April 11–17, 2016
Aracelis Girmay is the author of the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016); Teeth (Curbstone Books, 2007), winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award; and Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011), winner of the Isabella Gardner Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poetry and essays have been published in Granta, Black Renaissance Noire and PEN America, among other places, and she has received grants and fellowships from the Jerome, Cave Canem and Watson foundations, as well as Civitella Ranieri and the NEA. She is an assistant professor of poetry at Hampshire College and divides her time between Brooklyn and Amherst, MA. On Friday, April 22, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church with J. Scott Brownlee and Martín Espada.
from “The Black Maria”
How did it happen?
The boy. The cops. My body in this poem.
The body, bearing something ordinary as light Opens
as in a room somewhere the friend opens in poppy, in flame, burns &
bears the child—out.
When I did it was the hours & hours of breaking. The bucking of
it all, the push & head
not moving, not an inch until,
when he flew from me, it was the night who came
flying through me with all its hair,
the immense terror of his face & noise.
I heard the stranger & my brain, without looking, vowed
a love him vow. His struggling, merely, to be
split me down, with the axe, to two. How true,
the thinness of our hovering between the realms of Here, Not Here.
The fight, first, to open, then to breathe,
& then to close. Each of us entering the world
& entering the world like this.
Soft. Unlikely. Then—
the idiosyncratic minds & verbs.
Beloveds, making your ways
to & away from us, always, across the centuries,
inside the vastness of the galaxy, how improbable it is that this iteration
of you or you or me might come to be at all—Body of fear,
Body of laughing— & even last a second. This fact should make us fall all
to our knees with awe,
the beauty of it against these odds,
the stacks & stacks of near misses
& slimmest chances that birthed one ancestor into the next & next.
Profound, unspeakable cruelty who counters this, who does not see.
& so to tenderness I add my action.
–Excerpt from “The Black Maria” from the black maria, copyright 2016 by Aracelis Girmay, BOA Editions.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is section seven of a long poem that I worked on/completed after the birth of my son. This section in particular was drafted when he was nearly two months old, newly outside of me, my body still soft and trying to close after his birth. Our birth. The night of his birth I kept waking up to watch him, to be sure it wasn’t all a dream. Marveling at it all. The fact of him. Marveling as I continue to marvel. How precious. This truth and way of starting that belongs to each of us. How precious the world where life is possible. But also how terrifying. How terrifying the systems that we build … the systems that keep us from seeing what life is! Freddie Gray had just been killed by Baltimore police officers in April of that year. The other names would flood this page. I cannot help but link the miracle with the devastation. That a body might come to be at all is so mindblowingly beautiful. Unfathomable even (though it’s happening all the time). And that the life could be stopped, abused, murderously and cruelly cut. That we forget our preciousness. The preciousness of each and each. I wanted a space to mourn but also to vow, to counter, to counter that enormous violence with commitment just as enormous but also everyday. What tendernesses (extraordinary tendernesses and everyday tendernesses), however small or large, might counter these violences and be counted among the things that help to create a living space?
What are you working on right now?
My newest book of poems, the black maria, has just been published this month. I am also moved to get back inside of another project I started a little while back—still messy and being researched and difficult to see to talk about. And, and, next to all of this, I am working on a translation collaboration with the writer/visual artist Rosalba Campra.
What’s a good day for you?
swimming in the sea. strong coffee in the morning. starlings: * *
[these do not all happen in brooklyn//a constellation of places] walking
sunlight the library time to watch the hawk magnolia & dogwood
What brought you to Brooklyn?
It was (when I first moved here) one of the affordable places in New York City.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I have been so immensely lucky to have found a community of dear people/friends/family who are people who make and write poems. They are people I talk with about reading, writing, teaching, studying. They live all over—some in Brooklyn and some in other places. What feels particularly lucky to me is that so many people from different parts of my life pass through Brooklyn/New York and so the geography of the place becomes forever-linked to the conversations and letters and histories of my dear people. Brooklyn becomes one of the places we move through and inside of as we live (the magnolia and the dogwood).
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Walt Whitman. Martín Espada. Aja Monet. Miguel Algarín.
Kamilah Aisha Moon. Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Maya Pindyck. Patrick Rosal (can Brooklyn still claim him? I think yes—his new book is called Brooklyn Antediluvian). Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. Mahogany Browne. Simone White. Angel Nafis. Shira Erlichman. Jon Sands. Elana Bell. Delana Dameron. John Murillo.
You guys claimed Lorca, so I will name, too, Robin Coste Lewis who lived here once. And the artist Juan Pablo Baene whose imagination is vast and playful. He lives in Brooklyn. He is a poet to me. And my sister, Ariana Fields, whose poems are drawings, whose drawings are poems.
