“How do you go about finding the heart?”: Aracelis Girmay on Poetry, Discovery, and Grief

The following interview with poet Aracelis Girmay was conducted in 2012 by (then-intern, now National Book Award winning writer) Elizabeth Acevedo as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Aracelis Girmay

Several of your poems deal with your name—the letters that compose it and its pronunciation. Do you know the history and meaning of your first and last names? And what does it mean for you to write about them?

I like this question: how it is a way of talking about family and history and colonialism and dreams without nationalism (in this case), which is striking to me. Too, what people name their children and how names can mean, is just so interesting. It speaks so much to cultural and personal imagination and the moment of one’s birth.

Aracelis—which is most familiar when I write it lowercase—aracelis—it’s a Spanish clearly rooted in Latin and means “altar of the sky” or, as I was told when I was little, “altar of heaven.” I prefer sky and have always had trouble with “heaven” as a religious term that seemed to bring with it, in my mind, eternal hell.

When I think of the history of my name, I think of the Basilica de Santa Maria de Aracoeli in Rome—which I happened upon, by total accident, when I was just 20. In this church, people would pray to the Santa Bambino who people believed could heal the terminally ill and raise people from the dead. I hadn’t even heard of the Santa Maria de Aracoeli before and didn’t know then the Latinate roots of my name. The church is said to have been built on the ruins of the temple of the ancient Roman goddess Juno—who was said to be, among other things, the protector of the women of Rome. Part of what’s interesting to me about this—a name as poem or as text—is that my last name is Tigrinya, and, if we remember, the Italians, in the spirit of conquest and the scramble for colonies, brutally colonized Eritrea. (Every colonization is brutal in its way—I say “brutally” in this context not to say something special about colonization but to de-sanitize the word.) And so, these two names hold in them this strangeness and death and beauty and surprise.

There has been, on my mother’s side, an ongoing argument about where the accent goes. For a while my name was spelled “Aracelís”—but I, along the way, chose the traditional/popular pronunciation (with the implied accent on the “e”).

My great-grandfather offered the name up to my mother, for me.

My last name, Girmay, is my father’s first name. When it’s all lowercase, it feels most familiar—mainly because my dad has the neatest handwriting and he writes in all lowercase letters and his “g” looks like it is typed. Something familiar and marvelous and home. But, yes, it’s my father’s first name. That’s how it works in Tigrinya. And I’ve always had trouble understanding, exactly, the translation of the name. My sister says it’s like being named “my majesty” but that’s so Latinate and English. My dad says that’s not it at all. From what he explains, “Girmay” is something you would say to someone who you utterly respect. Like calling someone “greatness” or “honor.” Really, I think it shows a kind of hope for my father that my grandparents had. He says that the best translation is that his parents named him “my charisma” or “my honor.” He would be their charisma, their honor. He also says that his father used to call him the equivalent of “be honor” when he was younger. So imagine that’s your name? Being addressed or named by the hope others have for you. Might a name be the first ode?

My first name is so Spanish and my last name so Tigrinya. And the rules of pronunciation shift halfway. Meaning, Spanish speakers often pronounce the “g” of “girmay” as “h” and Tigrinya speakers will put more wind in the “r” of my first name. My name is a kind of river that switches directions, quickly.

In both Teeth and Kingdom Animalia you use several epigraphs and allusions. For me, this brings the idea of continuity, of bringing a dialogue to the forefront of your writing. Can you talk about the importance of other artists to your own work—both their inclusion and influence?

Yes, I think that idea of continuity is an interesting one. I am interested in the epigraph for the way it can mark the poem—even before entering into it deeply—as a conversation between at least two voices, or texts. Too, the epigraph, for me, is necessarily engaged with history and, thusly, time. The epigraph pulls from language “Of Before.” Language written or said before the poem was marked as finished. The epigraph becomes something pulled from the writer’s history and, thusly, the poem’s history. It marks the legacy and influence by which that poem was made. And that’s interesting to me. That an epigraph might be excerpted from a poem by Henry Dumas or might be excerpted from something a friend said once, or the news, or a quote from Darwin. The fact that each of these voices might show up in an epigraph allows the epigraph—its grandness or stateliness as it sits at the top of the poem—to be a vessel/form by which any influence might be memorialized and/or set into active conversation or argument with the poem, among other things. Too, the epigraph is a space to set or reinforce literary canons. Eliot famously begins “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Lucille Clifton marks sections of the memoir Generations with epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” John Murillo’s “Hustle” is crowned with an epigraph from Rakim’s lyrics in “Paid in Full.” In poems, the epigraph can be a space in which literary canons can be forged, wrestled with, rendered—a political space by which hierarchies are established, or challenged. A formal nod to the poem’s history and inheritance.

