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Poet and Professor Aracelis Girmay: Ask Critical Questions

Selected poems on PBS >>

From the initial impulse to the conscious revision, Aracelis Girmay cherishes the process of writing a poem. It’s a passion the first year assistant professor of poetry has been pleased to find among her students as well.

“It’s exciting to see how informed they are, and how willing they are to ask questions,” she says. “I’m struck and moved by how deeply people consider their roles as writers, how seriously they take their work. The students are incredible and invested, and teaching me about where I am.”

Aracelis Girmay
That sort of investment in writing is what drew Girmay to Hampshire. As a poet and writer of essays and short stories, she works hard to keep her own work fresh and challenging. Having students dedicated to the same goal facilitates the effort.

“I wanted to be in a place that would push me in my teaching and learning,” says Girmay. “It’s pretty clear to me that there’s a dedication to thorough learning, and the practice of dialogue and of asking questions, at Hampshire.”

Originally from southern California, Girmay earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and an M.F.A. in Poetry from New York University. Prior to arriving at Hampshire, she taught at Queens College in addition to teaching community writing workshops in Brooklyn and the Bronx. She continues to teach in Drew University’s low residency M.F.A. program.

In all of her classes and workshops, she strives to introduce a collaborative atmosphere that nourishes individual talent.

“I hope my students will develop a writing community of some kind. I want them to take risks as active readers of each others’ work and as readers of work written 200 or 300 years ago,” says Girmay. “I want them to ask critical questions when they read pieces and/or write them.”

Girmay’s first poetry collection, Teeth, was published by Curbstone Press in 2007. Her second, Kingdom Animalia, is scheduled for release in fall 2011 from BOA Editions. It has received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, given every two years to a poet with a new book of exceptional merit. Girmay notes that, while the poems were written singly, she “slowly started to understand the poems were asking similar questions”.

“It’s a question of common descent, asking questions about the body as an individual, as a nation, as a family,” she says.

Though admitting she will “revise like crazy,” simply allowing a poem to unfurl itself is a key part of Girmay’s approach to writing.

“I never know where I’m going when I start. I generally learn something,” she says. “I think it’s always wonderful to allow ourselves to be surprised.”

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