ARACELIS GIRMAY
in conversation with CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

Claire Schwartz spoke with the poet Aracelis Girmay on two occasions, in the summers of 2014 and 2015. Schwartz writes, “She welcomed me into the book-lined living room of her apartment and, as we began to speak, I understood what [the poet] Angel Nafis meant when she called Girmay ‘a living ancestor.’ Girmay spoke quietly and with the radical generosity of slow consideration. Sometimes, the gentle surprise of her syntax seemed to syncopate the day’s rhythm, reaching across time to make space for another way of being.”

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

When you think about early sounds or early spaces of language, what comes to mind?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

My parents split up when I was six, so we would dive into these worlds of each house. It really felt like we moved between very different spaces. My mom grew up in Chicago and lived in California for a while. My dad was born—and for the most part raised—in Gondar, Ethiopia. We didn’t grow up speaking Tigrinya, but Tigrinya and Amharic were always around. When I’m home, sometimes I’ll wake up with phrases I don’t understand. It will be perfectly formed; I just don’t know what I’m saying.

I have an interesting kind of outside relationship to language. Have you ever had that feeling when you’re young—maybe it still happens: you’re at a party; everyone’s talking, and you’re falling asleep? You’re sort of trying to fight it. You’re in and out. Then you end up somehow in the car. Do you know that feeling? That’s what my relationship to Tigrinya is like: feeling at home and comfortable in a way, but also moving through a dreamy haze and trying to hold onto certain things.

My mom’s side of the family speaks English peppered with Spanish. And different kinds of Englishes—different syntax, speech, pace. English always has felt like the most homespace for me. I feel obviously fluent in English. I can speak Spanish, but there’s always a reaching. Tigrinya, I don’t speak. So, there’s fluency, but I’m also very at home on the outside of language, in a space where I don’t understand.

When I was last in Eritrea, I would look at the Tigrinya alphabet. All of a sudden, I’m paying attention to shapes: the way two letters almost look twinned, but there’s a slight difference to the angle. I then carry that back into English. These letters and numbers that I otherwise may take for granted, how are they shapes? “What might this o be? What might this a be?” How do I carry this sense of outsiderness back into what I feel well-acquainted with?

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

Aside from the visual qualities, how do you carry that estranged sense of home into the homespace of language?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I moved to New York for grad school on September 7, 2001. I had recently been to Eritrea, and I was thinking about music—Tigrinya music specifically. And also the dance. Have you seen Guayla dance? It’s is one of the traditional Tigrinya dances. You’re going in a circle: one, two, three, one, two, three. Then there’s a break, and you break it down. I was thinking a lot about those rhythmic structures and adhering to forms that echoed the dancers. I bring up September 11th because something happened: I felt returned to the urgency of my questions. I think it’s because everything felt strange, and I felt vulnerable. The city was in a traumatic moment. So there was a way that everything I reached for felt like it was about a return to some kind of home and also to my most urgent hopes, questions. But that doesn’t quite feel like estrangement. That word’s interesting to me. I’ll have to think more.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

How did you come to poetry?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

My grandmother would watch her novelas when she babysat us. She set up a desk for me out in the back, and I would write stories. When I was done, I would come share them with her. There were always people encouraging us to create. My cousins would put on plays and make up dances. We drew. I always loved to read. I took ballet classes for years. We were always making things. The TV was not really a big part of our lives. Sometimes, we’d be able to watch an hour of TV a day. We could watch The Cosby Show and then A Different World. My mom wouldn’t let us say that we were bored. “How could you be bored? You have the whole world around you!” So even on car trips, I would make up movies outside the car window. There was always an engagement with making—and also, making from the scraps of things. Looking back, I realize there wasn’t a lot of money. But then, it was: you just make what you need to make. We could make up all kinds of games with a paper plate. You use what you have. 

