Aracelis Girmay is the author of the children's art book Changing, Changing and the poetry collection Teeth. She was recently the Grace Paley Visiting Writer at UMass Boston, where MFA poetry student Molly McGuire tracked her down. Girmay received an MFA in creative writing from New York University, and she lives and teaches in New York.
MM: You've stated that your earliest experience of the power of writing was when you read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Do you remember having a similar experience with poetry? What were your early experiences with poetry, and what compelled you to start writing it?
AG: I remember my teacher in fifth grade had us recite poems. I started writing poems, and they mostly were non-fiction, small pieces, things that usually dealt with sadness or trauma of some kind. I just made this realization two years ago that I was writing full stories, and the poems were always these quieter things that I didn't share, that were more about me trying to figure out what any given situation was about, or something that happened with a friend or family members. I would write these little poems and not share them with people, probably because I was wanting to contain the situation in a smaller way so it didn't feel so overwhelming. Interestingly enough, though, Toni Morrison lead me to Lucille Clifton, who also lead me to Garcia Marquez. So it was never like "this is poetry stuff, this is fiction."
MM: What do you love most about reading and writing poetry?
AG: Reading, learning. Getting to converse with someone who's writing from a place I've not ever seen, or a place that's familiar. I used to love reading books out loud. In sixth or seventh grade I would just read out loud, and my mom would always say, "Why are you making so much noise?"
I just felt like there's so much to learn about human behavior and empathy, even when you don't want to feel empathy toward a certain character or a certain person's decisions, that having to stand in another "I" for a while has always been very important for me. Lucille Clifton has said before that writing poems was her way of not feeling so alone. For most of my life, I've not felt alone in the world, but I do think that reading has always been a very special companion. So that you get to have the family or people that you know face-to-face, but in books you have the presence of people whose bodies may not be there in a way that you can see, but their life is there, they're in your house, and you're reading something that was written in a different house many years ago. So, companionship.
MM: I was interested to read that visual artists, like Frida Kahlo, have had an influence on your work. Could you elaborate on how Kahlo, or other artists in non-literary fields, have influenced your work?
AG: I love the work of Frida Kahlo. My partner, who lives with me, the other day, he said, "I don't know how I feel about her work." And it was the first time he'd ever said this to me, and we were talking about how it's just so intense and so painful. And it's interesting because with all of those truths, I think she's also a potent person, and I think of her imagination in similar ways as I think about Toni Morrison's imagination. Documenting sadness, but also incredible joy. She's moving through the terrain of the earth, showing us her experiences. I think she said, "I'm not painting my dreams, this is my reality."
I feel like there's a way she uses these things … not necessarily as metaphors, but she makes me question what a metaphor is. Is it just one thing being compared to another thing, without using your eyes, or is it actually showing transformation?
One thing carrying over into another thing...there's a way in which she allows for the shape-shifting body on the canvas, and I think that's just such an important model. It's not about performing or conforming, it's about precision, personal precision. I've learned a lot from her.
MM: There's a lot of diversity of tone and subject matter in Teeth. Poems like "Astigmatism" and "Ode to the Letter B" display love of life and words, playfulness and humor. "Hyena, Hyena" and "The Incredible Story of Mother Mom" are mythical and optimistic. Then there are the intense, harrowing, politically charged poems like "Arroz Poetica" and "Palimpsest." Do you ever worry about labels, about being labeled a political poet?
AG: No. I'm never worried...I feel grateful whenever anybody reads a poem of mine, and that I get to share a poem. I don't get worried that one poem will overshadow another. But I've felt worried that my intent was different than what actually happened with the poem. So with some poems, I felt that I was reenacting a violence, you know what I mean?
That's been a worry of mine. Does this poem just keep committing the violence, or conjure the violence every time someone reads it or hears it, or does it do something more and turn it into another idea?
I've questioned that.
There's another thing which I'm worried about, which I think answers the first part of the question. I'm not worried that I'm called political or not political, but I'm worried about the word political. Somebody recently asked me if I consider myself a political poet. And I just thought, "If it's political to say that I don't believe in apartheid in Palestine, or to say everyone should have access to health care in this country." But to me, that's just common sense! And why is that political?
Sometimes it seems like it's marginalizing something. I just think, "Well, that's just the truth!"
You read an anthology edited by Harold Bloom, and everyone in the anthology is older, white, male except for two people, and that's political too, right?
But it's not called political, necessarily. So it's all about choice, and people, and who are the people you're talking about, and in what ways are people excluded or not excluded.
MM: I sometimes find myself avoiding politics in my writing because I'm afraid I won't be able to add a unique perspective without being preachy or platitudinal. Do you have a strategy for avoiding these sorts of pitfalls when you sit to write down about politics or atrocity?
AG: I don't know that I avoid it, even. I guess the same thing that I always ask: "Do I mean this?
" Looking at any line, or any word, "Is that what I mean?
" I feel like sometimes I may not want to write about something, or feel like I'm not allowed to, and sometimes it tricks me. "Ok, maybe I don't want to deal with that, I want to write about a banana." And in the writing about the banana, all of a sudden it takes me back to that thing. The body's an amazing thing, in the way it won't release you until you've sat with something and learned from it. And I feel like the process of writing a poem, for me, it's going to school, the school of that particular poem. And I hope I never leave the poem, or the draft of that poem, unless I feel like I've learned something new about the world or the thing I'm talking about.
