Aracelis Girmay writes poetry, fiction, & essays. Teeth, her collection of poems, was published by Curbstone Press in June 2007. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Bellevue Literary Review, Indiana Review, Callaloo, & MiPoesias, among other journals. Her collage-based picture book, changing, changing, was published by George Braziller in 2005. Girmay is a Cave Canem Fellow & former Watson Fellow. She teaches writing workshops in New York & California.
(That's the official bio, gente, but I think you'll love hearing Aracelis on Aracelis in a recent email I received.)
"I've loved books & the idea of reading since I was little. The story goes "you used to memorize the books & sit & read from memory before you knew how to really read." I used to sleep with my books. I LOVED to read, and then, I used to tell my younger brother stories. My grandmother still has folders of stories I'd write at her house. When I was 13, though, I read The Bluest Eye, I remember thinking: Oh, god, we're allowed to write like that? The way we think? The way people talk? The ways my people talk? Oh, really?
It opened up this door of permission — I didn't know, really, that writing could represent me, not until then. wow, something in the way that I perceived writing & reading changed in me then.
I started sharing my work with other people when I was in college — Writing has always been my lifeline — my way of figuring & making sense & asking questions & maintaining hope, a hope. But it wasn't until college that I realized that I HAD to cultivate this work — that I HAVE to write. It is one of my absolute necessaries. Circulation, breath, communication, memory, wildness, & order.
My mom is Puerto Rican & African American (Georgian) — from Chicago, & my dad's Eritrean, born in Gondar, Ethiopia. Both of them are amazing story-tellers — who tell the stories in very different ways. But, oh! The stories — they are essential — I always had the sense (even when I was very small) that these stories would be the only landscapes in which I'd meet, say, my Great Aunt Tiny, my uncle Samuel, my grandparents, my countries. I knew, too, that the stories were not only important for me & my brother to hear (my sisters weren't born yet), but for my parents to say out loud.
I remember witnessing the powers a story can have on the person telling — the way connections that weren't made before can be made in the telling. I write because it is my way of speaking, my way of figuring, my way of connecting, moving deeper into my life. I write, too, in the words of Carolyn Forche: against forgetting. I write the things that others wish I would forget. The things I cannot bear forgetting. The things I cannot survive forgetting. I write to get something back: world, that is, to still myself, somehow, & consider the things the world is constantly showing: see, see this! hear, hear this! say this! remember, remember! I write to undo time, to go back & fiddle, to sit with what I've been given, to learn something, really, to visit the ghosts & let them know I see them.
Influences — poets, fictionists, painters, musicians:
Helene Cixous, Aime Cesaire, Audre Lorde, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Frida Kahlo, Martín Espada, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nazim Hikmet, Anna Akhmatova, Ovid, Etta James, Derek Walcott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cy Twombly, Lucille Clifton, Caetano Veloso, Pharoah Sanders, Taha Muhammad Ali, James Tate, my students, a few of Hayden Carruth's poems knock me out--hugely, church stories, my family's stories, my parents, my family's dead; and every accordion: every accordion is my influence."
And if you haven't already fallen in love with her and her writing, take a look at what others have to say about the Divine Ms. Girmay.
"In Teeth, the poems of Aracelis Girmay ring out with a burning truth as she transports the reader into the world of despair, discrimination, sorrows, triumphs, joy and the courage it takes to flourish as a woman of color. Her keen observations are put forth with an appetite for life without fear or self-consciousness as she weaves her words into a range of potent poems." — Nicholasa Mohr
"The poetry of Aracelis Girmay is so strong, so brave, so lyrical, so fiery, so joyful, that the usual superlatives fail. I think of Sandra Cisneros and her words of praise for another writer, Denise Chávez: 'I love this book so much, it sounds like I’m lying.' Exactly." — Martín Espada
"In the foreword, [Espada] calls the poems, 'hard, cutting, brilliant, beautiful.' As I read Teeth, I have to say that it did not take long for me to agree with [his] opinion. But more than that, I have to say that Girmay has put together one of the best debuts by any poet in recent memory...This collection is sure to continue to create a significant amount of well-deserved buzz. No doubt it will garner more praise and will be mentioned among nominees for literary awards. Indeed, Aracelis Girmay is the real deal."-- Jose B. Gonzalez, Co-Editor of Latino Boom
"In her powerful debut collection of poems, Teeth, Aracelis Girmay reaches out to her various cultural lineages (Eritrean, Puerto Rican and African American) and weaves them into a distinct voice, political and beautiful as 'bullets of ivory'...Teeth delivers on its promise to be a fierce, proud book of poems that provokes thought and invites its readers to be a poet's unique and expectant universe, where celebration and protest, lament and solace, sound and silence, intertwine and thrive."-- El Paso Times
Aracelis Girmay makes me want to be a better writer. TEETH is a stunning piece of work de sudor y socorro. She has the gift — able to craft indelible work fashioned from the bones of ancestors and living, singing blood. Girmay has been blessed to be mentored by Martín Espada but make no mistake, her voice is wholly and fully her own, as is her subject matter. Her mastery of poetic form and an almost ruthless, heartbreaking beauty is shot through this unforgettable volume. And like Espada, she seamlessly fuses the personal and political, revealing where the wounds lie. But Girmay always, always, returns to the indomitable, unquenchable spirit that saves even the most disadvantaged, the most abused from being mere victims. She is also brave enough, wise enough to show her heart in love and at play.
But the social power of this book is never diluted. At its essence, TEETH reminds me of a passage in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. A young woman, a peasant girl, has completed her training to become a soldier, the means by which her family and her village will seek justice against the overlord. With a whisper-thin blade, her parents inscribe the history of abuse which all of them have suffered. The girl's back becomes her eternal oath, a record laid into the flesh, but it is never reduced to a scar.
I got news yesterday
from a friend of mine
that all people against the war should
send a bag of rice to George Bush,
& on the bag we should write,
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.”
But to be perfectly clear,
my enemies are not hungry.
They are not standing in lines
for food, or stretching rations,
or waiting at the airports
to claim the pieces
of the bodies of their dead.
My enemies ride jets to parties.
They are not tied up in pens
in Guantanamo Bay. They are not
young children throwing rocks. My enemies eat
meats & vegetables at tables
in white houses where candles blaze, cast
shadows of crosses, & flowers.
They wear ball gowns & suits & rings
to talk of war in neat & folded languages
that will not stain their formal dinner clothes
or tousle their hair. They use words like “casualties”
to speak of murder. They are not stripped down to skin
& made to stand barefoot in the cold or hot.
They do not lose their children to this war.
They do not lose their houses & their streets. They do not
come home to find their lamps broken.
They do not ever come home to find their families murdered
or disappeared or guns put at their faces.
Their children are not made to walk
a field of mines, exploding.
This is no wedding.
This is no feast.
I will not send George Bush rice, worked for rice
from my own kitchen
where it sits in a glass jar & I am transfixed
by the thousands of beautiful pieces
like a watcher at some homemade & dry
aquarium of grains, while the radio calls out
the local names of 2,000
US soldiers counted dead since March.
&, we all know it, there will always be more than
what’s been counted. They will not say the names
of an Iraqi family trying to pass a checkpoint
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