This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Aracelis Girmay. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
The sections in italics are additional comments sent later by email. Sometimes questions get lost in the shuffle of the chat, or the poet wishes to extend their answers on a question. This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: Aracelis, did you have any say on when the book was published?
Aracelis Girmay: You know, it all happened so fast. I heard news that the book won the Isabella Gardner Award and would be published by BOA early last summer. The rest of the year was a quick, domino tumble. I knew then that we were hoping for a fall 2011 publication date, so really we were on a tight timeline, but it was comfortable, exciting, and I felt strangely ready… at least until March or so.
Camille D: I know Aracelis is one of those who believes in bringing poetry to the people. Or at least I think so. She can tell you if that’s not true.
Brian S: I’d say you’re right, Camille, given the subject matter of so many of the poems. For instance, I’m looking again at “Central City Senior Center, New Orleans” and that moment near the end where it says “to get to see / & turn around & know somebody else / was seeing too.” I love those kinds of moments throughout this book. That one meant a lot to me because I grew up not far from there, but it could just as easily have been Florida, where I just moved from.
Girmay: New Orleans. Man. My first time there was in 2009. I’d gone with a small group of friends and collaborators–Ellen Hagan, David Flores, Carla Repice–we were awarded a fellowship and given studio time not far from where the poem takes place. I grew up, mostly, in Santa Ana, California. And while New Orleans and Santa Ana are very, very different–there were parts of that city that felt so familiar. In fact, New Orleans seemed to me to be both like nothing I’d ever experienced and (!) an amalgamation of a million things I’d experienced. Does this make sense? In New Orleans I was in Santa Ana, the Caribbean, Ghana, Mexico. All at once. But I don’t mean to take away its singularness. Not at all. What I mean to say is that I felt as if I were stepping into portal after portal after portal there. And the ways the music, the food, those trees, the houses (whose colors reminded me of cakes, lingerie, pan dulce, quince~era dresses), people’s walks, loose dogs all seemed to pulse with relationship… history, ancestry… Man, it was a labyrinthine experience. I couldn’t walk through that city without thinking about how related we all are–and without thinking, of course, of the origins of this relatedness. Related as a result of evolution, violence, colonialism, good loving, curiosities, like circumstances, similar questions, ingenuity, invention.
And so while I was there I sensed this rich, rich history–but, also, I could see the hand of gentrification–a relationship between what was there, is there now, and will be there. And a relationship, then, to erasure. Even 4 years after Katrina you could see gaping holes in the lower 9th, for sure, but parts of the Treme, too. As an outsider, I couldn’t help but traverse the city with some strange engagement with the lost, the absent. Yes, absence is a presence there. And this makes me think of home. Places. Santa Ana, New York, New London, Ojai, Asmara, San Juan… I often marvel at what traces are left from the major or minor events of a place. Hearts carved into trees. A name. A building that was once a church & then a prison has a new life as a government building… but what is left of each body or each phase of life? Are there traces we leave for each other (with or without our meaning to)? If I walk through the streets of Chicago, looking for some trace of my great-grandfather, I will find it (perhaps imagined by me… perhaps left by him). The question becomes: how are you my family? I can ask this question of any thing.
This is a long, long way of getting to this idea of “seeing” that you mentioned. Sometimes, I see something and am moved… and am content to let the moment move through or over me–without touching it with my hands or saying a thing out loud or recording it with my camera or word. Just seeing. Perhaps it becomes a memory I return to. Perhaps not. But there are other times when I see something and feel, on the brink of the moment vanishing, like I want some other eyes to hold it, too. To see the thing I’m seeing to. To help me know that it existed once. Sometimes there is this. And that’s part of what happens there in that poem. A collective seeing–and the comfort of that–even though we are small, small. And our lives brief. The comfort of seeing with someone else–though, in the scheme of things, we are perpetually in a state of disappearing.
Camille D: What happened in March?