When I was in seventh grade, my aunt gave me a typewriter. I would type poems. They tended to be small. They were about difficult things in my life or my friends’ lives, or things that I’d heard about. For some reason, it was my impulse to write about serious things in poems. I don’t have any of those any more.

Then, I went away to boarding school. That’s when I started keeping a journal of poems. The poems weren’t necessarily autobiographical. I wouldn’t ever talk about what I did during the day. It was a beautiful and difficult time, being in boarding school. Being one of the only kids of color there. Being on a scholarship. The wealthy kids I was around were so—I mean it was beyond. People had so much money. My first day, some Hollywood star was there with his daughter, who was a senior. She was going to be my prefect. She said, “Welcome.” And she said: “How did you hear about this school?” I said, “The ABC [A Better Chance] program.” She said, “Oh, ok.” That was kind of it. I don’t think she meant any shame. I did feel something when I said it—that she was like: “That makes sense. That’s why you’re here.” There was this kind of moment that I hadn’t anticipated or even felt before and didn’t yet have the language to unpack. 

My mom said, “Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong here. You don’t have to tell everyone that you’re on scholarship.” She was trying to protect me—and I understand all of the reasons why—but it opened my chest to a kind of shame, about not having money and being at this place and feeling like, “How lucky I am to be here.” That moment did something. I met amazing, beautiful people in boarding school, but it was also a tricky, hard time. I started reading and writing poems. I mean really reading poems. I came upon Lucille Clifton and Kate Rushin on my own. We were taught Toni Morrison, García Márquez. And they became very important to me, too. But the poems… That’s when the work of poems became lifeblood work.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

Could you talk a little about [your first book] Teeth? When did it take shape as a collection? How did you think about building it?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I had finished a manuscript at NYU. Many of the poems that I had workshopped at NYU were deeply, deeply important to me. Maybe two of those poems ended up in Teeth. But I also could feel that there was another body of work that I didn’t feel comfortable yet sharing.

And then, the summer right after grad school, I went to Cave Canem. There was something about having a poem due every day that messed me up in the most beautiful way. I tend to work very, very slowly and through several drafts. Even at Cave Canem, I would work until two in the morning and on as many drafts as I could, but the subject of the poems got really, really wild because I didn’t have time to say, “No, no, no. You can’t get in.” It was like my bouncer was asleep. It felt really exciting.  And also, to be with all these other black writers—to feel challenged and not expected to be a kind of “minority voice,” whatever that means. I’d had many experiences in other workshops where people would say out loud: “This is an ethnic poem. I don’t really understand the ethnic references,” which gave a permission to not listen as carefully or as clearly. Any group of people can challenge themselves to push outside that kind of reading. At Cave Canem, there was a lot of work not to do that with each other. 

And then, Nikky. I met Nikky Finney there. After one of the fellows’ readings, she said to me, in a very serious voice, “I need to talk to you.” And then she said, “What is your plan? What do you want to do with your poems? Do you want to publish? And why?” I said, “Thank you for asking me those questions. I would love to answer you, but I have no idea how to answer in this moment. Can I write to you when I know?” She said, “Yes.” At the end of the residency, we exchanged addresses. I thought about those questions every day. And then, probably sometime within that year, I wrote her and said, “I have work, but it’s not at all ready. I want to work on these poems. I want to learn by these poems. To see what they might need. I would love to publish, to share. I want to participate. I want to be a part of a conversation.” She said, “When you have something ready, you can send me the manuscript, and I’ll look at it.” 

In one way, the question could have been answered rather quickly. But Nikky is so serious. I felt like I needed to spend time with her question. I feel like even if she had said, “What are you going to do with this salad on the table?” I would need to say, “Eat it, and use the nutrients.” There’s a gravity. There’s a weight. In her questions, Nikky helps me to ask, “What is my motor? What is my fuel?” As opposed to, for example, the fuel of the MFA program. Actually, NYU wasn’t pushing us to publish. But sometimes the expectation is: MFA, publish, teach. And I felt like Nikky was saying: “Figure out what your motor is, what your fuel is regardless of anybody else’s—and articulate that to get yourself clear.”

