George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” But, what is truth and how do we tell the true stories of our lives when so often we hide the facts even from ourselves? Writers often imagine the experiences of others in order to get to the universal truth the collective human experience whether it is the first pangs of love or hate, the brutality of war, or the protective strength of a mother. Discovering the universal truths and telling the true stories of our lives and communities is the focus of poet Aracelis Girmay'story's, “Teeth.”
Girmay will read selections from “Teeth” as part of the College of Southern Maryland'story's “Connections” Literary Series beginning at 7:30 p.m., March 7, at the La Plata Campus, Center for Business and Industry (BI), Room BI-113.
Girmay is the author of “Teeth” and “Changing, Changing: Story and Collages.” A Cave Canem Fellow and the recipient of grants from the Toor Cummings Center and the Watson Foundation, she lives in her native California and in New York, where she leads community writing workshops for high school and adult students.
In preparation for CSM's “Connections” program, Girmay discussed community and the power of storytelling in reaching the universal truths of our daily experience.
CSM: Martin Espada recently said that too few of our young writers are responding to the politics and events they are seeing around them. As a young writer and teacher, could you respond to this assessment?
In terms of the community of young writers I know, I think several of us are working in direct response to the difficult, brutal, joyful events of world the world of family deaths, memory, this war, private war(s), serious loss, the public news, the private news. The writers I witness at the Bronx-based Acentos family are doing this work. Writers I've heard at Kundiman readings, Cave Canem readings. These are young writers talking to the world, in response to the world(s). Whether it is from the point of constructivism or reaction, or both, I'm surrounded by young writers who are doing this work.
As someone who teaches high school students, I also see that several of them are ready to tackle the large and difficult subjects. They're wanting to–needing to–talk about gender roles, language, love, power, sexual abuse, eating disorders, the war, responsibilities and immigration. I think it's instinctual for several of my students to associate poetry with a certain kind of urgency. They ask themselves and I ask them “What is necessary for you to talk about? What questions do you have for the world? What questions and solutions do you NEED to stand in longer? What are they?”
Urgency is often about issues. Urgency is often in response to the political. The poems we study and the poems my students move toward often inhabit an overtly political space. This is what moves them. This is cause for language for them and, I believe, they are writing the things they need to, because they need to. This is true for my after-school program writers, too. It's stunning to witness.
CSM: You have taught several community writing workshops, including some with high schoolers in the Bronx. Could you describe the importance of storytelling as a teaching tool and as a means of defining one'story's self?
I tell my students that when we walk into a room, it's not just us coming into that room as individuals. I remind them that we each carry a whole parade of ancestors–names known and unknown with us wherever we go. My students have studied the elegy that Martín Espada wrote for Robert Creeley and they had a very strong response to the lines “Poets must spread the news…”
I ask my kids, “What happens when you think of your poem as a memorial to all of your dead? Your ancestors? If the ghosts/sounds/places follow you everywhere inseparable from DNA how does this translate into the poem?”
Storytelling is an act that eradicates forgetting. As Carolyn Forché wrote, “poetry is against forgetting.” It is a way to document our histories. It is a way to communicate, to remember, to locate ourselves in a bigger sea of past. It is the thing that connects us, makes us empathize. My students and I are readers and writers. When reading other people's stories, it's very clear that writing has the ability to serve as a catalyst for an active response pushing people to live differently in the world because of the awareness it solicits, but also because it can stir people into wanting to do, to act, to have a dialogue, to respond, to do something.
CSM: How do you prepare yourself as a writer to write with such brutal honesty about topics such as rape? I am thinking in particular about your poem, “Palimpsest,” in which the reader is given all of these emotions the father is feeling (anger, fear) but it is the daughter'story's unread voice which ends the poem. How hard is it to get inside a character enough to make such a powerful transition?
It's story's very hard. I sit very still. I call upon everything I know, everything I'story've ever seen or heard. With this particular story, I was reading testimonies and this story needed to be written. I questioned thenas I do nowwhat right I had/have to write from that place.
But I also felt I had to step inside of the persona of the witness and person. I needed to, in that poem, write about the strategies of terror and torture and dehumanization. The impossibility of the decisions we are left with or those that we force upon each other.
I needed to write about the process by which people try to dehumanize other peoplein this case, the soldiers are trying to dehumanize the family. Really, what is happening is that the soldiers are dehumanizing one another. This is war. War is horrific. No matter what, I believe in peace. I'story'm not saying though that pacifist strategies are always the most effective, and I do not call myself a pacifist. But I do think we must sit longer when thinking about the implications of war. What is really at stake? How are we all participants in every war that ever happens?