Girmay: I think I’d been so focused on the quiet work of the manuscript–revisiting poems, asking them questions. I was also in the deep work of my first year teaching at Hampshire… so, somehow, I hadn’t dealt with the reality that these poems would go off together into a book. Without the rest of my body. I think once March came around I started to ask other kinds of urgent questions–Will this work mean anything to anyone else? I sent copies of the manuscript out to my immediate family asking if anything did anyone harm or made anyone feel detrimentally uncomfortable… March was when I really began to imagine that the poems were really going to go out into the world. This, often, brings with it a new set of questions and hopes and concerns.
Namely: having spent almost a year readying these poems for publication, must all of these poems exist here? Are there any poems I might pull or any gaping holes I’d like to fill or somewhat-fill in the manuscript? Of course, too, the year brings with it relationships with new books, news, traveling, people, more teaching experience. A year can give you an additional set of eyes… or different perspective, vision. All of that came with me into the manuscript as I prepared to send it out to BOA for the last time.
Melissa: Aracelis, I’m wondering if you can talk about one of the most ambitious poems in the book–“On the Shape of the Sentence,” and tell us how it came to exist in the world.
Girmay: This, to me, is one of the risky poems… yet, when I write that I realize that so many of the poems, so much of this book is about risk… different kinds of risk. This long, monster of a poem came out of an experiment a few years back. One of my brilliant students I was working with when I taught at Queens was experiencing a heavy bout of what she called “writer’s block” and the two of us were talking in my office and somehow we came upon the topic of writing a poem a day for national poetry month. We both talked about how we were intimidated by the idea, but also intrigued. So I said, what if we do a week… just the two of us. And we did. Now, the brilliant thing about this kind of writing (a poem a day) is that it’s so not the way I write. I tend to write very, very, very slowly… slowly building lines and lines. But the week-long exercise pushed all kinds of experiments out of me.
Namely, the meditation on the shape of the sentence She is my she. I was thinking, deeply, about language and word and sound… as bodies. I was thinking about the record of a sentence. The knowledge or history carried in a body, yes–whether the body is a girl, a dog, a house. I was thinking about the various ways a body might convey information, hold information. And so, I wanted to allow the shape of a sentence to serve as a map… allow the shape of the letters to help me to both record and imagine a history of a body. In this case, the sentence “She is my she” is interested in this idea of the doppelganger… the perceived self. The poem is interested, too, in investigating that which we learn to discard of/about ourselves… Questions this poem is interested in: What is the relationship we have to the parts of ourselves we have thrown or are throwing away? How do the histories of our bodies engage with the histories of other bodies… namely, the language body (in this poem)?
Denise: I loved the poem about Abuelo. I am not a learned student of poetry, yet. This poem has stuck with me and resonated deeply with my feelings for those gone before me. It was beautiful and ghostly. I believe I’ll be reading more of your poetry in books, in the future. best wishes!
Girmay: Thank you, Denise. I think it’s so interesting to think about how we address or enter into conversation with/about/toward our dead. How do we deal with time in these kinds of poems? And place? Poetry, as a medium, is incredible because we can do so many things with our tools. A line can hold several ideas at once–carry a tension or a contradiction. We can move in & out of timescapes. Allow any *thing* to be a window or a portal. Yet, language can be so clumsy, so troublesome… it can both help us to time travel, imagine past our earlier capacities… and it can keep us impossibly tethered, stuck. Both. I’m so interested in this. What leaps writing can push us to take, what arguments we make, what sense–especially in relation to the elegaic mode–yet, language… because it is language… keeps me bound, I think, to a search for some species of meaning or sense. Something in alignment with my experiences of the world. And so elegies are of particular interest to me because, so often, mystery is lurking somewhere, urgency, loss, the absent which is also central, present… the absent-present or present-absent.
Camille D: What would you have done if /did you do someone in your family objected to the poems? I once offered that sort of reading to my family, for What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. I am so grateful they didn’t object to anything. What would I have done then? I’ve since decided not to give anyone else that power. But at the same time, I continue to be mindful of people when I write and publish. But what would you do if someone did say, “Please don’t publish this Aracelis”?