Then, in 2005, John Murillo, a dear friend of mine, was about to take a class with Martín Espada in Arizona. I was in Santa Ana piecing together an income—working at a bookstore and at a cultural center and for a health program. I said, “I don’t think that I can afford to go.” He said, “If there’s any way, you have to meet Martín. Just get in the car and drive.” I drove from Long Beach to Arizona.  I workshopped poems. Martín said, “What do you have? What do you want to do?” By then, I was closer to a manuscript. I sent it to him a couple of months later. He said, “I know somebody who would be better at looking at this.” About four months after that I got an email from Sandy Taylor at Curbstone Press saying, “We got your manuscript. We don’t think it’s ready, but we want to publish it.” I remember dropping to my knees. My first feeling was embarrassment. I didn’t know that Martín was going to send it to a publisher! I thought he was going to send it to somebody who could read it for me. Eventually, I just felt thrilled and ready to do more work.

I had a year or so to get the manuscript together. I talked with the editor, and we figured out the title. It was between Teeth and The Missiles Have No Eyes, which is a line from the opening poem, “Arroz Poetica.” But I felt that The Missiles Have No Eyes was too much—not as full of possibilities as Teeth. Then, I just spent time living with the poems, putting them out on the floor and looking to see which one was related to which. I wanted all of them to be love poems, but I realized that the arc was: public wars, private wars—and the question of love throughout.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

What did you learn about your motor in the space of Nikky Finney’s question?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I think the hardest thing to articulate was: “Yes, I want to publish a book.” The first, second, third, fourth, fifth place I go is to language as a means of discovery and experimentation and play. I think if you play enough—even syntactically—that can lead to all kinds of immense discoveries.

Or, I’ll work on a poem, and at the sixth draft, I’ll say, “Do I really believe in this?” And I spend days asking myself if I really believe in whatever I just said. It could be the smallest thing—or the seemingly smallest thing—like: indivisible is a body. At what point is a body indivisible? If you take away, piece-by-piece, at what point do you say: “That’s not a body anymore?” At what point do you say: “The self has been compromised?” When I think of shedding hair, I generally don’t think something’s been compromised. Does a finger do that? What constitutes? The work of writing helps me to engage with these questions. So that was something to articulate. But that was the easier part for me to articulate. 

The public part of Nikky’s question—imagining that I might have something to say that somebody who I don’t know might also want to read—felt much harder. It also felt true and honest as a thing to hope. To say: “Yes, I want to be able to say this thing, to share this story. Not for a job, not for whatever external motivation—even though any opportunity would be great.” It’s interesting to now be in a tenure-track position where there’s this expectation that publishing is a thing to be met. I understand it, to an extent, but there’s a real conflict in me because it feels like a kind of abuse, too.

 So, the motor of an institution might differ from my motor. But to be able to save Aboy Keleta in a poem when there weren’t many writers in the U.S. writing in English who spoke about Eritrea at all… People would say, “What is that?” Or: “Is that even a country yet?” There was an invisibility that I wanted to rupture, a silence I wanted to speak into. With Nikky’s question, I was able to articulate that I felt an urgency to speak and, if I had the chance, to speak with as many people as possible.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

You have so many names—of people, of places—in your poems. What does calling names in your poems do in terms of breaking into that silence, holding space for visibility?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

So many things. It’s easier for me to think about as a reader. I first saw it with the photographs Lucille Clifton included in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, and I was just amazed by how thirsty, how hungry… This wasn’t my family, but I’d seen pictures like that. As everybody talks about, there’s a void in history books in the United States of individuals in general—unless they’re generals and presidents—but especially of black people, or people of color. We get caricatures of blackness or brownness, and whiteness, too. Cracking open these sweeping generalizations and looking at the life and story and name and picture of an individual helps me to know that this is also history. We are all, each one of us, a result of a long and complicated set of circumstances.