And that poem, that poem pushed through me very slowly and painfully and I forced myself to stay pinned to my seat for hours until the first slivers of voice showed themselves on the page. The poem was hard. The transition from voice to voice was not the difficult thing. At that point, everyone has entered into this space of terror and the terror is experienced, I believe, by everything in that poem the daughter, the father, the brothers, the soldiers even.
CSM: Community and the world outside often invade or complement the thoughts of the speaker in your poems. Could you talk about the importance of community in your life and work?
At any given point in time, one'story's community might be perceived as one'story's body. What I mean is this: In the same way our bones wear our muscles and vessels and skin, our bodies, too, wear our communities. Community might be the place we stand in presently. Take, for example, the bridge I'story'm crossing nowthe rail tracks and the seagull and the couple holding hands just in front of me. This instant, whether I love it or do not love it, this is my community the realm I'story'm sitting, breathing, thinking in. Of course, there are the communities we build relationships with ongoingthe community of a family, a home, a neighborhood, a group of people. I can'story't separate community, really, from existence.
When thinking, specifically, about my work as an educator and a writer, the communities I write toward (in homage of, in conversation with) and against are always changing. What is very clear, though, is that the work I do as an educator and writer and student in the world will always be infused with an intent to document the powers of our communities while asking questions. The work will always be infused with an intent to love more strongly and by this, I mean in my life and work I hope to push my capacity to see, listen, envision change with an intent to strengthen my being and hoping to be of further use to my communities.
CSM: Birds, particularly black birds and flight are a re-occurring theme and element in several of the poems; could you describe the importance of the “flying Africans” mythology in your work? (Note: I particularly loved the mother who sews herself a set of airplane wings.)
I certainly remember hearing the story of the Africans who grew wings and flew away and up out of the fields. I remember hearing this story when I was in junior high school. That story is in the field of my consciousness as is the beginning and the end of Toni Morrison'story's “Song of Solomon.” The notion of people taking to the sky is one that takes bold hold of my imagination. On my door now is a copy of an old photograph of one of the parades that used to happenin the photograph are four women with bird wings made out of layers and layers of paper. I think, too, of old images of children dressed as condors in the highlands of South America.
The relationship between birds and people and our mythologies is old and deep. There is also my own geographical relationship to the birds. Growing up in Santa Ana, there was such a presence of crows. They used to make the loudest, largest sounds as they plummeted down onto the old house'story's roof. The “caw caw caw'story' is one of the most constant, most homelike sounds I know. What brilliant, wild, ferocious birds.
In the specific poem you refer to, I wanted to talk about the threat and beauty that crows always represented to me. I also wanted to talk about a mother'story's resourcefulness. What does a mother, my mother, do when something threatens to takeor takesa child? I wanted to talk about necessity and invention. You know that saying, “Necessity is the mother of'story' yes, I wanted to talk about that. But I also wanted to talk about the task at hand, the need to go deliver a child to safety, but also talk about the magnificent freedom that 'story'crossing over'story' might pose. All of that is in that poem. How once we realize our potential to fly away, the decisions we make to go or to stay can be difficult, very difficult indeed.
CSM: You are an avid reader and as we already said, a fairly young writer. Which of your contemporaries do you admire and wish people would read?
My contemporaries. What an exciting question. I admire Patrick Rosal, Ross Gay, Simone White, Tracy K. Smith, John Murillo, Terrance Hayes, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Stephanos Papadopoulos, Matthea Harvey, Linda Susan Jackson, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Dante Micheaux, Samantha Thornhill, Tyehimba Jess, Denizen Kane, Evie Shockley, Steve Scafidi, Remica Bingham, Abraham Smith, Ruth Irupe Sanabria and Rich Villar.
I admire each of these poets so deeply and, yes, I wish people would read them all and read them all again. If I ever said any true thing, it'story's that they are astounding, wonderful minds and hearts and every day, their work teaches me.
Excerpt from “Arroz Poetica”
the missiles have no eyes. You had no chance, the way they fell on avenues farms clocks schoolchildren. There was no place for you so you burned. A bag of rice will not bring you back. A poem cannot bring you, although it is my promise here to try to open every one of my windows, I cannot imagine the intimacy with which a life leaves its body, even then, in detonation, when the skull is burst, the body'story's country of indivisible organs flames into the everything. even in that quick departure as the life rushes on, headlong or backwards, there must, must be some singing as the hand waves “be well” to its other hand, goodbye; the ear belongs to the field now. we cannot separate the roof from the heart from the trees that were there, standing ”