Aracelis Girmay – the black maria
How does one write a book of poems that deals with the unspeakable suffering that history, its people and its events, have brought onto innocent lives, without perpetuating that trauma?
the black maria, by Aracelis Girmay (BOA Editions) doesn’t evade tragedy. There is suffering here: that of the thousands who have attempted the journey to North Africa to Europe, that of mothers, sons, fathers and daughters of color whose lives were taken from them in their neighborhoods, their schools, their homes.
And even in this book’s moments of bliss, we come face-to-face with tragedy. As Girmay writes in “Cooley High, Fifth Estrangement”: “Look! I’ve slipped into / the surprise & trapdoor / of my own heartache/ just like that.”
But still, it’s a book where joy still, seemingly impossibly, thrives – just as it does in the world these poems are molded from. It sings, or echoes, throughout every page. This is a speaker who holds steadfast not only to joy’s existence, but its power.
As Girmay writes in “to the sea,” “I am listening in / on the last century, / with my ear to the door. / But there is no mistaking laughter. / It is laughter.”
AMANDA MCCONNON: Was there a moment—or maybe a line, a thought, an image, a discussion—that sparked these poems? How would you describe the process of The Black Maria coming to be?
ARACELIS GIRMAY: This collection is especially difficult for me to trace, to track. The first section of the book was actually living, for awhile, inside of an earlier project I thought I was working on. I was working on these dense tercets following a whale who had lived 500 years beneath the sea and was a kind of distant witness to human history (distant but nevertheless recording). The whale served as a body of distance (a kind of obvious distance marked between human and nonhuman, and between realms of water vs. realms of land). I was interested in the obvious interface between the author and the author’s imagination being projected onto the whale. The simultaneous trouble and potential of that. The whale was challenging me to think differently while also showing my hand as a writer. But then, after the 2013 capsizing of the boat carrying people attempting to cross from North Africa to Italy, I was so wrecked. I suddenly knew that I had to sweep, sweep, sweep my house. Sweep the whale out of the text and see what was left. I was suddenly working with these fragments and much more white space. I committed silently then to wrestling vulnerably, openly, messily, clearly with my own (as opposed to the whale’s) questions and worries about the writing/my imagination in the text itself.
The second section of the book was happening simultaneously (these poems in which I am wondering about/thinking through the various ways we become estranged from our homes, families, selves, the land, one another). I didn’t, at first, think about them as connected. In fact, history taught me to read these stories of Eritrean migrations and white supremacy in the United States as disconnected. I was trying to split myself into pieces to abide by someone else’s version of the story, and then, suddenly, I realized I mustn’t do that. I continued to follow one poem into the next into the next, and at some point it became clear that in each of the sections I am struggling to think about the ways that History is taught, told, organized, and how the poems, all of them, are struggling to think about the extent to which story helps us to throw flowers at each other’s feet, or fire.
AM: How does poetry tell stories differently than history does? What became most important to you when approaching others’ stories in these poems?
AG: When you write “history” above, I take it to mean history books and news hours, etc. (not necessarily oral history and the stories we tell). History as written in many books and news hours does carry its own kind of music, but it is a music that wears a costume (to me) or that is constrained/restrained into dullness and regularity (both). I think poetry and oral history and spoken story is/are all full of varying musics and moments of imperfections and openings in the musics and emotional register(s) of the piece. Poems and oral histories and spoken stories include all kinds of details, and the seemingly peripheral moment might creep into the poem’s center. Each poem is different and is asking a different set of questions or versions of those questions. The lyric pulse of the poem is important here. The dusky space between things (or that show things in their becoming(s)) can be, and often are, highlighted in these modes of making/showing/telling story.
As I worked in the poem-making mode I wanted to be thoughtful about showing my hand. Showing that I am a writer not trying to be objective but trying to show the mind and soul at work in these messy and critical questions of surviving and remembering and grieving. I wanted to make critical spaces for joy, for happiness, for abundance. I wanted to show that there were other things, besides trauma and violence, that these lives have lived/participated in. It became critical for me to then think of the ways that there are other tendernesses and joys that counter the devastations and profoundly cruel cruelties that the poems carry.
