Education Interview with Aracelis Girmay

On Friday, October 14, Aracelis Girmay read from her three books of poetry in the Poetic Minimalism exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art. The matinee poetry reading was open to middle and high school students who were enjoying their fall break. Her shirt was the color of summer tangerines and it mimicked the orange artwork that she stood in front of. She is a warm and vibrant and thoughtful reader.

After the reading, she sits in my passenger seat on the way to lunch, as I apologize on behalf of my horrific driving. She asks me not to apologize. We talk about the wild boldness of children, the Korean Kimchi sandwich at 5 Points Market (our lunch destination), and the number of saguaros she’s seen so far in Tucson. Mostly, we talk about her teaching experience, and the way that being a teacher has taught her to be a student.

Your book Kingdom Animalia includes a poem titled “Thank You Note Poem” that was written in response to a thank you note you received as a visiting teaching artist facilitating a creative writing workshop. What about that particular thank you note did you connect to so deeply in order to dedicate your own poem to it?

Aracelis Girmay: [Ms. Norton, the classroom teacher] was just an incredible, strict, loving teacher. And I think that that practice that many teachers do of having students write thank you cards, or what parents do, making their kids write thank you notes, is for one, just a beautiful practice—for what gratitude does. We know that it lights up our brain, gives us pleasure, but also the practice of showing appreciation and giving gratitude is sort of a gorgeous poem—especially when we’re dealing with something that is scary or overwhelming to us. To just stop and say thank you. So there’s that, and for all of us who have seen someone working to try and say something as they’re learning to write. That’s what’s so beautiful—the work, or the effort of trying to say. I feel deeply connected to that, as a poet and as a person, that effort of trying to say. I feel like in all of the work, in all of the poem writing of the students I got to work with, I deeply connected to their vulnerability and their wild imaginations. And the thank yous felt so vulnerable and special and silly and wise.

How exactly do you see their [students] work and your work in the classroom manifesting in your own practice of poetry?

AG: There was a student, and I don’t remember what poem we were working with as a model, but somehow loneliness was involved. Other people were writing poems that really fell under the constraints of the model poem, but this one student wrote this piece about the loneliness of an astronaut and he just went off on this whole description of every detail of being alone in space. It was so surprising, and I wish I could remember the model poem because it was so different, and I was just like…Oh my gosh, that is such a profound expression of what it means to be lonely. I remember thinking…I want my imagination to allow for mystery and wildness and strangeness. I feel like with students, there’s a kind of “just going for it”. I watched this Ted talk by an educator, Ken Robinson and he said there was a kid drawing God and Ted said, “Well…nobody really knows what God looks like,” and the student said, “Well, they’re about to find out!!!”

What do you draw from to mold your lesson plans?

AG: I love looking at texts as models: In Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, there’s a vignette where Esperanza is thinking about her name—like, ‘if my name were a color, what would it be?...what would it taste like?...what is its smell?’ We read it a couple of times, I think it was one particular class I was in right after September 11th, in New York. We read it a few times through and we talked about what we noticed. I think a lot of workshop is observation. It’s so hard to just observe, I don’t think we’re asked to do that a lot in school, or at least in certain programs, other than the sciences. So we observed that vignette and then wrote our own poems or prose pieces, and the students always, always, always surprise me. We talked about histories, and place, and then, the Dream: ‘If my name could be anything, it would be…’ And we all thought of such amazing possibilities.

Ashe Wright is a UA Undergraduate Creative Writing student and Poetry Center intern. Ashe is currently facilitating a creative writing residency at Pueblo Gardens Elementary School as a part of the Writing the Community program.