MM: You've stated elsewhere that writing poetry, especially about politically-charged subjects, involves a sense of urgency to talk about something. What do you feel is urgent right now?
AG: That's such an interesting question. It changes every day. The bottom line, something that feels consistent … I was reading these essays by Elizabeth Alexander and in one she talks about June Jordan, how the main question in June Jordan's work as an activist and teacher and writer is, "Where is the love here?
" I feel like that's one of my essential questions. Where is love here, how do you find it, move towards it?
Yesterday I was lost, walking around Boston. I was looking for my hotel, and I knew it was close. So I stopped into this Thai restaurant that I had seen before, and said, "Do you know where West Newton is?
" And she was very nice, she said, "No, sorry." There was somebody a little behind her, but there was a door between them. I said, "Do you mind if I ask him?
" and she said, "No, he's Spanish, he doesn't know." And I asked, "Hm, maybe he doesn't know in English, but can I ask him in Spanish?
" And she's like, "No." So at that point, I was probably bothering her, and I wasn't ordering any food, but I thought, "huh." How often do we do that, make people invisible because of language?
Or because this person's a teacher, we should listen to him; at home when the mother says something and she doesn't have that title, who do we give the authority and who do we take it away from?
That's something that's spun me off into this world, how have I experienced this before, participated in this kind of conversation before?
That's something I've been thinking about. That feels urgent.
Another thing that feels urgent is living here in the States, and feeling like so many people feel disempowered. I see it working with young people, and even feel it myself. You'll have these emotional responses to things that are happening around you in regards to class or race or whatever, reading the newspaper and not feeling like you're represented or not getting the real truth or meaning. What's our leverage as people and what do we do here, how do we imagine?
And looking at this presidency and being really, really excited, but also there's a lot to be done, and there's a way in which especially right now it's not too comfortable. There's a lot that feels urgent, a lot of work to do, a lot of education, and seeking.
MM: Speaking of education, you do a lot of work with children and young adults. What's your favorite thing about teaching art to children?
AG: It's such a gift to get to work with younger people. I feel it's so fun to get to see people that first day when you see all the faces, and I remember being that way. "I don't think I'll ever share what I've written." I was so shy. And so going into that first workshop, and maybe it's only one workshop that I'll do, and seeing all the faces. And some people are like, "I can't do it," and others, "Yes! I love it." Seeing people then use their voice to say what came from their mind, and watching communities get built where one person is listening to the next. And I think it takes work, too, to make sure the community is built. Being conscious of the way that communities don't always ask people what they want to say.
MM: Today you visited our workshop, and we were talking about this sort-of U.S.-centric attitude about poetry that we have in the United States. Do you have any favorite foreign poets that are working right now?
AG: Yeah, I know that there are pockets of people here, and all over the country, who know poets from all over. But unless it's called "Latin American" or "International Issue," it's this tendency to be very U.S.-centric. Lorna Goodison is a beautiful poet who lives in Canada, she's originally Jamaican. There's another poet, who's a friend of mine actually, who I just think is really extraordinarily beautiful, Christian Campbell. Kay Ryan, who's from Scotland, and there's Ishion Hutchinson. It's just interesting because it seems like people who I know or who I've read outside the country tend to know a lot about what's happening in the U.S. It's just interesting to see how little we talk about contemporary poetry that's happening on an international scale. There's a canon of international poets who've influenced the work we do hear, that people read, but not so much international contemporary poetry.
MM: My friend Barbara gave me good advice, which was to look for English-language poets I admire and see whether they've translated anyone, to lead me to more foreign writers.
AG: That's so great. I think that's one of the important things, too. The work of translation is always so tricky because you lose or change so much with it, but translation as an activism I think is really important.
MM: What was the last book or books you read that you got really excited about?
AG: I love, love, love Jane Valentine's poems, The Little Boat and A Door in the Mountain. Most of my books are in the living room, and I keep a couple of books beside the bed, and A Door in the Mountain is one of those books. There's a spaciousness and coarseness, and I trust her immensely, trust the spirit of her poems. Christian Campbell's Running the Dusk. It's beautiful. And full of love and well-turned phrases, syntax. It's so well crafted, and the heart is so honed.
MM: Is there anything you particularly don't like about poetry, anything about it that makes you mad?
AG: I don't know if poetry itself makes me mad, but you know sometimes I'll look at an anthology that's called "Best" whatever, that includes all men, or all white men. That makes me mad. The idea of people as gatekeepers of poetry, deciding who's in or who's out, makes me mad. Poetry itself, not necessarily.
Martin Espada talks about the poetic imagination and the fact that in order for something to change, it has to be imagined. The imagination can create positive, beautiful social change, or it could open up a window and make you think about something. Literature can create an alternate universe or remind you of something in this universe that maybe you hadn't thought about or experienced before. And I think that's incredibly powerful and incredibly terrifying, because sometimes poetry or persuasive language, depending on who's using it, could be used to imagine an atrocity or persuade one to act in a way that's hurtful. It can also do the opposite. It's an incredibly potent way of communicating that can be used in all kinds of ways. That's more about the person practicing than the idea of poetry.