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  • Chen Chen

from the horse's mouth: with aracelis girmay

Chen: First, thank you for agreeing to do this interview, and welcome to Iron Horse. You've described in other interviews how your second collection, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions), is a turning toward the dirt, an act of digging, asking, What strange and crucial relation do we/can we have to our dead? Your third collection of poems, the black maria, is out now (also with BOA) and is oriented toward the sea, with the book's title referring to the moon's "seas." One poem, called "to the sea," addresses the sea as an "you": "great storage house, history/on which we rode, we touched/the brief pulse of your fluttering/pages..."

Because of lines like "all of you going on whether or not we live" and the official description of the book—"a desire to recognize the lives of Eritrean refugees who have been made invisible by years of immigration crisis, refugee status..."—the poem, while not explicitly mentioning refugees, feels deeply haunted by the lives, struggles, bodies of refugees crossing, and all too often dying at sea. So, I'd like to ask, is this turn to the sea related in some way to the turn to the dirt in your last book? Or, does this collection feel significantly different to you, compared to your previous two? Is the sea a kind of place or non-place that opens up another form of relationality or inquiry for you? What, perhaps, surprised you—frustrations as well as delights—in making this book?

Girmay: Chen, thank you, as ever, for your utterly generous eye. For your care and careful attention to the way things become—and the way things may carry visible traces of (or themselves trace) history. The history of their becoming. I love your question about turning to the dirt and wondering if this turn to the sea is somehow related, though for me they are significantly different. It seems that I didn't choose the sea in any conscious way. It just kept showing its body. It just kept being there—in the history. Of Eritrea, the United States, Puerto Rico, and on and on. I originally thought that I was working on something entirely else—also to do with the sea—but much broader. There was a 500-year-old whale who the poem's then narrator imagined was documenting the history of several seas. It was a poem very much about the imagination (what happens when the imagined documenter is not human? how this practice of imagining might stretch the eye, among other things).

Among the histories I was engaging was the story of Alexander Pushkin's grandfather who was said to have been born in Eritrea (there is dispute, and I am interested in this, too). In the stories I have heard, though, Pushkin's grandfather was stolen from his homeland and was, eventually (after many twists in the story) given as a "gift" to Peter the Great. There are so many layers to this story, one of them being the story of his sister who died at sea onboard the kidnappers' boat with her brother... or having jumped off of the boat to swim back home, or having jumped into the sea to swim after the boat where her brother was held captive inside. I was thinking about this story. I was thinking, too, about the thousands and thousands and thousands of people crossing the sea out of North Africa and into southern Europe. As Derek Walcott writes, "The sea is History." And I thought, for some time, that what I was wrestling with would be more clear to wrestle with if I created a narrator who might speak through and to a whale. But suddenly, 2013, I found myself wrecked to my knees with the realization that what needed to happen in the poems was much more personal and immediate and full of straining and trying. I knew immediately that in order to be truest to the project and questions I was asking (how are these sea crossings different but connected to the other ways bodies—black bodies in particular—have crossed/been made to cross the seas? what is revealed when i realize that these histories and legacies, read remarkably separately often, actually touch each other?) that I needed to sweep and sweep away the whale, revealing what was left.

Suddenly: the sea as ever-moving, happening, behaving (as the land is, too, but in a differently perceptible way). With the sea, and in these contexts mentioned above, there is no illusion of safety. Loss is obvious. Imminent. Standing at the horizon looking out, the person is small, small up against all else. In the first section of the book, focused mainly on these recent sea crossings into southern Europe, I try to address the sea. And there is the impossibility of that—and the strike of the questions I am then forced to ask myself (about tense, time, address, perspective). The severity of constructions like country and citizenry sharpen, become foreign. And I am grateful.

Chen: You've recently published essays in Black Renaissance Noire, ArtsBlog, and other places. These essays address African American literary traditions; the West African figure of Legba as a messenger between realms; crossroads; memorials; problems with representing in poetry terrible injustices and violences, among other concerns. How do you see your essays working in conversation with your poems? What does the essay form do for you?