I think that when you get a chance to look at a life or hear the name of a city that is not often spoken, it complicates the stories we tell about each other in really important ways. I’m thinking of Martín Espada’s “Alabanza” poem, which commemorates the union workers who died at the Windows on the World Restaurant in the World Trade Center. He names some of their countries of origin: “Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.” When I was teaching poetry in the Bronx, I shared that poem. There were maybe two Ghanaian students in the high school, but when Ghana was said, it was, “Ahhhhhhhh!”—this excitement. I’m not interested in nationalism or patriotism. I understand the complications of it. I feel like it can be very dangerous. But there is also something when someone who is not you is saying one of your names and including you in a history. Or, when a word like “Yemen”—when a country like Yemen—is spoken, and there’s praise for someone from there in the context of September 11th, when so much is about demonization and suspicion. I think it’s just humanizing, and critical. 

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

I love this phrase, “one of your names.” What are some of your names?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

The first name that is mine is sister. My names are always changing depending on the situation. It’s a weird thing to say, but I feel that I’m most aware of my names at moments or sites of loss. At his graduation, my brother wore a Puerto Rican and an Eritrean flag. That does not resonate with me at all. But ever since Eritrea won independence—I was thirteen—when I go to a globe or look at a map, automatically, without even thinking, my eye looks to see if Eritrea is there. So Eritrea is one of my names, too. If I hear Eritrea, something in me rises or pays attention. And Puerto Rico. When I hear somebody say something like: “Those such-and-such Puerto Ricans,” I feel a blood in me rise. Walking down the street and randomly hearing Héctor Lavoe playing, there’s a different kind of rise. That’s a beautiful rise. So there’s a way in which those places are also my names. Weyni is literally one of my names. It’s my middle name. It means “grape” in Tigrinya. I feel like it’s also a way of calling up Eritrea that’s more personal. Or maybe the taste of berbere—if a taste could be a name—that would be one of my names. More than Eritrea. I have other names. Mud. I was in Greece and Italy in undergrad. I remember looking out the window of a train. The fields were brown. They had just been rained on. I remember that color—the earth, the dirt, the mud—felt like my uncles. Somehow, “dirt” and “mud” feel like my names.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

Names also interest me in their resistance to translation. I’m struck by the way that translation in your work seems not to be a deciphering or a decoding. Something else is going on as you foreground the process of reaching, rather than any product. I’m thinking, for example, of “Loisferiberi.” Nearly that entire poem asks us to sit closely with and turn over this word we do not know.

ARACELIS GIRMAY

In Spanish, if I’m reaching for a word, the reaching turns into a kind of walking around the word, or—if I can’t find that word—trying to get at it from different angles. I think in English that happens, too, in different ways. Certainly, writing poems feels like that process to me. Tweaking or the chiropractic movements of revision or conjugations of a verb—all of that is interesting to me.

In his Nobel Laureate speech, Derek Walcott talks about the fragments of the Caribbean and the light at dusk. I’m really drawn to that duskiness. I feel like I come from that space. Just as much as I come from the houses of my parents, I come from the highway between them. Or this dusky space between English and Tigrinya. It somehow feels like a kind of conscious or unconscious resistance to translation; an inability to be completely brought over into the other thing. If we looked closely, that would probably be true for any one of us. I feel like that’s something I’ve known since I was little: there is never complete crossover. There might be a way that I tend to resist reconciliation.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

What is it about reconciliation that requires resistance? What does it ask of us to stay in that in-between space?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

Automatically, I’m thinking of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I think reconciliation as an idea and as a process is immensely important. But I struggle with the question of free will. Grounding it more specifically: when people commit horrendous crimes and you find out that they had a brain tumor that compromised their brain in a way that might explain what happened, what does that say about the nature of crime or punishment? Neat ideas about ourselves and each other can be the cause of a lot of pain and mis-seeing. I would like to live in a way where I could be open and alive to the complications of any given person.