Brian S: I think that if I’d asked my family for permission, I wouldn’t have published half the poems in my book.
Girmay: Camille, that question of sharing is such an interesting one to me. I didn’t send the poems in Teeth to family members. I didn’t feel the need to. But the poems here seem so particularly steeped in family questions. So many elegies. and I wondered what I’d say if there was objection. When I sent the manuscripts out I hadn’t imagined or known what my response was going to be. Mainly, I was letting them know that I was open to having a conversation. And there were a few conversations. Worry. Questions. But it gets tricky, right? When so many stories belong to so many. So many perspectives. And so I had to ask myself what I prioritized in the particular poem in question. I ended up revisiting the poem and taking it through a few more drafts (keeping the questions posed in mind)… and I found its most critical spine, most critical bone. In the end, I reworked the poem very slightly (to anyone else who might have read) but a change in that poem also proved to be a radical lesson in revision to me. A question of diction, mainly. And I was really happy for that challenge. But, again, it’s tricky.
Brian S: Permission, from my parents at least, wasn’t an issue for me because they haven’t really talked to me much since I left the church over 15 years ago. I tell myself they’d have objected to the way I compressed events at times rather than telling things as they actually happened, but I really don’t know.
Girmay: I’m struck by your word “compressed.” The idea of “compression” as it relates to events, time. Wild, potent territory. I think of some of the poets who wreck and build me–so much of their work deals with, somehow, a compression of time, events, sound, image, language. Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks. Nazim Hikmet’s “I Made a Journey” (translation by Konuk and Blasing)… we all experience time so differently. There are things the calendar tells me happened years and years ago, but I swear it is right there. I sometimes wonder if compression (of time, event) might sometimes teach us something about compassion? How/when/where they intersect.
Camille D: Permission is such a tricky question. People can really be hurt by what we write. If you care about not hurting people, it’s a thing you have to be careful of. I think of Lucille Clifton’s statements that she needed to write and eventually publish her molestation poems because the truths had to be told. But she also waited until her father died to publish them. That always struck me as an interesting, and careful compromise. Aracelis’ book does talk about family in very intimate ways. I can so how that, too, could feel like a risk.
Girmay: Yes–but permission is a word I have an interesting relationship to. There are times (when I was new, new, new to writing) when I was waiting for a kind of permission. Reading Toni Morrison & Garcia Marquez and Faulkner and Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton blew that wide open for me in so many ways. But in this case of sending poems to family, I never felt that I was asking permission from them–but I did want to, need to know what they culled from certain pieces. The poems wanted to engage with family history, honor, ask questions… make a living room out of irresolution and the simple story…. and so I wanted to ask, in a sense, if they thought I simplified anything in a way that might be considered irresponsible or dangerous.
Camille D: Aracelis, we’ve seen several of these hybrid form type poems in this group. Jenna Osmans’s The Network, a long poem in Aimee Nezhakamitathil’s (sp) Lucky Fish, and a few others I’m not calling to mind immediately. Do you think there is something going on in our time, in our current poetics, that calls for this sort of hybrid form?
Girmay: I love that question, Camille. I think of Bhanu Kapil–whose questions and premise from/of The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers literally changed me. Blows my mind. It teaches me so. But, yes, I think of her work which, I think, is undefinable, really. It seems to me to resist the box, the easy shelving. I think of the mash-up of influences, audiences, concerns. DJ’s have helped us with this. I think of how a few generations back there was the push for assimilation–and now, while that strain is certainly here in the country’s fiber, there’s also, at least at the surface, much more of an appreciation of real diversity. I look at some of my students & when the box doesn’t include them, they question the box.
