This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2016: Poems of Provocation & Witness. Complete information about the festival can be found on the website. Follow the 2016 Fest Interview tag to find all the previous interviews.
by Narges Shafeghati
|Photo by Sheila Griffin|
Aracelis Girmay is originally from Santa Ana, California. She went *to school* at Cave Canem, Acentos, NYU, Community~Word Project, and Bar 13. Girmay is the author of the poetry collections Teeth and Kingdom Animalia, and the collage-based picture book changing, changing. She has been awarded the GLCA New Writers Award and the Isabella Gardner Award (BOA Editions), and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Most recently, Girmay's poetry and essays have been published in Granta, Black Renaissance Noire, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has received grants and fellowships from Civitella Ranieri, the NEA, and the Whiting Foundation. For the past few years, Girmay has been studying texts and other materials that, through form, language(s), diction, and gesture, perform and think about place and loss of place (or displacement) and what this sometimes has to do with the sea. Her book, The Black Maria, is slated for publication by BOA in spring, 2016. Current collaborations include work with the Critical Projections collective and a translation project with writer and visual artist Rosalba Campra. Girmay is on the faculty of The School for Interdisciplinary Arts at Hampshire College and Drew University's low-residency MFA program. Before that, and for several years, Girmay taught community and youth writing workshops. For more information, visit Girmay’s website. (Photo by Sheila Griffin)
Narges Shafeghati (NS): Do you remember the first poem you’ve ever written? (If yes,)What made it a poem/ Who called it a poem? Who made you write it?
Aracelis Girmay (AG): I do not remember the first poem I've ever written (I don't think). But I do remember clearly the red typewriter my Aunt Pat gave me in 7th grade. It was her typewriter at her bank job. And then it came to be mine. I loved that typewriter. The mechanism. The machine of it. The color. The clunk and work. The effort of it and the effort it required of me. I wrote several things using that typewriter but the one I remember most was the tiny little square of text about a friend's suffering in the domestic realm. Now, looking back, I think I made it so small to get some power over a sadness that felt forever and engulfing. The poem for me, then, was about smallness (that was what a poem meant to me, I suppose). That smallness helped the world and fact of it seem more navigable.
NS: What role did your parents or the closest people to you play on your path to discover your inner poet?
AG: What an immensely beautiful and powerful question. Thank you, Narges. Both my parents are wonderful storytellers. As they are talking/telling story, they are simultaneously transported into the realm of the story or history. Growing up, my brother and I were constantly asking for stories and/or listening in on the stories the adults were telling each other in the front seats of the car or around a table or at a barbecue or party. I have always loved the turns of phrases, the small details of each person's way of seeing, saying. A grandmother's gesture, the wideness of Aunt Darlene's smile as she talked about a book. There were poets around me. Everywhere. Makers of dinners and stories. Artists. Dancers. Dressers. A community of family and friends who could keep telling the same story again and again and again in different ways even though we were all there when the story took place. I love that. That way of sharing, again and again, what we all felt/saw happened... as if to say, Can you believe it? --or--Do you remember? Don't ever forget. --or--I was Here once. And you were Here. And we were Here.
NS: What made you want to be a teacher?
AG: I want to be a part of the world/community who nourishes imagination and love and kindness and bright rigor and curiosity--especially with/for young people. Teaching seemed a way to do this. Also, teaching was a way to be around people who are constantly (and vulnerably) trying, working Toward together.
NS: How do you nowadays show your love, affection, gratitude to dear ones? What is your favorite way of doing so?
AG: I love, love writing letters. Sealing the envelope. Choosing a beautiful stamp then dropping it all in the blue postal box on a corner here or there. I also love flowers--bringing flowers to someone dear. Or making butter cake with Nutella icing and berries (black, raspberry) and maybe a flower here or there on its butter cake-with -icing hair. There was a year when I was making a lot of flan, but I have moved out of that year into this new one with butter cake. I also sometimes (though rarely these last years) make collages/cards. Tangerines and lemons are also the perfect, perfect gifts--especially in snow and winter. That shock of brightness.
NS: What about strangers?
AG: Smiling. In and with my mind saying Thank You. Stopping someone to say, Oh! Talking when it is right to talk beside and with. Writing poems often. Poems that are odes to strangers or full of lessons that they helped me to understand whether or not they knew that they were teaching me to see.
NS: What is your relationship with the Middle East and Sudan? Is there personal experience or only empathy behind the poems in TEETH?
AG: I have never been to Sudan but it is near my father's country, Eritrea, and is, especially since the struggle for independence and the refugees who moved to/through Sudan from Eritrea, forever holding hands with Eritrea. The questions I am asking in these poems (questions about displacement, exile, state-sanctioned violences, and then beautiful, subversive acts of possibility and remembering) are part of a river of questions that I am asking/thinking about throughout my work and in relation to Palestine, yes, and Sudan, and Eritrea, and the United States, and Puerto Rico. It is important for me to think about the ways that all of these stories are connected even though history books have bullied me into thinking that I was wrong to connect them.
NS: What would the ideal gender (equality) education look like to you when it comes to raising your own kids? What would be self-evident to your kids and what would freedom for them look like?
AG: This question is immense and beautiful and big. I must take more time to think about what I would like to share here.
NS: Lastly, what ADVICE would you personally consider most important TO A YOUNG POET who is, especially regarding her dream to teach poetry as a liberating force and life-changing element, yet SEEKING A BALANCE BETWEEN a full dedication to serving and enabling art AND the need of self-expression and concentrating on personal artistic development.
AG: The one thing I would say to myself if a version of me were asking this question (and I suppose this is true, I do carry/have carried this question) is: how are all of these elements part of the same thread? Isn't there a way that the nurturing one's teaching is also the nurturing of one's artistic practice? And vice versa. I can only speak for myself: I am the best, most alive and asking writer when I am working in community (reading with others, writing and sharing with others, thinking through questions across/through several fields and disciplines). I feel most liberated (or close to liberated... on a kind of brink) when everyone is teaching/might teach and is learning/might learn. For me, it is not difficult to work in community but also to carve out space to work on one's own (partially because I think teaching necessitates reflection just as writing necessitates reflection/revision and so this time/this balancing is built in). Where things become tricky for me is when money is part of the equation. Figuring out how to balance the amount of money/work it takes to pay bills with the desire/impulse to work on quieter personal projects is consistently difficult. I hate that this is true. One thing I am asking is, How do I make sure to value this quiet non-paid time and really respect/carve out time to be quiet in the reflection or the experimenting with the making of work--realizing that it is absolutely antithetical to what the culture of capitalism (as my colleague N. A. often says) expects from us and how we are expected to think about valuing our sense of time.