ARACELIS GIRMAY with Melinda Cardozo

Aracelis Girmay
Kingdom Animalia
(BOA Editions, 2011)

Kingdom Animalia, the second book of poetry by Aracelis Girmay, begins where Teeth (Curbstone Books, 2007) left off. Its gentle movements between all scales of devastation and absorbing, tenable visions of hope as a relation—linguistic, bodily, historical—also, perhaps improbably, takes Darwin’s Origin of Species as a point of departure. With Kingdom Animalia, Girmay looks closer at biological descent and adaptation as metaphors for survival and creation in order, as she said during our conversation, to “find a story with whatever language I have in the shapes of things.” I recently had the pleasure of talking with her about teaching, bearing witness, violence, participation, critical theory, and teeth, as some of the many electric concerns of this gorgeous collection. 

Melinda Cardozo (Rail): Can you talk a little bit about the presence of teeth in your work, both as the title of your last collection and as a recurrent image in the new one?

Aracelis Girmay: I was in Eritrea a couple of years ago and the language, or one of the languages of Eritrea, is Tigrinya. I don’t speak very much Tigrinya—only things that have to do with food. The alphabet is totally different, and I found myself really interested in trying to find clues in the language in terms of hearing the language—trying to understand any piece of the language that I could, and then looking at the shapes of the alphabet and the letters and trying to read them in different ways. Obviously, I wasn’t reading them for comprehension in Tigrinya, but what could that shape be, or how might I find a story with whatever language I have in the shapes of things. I realized, when I came back from being in that space for so many weeks, that that is probably what I tend to do. Like, asking for teeth, like the body’s changes, to help me understand a larger story of family history or the history of people, but thinking deeply about metaphor and how many things teeth might be—they could be white flags meaning peace or they could be a picket fence around a yard. And then, with Kingdom Animalia, I kind of brought the questions of the idea of teeth and asked, okay, in the idea of any given thing, like, the kitchen table, where might its teeth be, you know?

Rail: There’s such hopefulness in these poems, even though many of them are quite devastating. To me, that is the promise of critical theory as well. It should never be depressing to try to engage problems, as you demonstrate.

Girmay: I love that you say that should be the concern of critical theory—hopefulness. That feels really helpful to me to think about. There’s always something you can learn—just by walking down the street. I moved so much and my family is all over the world, and sometimes I can feel so lonely. You miss everyone. I miss everyone. It came to be important to me that the world was a companion to me very quickly in my life—that some things were solid and steadily there. The sky became an important constant, and I was very aware of it. I feel like the poems look to the ways I’m related or we’re all related. That’s what I want to remember. I want to ask how the poems can help me remember that, too.

Rail: The idea of looking for teeth, too, seems to bring together what you’re saying about the specificity of the personal voice and how we have to learn how to read it.

Girmay: Even if it feels devastating—reading a text or listening to something—and keeping yourself from turning away and saying, it’s too sad, it’s too devastating. I hope for devastation not to contribute more to the silence, and that hope feels critical.

Rail: Are these questions that your students worry over?

Girmay: Absolutely. I feel so grateful to get to be facilitating workshops and teaching, especially because I think things can get really messy, and I worry over these questions. I teach one class each semester called “The Axe and the Sewing Machine,” looking at poetry of witness—remembering as activism in the face of dismemberment. And so, we’re looking at the problems sometimes of witnessing, what happens when you are “bearing witness” to something you’ve not necessarily witnessed with your own eyes. Who gets to tell what story? This is a question that keeps coming up, you know, with students, and it’s really exciting high-stakes territory. Hopefully, even stories that you’ve lived or things that you’ve lived, hopefully, thinking about them and writing a poem, reminds you that you don’t own them entirely. You thought you knew the story, but what if you entered with a different angle? One of my students reminded me that it’s about practice and process. It’s not necessarily about mastery and arrival, you know, at the finished perfect piece, but that the process of trying to engage and realizing that you have a new question for yourself about ethics or responsibility—that’s one of the most giant, beautiful gifts of poetry. And I think of Augusto Boal, the Theatre of the Oppressed, and this idea about not finding the one solution, but it’s “We’re gonna try this thing, and then, we’re gonna try this,” and what does that do to your eyes and your body, and how does that shift you as a thinker?

Rail: It’s not about sitting down, it’s about getting up? That’s an approach to language as well?

Girmay: Yeah! I was thinking about, too, the question of the beauties of language. The stretching that language can make happen in us and the dangers of language. I was reading Rita Dove’s “Parsley,” where she writes about the Parsley Massacre and she doesn’t necessarily name the Trujillo dictatorship, but in the footnote to the poem, the massacre that she refers to is clearly Haiti, the Dominican Republic. But, in the poem, I think there’s a reference to Haiti maybe once. You hear that there’s a general who occupies the poem who loves his mother and wants to preserve her language and the trill of the “R.” This poem is concerned with language and with preserving this “pure” language. How does looking at Trujillo’s obsession help the reader to ask poetry—how is this obsession with language detrimental? How is it beautiful? How does it contribute to some kind of slaughter, and how does it move us away from that? I think that’s amazing that you can look at a poem’s craft concerns and ask it to speak back to conceptual concerns or heart concerns and vice versa, because, somehow to me, as a reader, it helps me to get out of the way. I become a little more willing to change my mind about something. I have some poems that I worry, God, is that doing any more than just retelling violence? Is there any window that shares anything new? I enter with a million questions, and I leave with a million questions.     

Rail: How did you start working with the Darwin?

Girmay: There’s one poem in Teeth called “To the (Heart) Horse,” and that was one of the first poems that I started writing that held this question at its core, which is the question of how is any body on earth related to any other body? And so, once I realized that that question was really important and dear to me, it helped me to imagine loss a little differently. A lot of the poems in Kingdom Animalia are elegies, and I needed to spend time remembering that everything had some link, and marveling at the fact of that. And so, I went to Darwin, Origin of the Species. I think that so much of what is remarkable to me about the language of science is that so much of it is about experimenting and trying. The try became very linked to a resistance to mastery. Failure is built in, and it becomes central information, and loss is full of information. The attempt became really important to me. When I included those passages of Darwin at the front of the book, I was so taken by the charge of them. I was aware that people might have reactions, but I hoped so much that people would sit with the language of the exact quotes and kind of slow down. I also think there’s something important about the question of who gets to talk about what.


Melinda Cardozo

Melinda Cardozo is a writer and blogger.