On the other hand, as Gwendolyn Brooks says, “One wants a teller in a time like this.” Sometimes you just want things to be: This is yes and this is no. This is right and this is wrong. This is uncomplicated. This means only this and nothing else. But I don’t know if a poem can help but straddle many worlds, which is another way of thinking about reconciliation or lack thereof. Even the line break and enjambment—which literally means “to straddle”—resist reconciliation. I imagine that tendency could ask more or less of us depending on what it was about, what is was doing, how it was resisting.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

I’m struck by the recurrence of teeth and bones in your work. There’s something perhaps not irreconcilable, but undigestible about them.

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I’m startled by teeth. That they could be and last and we can have them and they fall out and more come. They’re weird. They’re beautiful. Why should they be? I suppose I could say that about anything—my fingers, my kneecap. Why should anything be? But so many things have teeth. The variety of ways that we use them, the ways that they mean—I’m really struck by that. I’m interested in what’s left. What are the things that we thought of as ourselves that we lose and can be far from? A lost tooth is so beautiful, and I worry for it, too. The thing that was where you taste and chew or suckle can also be on its own. When I was little, I would eat Cheerio’s and, when I got down to the bottom, if I happened to leave just one in the bowl, I would try to get the last one very quickly so it wouldn’t be all alone. I also remember losing my first pair of earrings when I was four. There’s something about that tooth that feels like each of those things. A lost tooth: who does it belong to?

Teeth and bones: these hard pieces of ourselves that, even when cremated, retain the hardness of what they were. I’m struck by how they last—but also, as pieces of ourselves whose age is different from the heart’s age. I’m imagining bones as a kind of architectural space. I suppose the heart can be thought about as such, and the brain; but the hardness of bones feels very familiar to the hardness of structures that we live in. So, being in Chicago or, especially, Eritrea, I always imagine the people I knew only through letters who lived there. Are there any parts left? What would those be? There’s some hope that, perhaps, bone might stand a chance to still be somewhere. So, in my imagination, bones are a kind of possible presence—a way that people who have died might still be present. This might be one of my obsessions because I think so much of my relationship to places and to family has been from a distance where there’s paper and pen and an envelope or a telephone between you, but the physical body is far. And so bones feels like a way of at least having touched them even though the them-ness is not.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

In your essay about Turf Feinz—who danced in Fruitvale Station in Oakland, where Oscar Grant was murdered—you write about art as an act of tending. How are you thinking about that word? What does it mean for your own practice?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I think what that word holds in it for me—always, but especially in this moment—is something very physical. Taking care with great or deep attention in an active way—where your body’s involved. That’s what the word carries for me. The way that I meant that word has a quality that’s expressive—and not just in the thought world. I know the mind is important; but that piece of expressing and engaging with the body feels critical.

Now I’m thinking of the man who’s always out sweeping early in the mornings. I’m interested in the attentive and quiet ways that people tend, that almost invisible tending that people do—these creative tiny or big, but often peripheral, ways of taking care and caring. 

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

How did it feel to write “Palimpsest?” To tend to, as well as to claim, in a way, the violence of rape in the context of war? Was there uncertainty around that at any point—stepping into that space as yours and then releasing it into the world?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

There still is. I never read that poem out loud. I worried when I was working on it. I’m worried now, about many things. One of them being not wanting to further violate a person or a story either through appropriation or misrepresentation or by writing a poem that, every time it’s read, is re-envisioning or reenacting a violence. So there’s a fear of perpetuating a violence, a violation, in many different ways. I’m not sure that I’ve come to a peace about it.