Girmay: I am so very curious still about why certain things seem to me to need to be essays and others poems. The modes, in the way I think about/experience/write them, are akin to one another. Or are each other. The essays that you mention were chances for me to chase my questions and ideas about different artists (Komunyakaa and the Turf Feinz, for example) and their cosmologies or profundities or graces. They were ways for me to have the structure to fall into deep readings and research. And I suppose there is something beautiful about not thinking about line in the same way. About thinking about audience (who might be reading the essay and what are the lenses we often bring, as readers, when we enter into the essay vs. the poem?).

In terms of what I was thinking about in the recent essays: I wanted to think about these artists (Komunyakaa, the Turf Feinz, Claudia Rankine, Eduardo Corral, Jean Valentine) *publicly* and clearly—and to think, specifically, about what they were/are teaching me about making... especially about what is both beautiful and terrorful about the crossroads or the dusky space... and about the importance of sharing joy and making space for tenderness in the work. Always, things that the poems are teaching me make their ways into the essays... but more often than not with me, what I've written about in the prose is deeply connected to my poetics or a new understanding of the compass of my poetics. And what I'm starting to reach toward.

Chen: I remember seeing a section of that whale poem. That’s fascinating, how projects change, how we swerve, and dive, try, again. Fascinating, too, how all these individual poems become a book. How do you go about sequencing a collection? What was your process for the black maria?

Girmay: This sequencing question is a big question. And for me the process is always a process of asking questions. Looking. Observing and noticing my tendencies (poem to poem). There are so many ways to bring a group of poems together as one project. There are so many ways to order. One thing I do and encourage the Div III students I get to work with at Hampshire to do is to put symbols on their pages—marking which poems are air, are dirt. Highlight the hearts or moments of heat in each poem. In another color I might highlight the dreams of the poems (if they have them). Then I might spread all the pages of a potential manuscript out somewhere (on the walls, on a floor)—start building houses of relationships (this poem is in particular conversation with this one and this one) and building clusters in that way... I think it was Elizabeth Alexander who encouraged us, in graduate school, to gather information about our manuscripts that way. By building houses. Then I might ask, What is revealed or illuminated by these poems being next to each other? What is revealed by them being farther apart? I look at the marks and wonder what it means to have a lot of heat in one section and mostly cooler air, or dirt, in another. I might ask, Where are the dreams? What does it mean to have only one? Where must it live?

I think about what I hope the experience might be for someone who has so generously said yes to reading it... Would I like for it to be a bouquet of dreams? A week of rain? A way to wash the feet of our elders? Sometimes it's helpful to spread the heat. Sometimes not. I think a lot about the doorways—of entering and leaving a manuscript. I think about the overall arc. I organize the manuscript in one way and then try a go at 3 or 4 radically different ways. Something begins to reveal itself. And so, for the black maria, there was a wrestling with this work of making and seeing and trying to say/show/speak through "my trouble" (as Pat Rosal calls it) that I felt committed to sharing. There is a lot of grief and wreck here. But also it's an attempt to recall and name life. Reach toward it. Love. And so I thought a lot about wanting to create moments of windows or doorways that open up directly (and explicitly) into those spaces. Of course, all of it—the goodness and the joy and the absolute grief about how we fail each other or hold each other captive—is all always there.

Chen: I recently saw you read at AWP a poem from the new book, for/after/about Neil deGrasse Tyson. I love this poem. How did you come to write about Tyson? And that beautiful, tender turn in the poem—to the speaker’s own child—what called you into that turn?

Girmay: Thank you so much, Chen. I had been working on the poems that are now the black maria for some time, so their revisions and selves had been on my mind for a time. And then I read or reread a New Yorker or New York Times profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson. There's so much in that profile that I find moving and critical. And after I read it I knew that the poems I was making were in conversation with some of what that article profiled. The young person going on the rooftop to study stars. The neighbors being so suspicious of his skin that they called the cops on him. We know history and the present-day. That this very story ends, so often, with violence. But in deGrasse Tyson's story he lives to tell the cops that he is studying the stars! And the cops look through his telescope lens! God. And so this profile was moving in me as a story that moved me deeply. The effort of this boy marveling at (and therefore trying to see!) distant elements of the galaxy... and the neighbor's inability to see him. That this beautiful boy might possess a beautiful mind. That he might imagine studying the stars and moon!