But I am also interested in the fact of the epigraph as excerpt. It is a piece of something larger and is decidedly framed by the writer—the epigraph being the chosen piece brought, with effort, into the poem—its larger context somewhat absent but ghosting the page. In this way, the epigraph makes obvious the fact of the poem as created, organized, man-made, constructed. I can see the materials with which the poem is made. These materials are borrowed from, stolen from, given by other people and places. And its piece-hood points to all the other choices that could have been made. Creation as an interesting manipulation of resources. In this way the epigraph can point to loss or absence. The very “piece-hood” of it nods to the large histories any utterance walks with.

I am interested in the way the poem looks or acts like a collage when there’s an epigraph. The work of bringing two things together from different minds, moments, sources—and bringing them into conversation. Re-contextualization! I love that the epigraph and poem, in juxtaposition, offer new ways of seeing relationships between things. How cousin and family all things are. Which is beautiful sometimes and terrifying sometimes.

My work is utterly shaped by everyone I’ve ever read, spoken with for hours, heard singing. I am shaped by paintings and the ways people dress, walk, tell a story. History forged into style, expression. The way people talk. Cook. Eat. The smell of azucena. A bombazo. All of that. The mourning dove on the A/C outside my window is, this very second, making its sounds for which it was “named”—unbeknownst to it I imagine. I didn’t know, before this moment, that it puffs its throat-chest up to make that call. A kind of frog. But the subtle iridescence of those feathers around its neck. That beauty, that kind of puff-up swagger matched with mourning-call (at the same time!)—I’m somehow, now, from that, too. I’m interested in these influences informing my blood and seeing and work. I’m also interested in the poem as a kind of letter to an influence, but also to a reader. Something that might carry information (Here is Nazim Hikmet! Have you read Whitman? Here is Walcott and Ms. Lucille. Listen to Rakim, Minnie Riperton, Caetano Veloso!). When I read people’s epigraphs I walk away with new reading, listening, a painting to find or visit. So it’s that, too. Poem as school. Map leading me toward other materials and sources.

How do you feel the process of writing has allowed you to interact with grief and loss? For instance, in the poem “This Morning the Small Bird Brought a Message from The Other Side” you write, “I want to know what to do with the dead things we carry.” In another poem, you use the term “undo time” to describe the way the writing process allows you to interact with the past.

I really do think writing is my way of reflecting, organizing, pushing through a feeling into movement or new feeling. And not just poem-writing. But any kind of writing. Even an email or a text—that moment of organizing what I want to say can be a gift—which is probably why I am so bad at emailing. Because I generally like to take time to think about what I want to say and how I mean to say it, even in an email. So. The poem has been a way to move into the difficult terrain of what I have trouble articulating or saying. The poem never wants to be made out of what comes easy, but, rather, what I’m struggling to articulate or to understand.

Specifically thinking about grief, the poem, by virtue of its poem-ness and lineation, helps many things to be happening at once. There’s a way that the poem can exist in a state of unfixed-ness. The lines, depending on enjambment and music, might insinuate or conjure many possibilities—some of them seemingly contradictory. The poem might find beauty in the midst of devastation. Or vice versa. These contradictions and discoveries are deeply hopeful moments for me—especially in the context of grief.

The poem can be rendered to problematize linearity in relation to culture and time. To make many things happen at once, and perpetually. For me, the mediation and work poetry requires, the reckoning and questioning, are ways of learning. And learning can be so full of hope. Even when you learn something difficult. One senses that one is engaging with a feeling and world head-on. A poem is a way of doing this, for me. A way of doing this and asking for more eyes, ears, mas pecho—in the process.

You’ve talked about trying “experiments” to push your writing in new directions and see the world differently. Why do you call these prompts experiments? What current experiments are you conducting? Are there any experiments you’ve tried that haven’t worked?

I think of writing experiments as challenges, constraints, exercises full of a kind of, for me, play and risk. I like the word experiment more than exercise, though, because it invokes work and process in the spirit of discovery. Also, I think of explosion, fire, combustion, heat. Though heat’s not always necessary.