I also don’t know clearly enough who I was when I wrote that piece. But I imagine that part of what I was hoping or thinking that I might be able to do—and maybe this is what made me include it in the collection as opposed to just keeping it to myself—was to push against a silence about all of these kinds of traumatic histories, but especially sexual traumas. There are various moments of sexual trauma—not in my personal life but in my own family’s history; more on my mom’s side—that were really not spoken about and, when spoken about, were spoken about at a moment of deep despair.

This poem is scary for me for many, many reasons—mainly its different cultural context. I had read about several cases of this kind of torture where a father or other relative had been made to rape a family member. Often, the idea of victimhood feels straightforward; the person who is being violated feels clear to me. In these particular kinds of tortures, it’s a horrible mess. Here, the child and the father, each for various reasons, are victims and violated. I must have felt like I wanted, with all of my worry, to document something in a measured way. And in a quieter way. That feels really scary when I think about the poem. It feels very difficult for me to talk about.

I’ve read and been in interviews with people who will share testimonies. Those moments can feel so clinical, or like there are so many. It’s a bombardment, so it can be hard to step into the fact of someone’s humanness. I wanted to slow down time and hone in—to remember something, I guess. Or to remind myself or a potential reader of the fact that everything is happening in real time. There’s something about slowness and quiet that felt important as a composed pieced. And then, as a composed piece, it feels troubling, too.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

How does engaging sites of violence figure more broadly in terms of your own work? 

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I never want to recreate violence in talking about it. That’s always a worry. In my new book [The Black Maria], there’s a long cycle called “Elelegy,” which is looking at crossings people are making over the Mediterranean Sea and into Southern Europe. It means to honor the people and the stories. As I look at this manuscript, I’m still worried that there’s not enough joy—which feels critical. I have to ask: in grieving, am I honoring joy and the fullness of life—that their stories are much bigger than this trauma?

I went through the manuscript, and I made a catalog of the verbs. That gave me information. What are the black bodies doing in the poems? If all of the verbs are suffering verbs, that’s a problem. There’s so much more to black bodies than suffering. So, with the verbs in front of me, I asked, “What am I missing? What do I tend to see?” And, “How can I open up that eye?” When I read Ross Gay’s work or Nikky Finney’s or Jean Valentine’s, it carries me in that way. It teaches me.

I’m interested in these quiet and really radical ways to honor life. For example, those dancers made me think about what it means to occupy the same space that Oscar Grant was in—and to dance there. But they also made me think about time. There’s a kind of remembering Grant’s body, looking back at what happened. But there are these future bodies, too, and their dance feels like it exists in some future—which is particularly helpful to me. There’s also a way that the dancers are Oscar Grant’s companions, that they are happening at the same time. All of those are ways of looking. 

I remember reading Jean Valentine’s Lucy cycle. There’s this one moment: “…my scraped out child died.” The death is in the past tense, and “scraped” is in the past tense. But then she says, “you hold her, all the time.” The death ends. Full stop. But the holding keeps happening. This funky present tense jolted me alive. I’m thinking about the ways that those kinds of moves insist on what you hope for, while also acknowledging what you’re terrified of. That also feels like a tending.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

When you dropped down the verbs in your poem, what did you find? 

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I found that I wanted more joy. It confirmed a suspicion that I was focusing very narrowly on grief. I recently heard somebody on the radio talking about the immigration crisis in southern Europe. It was much more subtle than, “Immigrants are a threat to the nation.” But the way that the story gets told, it’s as if people didn’t leave rivers and routines that they love—as if the moon didn’t rise and was not glorious before they reached Europe. And I feel like that’s connected to: “What are the things that make a full life?” And: “What is it to honor the joys, the beauty, the details of those things—and not only remember struggle or death or the fight to cross the sea?”