And so I eventually started to take notes on this poem. Pages and pages by hand. Slowly at first. And then pouring. And I had just given birth to my own beautiful boy. Maybe a month before starting to write the poem. I realized, at some point, that I was avoiding an intersection between my baby and this "American" story. I wanted to keep the horror far—even in my imagination. Even as I write this I am so careful and do not want to say: how many beautiful, brilliant, shining and trying people have been chewed to death by this country's racist, capitalism-on-steroids policies, leaders, and public. I mean—whole lives. Gone. Whole lives and brilliances who will never get a chance to be again. I keep hearing Nazim Hikmet: "you must grieve for this right now."

Chen: A few months ago, I read Jean Valentine’s latest, Shirt in Heaven. I have you to thank for really introducing me to her work back in college. I knew of her but I don’t think I heard her—her particular musics and intimate addresses. I’ve since had to read everything, everything she’s written. What drew you to her poems? What keeps drawing you back?

Girmay: She is, I believe, a genius. I do not know a single person who makes poems like hers. How they seem to be forged out of air. Ruins and letters and prayers. They are full of mysteries and a species of clarity I rarely meet except when looking into the horse's eye. Whenever I read her poems or hear them I cannot ever stop knowing that these are poems made by a soul. It seems to me she trusts her language, her seeing, her capacity to reach toward (through time, through space) another, a beloved, a stranger, a self. Then there are specific moments like what she does with tense in the Lucy cycle [in her book Break the Glass] that have just utterly rearranged me. My way and sight. Like when I think about what she relegates to past tense and what she insists on being present ongoing. She is making a more livable and tender world in these poems. My mind is blown!

Chen: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. Last question: You’ve been teaching poetry at Hampshire College for several years now. How has your teaching/how have you changed, over those years? And what’s a favorite writing experiment you’ve shared with students?

Girmay: Teaching at Hampshire, in particular, has been an education. I have gone to school at Hampshire in many ways. I hope that I am always "going to school" but what I mean by this in relation to Hampshire is that it's such a special place. And students are working—truly—interdisciplinarily!!! And quite closely with faculty. And so there are Div IIIs (students in their final year who are working intensively on a yearlong project with at least two faculty across disciplines/schools) who are working on poetry and curriculum or literary arts and what I might call literary/archival activism. Other students are using documentary methods or historical research to create choreopoems. And on and on. It is inspiring to be in such close conversation with students and their work. To witness the different processes. To offer my questions and excitements and resources, and to see them culling and realizing their own questions and excitements and resources.

Working with students at Hampshire reminds me that I am an octopus—with many arms in different modes of making and asking. Somewhere in graduate school I lost this knowing and felt I had to somehow choose. I don't think it was graduate school necessarily—but school and work and a kind of exciting cultural momentum that was so all-encompassing that I forgot to remind myself of my own motor (collage, photographs, stories). And that mine might be different from someone else's. I'd like to think that my teaching has changed by this remembering. This remembering to bring it all, all in. I also know that teaching at Hampshire and beyond has helped me to know some of the things I want for my students, and thus for myself... That all of our languages are rich and full of history and people and places. And that speaking/writing through these languages and toward/through/inside of our imaginations is POWERFUL and ESSENTIAL to our work as people who are becoming, learning to say and see and be seen.

In this vein, it has been so moving to ask students to share their routes to language with a coming to language project. I ask students to "map" (loosely) their influences and where their languages come from (places, people, songs, weathers, landscapes, books, scraps of memorized things, etc.) and then to write both a poem that incorporates/maps that route and a reflection/essay that maps that route. Those pieces are always so moving, restorative, and illuminating.

Another writing experiment I love to share is to make a list of "people, places, elements of nature, objects" you've never been (I've never been a toaster, I've never been a disco ball, I've never been the sea) and then write poems that contradict these statements (I've never been a disco ball except in third grade, my newness shining in the room,...). I am often thinking of the writers I love most, who know, in the life and work, how strange and varied we are. How many things. I like to think about this experiment as a way of, through the form of "another," surprising oneself into history or autobiography. Something new about the world, yourself you didn't previously see. Also: based on "thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird." We make a list of 5 things we tend to like to overlook/not look at or think about (like: I might say "going to the dentist" or "debt"). We choose one to work with. Then write a "thirteen ways of looking..." at that thing.

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