I’ve written through tons of experiments and the texts from those experiments won’t ever make it into a poem or essay, but! The process of discovering new ways of thinking about language and writing can still be immense. And that’s what I hope for. I mean, I hope for poems and writings, too, but experiments help me to sit with the process of trying in a very focused way. I might experiment with syntactical arrangement for a long while. Or enjambment. Or. So, yes, all the time experiments aren’t leading directly into new poems but they are, are always teaching me things or teaching me how to try and play and say in new ways or helping me to track my tendencies so as to learn, break, question a little—or a lot—of what I take for granted. That’s mainly what the experiments do. They help me to locate or engage with a little of what I, in language or seeing, take for granted.

In many of your poems (I’m thinking in particular of “Three Girls, One of them a Coward Girl”) you delve into the vulnerabilities of your speakers—their cowardice, their failings. What does it mean to constantly revisit these moments of failure, to reenter them through the poem?

I didn’t realize that maybe that’s something I’m doing in more than a few poems. It’s generous of you to say that it is so. Generous because “failure” can be really hard for me. I am messing up all the time, but it can be hard to say it—or if it’s easy to say it, it’s hard to move out of guilt into something active, alive, useful. The way to begin to move through this wall, I think, is to know that effort and work—the willingness to try—are critical and beautiful. My family helps me to remember the importance of effort. To keep that at the heart of things—no matter what.

So with the feeling of failure, there is always an opportunity to love, forgive, work through (and in) something difficult with great effort. Which is hard!!! But something I try to remember. Also, “failure” is linked to trust for me. When I feel I’ve failed someone, it is hard to imagine that they’ll love me or respect me anyway. It’s as if I fear everything is shattered. Gone. I think “failing” can be an opportunity for intimacy and generosity and trust and work.

I also keep thinking of Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams and how the success/failure model simplifies reflection and seeing. As many people quote everywhere, he writes:

… too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they ‘succeeded’ in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves. By such a measure, virtually every radical movement failed because the basic power relations they sought to change remained pretty much intact. And yet it is precisely these alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.

This quote seems useful here.

So in “Three Girls . . .” I’m interested in complicating the notion that there are the villains over here and the good guys over here. I’m hoping to think about the spectrum of human feeling and desire and curiosity any one of us might feel or engage with at any moment. It’s important to me that the poems move toward complication, forgiveness, kindness—and do not depend on binary positions or relationships.

I once heard you mention the phrase “at the heart of a poem,” and was struck by the multitudinous meanings that this phrase could hold. What do you believe is at the heart of a poem? How do you go about finding the heart?

Ay, ay, ay. That last question is so beautiful to me. And so big. Beautiful to me because I think it is at the cor[e](razon) of it all. I think it is one of my questions and feel, often, like someone carrying a boombox in my chest, wandering every street, and that is the sentence on repeat in the tapedeck of my chest: How do you go about finding the heart?

I know you are talking, maybe, about heart as core. But I want to begin with what your last beautiful question helps me to see.

I am amazed by how much people can survive, endure—and how they can go on living, laughing. After thorough devastation, indescribable loss, people’s hearts still beat. People can, still, live. This is perplexing, bewildering news to me. Defies all sense and gravity to me. And yet.

When I see people living—and we do! we do everyday!—in and through and around all kinds of circumstances, I am in love and want to know, how, how?

I suppose the smaller losses that I’ve moved through help me to know that I love the way the birds dart and ride wind at the top of El Morro, over the sea. I find heart there in the play and beauty, and in the windiness and vastness of that ocean—which makes me feel small, small and helps me to remember how much bigger and longer geological time, and then the universe, is. My life is tiny, tiny—and, yet, to me, large. This perspective can sometimes help me to find heart. Too, it raises the stakes in me and helps me to move, more courageously, toward what I think the matter of things are for me, at this moment in particular.

I think a poem can have many hearts. Many cores. Many moments of great pulse and potency. I suppose a volta is a kind of heart. The turn. But the heart can also be very quiet, the condensed moment of matter or language or white space or silence that pushes chills through a body. It’s hard to say and depends, I think, on what I’m writing or reading and who I am when I’m writing or reading. Maybe I’m thinking about duende now. How sometimes the heart is hard to find but you feel its work and pulse there. Or you don’t.

Aracelis Girmay is the author of three poetry collections, including Teeth (2007), Kingdom Animalia (2011), and the black maria (2016). The editor of How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton (2020), 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. Girmay teaches in Hampshire College’s School for Interdisciplinary Arts and Drew University’s low-residency MFA program in poetry.

National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Research Guides: Literacy and Education for the Next Generation of Readers

This summer, Junior Fellow Mal Haselberger researched, developed, and published online research guides for all emeritus National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature. In the process of creating the guides, she learned firsthand the importance of making details about the ambassadors’ work and outreach programs more accessible to the public.