And I also want to say: this by Suheir Hammad:
This is for Palestine and the rest of us—in America
Right now you are standing on stolen land
No matter where you are hearing this poem,
I promise you, below you, is stolen land
Was Lakota, was Navaho, was Creek,
Was and was, and is and is,
And this fact does not change
Because you do not think about it
Or you thought the last Indian died before you were born
Or you were born one-fifteenth Apache,
This poem is not blaming you,
But allowing you an opportunity to do something
Start by saying something,
And from where you are standing,
Look North, South, look West, look East,
And see the theft, the occupation
Happening NOW …
I think about this poem often. The conquests and occupations. Then gentrification. As I move through Brooklyn (and anywhere) I try to remember Suheir’s call and charge. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult. I think and ask, What was here before? What was here before? How is this my opportunity to see? What are the ways I am not seeing? And how does this/will this seeing shape how I move through the world?
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
This is so difficult. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is full of dreaming and the earth. I am moved by the way these two are forever there—and in conversation with one another. How is the work of gardening connected to the school of dreaming? There is so much worked-for joy and true, true tenderness here. I’ve brought this book/these poems into the classroom so much already—and always, on our own and in community, we are moved. I keep thinking of my student (I will call her T.) who said, Reading these poems I am reminded that I have a body. What glory that is. I mean! Truly.
Also, and forever, Jean Valentine’s Lucy cycle. I think of those poems at least four times a week. They are quiet and full of listening. Her poems, I’ve said this before, are quietly radical to me. A flash of shift in tense or in the orientation of the sentence. I think of Chekhov’s short story “Misery” and how his Iona Potapov longs to tell someone his story and ends up looking into the eyes of the horse (to say). Jean Valentine’s poems remind me that papers are horses sometimes. And horses might be air. Look there. Lean there. Speak there.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Lighting the Shadow is strange and deeply moving (the emotional register forged out of imagery and sound is utterly distinct and immense). There is such precision in her work, and yet there is always wildness. This way of working in both these realms is a rare way.
I’ve also just started reading Mahtem Shiferraw’s Fuchsia. God. How lush and measured. How utterly present in the thinking mind and in the landscape. These poems are full of the details of tending and preparing (I am thinking of the title poem in particular). Death inside of life. Life inside of death. Already, their memories touch my memory.
And: Christian Campbell’s poem “Shells” from the beautiful Running the Dusk. My love and I read this poem regularly and every, every time it turns us into windows.
And: not a poem or a book but the opening of Rebecca Solnit’s piece “Bird in a Cage” in the March edition of Harper’s Magazine in which she writes about Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I keep reading and starting again and reading and starting again Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnificent. It was recommended to me by my dear colleague Nell Arnold. The book is magnificent and I want to underline every, every thing … which is part of why I keep starting over and over. I have not finished yet and must soon. Already, though, it teaches me so much about what a story might be and about showing a story becoming. And about language. And being thoughtful about the terms by which we organize and make our sentences, worlds, collections/projects … to question everything and to be full of thought and questions and play in it all. To remain awake! Alive! Awake!
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
Yes! I am always, always taking notes. On post-its, cards, papers, in books. I love to go back in, to see. I was just reading, again, Bessie Head’s A Woman Alone. I was reading a copy I picked up when I was 21 or 22. It’s got the pencil marks I made in it then. I love to see what I marked. To look at the tendencies in my/of my marking. It’s as if I am meeting another version of myself who is both a stranger and familiar. Notes are traces and maps, and notes are walks.
I much much prefer physical books and, in fact, cannot read as well if I’m reading online or on a machine. Something about time. It is much easier for me to take my time, my long time, with a physical object. I think the machine and screen make me anxious–and I am always aware that I might dip out and into something else (an email I’ve let go or … ) …
I do read multiple books and articles at once. Dipping in and out but finishing.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love, love to walk in Prospect Park though it has been so long (so many months since I’ve done that). I find that the more regularly I am there, and out walking, the more deeply I feel returned to myself, to my dirt and ground self (my happiest and most present one). Always there is a line or pulse or poem there. Thank you for asking me to articulate and to remember (funny how it happened in that order just).
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park. (For what I’ve described above.)
And once a friend showed me and my brother the puppet library inside of the Grand Army arch. This was maybe 11 years ago. I have not seen it open since (but look every time)! Is it still there?! It was the most magical thing. Does anyone know? A puppet library!!!!!!
I love, too, that I live off of Marcus Garvey and get to say or hear his name so many times. Always there is a black star and a dream there hovering in the sentence.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I ________ you ____________,
For every __________ me as good __________ you.
It is so difficult to write into these lines. I hear Whitman so, so clearly (his voice is louder than mine here).
I, the sparrows & the starlings, what is black & what is brown,
the children & the laughters of the children.
And what I write, will you write it with me?
For every word is a gold that belongs to we.