These Stories That We Tell Each Other:
An Interview with Aracelis Girmay
By Malik Thompson
Aracelis Girmay is the author of three collections of poetry: the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016); Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011), winner of the 2011 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and the GLCA New Writers Award, and a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and Teeth (Curbstone Press, 2007). The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Civitella Ranieri, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Girmay is the winner of a 2015 Whiting Award for Poetry. She teaches in Hampshire College’s School for Interdisciplinary Arts and Drew University’s low-residency MFA program in poetry.
Malik Thompson is a fledgling writer from Washington, DC. When they aren’t reading, writing, or partaking in imaginative reverie, they facilitate workshops on communication skills and applied nonviolence to youth and adults throughout the Rochester area.
Malik Thompson: To begin, here is a quote from Edwidge Danticat’s sublime collection of essays Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work: “All artists, writers among them, have several stories—one might call them creation myths—that haunt and obsess them.” What are the stories, whether biographies, mythologies, or, to invoke the legacy of Audre Lorde, biomythologies, whether they be your personal experiences or the experiences of other beings, that comprise the skeletal system of your writing and other artwork?
Aracelis Girmay: I love this question, Malik. And can only share a few of the stories here. The histories of people crossing land, crossing water. Migration because of war, economic poverty, the family wound, opportunity. By force. I often remember being little in my grandmother’s garden and turning over the bricks: pinchers and bugs suddenly exposed to light retreating back into the darkness of the dirt, but writhing for a second, in surprise. I think that often I am trying to see there—through writing and through thinking. What is underneath? I am interested in what language can and cannot do. I heard a story (maybe it was in the news?), when I was in Accra, of a man who whispered someone’s name onto a bullet and the bullet quietly flew through the town until it reached the door of the person whose name it carried and it waited there until the person came outside. I am interested in these stories that we tell each other, ourselves, about how language and words matter. I know they do. I do not think the bullet actually flew through town and wounded the man, but I am thinking of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and that moment when she brings in Judith Butler’s idea about addressability, and that what is hurtful about language is the fact that “[w]e suffer from the condition of being addressable” and that “[o]ur emotional openness…is carried by our addressability. I am thinking about addressability and language and what/who we decide to address in our language, and how.”
MT: What drew you to poetry?
AG: I’ve always loved reading. First, as a child, to be read to. And then (I’m told) like so many kids do, I spent a lot of time “reading” — looking at pictures, making up stories, reciting the pages in the books that I knew by heart. This love of books remained. And, with this love, an appreciation for the things that came with it where I’m from. The library card with my name on it. (Zebra body with the barcode in the middle.) The school librarian and her beautiful stamp of changeable dates to mark in the back of the book. It seems that there were whole years when I stood eye level at her desk and could see, with great detail, the numbers and remnants of at least two colors of ink. My mother, my grandmother, my aunt all encouraged me to write and illustrate stories. I remember the red typewriter that my aunt got from her bank job. She gave it to me. I was in middle school and wrote the poems that feel to me most like my root poems, meaning: I wrote these tiny little poems of news and devastations, sadnesses, struggles. Things I’d seen and things I’d heard. I’ve thought about this before. About why my poems were always examining struggle and not about joy or imagination in the way my fiction often felt. I think that writing the stories into tiny poems might have been a way of ordering or holding the large, unruly world small and pseudo-still for a moment. I don’t exactly know where it was that I got the idea that a poem might be a space to do that, but I do remember my mother’s copy of The Black Poets. Maybe that was one of the beginnings of my sense of what a poem might be or how it might act, do.
MT: What are your muses? How do you converse with them?
AG: This has always been a difficult question for me. Mainly because there is so much about writing that remains mysterious to me. It’s interesting and mysterious and difficult for me to track where a poem comes from. I know that inspiration, when I recognize it, always has some physically felt component. I get goosebumps, a stirring in my gut, my blood suddenly runs hot. Something. Tears. A thudding of heart. But then there are other moments when a moment or an image or sound comes flooding in from years and years before, and it’s the distance and experience since then that’s helped me to be touched newly, deeply. I think a lot about Linda Gregg’s “The Art of Finding” and the resonant sources she talks about in that essay. How those sources inform all sorts of things, even the subjects that might, to another or to a self, feel far. This said, there are people and places and things that I return to out of thirst. The boldness and imagination of Frida Kahlo. The wakefulness and landscape of the horses. A field, any field — for the way it is a window, a sky, a version of home (the empty lots of my childhood). An ungentle ocean. John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Abida Parveen’s “Bulleh Shah,” even though I only know the words through informal translation, I am so rearranged to hear her slide between the notes like she does. Suddenly, after years of being overwhelmed by it, the color purple (a small spool there, a flower there) feels like a power and presence to write toward. I think my way of conversing is about remembering the things that move me. Visiting them. And allowing for the things I notice or feel about them to be different. And also opening my windows to other things. Letting the new things stand with the older ones awhile, changing me/each other that way.