As I write this, I realize there are nuances I’m not addressing. But what I mean to say is that I think we can see–in politics, policies, pop culture–that there’s a simultaneous push toward simplification and complication, conservatism and liberalism. I suppose one is aware of contradiction in any age, but I think that we’re at a particular point… and, perhaps, the move toward the so-called hybrid form (and I think people have been working in this territory for awhile now… I think of Thomas Sayers Ellis’ manifestos… Harryette Mullen teaches us that the poem is an environment, a place, defined by ink & word & space). I think we’re growing as a people. More time on earth making things teaches us. We learn by the learnings and risks and arts of others. Perhaps the more genre-complicating work we see represents a confidence to write how we write and/or experiment and/or make room for new ways of reading, writing that challenge and stand in alignment with other templates & manners. I’m speaking very generally here, so I’ll stop soon.. but I wonder what new explorations of form might have to do with documenting the new and old ways of thinking about power. Of how we’ve been taught to think by our families, institutions, television, computer culture, etc. We see manifestations of this across the board. StoryCorps creates a place for people to be interviewed by their loved ones… a documentary practice headed by the people… what a brilliant and interesting way to create a rich & personal and complicated archive of our times. Perhaps the so-called hybrid poems are about dislocating or splintering the central lens.
Challenging what assumptions we make when we approach a page… interrogating them or, at least, being aware of them. Such an interesting thing to think about. Perhaps it’s nothing new at all… perhaps it’s a return to a complicated root system that some of us were encouraged to simplify or adhere to in schools. Interesting learning territory. I’d love to keep talking about that elsewhere… considering.
Bill: I’m curious, as you discuss the forging of individual poems, what your process was for putting together the book. When did individual poems start to seem a collection to you? Or did you always have the collection in mind as you were writing individual poems?
Girmay: You know, I was working toward writing single poems. Poem by poem. For awhile I went on like this. Not knowing that it would be a manuscript… not calling it a project yet… up until the end. But I did know that my poems were driven by similar questions & interests in bodies & the idea of common descent, interconnectedness. In the oldest poems in the book, I was really driven by this idea of us all–every being on this earth–being related. This blows my mind!!!!! And I wondered… what happens if the questions I’d ask the grass or the sea are the questions I ask myself or my sister? What happens when I imagine that my body is a place? Or the field is a body? Where is the gate of my body? Where is my crow or cloud? Where is the field’s mouth? What does it remember? What does it say? What silence does it keep? So, many of the poems are interested in this idea of paying attention to various bodies… and asking them to help me to ask questions of all kinds of people, places, things. It wasn’t until I brought in “On the Shape of the Sentence” that I realized that that fable served as a kind of strange spine or axis for the book… & it seemed to speak to another of the spines, another axis… which is the title poem. One mourns the potential loss of family &, as a result, oneself. The other seems to move inward first, and is very much about the development of a relationship to oneself… a reclaiming through or after death.
Mark: I loved the long form, more experimental poems. We’ve read a number of edgy (in a good way) experimental books but yours has a wonderful lyrical quality to it (La Boda del Mar Y Arena is a gorgeous love poem) but even in the discussion of death, of our connection to the Marlin Perkins world, these still are truly lyrical in the best sense. Is that your natural voice or is it related to how you wanted to present your subjects?
Girmay: Mark, thanks for your words. I’m very much interested in song, the dream, the meditation, the realm of the deep image, too. I’d love to hear what you mean by “truly lyrical.” Just to be sure I’m responding to what you’re saying. I think, but perhaps I don’t quite see myself clearly, that I tend to work in the lyrical yard… that’s where so much of my work & seeing lives, I think. I’m also not sure that I can separate my natural voice from how I want to present my so-called subjects… if I’m to be totally honest. The part of the question you raise that I’m particularly interested in is this idea of the writer’s “want” or desire. “…how you wanted to present your subjects.” I know that I have tendencies to want to move toward a happy ending, sometimes. Sometimes I don’t want the realities of the lives to be the poem’s realities, constraints, etc. It is interesting to me to push myself in the writing. To ask myself to find windows out of my tendencies. To track my desire & ask What is that about? This boxing… between tendency & new work I’m learning from… oh, it can be really frightening sometimes. But I really want to push. I want to learn something every time… & part of the real learning, I think, is about questioning one’s desire in relation to the cosmos of each poem.