AM: Was it difficult to find that balance? How is it that you were able to craft these poems that explore trauma without them perpetuating the traumas themselves?
AG: I hope, and have tried so hard to work, against perpetuating trauma and violence while talking about our histories. I imagine that this work is a lifelong process. I don’t know if these poems achieve what I mean and hope for them to achieve. I can say that somewhere in the process of thinking that this might be a manuscript I went through each of the poems and catalogued the verbs that I attributed to each of the bodies. This catalogue (and the suspicion behind the instinct to catalogue in the first place) helped me to know that I needed to bring in other verbs, and joy.
But going back to your question (starting over). It was so deeply, deeply important for me, in the writing of the book, to recall Joy Harjo’s story at the Dodge panel on poetry and history so many years ago now. Her story is much more beautiful and filled with effort and the process of seeing than the way I will share it now, but she talked about realizing that there was a strand of grief in her house and needing to put that strand somewhere so that nobody walked into it without knowing what they’d walked into. I was so moved to hear her on that panel, to hear her share that story. And for years it didn’t walk with me but then found me again in the process of writing these poems. I think this gesture (in these poems) is connected to that. That desire and commitment to thinking about the ways we have come to be where we are now, and how this looking and looking again at these stories (which are stories of our very bones and blood and heads) might be a part (however small, small, small) of this project of reaching toward sight, and then good freedom. I think it is very difficult to know what to commit to now. To know that our present Second remains a second and hour and year and hundreds of years of trauma and survival and beauties, yes, but devastating, irreparable loss. All around me people are still finding ways to love and to be kind and to survive and to dream (beauty raining down all over this sentence). So there are models of straining toward balance all, all around me. In the living. They show me vigilance. They show me that it is possible to carry the history and not perpetuate the history. But I am asking myself a question about how else I want to work, and this question is a big and important question to me. I am still imagining into it. But I think my real answer to your questions is not one found in the poems but one I need to find in the life and the other work that happens outside of making poems.
AM: I can see the kind of care that’s often present in Joy Harjo’s work in The Black Maria as well—to me, at least, the poems feel mournful and celebratory at the same time, in wonder at what can go on in this life, not just the atrocities, but the miracle of everything that exists, existing. I think that might go back to what you’ve said— that trauma and survival and loss and beauties can all somehow live in the same space in poetry.
What was the process like of “bringing in” joy to the book? Was it something you had to look at on a poem-by-poem basis, or something you had to consider in the grand scheme of the entire book? Was it difficult to call joy to the work when the poems navigate so many tragedies?
AG: I hope that that care is there. There are so many who walk before and beside me and who are my teachers (whether I’ve met them or not) in those ways. I am striving towards those examples.
The process of bringing joy and thinking about the practice of seeing life, joy, tenderness… I asked questions poem by poem (What is alive here? Where is there joy? Tenderness? Hope? Why so? Why not?)… I believe that joy is always there, always, always part of the story we are written with somehow if we look, look or ask for long enough. So I looked, poem by poem, with these questions in mind and opened those moments up in some places and in other places it was critical and enough for me to remember, to know to look for them somewhere and to know that they are there. But I also looked at the manuscript as a project (later, later) and asked these questions of the entire project…kind of tracing where I thought the different emotional registers live(d), and thinking about what it might mean to move, front to back, through the book. What a reader might be gathering (accumulating) poem by poem and where, or if, there are ruptures out into breath, astonishment, wonder. I kept thinking of Jean Valentine’s poem in the Lucy cycle where she writes “when my scraped-out child died Lucy/ you hold her, all the time” and how that tense shift from past to present, and then, behind (after!) the comma the way that holding feels forever, ever and is allocated to “all the time.” So that the death is relegated to the past but the holding is forever. God. I am so moved by that. The way it feels woven with xs and prayers and the mother situating her child in the forever arms of a trusted guardian, with such thinking and care. I am so moved. And so, in quiet ways, I was so lessoned by those kinds of moments in people’s work and I thought about the ways I might insist on love in ways that are my own quiet ways. I realized, later, later, that the comma functions a bit like a cut or mark that might (to me!) open the density and hurt into something. Opening, rupture, a tender touching across time.
