. It grieves me that countless people who look like me were abused and murdered and buried without us having any knowledge or peace about who they were, how they lived, what and who they loved. That kind of hatred inflicted on Black people is unfathomable and it’s what makes me want to write even more—to tell the story, even with the missing pieces. Even with missing names, they still speak to those who will listen.
Rumpus: Some of the poems seem to be about forgiveness. How does forgiveness factor into the overall theme of reckoning with the past?
White: I tend to write about grief. Perhaps that’s because grief is what first brought me to writing. And, to me, you have to go through forgiveness to get to the other side of grief. So, yes, it’s a reconciliation of sorts with me (and others, I assume) and the church, history, the painful and joyous past of Black folks. Though I grew up loving the church, as an adult I had, too, painful experiences and have seen my family hurt by the church. How can I love something that also brings pain? How do you reconcile the two? I don’t suggest I know the answer or that the book provides one, but I had to write it to get it out of my body and onto the page. That, to me, is the gift of writing and the gift of poetry.
Rumpus: “How to Build a Tabernacle” deals with a church fire set by white supremacists and though it is set in 1962, it is remarkably (and unfortunately) resonant in this moment. Assuming this poem is based on real events, could you unpack this a little bit, and tell us about that incident? And further, how does it feel to think about that in our current climate and the civil unrest we’re currently facing in this country?
White: There are too many Black churches we can think of from that time, before that time, and even presently that have been burned by white supremacists. What struck me about this story is that it’s a church where my grandfather was pastor and the story was told to me by two uncles. So, this one hits home and is a blend of oral history and my imagination. I believe the KKK say they burn crosses to illuminate their love for Christ. Naturally, we see and know that to have a very different meaning, one of terrorism. But to actually burn a church—a sanctuary where Black people worship the God they know—is something that defies any justification and is pure hatred. I didn’t want to write it as something in the past (though I do have the date as part of the title). They are instructions for the present, too.
In crafting the poem, I thought of what my uncles shared, both at different times in my life. One uncle, who is a photographer, who told me how he took pictures that night of what was left after the burning and how, though he was a child, he knew then he wanted to become a photojournalist. And the other, who took me to where the new edifice was built. Then, I took a lot of time in silence and in prayer to fill in the blanks. I thought about the resiliency of Black folks that’s in our DNA and how we not only rebuild physical tabernacles but emotional, mental, and spiritual tabernacles as well. We have to in order to survive.
Rumpus: The last line of the poem “This is No Revolutionary Act” stuck with me long after having read it: “But to live is an art of losing.” I read it as each day brings us closer to death but there’s an art to living those days fully. Can you talk a little bit about the sentiment this line is meant to convey?
White: Yeah, I think we sometimes get it backward. We go around thinking death is something impossible to get to or we worship it in some way—I am aware some may think I worship the dead—forgetting that really what’s astonishing is to fully live, and to live knowing with each breath there is a loss. There is a loss, not just of life or time but of love and lovers, each second. The beauty, however, is that love is cyclical, so though we are losing it at each turn, we’re also receiving it. Does that make sense? And there’s an art to it, to living, not a science. There are no set rules to living and dying, though we like to think there are. I think we are all learning as we go. And with this learning we are losing. What a juicy paradox!
Photograph of Jacinta White by Kristen Bryant.