Mark: A wonderful answer. Lyrical is a tricky word in our post-literary descriptor world. A sense of wonder in the particular, and the feeling conveyed in superficially simple but carefully chosen language of that sense of wonder, conventional metaphor finding the magic in the apple.
Katelyn: Did “On the Shape” come out on just one of the days, or did the whole week of poems contribute to it?
Camille D: I want to follow up on Katelyn’s follow up question since we’re still talking about “On The Shape of the Sentence.” Was it one writing session, or the whole week that produced that piece?
Girmay: I wrote the first two pages (of a draft) to count as one of my days…. it was a slightly different sentence and, really, what came out of that day’s work was an excitement about what the shape of a sentence might reveal if one asked it to tell a story.
K: I’m curious to know where you see your work going post-this-book, in terms of the personal and political.
Girmay: I’ve been writing drafts of a few new poems that seem to be quite steeped in journey, mythology. I’ve been, these last few months, working on short stories which is really exciting… as I’d not worked on a new story in so, so long. Too, I’ve been thinking, for quite awhile about some essays that I’d like to expand &/or begin. I teach at Drew (the low-res MFA program) and I recently gave a talk on what I’m calling poetry of the “distant” witness… poems that portray experiences that the author has not lived. I’m particularly interested in how questions we ask our poems can be questions we ask ourselves, our lives and vice-versa.
Brian S: Hope you don’t mind the polls. I’ll stop it if you tell me to.
Camille D: If you were Isaac you’d do a “Should Brian stop with the stupid polls?” poll
Brian S: Technically I am Isaac, since I’m using his account to host this chat. But I have a beard, and Isaac doesn’t even have his moustache anymore, so no poll like that.
Girmay: I love moustaches. & beards. I have a fake beard in my drawer & I always want to buy the moustache-shaped cookies from the market down the way… but they don’t look tasty, it’s just the shape. Which is to say: I love (& am interested in) costumes. How is a poem a costume?
JS: Why do you use so many ampersands in your writing?
Girmay: I love the muscle of the “&”—a muscular shape, a moustache, too. Kind of infinity. But not. A highway. Too, it collapses space in a way that the horizon of the “and” does not (to me). I am struck by the implications of this collapse in distance… depending on what is on either side. Sometimes the collapse in distance is frightening like, for example, when we have “baby & burns” next to each other. But sometimes it is pleasing… “moustache & cookies”… I think. Too, the ampersand reminds me of the quickness of the Spanish “y”–&.
Camille D: I’m teaching a class this term in our MFA program called, “The Mask: Persona poetry.” I like that question: “How is a poem a costume.”
Girmay: I love the title of that class. I’d love to see a reading list. It looks like we’re hitting the hour… thank you all so much for having me on & for spending time with the poems. I can’t tell you how much it means to get to think about these poems in this way. This is one of my first conversations about the book. So, thank you. Thank you! Any last question I didn’t get to that you’d like me to?
Bill: “I want to be the one / with the longest funeral.” Such a interesting idea. How did that come about?
Girmay: I think I was thinking about time. How quickly some lives are lived (all of our lives, really, if we imagine them against the scale of the immensity of the land, the planet, the universe). But… really imagining that memory, too, is a life. Remembering this. & that line seems to speak to a desperation… a quiet desperation. If my life is short, at least let my funeral song be long. Let it be long. Wherever I might have more time… I’ll try for that. That’s what those lines are asking.
Brian S: Thanks for the great answers, Aracelis. Well worth waiting for.
Camille D: Thanks for the book. And for the answers. And, crew, for the questions. I feel like we could have happily hung out together all night.
Girmay: Thank you to you all! & thank you for your patience! My saludos!!!! & hand on my heart Thanks.
Mark: And thanks Camille and the who board for another great selection.
Camille D: Ah, the long good bye. See you all next month.