AM: In “prayer & letter to the dead,” you write, “I, The Living. / Which is / my portrait? / The right hand / bleeding the page / for its marrowmarks / or the silence my left hand / inherits?” Where did the self come in when writing these poems? What was it like to position this speaker in the world of this book?
AG: This is something I think so much about. When I was younger and studying documentary studies in college and then at the Salt Institute, I became really interested in documentary practices/methods that showed the hand (some trace!) of the maker. This trace is a move to reveal the wrestling. A move against the costume of objectivity. Last year I taught a course called Methods of Making the Documentary Poem, and my students and I talked/thought a lot about ways to show or reveal or remember the maker at work, the very eye and body and history through which the making gets done. To try to turn the eye on our looking and making and gathering and researching, too. It is not difficult to position myself/this speaker in the world of this book. I add my name and context to the “elelegy” notes in the beginning as a way of explicitly pointing to my own subjectivity and connection to these histories/stories. I hope that folded inside of this showing is an invitation for others to show, to bring what they bring, to consider the various ways they touch (we each touch) these very stories.
These poems track griefs and astonishments. You and Me. Here and There. Astonished that we should call this all the same world. Here I work against that astonishment to instead think about the ways that we are all involved with, or involving, each other. For that reason, it was critical for me to show the wrestling in the poems, the work. And my own human and making self, vulnerable and alive and effortful and resilient and wrecked, in the process of wrestling.
AM:What advice do you have for the writers trying to find their way into a history—to lend their voices to it, or to navigate it through poetry?
AG: The thing I think to say is that we are all part of these histories. Made and forged and breathing by and with and through it. We are all already walking and working and giving our voices to/from it all the time, and so how to be conscious of this. How to investigate and critically think about our inheritances? What we’ve inherited but also what we’ve changed/forged/shaped newly in this single life of mine and yours and yours. I’m bad at advice (but I can hear my siblings saying Whaaat?), but I do think it’s important and good to, when writing or thinking about a given story or history, ask the ways I am connected to it. The complicated and myriad ways. The troublesome and beautiful ways. I learned from Gwendolyn Brooks (Maude Martha in particular) how critical it is to see against a fixedness. To look closely enough and with enough flexibility that you are seeing (and attentive to!) the ways that the self or subject is (are) always changing shape, position. That subject position flickering and multitudinous as fire. Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment” asks me, too, to think about this all the time. Their teachings feel so helpful here.
And another thing: I am interested, in terms of my own reach and the things I reach toward, in the work that pushes me to reach out beyond my knowing or to reach in toward my deepest voices and knowing. To write, no matter what, toward depth of feeling and a kind of revelation is what, to me, this work of writing is about. The same is true of reading. To read toward depth of feeling and a kind of revelation.
Another thing I think to say is “history”—what is it!? What is it actually!? The things each of us are drawn to (the names of flowers, the mother’s dreams, the hand as it embroiders)…all of this is history.
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Aracelis Girmay grew up in California where, companioned by the idea of a large and mighty Pacific, her awe of the sea was born. Girmay is the author of the poetry collections The Black Maria (BOA, 2016), Kingdom Animalia (BOA, 2011), and Teeth (Curbstone Press, 2007), as well as the picture book changing, changing (George Braziller, 2005). The recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for Poetry and the GLCA New Writers Award, she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her other honors include fellowships from Cave Canem, Civitella Ranieri, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Girmay’s poems appear widely in such places as Granta, The Prairie Schooner, The Wide Shore, and Indiana Review, among other places. She currently teaches in Hampshire College’s School for Interdisciplinary Arts and in Drew University’s low-residency MFA program in Poetry. (Author photo by Sheila Griffin.)
Amanda McConnon has an MFA in poetry at NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014 and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.