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

Would you talk a bit about your new book, The Black Maria?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

It’s in two sections. The first is “Elelegy.” It’s an elegy. But, also, “elel” is ululation—the “lelelele” sound that people make in joy and in grief. It’s looking at the sea crossings of the Mediterranean from North Africa, but it’s really focused on the Eritrean trajectory, because I know that a little bit better than other trajectories. I’ve never written like this before. The poems are these kind of funky lyrics. They’re in different voices. Oftentimes, they’re speaking to the sea—a changing site that’s always moving. We are, too, but it feels differently obvious. The kind of things that come to mind to ask the sea, or to say to it, feel different to me. Speaking to the sea feels like an ode, and an elegy. I suppose that, in the way I write, they’re almost the same.

Then, in the next section of the book, there are all of these estrangement poems. It’s called The Black Maria because the Italian astronomers mistook the dark patches of the moon for black seas, and they called them the Black Maria. I’m thinking of misidentification. In the second section of the book, there are poems for Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin and people who have been murdered in Europe because of anti-immigration sentiments and racism. I was also thinking about this movement through the Mediterranean, and the Middle Passage. So it feels like a constellation of things. In a lot of ways, it’s about distance, and reaching across distances. In the end, I think the whole book is a prayer for a reunion of a kind.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

What sources did you gather from in preparation for “Elelegy?”

ARACELIS GIRMAY

I read about international law—the refugee status and how it has changed at various times. The problem for me is that I don’t speak Tigrinya. I have been able to find some online archives, but they’ve not been translated into English. I asked people to sing songs and asked them what the songs meant—especially songs that have water in them.

I came upon a set of letters by an Eritrean poet called Letters to Asmara. He was writing in the ’70s from Addis to different people in Asmara. Those letters helped me to put this moment—where thousands of people are risking their lives to leave—in a historical and political context; but they helped me, too, to think of other art-makers writing about the idea of Eritrea and really thinking about nationhood and nationalism. My dad wrote down the translations of those letters for me.

And then I did some interviews and asked questions about Eritrean nationalism that don’t look like questions about Eritrean nationalism. “If you could take away one element from there to bring to where you are now, what would you take?” I was really trying to learn more about the dream of it.

CLAIRE SCHWARTZ

In [your second collection] Kingdom Animalia, dirt is such a presence. Is there a different set of questions you bring to the sea than to the dirt?

ARACELIS GIRMAY

Yes. When I think of dirt, I think of a slowness of time, of geological time. Even though things are changing, I think of a literally grounded sense of place. In my own mythology, or cosmology, there’s an idea of firmness associated with dirt. The way I think of water, when I think of water, is that it’s a barrier. And I know that, for example, Taíno people in Puerto Rico have canoes so, for them, water wouldn’t be a barrier. A high mountain would be a barrier. But I grew up in California, where you just stand at the edge, and there’s the sea; everything else is so far. In my mind, as long as there’s dirt, I can just walk somewhere. But the sea is this marvelous, terrifying barrier. And so—as I’m saying it, it doesn’t feel entirely true, but—I imagine that the questions of the dirt are more questions of witness over thousands of years. The questions that I hold for water—which is touching constantly—feel differently expansive.

I’m thinking, too, of what people bury on purpose—and the different kinds of burials that happen in the ground versus at sea. Or, a treasure lost at sea. There’s a different kind of loss that I imagine happens at sea, than in the dirt. I’m thinking of the surprise element of discovery. I’ve never found a message in a bottle, but I’m thinking of that way that the sea invites people to let things go, and what kind of things. The hand of it feels differently experienced, and more obviously random. 


ARACELIS GIRMAY is the author of the poetry collections the black maria, Teeth, and Kingdom Animalia, and the collage-based picture book changing, changing. Her poetry and essays have been published in Granta, Black Renaissance Noire, and PEN America, among other places. She has received grants and fellowships from the Jerome, Cave Canem, and Whiting foundations, as well as Civitella Ranieri and the National Endowment for the Arts.


CLAIRE SCHWARTZ is a PhD candidate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale. Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Cream City Review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, and Prairie Schooner; her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is working on a collection of interviews with contemporary black American women poets.


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